How Do Freelance Writers Get Started?

Dear ‘Lena,

For my career planning course, we’re supposed to reach out to someone in our chosen field. It’s my dream to be a published writer, but I’m already 35 and worried that it’s too late. I still feel clueless about how to get into print, even though I love to write and do it all the time. How did you get your freelance gigs? Can a freelance writer make a comfortable living, or is it more of a stepping stone? On my favorite TV show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the main character has all her standup videos on the internet: whether good, bad, whatever—and you can see her get better and better. I’d like to do the same with my writing, just put it out there, but how do I begin? Is this an impossible dream?

-Dreamer

Dear Dreamer,

If you just want to put food on the table, you can make plenty of money as a freelance writer by editing corporate marketing materials. Here’s the bad news: if you want to write nonfiction—articles for magazines and newspapers, blog posts, or a memoir—then it’s tough to make a living, even if you make your way up to writing for the New York Times and GQ. Check out this survey on how much writers make. It’s a few years old now, but print publications keep collapsing and more and more writers are churning out content online for free. So get a day job, for now at least.

Here’s the good news: it’s easier than ever before to get published.

Start a blog. This helps you to find your voice. Write about what you know about. You might be thinking: yeah, there are already a million blogs about food or fashion. So specialize. Write about your adventures in urban foraging. Write about making your own lingerie from re-purposed vintage doilies.

If you’re lucky and you work your butt off, you’ll attract enough readers to sell advertising. If not, blogging will make you a much, much better writer and provide evidence of this to show editors. Back in 2006, I had a blog about my life, which focused on my twin interests of having dinner parties and analyzing all my friends and their behavior. An editor saw it and offered me a job writing an etiquette advice column that paid my bills for five and a half years. But don’t wait for an editor to find you. Once you’ve got your blog going, you can start pitching articles.

I’m not going to rehash the rules of pitching, because you can find them anywhere online, such as here. Here’s what I wish someone told me:

Network. As with any job, this is paramount. If you have any connections at all to an editor, ask to take them to coffee to “pick their brains.” If they’ve met you, they are ten times more likely to take your pitch seriously.

Look for adventures. Don’t wait for ideas to come to you. Investigate.I went out partying with the Red Hat Society and I went to cardio strip classes—and then I pitched and sold the articles.

If you have a good story and/or you’ve met the editor, then they will take you seriously. You probably won’t get rich. But you’ll love what you do.

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