BY JIMMY THOMSON
Freelance writing is not an easy way to make a living. More and more people are asking writers to write for free, and those that pay are often paying the same as they were in the 1970s. A great rate of pay today is around 50 cents a word – the Walrus boasts as much as a dollar or two – but you’ll be lucky to get it from most publications. I’ve written for far less, because they were pieces I really wanted to publish or outlets I wanted my name in.
If you’re determined, though, you can make a go of it. Here’s a few tips that might help you on your way.
Keep your eyes open
Editors are not swimming in pitches, despite what you may think. They’re waiting for your great idea, so go find it. That’s the good news.
The other good news is that stories are everywhere (Who says journalism is all bad news?).
You already have ideas, whether or not you know what they are. If you don’t know where to find ideas, you’re not getting out enough. Talk to people. Have hobbies. The stories you write are like the ones you tell your friends at parties: they come from new experiences, not from Twitter.
Think like a journalist when you meet new people and try new things, and stories will start popping out at you; you’ll find yourself saying: “I need to pitch this story.” The next step is figuring out how and where to pitch it.
Learn to pitch
This is a blog post all unto itself. So, here’s that post.
Have a constant turnaround
Once you’ve gotten a few stories out there, you’ll notice a couple of things: first, that it’s not so hard after all. Second, that there is a serious lag between finding an idea and having a published story in your hands.
To keep that cycle a bit tighter, realize that there is a lot of waiting involved in each step. You can keep the cycle going by filling in the dead space. Start researching story ‘A’ while you pitch story ‘B,’ write story ‘C,’ and edit story ‘D.’ At one point in March I was working on eight stories at the same time. Having multiple balls in the air makes it less of an emergency when you drop one. Losing one of eight is less painful than losing one of one.
Keep your editors happy
Editors are your friends. They don’t want to cut up your story, water down your groundbreaking prose, or shit all over your great ideas. Just the opposite, actually: they want your writing to be the best it can be for their publication. Part of an editor’s job is to keep a sense of style throughout his section, so yes, sometimes that may mean killing some of your darlings. Deal with it. Don’t be resistant to changes in your piece unless you have a real ethical problem with them, or unless they are distorting facts.
Another very important rule is to deliver what you promise. Stay on schedule, and keep your editor up to speed on any changes in your timeline. He has spaces to fill, and if you fall through he’ll have to scramble to cover for you. Don’t be the writer he’s trying to cover for.
You want to make your editor’s life easier. Given the choice between working with a writer who can deliver good work, as promised, on time, and one who delivers spectacular work unpredictably in a completely different style and format than was expected, many editors will go with Option ‘A’ and the spectacular writing will have to find another place to live.
Balance your money-making projects with your passions
Not all freelance writing is the exact writing you want to be doing. We can’t all be George Packer, alternating between writing features for The New Yorker and the occasional best-selling book. Some of the writing you’ll have to do is more mechanical than that: writing for trade publications, university PR departments, lesser websites, local newspapers – whatever you can find. And that’s okay, if it frees you up to spend some time writing the pieces you really want to write for less money.
That’s common advice, but it comes with a caveat: don’t compromise yourself. Keep to your own ethical standards, whatever they may be, and avoid conflicts of interest. If you’re writing for a trade publication, don’t let it be one that covers the topics you really care about. If, for example, your passion is medical research, don’t write for a medical supply publication. That will put you in a real or perceived conflict of interest the next time you want to write about the business, and that is not a situation you want to be in.
Nobody said freelance writing is easy. It’s an increasingly difficult way to make money, but it’s also the best way to make sure you’re writing the things you want to write as much as possible. It gives you the freedom to work on your long features or in-depth investigations, luxuries most steady jobs in journalism (ha) won’t allow. ♦
Image: Evgeny Chirikov by Ivan Kulikov