I’ve seen this debate from both sides.
Ten years ago, I would’ve said that making a living off freelance writing alone was impossible. As a college student then, I had my hand in many pies. Along with unpaid (or low-paid) summer internships at various local magazines and newspapers, I also sent out my resume to online “job postings” for freelancers, landing “gigs” writing weekly restaurant and CD reviews. My big payoff: $50 per article (at most), or a big pat on the back, free concert tickets and a clip to add to my portfolio.
Fifty bucks a week is hardly enough to live on. Four grand a month or more—now that’s a different story. How times have changed….
In the early 2000s, being a full-time student, an intern, a freelance writer, and juggling a paying part-time job was all necessary—and (almost) doable. Now, $50 won’t even cover the gas bill to get around to all those gigs.
So what’s the deal? How are all these writers making a full-time living on freelance pay alone?
From the editor’s chair, I can tell you. It’s all about relationships, research and proactive pitching, and above all else, self-promotion and marketing.
Freelance Shouldn’t Mean ‘Free’
First, know that freelance writing shouldn’t be “free,” unless you’re doing someone a short-term favor. Your time is worth money, too. Know what you’re worth and what a publication is willing to pay for your work. After all, you’re saving them time and money. Otherwise, they’d have to hire a writer full time, and that sort of thing is rare these days!
Before you begin freelance writing, find out how much the publication pays per story, or per word. A fair rate for beginning freelance writers is around $.52 and up per word (all the way up to $1 per word or more for seasoned journalists with big-name magazines to their credit). Pay also depends on experience and history with the publication, as well as the notoriety and budget of that particular publication. (i.e., A local paper will pay much less than a national magazine, naturally). Some feature stories can run over 2,000 words. You do the math. Write two or three of these stories a month, and you’ll be making more than most college graduates in their first job out of school.
Editors first look to their journalism network—their circle of friends, past co-workers, writers who have personally wowed them, etc.—when considering writers for a freelance assignment. They also like to stick to their current pool of freelancers. It’s hard for an outsider to swim into that tank.
And like actors who get typecast into a specific role over and over again, editors also pigeonhole freelance writers into roles based on their past (or current) work. (i.e., You might get lumped into the “breaking news” writer category; the “reviewer” regime; or the “features” or “cover story” candidate group—that last one’s the most rewarding, in my opinion).
So how do you break in? If you went to journalism school or interned at a local newspaper, find your old peers on LinkedIn and connect with them. Say hi. Congratulate them on promotions. Keep up-to-date on who’s working where, and use those connections to your advantage. And eventually, offer your services to them if they are in an editorial position, or get a reference from them.
Once you’re in, the number one rule to maintaining a good relationship with your editor—and getting more work from them—is to make yourself valuable. Don’t make an editor’s job harder than it already is. Find the best sources. Make sure they are credible. Only include the best, most colorful quotes. Include sidebars. Suggest headlines and decks, saving the editor time and effort later. Be flexible. Make time to do the assignment justice. Double-check your work (that means first edits and fact-checking). Revise, revise, revise. And don’t ever miss a deadline.
Research and Proactive Story Pitching Matter
Call and talk to your editor regularly (if they’re into that sort of thing) to strengthen your relationship, joke about life, commiserate, share and get story leads, and hear buzz about possible future assignments. Outside of that, find out about innovations and breaking news affecting the industry, and then pitch exciting, timely and exclusive story ideas to your editor regularly. After you throw the bait enough times, you’ll eventually get a bite.
Self-Promotion and Marketing Matter
Have an online presence. Blog to find your voice. Read other people’s writing to stay “in-the-know” and to improve your own writing style.
Spread out the love: Secure freelance work with more than one publication. Send your newly published clips to your editor at the other publication to show them the great work you’re doing as a freelance writer. Let them know, without telling them directly, that you’re “in demand,” but that they’re your favorite editor (client) above all others.
And always have a killer resume and portfolio.
The last thing to remember is: Don’t be afraid of your editor. If they could figure out how to do what you do to make a living, they’d probably rather be in your shoes anyway.