We were all new at something once, right? Freelance writer is not what I ever saw myself as when I was going to college, but when I moved to Hawaii and I couldn’t find a job in PR, I began my career in freelance writing. I was TOTALLY a freelance writing beginner and truthfully — I had no clue where to start. I paved the way for my own full-time freelance writing career and today I’m sharing a few tips and tricks, as well as answering questions I’ve been asked. If you’re just starting out as a freelance writer or have been curious, today’s post is for you!
Freelance Writing For Beginners
How do you start?
This is a hard one to answer, because everyone starts in a completely different place. For me, I moved to Hawaii and found myself in a place without professional sports teams. But really, that is what happened. I worked in the NFL after college and when I moved to Hawaii to be with Dane, I realized pretty quickly that getting a job in sports wasn’t going to happen.
I had a blog (the one you’re reading right now!) from college that I wrote in loosely (mostly as a creative outlet to keep up with friends and family) that I started writing on more frequently. I would share life updates and recipes with mediocre photos. The one important detail I had on my site was a “Contact Me” section.
Around this time, Huffington Post was launching the ‘Third Metric’ in Hawaii and I got invited to write an article for them. You can still read it here. I felt like I was on top of the world! After that, I became part of the Huffington Post blogger team (I don’t think it’s around anymore), but I loved it and it helped me feel confident as a writer.
From there, I would get assignments here and there that never felt huge, but looking back, they were all such monumental steps in building my portfolio. I have tried to link as many of my pieces as possible in my portfolio.
I remember the day I got an e-mail from the local Honolulu newspaper asking if I wanted to be the bar columnist. I felt like I had made it and when the first issue with my column ran, Dane and I celebrated with margaritas.
My story of “how I started” is still being written, because in so many ways, I often feel like I’m just beginning and excited to see where my career goes 🙂
How do you structure your day?
I wake up early and that is bolded and underlined, because it’s a really important part of my day. I get the most work done in the morning time, so I try to make the most of that (A Day In The Life 2017, A Day In The Life 2018, A Day In The Life 2019). The first thing I do is check my e-mail. Living in Hawaii means I wake up to around 80-100 e-mails every morning since all my editors work on EST and every store sends out their blasts on east coast hours. I delete what I can and move on to answering the ones I flag as needing replies ASAP. I also use early hours to return any phone calls since I’m working against a time change.
When that is finished, I get to work. I keep a running spreadsheet of things I need to get done (located in my Google drive so I can access it anywhere I’m working — laptop, desktop, public computer, etc), so I open that and determine where I need to start. I prioritize in terms of what’s due next and depending on how my deadlines fall, I work on the “easy” projects first. By easy I mean, pieces I know will come together quickly for me versus ones that require me interviewing a subject, tracking down photography, etc.
How do you pitch ideas?
I have a running list of story ideas in a Google doc (again, so I can access it and edit it wherever life takes me). I bold my story idea and then type out several key points that make it a story (a news hook, an upcoming holiday, etc). The key to successfully pitching stories is making sure there is a news angle that would entice people to read it.
For example, just because I traveled somewhere — that’s not a story. So few publications take narrative-style stories, so I take the time to dig deeper and look for what is happening in that location, finding the stories that make the location unique and discovering off-the-beaten path instances that can entice traveler’s to want to visit for themselves.
Once I have stories outlined, I try to figure out an angle for them that aligns with publication standards. Every outlet I write for has different requirements, so making sure a story is a good fit for any one outlet is very important. Also, research the crap out of the topic you want to write about and see who has covered it before!
One thing I’ve learned is that a good way to waste your time and annoy an editor is to pitch something they’ve already covered extensively or that doesn’t fit their guidelines/voice.
How do you build your portfolio?
This is another one that is different for every writer, but I’ll share what I did. For starters, I wrote every single day and I never felt intimidated to reach out to publications that seemed lofty or out of my reach. I always kept in the back of my mind “The worst they can say is no” and made it my mission to network and get my name out there.
I wasn’t traveling a ton at the time, so I took ideas and storylines from right here in Hawaii (you can do this wherever you live!) and pitched them to outlets that I thought might be a good fit. I also didn’t narrow myself into the travel niche (I still don’t), which helped tremendously, and pitched all sorts of stories to all types of publications (digital and print).
Has anybody not paid you after you’ve written for them?
Yes! It took many, many back-and-forths with reminders about payment and our contract, and I did eventually get paid. There have been some pretty major situation about freelancers not getting paid and laws are being put into place, but it’s still very new. New York has instated the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which is a great start!
How do you calculate what you charge?
I charge per word when asked my rate, but here’s a secret: Most publications already have a rate per word they pay freelancers. Ultimately, they determine the price they can pay and you can take it or leave it.
When I’m able to name my rate, I take into account how long the piece will take me to write, the requirements (sourcing photos, taking photos, interviewing, etc), and overall scope of the project (length of copy, how many rounds of edits, etc).
Best advice for a new freelancer?
Don’t be afraid to take “small” writing jobs, because the reality is that no jobs are small. They’re all steps that lead to the top and you never know when an editor will transition jobs and keep you in mind as a writer who can deliver.
What’s your dream publication to write for?
National Geographic — in print!
Which is more common — do you pitch publications or do they seek you out?
I think it’s an even draw, if I’m being honest. I have a couple publications that I write for regularly and who seek me as a contributor when they have pieces that need written. I don’t want to tout myself as the best (I’m not), but I’ve created a reputation with those outlets as a reliable writer who can create clean copy and deliver on time or early to meet overall project deadlines. I feel honored when editors write me and ask me to put pieces together, particularly when the deadline is tight. It says to me “We trust you to write this and do it well.”
As far as pitching, I send out around 20-30 pitches per week with story ideas. Someone once told me to aim for 100 rejections per year, because if you’re getting that many “no thanks” replies, you are sure to be getting some “hell yes!” replies too. I’ve never forgotten it!
I hope this post was helpful for anyone who has ever been curious about the world of freelance writing. Still have questions? Contact me! I offer 1:1 freelance writing consultations and am happy to look over pitches, edit copy and more. Let’s chat!