About once a month a friend or colleague will ask me the very same question: “I have been wanting to take my writing to the next stage. How did you get started in freelance writing?“.
Sometimes I’m tempted to say, “Just start.” How do you train for a marathon or big climb? You start running, you start climbing.
But I know it isn’t that straight-forward. There are definitely some pointers I wish I had known when I started out – things I had to discover on my own in a fairly long, drawn-out process that continues to this day. So, I often let these curious writers treat me to coffee and I download my knowledge. After some time, though, these conversations became repetitive, and time-consuming for both parties, so I decided to write this article.
These tips are based on my own personal experience. There are many ways of getting started in freelance writing. In my research I definitely looked at a few options and picked the one that resonated most with me. I welcome any tips from other writers out there and encourage you to use the Comments to provide your feedback.
15 Tips for Getting Started in Freelance Writing
1. Keep Writing and Reading
You’ve probably heard it before, but spend some time writing each day. Sharpen your tools so that they are as effective as possible when someone is willing to give you a chance at being published. Tips #8 and #9 can provide you with a great platform for this.
Equally important to writing, however, is that you continue reading. Read the authors who inspire you, deconstruct their sentences and develop a keen eye for what works and what doesn’t. Last year I dedicated myself to 52 Weeks of Feedback to help me commit to reading other people’s work more regularly (and provide some feedback to them).
Also, read the publications you want to write for so that you have a good sense of what they have published recently, as well as their tone, style, departments and article lengths. Many libraries have a good stock of back issues from magazines.
2. Research the Industry
Some people have the advantage of a degree or certificate that introduced them to the ins and outs of freelance writing. I came out of university with a Theatre Degree. But thanks to the World Wide Web there is a flurry of information already available online and websites ready to help you get started. I spent an entire winter just researching what it meant to be a freelance writer, what kind of outlets existed for my writing, and what the process was for getting published. I met with the only freelance writer I knew to learn how she got started. As it turns out, the path she took (ie. writing for newspapers) had no appeal to me, but at least I learned this was an option.
3. Learn How to Write a Query Letter
Learning about the infamous “query letter” was my first big “aha!” moment when I was researching how to enter the freelance market. Most publications, especially those that pay for material, don’t want to receive a complete, unsolicited article. Instead they want you to pitch your idea in the form of a query letter.
Editors are busy and likely won’t read a full article, but they can make time to browse through a well-written query. If an editor likes your idea, this also gives him or her some space to suggest possible angles and fulfill the current needs of the magazine. Check out this article by Paul Lima for How to Structure a Query Letter. Keep track of your queries so that you know where and when you submitted.
4. Find a Home for Your Words
Writers Market produces an annual volume of publication listings (by category/topic) and writing advice. The Canadian Writer’s Market offers a listing of Canadian publishers, which is handy for the Canucks out there. Otherwise, you can use the web to research magazines and journals that might be interested in the topics you like to write about. Figure out which publication (and department within that publication) is the best one for your idea and submit your query letter to the appropriate editor.
5. Attend Writing Conferences, Workshops and Seminars
I could write a whole post about why this is so important. As a writer, you need to keep learning and these types of events not only help you to perfect your craft, but also teach you about the writing industry (and its current state) and allow plenty of opportunity to network. Sometimes the opportunity to be published is a “right place, right time” kind of thing, and meeting editors face-to-face can really expedite the process. Some of my most valued relationships are with the magazine editors I’ve met at conferences. Meeting them in person enabled me to discuss ideas and turn them into reality almost on the spot.
Thanks to the Internet, online seminars (or “webinars”) now also provide writers with the opportunity to “attend” a workshop without even leaving the house.
6. Read the Masthead
You might have flipped past this before, but it’s a good idea to read through the masthead – that list of names, departments and circulation information at the front end of a magazine. You might see the names of other writers you know, notice that the magazine has a new editor, or learn that the magazine accepts interns (more on that in Tip #10). All this information will serve you well when you are querying a magazine, and particularly when you’re wondering whom to send your query to.
7. Subscribe to Newsletters and Blogs
These appear in my inbox once a week and while sometimes they go straight to the trash (depends on how busy I am) I often scroll through to see if there is any content that appeals to me. My favourites include Worldwide Freelance, Funds for Writers, Masthead and Show Me the Money.
8. Write for Free (at first)
I hear some freelancers screaming out there. There is a debate in the industry about how writers can undercut the market by providing their services for free or cheap. To a large extent this is very true, but there will always be grassroots publications, non-profit organizations or websites in need of content and they simply can’t pay. To get some experience, I wrote for organizations like the Alpine Club of Canada, CPAWS and the Stephen Lewis Foundation – all for free. You need to be published to get published. Start small and work your way up.
9. Start a Blog
I’ll start this tip with a warning: be careful what you put out there. The first blog I ever maintained is now offline. At some point in my career, I simply couldn’t have a lower quality of writing floating around the Internet. My writing has improved hugely since I set off on this journey. But that being said, I now maintain a few websites, including The Campsite and The Adventures in Parenthood Project, which allow me to publish my own words, explore with my writing and position myself as a pseudo-expert on certain topics. On another note, these websites have helped me to nurture relationships with people involved in the industries I like to write about, including other writers, bloggers, gear companies and organizations. Blogging is also just plain fun.
10. Seek Out a Magazine Internship
If you live in a larger city, you’ll likely have more opportunity to find a magazine that is looking to hire an intern (this could be paid or unpaid). I leaped for joy when I discovered that Alpinist Magazine was looking for an Online Editorial Intern and didn’t mind if that intern worked remotely. I spent six months with that magazine, working from Banff with regular Skype calls with my editor. And though I slaved away for free, the experience taught me a lot about the industry and my own writing. I emerged a much better writer, with new connections in the industry I never otherwise would have made, and with a bit more credibility behind my name.
11. Build a Website and Get “You” Online
Once you have a fair amount of credible publications under your belt, and you’re keen on pursuing freelance writing, I recommend you start up a website. There are plenty of platforms to help you do this and my personal favourite is WordPress.com. This can be attached to your blog somehow or kept separate. A website, such as the one you’re on right now, will provide people with an online resume, help to attract potential clients and provide you with credibility. Go ahead: buy a domain with your name in it right now, even if you don’t plan to build a website for a year.
Furthermore, in today’s world I believe it’s absolutely essential for a new writer (well, anyone) to take control of his or her online profile. When people Google your name, what comes up? Google mine. You’ll notice that I share names with another U.S.-based writer. After discovering this, I realized the importance of 1. adding the “J.” to my name (to distinguish us) and 2. further “branding” myself as an outdoor, travel and adventure writer. (From time to time we have been confused but both gladly assist people in finding the right Meghan).
You need to be the one that makes sure your online presence is clean and accurate. Having a website will help.
12. Join a Writing Organization
Once you have a few publications under your belt, you may benefit from joining a larger organization that supports freelance writers. Again, this will broaden your network and provide you with numerous professional development opportunities. I am member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (you’ll also want to check out their writers.ca) and the Alberta Magazine Publisher’s Association.
13. Build a Social Network
Building a strong social network online will not only help you get your work and name out there, but perhaps more importantly will introduce you to people and publications you may never otherwise have encountered. These people include other writers, editors and potential sources or experts. I use LinkedIn to expand my professional network and Facebook, Google+ and Twitter to create community around my work, to crowd-source and simply listen. If I had to pick just one, I would use Twitter (check out my 5 Reasons Why Writers Should Be On Twitter).
If you’re interested in connecting your business online I highly recommend you read Six Pixels of Separation, by Mitch Joel.
14. Don’t Quit Your Day Job…Yet
We only have 24 hours in a day, and many people struggle to find time to pursue writing when they are working full time. For a few years I worked full time while I built up my portfolio. Then I moved down to 30 hours a week, and took on more writing. At one point, I was working 30 hours a week at a local retail store, 20 hours a week for Alpinist, and freelancing on the side. Eventually I took the leap to writing full time but only when I saw that I had enough work to get by.
It’s worth mentioning that there are not many people in Canada who make a living purely off of freelance writing for magazines. My income comes from 1/3 freelance for magazines, 1/3 web/brochure/marketing copy, and 1/3 social media and marketing consulting. Those ratios are always in flux, but at least that gives you an idea.
One of my favourite quotes is by Ben Franklin: “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Naturally, we like to write about topics that interest us. And one of the coolest things about writing is that you can take something you do anyway, write about it and make some money.
In April 2011, my husband and I went ski touring in Auyuittuq National Park, within the Arctic Circle on Baffin Island. While I was writing an article for IMPACT Magazine about ultra runner, Ellie Greenwood, I got talking with the editor about that trip. He asked if I would write something, so I did (you can read about it in The Land That Does Not Melt).
I’ll admit it’s not always easy to find a balance when anything could become fodder for an article. You can read about that in the 6 Things I’ve Learned From Living Off My Lifestyle.
Be persistent. In can take years to build up a portfolio and gain credibility in the industry. If you really want to make it happen, even as a side business, you need to stick with it. To this day I still have many query letters rejected each year (and often I don’t hear back at all). Keep your love for writing at the center. Give yourself a pat on the back just for showing up and watch this talk by Elizabeth Gilbert.