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How to Be a Successful Freelancer

How to be a successful freelancer

I was a teenage editor. I started by editing the essays of friends then advanced to the high school yearbook. From there I began work at my parents’ struggling weekly newspaper, where I earned almost no money but reaped lots of valuable experience. After that, I wrote the occasional piece for a national magazine and then finally advanced to working at a metropolitan daily newspaper.

As a result of my experience, I have a really good idea about what editors want and need. And if you can meet those needs, you stand an excellent chance of landing more freelance writing gigs.

Here is my advice on how to be a successful freelancer:

Start with plenty of research

If you want your words to appear in a certain publication or blog, you need to know it inside out. First, make sure they accept submissions. (I don’t on this blog, although I still receive an average of three pitches per day. Such a waste of time for those writers!) Read several years’ worth of issues and make a list of the topics they’ve already covered. Don’t pitch them on a subject they don’t write about. And, if they have already published something similar, then pitch them another idea and save the first one for someone else.

Follow the rules

Search for the blog or publication’s submission guidelines – and then triple check that you’ve followed their rules before sending in your pitch. Sometimes, these guidelines may be hidden under a “Contact” or “FAQ” page so be sure your search is thorough. If you can’t find it, do a search on the term “submission guidelines” on the outlet’s website. Never question these rules, as crazy as they might sound. They might require a certain subject line in the email, a headline, or a specific word count. Follow the rules to the letter.

Pitch to a real person

Never write to “Dear Editor.” It will mark you as lazy and incapable. You must use the name of the person you are pitching. Most of the time you can glean this information with a search of Google, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Or you can pick up the phone and call the publication. Learning the editor’s name and addressing them personally will show them you’re serious about writing for them.

Present the story you want to tell

Writers often say they want to write about something. But there’s a big difference between an idea and a story. For example, being a successful writer is an idea. But here is a pitch with a real story (based on my own real-life circumstances):

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How high school debating prepares students for real life

What was my favourite sport as a high school student? Don’t laugh. It was debating. While I didn’t burnish my body’s muscles, I won lots of trophies and even qualified for the national finals. Now, however, I realize that the skills I learned as a debater helped transform me into a successful writer. I learned how to research. I learned how to make a case eloquently and convincingly. I learned how to accept criticism gracefully. And I bet the same results are happening today. I propose interviewing roughly three successful high school debaters in their late-20s and grilling them on how their debating skills prepared them for life beyond college. I see a fun 1,200-word piece here. 

As you shape your story proposal, understand that by and large, publications aren’t interested in what you want to write. They’re interested in what their readers want to read.

Make your pitch stand out 

Your pitch should include some important statistics, new research, or recent trends that make your pitch stand out as timely and of the moment. A quick trip to the library, or consulting another organization’s website (or fact sheet) should give you just the background info you need to make your pitch more compelling.

Use a headline

Writers don’t write headlines. That’s a job of an editor. But as an eager and smart writer, you can make your pitch far more appealing if you take the time to give it a provisional headline (understanding the publication will probably change it later). In fact, if the submission guidelines give you enough leeway, use the headline as the subject line of your pitch. If you’ve written a good headline, it will get the editor’s attention right away. Note that good headlines don’t need to be “cute” – instead, they need to communicate, clearly, what the story is about. And they need to use a verb.

Give a brief bio

Write a couple of sentences outlining your previous writing experience. Link it to your own website or online portfolio (even if this is simply your LinkedIn profile), highlighting two to five of your pieces that are the most relevant to the post you’re pitching.

Review red flags 

Don’t try to pitch stories you’ve written that have already run somewhere else (the editor will probably find them with a quick google search.) And make sure that your Facebook page and your Twitter and Instagram feeds are clean and reasonable. You don’t want to lose a writing gig because your political beliefs don’t match those of the editor you’re pitching.

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Ask for a response

Don’t end your pitch with something vague and cheery like,  “Hoping to hear from you soon.” Instead, follow the principle all effective salespeople use: Ask for the order. By being explicit about your request, you’re far more likely to get a timely response. Here’s how to do it: “Would you be interested in publishing this article/guest post? Please let me know within two weeks. I can get the story to you within five days of your go-ahead.”

Have NO mistakes

Review your final pitch with a fine-toothed comb, looking for spelling and grammar errors — and any other mistakes you might have made. Proofreading is a special skill requiring attention and talent. (If, like me, you just aren’t wired that way, ask a friend to proofread for you.) And check out my post with 10 easy-to-use tips on how to become a better proofreader.

Learning how to be a successful freelance writer is largely a numbers game. A certain percentage of your pitches will always fail. But if you approach the job right, a certain percentage will always be accepted. Make the numbers work in your favour.

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