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7 Ways To Becoming A Successful Freelance Writer

Leather-bound journals waiting to be filled. Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago, 2017. Photo by Megy Karydes.

Leather-bound journals waiting to be filled. Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago, 2017. Photo by Megy Karydes.

Every now and then a friend will ask how they can break into freelance writing and quit their job. Or the person is a writer and wants to step up their game and make a living from their craft. I’ve been invited to present and be part of panels on how to success as a freelance writer, some with titles such as “How To Become a Six-Figure Freelance Writer” or “How To Quit Your Job and Freelance Write”. Tonight, I’m on a panel with other freelance writers talking about successful freelance strategies to Columbia College Chicago students and alumni.

As I was preparing my material for the panel discussion, I wanted to share seven things I did (and continue to do) that have helped me get better at this freelance writing game over the past decade.

1)    Join & Be Active. It’s not enough to pay your dues. If you’re going to be part of an organization or association, be active. That’s how you’ll meet others and learn from them. If you can’t attend the conferences, be active on the forums. This is often where you can meet with editors, content managers, etc. In many of these conferences, you’ll have time to pitch them directly, too. There are associations for almost any niche you’re interested in, from health to science writers, writers who write for online news outlets to travel-focused writers.

Start your own Writers Accountability Group and commit to meeting regularly or connecting regularly online

2)    Continue to Learn & Improve Your Craft.

a.     Read books.

b.     Listen to podcasts

c.     Take classes.

3)    Get Out There.

  • Let everyone you know you’re a writer. Not an “aspiring” writer. You’re a writer. Own it. Assume your place at the table. You’ll never know who might need content for their blog, help writing their bio page on their website, or a profile piece for a local print magazine.
  • Also, talking with others helps you discover stories to pitch. Your neighbor might have a scoop, your dry cleaner might have heard something, your local public school might be doing some neat things and the teacher might be happy to share details. Letting people know what you’re doing will help you in the short and long-run because people will keep you posted of news they hear!

4)    Become Friends with Writers.

  • One of the biggest myths in this business is that you need to pitch editors in order to get stories assigned. While technically that’s true, editors (or clients) are the ones who assign the business, it’s often through your network of friends/colleagues that you FIND the business to be had.
  • Friends writing for editors and clients sometimes get asked if they have any other friends interested in picking up new work. If they know you’re looking and feel you have the skill sets, they’ll recommend you. Ninety percent of my work has been secured through networking and/or referrals. And the ten percent I cold pitched, I ended up referring others to those editors so they got work out of my cold pitch, too.
  • Sometimes my editors are looking for writers with a specific type of expertise or I can’t write about something because it poses a conflict of interest to me. For example, an editor asked me to write about clean energy for a print magazine but one of my clients is active in this space. I ended up referring a friend who I knew was well-versed in the subject and she wrote about the topic. Happy editor because I referred someone to her + happy friend because she’s now working with a new editor = win for everyone.

5)    Know Your Worth & Treat It Like a Business.

  • Track your time (see 6e for recommendations)
  • Set up a spreadsheet or some other system to track your clients/editors/work by client and month. Track your expenses like a hawk. Track your revenue by month.
  • Set aside money for taxes.
  • Set aside money for retirement.
  • Set weekly/monthly/quarterly/annual goals and review them weekly/monthly/quarterly/annually.
  •  Negotiate rates. Ask if there is any wiggle room with the rate/fee you’re offered. Often editors and clients have the ability to increase their rate. You won’t get a higher rate/fee if you don’t ask. Sometimes they don’t, and then you can decide whether the rate is worth your time and investment or to walk away.
  • Write a Letter of Introduction (LOI) and have it handy to send to potential editors and/or clients with whom you’d like to work.

6)    Get a Handle on Your Time Management.

  • How much time does it take for you to write an 800-word article with sources and without?
  • How much time does it take for you to interview a source?
  • How much time are you on social media?
  • How often do you invoice and how long does it take you to get paid?
  • Use resources like RescueTime and Toggl to track your time.

7)    Learn New Tools To Help You Improve.