Answers to 100 Freelance Writing Questions — Including Yours

Do you have a question about how to be more successful as a freelance writer?

If so, welcome to the club. I get emails and tweets and questions on my Facebook page all the time.

I try to answer some of them each month in a mailbag post, but I never can get to them all.

I do answer tons more of them inside the forums of Freelance Writers Den…I just checked and I’ve answered nearly 3,500 questions in there, in the 18 months the Den’s been open.

Since Freelance Writers Den is only open occasionally for new members, you may be wondering if it’s a community where you could learn how to grow your freelance writing income for 2013.

So…my idea this time is to give you a free taste of what it’s like to be a Den member, and answer questions live here on this post, like we do every day on the Den private forums. Just part of my “give-back” goodies I’m laying on my readers here at year-end — like my free writing productivity ebook offer a couple weeks back (it’s now on sale for just 99 cents, by the way).

To make a start, I’ve answered a few mailbag questions below. And then…

I’m going to take 100 more questions in the comments and give them custom, individualized answers.

The only rule: One question per writer, please.

(If you leave more than one, I’m just going to answer the first one.)

What kept you from earning more as a freelance writer this year? Let me know what mystifies you about the freelance-writing game, and I’ll try to answer.

I’m wide open to any topic on the craft of writing or blogging, journalism or copywriting, articles or web content…or anything on how to market yourself as a freelancer.

But first, let me roll up my sleeves and get to the bulging mailbag:

Topic: Pitching guest posts for a client. “I’ve been approached to blog for a start-up company. They already have a blog but absolutely no traffic. I suggested they need to guest blog for big blogs to generate traffic.

I’ve already blogged for [a big blog] which is a good target for them. Can I pitch them a post on behalf of a client or is that “not done”?

Also, how much extra would you suggest I charge compared to writing for their own blog?” –Henry

You can pitch a big blog on behalf of a paying client, Henneke, but I don’t recommend it. If you’ve been building your reputation for your own blog with that high-traffic blog, that’s worth way more to you than the $100 or so you might get from a client for doing that post.

Which brings us to the other problem (which I know about because I actually DID do this for a client at one point): It’s really hard to get a “yes.” Most blogs will turn this down. (Also know this because agencies pitch me guest posts for this-here blog on behalf of their clients all the time, and I ALWAYS say no.) I had to work very hard and pitch dozens of places to get a single acceptance on a topic for my client.

I ended up quitting this gig because I felt there was no way to get paid enough. I ended up billing for my time hourly for researching appropriate top blogs and pitching them, which was unaffordable for the client. But it kind of has to work that way, because there’s no guarantee of getting a win. If you only get paid per successful guest-post you place, it’ll never pencil out at a decent hourly rate, trust me.

Topic: Copyrights on pro bono work. “I have contributed some short articles to an acquaintance who has used it for her web site and blog. We’ve never operated under contract and I have not charged her, nor do I plan to.

This is a question about rights, not about the wisdom of pro bono writing 🙂 Does she, as the site owner – or do I – maintain any implied rights to the work that I have written, and given permission for her to use? Ultimately I’m interested in either selling it, or using it on my own blog. Thoughts?”–Chuck

My thought is that you’ve created a big, honkin’ gray area here, Chuck. Since there’s no contract, there’s no clarity on who owns what.

Luckily, she’s your friend, so we’re hoping if you do resell the content, she’s not going to sue you. But just to be on the safe side, if you are interested in selling or republishing the same material elsewhere, I’d ask your friend to do a contract after the fact to define that you have granted her only nonexclusive first publication rights to the content, and retain all other rights.

If this content is really key to your business, please consult a lawyer on how to secure your rights to make sure you’ve got this nailed.

Topic: Cold calling. “I’m a new freelance writer, trying to overcome all of the false starts and blows to my self-confidence that have kept me from being as successful as I need to be.  (In fact, emailing a “big name” freelance writer is one of my self imposed exercises to help me get braver and transition out of my “employee” mindset into a business owner perspective.)

Is finding work as simple as making a list of businesses and organizations and then calling down through that list?”–Arthur

It could be, Arthur — if you have some knowledge or life experience in a lucrative niche — such as technology, financial services, or healthcare — and know how to find and pre-qualify appropriate prospects and build a big list of companies most likely to hire you. Plus, you also know how to pitch successfully on the phone. (And, of course, you turn out to be at least a competent copywriter.)

If you’re shaky on any of those steps, we have a lot of resources in Freelance Writers Den that could help you, including a 4-hour Break into Business Writing bootcamp — which features a 1-hour training from Original Copywriters Coach Chris Marlow on writing persuasive copy.

The whole trick is, cold-calling is a serious numbers game. You’ll likely need to make hundreds of calls to find the clients you need.

Topic: Building your portfolio. “I sent this tip in to [a popular tips newsletter]. [The author] is a contributor for CBS.com and he’s been on national television shows, such as Dr. Drew. The blog/newletter goes out to his subscribers. Does my blurb officially count as a clip?”–Terri

Assuming this tip you gave is pretty short, Terri, it could be a clip, but not a very good one. Hopefully, you’re busy building more substantial credits and won’t feel like you need to use this. It’s not very impressive to point prospects to a two-line tip you got published.

Topic: How much expertise is enough. “I used to be a medical student.  I’m thinking medical writing would be my topic area.  I’m thinking niche-wise, it would be human communication in medicine, because I’ve made a 15-year study of human communication.

Three potential obstacles impede this pursuit.  First, my medical education was only two years in medical school.  Second, I wish *not* to write for academic journals but to write instead for company blogs, newspapers, magazines, and consumer publications (for example, Reader’s Digest or AARP). I don’t know whether there is a demand for medicine-communication articles.  Third and finally, I wish to work almost entirely from home.

How would I get my start in medicine-communication writing?  Whom would I query and who (client-wise) might spring for this niche?  Ought I to begin by writing pro-bono for charitable clinics and foundations?”–Rahul

“I have a Masters in Health Education and have an interest in writing about nutritional topics. I also have a certificate in medical marketing writing. To date, I have only published medical-related articles in a student-run journal.

I work in the field of human services as a social worker. I am caught in the middle of writing about what I know (psychotropic medications) and what I desire to know (infectious diseases). I lean more toward a holistic approach to a child’s mental health treatment versus medications. Do you have any suggestions?”–Anne

Rahul, you have two years of medical school? You’ve got waaay more experience in healthcare than the vast majority of freelance healthcare writers working today. Your knowledge puts you in a great position to pitch medical stories to magazines. All you need to do is learn how to write a query letter so you can get an article assigned…and then learn how to write a magazine article.

Like Anne, you seem to have a very specific niche within healthcare you’d like to focus on. When you first start out, it’ll be smart to think more broadly within your niche. As you build your portfolio and stable of clients, it’ll be easier to narrow in on your favorite subtopic within healthcare and write more on that — and yes, starting with nonprofits and/or organizations that might know you from your med-school or social-work days would be a good place to start.

Topic: Feeling qualified and finding a niche. “I have been writing online and doing guest blogging, even though I don’t have a blog of my own. Much of my research has led to the fact that a lot of freelance writers had different careers before freelance writing, so they are experts in whichever field they were in and, in turn, write about those topics. 

However, I’ve just graduated college a couple of months ago, so I really can’t say that I’m an expert at anything.  I like to write about many different topics if I find there is a great story.  How could I go about honing in on the couple of things I should stick to writing about?

Also, is it okay to put samples of work on your website that were not published just to show the type of work you can do?”–Kelsey

I was a starving songwriter before getting into freelance writing myself, Kelsey. Also a college dropout. So I can guarantee you, you don’t have to have a past career as a nuclear scientist or anything to get started. You really don’t need to be an expert in anything — as an article writer, you will find and interview experts and quote them. You need to be a strong writer. That’s the main skill you bring to the table.

As far as figuring out what topics to write on, just follow the lead of what interests you. If you need to earn, the marketplace will show you which of your areas of interest pay best. Then, you’ll write more of that and develop niche expertise in those areas over time that will help you earn even more.

Your turn: What’s your freelance writing question? Leave it in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.

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