Six Tips for Aspiring Freelance Writers

Writing by the pool in Siem Reap

People often ask me how I became a freelance writer. So it’s about time I wrote a post giving those people the answers they want!

I’ve always loved writing. When I was a little girl, I wrote newsletters filled with stories, jokes and games and sold them to my friends for a dollar a piece. As time progressed, I majored in English and Marketing at university, and wanted to be a fashion writer (hello Vogue!). But often, one’s major is irrelevant once the college days are through, and I worked in a boring job writing brochures and newsletters for a bank.

In my spare time, I devoured fashion magazines. The New York Times style section was my particular dream; I read each piece with relish and wondered, why aren’t I writing these articles?  Along the way, travel writing emerged on my horizon as something that would be a dreamy job, but it seemed as elusive as my fashion writing dream had become.

Everything changed in 2008 when I decided it was time to take action. I did not want to sit in a cubicle anymore when I could be out writing about the world in any way possible.

I wrote a couple articles for an online travel site called bootsnall.com, then for gonomad.com about trips that I had already taken. I became obsessed with figuring out how to get published. I read every book I could on the topic of freelance journalism and I scoured the blogs and websites of successful travel writers.

My hometown paper, GT Weekly, advertised an intern position, and I immediately applied. This was a turning point. I had only the above two online published clips, but this three month internship allowed me to prove that I could write. They allowed me to write articles and even a couple of cover stories which gave me instant clips (a clip means a published article). I didn’t always like the topic I was assigned to write about, but nevertheless I garnered helpful research and interviewing skills that are invaluable to any freelancer. By the way, you need not quit your day job to get an internship–I didn’t. I worked full time and did my internship two hours a day after work.

From here, I built a website, and a few more jobs came trickling in. But what most wannabe writers don’t realize is the sheer amount of time that you must spend searching out potential markets (magazines, newspapers and other publications are called markets) to write for, coming up with an idea perfect for the magazine, and then sending a query letter telling them your idea and why you should write it. In the beginning, I sent hundreds of these letters, with only a handful of responses. Persistence is key. The more I sent, the more responses came back and the more articles I was assigned. And it is my belief that the momentum of getting new clips brings even more assignments.

After two years of freelancing I was able to quit my full time job. I have since been freelancing full time, and writing for magazines like Marie Claire, Hemispheres, and Islands. I think about writing every second of the day, and everything I do gets evaluated on whether it would make a good article, who would buy the idea, etc. I believe this level of dedication is mandatory if you want to break into the world of freelance writing. So if it’s your dream too, put on your writing goggles and start looking!

My top six tips for aspiring freelance writers: 

1. Always write your best work whether you are getting paid or not. It doesn’t matter if you are writing your personal blog or an article for the New York Times. These days, everything is immortalized on the internet. Put in the time, put in the effort. Proofread twice. Make sure that you are only letting your best work into the world, because you never know who is going to read it.

2. Get a website. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have any clips yet; I didn’t when I started my website. Show the world that you are serious about writing and let potential editors know who you are. I cannot stress enough how important a website is for writers.

3. Always think about writing. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I always think of it as a potential article idea. Collect names, dates, quotes and photos as you go about your life and always be ready to whip it into an article.

4. Study other writers. Every weekend when I was first starting out, I would pore over the New York Times and google the names of all the journalists. I would study their writing, their websites, their blogs. Make yourself familiar with the writers that you aspire to. See how they do things, then model yourself after them.

5. Read a lot and write a lot. The best advice I ever got about writing was from Stephen King’s book “On Writing.” He says, “Read a lot and write a lot.” It amazes me when people who claim to want to write for magazines tell me that they don’t even read magazines. It is critical to read and re-read the publications that you hope to write for until you can practically recite them word for word.

6. Become a masthead collector. You know that page in the magazine that you always thumb past? The one with the names of all the editors? That’s called a masthead and it will become your best friend when you are a freelance writer. You’ll need to know who to send your ideas to, and the masthead is the most current place to find that info.

Here are a few resources that are invaluable for freelancers: 

www.mridukhullar.com (This woman is my writing guru. She writes about the ins and outs of freelancing, and I studied her blog when I was first starting out.)

www.zinio.com (A huge magazine selection means that you can scour markets from around the world to find the perfect market for your article idea.)

www.mediabistro.com (There is a yearly fee, but Media Bistro offers freelancing tips, pitching help and the latest in the world of magazine editors and what they are looking for.)

Are you a freelance writer? How did you start out? I’d love to hear about it. Also, I’ll do my best to answer any freelance writing questions you may have!

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14 responses to “Six Tips for Aspiring Freelance Writers

  1. These are awesome tips! I have a feeling I’ll be using them in the next year or two… teaching classroom English just doesn’t do it for me.

  2. I’ve found the going rough on the freelance scene lately. I was a sports reporter for 10 years who changed professions, but still gets the occasional Associated Press assignment (I help with all Carolina Panthers home games).

    Is it just me, or does the influx of writers willing to work for little to nothing make it difficult to freelance for pay?

    • Thanks for reading, Eli. I’ve heard other writers mention that point, but I haven’t found it a problem. I try to pitch high and stay away from jobs posted of freelance writing boards as they are the ones that take the lowest bidder. It’s rough out there, but I think if you put the time in, the high paying assignments will come!

  3. Great to have you back, Leslie. This is excellent advice. Number 5 is so true – it’s amazing how many bloggers don’t read blogs. But I think #1 is my personal fave – if you’re going to put yourself out there, think before you hit that “publish” button. All the best, Terri

  4. For me, the proofreading is the hardest part about writing. I’m more of a design person. I’m obsessed with the look of things and the emotions they convey. This is why I am self-hosted now. The buttons, the colors, the content–the whole package is important to me. I leave it to people like you for help with the technical side! I’m getting better at my proofreading, and I correct any errors that people point out.

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