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How to Find the Best Writing Opportunities

Finding Writing Gigs Isn't ConfusingThere are so many types of writing gigs out there, it can be confusing for new writers. Which are the best opportunities to pursue? This is one of the questions asked me recently by budding freelance writer Barry Weymouth. He wrote:

I am currently about to finally get my degree in business finance, but I was a journalism major when I first started college years and years ago.  I have been in real estate and financial services for years now, but really looking for a new lease on life and never let go of the writing bug.  I do have a financial blog that a started [up] again just this week and now I want to take it to another level.

There seems to be so many opportunities out there, but how do you land them? Which ones are the best to go after and what are the ones to stay away from?

Is it best to work for one entry-level type job at a company (kind of captive to them I would say), or is it best to stay freelance?  It all seems a bit confusing and I just want to focus on the things that will be fruitful and not so much on anything out there that will be a waste of my time.

There are so many opportunities out there, Barry! It’s not your imagination. And as the economy recovers, there will be even more.

How do you land them? First, you find them — by networking, trolling online job boards, cold-calling, knocking on doors.  Once you’ve found opportunities, you land them by auditioning for them.

How can you audition for gigs? Many ways. Send writing samples. Send copywriting samples. Send your resume. Send a link to your blog. Pitch story ideas on the phone. Or build your blog audience, find advertisers for your blog and earn that way.

Which are the best kind of writing gigs to go after? The kind that are really well-suited to your writing experience, life experience, and interests. When I work with my mentees, this is basically what we focus on: What have you written before? Where have you worked? What types of writing do you like best? What industries did you find fascinating? What hobbies do you love?

Once you’ve answered those questions, you can seek out publications or companies that are a fit for you. Notice I said “seek out.” Yes, that’s right. You are the driver of your writing-career success. You will need to aggressively market your writing services to make a living.

You can avoid being overwhelmed by all the possibilities by focusing on writing opportunities that make sense for who you are. Don’t randomly apply to every writing gig you see. Pick a couple-three niche areas and focus on them.

If you don’t get results in a few months, try a few other niches that also relate to your experience and interests. But trust me, if you have a real-estate and business-finance background, you’re far more likely to find writing opportunities that have something to do with those fields than you are to find lucrative writing jobs about healthcare or horse grooming. If you love white papers, don’t apply to blog.

Why? Because when you do what you enjoy, you tend to do better. And better clips mean better future gigs.

Which are the types of gigs to stay away from? Writing assignments that pay slave wages — $10 a blog…you know the type. Avoid, avoid, avoid. Writing assignments you’re not interested in and eager to write. Also avoid.

I wish I could give you a magical answer to how to break into writing without wasting your time, Barry. But here’s how you’re going to find out what types of writing you like, can get gigs in, and pay well enough to be worth your while: Trial and error. Sometimes, you’ll try to go in a writing direction — for me last year, that was trying to crack the business-plan writing market — and it just won’t pan out. So you’ll try something else. Lather, rinse, repeat.

You can create a shortcut by focusing on what you’re best qualified and suited for, but you’re still going to have to experiment to find where you fit.

As far as full-time versus freelance…right now I’d say that full-time writing jobs are in very short supply. The woods seem to be full of laid-off journalists. But by all means, if you need the security of a steady paycheck, look for a full-time gig — or maybe a job within your fields of experience that involves some writing, and could serve as a bridge into writing as a career.

Personally, I had my highest-earning year ever in 2009, including the 12 years I was a staff writer for two different publications, so I may be biased toward freelancing! But as a brand-new writer, freelancing may also be a better way to go because there’s less deadline pressure and you can learn at your own pace.

Are you ready to come up with three or four great story ideas, report the stories and file them, each and every week? Or crank out polished white papers in short order? That’s the typical workload of a staff writer. When I started, it took me about six weeks to write one feature story! I would have washed out as a staffer.

To sum up: Look in the mirror. Who are you as a writer? What do you need financially? Answer those questions, and there’s your answer for how to become a freelance writer.

Got any time-saving writing-job-hunt tips for Barry? Leave a comment below and tell us about it.

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Photo via Flickr user karendalziel

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How I Became A Freelance Writer Again: 7 Steps to Earning Big

How to Find Success as a Freelance WriterEarlier this week I related the story of how I first blundered into my career in freelance writing. I eventually used my freelance clips to get a full-time, staff-writer job at a trade publication.

I worked there for five years, then at a business weekly here in Seattle for another six and a half. But after all the editors who’d hired me there left, the party was really over. By fall of 2005, I was ready to try freelancing again.

Only unlike when I was starving teen songwriter, the stakes were higher. I had three kids! And my husband wasn’t earning so much since our move to Seattle. I really needed to replace my full-time writer salary through my freelance work.

Here’s how I did it:

1. I had a couple of small freelance gigs I’d done on the side while working my full-time job. One was writing for a sister publication to the trade-pub I’d worked for, and they paid quite well. These became my initial earning base.

2. I called all the companies I’d covered at my business-journal job. I wasn’t looking for work, I just wanted to say hey, thanks for the memories, and the help, and for being a great source. To my surprise, several of them referred me work! One of them asked me to ghost-blog for him and write some advertorial articles for his company’s Web site. I hardly knew what a blog was back then, but I gave that a whirl. I didn’t know it yet, but that blogging skill was going to come in real handy.

Without hardly realizing it, I had become a copywriter. Once I figured out I was a copywriter, I started learning more about copywriting from Peter Bowerman‘s free Well-Fed Writer e-newsletter, and from others. Soon, I had a $1 billion private company as a copywriting client. I started to make more than I had as a staffer.

3. I networked with previous editors, including those ones I loved back at the business journal. They connected me with The Seattle Times and other publications that became major new accounts for me. When those editors went to new publications, I connected there, too.

4. I learned how to work the online job ads, only taking the time to target ads that were really perfect for me. This paid off in some great new clients. In-person networking at Media Bistro events in Seattle paid off well, too. I learned which events worked for me and which were a waste of time.

5. I turned every new article assignment into an ongoing relationship. When I turned in stories, I was always ready with more pitches. So I got more assignments. If a publication I wrote for was a sister-publication to other magazines, I wrote for those, too.

6. I thought big. When I ended up interviewing the editor of a national magazine for a local Seattle publication, at the end of the interview I just flat-out asked her if her magazine was looking for freelancers. I’ve probably earned more than $50,000 over the past five years from my willingness to ask that one question! I connected with her publication and was soon getting $2,000 article assignments.

7. I never stopped marketing. I found new networking forums to belong to, I went to Chamber of Commerce events, I checked online job ads, I asked around. Even when I’m fully booked, like I am now, I never stop sending queries and resumes out.

Some lessons here for other writers contemplating going freelance:

Start freelancing before you leave your job, so you have a base.

Tell everyone you know you’re freelancing.

Be willing to try new types of writing.

Get advice.

Never stop marketing.

Don’t waste time online.

Be brave.

Aim high.

Have you started freelancing in the past few years? If so, how’d you do it?Share the lessons of your success in the comments below.

If you liked this post, subscribe to Make a Living Writing, so you don’t miss any free advice on how to earn more from writing.

Photo via Flickr user = Bruce Berrien =

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Boost Your Writing Earnings by Winning Awards

Writing Awards = More Freelance $$$By Carol Tice

I read the most amazing article the other day, about the tragedy of parents who forget their babies in their cars, and they die of the heat — and whether that should be considered a tragic accident, or a crime. It won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for Washington Post journalist Gene Weingarten…and I could not put it down.

Weingarten clearly invested huge amounts of time in the story, interviewing several devastated families that had lost a child, listening to 911 and police-interview tapes, talking to memory experts and lawyers. The result is haunting and unforgettable, and may change laws.

Reading this story was a great reminder for me of why I got into writing — to enlighten and make a difference. To write articles that are truly memorable and meaningful.

As freelance writers, everything we write can’t fall into this category. We’ve gotta earn, gotta keep that hourly rate up.

But I still occasionally do big, investigative stories, for three reasons:

  • Investigative work is a passion of mine.
  • It’s important for my growth as a writer to tackle stories that are hard.
  • Because big stories can win prizes.
Stretching your skills and taking difficult writing assignments makes you a better writer. So when I see a chance to do an intriguing, big story, I take it, even if it makes no sense from an hourly-rate perspective.

Recently, I tackled a research-based story on how much stimulus money my state got, and where it went. Previously, I’ve written investigative pieces on a care center for babies born drug-addicted, my state’s lax drunk-driving laws, and the plight of older foster children.

Several of these feature stories have won prizes over the years. I say this not to gloat, but to make a point: Prizes can help your writing career. I recommend you get the Writer’s Market, take a look at the hundreds of contests in there, and make a plan to enter a few you think you could win.

Why are prizes important? Two reasons — they’re great for your self-esteem, and they impress the heck out of prospective clients.

A couple of years ago, I got the idea to create a short awards page on my writer Web site. I couldn’t believe how the quality of my prospects improved after I did this!

I just list my most recent few awards, which are a few local Society of Professional Journalism awards and a “Best in Business” award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), plus a few publisher awards from my staff-writer days. Hardly the Pulitzer. But in every pitch letter or resume cover letter I send out, I can say, “See my list of awards won on my Web site.”

And that has made all the difference. While I hear many writers complain they never hear back when they send out resumes, I often do. I often hear back that same day. And I’m convinced the “see my awards” line is a big reason why.

Prizes are powerful, and a list of prizes — no matter how minor — is even more powerful. Prizes make you feel successful. They greatly enhance your reputation. At some publications I’ve worked for full-time, they held annual planning meetings about what awards the reporters should aim for that year.

I felt like a movie star last week when the contest site Awarding the Web told me my Make a Living Writing blog had made their 2010 Top 40 Freelance blogs list. Being on this list puts me in company with sites I really admire, including Freelance Folder, Poe War, Angela Booth’s Fab Freelance Writing blog, The Well-Fed Writer, and Writer Beware, among others.

Added bonus: I got a fun little award widget to put on my blog. Winning prizes is a kick, no matter how small the prize.

So go out there and be amazing. Write the hard stuff. Win prizes. And watch your career soar.

This post originally appeared on the WM Freelance Writer’s Connection.

Photo via Flickr user eecue

How I Became a Freelance Writer — and 7 Tips on How You Can Do It, Too

From Songwriter to Freelance WriterWhen I asked new writers for their biggest questions back in May, one of the responses I got was that readers would like to hear “what it was like for successful writers early in their career.”

So here’s the story of how I became a freelance writer. It happened in L.A.

In the beginning — like when I was 14 — I was a singer-songwriter. Banging away on my parents’ black baby grand, scribbling lyrics in notebooks and taking them to school to throw out so my mom wouldn’t read my rejects out of my trash. I dropped out of college halfway through to hang around Hollywood Boulevard and go to songwriting workshops, where I eagerly awaited a chance to have my work shredded by my peers.

Songwriting involved starving. It cost money to pay band members, to rent halls, to promote my group.  I needed a day job, so I worked as a secretary at movie studios and talent agencies. There, I learned to stay calm and poised while movie stars asked me questions, or big agents barked orders. I learned to have a snappy comeback. Eventually, I started my own script-typing business, feeding off my show-biz connections, and worked for myself.

Around the time I was nearing 30 — the age at which songwriters have to ask themselves whether they’re up for a lifetime of this starvation or they want to move on — the alternative paper L.A. Weekly was celebrating its 10th anniversary. So they had an essay contest.

It was like they created it just for me. I had moved back to L.A. to pursue songwriting ten years earlier.

So I wrote an essay about what coming to L.A. to be a songwriter was like for me and my friends — namely, like slowly being crushed between two large rock walls. They printed it and paid me $200.

I pretty much never looked back. I had discovered a kind of writing where you got paid. And didn’t have to worry about whether the drummer was going to decide to take psychedelic mushrooms and the overnight party bus to Vegas to put in 12 hours at the blackjack tables instead of showing up for the gig. I literally called friends over and handed them my four-track recorder and my microphones and said, “Here — take this stuff away. I don’t need it anymore.”

Writing prose was empowering. I didn’t need anyone else to do it! I could execute this all by myself. I had all the intruments I needed inside my head. I thought it up, I talked to people, found facts, worked on it, went down to the mini-mart on Thursdays, and boom, there’s my name. Wow! I was a byline junkie from day one.

From there, I got another assignment from the Weekly right away. But then I took a third assignment I got in over my head on, and bombed.

I then pitched their rival, the L.A. Reader (now dead) about some protest I was going to. I ended up writing for the Reader for years, reviewing books, writing cover features for $300, community news for $50.

All the time learning, learning, learning. I’d haunt my editor’s office, latest issue of the paper in hand, saying, “I noticed you changed my first sentence from this to that. Why?” I got better. I wrote faster. I started to earn more from articles, and type scripts less.

Soon, the Los Angeles Times had a contest in the real-estate section. They wanted do-it-yourself fix-up stories. Again, tailor-made for me — my husband and I had just spent several years camped on our living-room floor fixing up our charming hovel in Culver City. I wrote a humorous, “our hearts were young and dumb” tale of our remodeling mistakes.

I won, they printed, I got paid. The editor there said, “You’re funny! I want you to write for me all the time!”

I’d been writing prose for about nine months, and I was writing for one of the largest daily papers in the country.

I was massively intimidated, felt hugely inadequate, and as a result it often took me six weeks to write a feature for them. But my editor put up with it and took the time to mentor me, because my writing was fresh, and honed, and really brightened up their section covers. And I was willing to work hard, beat the street, and find great stories.

Around this time, it started to dawn on me: I am a freelance writer.

Maybe I should take this freelance writing thing seriously! I love this, and it could be a career. So I took some classes through UCLA Extension in journalism, magazine writing. I learned more. I got better gigs.

One day, my husband said, “Why don’t you stop typing scripts and just write articles?” And I did. Not long after that, he was losing his job, and I applied for this weird full-time writing job I saw advertised, for a trade publication based in New York. They looked at my Reader covers, my L.A. Times covers, they gave me a writing test, and told me of 24 writers they auditioned, I was the only one who wrote something they could publish. The job paid $45,000 to start. And so began my 12 years as a staff writer, in which I learned many new skills, filed three or four stories every week, and laid the ground work for my second stint as a freelancer, which I’ll write about later this week.

Looking back over this, I see some defining points to why I was able to build a successful writing career, basically from scratch. I think these traits would be helpful to anyone looking to get into freelance writing.

1. I  didn’t develop a lot of writer insecurities, because it didn’t dawn on me that I was a freelance writer. I was just having fun!

2. When I hit roadblocks, I immedately looked for a workaround. It never occurred to me to stop because of one “no.” I liked being published too much!

3. I was willing to study my craft, both with my editors and by going back to school.

4. I got a lot of positive early feedback that encouraged me. I entered two contests, and won them both. This made me feel, “I must be good at this!”

5. I looked for opportunities that were a great fit for my background.

6. I developed a thick skin early on and was open to criticism of my writing.

7. I had run a home-based business before, so I had some knowledge of the hustle and administrative skills required to make that work.

That’s the story of how I wrote my way into a career as a writer. How did you get started? How did you keep going? What skills did you bring to it that made you successful?

Leave a comment and tell us your story. Later this week, I’ll tell you how I broke into freelance writing all over again, 12 years later, in 2005.

If you liked this post, subscribe to Make a Living Writing, so you don’t miss any free advice on how to earn more from writing.

Photo of singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards via Flickr user ibm4381

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A Great Source of Hidden Writing Gigs Revealed

Magazines are Often IntertwinedWhen writers think about pitching magazines, many tend to just think about well-known newsstand magazines. But there are a lot of hidden writing opportunities at magazines and other periodicals.

I first got exposed to this hidden world when I got an opportunity to write $1-a-word advertorials that went in a trade publication I was working for as a staff writer. It was news to me that I could write those, too! That became a nice little side income for several years.

Over the years, I’ve discovered many national magazines are merely the best-known flagship of a larger enterprise. Many publications sell annual guidebooks, subscriber-only bonus issues, or they put out books of lists that may need freelance articles.

Some magazines don’t just have the flagship pub — they have additional magazines that aren’t as well known. Entrepreneur, for example, also publishes a newsstand-only quarterly, Entrepreneur StartUps!. And the company also publishes business books. They buy online-exclusive articles and have a blog, too. I’ve written for all of those except the books arm, adding many thousands of dollars in revenue beyond what I would have earned if I’d just stuck to the main magazine.

Some publications have college editions that include special content for students. For instance, some years back, I wrote an article for a college edition of the Wall Street Journal. AARP has its magazine, but also a newsprint bulletin.

Regional magazines may be owned by a corporate parent that publishes similar magazines in other markets, to which your article might possibly be re-spun and resold for an additional fee. For instance, Tiger Oak, for whom I’ve written at Seattle Business (which led to writing for sister-pub Seattle Magazine), also publishes five bride magazines in different markets, and eight regionals in the meeting-and-events niche. Get in the door with one of those, and that could allow you to rework and re-source stories to quickly resell them to sister books that come out in other cities.

In this age of consolidation, many publications are part of a publishing family. Conde Nast, for instance, has about 30 magazine and online properties, and several trade publications as well. Once you’ve written for one book in a family, it’s often easier to get a warm referral to an editor at another.

After I wrote as a staffer for one trade pub that covered a niche in retailing, and later freelanced regularly for a sister pub in another retail niche. The editor there knew my name and the awards I’d won during my tenure, and was thrilled to have me write for them, too.

When you’ve scored an assignment from a publication, don’t sit back and think “I’ve arrived!” Instead, think of it as a starting point in your relationship with that organization.

Once you’re in, start looking around and see if you can discover other pieces to their little publishing kingdom. Ask your current editor about the organization’s other writing needs. You may discover lucrative new writing opportunities. You’ll have a leg-up on getting assignments, and usually, these more hidden parts of the beast get fewer pitches, upping your odds of success.

Know any other hidden writing markets? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know.

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Photo via Flickr user House of Sims

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Why Writers Need Contracts

Make A Freelance Writing ContractBy Carol Tice

Have you ever taken a freelance writing assignment based on an oral agreement? Somebody calls you up and says, “Write this! I’ll pay you this much!” And you get all excited and say “Great!”

This leads to messes such as the one below, which a writer recently asked me about. She’d recently written a lengthy marketing manual for a client.

I never signed anything with the client I did the manual for. Would it be legal for me to put a few pages of it on my author site? And what about selling the same manual basically to other clients?

Ah, the fun that begins when writers don’t sign contracts. This writer is now in a big legal gray area. The ownership of this manual is unclear.

The company might well slap a copyright notice on it and send it out to their employees and marketing agencies they’re working with. If they register it with the copyright office, they’ll be able to prove they own it. This writer could also do the same and possibly beat the company to the punch.

If it were me, I would feel free to put a few sample pages on my Web site. Legal mess aside, few companies in my experience would object to a writer using a sample of what they wrote for the business in their portfolio.

The stickier issue is reselling the material. While the writer might be able to resell this manual and could well get away with it, I personally wouldn’t do that without asking the company’s permission. That just rings my personal ethics alarm bell.

Get a reputation as a writer who plagiarizes off previous clients, and that is not going to help you get gigs. And with the Internet, it’s amazing how word can get around.

In general when you write for a company, you are most often writing work-for-hire. Translation: The company owns the work, forever. Generally, they pay very well for this privilege. They usually also ask you to sign a contract that says you won’t disclose any confidential matters they tell you about their company’s inner workings, and spelling out who will own the work. Though rights apparently weren’t discussed here, I’d bet the company imagines they own the work.

In this case, as I recall the pay was squat. And no contract. My take: This company screwed up and didn’t protect their rights to their own marketing manual.

The question is, do you want to take advantage of that? I’m betting the company never imagined the manual would be resold. Even though technically they didn’t preserve their exclusive rights to the manual, they could be upset to see it appear in another company’s hands.

They might not have a legal leg to stand on for stopping you, but do you really want a pissed-off former client? It’s not worth it to me to have that negative energy about me circulating in the universe.

My recommendation would be simply to ask their permission to recycle the content. They may not mind, especially if you sell it to companies that aren’t competitors. Maybe if you cited their manual as a source in the introduction, they’d be pleased and proud. Since they clearly don’t know a lot about copyright, you might be fine.

And of course, if you substantially rewrite it, a subsequent manual could be a new, original work. You’re always free to do that. Concepts are not copyrightable. I personally have taken articles I’ve rewritten and completely rewritten them into new articles with a new slant or approach for another market. That’s kosher.

Full disclosure: I am not an attorney. This blog post is based on my decades of experience as a working writer. Have questions on ownership of your work? Get legal advice.

But word to the wise — sign a contract! Know the basics of what belongs in a writer’s contract and protect your rights.

What advice would you give this writer? Leave a comment and let us know.

This post originally appeared on the WM Freelance Writer’s Connection.

Photo via Flickr user Horia Varlan
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