8 Foolproof Ways to Excel as a Freelance Writer

If you’ve been considering the freelance life, you may have been spooked by talk that the journalism industry — newspaper and magazines in particular — are dying, and citizen journalism will take over, making just about anyone a journalist.

You’ve also probably heard that freelancing guarantees you a life of no money, constant hunger and socks with holes. This is not entirely true.

As citizen journalism increases, editors and news organizations become active on social media and the demand for personal essays and narrative non-fiction rises, there are many ways to get freelance work that gets you 1) seen and 2) paid.

Here are some ways to get your moolah and your byline.

Keep an ideas book

I have dozens of ideas books scattered across my home, in various purses and I even have a Google Doc containing all my brainstorms. You should always have at least three ideas circulating at once. On a separate sheet of paper, break them down — why are you the best person to write this? Who would you interview? How many words, and how much time would this take you? What’s the angle? (More on finding angles in a later post.) More importantly, who would you pitch it to? Which leads me to my next tip.

Know your dream publication

Hopefully you wouldn’t just send a one-size-fits-all resume to different companies, so don’t do that with your pitch. Many news organizations will tell you to read their websites before pitching. Though tedious, that’s to make sure that you understand their style, tone, stories and voice. It’s also a good way to make sure your story isn’t similar to something they’ve already published (if it is, try and find a new angle. If it’s an older piece, there may be new information worth adding to a new story).

Always be on the lookout

To be a writer, you have to live a creative life. This is non-negotiable, especially if you’re writing non-fiction. Your work comes from your own experiences, so always be looking out for ways you can shape your stories into relatable, universal experiences that you can sell in a pitch. Some of the best stories come from the questions you may ask yourself on a daily basis — “Why is the sky blue?” for example, may lead you to a full-fledged reported feature about why the sky is in fact blue, how pollution affects its air quality and what countries are facing toxic air pollution. Maybe you sing in the shower, and want to know why you and many of your friends do it — there’s always deeper questions that have yet to be uncovered if you look deep enough, do the research, find proof and ask the right questions.

Establish good relationships — especially with your editor

In Canada, the journalism industry is small. We know each other — this is not an understatement. Always be professional when networking and try to establish some relationships in the industry; people are always coming and going, so you never know when a job or even writing opportunities can pop up.

If there’s an editor you want to work with, reach out to them and ask them out to coffee — we love little gestures like this! If you do get to meet up, it’s a good time to prepare pitches. After you meet, it’s always nice to send an email thanking the editor and ask them to keep you in mind for future stories.

On the other hand, since the industry is small, there is no room for bad manners, especially as a freelancer. Always be courteous and professional when dealing with your editor — they do a lot in a day besides editing stories and may not always get to your work as fast as you would like. That’s no reason to argue, be rude or be verbally abusive. Editors talk — and one of the early rules I learned in J-School (and I can confirm as an editor now) is that people won’t want to work with you if you have a reputation for being difficult.

Write, write, write! Read, read, read!

Don’t stop! Get in the habit of writing every day, or at least a few times per week. You won’t get better if you don’t write and rewrite. Same goes with reading — people say this a lot, but with good reason. Reading helps you, teaches you different styles of storytelling, benefits your writing and is a great way to develop more story ideas.

Be Strategic

There’s still some places that don’t pay you for your writing, opting for giving you “exposure” instead. Many journalists, including myself, have worked for exposure early in our careers, but I am telling you that you don’t need to do this. Working for exposure doesn’t feed you or pay your bills, and frankly, you will die from exposure.

Once I learned that I didn’t have to write for free, I started planning. What would make me money? Could I repurpose any stories for publication? What about school assignments? I started checking rates at different places and often writing to fit their styles. Not only was I getting money, but I was getting bylines at places I’d always dreamed of writing for.

A word of caution: be logical. Yes, you have a deep secret you want to publish, but do you really want to sell your story (and your soul) for $100? Shop your ideas around, work on them and don’t forget to always think about what you’re putting out there — if it’s something you think you’ll deeply regret in a few years, it's best to reconsider.

Build your platform

Get the attention of editors and readers by working on a damn good social media platform. You don’t have to do it all, but choose one or two platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, a blog) and stick to it. Decide what you’re going to do with it — is it for sharing your work? If so, an online portfolio is needed. Are you just retweeting? Providing commentary?

Have a niche

Similar to a solid platform, you need to know who you are if you want to stand out. Are you a comedy writer? Do you write about food? Race? Arts and culture? Now more than ever, it’s cool — and essential — to have a niche (though beware the dreaded pigeonholing, which means editors see you as someone who can only write those topics, especially if you're writing about race. Sometimes it’s good to diversify!). Having a niche makes you the expert — and editors will come to you to write on subjects you already love. And you know what that means? More money.

Do you want more insider information? I can hook you up. Hire me to be your freelancing coach or help you write kick-ass pitches.