People often ask me how to get started freelance writing for money. If you're a professional journalist, as I've been for 15 years, the answer is pretty straightforward - let your network of connections know you're available for freelance writing assignments. (How to sustain a freelance writing career is a bit more complex, and will be the topic of a free teleconference I'm organizing for the Asian American Journalists Association-DC Chapter this coming Wednesday. Please join us!)
For people who have no track record of writing for pay, it's more difficult to land your first paid freelance writing assignment. Start by asking yourself these questions.
Why are you interested in freelance writing?
The path you follow will differ depending on your motives for pursuing freelance writing. Do you want to see your byline in print? Do you enjoy sharing your writing and getting feedback from readers? Do you want to make supplemental income through freelance writing? Or do you hope to build a career as a writer?
Supporting yourself entirely through freelance writing is the most difficult path and, frankly, may be impossible for beginners given the state of the media industry. Newspapers, broadcasters, magazines and even some Web publications are watching revenue dwindle, laying off staff and cutting salaries, and nobody knows whether the trend will reverse.
I advise anyone interested in freelance writing to consider pay for articles an uncertain revenue stream that should be bolstered by other sources of income. That may mean having a day job or pursuing writing projects that generate passive income on an ongoing basis -- such as a book, blog or curriculum that you can license to others. Or perhaps writing is simply a method of marketing other services, whether it's consulting, teaching, coaching or something else.
Who do you know with connections in publishing?
Now that I've been a complete wet blanket, let's get started brainstorming your freelance writing career! It's not impossible to become a freelance writer -- just extremely difficult and not to be undertaken without a realistic understanding of the time and effort needed.
Ask yourself who you know with connections to a publication. Take a systematic approach to networking by writing down everyone you know and calling or emailing a few people every day. Think broadly about who might use a writer -- I know people who make money freelance writing for nonprofit newsletters, small business Web sites and corporate publications.
Don't expect that the first person you contact will hand you an assignment or accept your story pitch. You're not looking for work right off the bat -- just a connection and a strong informational interview. Your goal is to get a few minutes with someone at a magazine, television production company, newspaper or established Web site. That will help you understand that outlet's needs for writers (if any) and may lead to other connections.
In other words, use your networking skills to get to know the industry you want to join. You want to understand where there are needs for freelance writing so that you can position yourself to fill those wants.
Should you develop your skills?
Once you've completed a few informational interviews, you'll start to understand where there are actual opportunities to make money from freelance writing. Perhaps you have a connection to a business that needs someone to write Web site copy. Or maybe your community newspaper uses writers who can bring the editor local news of interest.
Now you need to be demonstrate that you can produce the product that outlet wants. Do you need to take a writing course? Or do you need to get better and photography and video, since the editor needs artwork to run with the story? Do you need to understand the basics of journalism and what story ideas appeal to a news editor?
Most likely, you'll need to write three or four sample pieces to show any prospective client what you can do. But if you do your homework with the first two questions, you'll know what your samples should look like. You'll also have a sense of whether those samples need to be published clips -- the standard when looking for a journalism job -- or if they can be work you've done on your own to build a portfolio.
As you continue your networking (a must for anyone who wants a freelance writing career) you can start to show these sample pieces to your contacts and get feedback on where you need to develop your skills.
Resources for freelance writers:
- The Freelance Writing site at About.com
- The Asian American Journalists Association
Note: I write the Working Moms site for About.com and I am an active member of AAJA.