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Monday, January 13, 2014

Eight Tips for Aspiring Freelance Writers

I went to see the ophthalmologist last week. I have a hard time seeing him. He is seeing to it that my sight improves, which brings me closer to the point of this post.

In our conversation regarding my pending surgery and how much time I should allot for recovery, I explained that I'm a freelance writer and work on assignments with deadlines. He answered my question with a very palatable "3 to 5 days." Then, unexpectedly, he became the one asking questions about my line of work: What do I write? How did I get started? Does one need an agent? Can a person make a living off of freelance writing? And so forth.

His inquisitiveness caught me off guard. He keeps a journal and enjoys technical writing and creative writing. He wants to write in his area of expertise and he wants to write about his life experiences. The good doctor plans to cut back on clinical hours when he reaches his 50s and would like to fill his extra time with a second career in journalistic pursuits. He has visions of himself reclining at a Hawaiian beach resort penning manuscripts to the sound of rushing waves. I want to do that, too, I agreed.

I had sucked his eye-expertise dry, asking everything I could think, and now the man wanted my expert advice. Wow. Me. I was flattered.

Yet, I'm afraid I was caught so off guard that I didn't help him much. So I'm posting a better answer here.

These are my best 8 tips for aspiring freelance writers:

1. Figure out your niche or niches. What is your educational background? What do you have experience with? What kinds of things do you like to do? What do you enjoy reading? What topics do you know well? What types of stories do you enjoy writing? Knowing the answers to these questions will direct you to the kinds of magazines for which you're suited to write.

But you're not locked in. I started out writing a slice-of-life newspaper column (which I still write weekly). Then moved to composing parenting pieces for a magazine. Via a recommendation from one editor to another, I started receiving assignments to write home decor articles and advertising/marketing pieces. Now, I do all that, plus pen a monthly health column, book reviews, personal essays, profiles of people and historical accounts of places. And I do some travel writing, as well.

The beautiful thing is that the more I write, the more doors that open.

2. That brings me to my second tip. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Lots of folks have a romantic vision of the writer's life, but when it comes down to the living of it they aren't willing to put in the work.Write every day. Keep an idea journal (it helps when writer's block strikes, and it will strike). Use a blog to demonstrate your skill, display your expertise, build an audience, enable potential customers to find you. Practice, practice, practice.

3. If you want to be a writer, you have to read. Read a wide variety of genres and writing styles. Most importantly, read lots of different examples of the type of article you want to write for magazines. If you're a gardening guru looking to spread the seeds of knowledge about plant cultivation, read gardening pieces. If you're into writing about adventure and travel, read articles on that topic. Never stop reading, even after you begin writing professionally.

You are not reading to broaden your knowledge of the topic. You will do that through experience, interviews and research. You are studying how other people do the writing you want to do. What words do they use? Are they technical or poetic? What do they do well? What are their shortcomings? What would you do the same or differently? How can you set your writing apart? And so on. Study how the ideas are conveyed, not the ideas themselves.

4. Keep a file (digital, print or both) of writing samples. Tear sheets of published articles are ideal, even if from dull academic journals, but copies of your best unpublished work are useful, too. When you query an editor or other potential customer, he/she will want to see 3-5 writing samples. Maintain a fresh and current collection of samples, because you will be asked for them throughout your career.

5. Ahh, but how do you get that first assignment, right? One way is to use your connections. Maybe you have a friend or acquaintance who knows the editor/publisher you need to talk with. Ask for introductions to the person who makes decisions about assignments. Find common ground with the person who makes assignments (maybe your kids go to school together or you did your undergrad at the same university or you lived next door to their cousin).

Another way is to make an appointment to meet with the editor/publisher face-to-face. Take your writing samples, a firm handshake and your winning smile with you. Know the types of stories the magazine typically publishes and know what you'd like to write for the magazine. At the same time, if the editor says she has writers for that but mentions that she needs, say, a health columnist, assure her you can do that, too. In fact, insist you can do it and close the deal that day.

A third way that writers break into the freelance market is to develop their own ideas and query an editor via email or letter. This requires doing research and preliminary work ahead of time. Some magazines will even want to know what experts you plan to interview. Writers who query with completed pieces sometimes get lucky and their work is bought for an upcoming issue.

6. Don't let fear shackle your fingers. Editors/publishers/customers will ask you if you can write in a style or about a topic with which you have no experience. Say yes! Then ask specific questions about the assignment: What is the word-count goal? How does the person envision the final layout? Does he/she want subtitles, text boxes, sidebars, etc? Next, do the research to educate yourself on the topic or writing style. You'll grow as a writer and you'll get future assignments.

7. Meet those deadlines. Once you receive an assignment, get it done and do it well (this means editing and revision before anyone else sees it). I pick up last minute, I-need-this-in-two-days assignments all the time because the original writer failed to make the deadline or made the deadline but submitted a mess. Be reliable and consistent and you will become editors' go-to guy.

8. Be a continuous contributor. There's no better feeling than being listed in the contributors section of a magazine, except maybe seeing your by-line or, better than both of those, getting positive feedback from someone who actually read your piece. But, being a successful freelance writer requires more than writing well, meeting deadlines and collecting accolades. It means incubating and sharing ideas.

Some editors ask for ideas, most don't, but they all appreciate them. I keep my ear to the ground about trends in parenting and health. I make note of up-and-comers or inspirational has-beens.  I think about what I'd like to have more knowledge of. And I pass on my thoughts and ideas to editors, proposing how I would approach the subject or suggesting how readers might respond. Occasionally, I send links to related on-line sites.

This is a means of staying in communication with and on the minds of those responsible for giving you assignments. It makes you valuable to them, as well. Furthermore, your attitude of helpfulness builds goodwill, which goes a long way in this competitive world of freelance writing.


William Kendall said...

Brilliant tips, particularly on writing a lot and reading a lot!

Lucy Adams said...

Why, thank you, William.

Diana Combs said...

Funny how those of us who have written do these things without realizing that they ARE, in fact, the very first steps. It is very insightful of you to realize that some people just getting their feet wet would not do these things. I agree 100%. I've had people call me about working for them, and tell me they ONLY decided to call AFTER seeing and liking my blog. So yes, all of your tips are good ones. :)

Lucy Adams said...

Thank you, Diana. I wish us both success in our freelance careers!

Tiffany Wynne said...

Wonderfult tips and I find that all of these are steps that need to be taken before you can be successful.