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How to Earn Well as a Freelance Writer-When English is Your Second Language

Carol Tice

Freelance Writing With English as a Secondary LanguageI heard from two different writers last week who had a similar quandary: How to earn well from writing, even though English is not their first language. Obviously, this poses an additional challenge beyond what most U.S. writers face. But I know it’s still possible to carve out a successful freelance career.

Since I’m afraid I’ve forgotten almost all of my college German and have never tried to get paid writing assignments in another language, for help on this question I turned to a bilingual writer-friend of mine from LinkedIn Editors & Writers who has a thriving career, Randy Hecht. She speaks fluent Spanish, and has written for such cool publications as National Geographic Traveler Mexico, the Spanish-language version of the AARP magazine, and Colombia’s El Tiempo.

The first question is from a journalism student, Aline Barros, who is from Brazil:

I live in Maryland. I found your blog through research on Google. Here is my story: I used to be a student in Brazil and my major was journalism. I am completely passionate about it.

However, I moved to the USA and because at that time (6 years ago) I did not know how to speak English, I decided to give up journalism. Do you know when you do not feel good enough for something? That is what I felt.

Thank God that feeling passed and I am in school again, and pursuing journalism. My biggest problem is that I do not know what to do after I graduate. Should  I just be a freelancer? I just want to write. Writing is what I love. Could you give me some advice? I just feel a little lost.

Even if you do not reply, thank you so much for reading. Your work is amazing and I love the way you write.

Thanks for writing, Aline! Here’s Randy’s answer:

Bilingual skills are always a plus, but Aline has an extra edge as someone who has native knowledge of Brazil’s language and culture. Global-minded businesses and the publications that cover their interests are paying close attention to the BRIC countries-Brazil, Russia, India and China-all regarded as having growing importance in the global economy. The US consumed 14% of Brazil’s exports in 2008, and Brazil in turn consumed 14.9% of US exports. That’s not as huge an exchange of goods as we have with our biggest trading partners, but it’s a good base with lots of growth potential. And that, er, translates to a big opportunity for a journalist or business writer who is fluent in Brazilian Portuguese and immersed in both Brazilian and US culture.

I speak from experience. Although my company, Aphra Communications, works predominantly in Spanish and English with a strong focus on Mexico and Spanish-speaking South America, we include a few Brazil specialists in our network to handle interest in that country’s business practices. Several magazines, research companies and trade associations have asked for our help in gathering business intelligence about Brazil, and that’s not even our primary area of expertise. If Aline is interested in business writing or business journalism, her timing couldn’t be better.

Here’s my other question, from Nisha, a writer in India:

As a Freelance writer who couldn’t even break the barrier of $10 per article, I would like to hear from you.

1 – The majority [90%] of the buyers on forums and bidding sites are not ready to make a decent [NOT a high] payment simply because I’m not a ‘NATIVE’ speaker. How can I fight back on this discrimination?

2 – When we are competing with the ‘craps’ who are more than happy to work at rates, say $2 per 500 words, tips to outperform?

3 – Do you have any tips to get rid of this ‘Nativity’ syndrome?

While I didn’t pass Nisha’s letter on to Randy, I think the advice here is similar. Like Aline, Nisha needs to better leverage her knowledge of one of the world’s largest, fastest-growing economies!

One clue to the strategy is in Nisha’s response — “Buyers on forums and bidding sites are not ready to make decent payments to non-native speakers.” So…stay off the forums and bidding sites! That’s not where the good-paying clients are, even for native English-speaking writers.

Instead, you’ll need to prospect actively for markets where instead of a negative, your knowledge of another culture and language will be considered a big plus! It could be publications looking for writers with an understanding of both languages and cultures. It might be an English-language publication in India or Brazil, where they might appreciate your U.S. knowledge enough to mentor you a little on your English. Or perhaps an American paper for Brazilian or Indian expatriates, written in their native language or a mix of Hindi and English (or Brazilian Portuguese). Network with other bilingual writers for leads on publications that might be appropriate. Aline could also work with professors while she’s still in school to get help developing some solid prospects to call.

Or, as Randy suggests, research companies that have strong export or import relationships with the U.S. Perhaps they need marketing help from someone their executives can relate to because they speak the managers’ home-country language fluently?

Do a little research on their existing marketing and see where you might spot a void you could fill. Maybe they need a newsletter, product descriptions, some Web content in English, to help them find American buyers? Call or email them and introduce yourself and your services.

One other suggestion: Consider finding a native English speaker to team with for bilingual customers. Randy works in a team environment in her agency.

Overall, you’ll need to look for situations that turn your bilingual and non-native status into a plus, rather than a minus.

I’d love to hear from other non-native English speakers with any other tips they have for Aline, Nisha and other ESL writers! Leave a comment below.

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Photo via Flickr user jammick