“I Write, Therefore . . . ”
So, what’s a “real living” anyway, and can a freelance writer really earn one?
Let’s be realistic. I’m not stinking rich, and I know precisely one freelance magazine writer who I would say is rich.
But when I was 24 years old, I bought my first real apartment. No, it’s not a hut by the forest. And I own a car (a boat is in the list though!), pay for my own gut-wrenchingly expensive health insurance, and manage to have enough left over to start investing in the stock market (I know it’s risky), plan for my retirement, eat out occasionally and pamper myself with gifts from time to time (I am looking at my $350 watch right now). All of that comes from the money I earn as a freelance writer and editor. If I can do it, you can, too.
Freelance writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme, so you must be prepared to put in the hours and hard work freelancing requires before you can command big paychecks. For most people, it’s important to keep some kind of a day job while building a freelancing career.
When I refer to freelance writing throughout this article, I’m talking about writing for magazines, e-zines, and newspapers. It’s easier to earn money writing copy for businesses—brochures, sales letters, press releases, and so on—but let’s face it, would you rather tell your friends that your byline is in this month’s People magazine, or that you’re responsible for the latest junk mail they just tore up?
I chose the former and have never looked back. When other people have complained about recession and lay-offs, I have felt gleefully immune. When they whine about their nasty bosses and gossiping co-workers, complain about waking up at the crack of dawn in winter to find the car battery needs a jumpstart, fret about being cooped up in an office on a beach day, being bored by their work, not getting recognized for their efforts, or hitting the glass ceiling, I furrow my brow and nod sympathetically, but I secretly pat myself on the back for the career choice I made.
I’m writing this article with a few assumptions in mind.
I will assume that you already have an excellent command of language, including grammar. If you do not, run out and get yourself a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. Most editors will toss your query if you keep confusing “you’re” and “your.” Likewise, I presume you know well enough to spell check everything you send out, including “informal” emails. Everything you write contributes to the impression an editor has of you.
I will assume you have the discipline and the desire to motivate yourself to work on your writing as a career, not just as a hobby. Full-time writers do not, as some would have you believe, lie back in our lounge chairs sipping margaritas while waiting for the muse to pay a visit. Like all other workers, we must show up and we must produce, even when we don’t “feel inspired.”
I will assume that the idea of research doesn’t make you twitch. In my experience, more than half of being a successful magazine writer is being an excellent researcher.
I will assume that you have a strong enough ego that you won’t fall into a bone-crushing depression every time an editor rejects your work. Like death and taxes, rejections are a certainty of the freelance writer’s life. Decide honestly whether or not you can hack it.
And finally, I will assume that you’re actually a good writer.
You’re wasting editors’ time, as well as your own, if you start pitching ideas before you’re confident that you can deliver a well-written article.
If you know you’re good, you can’t fathom not writing, you read magazines voraciously, and have a strong curiosity about the world around you, you might have what it takes to be a freelance writer. But your potential and your classroom studies are not enough, by themselves, to earn you a career.
“Most people won’t realize that writing is a craft,” said Katherine Anne Porter, an acclaimed journalist and fiction writer whose work was published from 1922 to 1977. “You have to take your apprenticeship in it like anything else.” Her words are as relevant today as they were when she spoke them; perhaps even more so because of how competitive the field of magazine writing has become.
| Back to School How do you know if you’re a good writer? Take a writing class. Many colleges offer “continuing education” classes that are not as expensive as mainstream classes. If this is impossible, take an online class or workshop. Make sure you take classes that offer feedback. Find the toughest professor and take his or her class. Ask for brutal honesty. Prepare to do battle with every piece of your brain that isn’t ready to become a professional writer yet. Read the magazines you want to target, and decide honestly if your work competes with what’s being published. If not, and you want more one-on-one help, hire an editor or writing coach with good credentials and references. Find writing courses at: |
Believe it or not, editors want to hire you. They do not relish boomeranging your work back to you with a form rejection letter; most editors are searching for reliable and talented freelance writers, and will gladly hand you an assignment if you can prove yourself. But editors complain over and over that writers haven’t done their homework before approaching their magazines. Part of that homework is to learn things like proper format and what belongs on a source sheet, but most important is to read and analyze the work of writers who are doing exactly what you want to do; that is, you must study magazines.
Although some writers have ridiculous beginner’s luck and land a national glossy magazine assignment on their first shot, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Most writers should get wet in the kiddie pool before they try to swim in the ocean. It can be brutal out there, especially if your swimming skills aren’t yet honed. You don’t want to land a killer assignment and then have to ask yourself, “Uh-oh . . . what do I do now?”
“The truth is that a lot of people are not ready for prime time, although they may think they are,” says Stephanie Abarbanel, senior articles editor at Woman’s Day. “People send me queries for years and they’re just not ready, and then one day they send me something that’s just great because they’ve been writing for smaller markets and they’ve honed their skills.”
Editors at major magazines don’t have time to hold a beginning writer’s hand, and in most cases, it’s presumptuous to expect to start at the top. Don’t jump in planning to cut the line. Just jump in and plan to advance quickly.
First, go over your reasons for becoming a freelance writer. What are your writing goals?
To help yourself figure that out, ask yourself these questions:
What are the reasons I want to become a full-time freelance writer?
What are the reasons I haven’t done it already?
What are the ways I’m going to get rid of those barriers?
Becoming clear about your goals, what’s holding you back, and how you plan to overcome your obstacles can speed up your path to success. For many, the “fear factor” is financial insecurity. Kristen Kemp desperately wanted to write fulltime, but wasn’t ready to let go of the steady paycheck she earned as an associate editor at Cosmopolitan. So her goal was to earn as much money from her writing as she did from her day job; for her to feel comfortable leaving a staff position, she had to earn $30,000 a year as a freelance writer. She accomplished that in 1999 and has been freelancing for top women’s and teen magazines ever since.
For some, the major fear is that they won’t have enough ideas to sustain them over a long period of time, or that their current clients won’t last, or that
they’ll break under the pressure of constant deadlines, tough rounds of editing, and too-frequent rejections.
| Stocking Up Luckily, a freelance writer doesn’t have many start-up expenses, but don’t try to skimp on the necessary tools. Your freelancing toolbox should contain the following items: |
A computer with a word-processing program that includes spell checking (or access to one)
A good printer that won’t streak
Copies of several magazines that you’d like to approach in the future
Stamps and envelopes
A subscription to www.WritersMarket.com
An index card file or a computerized manuscript tracking program Computer disks or CDs (to back up all your articles and queries)
A daily planner
Internet access: If you have Internet access at home, you don’t even need to buy a dictionary or thesaurus; you can find them online at www.onelook.com and www.rhymezone.com, respectively
Whatever it is that stands in your way, make it your goal to move it out of the way. As Kristen advises, most people shouldn’t quit their jobs “cold turkey” and expect to freelance full-time without any experience behind them. Take your time to build up your credits, your confidence, your bank account, and your skills—but keep that ultimate goal in mind: You are working toward supporting yourself through your writing.
Minding Your Business
Writers who think themselves “artists” should probably stick to poetry and diary entries. If you intend to sell what you write, and to make a living from it, you need to convey an image that does not jell with the eccentric, tortured, starving artist cliché. You need to become a businessperson.
What does this entail? Well, if you’re thinking about cash, then everything associated with your name must be nothing less than 100 percent clean, clear, crisp, and company-minded.
Your letters should be neatly typed, neatly signed, neatly folded, and neatly sealed into a neat envelope. Double-check to be sure names are spelled properly, spacing has held up in printing, nothing has smudged, and you’ve signed the letter. Using bright, floral stationery and envelopes with fun seals will make you look like an artist. Using white or cream-colored matching envelopes and stationary with noticeable, frill-free letterhead will make you look like a businessperson. Believe me; when you receive your neat check, you’ll be very thankful if you’ve come across as the latter.
Your ideas must be expressed in an organized and easily understandable manner. Whenever you send a letter or make a phone call, you should have all potential questions already answered in your mind. Do not propose a dozen half-baked article ideas. Stick to one or two at a time, and do enough research and thinking ahead of time to be able to explain all the basics without stammering.
You never know when an editor is going to call and ask questions before assigning you a piece. Before Writer’s Digest assigned me an article about book packaging, then-editor Melanie Rigney wanted answers to several questions: Which publishers use book packagers? How long has this practice been going on? What kinds of books are packaged? What kind of experience does a writer need to break in with a book packager? Because I had done some research ahead of time and was clear about my subject matter, I was able to answer all of these questions with ease, and that resulted in a feature assignment.
The Phone Tone
When speaking to an editor on the phone, always hang up first. You know the feeling when someone is chewing your ear off on the phone and you really need to get back to your life. Don’t be one of those callers. Editors are busy people; respect that. Get to your point quickly, say “thank you,” and get out of there.
Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t get personal with an editor. In fact, I wholeheartedly advise that you do . . . but gradually. Do not aim to keep the editor on the phone for fifteen minutes before she’s even given you an assignment.
Part of an editor’s job is to make sure you tell your stories in as few words as possible. Let this editor see that her job won’t be an uphill battle. Be concise in your correspondence. It doesn’t help your cause to throw in everything but the kitchen sink in your query, so if you can possibly pitch your article in one page, do so. If you need more space to truly get your point across, that’s fine. Just don’t try to write the whole darn article in your query letter.
When the editor calls you, are there kids crying in the background? Do you have an answering machine message featuring your five-year old singing the “Star Spangled Banner?” When the editor offers to fax you a contract, do you ask her to send it through Kinko’s? When she asks you to send an email attachment, do you go to the library and send it through your “Yahoo” account?
These are all signs that you’re a person, rather than a business. When you call your car mechanic, you expect to hear machines working in the background, and a person answering, “Dave’s Auto Repair. Can I help you?” When an editor calls you, she should expect to hear a business environment, too. If you can’t afford (or if it doesn’t make financial sense now) to have a dedicated business line, at least be sure that when you answer the phone during business hours, you’re in a quiet room. Alert your family that when you’re on the phone, they are not to pick up, nag you, or turn on loud music. If you have call waiting, be sure that everyone knows that if the line beeps, the call must be answered professionally and turned over to you right away.
Freelancer Jeffrey Zbar says, “I have caller ID, voice mail, a second line for fax. There’s no excuse for anything less than professionalism in this line of work. I have no tolerance for home-based workers who tell me, ‘I have to go—my husband needs to use the phone.’ If you want to get paid as a professional, you have to act like one. It behooves no one if you do this ‘little thing on the side.’
If you don’t take yourself and your work seriously, you’re destined to fail.”
It’s not necessary for you to have a separate fax line, but it is wise for you to have a fax machine that you can turn on when a caller requests it. There are two reasons. First, once an assignment has been made, both you and the editor should want to complete the contract as soon as possible. Why not email? That’s the second reason: As of now, the legalities of contracts via email are not clear. Since you can’t effectively “sign” anything via email, it’s a much better idea to use a fax.
If you decide to freelance full-time, you may wish to incorporate or register your business as an LLC (limited liability company) at some point. This protects your assets by separating your business from your personal properties. If you choose to do this, be aware that it’s not always necessary to incorporate in your home state—and it’s usually cheaper to incorporate in Nevada or Delaware. You may wish simply to register a business license using an “official sounding” name. For example, I use the name “Absolute Write” for some of my writing work. This serves me a few different ways. First, I establish a corporate identity, which commands more respect and higher pay. When an editor or potential copywriting client receives a proposal from me, it doesn’t look like it comes from Suzy Homemaker moonlighting as a freelance writer. It looks like it comes from a company like theirs. Heck, I might even have personal assistants, designers, and secretaries. I don’t, mind you, but I might—after all, I do have a company name.
Another benefit of using a company name is that clients can write checks to your business, rather than writing a check to your personal name. It’s a simple rule: Businesses prefer dealing with other businesses. It makes psychological sense—if you were buying wedding favors, for example, would you more readily trust that they would be ready on time and in good condition if they came from West Coast Wedding Planners, or from Jane Myers? Which one invites an image of a professional team of workers with quality control, and which conjures thoughts of a woman sitting in her living room, accidentally spilling juice on a favor, wiping it off and throwing it in your box, letting the dog lick a few, and showing up an hour before your wedding 10 favors short?
Free Fax Service
If you have Internet service, you can receive faxes online through a free service called eFax at www.efax.com. It receives faxes for you on your own personal fax number and then sends them to you as email attachments. Very handy! I use mine all the time, which means I don’t need a separate fax line.
Sites to See
To find out more about incorporating, visit these web sites:
To get a business license in most of the United States, all you have to do is visit your county’s or state’s government offices (call your local town hall if you’re unsure), head over to the desk marked “business licenses,” and fill out an application. Bring photo ID. They will check to make sure your business name is unique (that no one else in the state has registered it), then your application must be signed in front of a notary public. The whole enchilada cost me about $33 and took about 15 minutes. Then I went to my bank with a copy of the certificate, and opened up a business account.
When choosing a business name, avoid “cute.” “When people try too hard to be cute or clever with their names, like ‘Writin’ Time!’ or ‘Words R Us,’ it sounds unprofessional,” says Nomad Press editor Lauri Berkenkamp. Freelancer Mike Sedge, who’s published nearly 3,000 articles, uses the business name
“Strawberry Media Agency.” It’s memorable, yet not cloying. Just about any of the words you can think of that relate to writing (scribe, creative, author, writer, words, pen) have been played on to death. You might try a name that has some kind of personal meaning; it might even keep the editor guessing enough to stick in her mind. It could be the name of the street you grew up on, your first word as a child (provided it’s something more intriguing than “mama,” “dada,” or “baba”), your pet’s name, or the name of your favorite flower.
The day you decided to be a freelance writer was the day you became a small business owner. Your words are your products, and you’re putting a dollar value on your flair for putting these words together. There is no limit to your earnings potential.
Your talent, persistence, reliability, professionalism, work ethic, personality, and research skills will all factor into your income, but a key to financial success is your ability to see yourself as an entrepreneur with valuable products to sell.