So, You Want to Be a Freelance Writer?

As you read this, I am in my pjs and flip-flops. Is this super casual dress code allowed at my place of employment? Actually, it is. See, while most of you are sitting at a desk trying to find a way to take off your Nine West heels without your supervisor noticing, I am sitting on the couch catching a rerun episode of “King of Queens.”

Just what is it that I do for a living? I’m a freelance writer. No, let me add to that: I’m a full-time freelance writer. Now, before you start turning a shade of green, let me briefly share with you the side you may not see. It’s a huge financial sacrifice: I am responsible for my own taxes; a check doesn’t always come at the time the managing editor says it will; and, while you are clocking out after about eight hours a day, I average, oh, about fourteen (I’m not exaggerating).

But, I wouldn’t change it for the world because I am doing what I love every single day of my life — in my pjs and flip-flops. So, if this gig still interests you, I have enclosed some tips to get you started. If it works out, you can thank me by including me on your Christmas card list this year. An e-card will do just fine.

1. Be a writer. You’d be amazed how many people ask me how they can crack into the field without having ever written an article — ever. (Essays in college don’t really count.) Now, I didn’t finish college so I’m living proof that credentials can come in all kinds of ways, but if you can’t remember the last article you wrote, even if it was just for your leisure, you should spend some time practicing before you start pitching. Which brings me to point #2.

2. Get some experience. A lot of people dream of getting their byline in “Glamour” and I don’t blame them; it’s still a goal of mine as well. But, in the meantime, there are some real perks to submitting your work on sites such as gather.com, which lets anyone post on any topic at any time. The main benefit of going this route is that you can start a network with other writers and it builds an online database for you. Before long, people will be able to “Google” you and pull some of your work. It doesn’t hurt getting your ink wet in a couple of anthologies as well. anthologiesonline.com lists new markets monthly.

3. Know what you want to write about. While many writers (including myself) have been published in many various publications, covering everything from business and fashion to entertainment and health, the best place to start are topics that most interest you. What I’m most passionate about are relationships and self-care, so that’s where I first started looking for gigs. Since major magazines want you to have clips to back up your talent, don’t be unwilling to create your own internship (yes, this means writing for free) at an online or print publication that deals with a subject matter that interests you. My very first Q&A opportunity came from a Web site called “Daughters of Eve” and I wouldn’t have gotten my first major magazine narrative in “Honey” without it. A lot of editors don’t care where you got the experience. Just that you have some.

4. Spend as much time researching as you do writing. You know how they say that if you don’t have a job then your job is looking for one? When you are a freelancer, this is always the case. I probably spend about 2 to 3 hours a day looking for new markets and trust me, there are TONS out there. If you don’t know where to start, craigslist.org , freelancewriting.com, writersweekly.com, fundsforwriters.com, journalismjobs.com, writers-publish.com are market sites that will keep you pretty busy.

5. Create a solid query letter. A query letter is sent to the editors to inquire whether they’d like you to write an article for them about a specific idea that you pitch. The letter should include your idea for an article, lists of articles in other publications for which you have written, the markets you are interested, references from previous and current editors and links to your work. Now, if you’re new to the game, you may not have enough information (yet) — so, just make sure to send a friendly-yet-concise letter to the appropriate assignment editor about the topic of your story, how long it would be, your references (if applicable), your contact information and your estimated time of turnover. Also, make sure to specify that you are pitching an article in the subject heading. You’d be amazed how much email editors receive and how much they appreciate details for organization’s sake. Know the publication for which you submit: reference specific departments, and be familiar with the tone of those departments.

6. Prepare yourself for a slow start. In most cases, it takes years of experience and a truckload of tenacity to get in the $1 per word writer’s market, but it’s not super difficult to break into the .05 to .10 per word range. Before accepting an assignment, get really clear how much they pay. If you’re a beginner and you’re looking to pay your rent with freelancing, don’t. Print magazines pay anywhere between $50 to $500 for 500 to 1000 words, but the time frame for receiving payment can be anywhere between 2 to 6 months. Remember, print schedules are way ahead of the time you actually see the magazine on the newsstand, so if, for instance, “Essence” accepts your pitch for a May issue, you will probably need to have it turned in by late February and they usually have 60 to 90 days from the month it prints to pay you.

7. Sometimes exposure is more important than money. There are some publications that don’t pay a ton, but their distribution is phenomenal. A good example of this is “Soul Magazine;” (soulmag.org) they don’t pay the big bucks, but their magazines are featured in some of the major grocery stores. Look for publications such as these.

8. My Space and Yahoo Groups are your friends. I’m sure many of you think that sites like these are for your teenagers and not you, but the truth is that they are great ways to meet other people who share your interests. I have made some solid contacts on both. For instance, My Space has a “Group” link at the top of its page. Click on that and you should see a “Literature and Arts” section with more than 30,000 networking groups in it.

9. If you can’t break into print media, try getting online. A lot of print magazines get hundreds of queries per month. So, you may want to try going the online route and get your byline posted that way. For instance, Jane Magazine (janemag.com) has a section where you can tell your own story in 600 words and submit it online. O Magazine (oprah.com) has a link, “Share Your Story,” where you can submit your thoughts for possible publication in the magazine.

10. Be patient. It won’t happen overnight, but if you stay positive and focused, it can happen. I won’t lie to you: you will get rejected more than you ever thought possible, but if you are confident in your skills and you like challenges, there is nothing like the thrill of receiving a magazine in the mail with your name in the “Contributing Writers” section. The only thing that tops it is getting a check in the mail a couple of weeks later!

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