Yesterday an enterprising journalism student at Wayne St. University in Detroit asked me how to get started in freelance writing. My initial response was, “That’s a good question.”
After all, the world now is a very different place than it was when I started full-time freelancing back in 1993.
New world order
Of course there’s the news business’ travails with declining readership and failing parent companies. With fewer people populating newsrooms, you might think this would mean more work for freelancers. In general, no. Staff cuts almost always accompany a reduction in pages/sections. Staff writers generally pick up the slack, or the publication contracts with the reporters it just laid off because as least they’re cheaper than FTEs.
And there’s the blogosphere, which some people do think is a viable place to show your writing chops and develop “clips”. Some others, however, aren’t so sure.
These two factors alone have changed the freelance marketplace. Or have they?
The more I thought about it, the more I decided that it’s really no different today than it was then. It just might take longer. Here are my tips for breaking into freelancing.
1. Write all you can for anyone you can.
Preferably (sorry!) traditional media like magazines and newspapers. But don’t totally discount blogs because often this is where you can really show your personal style. Volunteer to write newsletter copy for non-profits you support. If you can’t get a gig (even a non-paying one), write op-eds and submit them widely. Do whatever you have to do to showcase your ability to string sentences together in an appealing way. Consider contributing regularly to sites like IntrepidMedia.com, a nifty online community of writers, where you can also get your work critiqued.
2. Network your tail off.
This is true for any job, of course, but particularly in the isolated world of freelancing. Follow other freelancers, journalists and editors on Twitter and connect to them on Linkedin. And get out there. Go to professional events for journalists, editors and writers in your area. In the world of work-for-hire, it’s all who you know, so having a great Rolodex is key. And don’t just make connections – work them. Ask for guidance, work, etc.
3. Use social media.
Create a blog site where you can showcase your work and share your observations, opinions. Promote it via the Big Three social media sites: Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin. When you get something published, post a link.
4. Join up.
Consider joining something like Media Bistro’s Freelance Marketplace if you’ve got a decent number of clips. It’s pretty inexpensive and I’ve gotten a few jobs from it. Best upside is if you don’t want to build your own site, you get a limited site with membership.
5. Find a niche.
It’s easier to market yourself if you’ve got a clear area of expertise and the clips to prove it (here's an example). For instance, if you like writing tips pieces, sell to that strength. Or investigative or personality profiles.
6. Learn to develop great pitches.
Freelancers live and die by the pitch, so practice creating good ones. Start making lists of story ideas, pieces you’d like to see, etc. You can get a lot of intell on how to pitch various publications through MediaBistro's How To Pitch series (available if you buy its AvantGuild premium membership). But you can get a line on successful pitches for free from that network you’re building. Just ask editors for models of what works.
7. Have at least six months of living expenses on hand.
That’s before you even start, so begin salting away a few bucks a month even if you're still a student. One less beer or outfit won't kill you. Freelancing is a tough way to make a living – and sometimes, particularly early in your career, you might not make a living. So begin salting away enough cash to live on while you continue to build your business.
8. Get health insurance.
Sounds crazy, but you need it. Maybe not now, while you're still in school, but once you're off Ma and Pa's policy, you need to be covered. Even if you’re young. There are good but basic plans that are pretty affordable available in many states if you aren’t covered by a spouse’s coverage.
These are the main ones I could come up with off the top of my head. What advice would you give a would-be freelancer graduating soon?