1. What’s your advice for someone wanting to do freelance writing work? (from tonia)
2. At what point did you decide to stop writing as a FREElancer (no pay contributions, clip-portfolio-building type of work) and switch to the “I’m going to try and make a living off of this” mentality? (from Sketch the Journalist)
Thanks for the questions. I’ll answer both of these at the same time, because they’re closely related. I usually have two nuggets of advice for novice writers — and these are usually the kinds of writers who want to write for publication in magazines or newspapers, as opposed to the kinds who want to get into the less glamorous (but often more profitable) fields of marketing copywriting. Here it is:
Nugget of Advice A: Write stuff.
Nugget of Advice B: Network like a crazy person.
When it comes to A, these are puzzling times for a would-be writer. Any time you try to get a writing assignment, a potential publisher or editor wants to know where you’ve been published before. The great thing these days is that there are so many opportunities to get a byline. All kinds of websites, including RELEVANT, are driven by contributor content. If you can put sentences together and have a semi-original thought, you can probably get something on the Web with your name attached. You probably won’t get paid for it, but 10 years ago it was much harder to get your name on a published work. But there’s a downside. Editors know how easy it is to get a byline, so having written three album reviews or personal commentaries for RELEVANTMagazine.com is not as impressive as having done so for the print magazine. They’re even less impressed with blogs, unless you have a huge, dedicated readership.
But, still, you need to be writing. You need to be getting published somewhere, even if it’s for free. Another good idea is to find an internship with a publisher or magazine. These are perhaps the best way for a new writer to start gaining experience. Not to be a company shill or anything, but RELEVANT is known for a great internship program. Its design and editorial interns actually do work that appears in the print mag, so you can almost be assured of some printed bylines if you get accepted. Same goes for online mags like Slate.com. Then again, these are very competitive positions, and before you get accepted, you’ll probably need to…show stuff you’ve written.
So keep writing, even if you’re not making any money at it. Contact online or print mags and see what kinds of reviews they need. Offer to write them for free. Start producing high-quality stuff and the editors or content managers will take notice. Which leads to…
Advice B: Networking. Unfortunately, the freelance writing world is as much about who you know as it is about how well you write. There are lots of great writers not getting assignments because no one knows who they are. That’s where networking comes in. Some of my best assignments have come about because I had gotten to know someone in the right place (editorially speaking) or because I met someone who was interesting enough to write about. For instance, in early 2006 I was invited on a trip to the Dominican Republic. On that trip, I met the musician Brad Corrigan, and we struck up a friendship. A year later, Brad invited me to Nicaragua, a trip that resulted in articles for RELEVANT (the May/June issue and online) as well as for Paste. I doubt those would have happened had I not agreed to go on that 2006 trip — an experience which, incidentally, resulted in a couple more great relationships with editors. As a writer, I’ve found that it’s a good idea to take advantage of almost every opportunity that comes along — whether it pays well or not — because opportunities bring connections, and you never know what the fruit of those connections will be.
So, to answer #2 above, I’ve never really stopped doing freelance stuff for free. Why? Because the free stuff often leads to stuff you get paid for. Granted, I don’t rely exclusively on my writing income to make a living — it’s just gravy, and it goes into my retirement savings and my kids’ college funds — so I’m in a position to work for peanuts when I think it will benefit my career somewhere down the road.
If I were trying to make a living from this writing thing, it would, perhaps, be another story. Freelancing of any sort is a hard way to make a living, because you’re always scrambling for that next paycheck. (Especially because an article you’re working on today probably won’t result in a paycheck for at least a couple of months.) When I decide to write something, the decision isn’t always made in terms of how much money it’ll bring me. Sometimes I’ll do it because it’s a great opportunity to increase exposure, make connections, or further my career.
Kind of like blogging.