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Breaking into Freelance Writing
2009, Q1 (April 03, 2009)
By Andrea Wenger, Membership Manager, Carolina Chapter

Secrets of a Freelance Writer, by Robert W. Bly
Secrets of a Freelance Writer, by Robert W. Bly
The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell

For many technical communicators, writing is what we do best. In this tough economy, freelancing can offer an alternative source of income, whether we’re between jobs or looking to expand our skills to become less dependent on outside employment. At the monthly STC Carolina Chapter meeting on February 19, local freelance writer and editor Alice Osborn gave her presentation, “How to Make a Living as a Freelance Writer,” to a crowd of about 50 technical communicators and other writers.

Osborn’s publishing credits demonstrate the many markets available to freelance writers. Her work has appeared in the News & Observer, IncTechnology.com, and numerous literary magazines. She is the author of Right Lane Ends, a book of poetry. As a writing coach, she offers personal consulting sessions as well as public presentations on business and creative writing. Diversification, then, can be an important part of a freelancer’s success.

This article offers tips on breaking into the field of freelance writing—some from Osborn herself, some from two of the books she recommends: Secrets of a Freelance Writer by Robert W. Bly; and The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell.

Getting Started

If you’re just beginning—for instance, you’re changing fields, you’re starting a new business, or you’ve just gotten your degree—you may find that the best way to promote yourself is by working for free. “Pro bono can be a smart career move,” Osborn says. Contributing to a church newsletter or other non-profit publication will build your portfolio, your reputation, and your morale. Technical writers don’t generally get bylines, but freelance writers often do. The first time you receive an e-mail complimenting your article—or better yet, asking to reprint it—the feeling is one money can’t buy.

You may find that the best way to promote yourself is by working for free.
Writing for free isn’t your only option, though. “If you have friends or relatives who own small businesses,” writes Bly, “offer to create ads, brochures, or other marketing materials for them at a low fee in exchange for the experience and copies of the piece as a writing sample.”

Formichelli and Burrell assert, however, that pro bono work can offer benefits in building relationships. “If you’ll gain from the deal yourself or if the cause is something you believe in—animal welfare, human rights, or your kid’s nursery school—go for it.”

For the unemployed, volunteer writing projects can keep skills sharp and show potential employers that you’re serious about your craft. These projects fill in gaps on your resume and provide a chance to highlight your community activism during a job interview.

Making an Impact

Self-promotion is key to building your business. Osborn recommends starting a website and a blog. Create a brochure of your services, and include a professional-looking head shot and an effective bio. Carry your business cards at all times.

“When you are a beginner, without experience,” writes Bly, “your marketing documents stress who you are, the services you offer, the benefits of those services, and what you can and will do, rather than what you have done.”

To further increase your visibility, Osborn advises, “Network with professional groups.” In addition to the STC Carolina Chapter, other local groups for writers include the Triangle Area Freelancers, the North Carolina Writers Network and the . Raleigh Write2Publish Meetup Group,

Formichelli and Burrell also tout the benefits of socializing with other writers to “trade leads, contact names, and other valuable information.” It’s also an opportunity to discuss craft and to commiserate over those inevitable rejections.

“You’re going to receive more rejections than acceptances,” Osborn cautions. “It’s a part of the writer’s life.” Remember, rejection means only that the piece wasn’t right for that publication at that time. If you believe in the article or story, submit it to another market.

Going Pro

Once you’ve gained confidence and enough clips in your portfolio, it’s time to look for paying jobs. Osborn recommends choosing three to six topics as specialties, and immersing yourself in them. Do you love to knit? Are you the parent of teenage boys? Do you spend your workdays looking for bugs in computer programs? If so, you’ve already developed some expertise in these subjects. Leverage that expertise to build your writing practice. “If you have a strong interest,” writes Bly, “you will be more enthusiastic, and when that enthusiasm shows through in your writing (as it invariably will), the client will spot it and appreciate it.”

Osborn recommends choosing three to six topics as specialties, and immersing yourself in them.
Identify the existing publications in your specialties. Osborn advises reading several back issues of your target publications at the local library, to avoid pitching duplicate story ideas. (If you’re a creative writer researching literary magazines for your stories or poetry, the libraries at local colleges and universities may offer a wider variety of these publications than the county libraries do.)

Bly maintains that about a third of your potential markets are “smaller organizations with smaller budgets...[They] are not paying a lot, or asking for a lot, either. They just want decent, clean copy.” He estimates that more than three million U.S. businesses fall into this category, so the opportunities are substantial.

Although you may initially have more luck with local businesses or regional publications, Osborn says to aim high if you’ve got an idea that’s right for a national market. Formichelli and Burrell agree: “If you’re already a good writer, go for it—you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

Be sure to track your submissions in an Excel spreadsheet (or whatever format works best for you). Log every piece you send out, the date, where you sent it, and the response. This is critically important when submitting a piece simultaneously to different markets. If it’s accepted at one place, you must immediately notify the other publications still considering it that it’s no longer available. Editors are busy people; if they offer to publish your work, then learn that the piece is being published elsewhere, they may blacklist you (and complain about you, by name, to all their editor friends). In fact, some publications don’t accept simultaneous submissions. Be sure to check for submission guidelines on each publication’s website.

Keeping the Faith

As a writer, you need your internal editor to turn your creative ideas into salable work. But sometimes an internal editor forgets its place. “You’re crazy to think you can make a living at this,” it might say. “No one is going to pay you for inconsequential ramblings on medieval poetry.”

Joining a community of writers helps you keep your perspective. It also gives you the opportunity to encourage others who are struggling with the same challenges you are. Trusted writer friends can give you honest critiques of your work, and you can benefit by doing the same for them. When you learn to articulate why a passage doesn’t work, you’ll have an easier time spotting the same problem when it occurs in your own writing.

Writers’ groups are also a good place to discuss resources you’ve found helpful, or new markets that have popped up. “Share ideas with others in your field,” Osborn says. “Don’t hoard.”

Formichelli and Burrell agree. “Give, and good things will come to you.”

To learn more about freelance writing, visit Alice Osborn’s website.

Andrea can be reached at andrea dot wenger at us dot schneider-electric dot com. End of article.

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