When I graduated the University of Iowa with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and an Iowa Writer’s Workshop credential in my hip pocket, I couldn’t know I’d find a career as a freelance writer. I’d won the E.P. Kuhl Shakespeare Prize for literary criticism, and I’d been named the Fairall Scholar of Creative Writing, at that time the highest undergraduate writing honor associated with the famed Writers’ Workshop.
Like today’s graduates, I struggled in a poor job market. I found part-time work teaching creative writing at a community college. I got another part-time gig at The Des Moines Register as a features writer. My professional life was off and running. It was 1983.
Fast forward to today: I’m still a freelance writer and have survived by cobbling together assignments and projects. It’s a near constant hustle to succeed as a freelancer. In addition to literary and journalistic skills, freelancing requires financial creativity, a high E.Q., and the ability to read the minds of editors.
The freedom of freelancing helps brings into balance all the hassles of the hustle. As a freelance writer, I enjoy plenty of perks, including invitations to advance media openings, preferential seating at cultural events, behind-the-scenes private tours of fascinating places, and private interviews with celebrities. As the song says—“it’s good work if you can get it.”
We all know writers face regular rejection, and even if you’re talented enough to find freelance work, you’ll run into hurdles. Freelancing includes as much gruel as glamour. If you want to make it as a freelance writer, you’ll need to get past the following five frustrations, and then some.
1) Your editors can and will change your copy. You will not always agree with the edits. You should keep your mouth shut. As one editor bluntly told me years ago, “Anybody who bitches about the editing will not get another assignment.” Once an article goes to press, I let it go, best I can. These days, long over the initial thrill of seeing my words in print, I rarely read my pieces.
When I do read my copy, I can tell immediately when editors tinkered with my text because, most often, they’ve rewritten in the passive voice, which I rarely use. But the newspaper or the magazine now exists in black and white, finished, done. Unless a blatant error exists, the publication will not make a correction, and nobody will notice or care that somebody infringed on your style.
You’re not the editor. You’re the freelancer. I’ve worked on the other side of the desk, too, and I still do, sometimes, so I know editors get bogged down with their own details and deadlines. Most editors do not set out to make you mad, and oftentimes, editors do improve copy. Realize that you have not chiseled your words in limestone. And realize that editors face a daily grind, whether their publication prints monthly or annually (or not at all, but distribute digitally). Editors have a lot of responsibilities, yet don’t make a lot of money. Communications include infinite margins for error. Plus, today’s increasingly cranky editors fear for their jobs. Editorships sink every day. Editors have power, but also edges. If you want to write for them, don’t push them.
2) Freelancing involves feast or famine. This is one of the most oft recited clichés in the business, and as you know, clichés contain kernels of truth, or the phrases would not be so overused. You must plan for war in time of peace and vice versa. I rarely turn down assignments, even when editors have filled my dance card, because I know scores of freelance writers would welcome the gig I’m about to refuse. And the next time the editor needs to assign a story to a freelancer, he or she might call that other person first. And if you can accept an assignment and turn a story quickly, you can endear yourself to editors who might come to see you as a go-to freelancer.
3) Freelancing is competitive. In the digital age, everybody is “publishing” and more and more bloggers identify themselves as freelance writers, even though they’ve never actually had a byline in print. And the ranks of freelance writers increased exponentially during the recession. You’ll need to nail down your style, hone your pitches, sharpen your angles, and improve your interviewing techniques if you want to survive, let alone stand out among freelancers today.
And you’ll need to get over the fact that sometimes you’ll pitch a story that winds up on another freelancer’s desk. You’ll have no way of knowing whether the other freelancer pitched before you or after you, or whether the editor prefers the other writer personally or professionally, or whether your query got sucked into cyberspace’s black hole. Move on to your next research topic or pitch or assignment.
4) Freelancing affords you lots of free time, but demands discipline, too. Simply put, you must make deadline. Freelancers quickly fall from grace when they turn in copy late. Or file sloppy stories. Or fail to fact-check. You’ll need organizational skills to log your assignments and invoices, your expenses and mileage. You’ll need to keep receipts—even if you just toss them in a shoebox, as I did for many years. You’ll need scheduling skills to handle multiple projects simultaneously. You’ll need to create a personal platform that probably includes a webpage, a Facebook account, a Twitter feed, a Pinterest board, and whatever else the digital age delivers next.
5) Freelancing isn’t free. But freelance writers sometimes write for no pay. These days, so many outlets crave content yet do not want to pay for it. If you want to make a career out of freelance writing, you need to put on your business hat, in addition to your artsy black beret. And you’ll need to strike a balance between what you will write for free and what you won’t. As a fledgling writer, I wrote for pennies, but I still do that today. Literally, pennies. Or sometime, halfpennies. As Denver Flower and Garden Examiner, I get paid one red cent—and oftentimes less—for each hit on my page. What’s the value for me? First, I consider this page part of my community service. As a freelance writer covering the garden beat for magazines such as Sunset and Colorado Outdoors and Colorado Expression, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge. My Examiner.com page allows me to share the information with fellow gardeners. I like that. And Examiner.com adds another level to my personal platform as a freelance writer.
I do pro bono writing, too. For many years, I’ve contributed my writing services to Colorado Vincentian Volunteers, a group serving the poorest of the poor in Denver’s inner city. In 1993, to honor my social justice editorial writing for The Denver Catholic Register, the Archdiocese of Denver presented me with the Peacemaker’s Award. The founders of Colorado Vincentian Volunteers also won an award that night. We forged a friendship, and even though I cannot write a check with a lot of zeroes to support their mission, I can contribute copywriting.
As a writer, you have the skill set to communicate what’s important to you. As a freelancer, you have the freedom to pursue topics that interest you. In my case, I’ve written arts and entertainment features, concert and book reviews, gardening features, travel pieces. I’ve found a way to succeed as a freelancer writer, and I’ve redefined success to include integration.
A final word on social media for freelance writers. The immediate gratification can get in the way of getting one’s work done. But you’re a writer, so you’ve got an arm up on others. Go ahead and write for free, using social media to practice your craft and get your name out there. You just might connect with editors making assignments that can fatten up your portfolio and your wallet. If you’re compulsive, as most writers are, set a limit. Ideally, freelancing preserves liberty instead of enslaving writers.
If you want to sign contracts paying you thousands of dollars for your words and thoughts, you’ll need to treat all your work the same. After all, your byline represents a priceless part of your brand as a freelance writer.
Colleen Smith, who studied fiction-and poetry-writing in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of the critically acclaimed novel “Glass Halo,” the gift book “Laid-Back Skier,” and magazine or newspaper articles too numerous to count.