Let me tell you one of my secrets. I’m trusting that you won’t tell anyone else. Do you promise to keep this between us? Cross your heart? Okay, here it is, here is how I’ve survived—and thrived—as a freelance writer for more than three decades:
I worked hard at it.
Yes, it’s that’s simple.
If you want to make it as a freelance writer, you need to keep working it. You need to pursue work even when you’re working on something else. You need to pile up the assignments. You need to stay ahead all the time, so you never fall behind.
I won’t lie. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of energy. But it’s the only way. Part of being a great freelancer is being a great salesman/saleswoman.
Luckily, I had a ton of drive, wanted to make it in the worst way. That makes a difference. Unfortunately, I can’t give you drive and energy. You either have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, I advise you to stay clear of freelance writing, if not writing as a career altogether.
During my freelance years, I was an absolute machine, always writing letters and making phone calls to editors, as well as going to great lengths to meet those editors in person, either by having lunch with them or, at worst, an office meeting.
If you can manage it, you must go for face time. It’s huge. You need to become a person to these editors, not a thing. Resist the temptation to only send a resume or query letter, being just another name on a piece of paper often thrown into a big bin, never to be seen from again.
In this business, you need to be aggressive.
You need to write letters, make phone calls, and, most importantly, network, network, network.
I can’t stress this point enough.
This is how you sell your work. This is how you get assignments. This is how you build a writing career. This is how you establish long-term relationships with editors that ultimately turn into the gifts that keep on giving.
And as a bonus, here’s my secret within a secret—my most successful approach to acquiring freelance work.
Once a year, usually in the first month or so, I would go to Barnes & Noble, look through the magazine racks, and find between 30-50 publications I wanted to work for, flipping straight to the masthead page and writing down the address, phone number, and the top editor’s name.
Then I would go home and write letter after letter to each, something along the lines of:
Dear Mr. Smith:
I’m an award-winning writer with X-AMOUNT years of experience and would love to work for your magazine.
My work has appeared in SUCH AND SUCH PLACES and has been acknowledged for excellence by WHATEVER GROUP/ORGANIZATIONS.
I will call you on WHATEVER DATE to discuss the possibility of arranging a meeting with you at your earliest convenience. I will be more than happy to bring my resume and clips at that time, as well as to share with you my unique ideas for future writing assignments.
I’m convinced I can make a difference at your magazine.
Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to talking to you.
Believe it or not, this very ordinary-looking letter helped make my freelance career. Some years, in fact, those measly few paragraphs would end up being worth as much as $40,000 in new assignments.
And each year I’d keep adding publications—and editors—to my network.
Now, understand that you won’t “hit” on each letter. Not even close. Don’t get discouraged. You’re doing great even if you get as few as five responses. But try to turn each response into expanding your network somehow, asking the editors at the end of the meeting or lunch if they know any other editor that might be looking for writers.
Try this. Work it. Work it hard and constantly. Draw from the positives.
And please, if you want, let me know how it’s coming along. Let me know about your successes and failures, your progress and dead ends.