So You Wanna Be a Freelance Writer
Some tips for Solo Moms on how to get started
Every time I write about being a freelance writer, I start with a disclaimer: I am not the greatest authority on this subject, but this is what I did and it seems to be working out pretty well. Keep in mind that my retirement plan is basically senility and/or grave illness. I have mountains of debt, my car is from the late 1980s, and I have a month’s worth of savings in my account (which just happened a few weeks ago). I’ve been doing this in earnest for almost a couple of years, maybe, and I just got to the point of financial security. I have a degree in English and creative writing, have been writing my whole life, and worked nearly full time for the last year, but I didn’t see a lot of money coming in for six months or so. That was when I quit a small but regular editing gig and decided to only freelance. With all that said, here are some tips for your consideration:
1. Think of it as starting your own business. This is self-employment. You will need to motivate yourself. You are, essentially, opening a business—probably in your house and in your pajamas, but a business nonetheless. I came at this with very little, so I’m growing. For a more established person who’s used to working a full-time job with benefits, the process will be very different. This article offers excellent financial advice for making that leap.
2. Getting started, establishing your brand (you). I set up my website like an online business card. It’s through WordPress.com, and the platform is free. I pay 20 bucks a year for the domain name, which I consider a must. I started to think of myself as a brand and prepared a way to sell it to people. The challenging part for a new freelancer is getting some clips or published pieces to show as writing samples so people have a good idea of your voice. For some, it helps to write a few blog posts or a detailed narrative on your website. Get active on social media, such as Twitter, and post about your niche or the subject matters that interest you. Retweet, share, post, repeat, and write witty, thoughtful comments to go with your posts. Also—be pleasant! It goes without saying that you can kill with kindness here.
3. Finding work. Actually, before finding work, you should think about what sort of freelance writing you want to do. In the beginning, it’s anything and everything, and that’s perfect because you learn to write about different subjects (sometimes very quickly). There are a few sites, such as Upwork, that hire people to write content. You can also contact administrators of websites that are lacking in content and ask if they’d be able to hire you as a writer. I submitted essays I’d written to websites I already enjoyed reading, but I also needed steady pay, so I accepted (gladly!) a job with Ultius, Inc., where I did academic writing for clients. The pay wasn’t the greatest, but it kept things afloat for a few months. Freelancing doesn’t have to be writing essays and articles online. Single Moms Income is a gem for information geared to single moms.
4. Pitching editors. At some point, after you have a good base of clips and content, and more confidence, you will start pitching to editors at publications. Finding editor contacts is the tricky part. Google and Twitter are your friends here. Most editors will include their position in their Twitter bio, on their website, or in a LinkedIn profile. Finding the right e-mail address of the person who will get your foot in the door can be difficult, and it helps to have contacts in the business who might be willing to share some keys. There’s a sort of science to pitching, and it’s one I mess around with all the time. Jessica Reed, the features editor at the Guardian, has generously written about what she hopes to see in her inbox. Again, use Google. There are tons of articles written on freelancing and how and whom to pitch. There really isn’t any other way to learn it; you just gotta go out there and do it.
5. Keep in mind . . . My freelancer friends and I joke about having some sort of lust for insanity in choosing this career. I am addicted to the rush of getting an e-mail from a big-time dream publication accepting my pitch or essay and to getting published. But with every one of those acceptances and publications comes loads of rejection and sometimes ghosting. This will drive you insane. Also, you will work all the time. I currently work about 50 to 60 hours per week, depending on how much child care I can afford. I was used to this, I think, because I’d just put myself through college and I was accustomed to the constant flow of homework. For someone who is used to a regular 9 to 5 job, it might be difficult to be working all the time. For example, as I write this, it’s almost 11:oo p.m., and I just got an e-mail from an editor who’s two hours ahead of me. All I’m saying is, it’s best to really know yourself. If you need structure, an office to go to, coworkers, and a work wardrobe, freelancing is not the job for you.
6. Feast and famine. I just got a paycheck last week for an article that was accepted eight months ago. I am expecting over $1,000 to show up in my mailbox any moment now, which are payments for articles I submitted more than two months ago. There are times of being extremely busy, and there are times of agonizing silence. Try to find a steady gig as a regular contributor to a website or for a nonprofit or some other source that will provide enough money for you to make it through the month unscathed.
7. Read. Of all the above points, I can’t stress this one enough. If you want to publish on a certain site, spend a night or two reading the content that is already on the site. Each site, like you, will have a voice and subjects that it is most interested in. Do your research. Find editor contacts, google them, and read what they’ve written.
Most of my first months as a freelancer were spent reading almost every article that came up in my Facebook feed. Learn the shape of each article and how it is written. Look at the lengths, the structure, and nuances, such as hyperlinks, GIFs, and photos. It sounds silly, but this is how you learn! If you have a question, look it up. Someone has probably written an article about the subject in question. If not, well, keep that one in your box of potential articles to write.
Stephanie Land, has a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from the University of Montana. She and her two daughters live in Missoula, Montana. Read more of her story at stepville.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @stepville.
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