8 Truths about Freelance Writing

by Jodi Helmer

Want to make a living as a freelance writer? Before you quit your day job, there are a few things you need to know to achieve freelance success.

1. It’s a numbers game: You know the old adage, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince”? The same holds true in freelancing. You have to send a lot of queries before you get assignments. Be patient. Have faith. And keep sending queries. I aim to have at least six queries out at a time to ensure assignments (and checks) keep rolling in.

2. Rejection happens. Often: Sending a lot of queries means receiving a lot of rejections. Getting an assignment is about sending the right idea to the right editor at the right time. If all the pieces don’t fall into place, an editor will reject an idea. Don’t take it personally. Every writer with a byline gets their fair share of rejections.

3. Homework is necessary: If you want to break into a magazine, you need to study it. Read the coverlines, study the tone of the articles. If the magazine is filled with “10 Ways…,” “5 Things…,” and “99 Tips…” articles, follow the format when you pitch an idea.

4. Bylines matter: Get to know who’s writing the articles in your favorite magazines. If all the writers are on staff (check the names on the articles against the names on the masthead) there may not be a lot of opportunities for freelancers. The same goes if most of the articles are written by the same small group of writers (even if those writers are not on the masthead).

5. Editors need you: It’s easy to view editors as intimidating gatekeepers. In truth, editors don’t have jobs without writers. They depend on freelancers of varied backgrounds to send ideas. Freelancers write the majority of the articles published in national magazines, which means you have a great shot at scoring an assignment.

6. It’s OK to start small: A lot of freelancers (including me) started out by writing for low-paying regional magazines. Editors at smaller publications are more likely to give new writers a shot and the experience you’ll gain will help you break into top markets. Just remember, it’s impossible to make a decent living writing for $25 per article, so think of it as a starting point, not a long-term career plan.

7. Writing is a business: You can be the best writer in the world, but if you are a terrible businessperson, it’ll be next-to-impossible to have a successful career as a freelance writer. Sure, you can hire an accountant to handle your taxes and a lawyer to review your contracts – you can even hire a housekeeper to tidy your office – but the day-to-day responsibilities of bookkeeping, sending (and following up on) invoices, marketing and customer service all fall squarely in your lap.

8. Networking is necessary: It sounds great to work from home in your pajamas (and it is), but it’s essential to connect with other writers through online forums, conferences, or writing groups. Your network will be a lifeline when you’re feeling low from rejection, want to celebrate successes, or have questions.


Learn How to Write Pitches That Sell with Jodi

TUESDAY, MAY 14: “How to Pitch Freelance Work,” 6:00–8:00 p.m., Charlotte Lit, 933 Louise Avenue (@hygge Belmont). Info and registration

Whether you’re looking to land your first freelance client or have some experience and want to land more (and higher paying) clients, crafting a successful pitch is essential for landing freelance work. But different types of clients require different approaches. In this class, we’ll review the basics of pitching freelance work, from finding opportunities and writing compelling pitches to negotiating contracts and managing workflow. The class will focus on journalism/articles and branded content for corporate clients, and there will be hands-on exercises to help you write a compelling pitch.

About Jodi

Jodi Helmer has been a full-time freelance writer since 2002. She’s written for small magazines and big brands and managed to support her family (and fund her 401k) in the process. You’ll find her work in National Geographic Traveler, Scientific American, and Our State and corporate sites for GE Healthcare, Pfizer, Mastercard, and AARP.