How I Work As A Freelance Writer
Emails pop into my inbox at least once a week, asking how I became a writer. This is wild baffling to me, as I must be projecting some facade of success on social media even though I tweet about depression and being broke like twice a week.
Anyway, I get why people ask. I used to email my heroes all the time before I moved to LA, asking how they did it. Now that I’ve met them and even worked for some, I can say with confidence that it is all messy and you are no less equipped than the people you revere. It sounds overly simplified, but the only way to do it is to do it.
Because of the emails, I want to answer some here so that I don’t feel bad not answering them all. My big disclaimer is that I have fucked up so so so many times as a writer and a person, and a lot of privilege allows me to keep working at it. I’m a white girl who went to college largely because my parents paid for part of it. I’m not a rich kid, but I have parents who would let me live in their basement if I failed. I have editors who I’ve met over the years that were there to vouch for my abilities after my fuck-ups. And I have a supportive partner who buys me dinner sometimes, for what it’s worth.
But here goes.
I have no idea how to get started or what to do like do you submit writing samples to companies or something?
Basically. My history is that I interned for BUST magazine’s website when I was a junior at Rutgers University, so I had blog clips to take other places. I was such a shitty intern! Like, awful. But I was okay at blogging. Be really good at your internships. I don’t know what that’s like but I imagine it helps.
So that helped me flip those clips into getting a column at my school paper, etc. Then I just kept interning and sucking at it. Finally I interned at Variance Films and I didn’t suck, and there I learned practical writing, like press releases and stuff. That helped me get rando gigs in LA, like writing for a dating coach.
My main advice is to be good in your jobs, however small, and make connections, and write for less at first. Pitching is awfully simple, actually: you email the editor of the vertical where your piece would live, you introduce yourself and include a link to any clips you have, and you sum up your idea and its relevance in four or less sentences. That’s it. Say thank you and follow up once. After that, consider it a no. Rinse and repeat.
The trick is to have your own blog where you’re already writing. Prove you can think and write. I started my career by writing for free, getting essays published on Thought Catalog. I wouldn’t recommend them, but I would rec publishing your own stuff on Medium or on smaller indie WordPress sites. Local papers and websites always need words. Go for the little guys, then pitch your favs. Rinse, repeat.
NEVER EVER email an editor and ask if they are accepting pitches and what they’d want if they were. They don’t have time to give you a guide. Just pitch your ideas and get a yes / no. Most places are always accepting pitches. They’ll tell you after you pitch if they aren’t.
Also, pitch one idea multiple places. When MTV said no, I went to GQ. And so on. Only go places that make sense for the idea, but most websites have overlap.
What was your strategy to get through University? Any routine and study habits?
Hm. Mainly, I struggled. I took on way too many credits and lost my mind for my last two years. I changed my aspirations from politics to writing like halfway through school, so I ended up double majoring after dicking around abroad. Wouldn’t rec.
When I *was* good about it, I took like, four classes at a time max and I had a job that kept me active when I could handle it. Balance and self-care are really important when you’re a student, your brain is still developing. I mean real self-care, not like gorging on pizza.
Learn what works for you and what doesn’t. I’m an excellent reader, so taking notes while I read and then coming back to my work after a break works. Plan your weeks and mark off time to chill and do all the fun stuff your school includes. Find a library or place you like working and make that your spot to work, not your room. Dorms are the worst place to work, I swear.
Never pull an all-nighter, man. They’re so dumb. Don’t adderall out. Try your best first. And it’s okay it you hate school, it isn’t for everyone. Just try first and when you’re ready, get involved on campus with something you like. My school had improv teams and plays and videography crews. Remember that you’re there to find your strengths and focus on that. And grades really, truly don’t matter in the real world! Focus on learning and passing.
And never drink jungle juice or Traveler’s Club vodka. Trust.
How were you able to get stuff published and when were you like “this is good enough, I’m good enough?”
I covered pitching above, but basically I owe a lot to my ability to bother people into being my mentors and being tenacious. Chelsea Fagan helped me with Thought Catalog after I submitted a lot to her, then she got me hired. Steph Georgopulos published my first writing ever! Here on Medium. She’d interviewed me for a job I didn’t get and then encouraged me to write. And then my former TC co-worker Ella Ceron helped me start freelancing at Teen Vogue, she rules and you can pitch her!
As for the latter, no one ever feels good enough except straight white dudes, I think. What I’ve learned over and over is that being reliable is far more important than being talented, being consistent is more important than being popular, and being good is all about effort.
Just start. You’ll definitely stumble. All of my failures were based on being careless, so just be careful and keep trying. No one will ever ever ever reach out a hand and bring you forth to fame and success and make you feel good enough, and even if they did, you wouldn’t be ready if you weren’t already trying.
Phew. That’s all I got. As far as being a functional freelancer, I’m still working on it, but I’d say putting pants on and going outside is always a great start.