I have just returned from a morning at a local school where I was answering questions from pupils who were interested in a career in writing/journalism. It had me thinking back a little under 4 years to the start of my efforts at cobbling together a freelance career. While that hardly qualifies me to claim any level of expertise in the often confusing art of freelancing, here are a few writing tips I would feel confident in passing to those thinking of starting along the same path.
1. Start a blog
A blog can provide multiple benefits if approached in the right way. It can be an outlet on which to experiment and to maintain a discipline of regular writing during times when work is thin. Most importantly it can be a place where you can hone your writing skills.
2. Get to know people
Industry events allow you to make connections that will help you keep informed which publications are hiring freelancers and where to focus your pitching efforts. You can also meet fellow writers with whom you can share war stories, PR folks who can point you in the direction of potential stories and even the occasional editor to whom you will submit your ideas.
3. Think beyond the big publications
With advertising budgets falling and redundancies aplenty, opportunities for freelancers in the mainstream press are getting harder to come by. On the other hand an increasing number of companies are hiring writers to produce quality content to boost their online presence. These are often long-term or regular requests for work at rates that are comparable to or better than those offered by the big names. It might not be glamorous to write a weekly blog for Fred’s Colour Copying about the latest developments in the world of printing, but if it pays the bills it’s as good a job as any.
4. Find your own opportunities
This is a personal favourite tip and one that surprisingly few follow. As a result of networking (see above), you’ll eventually find that people approach you to do some work for them or you’ll talk to them and find that you can help them with a problem they’ve got. When you are specifically approached it is usually because someone wants YOU to do the job. You can therefore charge a fair rate for the job (see below). This is quite a contrast from the positions found on job boards and freelance sites where hirers are (with few exceptions) looking to buy a commoditised product (a desperate writer) who will work for the lowest fee they can get away with paying (usually extremely low).
5. Be prepared to write for free- but know when to stop
Getting writing commissions without an existing portfolio is incredibly tough. For those starting up an unpaid column in a local paper has traditionally been an invaluable first step on the ladder, as has working as an intern in a newspaper office. Given where most of the opportunities are likely to come in future years, it might be a better use of someone’s time to focus on building up a reputable blog, becoming savvy with social media (some editors now even select writers based in part on their social media activity) and making connections through selectively guest posting some of their best work on high profile sites.
Once you’re getting noticed and starting to build a income, continuing to work for free can send a very negative message about the way you value your own writing. Only you can know when the harm you do by giving your work away for nothing exceeds any benefits you gain from exposure, but that point comes sooner than many people realise.
6. Value what you do
Another obvious point. I get frustrated when I hear the pathetic rates that some people accept for their writing, arguing that they are afraid that no-one will pay them more. The National Union of Journalists publish a fee guide that’s a useful resource for anyone unsure what to charge. I hear of some people (in the UK) getting paid for a month of regular writing work what others would charge for a couple of days.
As a general rule I have two pay rates – a full rate (depends on the job, but never below what I consider reasonable) and free (helping friends and certain charities/community projects ). There is no inbetween of ‘special rates for start-ups’ or ‘let’s start with this and see how it goes’. It means I lose some work, but not enough to make me change this rule.
What have I missed? What advice would you give to someone planning a career as a writer?