Recently I found myself in the role of guest consultant at an upcoming conference for high-achieving, entrepreneurial high school students. As the representative freelance writer, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I thought I might find myself sharing some of my acquired wisdom for the words and letter types in attendance. And I wanted to come up with practical, real-life advice that wasn’t a cliché.
As props, I gathered up some of the usual trappings of a writer’s life. A successful pitch email that led to coffee with a senior editor. A fruitful email exchange between one of my regular publishers and myself, which saw an article morph into something completely different from where it started. A side-by-side comparison of a first and final draft.
These artifacts give a small sense of the day-to-day reality of a freelance career, but don’t necessarily explain how to get one in the first place. I don’t want to give a lot of writing tips here; to a certain extent, the writing takes care of itself, simply through practice. The bigger challenge is, having achieved a level of competence, how do you get your work out there? More than a few great writers were unknown during their lifetimes. I’d have any budding aspirant avoid that fate.
1) Do improve your writing: Yes, yes, I just a moment ago said I didn’t want to give writing tips, and I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty details. But moving from the amateurs to the minors to the majors only works if you’re actually increasing in skill. So a note on attitude: take some pride in your work.
Strive for a polished, well-realized piece of writing. Take an assignment that you can get away with knocking out in an hour and obsess over it for three, because it needs to be just so. Be the best writer at your school newspaper, community newsletter, or, heck, even your personal blog. Get people wondering why someone with your talent isn’t writing somewhere higher up the food chain.
I used to worry I was spending too much time polishing pieces that were already serviceable, but I don’t worry about that anymore. It’s the old adage about dressing for the job you want instead of the job you’ve got. Moving forward means pushing the boundaries instead of churning it out.
Those overwritten pieces you publish that really make you proud? Those are your samples to get that new gig.
2) Realize it’s time to move on: As a university student contributing to my school paper, I had a casual acquaintance mention that my writing might be good enough for a certain literary review webzine with a sizable audience and a strong reputation, though it didn’t pay anything beyond the books themselves. I sent in a sample and got on board. Almost eight years went by, and my writing tightened up significantly, but I was still stuck at the same rung without even realizing there was a ladder.
It came as a sudden realization that there was a next step even for something as simple as book reviewing, and I was overdue to take it. I sent off a couple of samples to the largest regional newspaper in the area and was on the phone with the books editor the same day. I’ve already learnt a lot in this position and plan to make it a long-term relationship, but less than a year in, my sights were already set on going national. And guess what? It’s happening.
If you can be writing somewhere more prestigious, better-paying, or with better exposure, you need to make it happen. No editor is going to tell their best writer they can do better. You have to find that better gig.
3) Make new friends, but keep (some of) the old: Not every outlet for your work fits so easily into a simple hierarchy. There can be value in maintaining relationships with lower-paying venues if they offer something your other outlets aren’t offering you. As an extreme example, a beginning writer might make more money churning out material for a content milll than writing “for the love”, but it’s the latter that is more likely to lead to you eventually getting paid for writing something you care about. I’ve done my time with content creation, but it was a paycheque, not a stepping-stone.
Likewise, you might take lower-paying jobs when branching into different types of markets. I took a pay-cut with a gig covering environmental news. But it was only a pay-cut relative to what I was getting paid as a technical writer, which I was rapidly losing interest in. This was something I was interested in doing, and nobody else was offering to pay me to do it. Over the course of a year, I significantly broadened my portfolio, became comfortable in a new format, and, with the growth of the magazine, my modest pay grade actually surpassed that of my previous, mind-numbing writing job.
This only took eight months. It’s amazing how fast your writing life can change when you take a chance.
4) You can write anything for anyone: Writers are versatile; writers are always learning and experimenting. Nothing is keeping you from the New York Times but you. If you’re enjoying a news site, print magazine, community paper — whatever — and really digging it, finding its content and style to be totally up your alley, then maybe you should be contributing. You’re into science fiction, and read io9 every day? Then you should be querying them, sending them samples, whatever the listed procedure is.
Learn to find contact sections, FAQs, submission pages, general info, parent companies for subsidiary sites. Writers seek these out, but they’re meant to be invisible to the average reader. Check the very backs or very fronts of magazines, scroll down to the small links near the bottom pages of websites.
And now query. Query, query, query. And dig through everything you’ve ever written for the most relevant and polished work you have out there. You might be the best thing to happen to them, but you’re going to have to convince them you’re a writer worth your salt. They can’t take your word for it.
In conclusion: I know you’re a great writer. You’re getting better all the time. But writing isn’t enough. You have to do something with that writing. This is a business; an industry. Learn the ins and outs so you can put your stamp on it.
Posthumous publication is for the dogs.