Want to get started as a new writer but not sure where to begin? I got an email today from someone who wants to start freelancing, and make some money at it.
She’s interested in getting started as a new writer but she doesn’t know how.
Here’s what she wrote:
Question: “Freelance writing sounds very appealing: It seems like a wonderful way to research and write about the many things I’m interested in. I’m wondering if one really does make a living as a freelancer, and if it is possible to write seriously and still spend a lot of time with one’s family. I’m daunted and excited about making a new career choice and getting started as a new writer, and a bit paralyzed too…
“How to get started as a new writer? Do you have advice for a newbie? Is it really possible to just jump in and get started as a new writer when one hasn’t published anything non-academic? What would you recommend as a first step?”
It turns out I have lots of advice.
It strikes me that these suggestions might be helpful to others out in the I-Want-To-Be-A-Writer world.
Here goes, warts and all:
Answer: As you might imagine, there’s a long answer and a short answer to your questions about getting started as a new writer.
The short answer is, yes, absolutely, it’s possible to make a living as a writer (I do it and support our family of six. My husband is a stay-at-home dad most of the time). And yes, absolutely, it’s possible to break in even if you’ve never published anything before.
That said, there’s several things you should know:
1) Becoming an established writer takes time
It won’t happen overnight. You have to start building a portfolio. while you can make good money as a writer, you aren’t going to be making six figures right away.
2) You need to have the constitution (or pretend to) to deal with rejection
Don’t take rejection personally. Or, take it personally, have a good cry, and then try again. And again. And again. For as many days, weeks, months, or even years that it takes. The writers who survive and thrive as freelancers and who all look wildly successful from afar can wallpaper entire houses with rejection letters.
3) It is fun but it’s not easy
It sounds easy and appealing to get started as a new writer but the writing life has its ups and downs. When the economy is at its best, like with any job, it’s easier to find work.
4) Be careful what you wish for
When it works (and it will work if you keep at it and you can write at least a little bit well and you’re open to learning to hone your craft)—you’ll find yourself both making money and being busy and that WILL take time away from your family.
It’s possible to have both. But it’s not possible to do either parenting or writing 100% of the time because there isn’t enough time in the day.
So, you’ll be up in the middle of the night meeting deadlines (it’s 4:10 a.m. as I write this) and you’ll be passing off the baby to your partner, if you have one, and to friends/family/hired help when there’s a crunch time.
A quick story about that—I helped a writer recently who has THREE small kids and is determined as heck. I promised her that she would make back my fee if she followed my advice.
She has a modest goal of making enough money a year to send her firstborn to private school, and would like eventually to make enough money so her husband can quit his job.
My advice and her hard work paid off surprisingly quickly. She sent me a frantic email today entitled “Help!”
She needs help because she suddenly has five assignments, including a 2,500-word feature (aka her mastodon), and she has no idea where she’s going to find the time to complete them all!
Okay, reality check out of the way. If you’re still reading and not completely daunted by the considerations above…
Here’s how to get started as a new writer
Step #1. Make a list of all the magazines, newspapers, and websites you like to read:
Chronicle of Higher Education?
Other parenting magazines?
Your list can include magazines and websites you read regularly as well as ones that you sometimes read or hope to read or want to read more often.
These magazines and websites are your starting point.
Since you know them and read them, you understand the audience (people like you). You can start thinking about articles you would like to write for them because you know what their readers (you) are interested in. Make sense?
Go to their websites. Subscribe to the magazines. Get their submission guidelines, which are often easy to find on-line. Study those guidelines. The more you do your homework, the more successful you will be.
Step #2. Make a list of your interests and the things you would like to be writing about and why.
As you make this list, think about the academic research you’ve done in X field and think about how you can make some of that work, study, and writing resonant for a more popular audience.
Step #3. Buy the most current Writer’s Market
Don’t believe anything you read in there is gospel because it’s not but start reading around in it to see what markets are out there and which you might want to try to tap into.
I’ve found reading while nursing works well. It’s worth paying the $30 to own a copy.
Step #4. Take a class on the business of writing or hire someone to tutor you
You can take a class on-line through either MediaBistro (expensive but I’ve heard good things) or Freelance Success (not sure if you have to join. I recommend joining but not until you’ve done a bunch of legwork or you might get overwhelmed. It’s one of the best places out there for freelance writers).
I’d also explore the ASJA website (American Society of Journalists and Authors) and sign up to go to their annual conference in NYC. Chances are I’ll be there.
You may also want to take a live class closer to home. Or hire a writing coach.
I suspect you can find a good class at a community college or at one of the universities.
Step #5. Start small but think big.
Look at all the local publications in your area, including daily newspapers. These markets are often easy(ier) to break into and they need content on a daily/weekly basis.
They probably won’t pay well but the work you do for them will be like paid research and you can then use the information/ideas/sources/etc you come across to send queries to larger, better paying markets.
So there you have it. My best advice about how to get started as a new writer. Take the leap. Game on starts now. You won’t regret it. And I promise to read every word.
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Brette Sember says
I think that it is very helpful to have a niche as a starting point. What education, experience, talents, do you have? Find a way to write about those topics because you have instant credibility. It’s a lot harder to break into a huge national parenting mag than it is to write for Woman Pilot. Another idea is to start locally. Write for regional magazines in your area to build some clips and experience.
Really smart post, Jennifer. I’d add a couple things:
To point 2 of Things You Should Know: In my experience, rejection letters are few and far between. Much more likely is silence. Dead silence. The kind that has you wondering if maybe you got the email address wrong, or the editor died or got fired, but there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it. You ain’t gonna get a firm “no”–at some point you’ll just decide to revise the query and send it elsewhere. You’ve got to be able to live with that kind of ambiguity and frustration. That’s by far the hardest part of freelancing, for me.
To point 4 of the action steps: I’ve heard raves for the classes offered by The Renegade Writer: http://therenegadewriter.com/new-renegade-writer-classes/. At the very least, pick up the Renegade Writer books–they’re tremendously helpful.
Alexandra Grabbe says
Excellent advice, especially #5. I wish sometimes I had done that. One has to develop rhino skin for all the rejection, so freelancing is not for the faint of heart. It’s also really important to believe in oneself and to keep writing, no matter what.
This is great advice. I especially advocate taking a class, since it’s a great supportive environment that will generally give you a few work buddies right off the bat.
Alisa Bowman says
Jennifer–from one successful freelancer to another–this is great advice. People often ask me that question and I never know how to answer it because I “broke in” by majoring in journalism, working for a newspaper, working as a staff writer at a publishing house and then working as a magazine editor. So by the time I went freelance? I already had contacts, experience, etc. I think it would be daunting to start from scratch, but one thing I would recommend is writing for regional magazines and your local paper. Both are usual desperate for freelanced pieces, especially reported ones. The pay sucks, but, if you are good, you should be able to move up to better paying markets quickly.
Susan Johnston says
I get asked these kinds of questions a lot, too, and I think your advice is sound. Once you start mining your own life for story ideas, they are *everywhere*! I would add that beginning writers needn’t spend lots of time on low-paying projects like Demand Studios, Studio 101, or Helium. No offense to those who use those sites, but it’s takes A LOT of $10 articles to put food on the table! And with a little more digging, you can probably find regional pubs that would pay you $100 or more for an article of similar length.
Kristen Fischer says
Good point, Susan. But some writers for Demand, the experts, don’t earn solely on pay per click. I only do it (Careers and Work Expert) because I get a very competitive salary each month, plus more on the clicks. FYI!
Jennifer–great article. I’m blogging about it at CSE today:)
Don’t expect to get rich. Ever. There are few freelancers who make six figures, especially these days.
Good advice, though.
Kerry Dexter says
I’m with Brette on finding a niche. I’d add that once you have found one, look for ways to expand it – different ways to address the subject, sub topics, audiences outside the obvious ones.