Freelance Writing for Beginners

I remember it so clearly. I was driving down the Quays, towards the Samuel Beckett Bridge, heading home from work, wishing for an email. Not any email – one particular (in my head, at least) life-changing email. Begging the universe. If I could have just this one email, everything would come good.

If this person who held my fate in her hands knew she had my fate in her hands, what would she think, I wondered? Would she send the email if she understood what it meant? Did she have any idea how badly I wanted it?

Looking back, I know why she didn’t send the email. The ‘she’ in question was an editor, and I’d sent her some feature ideas. Actually, I’d written up an entire un-commissioned feature and sent it to her. A huge No-No, I now know, but back then I thought I was doing the right thing. Presenting a fait accompli, making her life easier. Later, an experienced journalist explained to me that you never, ever send a fully-written article on spec. Even if you’ve quietly written it up at home to see if it works, you don’t let on. You pitch an idea and at most, an opening paragraph. Anything more looks unprofessional. And needy and eager.

Which is, of course, exactly what I was.

Why am I telling you this? It’s because of all the messages and emails I get, the top three questions are about campsites, getting published, and getting into freelance writing.

So if you’ve ever toyed with the idea of writing for money, here goes – this is for you. (If you are more interested in campsites – they’re all here!)

This guide is by no means definitive – I got into feature writing four years ago, and stepped back from it this year to focus on writing books. So as careers go, it was pretty short. But I wrote around 300 articles in that time, and here’s what I’d suggest you do if you’d like to get into it too:

Start Writing 

If you don’t have any writing experience or portfolio, I would highly recommend starting a blog. It’s by no means a must and many writers have never blogged at all – especially those who have come up through the ranks as journalists. But  in particular for those of us starting it as a new career, blogging is a great way to practice writing in various styles and on various topics – honing your voice without the pressure of getting commissions, writing to word count, or meeting deadlines.

Who Will You Write For?

Decide who you want to write for, and on what kind of topics – do you want to write for newspapers, or glossy magazines, or online content providers?

Once you’ve decided (and maybe it’s all of the above), choose a few of the publications in question and familiarise yourself with them. If you want to write features for the Examiner, buy the Examiner. If you’d love to write for Image or Grazia, buy copies and read them cover to cover. What kind of features do they publish, and what kind of style or voice do their writers use?

What’s key is to familiarise yourself with your target publication – editors can tell a mile off if you’re sending a random pitch, hoping that like the proverbial mud, it will stick somewhere.

What Kind of Articles or Features?

Do you want to pitch a first person piece – writing about a particular experience from your own point of view – or a feature for which you interview other people (“case studies”) and write up their experiences?

If you’re new to freelance writing, it is a huge advantage if you have a personal experience to share, or if you know somebody with a fresh or unique story who is willing to be your case study.

My first piece in the Independent was a re-do of a blog post I had written on Tongue Tie. It’s something many mothers and babies have experienced, but at the time, it hadn’t been written about widely.

My first feature in the Examiner was about a woman who had told me she saved to go back to work after maternity leave – if was the unique angle of her story that got me over the line with the features editor.

Once you get over the line the first time, it gets easier – if you can show that you’re a good writer and utterly reliable, you don’t have to have unique ideas every single time. But for that first commission, something different and fresh is what’s needed.

Pitch Perfect 

Once you’ve decided what you want to write and for which publication, it’s time to write your pitch.

Your pitch is simply the email in which you tell the editor what you want to write, and why you’re the best person to write it.

So, in the Tongue Tie example, I might tell the editor that it’s a widespread problem about which there is little information, and furthermore, my youngest child had it, so I have direct personal experience dealing with it. The pitch should be succinct, no more than one to two short paragraphs. You need something snappy that will grab the editor’s attention, not an essay that may see your email going straight to Delete.

If you need some help with writing pitches, I highly recommend Muse Flash Media training courses. Back when co-founder Heidi Scrimgeour started the course, she offered me an early-bird (or perhaps guinea pig) price and I did the course. It was absolutely brilliant in terms of building confidence and understanding how to pitch.

The Waiting Game

So you’ve sent your pitch, and you’re driving down the Quays towards the Samuel Beckett Bridge (or your equivalent journey) willing that email to ping through.

And it doesn’t.

What next?

First, nothing. Don’t chase an editor a day after emailing, unless of course it’s a time sensitive pitch that’s hooked on a current news story.

The thing is, the editor may well have overlooked your email, but you won’t win any favours by chasing too soon. The editor may even have deleted your email – I met an editor once who told me that by Monday lunchtime every week, she deleted every single unread email in her Inbox. She just had too many emails and not enough time.

There are no hard and fast rules, but I think following up a week or two after the first email is okay. If you still hear nothing, it’s probably time to give up.

There are still no hard and fast rules though – if you really believe in your idea, go for it – send a third email. I remember a particular pitch I loved but was about to drop. Then I decided to try one more time. The editor really liked it, and commissioned it – she just hadn’t seen my first two emails.

Scattergun

Is it okay to pitch numerous editors at once? That’s a question I’ve been asked many times, and the rule of thumb is No. If you send the same idea to a few editors, and all of them like it, it’s very awkward and looks unprofessional if you then say you’re writing it for another publication (unless of course some time has gone by).

My personal routine was to pitch an idea, follow up a week or two later, and then pitch to another editor a week or so after that. I always had five or six pitches on the go, and kept track of where and when I sent them.

Wait, Where Do I Get Contacts?

A golden rule of freelance writing – don’t ask another writer for their contact list. The best way to find out who to pitch to is to pick up the phone. Call the main desk of any given publication and ask for the email address of the Features Editor. Look inside the cover page of any magazine and you’ll find the names of various editors. If you’re really struggling to find the right person to contact, then yes, of course, try asking someone who has written for the same editor.

Show Me The Money

Money is awkward. Especially when you’re starting out and you’re just desperately hoping someone will reply to that email. With newspapers and established magazines, there is usually a set fee for features, so you don’t need to quote your own fee – you’ll get the going rate.

Once you’ve filed your work with the editor, you can send your invoice. You may need to ask the editor for the Accounting team details but after that, your dealings should really be with Accounts. I remember going to a Freelance Forum seminar once and an editor pleading with the audience, begging us not to email her to ask when we might be paid.

Some publications pay as soon as your article is submitted, some pay when it’s been published, and most, in my experience, pay on a schedule which could be one to three months after publication.

If you’re writing for an online publication, the question of payment becomes a little less clear – some websites will assume you’re happy to write for free, because you’re building your profile and getting “exposure” to a wider audience. This is a contentious topic – mostly, it’s best not to write for free, as you’re diluting your value and the value of writing more generally.

HOWEVER (isn’t there always a HOWEVER) you need to go with your gut on this. I never wrote anything for free, but I did allow blog posts to be republished by commercial websites, so that I could reach a wider audience. The first blog post I sent to TheJournal.ie was spotted by an online content provider who then contacted me and offered me paid writing work. That was a springboard to dozens and dozens of articles for that website and later for another, and ultimately led to my most solidly reliable paid work. So sometimes that controversial “exposure” can actually pay off. But be careful – if you write original content for free, it’s hard to ask the editor to pay you later.

Deadlines

I was at a  Freelance Forum a couple of years ago and one of the editors said if she gives a deadline of Tuesday, she means your email should be in her Inbox by 9am Tuesday. The other editors agreed. I was taken aback – in my old job in Financial Services, a Tuesday deadline meant close of business, and that’s what I’d been doing with all my freelancing deadlines too.

I switched after the forum, figuring even if it’s not a widespread rule, even if it was just those editors that day, it’s no harm to get it in earlier in the day. Either way, NEVER, EVER file copy after deadline. You want to be the reliable writer who’ll be asked to write again and again, not the one who misses deadlines.

Wordcount 

If you’re asked to write 800 words, stick to that, until you get to the know the editor. Some will have leeway, space on the page for more words, and some won’t. Over time, you’ll get to know which editors don’t mind you sending 900 words instead of 800, and which do. If in doubt, just ask. But when you’re starting out, it’s best to stick rigidly to the brief.

Oh – What’s a Brief?

The brief is the editor’s set of instructions, it’s what they want you to write. If they asked for a 900 word feature with two case studies and two experts, one to be a child psychologist, due next Tuesday, then that’s exactly what you should file next Tuesday. Read the brief, read it again, and then go back and read it again – the first skim read can send you off looking for a psychiatrist when you should be looking for a psychologist, so don’t just go with that first skim read. (There is nothing like that cold feeling spreading in the pit of your stomach when you re-read the brief just before deadline and realise you got something wrong – oh how I know this well…)

Some Final Do’s And Don’ts

Do check all your spellings and grammar – there are subeditors to correct mistakes but editors like copy that reads well from the start.

Do ask case studies / interviewees for details like surname, home town or county, number of children, ages of children – editors and readers like details.

Do be aware you may be expected to ask your case studies to be photographed or to send on photos of themselves for the article.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t hear back from an editor – it’s very, very normal. It takes getting used to, but you’re competing with established freelancers, in-house staff-writers, and PRs who are basically sending free content.

Do build a relationship. Successful, consistent freelancing is mostly about building up a good relationship with editors – be the person whose email they open!

***

This guide is based on my own experience writing for mostly Irish publications – please let me know in the comments if you have other tips or conflicting experience, and I will add or edit as appropriate.

I don’t think they’ll see this but some very kind people who helped me (generously and unasked) on my way include Kathy Donaghy, Heidi Scrimgeour, and Sarah Breen. And thanks too to the editors who said yes – Claire O’Sullivan, Esther McCarthy, Sive O’Brien, Linda Daly, Claire O’Mahony, and especially Irene Feighan.

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Author: Andrea Mara | Office Mum

Blogger, freelance writer, author, mother - muddling through and constantly looking for balance.

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