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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.

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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.

If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing to Make a Living Writing for more free tips on how to earn more from your writing.

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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GUEST POST: 9 Time Management Tools for Freelance Writers by James Adams

Note from Carol: I am not necessarily the world’s most highly organized person. I have to admit I’m still tracking my jobs and payments in a Word document…works for me, but I’m sure there are better ways. (I use a Google calendar for my personal life…but somehow, my writing assignments just work for me in a list with deadlines. Weird.)

Turns out there are some great cheap and free time-management tools out there — and U.K. writer James Adams knows about them. Here he is with some tips on time-management programs! (And that’s his gravatar over there — conclude what you will.)

Yoda Dog Insists on Planning Your Freelance Writing ScheduleFreelancing can be compared to looking at the menu at a sushi bar — there is plenty of variety in which one may indulge. A freelancer lives each day working on many different projects at once and may find solace in proven techniques to effectively manage their time.

Everybody has a different habit of work that they follow, so it can be a great help to have access to a simple and free time management application. If you find yourself missing deadlines a few too many times, get yourself organized by using one of these top tools for time management. All of these tools are free or have free trials, and they all work cross-platform.

  1. Toggl ($5 – $79 per month):This tool allows you to manage your time, create reports with a single click and create numerous tasks. Signing up for this service is free, which allows up to five users on your account, or you can purchase a plan for something more user-friendly.
  2. Todoist (Free):This is completely free and is a simple tool to use. Use keyboard shortcuts, set your deadlines and see works that are either about to be overdue or currently are. It is a web based tool that can also be integrated directly into your Gmail account.
  3. Get Harvest ($12 – $90 per month):This is a sleek tool that offers style that integrates well for micro or small businesses. This tool tracks time and also comes with the ability to easily invoice clients, and you do not even need to deal with making the invoice itself. You can try its services for 30 days before having to purchase a plan.
  4. Google Calendar (Free): Sign into your Gmail account (signing up for one is free if you do not already have one) and use the free services of Google Calendar. Track everything you need to in a single place and allow clients to share in your set schedule. Reminders can be set and customized, and you can even have alerts sent to your desktop, email or by way of SMS – this is especially useful for folks on the go.
  5. Tickspot ($9 – $79 per month): Not only can you track your time, but you can also track your budget with this service. You may sign up for a free 30 day trial of this simple, easy to use interface, and later on upgrade to enjoy the rest of its service.
  6. Rescue Time ($6 – $15 per month): This tool is very helpful for those who are helplessly addicted to social media and similarly useless browsing. It does not technically manage your time so much as it tracks it, working in the background and graphing the way you spend your time on the Internet while you work. You can use the free version, but more features come to you with a purchased plan.
  7. Remember the Milk (Free): All cheesy names aside, you can sign onto this website for free to manage your tasks wherever you go, whether through your iPod Touch, iPhone, Blackberry, Gmail account or computer. This is definitely a capable rival for Todolist as it offers numerous outstanding features for easy organization.
  8. NowDoThis (Free): If you find yourself confused about all of the features in the previous mentions, this is the polar opposite. Click “edit” to make your list and keep clicking “done” when you are… well, done.
  9. Ta-da List (Free): Folks who have heard of Highrise and Basecamp may be pleased to know that the brains behind the two have created this tool. It works as a free online wall of post-it notes. Create your necessary tasks and simply check off the ones you have already done.

Working as a writer at an ink cartridges store in Manchester for the past 18 months, James Adams has written everything including product reviews, trend stories and news releases for their design blog.

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The Best Writing Job I Ever Turned Down

Saying no is okThis is the story of the greatest freelance writing gig I ever turned down. It happened just last week.

About a year ago, I met an editor at a MediaBistro networking event who develops online content for a very large software company. Based here in Seattle. Yeah, that one.

In shmoozing him up, I discovered that he was best friends from childhood with one of my past editors…an editor who’d loved my stuff. He also knew another beloved editor of mine as well. To sum up, he was my dream prospect!

He didn’t have anything immediately, so for once I did a really good job staying in touch and following up.

And last week, he finally called me with an assignment. He needed someone to write a half-dozen articles, one a month, over the next six months.

The catch: It was on a brand-new version of one of their software programs. Hmmm…I’m not much of an early adopter, so I wasn’t using this new program yet. Small, dim alarm bells began to chime in the back of my head. But I was so psyched to work with this client!

We investigated a little more, and discovered the program doesn’t run on Macs, which is what I use. I’d have to buy a computer to do the gig!

My husband was in favor of buying the new computer and taking the gig. But he’s always in favor of buying new toys.

At this point, the alarm bells were louder. In reality, the assignment would be for me to buy and break in a whole new computer AND software, and quickly become an expert in using it so I could write about it. I don’t ordinarily write a whole lot about tech.

I was starting to get the ugly, real picture. I wasn’t actually a fit for this gig.

If I took it, I’d stand a decent chance of sucking at it. And that is the one thing I don’t ever want to see happen. The last thing I need is to disappoint a client at a major corporation.

So I passed.

My hope is another assignment may come along from this client that’s a better fit for my background, which is mostly writing about a range of other business topics. Maybe I’m nuts and should have bought the computer and given it a whirl. But my feeling was the huge ramp time that would be involved to essentially acquire a whole new expertise area probably would have meant I earned less net in the end, as I’d have less time for other clients.

I’d also run the risk of alienating an editor and never getting any future assignments from him.

The whole experience was a reminder to me that writers need to not jump at every offer that comes down the pike, no matter how great they may sound at first. Ask yourself, “Is this assignment really me?” I try to stay with assignments where I can answer that with an enthusiastic “yes.”

Ever turn down a major gig? If so, leave a comment and tell us about it.

Photo via Flickr user roland

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Finding sources — fast

The Source Sleuth

By Carol Tice

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for new writers is locating really great sources for stories on deadline. I recently had one of my mentees say she was doubtful she could finish a story she’s started this month, because she was having so much trouble finding sources! I think I solved her problem that day.

Thanks to the Internet, it’s easy to develop skills for quickly locating the sources you need. Unless you need a one-armed Burundian camel-driver or something else really out there, you should feel confident that you can find what you need.

I find these days you can often use social media to find sources, even pretty arcane ones. I tweeted a few months back that I needed a small business owner who had applied but been turned down for a particular new type of loan guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. I got a response within 24 hours, and had a great source.

Aside from asking around within your own networks, tweeting, or doing a good ol’ Google search, the two main Internet tools for searching that I use are ProfNet and HARO, or Help a Reporter Out. I’ll often do an Expert Search on ProfNet to see if I can just turn up a source immediately. If not, I’ll put out a HARO query. One HARO tip — be specific about what you need, or you’ll be inundated with responses!

The most important thing about finding sources is to just be unstoppable. Don’t give up until you have the person you need!

Recently, I had a source-finding crisis. I was on a one-week deadline for a story relating to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. I needed to find a small business that had been affected, and had done some disaster planning. I pitched the story in part because one of my expert sources for the story had assured me they had plenty of possible small business owners I could talk to. “You are going to have a GREAT source!” puffed their PR woman.

I did some looking on my own, but I wasn’t too aggressive because this source had been so confident they could refer me. Well, you guessed it, they kept stalling and stalling about handing over their source names. Finally, 24 hours before my deadline, I was emailed their contact names, and whaddaya know, none of them were workable.

So I took a deep breath, and started all over reporting the story. I had a pretty substantial article fee on the line, so I was going to find the source I needed! I started from scratch and thought about resources I hadn’t called yet. Thought about industries likely to have good stories about the impact of the spill on their business. Tried the Louisiana tourism board, they sent me to one local chamber, and in about an hour, I was on the phone with a resort business that had a great story.

It was noon. It took me half a day flat to solve this source problem.

This exercise reminded me of a truism in writing — the work expands to fill all the available time. If there isn’t much time and you’re really motivated, it’s amazing what you can get done. I try to remember this when I have longer deadlines, and still try to not let the work expand to take up more time than it should!

Have any creative source-finding methods I haven’t mentioned that are working for you? Feel free to share them below.

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

Photo via Flickr user Tony the Misfit

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