How to Break Into Freelance Writing
Not too long ago, I was burning with jealousy whenever I would come across a writer’s byline.
“Why her?” I would think, “how did she break into freelance writing?” as I donned my scrubs and got ready for my night shift as a nurse. “Why not me?”
Why not me, indeed? Well, the fact that I had a husband pursuing his Master’s degree, two kids two and under and another baby on the way, plus a whole lot of bills, had something to do with the fact that it was not me for a while—but I had faith that it could be me. I wanted, more than anything, to become a writer and get paid to write. No more night shifts, no more worry that I might accidentally kill someone with the wrong medicine, no more reprimanding from doctors and patients and other nurses. Just me, my laptop, and a whole lot of coffee.
Back then, I wanted nothing more than to learn to break into freelance writing and eventually, with a lot of hard work, persistence, and dedication, I did just that. After two years of writing, I was able to replace my income as a nurse and shortly after that, was making more than I ever would have as a nurse. Breaking into freelance writing was the hardest part of the journey, but it can be done through a few simple steps:
Step 1: Identify your goals
One of the very first things I always recommend doing when breaking into writing is setting some time aside to clearly identify what you want out of a freelance writing career.
• Do you want to replace your current income?
• Are you hoping to quit your job and be a full-time writer?
• Are you looking for a little side money?
• Is money not important to you at all and you just want the freedom to publish what you want to write?
Our goals as writers are all different, so it’s important to clearly identify what your goals are to help you pursue a future in writing.
Step 2: Choose a niche
Although one of the things I love most about freelance writing is the ability to cover so many topics, when you are breaking into writing, I think it’s incredibly helpful to narrow down your niche. Look to your own background or interests for inspiration—are you a whiz at baking? The go-to financial guru in your group? Maybe you have a secret passion for crocheting? Wherever your interest lie, align your writing in the beginning to fit into your niche. It will be easier to break in and secure some clips if you have a background to support your writing.
Step 3: Brainstorm pitches
Obviously, this one is important—you have to have a topic to write about. There are several tools online that you can use to brainstorm ideas for articles, from free writing, to mapping, to bullet journaling, but don’t be afraid to keep it simple and just write down some topics that you would love to learn more about or ideas you have strong opinions on. Don’t get caught up in the common thought trap that “everything has already been written about,” because even if it has, it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re able to put a fresh, new spin on it.
Step 4: Connect with editors
Freelance writing is actually incredibly simple when you break it down. Your job boils down to your idea –> editor –> article. Everything you need to succeed as a writer is at your fingertips, from sending an email to an editor to actually crafting the article, but one of the biggest challenges is actually finding how to contact an editor.
I recommend starting with the writers’ guidelines or submissions guidelines if they are available for the magazine or website you would like to pitch, following those precisely, but doing some more digging to find the actual editor of the department you’d like to pitch. The Writer’s Market guide can help you find what you’re looking for, too. Many sites might have a generic submissions email address, where your pitch will get lost in a slush pile of hundreds, so it’s always better to pitch directly if you can. If you have trouble finding an editor’s email, try searching them on LinkedIn or Twitter–many will post their emails there for writers to pitch them.
Alternatively, I have used media kits to find the email formula for a website, then simply plugged in the editor’s name to the formula. (For example: firstname.lastname@example.org). Media Bistro and Beyond Your Blog also offer great tips for connecting with editors and often profile real-life editors who provide details on how to pitch them.
Step 5: Immerse yourself in the industry
I recommend taking a class before you do a deep-dive into freelance writing. I started my own career with an online writing class and it changed my entire life. Sadly, that class is no longer running, but there are many other types of online writing classes out there you can take. For example, right here at the Institute for Writers they’ll assess your writing for free when you take their aptitude test, and the college-level classes have been proven to teach writers since 1989. They’re perfect for beginning writers.
It’s also a great idea to connect with writers you admire—follow their websites or social media, interact with them organically (don’t be weird, but a comment or an email complimenting their article will suffice) —and join any online or in-person writing groups you can find. Writing is a business, just like anything else, and any networking you can do is a plus for your career. It’s also helpful to attend a writing retreat or join a professional organization, such as the American Society of Journalists and Authors aka ASJA (although you will need a handful of clips to qualify for membership first).
Step 6: Start pitching—and don’t forget to follow up
The best way to break into freelance writing? Start pitching! You have to put yourself out there to get published and sometimes, you just need to take that first step. Make sure your pitch is tailored to the outlet you’re pitching to, it’s not too long, but accurately represents the scope of your piece, and include why it’s perfect for that particular outlet and/or editor. And the most important rule of all? Always, always follow up with an editor if he or she doesn’t respond to your pitch. Most editors are overwhelmed in emails and might just miss your pitch. The general rule of thumb is to wait at least two weeks before send a follow-up email.
Chaunie Brusie is a labor and delivery nurse turned writer. She lives in Michigan with her husband, four young kids, and a flock of chickens. Find her at chauniebrusie.com.