I never really thought that being a freelance writer would be a conversation-starter. Silly me. When the inevetible “What do you do?” question comes around, I’ve started to hesitate before admitting the truth – I write for a living. There’s usually a short pause as the asker tries to decide if I’m serious or not, and then the questions start coming rapid-fire. How long have you been a freelance writer? What would you recommend to someone wanting to make freelance writing their next career? How can I do it?
Honestly, there’s no quick-fix recipe for freelance writing success. I’ve seen the ebooks that promise to tell you how to make thousands a month with very little work. If there’s nothing else I can share with you, please let me share this:
Unless you’re a big name like Stephen King or Deepak Chopra, you’re not going to earn thousands a month with your writing. Even if you are a big name, you’re never going to earn a cent off your writing unless you work very, very hard at it.
I’ll step off my soap box and let the rant against money-hungry immoral net-sucking vampires stop before it’s written. It’s not the point of my article and while some people might find it amusing (and I might find it to be a great frustration release), we’ll stop right there. You must work hard, and you probably won’t be rich overnight.
Common Fears and Misconceptions
Before I even start in on how you could – if you really, really wanted to – become a freelance writer, there’s a few things that need to be set straight. Common fears and misconceptions are the stuff of every aspiring writer’s nightmares. But there’s really very little you need to be worried about.
Without a doubt, the most common fear is that someone will try stealing your ideas.
The truth is that ideas are very rarely stolen. Beginning freelancers often jump to the conclusion that their ideas have been ripped off because they haven’t looked at how often several writers separately and independently come up with the same idea. Editors see this phenomenon so often it’s not even surprising to them. Take a deep breath and say to yourself, “No one wants to steal my ideas.” Say it again. There are only so many ways of arriving at the same product, so ideas naturally take a similar course.
On the same worry, remember that you can’t copyright an idea. The only thing you can copyright is the expression of your idea. What you write is automatically copyright to you the second you put it on paper or on your computer and save it the first time. With this in mind, never place a copyright notice on work that you submit to an editor – they will usually give a hefty dramatic sigh and set your work aside as being marked by an amateur.
The next misconception about freelance writing is that you have to be apologetic about not being previously published. Sure, editors are eager to work with writers who have proven themselves to be reliable, trustworthy authors that can deliver what the publication needs. Everyone knows you have to start somewhere, though. If you never get published because you’ve never been published there would be no writers and nothing to read. Don’t worry about stating in a query letter that “I’ve never published anything before” because it sounds unconfident. Instead, worry about writing your very best work and ask if an editor will work with you “on spec” – or on speculation, letting them see your work without any promise or obligation to buy it.
Freelance Writing as a Career
Don’t quit your day job. Seriously. In 1995, the National Writers Union performed a survey that showed only 17% of journalists with an average of 14 years in the field were making more than $30,000 a year. That straddles the government-defined poverty line.
If that doesn’t scare you enough to run screaming in the other direction, you just might have what it takes to make freelance writing your career. It isn’t easy, it takes more love and dedication than a 9-5 job, but if you create (and stick to) some strategies you can inch your way past that poverty line.
- Develop relationships with publications that can use your work regularly. This means producing the very best writing you can, every time you turn work in. It also means being a good person that editors can (at least a little bit) like. And it means being able to communicate with editors well – know what they want, what they’re looking for, and you can give it to them.
- Supplement your freelance income. If you are working as a freelance writer for publication, there are a variety of things you can do to supplement that income. Teach at a community college or offer workshops on writing, work as a consulatant for other writers, or do something completely different that you also love. I am obsessed with technology, so supplement my writing income with graphic design.
- Go for the big dream – write books. Dedicate a certain number of hours each day to writing, researching, and submitting your freelance work, but don’t let go of the book dream. I know of very few freelance writers who don’t dream of becoming a published author of books – fiction or non-fiction. If you can dedicate only an hour every day to pushing yourself toward the book-publication goal, you will be that much closer to your dream. Besides, a published book earns more money than an article and having a book published can mean more money on your articles.
So the all-important question … how do you get started?
First, think about your ultimate goal. Do you want to become the next Dear Abby with a syndicated column published in all the newspapers in the country? You’ll want to start locally and get real success in your hometown newspapers. If you want to become a fantasy novelist, you can try to start out with short stories. Build relationships with the editors and you’ll be off to a good start.
The real problem is getting those all-important first clips. Editors look at samples of your work to see if they’re interested in your writing style, but the good news is that they’re not as interested in where your work was published or how much you were paid for it. To get your feet wet and start gathering a good portfolio of writing samples, think about starting out by writing for an organizational newsletter, a community newspaper, or other small-circulation publication that desperately needs decent work. Even if you don’t earn money for these first clips, you’re getting your foot in the door and can start building contacts.
Even if you’ve never been published before, you have a chance to become a successful freelance writer as long as you are willing to work hard for it and can offer something special: your personal experience, access to inside information, professional expertise, and a unique voice. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with those three keys, start submitting your work and never give up.