I have to admit, I’m amazed. When I asked you earlier this week to send me your freelance writing questions, I figured the entries would all be stuff I’d seen before (since I just wrote an e-book in which I answer over 100 questions).
Yes, there were plenty of those common freelance writing questions, like “How do I get started?”
But I also got a nice batch of fresh and interesting new questions! Rather than going on and on in a comment thread that has 140+ comments in it last I checked, I thought I’d answer them in more depth here on this post.
I’ll start with the four top questions that are the winners of my Freelance Writers Den 4th Anniversary contest. Writers who submitted the rest of the questions I’m answering here will each be receiving a complimentary advance copy of my soon-to-be-released e-book, 100+ Freelance Writing Questions Answered. (UPDATE: You can now get this e-book for free by signing up for blog updates – check out the sidebar!)
In case you missed it back on Tuesday — the Writers Den is turning 4 this week, and we’re celebrating with goodies and prizes.
The big prize that’s open to everyone: Freelance Writers Den is open to new members for the next 4 days! This will be our last summer open, and last time to join before our next Den bootcamp on overcoming fears, which is coming this fall.
Here are the winning questions, along with my answers (I have excerpted for space and corrected grammar for easier reading):
Winner #1 — gets the mega-bundle!
Is it true that when pitching clients, you shouldn’t highlight the term “freelancer” when describing yourself? Some say the term doesn’t put you in the best light, because it makes you seem like a commodity. For instance, the title “freelance writer” can be replaced with “medical writer” or “content creator” instead.–Patricia
Afraid I don’t agree, Patricia. First off, freelancers are only a commodity if they let themselves be treated that way, by hanging around places like Elance where writers *are* a commodity.
Also, especially on LinkedIn, most people are trying to hustle a full-time job. If you don’t make it clear that you’re not looking for full-time employment, you’re going to confuse people and waste a lot of time. I’d go with “freelance medical writer” or something similar. A niche phrase like that actually makes it easier for you to get found online by clients.
I’m always jumping from one interest to another, and have relatively short bursts of focused intensity. With this type of personality, and countless topics grabbing for my attention, does selecting a niche make sense for me? I’ve been a believer that I need to select one and stick with it, but I find the very thought of that can cause me anxiety. Thanks!–Mark
I think I can relieve your anxiety, Mark, because selecting a single niche isn’t a good idea for anybody. What if that one industry tanks? You’d be in trouble.
Instead, try to focus in on three or maybe four industries you are interested in. That way, you can switch back and forth, and you can see which pays best and turns out to be most interesting.
If you’re a newbie and you submit your application to an ad that says “No experience required,” and you get a quick response back, but it’s a very nicely written rejection email that says, “Thank you, but…” how should you feel?–Louise
Anytime you submit an application to an ad on any big online job board, Louise, it’s likely that hundreds of other writers also applied. Your odds of success are tiny.
When you don’t get an advertised gig, how should you feel? Unsurprised. If you’re going to make it as a freelance writer, you can’t be emotionally devastated by every gig you don’t get. Your belief that you have what it takes to write professionally has to come from within. You’ve got to just keep on going, and do a lot of marketing, to see where you’ll get a “yes.”
As a grant writer, how can I set a fee for writing nonprofit grant proposals without coming across as greedy, when the organization is mostly volunteer?–Jinni
Likely, you can’t, Jinni. That’s because small nonprofits with volunteer staffs don’t make good freelance writing clients.
You’ll need to pitch bigger, national organizations that have substantial marketing budgets in order to find good nonprofit clients who understand that grant writing is a specialized skill and writers should be treated like the professionals they are. They won’t think you’re greedy — just good at what you do. They understand that a well-written grant could bring them millions.
Special note to ESL writers
I did get quite a few questions about how to earn well when English is not your first language. If that’s you, I’ve got two useful posts that answer this — one for my blog, and one that I wrote as a guest post on Writers In Charge.
Best of the rest of the freelance writing questions
To round out our 20, here are 16 more fresh questions I received in Tuesday’s contest, with their answers. All these writers are receiving a copy of 100+ Freelance Writing Questions Answered.
What’s the most unusual or outlandish thing you’ve ever heard of a writer getting paid for?–Karen
You know, I think writers get paid to write everything imaginable. If it’s outlandish to you, or to me, it’s just because we don’t happen to know about it! For instance, when I first heard writers were earning well writing video sales letters, I didn’t even know what those were. I learned about it, and discovered that is a pretty hot market.
What can I do as a student to set up/prepare for/start freelancing? Most resources that talk about getting into freelancing seem to assume you have a full time job. How can I make the most of this last year before I graduate?–Bethany
You may not have money, but you’ve probably got a laptop and a phone, and you also have the advantage of not having a lot of financial responsibilities yet, Bethany. I’d jump on that opportunity to try to do all the writing you can, for the local paper, the college paper, local businesses — just build up your portfolio so that when you graduate, you could start getting good-paying gigs.
I just started submitting articles to magazines and trade pubs. Of course, I have been rejected. Can using another freelancer’s name as a referral help increase my chances to get a paying gig? (I do know the person).–Cherrilynn
Having a referral can help, but there are two other problems here, Cherrilynn. The first is the “of course” in your rejection statement. Why is that assumed, by you? You’ll need a more positive outlook and to can the negative self-talk if you want to succeed at freelance writing.
The other problem is that you sound like you’re submitting pre-written articles. This is not a great way to get magazines gigs, especially for trade mags. You’ll need to learn to write a great query letter, or letter of introduction (for trades), and get an assignment. Editors like to help you decide on an approach, and often aren’t hot to buy pre-written material.
According to Michael Leander, an award-winning international speaker, trainer, and consultant, in order to have a good social media engagement rate, 1% of your subscribers need to “like” or tweet your blog post. I know that Make a Living Writing has 12,000 readers, so do you feel like your articles have to be tweeted or liked by 1% of your readers in order for them to be successful?–Cherese
Cherese, this question gets to the heart of one big problem a lot of freelance writers face — they study and study and get obsessed with what every guru tells them they *must* be doing, and then freak out if that’s not happening for them, instead of getting out and building their business.
I am unfamiliar with that formula, but I can assure you it’s bunk. I don’t believe I get that level of engagement, yet I make a living that is beyond my wildest dreams from this little ol’ blog. So I’m thinking you can make it on fewer shares. There’s more than one way to be successful as a blogger.
My question: I move back and forth between my writing and counseling/coaching practice. Should I promote both when I network and on my website, or should I compartmentalize each?
Does it show an area of expertise, or does it make me seem too spread out for effectiveness in either area?–Michelle
This is a tricky situation, Michelle. It’s not that you’re too spread out — it’s that you’re in two discrete types of business that can conflict with each other.
I’ve mentored quite a few coaches who wanted to transition into freelance writing. Here’s the problem: If you present yourself as an expert who has a coaching business, publications will want you to write for free, because they’ll assume you’re writing to promote your coaching business.
A freelance writer interviews experts, and is not the expert in their pieces. Their knowledge just informs who to ask, and what questions to ask them. I think you’re going to need two sites, and on your writer site you’d identify yourself as someone with experience with the coaching niche. But don’t say you currently are one, or editors will get confused. And you’ll be out a paycheck.
You may write captivating queries (and may get assignments), but what are the effective ways to turn those captivating queries into stunning and gripping articles?–Tarang
Tarang, if you know how to write a captivating query, then you’ve pre-interviewed some of your article subjects, and often the story is partly written already at that point. You’ve hopefully featured the opening of it in your query, right?
The query should lay out exactly what the story is going to be about, and from there, once the editor approves your approach, it’s just a matter of interviewing the rest of your sources and writing it up to the specs outlined with your editor.
As far as how to write stunning, gripping articles, only one method I know for that: Read a lot and study the journalists you admire, and write a lot to get better.
I approached a trade pub where I know the editor personally, and he was very receptive to looking over a pitch/idea from me. When I sent him my article, just more a sample of my writing, he wanted me to focus more on upcoming trends and how-to’s vs. what I gave him.
How can I know what upcoming trends, strategies and cost-saving strategies are hot in the municipal sewer and water industry? How do I find good sources to interview for something like this? When I approached some of the guys I know, who have been working in this field for 20+ years, they gave me blank stares, like they have no clue what I’m talking about.–Mary
Mary, let me introduce you to your new best friend: Google alerts. It will help you spot trends and identify useful experts, in any industry. Get daily alerts on your sewer and water industry keywords, and soon you’ll be, um, swimming in ideas.
What are your recommendations for creating a winning writer’s resume, when you’re a newbie writer with none to minimal experience?–Vicky
My recommendation is simple, Vicky — don’t create a resume. It’s not going to show you in a very good light right now as a writer, is it?
Also, all the job ads that you see that ask for a resume? They pay crap. I promise. They’re not worth your time. Instead, pitch your own prospects. And tell a story about how you became the writer you are. Good clients don’t ask for a resume, they look at a portfolio.
Is it to my benefit, as a new freelance writer, to take time out to learn SEO?–Raymonda
At this point in the history of the Internet, I really don’t think so. SEO is of decreasing value in terms of how search engines rank sites. Google is heavily touting that content quality is now more important.
Also, there just isn’t that much to know! I’ve never really studied it, and have built a thriving career without knowing much except to fill in the fields on my blog’s SEO plugin.
What do I do if I have too many ideas to write about?–Eileen
Ah, that’s always my problem, Eileen! And the answer is: triage.
You’ve got to sort your ideas by which are most likely to get you a gig, and to pay the best. Simple as that. How hot and timely are they? How unique? Do you have exclusive access to someone? Which are you burning up to write, right this minute? Prioritize accordingly.
I’m working full-time on-site for a company right now as an independent contractor. I would seriously consider giving up (or at least de-prioritizing) my freelancing if they offered me an official job. Is this a good idea, or does it mean I’m not cut out for freelancing?–Christina
Christina, I have bad news for you. What you’re doing right now is not freelancing.
Freelance writers have many clients, and independent contractors don’t work full-time onsite with a client. What you have is a full-time job with no benefits or security, where the client is evading their responsibilities to pay your withholding. If you reported them to the IRS, which has strict rules about this, they’d likely be fined, and you’d be reclassified as an employee. Freelancers by definition must be allowed to work independently offsite, on their own schedule.
I’m scared that if I become a freelance blogger/journalist I might succeed, and never get my fiction published! How does a writer make the leap between genres?–Rebecka
Rebecka, fear not! Fiction authors who’ve made that leap are legion, including Mark Twain and Salman Rushdie. The discipline you get from interviewing and reporting can go a long way to help you develop creative fiction, too.
Googling “longtime journalist’s first novel” I get well over 1 million entries. Writing is good for writers. Any type of writing.
How do I cultivate sources who have tons of insider knowledge? The sort of sources who could tip me off on a major story in the making, even if they insist on remaining anonymous.–Cameron
What you want is extremely hard to find, Cameron, especially as a freelance writer. Beat reporters are usually the ones who have the time to cultivate deep sources who might give them an exclusive scoop.
Another important note: it’s extremely difficult to sell freelance articles that have anonymous sources in them. Your editor, at the very least, will need to know who they are. Staff writers have more leeway to work with anonymous sourcing if they have to in an exposÃ©, because of the trust they’ve built up with their editor from filing many, many stories. As a freelancer, the editor will just wonder if you made up the source, or what you might be hiding.
Have you ever thought about whether or not the companies you’re working for are ethical? If so, how do you research a for-profit company to figure out if they’re ethical?–Dianna
Oh, I definitely have, Dianna. I find Googling “[company name] sucks” and checking the Better Business Bureau are two good first steps to getting a feel for a company’s reputation. You can also check on Glassdoor, and other sites where employees dish about their companies.
How do you balance the hours writing in solitude with needing down time for creative marination and being socially healthy?–Esther
Any way I can, Esther. Work/life balance is critically important, or writers burn out. One fun thing to do to get out and meet people is to do in-person business networking — gives you the social interaction plus you might get new clients!
What is the one piece of short, memorable advice you received from another writer that helped you the most in your own journey to success?–Mike
I’ve probably got more than one story tied for first place here, but here’s the one that comes to mind: On an early reporting assignment, I ran into a legendary Los Angeles Times metro-section writer, who was covering the same event. I was shocked that he didn’t have a tape recorder with him — just a teeny notebook he was scribbling in!
When I asked him about it, he grumbled, “I have to file by 4 p.m.! I don’t have time to listen to a recording.” And off he bustled, back to the newsroom.
In that moment, like a thunderclap, I realized he was right. Recording and transcribing takes up too much time. You can’t earn a good freelance wage if you do all that. Learning to type fast and take shorthand made me a way more efficient writer. I’m sure I would have earned much less if I’d stuck to recording my interviews.
Congrats to all the winners!
If you didn’t win a Freelance Writers Den pass, don’t be sad — the Den comes with a 7-day, money-back satisfaction guarantee. Feel free to try it out for a week and see if it’s for you.