11 rules for rocking it as a freelance writer

Launching your career as a freelance writer couldn’t be easier—all you really have to do is announce to the world that you’re open for business. The hard part is making a living. Most writers just starting out end up making barely more than minimum wage.

But regardless of whether you’re writing the occasional article or plan on making it a full-time job, freelance writing can be a great gig. The first thing you have to learn is how to sell yourself along with your articles. That’s where these tips come in.

1. Don’t give your stuff away for free. It might be tempting to post that piece you’re especially proud of on a story-sharing site like Medium, but editors offering paying gigs won’t be nearly as impressed as they would be with a paid piece in a small publication. If you don’t value your work, others won’t either.

2. Know what your time is worth. Here’s the simple math that all freelance writers use when they are offered a writing job: first decide on your hourly rate (it might be $25 for someone starting out, $100 or more for someone more established). Then divide the payment offered by how many hours you think the assignment will take. If it doesn’t match or exceed your minimum rate, consider taking a pass.

3. Find the right workspace. If you have the perfect home office, then problem solved. If not, consider a table in a library (if you crave quiet) or a perch in a favorite coffee joint (if you need people around). A coworking office space like those offered by WeWork is the best of both worlds: a professional environment filled with other creative people who are just as passionate about their work as you are.

4. Be an expert in something. Sure, you can be a jack-of-all-trades, but the best way to break into freelance writing is to impress an editor with your knowledge of a particular subject. Have an MBA? Go after business writing assignments. A certificate from culinary school? Write about restaurants. After you establishment yourself, then you can branch out into other subject matter.

 5. Perfect your pitch. Especially if you’re pitching an editor out of the blue, be brief. One paragraph should outline the story. (Be specific: “how politics drive Apple’s Tim Cook” beats “profile of Tim Cook.”) The next paragraph should detail why you’re the person for the job. (You’ve tackled the subject matter before, or have firsthand knowledge that gives you an edge.) Longer pitches get “filed for later” by busy editors.

6. Meet your deadlines. Seems like a no-brainer, right? But plenty of first-timers I’ve hired over the years have blown off their deadlines, turning in pieces days or weeks late. Hire them for something else? Not a chance.

7. Be pleasant to work with. Almost as important as taking deadlines seriously. The writers who get hired again and again are the ones who make an editor’s life easier. Don’t haggle over a few words changed here and there unless the edits obscure the point or make something inaccurate. And never critique a headline or photo that runs with one of your pieces. You’ll get a reputation as a complainer.

8. Work your connections. Getting an assignment from an editor you don’t know is tough, so make sure to pitch people who’ve hired you in the past first. If you’re doing it right, most of your assignments should come from editors you’ve already worked with.

9. Establish a rapport with editors. Remember that your editors won’t always be at the same publication. When they move onward and upward, they’ll take along the writers they enjoy working with. As your editor’s career grows, so will yours.

10. Know social media. Use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest—any social media platforms, really—to get the word out about pieces you’ve written. It doesn’t just get the word out about that one piece, it helps promote you as a writer and might help get you future jobs.

11. Keep scrupulous records. You’re a small business, after all. Draw up a simple spreadsheet of your assignments and deadlines. Include when you sent your invoice, for how much, and when you were paid. You’ll thank me for this one later.

Photo credit: Lauren Kallen

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