Post Academic


How to: Get started freelance writing

You might notice in my “About” bio that I describe myself as a “once and future freelance writer.”  I don’t want to call it a comeback right now, especially since I haven’t had anything published yet and I’m still putting the finishing touches on my first assigned assignment.  It figures that the profession I’m best equipped to cross over to — freelancing and journalism — might be less lucrative and more imperiled than academia (if that’s possible), but I enjoy writing in general and I can do so without so many other responsibilities I had as a scholar/teacher.  And, actually, many, many more people have read my music reviews than anything I wrote as an academic, since I wrote a few hundred pieces even when freelancing as a second job during school.  Pretty much all the places I wrote for went out of business (which, along with my qualifying exams, was the reason I stopped freelancing), but there are still some reviews I wrote floating out there — which you can Google, provided you promise not to look at my Rate My Professors rating from Loyola Marymount that is, for some reason, the top link when you search my name.

Caroline may actually be better qualified to advise here, since she has a lot of experience as a writer and editor on a number of websites.  And I’ll be happy to provide more info on the nuts-and-bolts of freelancing from pitch to story later, whether or not this second act goes anywhere.  But in trying to resuscitate my career as a music writer, I noticed that some of the basic aspects of getting started in freelancing are the same, even as the media for this kind of publishing has switched over from print to electronic.  Things are definitely faster paced, which might mean more opportunities for writers, presuming you’re willing to put up with the following:

1. Put the “free” in “freelancing”: You read Caroline’s previous post about the crappy, low or non-paying first post-academia job, right?   Well, you have to approach freelancing that way, except it’s not crappy if you like writing and that it may never become well-paying.  To get started in freelancing, be ready, willing, and able to work for free, because few people will turn down unpaid labor (though some still will), especially if you are (over)qualified and require little babysitting.  My best freelance jobs — the ones for which I did the most interesting work and which opened up my best opportunities — started out as unpaid.  Once I got my foot in the door, I was able gain the trust of my editors and pick up more responsibility.  And even the gruntwork could be fun, if you’re interested in the field you’re in: As an intern for an alternative weekly during my college summer breaks, for instance, one of my primary tasks was transcribing interviews for the music editor, which turned out to be anything but tedious, since I learned a lot about music, how to interview people, and how to translate what the heck Bjork was saying.

2. Be creative: That internship I was referring to above?  I made that opportunity for myself by blind-mailing the editor, who I have to give credit to for taking me seriously.  I’m not great with taking the initiative, but all it takes is one person to pay attention and give you a chance.  The result was that I became the first music intern for the paper, which started out with a lot of not-so-bad office work and led to a lot of independence.  I also learned a lot about what it takes to be an editor and how newspapers, particularly weeklies, work: think ad revenue, before you think about content.

3. Follow the rules: In my experience, the best way to get noticed is not to stand out by being a low-maintenance, highly productive writer.  That means do things the way your editors want you to do them.  Learn the publication’s style sheet and try to format things correctly right from the start — kinda like Caroline’s advice to “RTFM.”  Write the pieces no one else wants to, even letting your editor pick your first assignments for you, to prove you can get stuff done.  And, most importantly, make your deadlines, which means not trying to do more than you are capable of doing.  The less hassle you are for your editor, the more s/he will be able to rely on you and give you more responsibilities.

4. Take things personally: Like any job, networking is really important.  While you do have to figure out where and how to start, the relationships you make can help you expand your opportunities, even if it can take some time.  All of my better paying jobs came from a few editors that I built great relationships with, who kept trying to give me work as they moved from one position to the next.

5. But don’t take things personally: Rejection — or rather, being ignored — is part of the game, something any post/academic can already relate to.  Almost all of the time, it’s not personal, just either that you’re lost in the paperwork/inbox or, at worst, they’re careless.  And there’s a lot of turnover with editors, so you might go to the end of line with each change, especially if editors already have other freelancers to whom they are loyal.  Be persistent.

6. Try it: Because so few freelancers can do it full-time as a freelancer and because there are so few staff writers, freelancing is very amenable to something you can try with very little investment.  Freelancing is usually a second job, so it’s something you might like to pick up while you’re in grad school or working in another profession.  For me, freelancing helped me earn pretty much all my frivolous spending money during college and grad school, with the added perk of getting promo CDs (sometimes early!) that I would’ve bought anyway.  Just go into freelancing with some perspective and feeling like you have nothing to lose.

Now back to writing that music review…

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One Response to 'How to: Get started freelance writing'

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  1. Caroline Roberts said,

    Hear, hear, especially regarding rule number 3. I’ve worked with some amazing freelancers, and the best ones were always the ones who RTFM and made their deadlines. It definitely wasn’t magic. I did have a few who would not do that, and boy would they be mad when I stopped sending assignments, but if you don’t make your deadline, your editor will cut off the relationship. After all, you can’t run a paper/magazine/Web site with a big hole where the article should be.


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