How to Start Your Freelance Writing Career Today
By Denise Willms
At WAHM-Articles.com, we talk a lot about writing to promote our businesses online. But occasionally the question comes up: “Can I use these same skills to earn money writing for other people?”
Yes, you can.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Mike Geffner, an award winning journalist and columnist, on how to go from being a mom who writes for her business to a successful freelance writer who writes for others for big $$. As you can see from the interview below, I had a lot on my mind… and Mike very graciously responded with some very practical and helpful information that anyone can use to get started.
If you are considering embarking on a freelancing career of your own, you’ll want to pay attention to the links at the end of the interview - that’s where you can find Mike and his support networks for writers.
WAHM-Articles.com: Mike, how did you get your start as a writer?
Mike Geffner: Well, I’ve been writing since as long as I can remember, as young as five years old—or maybe even four. I haven’t a clue why a child so young would have such an odd impulse to write—it continues to utterly bewilder me—but I began putting together, in pencil, short stories in a little scrapbook where I mostly collected pictures of my favorite professional athletes.
The writing was good enough that my parents, when I dragged them to read my stories, were convinced I copied the words, paragraph by paragraph, out of some book—which frustrated and infuriated me to no end, because like all kids, I simply wanted them to tell me how great I was and just leave it at that; instead, all they had for me were accusations of plagiarism. LOL
In my professional career, I had some false starts in my late teens and early 20’s, when I wrote for very small local publications for little or no pay. I kept having the feeling that I was on the verge of something more substantial, but I ended up going nowhere and slowly.
After a slew of unsuccessful attempts to land a job at a newspaper or magazine after college—I received 98 immediate rejections out of 100 resumes!—I took a break for awhile, around a year or so, during which I seriously considered doing something else for a living.
It simply seemed too hard.
Then, in 1981, I got my lucky break. The husband of a woman I knew just so happened to be the baseball editor of The Associated Press. And that editor just so happened to be looking for a stringer to cover the New York Yankees, my favorite baseball team. Bingo! I got the gig on the spot, and I did such a good job—I had a real nose for news from the get-go—that within two years, I was given both the Mets’ and Knicks’ beats as well, which meant that I was responsible for the coverage of three of the most important teams in New York City sports.
It was the greatest training in the world, too. While the writing wasn’t especially creative—the AP style for putting together stories back then was quite formulaic—I learned how to gather facts and quotes and write like the wind. Mind you, it made me incredibly manic at times, to where I thought I was having a nervous breakdown, but it also gave me a strong journalistic foundation on which to build, as well as bylines in countless hundreds of newspapers.
W-A: You’ve had an illustrious writing career, won several prestigious awards and interviewed many influential people.With everything you’ve done, of which accomplishment are you most proud?
Mike: Surprisingly, it’s not any award I won or the fact that I managed to secure exclusive interviews with the likes of former President Nixon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dennis Hopper, although it still amazes me that I actually accomplished that.
It’s this: That I wasn’t ever afraid to take chances. And I always tried to get the story right. And I always hit my deadline, no matter how tight they were. And I always bent over backwards to be fair with my subjects, even the most unseemly ones. And I always gave my editors the best I had.
I consider myself the quintessential professional.
And I take great pride in that fact.
W-A: Many of my readers write reprint articles and blog posts to market their home businesses. Can the writing skills they’re developing now be used to write for pay?
Mike: It’s a start, it builds a platform, it helps develop a voice, but they need to branch out to top online sites, such as Salon.com and Slate.com, and print journalism, be it newspapers or magazines. That’s where the real money is, especially magazines, where, getting paid by the word and not the project, can be very lucrative.
To that point, I’ve made as much as $10,000 for a single story more than once and in that neighborhood many, many times over.
That may not be within reach right away, but it’s definitely something to aspire to.
Think about it: How many reprints would it take to make that kind of money? The answer: Too many to make any sense.
W-A: How can someone get started as a freelance writer? What is the first step they should take?
Mike: My advice for beginners and relative beginners is this: Network with as many editors as possible: Write letters to them asking for advice, try meeting them at media parties or conferences or special events, query them, and even COLD call them (I know you hate doing that. We ALL do) after sending a letter. Please, please, don’t stalk them, though: Remember that there’s a fine line between aggressive ingenuity and being a downright pest. One will lead to assignments; the other to nothing but silent rejection.
W-A: I was reading your 10 commandments for writers. Your Number 1 commandment is to network. As a business owner, I appreciate the importance and the power of networking for my business. I find most of my members and clients through online networking. How exactly can someone use networking to start a freelance writing career?
Mike: Can’t stress it enough: You need to constantly network with the powerbrokers in the business—the top editors, literary agents, publishing execs, and the like.
In other words, you must GET IN THE GAME to win.
For starters, sign up on Facebook. That’s where the big publishing party is right now. What Myspace is for bands—and teens trying desperately to pick each other up—Facebook is for publishing. If you look hard enough, many of the powerbrokers are there.
Do searches. Find them. And very nicely, very politely, very deferentially, introduce yourself and tell him/her that you’re a young or beginning freelance writer, as well as a fan of their publication, and need advice on how to break into and advance in the business.
Most, if not all of them, will respond quickly and likely positively. This does two things at once: 1) It gets you top-level advice. 2) It builds your network (although don’t “friend” them without first asking if it’s cool to do so). NOTE: Whether they all you to become a friend or not, make sure to OCCASIONALLY stay in touch with these people, letting them know about your progress and successes (though NOT your complaints; no one likes a whiner).
W-A: Speaking of networking, you have created a Writers Helping Writers Group on Facebook, and another network for writers, Mike’s Writers Network. Why did you start these groups, and what can people find there if they join?
Mike: Oh, my, I have way more groups than that. I love giving writers places to congregate and support one another. It might even be an addiction of mine.
My oldest group has been named on Writer’s Digest’s Best 101 Websites for Writers list is Mike’s Writing Workshop on Yahoo. It’s a writers’ discussion forum that debuted in March of 2001 and has in excess of 9,000 members. It’s my baby! And I’m pretty proud of it.
I have two reasons for starting these groups:
1) I’m a Pay-It-Forward Guy to the core.
2) When I first joined writing groups on the net—and I joined a slew of them—I noticed they were run/hosted mostly, if not entirely, by rank beginners or low-level professionals or even hobbyists. And, as a result, the advice in these places made me cringe. Not only was the advice wrong most of the time (albeit well intentioned, I’m sure), but could be positively crippling to someone starting out.
But rather than complaining or flaming the hosts and members of these groups, I quietly, unceremoniously, just left and created a writing group of my own: Mike’s Writing Workshop. It’s a place where writers can support each other, discuss their writing, talk about the business, share info and inspiration, and anything else writing related.
W-A: I know that my own writing usually sounds like whatever I’m reading at the moment, so I try to be careful about what I read. Do you mind telling us about what kinds of things you read each day?
Mike: I’m admittedly a total news junkie. Can’t get enough of it.
I’ll read virtually every single thing about the big news of the day or the financial news or the news coming out of the publishing industry or any news connected to a particular story I’m working on.
I’ll read magazines, especially if I’m alerted to something great that’s written in The New Yorker or Esquire or Sports Illustrated or Time or Newsweek, but I don’t read them nearly as much as I used to, when I gobbled up around five a week.
And books, well, frankly—I hardly read them at all anymore. When I graduated from college and aspiring to be a novelist, I read over 300 short novels in ONE YEAR, classics of Camus and Hemingway and Faulkner and Tolstoy and Fitzgerald and the like. I made a decision that I wanted to drink all those great words into my system and have them be a part of me forever.
After that, I read between 10-20 books a year for a decade, then scaled it down to around five, then all the way down to maybe 1-2 a year once I hit my 40’s.
I just don’t seem to have the time or patience or interest to read books anymore.
W-A: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Mike.