Sunday, February 1, 2009

Five Myths About Freelance Writing

Five Myths About Freelance Writing
By Michael P. Geffner

1) That it's all about pitching ideas and query letters and resumes.

Fact is, in my whole freelancing career, which has produced over 8,000 published stories in mostly big markets, I've gotten less than a handful of assignments from this approach. The reality is: It's all about having a great reputation, good contacts, and a broad network of editors as allies (people you can easily hit up on the phone with an idea).

2) That it's nearly impossible to make a living at it.

I won't lie. It's not easy. I've seen depressing stats about most freelancers not even earning $30,000 a year. But if you're talented and work hard and network like crazy and keep building your rep, you can definitely beat the odds. At my best, I've made as much as $3 per word and anywhere between $5,000-$10,000 a story (which doesn't include getting expensed to go to places like Mexico and Vancouver and all over the U.S.).

3) That once you make it, it's a glorious life.

I'll admit that when it's going well and you're hot, it can be a dream of an existence. Prime assignments. Awesome travel. No boss hanging over your shoulder. No hours when you have to wake up and sleep. But...on the bad side, it has no 401K plan with matching money, no paid health benefits, and when it cools off, you sweat out paying the your phone bill and the rent. If you don't have the stomach for that, you need to get a staff job.

4) That it's a constant hustle.

At the beginning, it most definitely is. But if you're really good, you can move within time into that exclusive realm of "contract freelancer." If you look at the masthead of magazines, you'll see the categories of "Contributing Writers" or "Contributing Editors." Those are almost always the contract freelancers, and they're the divas of the publication, getting the most money for the hours they put in. A typical contract guarantees the writer a certain amount of money (as much as six figures) for doing a certain amount of stories. This is the top of the top for a freelance writer, and if freelancing is what you want, then this is the prize you should always have your eyes on.

Note: I was a contributing writer for The Village Voice for over a dozen years (which also included a bargaining unit freelancing agreement that paid for my health insurance and three weeks of vacation!), a contributing editor for Details and Maximum Golf (a short-lived News Corp pub), and a contributing writer for The Sporting News. Trust me, it's the only way for a freelancer to live. Takes all the struggle out of it.

5) That in order to get freelance work you need to buy Writer's Market or Google for freelance sites, etc.

Believe it or not, I never did this once. Nor have any major freelancers I know--and I know a ton. Although Writer's Market is a fine tool for beginners to learn the freelancing landscape, my advice is this: Go to your local Barnes & Noble or Borders, check the magazine racks for publications you'd like to work for, and start copying down titles, addresses, and names of editors. Follow this by writing letters of introduction to editors, expressing how much you'd like to work for this magazine, and that you're going to call them on such and such a day to discuss this. Cold calling is nerve-wracking, but it's the best way to establish a close relationship with an editor. Just make sure you have five ideas to hit them with when they ask, "So what do you have for me?"

Good luck!

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ENNYMAN said...

Some good "reality stuff" here.
Where are located? That helps, too, doesn't it?

SonjaCassella said...

Mike, your blog really looks great. And I think your advice about writer's Market is spot on. The truth is, my good jobs always came from publications that I'd actually read, never from an entry in a writing guide. Strange, but true.

Liz Hamill Scott said...

Great advice, all of it. But I do need to respectfully disagree on one point. I've gotten quite a bit of legit, paying work by answering ads on Craigslist. This includes getting my first book deal by answering an ad, cold as ice.

Thanks for this blog. Your dedication to helping other writers is wonderful.

Chris said...

Good to hear from life in the trenches. @Liza Interesting your mention of Craiglist. Certainly the buzz word today.