How To Become A Freelance Writer (tips from 4 writers who made it!)

Want to become a freelance writer but you're not sure where you start? Click through for pitching advice, tips for dealing with rejection, and lots of other writing advice from freelance writers who have made it!


How do you become a freelance writer? How do you travel so much for so little money? What’s the deal with your cat?

If I had to rank them, these are the most common questions I get from you, lovely readers. Despite having written for newspapers and having an article in Glamour, I know approximately nothing about freelance writing! For shame!

But I do know some very talented ladies who freelance their cute butts off: Heather Hansman, Nicola Balkind, Amanda Lee, and Danai Christopoulou.

Each of these ladies hails from a different part of the world and specializes in a different kind of writing. And they’ve each been kind enough to share their knowledge! Let’s gobble it up, shall we?

How did you get your start as a freelance writer?

Heather

After college I packed up my English degree (and the rest of my belongings) and moved to Vail, Colorado, where I waited tables and lived on quesadillas and High Life. Turns out, that gets old real fast. So, I started hounding people—family friends, the local TV station, my mom—for a chance to write.
Eventually, I scored an internship with a magazine, fell in love with it, and commenced abusing the inboxes of editors at publications I liked. (Sidenote: it was a little harder than that. I also moved back to the city, got a masters, and wrote for free. A lot.)

Nicola

When I finished uni I started applying to some film websites, one picked me up and offered me an event I couldn’t cover at the time. I was in California on a summer work visa, so I emailed to ask if they had any assignments on the go, and the editor offered me his Comic Con press pass.

I went with some friends, on the cheap and with expenses paid, and fell in love with the whole madness of attending events, interviews, writing and publishing.

Amanda

I started as an editor on my college newspaper. I was studying economics and political science, but I liked writing for the paper way more than I liked any of my classes, so I decided to pursue it further.

I sent some pitches to some newsweeklies and some music magazines and some web sites, and I had a fair amount of success right away, so I kept it up. In 2007, I took a course in proofreading and editing, and after that I developed a client base that took me on for both writing and editing – mostly advertising firms and corporations.

Danai

I started reading various magazines and trying to decide which one is right for me. Glamour was my first choice! Problem was, my resume was not impressive enough for them to notice, so I decided to send them a list “19+1 reasons to hire me in your magazine.” (As you may know, the Glamour List is a standard column of the magazine, at least in the UK and Greek Edition.)

One of the reasons was “I’m Aries, and my ascendant is in Scorpio. So, I’m quite fierce, a go-getter and a perfectionist”. Two days later, I received a phone call: “Hello, I’m the Deputy Editor of Glamour Magazine Greece – and I’m also an Aries with an ascendant in Scorpio. We should totally meet.” I guess you could say I had a lucky star…

Tell us about the art of the pitch!

Heather

Write it like you’d write the story. Don’t start off all “Hi, my name is Heather and I’d like to write this story.” Get to the juicy stuff right away and pull the reader in. Then, tell them why you’re awesome and the only person in the world who could possibly cover the topic. Finish off by politely mentioning that if you don’t hear back from them you’ll be contacting them again, soon.

Nicola

I tend to pitch coverage for events rather than stories. You want to present it to them like it’s their holiday – a good price, loads of exciting events and people to cover, and they don’t have to lift a finger. Tell them you’re organized, confident in your ability to get them what they want, and will do all of the legwork.
A good pitch is a bargain, and your ideas should be solid and you should have the resources and wherewithal to deliver. If you’re able to communicate that, they’ll snap you up.

Amanda

Surprisingly, I’m not super-confident about pitching. To this day I send pitches that don’t get anywhere. However, I’ve been doing it long enough to know that sometimes it’s not that I wrote a terrible pitch; it’s just that my skills aren’t a good fit for the client at hand. The best advice I have is to pitch often, and don’t be afraid of “no.”

Danai

You should be bold, and try to sell yourself and your ideas the best way you can. Use alternative approaches, add a pinch of humor and hope for the best.
Also, it is vital that you are in tune with the pop culture and the world around you: watch as many movies as you can, listen to new music, read books, go to fashion shows and exhibitions, try new exercise regimes – but let your freak flag fly and do not try to be mainstream about your preferences.
When you pitch an article or feature, it should be both interesting to the readers of the magazine/internet site/newspaper AND something YOU would really love to read about.

What’s the best way to get editors to pay attention to you?

Heather

Good ideas. Editors can rejigger sloppy writing, but they can’t pull ideas from nowhere. Make your idea even stronger by doing some research before you pitch. Talk to a few sources and get some facts so the editor can immediately tell that you’ve got a solid story.

Nicola

A snappy spec. email and a well-designed portfolio website has served me well. Brand yourself, be confident, and link them to your best work. Give them a couple of weeks and if they don’t respond, give it a few weeks of hard work and send them something even better.

Danai

You should always be one step ahead. No, really, being an information junkie is good for you. Read blogs, search for new cool stuff, discover new shops/designers/restaurants/cat salons in your area and mention them first.

Also, a distinctive personal style (and by that, I don’t mean a wardrobe full of Gucci and Louis Vuitton – blah) will always help get you noticed.

Want to become a freelance writer but you're not sure where you start? Click through for pitching advice, tips for dealing with rejection, and lots of other writing advice from freelance writers who have made it!

How much money can a novice free lancer expect to make?

Heather

Um, not much. And it varies depending on length and who you’re writing for. In the online world, where I work, I think it’s pretty standard to get somewhere between $0 and $50 for a short blog post, which is probably what you’ll be writing.
The reality is that you’ve got to work your way up, and no one is going to hand you a high-dollar 6,000 word feature right away.

Amanda

It varies, really. I made very little money as a budding journalist, but as a copywriter who takes on client work, I set my own rates on a per-project basis.
At first I tried to clear $15 an hour, which was about equal to what I made at my part-time side job. Now my rates are a higher, but I give discounts to repeating clients, nonprofit projects, and friends. I also get work through a couple of creative services firms – they’re like temp firms for writers/editors/designers/producers, and they find work for me on a per-project or part-time basis, based on what I need.
In that case, the firm sets an hourly rate for my work, and my net income per project is a little less, but not much. Until this year, I almost always worked a second job as well as freelancing; this year, I’ve been lucky to have two long-term client projects as the core of my work.

Danai

That’s a tricky one. I guess it all depends on the media of your choice and the country you live in. In Greece, they may even expect you to write “pro bono” :p – especially if we’re talking about a free press newspaper (they are very hip right now in Athens).
Plus, with the financial crisis and all, everyone is trying to cut costs. I would say that at best, the average fee would be around 30 euro per page – and you should consider yourself lucky if you get that kind of money!

What are some resources that you could recommend?

Heather

I think mediabistro is a really good resource. Check out their “how to pitch” and “pitches that worked” sections. Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,’ which is about writing more generally, is excellent and beautiful.

Nicola

Books: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg; On Writing Well by William Zissner
Websites: about freelancing, angela booth, chris guillebeau, get paid to write online, write to done

For jobs, and oldie but a goodie: it’s always worth having a good trawl around Craigslist or Gumtree for opportunities, you never know what you’ll find.

Amanda

I love Freelance Switch. Nubby Twiglet isn’t a writer, but looking at how she’s leveraged her blog to promote her services is really edifying – something I’m trying to emulate.
Copyblogger has a ton of great resources and how-tos. I don’t typically use bidding sites like Elance or Odesk, but the email newsletter from crowdSPRING is worth getting. Merlin Mann writes about doing the creative work that matters to you, and I delve into his posts at least weekly, whenever I need encouragement.

How do you deal with the inevitable rejection?

Heather

Don’t take it personally (I still totally do) and be super, super persistent. Everyone gets rejected. It’s also important to be realistic about your goals. It’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to get into The New Yorker on your first shot. If you start small and local you have a way better chance of getting published.

Nicola

Try not to take it personally. If you’re getting other work, it’s probably a non-match rather than a not-good-enough. There are hundreds of us out there trying to get the same work.

Ask for feedback if you can, work on your weaknesses, and be persistent. There will always be another exciting on the opportunity on the horizon – so concentrate on that instead!

Amanda

One of my absolute all-time favorite personal finance/entrepreneurship bloggers, Ramit Sethi wrote once that he has a tag in Gmail called “failures”, and if he doesn’t tag at least five items a month with it, he knows he’s not trying hard enough.

I love this idea, because it accepts failure as a component in success. I’m thinking about implementing something similar for myself. Havi Brooks, who writes Fluent Self, writes about finding your “right people” – and on the way to finding them, you’ll meet a ton of people that will say no.

This doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or a stupid person; and it doesn’t mean that they hate your work. It just means they’re not the right fit for you right now.

Danai

You try to figure out the why (Was your proposal blah? Was it not suitable for the magazine’s audience? Was it just bad timing?), and plan your next step, more carefully. Try to remember, love; each and every one of us has been rejected more than once. Doesn’t mean you’re not good at what you do!

Related: Track your efforts, not your accomplishments

What’s your best writing tip?

Heather

Read a ton and pay attention when you do. Look at writers you like and try to figure out WHAT you like about their work. For instance, I like how Susan Orlean uses sarcasm and how Truman Capote uses semicolons. Then, see how you can use those pieces to make your writing better.

Nicola

Read! Read fiction, read non-fiction, read news, read magazines. Read good blogs and bad ones. Read your own work! Re-read your best work at a later date, rewrite it and see how much you can improve it.

Amanda

Malcom Gladwell says that it takes ten thousand hours doing something to get really good at it, and I keep this in mind all the time. Writing is a very process-intensive craft, and if you don’t enjoy the process of writing all the time, it’s probably not for you.

It's not about ideas or talent; it's just about putting the time in. Click To Tweet You also have to be okay with producing terrible writing occasionally [or daily] in pursuit of writing something good.

Like Merlin Mann says, “I’ve learned that my job is to just sit down [at the keyboard] and start making the clackity noise. If I make the clackity noise long enough every day, the ‘writing’ seems to take care of itself.”

Danai

Don’t listen to the voices in your head. Listen to that little voice in your heart (or stomach) that will always tell you if you’re on the right path. Drink a beer, eat a cupcake and relax. If the voices persist, stop typing in your keyboard and visit a shrink…

Thank you ladies so much for sharing your knowledge! Are any of you freelancers? Any other advice you can share? Any questions for our writers?

P.S. The DIY writing retreat that – without exaggeration – has transformed my career and life

Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

21 Comments

unquiettime

I've been a full-time freelancer for a year, and while I prefer writing assignments, what makes it float is that I take on copyediting and strange editing projects to keep the money coming in. It's good to have something like that (in the ballpark of what you truly enjoy, if not the perfect match) that lets you keep the lifestyle—For me, what I wanted was to get out of the office and make my own schedule and think my own thoughts. I'm doing that now. Getting writing gigs can be hard, but keep your eyes open to connections that cross your path (people, events, moments) and jump on ideas when you have them. There's no bigger forehead-smack than seeing something in a magazine or a book you thought of too, but never pursued. My best advice to anyone getting started, (as well as to myself since I fail at this often) is to make it a priority to pursue your ideas.

Reply
Freya

Great advice and insight ladies! As a mostly full-time freelancer, I wanted to add my thoughts 🙂

Be nontraditional: There are plenty of opportunities too copywrite that new manual for your local business association, posters for an event, etc. They're certainly not glamorous, but they almost always pay well, and you get one more publication and clip. It's great because then magazines and publications know you understand how to hit an audience and deliver a product on pitch and on time.

Go local!: It's great to have aspirations for national magazines, but start small. Your town's newspaper or local magazine is a great place to start pitching. They may not pay at all or very well, but if you're good and consistent, you'll have a running gig, which is better than one big publication if you want to keep freelancing. And the local gigs usually will turn you on to regional. It's still competitive, but a much better market than being one of thousands of pitches to a national. Once you get your chops up to snuff, then you can go after the big guys.

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Rosie Unknown

I love it! I've never really considered freelance writing, but I feel like this advice is very applicable to any sort of freelance career. Thanks!

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Jen

There's a lot of great stuff in this post, Sarah, so thanks to the contributers! I tend to agree with them, as a freelancer myself.

I've been freelancing for local newspapers for about five years. In terms of getting in, my journalism education certainly helped, but it was also a lot of who I knew. I got my current gig because a good friend of mine is an editor at the paper. She knew the managing editor was looking for news freelancers, and she hand delivered my resume.

So, network! Try to meet people at the publications where you'd like to work. You'd be surprised who you know through varying "degrees."

Oh yeah, and never give up!

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Rachael

I just started a freelance writing gig this year – and it was really thanks to my blog and doing free stuff first that led to the actual paying gig. I now have a monthly feature in a Los Angeles visitors guide and I get paid to eat and talk about food. <3 <3 <3 Now if I can only add travel to that roster as well, I'd be set.

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Karra

This was a fantastic, super helpful blog post. Thanks so much for getting these smart and fab women together!

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Laura Elaine

Yet another Yes and Yes post I've tagged for encouragement!

Thank you so much for this – it couldn't have come at a better time. As an aspiring writer for 5 years now, my career is finally starting to take off. It's a baby liftoff, but a liftoff nonetheless.

However, I still get so darn discouraged. I've become better at pursuing things, but I still lack the confidence I know I should rightfully have.

It's also tough because, the act of actually pursuing writing jobs is a full time job in and of itself. Hard when you work for the man full time, but I won't give up hope.

I guess the one lingering question I'm always toying with is…what do you SAY to a magazine editor? Most likely they have paid writers already and as the business is very who-you-know, by the time a position is posted it's already filled by a friend. But, they have to always be looking for contributors, right? So how do I land that!?

I have interviewed and been friendly with (at an event) the editor of a sister magazine to the one in my city. I have been composing an email to her for a couple of weeks, but have yet to send it. I mean, do I just say "Hey I'd love to write for X" and send a few samples? The magazines where they're not out actively looking for someone is always what stumps me.

Thansk in advance!

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Tori

Sarah: Thanks to you and your panel for unmasking the murky world of freelance writing. I appreciate everyone's input!

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Heather

I think this turned out great! Unqueittime, Freya ect. even more good ideas….keep 'em coming.

Laura Elaine, Jen is totally right: networking is a powerful tool, and you've already met the editor, so send that email with a few good, concrete story ideas in it.

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Sarahf

Thank you ladies! Your advice is really helpful, it can be difficult to get honest advice in a competitive industry, so thanks for sharing your secrets. I particularly like Danai's advice to eat a cupcake or have a beer, I might just go and do that now!

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Erica Lee

I couldn't have found this post at a better time. Honestly. I really want to push myself to freelance more & this actually (despite the warnings!) inspired me.

On another note, has anyone taken any Media Bistro courses? I'm an AG member & after reading this, I kinda want to take a Copyediting course (I dropped out of mine in college. Woops.)

xoxo

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Fajr | Stylish Thought

Great post and amazing tips from some intelligent ladies. My dream is to freelance full-time and run a successful writing business and this post was just what I needed to read. Thanks!

Reply

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