Sunday, July 10, 2011

Freelance Writing

Although fiction writing is my true love, professional non-fiction writing has probably honed my craft more than any story I’ve written. Being edited constantly, learning to withstand criticism, and writing on a deadline are all experiences any writer can benefit from.

When people learn I’m a freelancer, they usually want to know more about how that works — especially if they’re interested in trying it themselves. My path is not typical, but I’m not sure there is a “typical” path for freelancers.

My first paid writing job was as a reporter for a tiny newspaper, but after I became a mom I needed something more flexible, preferably something I could do from home. By the time my daughter was born I had moved to a new city so I cold-called the major newspaper there and asked whom I should speak to about freelance writing. Within a few minutes, I had my first assignment.

Thirteen years later I am still writing for that same newspaper, even though I have again moved cities. I’ve done some articles for other publications, which has taught me how good I have it with “my” newspaper. I’ve worked with two editors there now, both lovely people who edit me lightly and who let me write as often or as infrequently as I like. With my energies currently going toward completing at least one of my two novels-in-progress, I’m on a bit of hiatus at the paper, and my editor says that’s fine, just let her know when I’m ready and she’ll have work for me.

This publication also pays well … relatively speaking. Freelancing is not a money-making venture, and those who do it for a living have to be savvier than I am: for example, if you’re clever you ca re-sell the same article multiple times without breaking copyright. My more ambitious freelancer friends work their way up the chain, going from stringers at newspapers (which can pay as little as $15 per story) to writing regularly for magazines that buy their articles for a thousand bucks a pop.

Since I’m not relying on it for the money, and since fiction is my first love, some people (especially my husband) ask me why I freelance at all. The primary reason is exposure: I want to keep up my resume, to have my name out there. I hope that when I finish my novel and begin looking for an agent, it will be noted that I’m a regularly-published, reliable writer who is used to deadlines and to being edited.

For this reason, I’d encourage anyone who has considered freelancing to give it a try. It’s an excellent way to get your name in print, and the feedback you get from editors will only help your writing. Even if it doesn’t pay well at first, the experience is worth it: think of it as getting paid to be critiqued, to take a writing class. When you think of it that way, what writer wouldn’t jump at that chance?

What about you? If you freelance, what has your path been? If you’ve considered it but haven’t taken the plunge, is there anything you’re curious about?


  1. Let me try to make my saga short. It all started with forums. I was unemployed for two years and I spend my time at forums that, unlike social networks of today, didn’t mind long posts. People read them; I had a following, and turned a couple of forums into my personal blog. Eventually, someone contacted me and had me doing freelance articles for her. She was a bit of a middleperson and distributed them to various publications. I used to get (this was 199), $11 per page. Then, she drifted away, and never paid for my last articles. But there is a G-d, and around that time I was contacted by a larger online publication that paid more and demanded more. I have been with them for over a decade, and I although I am still on their freelance list, my work has evolved into a full-time job. I am supposed to be online eight hours a day and I do everything: articles, slideshows, editing, I even run a blog. Although my experience is not common, I would advice people to try freelancing. As you pointed out, it is a great way to learn to write on demand and on a deadline, and to accept criticism.

  2. Thanks for sharing your story, Violante! I've also had troubles getting paid; the worst culprit was a fairly well-known magazine. I was told that during budget shortfalls, writers were the last to get paid. Another reason I stick with this paper — they're very professional and always pay me promptly.

    One benefit I forgot to mention is learning how to be concise. I usually have a word count I have to stay under, and the amount of material I have after research and interviews requires me to be quite efficient with my words.

  3. Indeed, it´s a great tool to learn how to summarize.
    A great warning for freelancers, they get paid last and sometimes not at all. My advice, get three magazines where you can publish regularly, and make sure, at least one of them is in your town or nearby. It´s much easier to get paid where you can go and knock on the door than if you live in the Ozarks and your magazine is all the way in the East Coast

  4. I was never very interested in non-fiction writing until I started writing articles for this blog. At first, it was a little difficult for me (it's so different from fiction!) but it's been getting easier with time and I'm enjoying it much more than I thought I would. My problem is I don't know how to find work as a freelance non-fiction writer. (Mainly because I don't know what subject(s) I would like to write about other than the craft of writing and publishing.) So how does it work? Do you query editors in magazines just like you query agents/editors for novels?

    I definitely need to learn how to be more concise. My articles always come out so long!

    Thanks for a very interesting post!

  5. It's good to read this post about your freelancing experiences, Stephanie. It makes me remember and rethink my own process.

    I started freelancing by a fluke. I wrote an angry letter to the editor of a Puerto Rico weekly. Next thing I knew, an editor was calling me and inviting me to write for them on a regular (unpaid) basis.

    Since then, I have written for a lot of newspapers and a few magazines in Puerto Rico and New York City. But I never succeeded in generating much income out of it.

    To be fair, I might have gotten too easily discouraged by the unenthusiastic feedback or flat-out rejections that I received from the publications that do pay well. Now that I think about it, I really didn't spend much time trying to learn the conventions of writing for the publications that I was trying to get into.

    I have been toying with the idea of giving it another try. Thanks for the great pointers.

  6. Lorena, many writers do the query system. I simply cold-called the paper and offered my services writing whatever needed writing. Newspapers typically need extras to write feature articles, cover meetings, whatever. The fact that I'd worked for a paper and knew AP style can't be underestimated: with other writers they may have to go through and switch 3 PM to 3 p.m., and "Native American" to "American Indian."

    Those interested in breaking into papers (which is generally easier than breaking into magazines) would do well to buy "The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual." The sections on numerals and streets are particularly useful.

    When I first started writing, my editor assigned me to real estate stories. Not really my top pick of subject matter but it needed covering and I needed work. After a while I got more choice over subject matter. I do have a focus subject (parenting) which is a little bit helpful, but I'm pretty happy to write what needs writing. Sometimes quirky assignments are the most fun. I did one on wedding cakes recently that was a hoot: one baker described a very x-rated cake a couple had requested for their nuptials. It was a hilarious interview, and I got a giggle out of writing it up.

  7. Raquel, that's quite a story! Your writing must have been sizzling to generate that kind of interest ... well done. :) I hear you about getting discouraged. I briefly queried a few magazines and found the rejections depressing. Not to mention the hassle of the silly SASE system: all those wasted envelopes and stamps! It was so easy to write for the paper, and the good-steady pay made querying magazines look a lot like buying a lottery ticket: a long shot, a waste of money and effort. However, I have a few friends who've done quite well at it, getting regular gigs with Oprah Magazine, Family Fun, and the like. So it can happen!

  8. Sister Stephanie,
    I wanted to ask you about editing. Do you self editing or do they have someone that looks over your wok before it gets published? At my job we have no proofreader (I’m embarrassed to say, sometimes, I have to dub as one.) I do my own editing, which is not always advisable. We have a sort of “typo patrol,” someone who goes over the already-published articles to jot down mistakes and make a list for the author to correct.
    They tell me that with the crisis, proofreaders are gone, and looking at places like the Yahoo Portal that have typos even in the titles, I believe it. But, when I was under contract for a large publication, in 2008, they did have a house editor.
    I know that just like with our MS, our articles should be spotless, typo-free, perfect, but we all make mistakes. A couple of years ago, we had a freelance that handed almost illegible material. She had grammar and content errors, misspelled names, you name it. The moment she handed in something, it was sent to me with orders to rewrite the whole thing, and yet she was in their payroll for almost two years.

  9. Yipe! They must have been quite desperate for writers. I do have an editor: freelancers write for this paper's "special sections" which are glossy monthly magazines folded into the paper for various special events or seasons. They have a wedding issue in February, a holiday issue in December, a tourist-oriented issue in May, etc. My editor is the special-sections editor and handles all the freelancers. She does edit our work because she comes back to me with questions sometimes. And she has to change things to AP format for the writers who don't know that. (Which must be really annoying.)

    I can't really imagine a publication working without at least a copy editor on staff. Given the horrible state of grammar education these days, a proofreader is more necessary than ever. A publication may cut costs by expecting/hoping writers will submit perfect articles, but they risk looking unprofessional if their product comes out full of grammatical mistakes and typos.

  10. No, it wasn´t her writing what they were crazy about. Her forte was my weakness, she went on the field and interview stars and so what mattered were the transcripts of her interview an I would work around them to create a semblance of an article. But now we have a full- time person with a degree in journalism doing that same job (interviewing and writing the article), but much better, I should say.
    Indeeed, a proofreader is a must. Even the best of writers need editing.

  11. Sister Stephanie,

    Thanks for the nice insightful look at freelancing. Much like Lorena, I've never really had much interest in writing for newspapers and magazines. I think it has to do with the fact that so much of it deals with the mundane. As a reader, I have a hard time getting through yet another magazine with Christmas tips or another round of the five best beaches to visit this summer. I have so many fictional stories crowded into my mind that it takes a really good non-fiction story to catch my interest. Believe it or not, it happens, but usually in a story form, not in an article.

    Just a question as to the state of things in the newspaper industry -- With so many newspaper offices closing their doors, how hard do you feel it is to find good freelancing work with a newspaper as opposed to ten-five-heck, even a couple of years ago? At a writer's meeting I listened to a local newspaper writer talk about how when her paper closed down she was pretty darn lucky to be brought on staff at the only other large paper in town. Is that typical? Anymore, are there more freelancers than there are jobs available?

  12. Mary Mary, I think the market for freelancers may actually be better than before, simply because freelancers don't require a salary or health insurance. They are actually cheaper to employ, in many circumstances. I don't have firsthand knowledge of this since I've just stuck with what works, but that's my understanding.


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