How to make a living through writing? Advice to aspiring writers, food writers, and publicists.
“Hi, Jacqueline. My name is INSERT FEMALE NAME and I’m a JUNIOR/SENIOR studying JOURNALISM/MARKETING at AWESOME SCHOOL. I have some questions about the industry and am wondering if you’ll be willing to jump on a call…”
I’m a freelance writer. I spend my billable hours writing.
This is your first lesson.
My love for helping people often clashes with such the email introduction or LinkedIn message I receive every few weeks or so. I’m humbled that so many badass women are stepping into these fields and reach out to connect. I wish I had the time and energy to touch base with each individual. But I don’t. Making a living through writing is hard. The media industry rewards speed and volume, and I work best when calm, focused, and not watching a clock. I also have an illness that, while public about in some aspect of my work and online life, I don’t divulge to clients unless the content is directly related — I turn in work, and so need my physical energy to create it.
Plus, an admission: 80% of those who I do connect with don’t bring much to the table. Their questions could be answered via a Google search or by having had skimmed any of my essays or articles. They haven’t yet done enough work as interviewers. They’re not ready to be journalists.
And so, here I share a variation of smart questions recently lobbed to me.
Have more after reading? I’m here.
How/why did you go into freelance writing specifically?
I have a chronic health condition that worsened in my late twenties. I have a bachelors degree in fine arts, which set me up with skills in speaking, conversation, exploring the human mind through words and writing. As I shifted my career, I accepted that I am not healthy enough to work in an office space. My business tactics - as hit and miss as they’ve been - have kept that reality in check.
How did you build a portfolio and client list with no journalism degree?
Because of my illness, I had a background in gluten-free and allergy-friendly foods long before they became more widely understood and on trend. So I started out writing for free: first as the allergy-friendly specialist of a food blog (now defunct), then as unpaid, part-time staff for a digital gluten-free magazine startup (excellent learning experience product testing, recipe building, assisting photo shoots etc.). I also had my own blog on the side.
Then, I explored the kinds of stories food blogs I wanted to write for didn’t have. I wrote full samples for them (interviews and all), and pitched a ton. Eventually, stories landed. I got a few columns. I worked my ass off at them and built relationships. Editors gave me more stories and took me with them when they moved publications. I pitched other places. Things grew.
I concurrently kept looking for ways to pad my income and so picked up secondary skills. I shoot and edit photos, record and edit audio, and can navigate design and marketing programs as needed. I can negotiate higher rates this way, reach broader audiences, and have more to offer potential clients. Plus, it helps me scratch more creative itches! It’s fun to learn new things! Words remain daunting sometimes.
How has media (and food media) changed the most since you started?
I used to have several regular columns, so I knew how many stories I was responsible for a month and how much space I had to fill with features and other work. Now, I have zero. Zero. I started two new series in June of 2018, and they’re wrapping in November. Money is tight everywhere. Staffers are taking on more work. (I admire the hell outta you editors!) Freelance budgets for my kind of work (nerdy, in-depth, doesn’t just take a few hours) are disappearing. I’m pivoting and trying to keep up! Fun!
How do freelancers stand out against other freelancers when pitching editors?
The story idea – and assurance that you’re qualified to write it – is all that matters. You differentiate yourself with your idea, and you make it easy for them to see the story and publish it. You show this. You show that you’re smart, that you have a voice, and that you’ll be easy to work with.
You show this by following submission guidelines (Google to find them). You pitch only one editor who works on such stories (Google or put in the name of the publication and “editor” on Twitter to find them). You know no one has written something similar because you’ve done that search, too. You don’t follow up that week (maybe two weeks later). You add your office-y stuff specific by submission (hyperlink to similar stories so they can quickly get an idea for your tone in published pieces, attach resumes, have your social media and LinkedIn in your handle, etc.).
That’s it. You make it smart, fun, friendly, and short.
What is the balance like with the workload? How do publications vary?
There is zero regularity or balance.
Every publication and editor works differently. Deadlines are different. Time zones are different. Editing styles are different. Payment schedules are different. There is no built-in system like with school or a working-for-someone-else job.
It can be exhausting. It can be fun. Being a freelance writer means you figure out your balance and workload. You adjust as you go. You talk to other writers. Most freelancer writers I know fling toolboxes of coping mechanisms around trying to balance it out. I have a hypnotherapist and a dog and an entire book about self-care coming out about it. Others have… other things.
Do you always get to pitch your own ideas or are you provided with content ideas?
With food magazines and blogs, freelancers pitch. Staffers (pitch and) get assignments.
With corporate clients or trade magazines, there’s more assigning.
This can vary – some clients I’ve worked with for a long time might have a quick story they need written. Or if they know I’m somewhat of an expert in something, they’ll reach out. But most of it is pitching. Pitching is a skill. I’m not great at it. I’m actively working to get better, using the amazing Gabi at Dream of Travel Writing. Her resources and cheerleading are unparalleled.
What do you like best about freelance writing?
I love working for myself. I love setting my own schedule, working from home, figuring out my optimal working conditions, and being taking time to tend my body or space. We talk a lot about work burnout and self-care nowadays. I control these. For better and for worse.
I like being able to try on various publications and work with a range of editors and publishers. I’ve had some really disappointing work relationships (I’ve had to threaten to take clients to court for nonpayment; I’ve had miscommunications or bad relationships with editors that have led to pieces being killed or us not wanting to work together after one piece; I’ve lost out on some excellent opportunities because of immaturity or inexperience or pushiness). But, when it works – and the story, editor, publication, and my work work – it’s incredibly rewarding.
And the greatest struggles?
In my immediate circle of writer friends, I’m the only one I know who has only freelanced this long without having taken a full-time job at some point. This work-from-home business equation is ever changing. Because most things about a freelance writing career have nothing to do with writing. You are your boss and your assistant. You do all of the pitching, writing, editing, and correspondence. You handle billing. You haggle for health insurance and watch hours.
It’s exhausting to do all that before you get to the fun part. But the better I get at that, the more satisfying the reading, researching, talking, processing ideas, and writing a lot gets, too.
Do you have any advice about trying to reach out to food publications with pitches?
Do your research. Find an editor. Pitch the kinds of stories they say they write or edit. Make it a good pitch - a smart story idea, written up well, with samples to your work (I can’t best explain the pitching process so GOOGLE IT!).
And advice for people who want to pitch you with story ideas?
Do your research. Do I write the kinds of story you want to land? Have I recently worked with the publication your client or story fits that you’re gonna name drop in an email. (Hint: some say “past” on my food writing page, or look at article dates.) Have I told you before that I don’t write the kind of story you’re pitching? (Check your email history. I save all emails and so will know if I’ve informed you of that one or five times.)
If all those things are gold, then I just need to hear why you’re excited about your client, their product, or the event. If you’re not, I won’t be. If you are, just be a human and tell me. I’m generally good at getting back to every single email if I know it’s written specifically to me. And if I’m not, give it two weeks and buzz me again.
More than anything, be curious. Read. A lot. Think a lot. Talk a lot – especially to people who are not like you. Ask questions, and then just listen to what they have to say. Go away and think about it for a while. Think about how their experiences apply or do not apply to you. Get to know yourself. Figure out what you love and celebrate it. Be really bad at writing some style of something, and then write and write and write until you’re better at it. That goes for any creative craft. Work social media but be yourself on it and don’t get lured in by the non-real-human aspect of it. Don’t be afraid to be human.
If you want to be a writer, be a writer. Write. And write. And write. And write.