I’m in a few Facebook groups for freelance writers. I love having access to a community of resourceful, knowledgable professionals. The best thing about these groups is the support that we all give and receive.
Writers from all different experience levels ask questions every day, and dozens of other writers hop on to offer advice and resources. (And unlike the time your aunt said you should stop holding your baby so much, this is valuable advice that you really want to take.) I have gotten so much help from more experienced writers who gave me ideas that absolutely boosted my career.
And I love it when I’m able to offer advice as well. It feels good to be the one doing the helping, doesn’t it?
A few days ago, a writer published a question in one of my groups. She had been trying to launch her career as a freelance writer for a while, and she hadn’t been having much luck getting pitches accepted. However, she’d recently gotten an article into a popular online publication. (I’m not going to name it because I don’t want to “out” her. But it’s a website that just about every parent has heard of with a huge readership.)
So her question was, Where do I go from here? How can I use this clip to help me freelance write for magazines and newspapers?
Lucky for me, this was one of those times when I had loads of helpful advice to offer. About a year ago, I was exactly where this writer is now. I’d been writing for a long time, but wasn’t making much money, and I couldn’t get editors from high-paying publications to even glance at my pitches. But with the help of other writers and a ton of research, I cobbled together a plan to launch my career as a freelance writer.
Here’s what I did.
Step by Step: How to Freelance Write
I want to start out by saying that there are two important skillsets that any freelance writer needs in order to get their work published. You have to know how to write, and you have to understand the publishing industry.
If you’re here, I’m guessing that you’ve got the writing part fairly well covered. You not only know how to put a sentence together, but you can lodge that sentence into your reader’s brain, grab on, and hold the reader hostage until she reaches the end of your article.
But do you know how to freelance write? Freelance writing isn’t just producing great articles, it’s selling them too. In this section, I’m going to give you step by step instructions for generating story ideas, pitching them to publications, and getting pitches accepted at big, high-paying magazines and newspapers.
Step 1: Complete a Self-Assessment
Before you can really launch into publishing, you have to know a few things about yourself as a writer. Here are a few questions I recommend exploring:
- Are you a good writer? OK, this might sound a little harsh, but sometimes the reason a writer can’t get their work published is because their work isn’t good. To be sure, I have met many, many writers who excel in their craft and still have difficulty getting published. But I’ve also seen a lot of poorly written blogs owned by a writer who can’t figure out why she’s not getting published. There’s no way to answer this question without getting brutally honest critiques. If this is you, and your writing isn’t quite there yet, this guide isn’t for you. Work on honing your craft first, then come back here for some help getting published.
- What is your niche? You may write on more than one topic, but you probably have one or two that you focus on. I specialize in parenting, health, and mental health. I also produce web content for businesses across a wide variety of subject areas, but when I’m looking for a magazine to pitch, I mainly stick to my specialties.
- What kind of articles do you want to write? Some writers do personal essays, some write op-eds, and some focus on reported pieces. I write a combination of all three, but the bulk of my stuff is reported.
- Do you have at least three recent clips that are relevant to your niche? I wrote this guide with the beginning freelance writer in mind, but it’s possible that you’re coming here close to the start of your career, but a little past point zero. If you have a few relevant clips, even if they’re published on an unpaid site like HuffPost, Red Tricycle, Thought Catalog, or Scary Mommy, you can skip ahead to step 2b. For everyone else, let’s get you some clips!
Step 2a: Gather Clips
When you pitch magazines and other paid publications, they often want to see clips of your previous work. Now, I want to emphasize here that you do not NEED published writing clips before you can pitch major publications. That’s why I labeled this section “step 2a.” It’s almost simultaneous with the next step, identifying paying publications.
Got that? If only one point sticks in your brain after reading this article, I want it to be this: Do not wait until you have a portfolio of published writing samples to pitch your ideal publications. Start pitching now.
While you are sending those pitches, it doesn’t hurt to get your writing on a few unpaid or low-paying sites in order to build a portfolio of clips. Before you get started on this, I want to share my two rules for giving away your writing for free:
Rule 1: Only write free articles for well-known websites that take previously published work.
Rule 2: Only submit “republished” articles that will not cost you any time or money, like posts you wrote for your own blog or articles you’ve published in a small, free publication.
Got it? OK. Now here’s how you get your work into those pubs.
If you have a personal blog where you’ve published posts relevant to your niche, you might want to submit them to a few outlets that accept previously published articles.
Here are a few websites that will take your previously published blog posts:
- The Huffington Post
- Red Tricycle
- Thought Catalog
- Scary Mommy
- Elite Daily
- The Guardian
- Viral Nova
But REGARDLESS of whether or not you can get those clips, you need to start pitching to bigger, paying pubs immediately.
Step 2b: Identify Paying Pubs in Your Niche
Which magazines do you read? Where do you see stories that fit your writing style? These are the publications where you should pitch your story ideas.
Make this list TODAY. My advice is to focus on 15-20 paying publications to start out. On your list, include:
- 3-5 “dream pubs” that pay really well. (Here’s a list of publications that pay $1/word or more.) On my “dream pub” list, I’ve also included the Washington Post and the New York Times. They don’t pay well, but they come with a huge amount of prestige.
- 2-3 “safe bets.” These are more like local magazines or newspapers, or maybe a website that doesn’t pay quite as much as the major publications, so they are more likely to accept pitches from a first time freelancer. I wrote my first-ever paid, published article for a local newspaper, and I wrote another shortly after that for a local family magazine. I bet your town has at least one or two small publications that focus on your local community. Pitch them. They love to publish local writers. The local pubs usually pay anywhere from $100-$250 per article, and they’re good for building up your resume.
- The majority of your list should be mid-level magazines. They pay about $0.35-$0.50 per word. Many are online only. Some examples are Pacific Standard, Increment, Vice, Today’s Parent, and Crixeo.
For many of these magazines, you’ll have to hunt down the editor’s contact information. You can try the magazine website. Some have a general submissions form or email address. I prefer to send my pitches directly to an editor’s inbox, though. You can sometimes track them down through Twitter or Google. This post has some good advice for tracking down email addresses. But the best sources of editors’ contact information are other writers.
This is another reason to join a good Facebook group. If you are a woman, I highly recommend the Binders. It’s a “secret group,” so you’ll have to know someone who’s in it to get added. (Hint: I’m in it.) But there are many other Facebook communities for writers to collaborate and network. Check those out, and ask your writer friends if they have contacts at the publication where you want to pitch.
Step 3: Research and Pitch at Least One Story Idea Per Day
If you have time for more, great. But send at least one pitch per day. I’m not going to cover how to pitch here because there are so many other blog posts that already do this well. Like this one. Or this one.
Don’t be afraid to aim high! You don’t have to wait until you get something in a local pub to pitch The Atlantic or Parents! Just make sure to keep pitching.
Step 4: Follow up after You Pitch Your Story Idea
You’ve pitched your first story! That’s great! You’ve still got work to do, though. So what’s next? Well, there are three possible responses to a pitch: yes, no, and radio silence. I’m going to walk you through what to do for each one, starting with:
This is super irritating and the number one cause of Anxiety-Induced Vomiting among writers. (Ok, I lied. There is no number one cause. We’re basically a ball of nerves in any scenario.)
The first thing I want to tell you is not to panic. There are many reasons for an editor to not reply to a pitch, and only one of them is because she thought it was garbage.
But seriously, she probably has an overflowing inbox and she hasn’t gotten to your email yet. This is why you must always follow up.
When I pitch a magazine editor, I always send a low-pressure reply email within one week. Here’s what I write:
“Hi, (editor’s name). I just wanted to follow up with you on this pitch. If you haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, no worries! But please let me know if you’re still considering. If I haven’t heard back from you by (date 1 week in the future), I’ll assume it’s a no and pitch elsewhere. Either way, I’ll be in touch with more story ideas soon. Have a great day!”
If you’re sending enough pitches, you will definitely get plenty of rejections. I hope you know this by now, but I’ll remind you just in case. Rejections are part of the publishing process. The best writers in the world get them. Do not toss yourself on a pyre with a stack of your manuscripts when someone says “no.”
A rejection is actually an opportunity. The editor has opened up communication with you. Respond to her. Thank her for her feedback and pitch a new story. You might want to use this opening to float a few different ideas and ask which one she’d prefer to see a pitch for, especially if it’s a personal essay.
THEN take your rejected pitch, repackage it, and pitch it to another publication IMMEDIATELY.
Well I hope I don’t have to tell you what to do in this scenario! Get to work on your story!
Step 5: Keep Pitching!
Obviously, you can’t stop after getting one story accepted! Ideally, you’ll have several stories that you’re working on at a time. So after you get that yes on your first article, pitch another one to another editor!
You Can Have a Freelance Writing Career
In sum, here are my steps for starting a career as a freelance writer:
1.Complete a self-assessment.
2a. Gather clips.
2b. Identify paying publications in your niche.
3. Research and pitch at least one story idea per day.
4. Follow up after you pitch your story idea.
5. Keep pitching!
Even if you’ve never been published before, even if you don’t have a journalism degree, as long as you know how to write articles and sell them, you’ll do fine.
I’ll leave you with this profound quote. According to many websites (including mine), this was first spoken by author Richard Bach. According to Richard Bach, he didn’t come up with it. But whoever said it first, it’s absolutely true:
A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. — Author Unknown, but definitely not Richard Bach.
Please let me know if you’ve tried any of these tips, and how they worked out for you. If you’re a more seasoned freelancer and you have some advice I didn’t include here, please share!