Home > Advice, Journalism, Writing > Advice on Starting Out as a Freelance Writer

Advice on Starting Out as a Freelance Writer

I get about seven to ten emails a week from writers looking for advice on how to start out a freelancing career. Most of the letters are well thought out, show they have read my work, and display a passion for writing beyond just a byline. My goal is to answer everyone with at least a short response within 48 hours, and if their letter requires a more detailed response within two weeks.

After writing a few hundred people back I thought it would be good to put some of the advice in a blog post. As I always tell the folks who email me, take my words of advice as just another person’s opinions. I can’t stand on my soapbox and tell you they will work every time, but I can tell you it’s what has worked for me and it possibly might just work for you.

* Read: I can’t stress this enough. Read every day. Make sure to read multiple mediums — books, newspapers, magazines, online, blogs, etc. — and take notes on things you like and things you don’t. When reading also make sure to look at how the medium displays the text and how an online article reads differently from say a New Yorker feature. When pitching publications it is imperative to understand how they chose to communicate with their readers. This might sound obvious at first, but editors complain all the time about the lack of freelancers who take the time to really understand the publication they are pitching. One tip is to look at the publications media guide for advertisers and look at their readership demographics. If you are pitching say Woman’s Adventure, it would be good to incorporate in your pitch the article supports the fact women make up 80% of all travel decisions for families. This not only displays that you know the publication, but it proves to the editor that the article you are pitching will enhance their readers’ lives in some way.

* Pick up the phone and ask questions. The first thing I did when I wanted to be a travel writer was email just about every writer and editor who wrote for my favorite publications. I would send them a note asking for advice, thoughts on how to break into the industry, and any contacts they could introduce me to. The feedback was overwhelming. One writer, Kate Siber out of Durango, Colorado, recently passed my name along to an editor who previously didn’t return my emails. I hadn’t talked with Kate for nearly a year and was glad I took the time to approach her the right way. There is a catch however, and it comes with taking the time to research the writer/editor and knowing what to ask without wasting their time. Make sure to know how they can provide value to you and what questions to ask in order to get the information you need. Simply saying, “Hi so and so, I’m a new writer looking to get into magazines and was wondering if you had any advice?” Will make you look like an idiot. For some great advice on how to contact a senior-level writer check out this post by Todd Defren who owns one of the most forward-thinking PR firms.

* Write down a list of goals and post them on your bathroom mirror. The list should include goals that could take years and goals that could be met in a week. Getting into the New York Times is hard, and though it can happen fast for some, it’s the little steps that lead to a big byline. Make sure to map out your path and reward yourself when you reach important milestones. In the freelance world there is no performance interviews with bosses, just yourself.

* Listen to what industry leaders are saying, but don’t let it make you become negative. I subscribe to Media Bistro’s daily morning newsletter and each day I start off with a sobering dose of reality: magazines are getting shut down, newspapers are disappearing, senior editors are jobless, the Internet is going to ruin us all. The news is discouraging and constantly makes any freelance writer question their decision to write. But it is also empowering. It shows that an industry so familiar with itself just a few years ago is broken and confused. There is unlimited opportunity right now for freelance writers; it just might not come with a huge paycheck or standard byline. So before reading all the negative news remind yourself: first there was word of mouth, then paper, then the printing press, then radio, then TV, and now the Internet and you know what? People are still writing and telling stories.

* Take a business class and understand what ROI, clickthrough, CPM, and unique visitor mean. Pitching an editor now requires some business understanding of how the industry works, and by setting yourself up to understand the back end of writing, you will be more successful in determining where to allocate your time. This does not mean you have to take advertising classes and cross over to the “dark side,” as editors may say, but it is important to understand what a publisher is thinking when deciding how much money to spend on an average issue or website.

Finally the most important thing you can do is write. Write every day. Write when you don’t want to. Write about things you like and things you hate. And when you’re done writing remember to listen. Because once you write everyday you will need something to write about and listening is an art too many people have forgot. And listening is truly the key to success in any business.

Good luck and remember we are all in this together. Yes freelancing is competitive and tough to get these days, but that does not mean taking the time to help one another is wasting your time or taking opportunity away. It is building relationships, advancing the industry, and ultimately will pay off tenfold.

Categories: Advice, Journalism, Writing
  1. 10thousandfeet
    August 17, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    Thanks for this! Always appreciated. I’d like to add one thing, if I may: Keep an eye out for new publications. Networking even casually, through blogs and Twitter, can help keep your ears pricked to new developments.

    I found out about Women’s Cycling Magazine and She Pedals – The Journal of Women in Cycling, when they were still on the drawing board. People who read my cycling blog alerted me to these publications because my interest was clearly stated in my blog. I contacted the editors immediately and professionally. I bent over backward to offer my assistance despite knowing I couldn’t get paid.

    I am now a product tester and editorial writer for WCM and a regular columnist and writer for She Pedals. I also wrote some press releases for She Pedals when it was still a one-woman operation. Neither have been published yet (both out in Sept.), but I have a working relationship with the editors. They listen to my story ideas readily and actually reply to my emails!

    Being able to get in early and work hard to prove myself was an enormous benefit. Had I not made myself know to the cycling blogosphere or Googled “women +cycling” almost daily, I wouldn’t have had anyone to tell me about the publications.

    Again, always enjoy your blog and your insight. Best to you.


  2. August 18, 2009 at 12:08 am

    Consider yourself bookmarked! Excellent post that should enthuse and inspire many writers – whether budding or finding their leaves slightly yellowing …


  3. Tim Shisler
    August 18, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    I think you are right on Katherine. When I was making a list of things I wanted to include, your lesson was one of them. Then when I hit 988 words I realized I’d gone a bit long and didn’t include it. Thank you for seeing my mistake and adding your story!

    I recently went to talk with a group of Junior college students and couldn’t stress to them enough the value of finding a start-up publication and providing value. The long tail effect is huge and sadly I don’t think enough people remember that. I can admit it’s hard to not want the big-name byline, but just like you said, a working relationship and returned emails is a great thing when you’re pitching editors who never write back.

    Thanks again for your note and reading. Hope all is well.

  1. August 17, 2009 at 4:15 pm

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