A Freelance Writing Guide

by Abbie Walker

When I majored in journalism, I didn’t exactly know what life after college would look like. But a class assignment my senior year quickly developed into writing for a local magazine, and my freelance writing career sort of grew by accident. Four years later, I’m still enjoying getting to meet interesting people and share their stories through writing. Here are some things I’ve learned as a freelancer that I hope will help any of you wanting to join the fun.  

(A quick disclaimer: While I’ve contributed to some online publications, I write mostly for local, print publications. My writing is mainly journalistic, interviewing people about their lives, business, events, etc. Therefore, my knowledge about writing for particular publications might be limited.)

  1. Do your research. If you want to start testing the freelance writing waters, the first task is to decide who you want to write for. Grab some magazines, read posts on websites, get to know the publications you’re interested in. Who is their audience? What messages are they trying to communicate to that audience? What topics have they covered and are there any subjects they haven’t discussed? Make sure any online publications you’re interested in are legit before you start submitting your work. Also, be sure to look over their submission guidelines if they have any and stick to them as much as possible.

  2. Pitch an idea. Sometimes a publication will call for posts/articles about a particular topic. In this case, it’s a good idea to have your random writings on hand because you never know when those 800 words about a particular moment in your life will be the perfect fit for a blog or magazine. Otherwise, you can pitch an idea that makes sense with the publication. Even if a topic has already been covered, think of a different angle. For example, I interviewed a woman who had been written about in numerous national publications, but because she was from my hometown, I was able to put a local spin on it for a smaller magazine. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box or ask people that fit into the publication’s audience what they would like to read about.

  3. Brag a little. When you’re pitching an idea to a publication, this is the time to give yourself some credibility. Include links to writing samples if possible (preferably something that’s been published, even if it’s your school newspaper or a local newsletter). If you don’t have any samples, starting a blog would be a great way to showcase your writing and build a portfolio once you do get published. Depending on the publication, you might want to emphasize your platform, photography skills, or your expertise in a certain area (e.g. health blogs, etc.).

  4. Know what’s expected. If a publication accepts your pitch, yay! That’s half the battle! Now it’s time to submit your work. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while freelancing it is to be sure you and the publication contact are on the same page. Make sure you agree on the submission deadline, word count, tone, style, format, etc. Do they want you to provide pictures to go along with your writing? Will the publication have the full rights to the piece or will you be able to publish it elsewhere at some point? How much will your writing be edited? Will you be paid? If so, how much and when? It helps to have all this in writing so you can refer back to it if there are any problems. A lot of publications already have their own invoice templates for you to fill out and send to them upon publication of your work. If not, go ahead and make your own. I also created a document where I could keep track of my assignments, deadlines, etc, as well as record when I was paid. Which brings me to my next tip...

  5. Be willing to work for free. If you’re an unpublished writer, chances are you’re not going to get paid for your writing at first. There were a couple of publications that I contributed several articles to before they agreed to pay me. And that’s ok. Editors often just need to see that you can actually produce something on time. But once you get some experience, and a byline or two, under your belt, don’t be afraid to ask for compensation. There are plenty of people that need good writers and good ideas right now. Even if it’s just $10 an article, decide how much your time is worth.

  6. Know your limits. Decide what deadlines you’re comfortable with and if you want to write regularly for a publication. I’ve been lucky enough to have written for some great magazines that allow me to pitch my own ideas and that pay well and on time. However, I’ve also dealt with publications that have expected too much for what they paid me or some who took almost a year to process invoices. Understand that some editors might be more picky than others, but if you feel like your work is being over-edited or you’re not being treated fairly, simply say “thank u, next” and move on. The joy of freelancing is that you get to decide how much you want to write and for whom, but be careful about being taken advantage of.

If you have any questions about freelance writing or interviewing people for articles, I’d love to help! You can email me at abbiekwalker@gmail.com. Happy writing!

Freelance Writer’s Toolkit:

-AP Style Guide

-The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

-Your favorite small notepad and a nice pen for taking notes

-The latest edition of Writer’s Market