If driving a Mercedes Benz, wearing power suits to the office, and vacationing in the Hamptons are part of your five-year plan, freelance writing probably isn’t for you. If, however, you are good with deadlines and rejection, have always loved reading and writing, and don’t aspire to be on the cover of Forbes, you might be the perfect candidate for the job.
There are no specific requirements for freelance writing: You can hold a degree in history or chemical engineering, be fresh out of college, or getting ready for your 10-year reunion. Many writers do work in other fields or have a non-writing background before they make the leap to freelance writing. Deesha Philyaw, a local freelancer who owns her own custom writing company and writes a column for the online literary magazine LiteraryMama.com, studied economics as an undergraduate at Yale University and received her master’s degree in teaching from Manhattanville College. “When I was in school, I was being practical,” Philyaw said. “I was the first person in my family to go to college, so the idea of writing seemed really irresponsible.”
Though writing may have seemed like a pipe dream to Philyaw, its appeal eventually overcame her pragmatism. After stints in management consulting and teaching, Philyaw decided to try her hand at freelancing. “Ultimately I chose to do something I love,” she said. “I thought about what I really wanted to do all along, and it was [writing] — something that I actually cared about. I’m an avid reader and I love words and good writing, so I decided to pursue it.” Most freelancers trade the security of being an employee for the challenge of self-employment and the fulfillment of doing something they’ve always dreamed of. “I don’t know anybody who freelances but would rather be doing something else,” Philyaw said.
They don’t call it *free*lancing for nothing; another perk of the job is the flexibility that comes with it. Freelancers make their own hours and come up with their own articles. Unlike staff writers who are generally assigned topics by their editors, freelancers can choose their own subject matter. If they want to write a feature on kids in a fat camp or a cultural commentary on recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering, they can. “I am free to write about stuff I’m interested in, and I research and interview interesting people in the process,” said. “I am always learning.”
Freelancers don’t have to punch a time card, but that doesn’t mean they don’t put in long hours. Writing a polished piece can be a painstaking and isolating process. “It can be a really lonely life — all day long just sitting on your butt in your chair writing,” said Karen Lynn Williams, a local author and freelance writer. Freelancers may be able to sleep in late when they feel like it, but they still have to commit a lot of time to writing if they want to make money.
It can take days for freelancers to cram all their thoughts and research into a good first draft, but revision takes a lot of time, too. Many writers attend workshops where people gather to read each other’s work and provide suggestions for possible changes in structure and content. As an alternative to workshops, some writers, like Philyaw, prefer to meet among small groups of friends. Philyaw’s group tries to meet weekly, for a session of what she calls “dueling laptops.” “We just sit together and write — sometimes we share and critique,” Philyaw said. “We eat and drink lots of wine and work, so we’re productive but also comfortable.” Workshops and writers’ groups can also serve to alleviate the oft-cited loneliness of freelance writing, while still providing useful suggestions for revision.
In some ways, freelancers are always working. They are constantly looking to the world around them for ideas. “Everything I do or see or hear is material,” said Williams, who has written several books for children and young adults. “My children would say to kids that came to the house, ‘Don’t say anything to my mother — it can and will be used in a book.’ ”
Freelance writers aren’t in it for the money; only the most well-known writers rake in the big bucks. But even among unknown writers, pay varies by writing type. According to Writers’ Market, magazines pay about $1 to $2 a word for feature articles, while newspapers average 54 cents per word for features. Poems can earn anywhere from a $25 paycheck (the going price newspapers pay) to $10,000 cash prizes for poetry contest winners. Depending on the publisher and the type of fiction, manuscripts are bought for anywhere between $3000 and $25,000.
If some of those numbers seem high to you, keep in mind that freelance work isn’t always steady. Many freelancers supplement their income with other jobs, like teaching. Williams is an adjunct professor at Chatham University and Seton Hill University, where she teaches writing courses. Philyaw established her own custom writing company called “…the last word,” which offers services such as grant writing, copy editing, and speech writing.
Occasionally, freelancers write for no pay at all, as free writing can mean free publicity. Some prestigious journals and anthologies don’t pay to publish authors’ pieces, but they give freelancers credentials that can help them get paying jobs. Literary Mama doesn’t pay Philyaw for her column, but it’s certainly earned her money in the long run. Editors from The Washington Post and Wondertime magazine saw Philyaw’s column and asked her to write articles. “Doing things for free is not a waste of time,” Philyaw said. Still, she warned, writers should be careful about how much work they do for free — after all, they have to make a living.
Thanks to laptops and the Internet, freelancers can work anywhere — from the comfort of their bedroom or home office to a museum café or a local park. Because most communication between editors and freelancers takes place over e-mail, writers can live virtually anywhere. It’s another perk of the job — you’re not tied down to an office or any specific geographic location. Traveling to do research, however, is part of most freelancers’ lives at one point or another.
As delightful as it might seem to spend the day typing away in bed, freelancers with families often find it difficult to get work done at home. With kids and pets running around, a home “office” can get hectic. Williams occasionally needs to take a time-out from the home environment. “Sometimes I’ll just rent a bed and breakfast out in Confluence, which is just an hour away, and I can write more in three days than I could write in a month in my house,” she said.
Whether freelancers write articles, fiction, or poetry, there is a lot of legwork that goes into getting work published. Enter dreaded buzzword of corporate fame: networking. “Networking is something I never thought I’d do in my life, but it’s pretty important,” Williams said. Most freelancers attend writers’ conferences to make useful contacts. After trying to sell a book for 10 years about planting trees in Haiti, Williams met an editor at a conference who had planted trees in Haiti. “Of course she bought the book,” Williams said.
Writers can send unsolicited work to generic e-mail addresses at their publication of choice (email@example.com) and hope that it eventually finds its way to the right person, but it’s far more effective to have editors’ names and direct e-mail addresses.
For freelancers, the best kind of work is solicited work. Most journals and anthologies periodically have open calls for submissions asking writers to send in essays, creative nonfiction, poems, and fiction. Calls for submissions detail the type of writing the publication is looking for and the deadline by which pieces need to be submitted. Instead of searching the Internet for hours looking for calls for submissions, freelancers often add their name to an e-mail list that sends them several calls for submissions daily. You can sign up for an e-mail list on Yahoo Groups.
Most freelancers have websites where interested editors can find out about their writing. “I find that having a website is really important in terms of promoting myself in the same way that going to conferences is,” Williams said. “The first thing now almost anyone will ask me if they’re interested in me, my books, having me to speak, or my writing, is, ‘Do you have a website?’ ”
If you’re interested in the every-day-is-casual-Friday lifestyle of freelance writing, are comfortable working under a deadline, and don’t mind waiting a couple of years for that Mercedes, check out the information below for some genre-specific tips.