Answers to the 7 Questions New Freelance Writers Ask Most - Make a Living Writing

Answers to the 7 Questions New Freelance Writers Ask Most

Carol Tice | 30 Comments

Do you ever feel like freelance writing is some sort of secret club, where everyone speaks a private language you don’t understand?

Feel baffled about the basics of how it all works?

Sometimes when I’m writing about the freelance-writing game, I’m guilty of forgetting that some writers are brand-new to this.

Don’t feel dumb

I’m glad that a few brave newbies are willing to ask about terms they don’t understand, either here on the blog or in the forums on Freelance Writers Den.

And I know for every writer willing to ask me about industry jargon or how things work, there are probably 100 more too embarrassed to say they don’t know.

So I want to back up today and explain some terminology and basic resources on how to take those first steps.

These are the seven questions I’m most commonly asked by new writers:

  1. What is a clip? This term used to mean an article you’d written and had published. We called it a clip because you’d cut or clip it out of the magazine or newspaper it appeared in and paste it into your portfolio. Which was a physical book. Then we saddled up our horse and rode to town…OK, I’m not quite that old. But obviously, the term is a little out of date. Today, we usually collect our clips in a virtual portfolio of links that you create on your writer website, so prospects can easily find and read your work online. This published work we still call clips. Out of habit. Yes, I can totally see why that’s confusing if you’re new here. The important point is, it’s helpful to have a few clips from quality places to convince prospects to hire you…but not essential.
  2. What is SEO? That stands for Search Engine Optimization, which is the art of putting key words into your writing at a level of frequency that will help the Web page it appears on rank highly in search engines for those particular words or phrases. At this point, if someone asks if you are an “SEO writer,” you probably want to run the other way. This means you’ll be writing for an audience of search-engine robots, rather than people. And that work almost always pays very poorly.
  3. What is The Writer’s Market? I’m so glad you asked, since I’m on the freakin’ cover of the 2013 edition! (Not making this up — check it out!) Why does this make me feel like the queen of the freelance writing dorks? Because this doorstop-sized volume is the definitive source of market information for everything from magazines and trade publications to book publishers and poetry contests. It’s got a handy survey in the front on what people charge for various types of writing, too, in case you’re baffled on what to bid. If you’re buying TWM, get the online-supported version where you can search their database. Real time-saver.
  4. What is an interview? An interview is the conversation you have with a source for an article. It happens either in person or over the phone. You ask questions, and then listen and take notes while the source answers. Emails are not interviews. If you get answers to your questions on email, you should cite it as such to make clear you in fact did not interview the person, as in: “‘That sucks,’ said Joe Smith in an email response.”
  5. Which editor should I contact at a magazine? Don’t hit anybody above managing editor — an executive editor or editor-in-chief is usually above the day-to-day fray and not reading query letters. If there’s an articles editor or an editor for the specific column you’re pitching, choose them. Otherwise, managing editor is often a good starting place. Of course, you could always just call up the publication and ask them who takes freelance pitches. Whatever you do, don’t send your query to [email protected] Get a real name and email or it’s into the slush pile with your idea, never to be seen again.
  6. What is a pitch? A pitch is your bid to write for a business or publication. It’s usually delivered on email these days, unless the publication insists on snail mail. There are two basic types of pitches, query letters and letters of introduction. A query letter contains a fleshed-out story idea, including a headline and outline of what you’d write. A letter of introduction simply introduces you to a market and explains why you would be a perfect fit to write for their publication or company. Both of these are little art forms of their own, and well worth mastering, as they can open a lotta doors for you and get you many gigs.
  7. Who should I contact at a business to pitch them my writing services? In general — in the absence of any personal connections or inside information on the company’s inner workings — the marketing manager is a good bet when you’re pitching your services as a business writer. You can often scan a company’s press releases to find their name.

I thought about adding one final question to this list that I get a lot: “What is the one, easiest, best, low-cost way to market my writing?” The problem is, there’s no one answer to this one. It depends on you — your personality, and the types of markets you’re going after.

My short answer, without knowing anything about you, is “The way you’re willing to stick with.”

Got another question? Leave a comment and I will strive to answer all comers.

30 comments on “Answers to the 7 Questions New Freelance Writers Ask Most

  1. Carol Tice on

    Just have to report that since posting this I’ve been asked what is SEO AGAIN, and also: What is LinkedIn?

    This just reminds me not to assume too much about what writers know and to make sure I start from the beginning when I talk about a topic. Don’t want to lose anybody!

  2. Ali on

    I read somewhere that, from time to time, you should write a piece for total newbies. As you said “don’t feel dumb” that’s the feeling you have when writing about something very simple. I enjoyed the post and am sharing 🙂

  3. Dan Kennedy on

    Hi all,

    Love the site! I’ve been reading the posts and comments more than I’ve been doing my work.

    I have what may be a naive question, but just when can one call oneself a “freelance writer”? Does one need to have published something? I’m really new to this, and feel like it’s a bit of a fraud if I pitch myself as a “freelance write” without ever having landed a gig. Carol, is this just one of those fears new writer have that we need to get over to market ourselves effectively?

    Thanks for all the insight, and for the willingness you all have to share your hard-won knowledge!

    -Dan

    • Carol Tice on

      You can say it as soon as you stop saying “oneself.” 😉

      But seriously…I think if you do a few free pro-bono samples for clients, do a good job, and get their recommendations, you’re there. You’ve got a bitty portfolio, you’ve worked with clients (even if it wasn’t for pay)…you’re launching.

      Approach those first clients and tell them you’re looking to start a business in freelance writing, could you do a brochure/web content/etc for them? And take it from there.

  4. Theresa on

    Well I can’t wait! Ordered The Writer’s Market a few hours ago (thanks for the direct url to it) and now it’s Amazon’s turn. Shouldn’t be long, all my experiences ordering with Amazon have been great!

    Thanks again for what looks like a PACKED source of info 🙂

  5. Peter D. Mallett on

    Hello Carol!
    What do you know you are on the cover of Writer’s Digest. I have my copy right here. I just got my copy in the mail the other day. Funny thing is we both posted today on our blogs and both recommended it. 🙂 I also have a glossary of terms on a seperate page of my blog. It seems many of the things we do for work or hobbies have their own new words to learn. Sometimes it is part of the fun.

    My blog just started a month ago, but I have been writing for some time. I’m glad I found your page. I am bookmarking yours, and I will be back.
    Peter

    • Peter D. Mallett on

      Wow,
      butterfingers, I made a typo on my own name. This is my blog in case you wondered why it didn’t come up.
      P.S I enjoyed your article on freelancing in the Writer’s Guide.
      Peter

    • Carol Tice on

      I keep having the same reaction peter…”What…am I on the COVER of that? I KNOW that can’t be right…” Next time I walk by. “Dang, there it still is! Is that really there???” I’m considering having a t-shirt made of the cover I’m like so giddy.

      I recommend subscribing to the blog here instead of bookmarking…bookmarking won’t get you all the free goodies and special deals I send subscribers. 😉 RSS-ers lose out on that as well. ;-(

  6. Theresa Cahill on

    Hi Carol!

    Love the fact that you are johnny-on-the-spot with this post (I did ask about a glossary for the Den on the last call). It is important to know not just the “formula” for what to do when and how, but also the vocabulary.

    [For instance, one of the things I do is called a solo that others in IM call a “standalone.” Same animal, different name.]

    The “clip” was the one that was throwing me off. I’m thinking… she must mean a “blurb” that writers often put at the top of their articles (if submitting to directories) – which you clearly explain is not the case, thank you!

    So… problem solved 🙂

    Clarice also has a point. I, too, have been doing SEO for 10+ years. If you’re writing blog posts or an About page or whatever content for a website or blog, it is important IF the client wants something stressed, to know how much, how often.

    Typically, keyword density (also calling upon Jon Morrow, who I can thank you for btw) for a keyword/keyword phrase based on approximately 500 words, the writer would use it in the title (if appropriate), in the first sentence and maybe a variation of it within the first “paragraph.” Once, twice, three times tops within the body, and again in the closing sentence. You can play around with the phrase (which gives your writing variety). This would provide a density of around 2-3% (again on 500 words) give or take. That’s not stuffing and search engines will love you 🙂

    So saying you know SEO and how to do it the right way could be a big plus particularly online. But, as you point out, if it sounds more like the potential client is looking for “spun articles” or $5 cheapies… run! LOL!

    However, I did not start out at all to add my two cents to SEO.

    It is the use of terms for this industry that one needs to know (again as so many have said) so we don’t sound like idiots (or cannot respond to a response should the editor use a term or acronym in their reply).

    Also HOLY COW congratulations! To me it is no surprise. Personally I love your style and how you use everyday “speak” in such an interesting way that a person would be a fool not to finish reading what you’ve written.

    And, the comments you get are remarkable and very informative – either making me think, “Oh yeah, I wanted to know that, too” (or just something in passing from the freelance writing perspective).

    (BTW getting out more, refining my ideas, all thanks to being a Den member – I love you all! Off to grab up a copy of The Writer’s Market!)

  7. Clarice Dankers on

    Hi Carol,

    This whole thread has been really useful, thank you.

    I disagree with you about SEO, however. Applying SEO to a web page doesn’t simply mean stuffing the page with the same keywords over and over. In fact, Google’s search engines highly dislike such a practice (as well as human visitors).

    It DOES, however, mean ensuring that each page is built around a specific keyword phrase that is unique to that page. It means incorporating this phrase into the title of the page, into the headlines, and into the links that take you to another page on your website.

    For example, instead of writing a link that says something like “Click Here,” you write “Learn more about my freelance writing services.”

    Another important SEO piece is to ensure that you write a brief description meta tag and place it in the code. (Each page on your website needs its own unique description tag.)

    The description incorporates the keyword phrase for that page and briefly describes what the page is about. When you conduct a search, Google brings back the top 10 choices for your keywords. Each listing begins with a link to the relevant page on your website. This link is the title you have used for that page, and it needs to incorporate your keywords. After the link comes a brief description of that page. If you have placed a description tag in the code, Google will usually use it here. If you have not, Google will pick up information at random, which is often gobbledygook.

    The goal is to make your description so interesting that people will want to click on the link and go to your website. This is why the description tag is so important–to human visitors, businesses and Google, too.

    All of these SEO features play a key role in how websites rank, yet they do not affect how a page reads to human visitors.

    • Carol Tice on

      Agreed to all that…but I stick by my basic feedback that when prospects start asking you to put 2% keywords in — usually followed by the warning that they’ll be checking Copyscape to see if you’re plagiarizing — you want to flee. This sort of SEO “writing” is a very low-paid niche.

      I think website and technical people are more usually called upon to make sure headers and meta tags have good SEO.

      • Terr on

        Yeah, I’m transitioning out of this sort of writing now and TRUST ME, I want to fleeeeeee!

        I mean, SEO writing gave me my start but I learn everyday that this isn’t TRUE freelance writing. The rates that I earn per SEO “article” are humiliating to admit. At least I’ve found a way to make sure that my situation will be very different this time next year.

        I do think new writers need to know what you (Carol) were basically speaking of when you mentioned SEO writing. There are a lot of SEO content writers out there who believe that what they’re doing is REAL professional freelance writing. I know a lot of “content mills” blatantly advertise that if the writer works for the “mill”, they’ll have clips to add to their portfolios.

        Really!

      • Clarice Dankers on

        My observation has been that web designers–by and large–do not incorporate any of these SEO features in their work. If they do insert a description tag (which is rare), they use the same one on all of the pages, which is ineffective.

        Nor do web designers tend to handle any of the other SEO features I mentioned above. If the content writer does not do it either, then it doesn’t get done–at great detriment to the clients and their business. (If your company does not appear in the top 10 for an important search term for your company, you are basically invisible.)

        I have never been asked to do the kind of keyword-stuffing work you describe, and to be honest I have never heard of Copyscape, either. Again, Google’s search engines will penalize you if you use the keywords too often. So anyone who is writing keyword-stuffed copy is harming her clients.

  8. Terr on

    Thank you, thank you for this post!!! I was just thinking of reaching out to you and to Linda. I admit, I was too cowardly to ask questions about terms. I was also afraid of looking foolish or unintelligent if I asked certain questions in the den. However, I’m clearing the decks personally and professionally so I can get my career on track. Therefore, I need to understand what the heck I’m doing and I need to understand industry jargon and protocol.

    Since we’re on the topic, here’s a suggestion I’d like to offer from my days working in call centers. Could you and Linda or whomever come up with what we used to call an “If/Then” training chart?

    The If/Then chart is used in sales and in customer service training modules, in order to give reps a cheat sheet for handling common scenarios. For example, if something takes place, then the chart explains how the rep should handle the scenario. This is why it’s called an If/Then chart.

    What I’d like to see is an If/Then chart for LOI’s (Letters Of Introduction), Queries, Pitches, etc. Newbies need to know exactly what to send out, to who, and when it’s appropriate or not. I know Linda has produced books on the topic and I have a couple of her books. However, I still need to know exactly when to do what. For example, if are queries too formal to send to bloggers? If I send a query out, should I then send out a pitch? Should I send out all three?

    You can see how the fear of breaking protocol could hold writers back from actually writing and earning money! At least, I’m afraid of breaking protocol and ruining my chances with an editor. I’m afraid of trashing my reputation before I get started because of newbie mistakes. If I could get past this barrier, then I’d be so stoked to start marketing!!!

    So, please let me/us know what you think of my suggestion. Thanks again for understanding that learning how to be a professional freelance writer is akin to learning a brand new career. Nobody wants to look like a dumb newbie 😀

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Terr — Interesting idea! Not totally sure it would work as what we do is a lot more complex than handling 5 classic types of customer complaints or something.

      The first thing you should do is read this post: How to Ruin Your Freelance Writing Career.

      Hopefully that will help you see that you need to let go of these fears and start marketing.

      There is no one, official protocol for how to send query letters to magazine editors or to pitch guest post ideas to bloggers.

      There is also no universal editor network where if you send one poorly done query they will all be notified and then no one will hire you. That’s not going to happen. There are always more markets, and in a few months you can re-query that editor and they likely won’t even remember your previous query. They’re busy people.

      I’m doing a post for Freelance Switch later this month on queries vs LOIs and when to send which, so be on the lookout for that.

      In the meanwhile…start trying things. A lot of things. Send a buncha queries to magazines. Send a buncha LOIs to trade pubs. See where you get a response. Do more of that thing that’s going right. Lather, rinse, repeat. That’s it.

      Stop worrying about whether you’re doing it some imaginary one perfect right way, and just start doing. Different writers get results different ways, and you need to get busy finding your way.

      • Terr on

        Thanks for the advice. Yes, I’ll swallow my ego and get out there. I’m making “getting out there” my number one focus, beyond (Barely) “paying the bills” with content stuff.

        I will look at the links that everyone has sent. I’d still ask that you consider some type of quasi-chart or something…just a thought. 🙂

  9. Lisa on

    Carol, that’s AWESOME you’re on the cover of Writer’s Market! Also, this is a great post. I have another couple of jargon words that I’d love to hear you define: lede and nut graf. I think I know what they are but I kind of picked it up from context — I’d love to hear your definition.

    • Carol Tice on

      Great Lisa — I almost put lede in!

      Lede is jargonese for the lead sentence in an article.

      And the nut graf is the one hopefully just a few grafs in (as opposed to 8 or 10) in which you give us the gist of what this story is going to be about. Like, right after that fascinating opening anecdote when you go, “Jody is not alone in her fears. A study by Bla Marketing revealed 85% of Americans are terrified their hair will fall out. But there ARE simple steps everyone can take to keep the hair they’ve got.”

      Or whatever your topic is. Now the reader can settle in, because they know what ride they’re on, and what they’ll know at the end.

    • Carol Tice on

      Thanks Will — I still have a stunned out of body experience type reaction every time I walk past my copy, which is sitting on my nightstand. I’ve been getting this thing since I was in my 20s…and it’s still SO weird to see MY name on the front of it! There must be like 20 different authors in there who contributed articles and it’s mind-blowing that I’m one of the 3 they chose to call out on the cover.

      I feel a great responsibility to be a genius now…

  10. Carol Anne on

    Any marketing tips for introverts or those who need to build self-confidence in their ability to sell their work (I have full confidence in my ability to write and meet the needs of a client and the audience). It’s the selling part that makes me feel … dirty.

    • Will Bontrager on

      That’s too bad. I know how you feel. The idea of selling can put a bad taste in one’s mouth.

      I think the bad taste may come from the idea that when a person manipulates someone into doing something, then one is also obligated to share the responsibility of the effect it may have on the person’s life.

      Selling something to someone does in fact change their life. Perhaps small, perhaps in a huge way. Hopefully a good change, but perhaps not. Depends on how the person uses or doesn’t use what s/he has been sold. And the person’s life circumstances.

      I’ve stopped selling. Instead, I just let people know what I can do for them with suggestions about how they might benefit.

      But selling, no. They make up their own mind. I will not knowingly manipulate anyone or tell them what they must do. Their life is their responsibility.

      Will

      • Carol Tice on

        I get you, Will. That’s how I think of my own marketing. I’m just saying hey — do you need a freelance writer? Overwhelmed with your writing tasks? I could help you out with that. Let me know if you want that.

    • Carol Tice on

      Hopefully you’re signed up for my Marketing 101 e-course you get for subscribing to this blog, Carol Anne — it’ll present you with a boatload of possible marketing strategies and tips. 1 or 2 of those strategies will hopefully feel comfortable for you.

      And when you market your business consistently, over time it comes to you that marketing is not dirty. It’s what successful businesses do. If you want to have one, marketing is part of your everyday routine.

    • Terr on

      I wanted to respond to your comment, based on a Tweet I got this morning:

      The barista (of a famous coffee shop) charges you $6.00 for a cup of coffee that they make you wait on for 3 mins (or more). A writer takes a year or more to write a book and sells it for only $4.99 and people will say it costs too much.

      The lesson in that for me, is that CERTAIN COFFEE SHOPS get away with charging ridiculous prices while serving nasty attitudes to customers, because they exude an air of superiority and confidence. They don’t care what people think of them. They don’t even care about the recession and the fact that people are strapped for money! They set the tone and people tend to fall in line with the program, so to speak. (Even while paying way too much for the coffee that was served up with a nasty attitude).

      Writers tend to exude an attitude of “OMG, my work isn’t good enough, I how can I charge people to value me, I suck!”.

      If you don’t value yourself, no one else will value you either. Marketing isn’t dirty. It’s how anyone earns money. Every potential client isn’t going to be for you, but don’t feel dirty about finding the ones who are for you, and are willing to fall in line with YOUR program!

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