When most people think of writers who earn actual money, they think of an author or someone who’s written a book, usually through a traditional publishing house. While this isn’t a bad route to take, as it can be lucrative (and for some it ‘makes’ their career), it is actually not how writers typically pay their bills. There are many other opportunities for writers looking to build a career with their words.
The three most popular ways to make money from your writing without writing a book are to freelance your skills using queries, job boards and LOIs. . We’ll look at them all but I’d like to mention before we get started that none of these are either/or situations. You can choose one, two or all three of these avenues to diversify your income…many successful professional writers tend to do just that.
Freelancing In General
Freelancing includes everything from writing articles for your local newspaper to guest blogging and ghost writing. It’s any assignment where you aren’t a staff member of the publication, though repeatedly freelancing for a publication can possibly become a staff job. Staff positions, like contributing editor or columnist, can be a steady source of income but may be only a portion of the writing you do, as many choose to continue freelancing as well.
There are a number of different freelancing gigs:
- magazine article writer
- guest blogger
- content creator
- fictional and short story author
- personal essayist
- ghost writer
Typical ways to find freelance opportunities are to reply to job board advertisements, pitch a query to an editor directly with your idea for an article or send an LOI (or letter of introduction, which works best once you have an established portfolio) to possible clients. You may also choose to market yourself locally to businesses needing website content, marketing copy, or even menu descriptions. For more information on markets, you can download my free ebook 50+ Writing Markets and Resources. And no matter how you market your services, I recommend setting up a website that you can direct editors and clients to when contacting them.
Your Professional Website
Your website (and yes, you have to have one) should include a well-written about page, showcasing what you offer and what you can do, your clips and writing samples so editors can see your work and your contact information as well as a built in contact form.
Job boards are the equivalent to the want ads for writers. When responding, most employers will request a cover letter, samples of your work and sometimes a resume. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have samples (or clips) just yet. Totally not going into the specifics of starting a blog within this article but if you are sans-clips, it’s an option. The common rule here is that if you don’t have samples, don’t draw attention to that fact. Showcase your strengths instead.
Also, if you have experience or expertise in a specific subject (think past employment or hobbies) highlighting this may attract assignments that require an in-depth understanding of those topics.
Do Your Homework
Before sending your email off to prospective clients and editors, take note of any submission instructions included in the job post. Should your resume be pasted into the body of your email? Does the editor want links or attachments? FOLLOW THEIR GUIDELINES. Sorry to yell but the best way to have your submission immediately discarded is to ignore the instructions. If you can’t follow them here, why would an editor think you can meet the guidelines of an assignment? The second best way is to have glaring typos in your submission. Don’t do this either.
Unless it’s a blind ad, the post will include the name of the publication, company or website. This is your cue. Visit their website and do some poking around to familiarize yourself with their style, tone and format. This may seem like additional work (it is) but it can keep your email out of the ‘canned rejection response’ folder.
Immerse yourself in their brand before replying and smoothly mention something about it in your cover letter-don’t write P.S. I visited your site. Applauding their charity activities or mentioning a previous writing clips of yours is similar to a particular article on their site shows that you went the extra mile, are truly interested in working with the company or publication and helps show how you’re a good fit.
Both your cover letter and resume are easy to template, making it quick and easy to market yourself effectively. When I first started applying for assignments through job boards, I would print a bunch of ads out, research each company and then spend hours responding. For me, this system was time consuming and slow. Once I found an effective template email for responding to these ads, I began quickly checking the ads, looking at each company for a few minutes in a separate tab on my browser and shooting off an easily-customized email. So much faster. Now days I spend an hour or two every other day doing this depending on how full my ‘hopper’ is. Having a streamlined, efficient system lets me use that saved time outlining articles I want to write that I can pitch and finding markets that suit them.
You don’t want too generic a cover letter and you will want to tweak it for individual submissions so you can highlight relevant experience and clips. Start by researching queries done right online and then write a few of your own. Submit your interest in some assignments and see what emails get a response…then tweak. Don’t wait until your an expert in cover letters before you put yourself out there for work! A lot of writers get hung up in the research of how to be a writer and because of it, delay their actual work as a writer. Don’t do this to yourself and realize starting something is the hardest part.
When crafting your emails, keep in mind that your cover letter is also an editor or client’s first exposure to your writing. Don’t be tempted to hastily shoot off a reply until you have a successful template.
Cover letters usually include these elements:
- where you found their ad (this helps your client see where there ads are getting responses)
- why you would be a good fit
- why you want to work with them
- the benefits of hiring you to write for them
- your experience with the subject and/or format
- your related writing credentials
- some sort of thank you/look forward to hearing from you
- a link to your website
- links to any online clips
- your contact information
I like to keep track of all my submissions, including job post replies and article submissions, in a dedicated folder. This lets me see where my marketing efforts are and aren’t paying off and if I’m contacted by an editor, I can easily locate their original listing and my reply…which usually summarizes the assignment, whether it’s a steady gig and the rate of pay.
Queries, The Other White Meat
In addition to responding to job posts, you can also query editors directly with your article ideas. Since queries usually result in a one-off type of assignment, I tend to focus my marketing efforts on applying for repeat gigs and supplement with queries, sending a handful each week.
But before you pitch your article idea (or a couple of them) and your skill as a writer, you need to identify places where your piece would be a natural fit. The number one complaint of editors is that they receive tons of submissions that do not suit their publication. Don’t be one of them.
Finding Publications To Query
If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, I suggest visiting your local newsstand or library. The best way to break in and get your first clips is to pitch to small, local publications…and the best way to find these is to pick up copies of these publications everywhere you go. These are the free periodicals you find in restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations. Other places to look include local bookstores, craft beer pubs or search for them online. I picked up a local parenting magazine the other day in the office of my kid’s school.
While sizing up your large, local newspaper remember that many outlying towns and villages have their own smaller newspapers as well. I broke into writing this way and found myself writing for two newspapers, one of which eventually led to a weekly column. While you probably won’t be able to quit your day job on the pay from these, they can be a great way to break in and get some writing samples.
Other publications to query include everything from glossies (major mags like Cosmo and Better Homes and Gardens) to blogs that accept guest posts. I won’t go into all the ways to locate viable markets for your writing here (it’d be long…) but you’re welcome to download 50+ Writing Markets and Resources for free, which is extensive and covers many different marketing strategies that range from newbie to old-pro.
I Repeat: Do Your Homework
Here’s a helpful ‘before you query’ reminder: make yourself familiar with the publication you intend to pitch. If it has departments (like a magazine or newspaper) check who is writing those articles. Is the persons name on the masthead? This will tell you if a department or column is regularly written by a staff writer.
Try to locate the area of the publication most open to freelancers (Hint: it’s usually a small ‘front of the book’ section for magazines) and start there. If you’re an established writer or it’s a small publication, pitch an idea for a feature article. The masthead will give you the name of the department editor you will probably be pitching to, though you should still call and ask who handles queries for such-and-such a department. Addressing your query to a specific person (and THE RIGHT PERSON) can help your query stand out and it won’t get lost being forwarded to the correct desk.
Here’s a super-simplified run down of what goes into a query:
- a hook in your opening to grab the editor’s attention
- your pitch, including available sources and experts you will interview
- the technicalities: word count, sidebars, images, etc.
- why readers would be interested in your article
- why you’re the best writer to write this article
- writing samples, clips, links and your website addressing
That seems like a lot but here’s the kicker: your query should ideally be only one page. Editors are busy so don’t ramble for pages on end which wastes their time and make it easy for them to say yes.
Pitching To Blogs
Guest posting, or writing a post for someone else’s blog, has become a popular form of freelancing and all the same rules of querying and pitching still apply. The biggest difference between writing for a traditional publication and a blog (besides format) is that the author of a guest post commonly interacts with readers in the comments. Don’t be surprised when this is expected of you.
Writers who guest post are (usually) simultaniously promoting their own blog with their bio link. Interacting with readers can influence whether those readers click to find out more about them and (end-game here) become readers of the author’s blog.
Obviously, the other main difference is that you may be granted links in your bio, either in addition to payment, as payment or as partial payment. The submission guidelines for the site should include this.
Which links you choose to include in your guest post bio will depend on your audience and your current marketing goals. These two factors will determine whether to push the opt-in for your blog, your professional website or any social media accounts where you want to grow your following. (Again: If you don’t have at least a professional website set up, head over to weebly or wordpress.com right now and get started. You don’t need your own dot com yet if you’re only linking to your site, since you can embed the link into any text you choose.)
I’m a fan of relaying readers to the landing page of whichever freebie download I have in a closely related subject. This factor also influences where I pitch guest posts. Obviously, on this site I write about writing so naturally, to promote my blog and earn some skrilla, I guest post on other sites for writers. Then I link my bio to the freebie on my blog and any readers of my guest post can click straight over and get a free ebook written by me as well. The download converts these readers into subscribers and we start our relationship the right way, with me giving them something of value while at the same time introducing them to the ‘tone’ of my blog.
While you don’t HAVE to track your replies to job posts, you definitely want to track your queries. It’s a good idea for more than one reason: you won’t forget about any you have out there, you’ll know when a publication is late to respond and it’s time to follow up with a quick email, plus you’ll have a record of where your query has already been submitted, should you have to shop your article around before it’s accepted.
Publications usually post their response times in their submission guidelines as well as whether or not they will notify you of a rejection. Find this info and note the ‘respond-by date’ in your tracker or on your calendar. Once this date arrives, you can a) send a short follow up email or b) send it to another publication for consideration.
Unless you’re submitting a book, I don’t recommend submitting to more than one publication at the same time…even if they accept multiple submissions. It’s too easily turned into a clusterfuck and with submissions sent by email (remember the SASE? Ugh!), it doesn’t take much patience to wait for a response. If you do choose to submit to multiple publishers AT THE SAME TIME (note that this does not apply to queries sent to one publisher AFTER another, in which case don’t tell them that so-and-so already rejected it) you are expected to declare this information in your query. A quick sentence before your closing that ‘this is a multiple submission’ is fine. Also note that unless a publisher openly states that they accept multiple submissions in their submission guidelines, they won’t appreciate being told you’ve submitted it simultaniously elsewhere.
Letters of introduction, or LOIs, are pretty self-explanatory. It’s pretty much the ‘you and your skills’ part of a query, without the full pitch. While an LOI might contain a couple of short article ideas or a strategy for improving a business’ website, they are not as fleshed out as the traditional query and are primarily used to introduce yourself and your skills to possible clients. These are commonly used by established freelancers with some clips under their belt to make connections with editors and businesses and quickly market their abilities and services. Maybe you find the abandoned blog of a local business…you could send an LOI to introduce yourself and offer your ability to resurrect it…while highlighting your successful track record of converting blog readers into customers.
The LOI is a way for writers to introduce themselves and say (in better words), “Hey, I’m good at this and have the availability if you need someone.” Obviously, this route relies on clips and writing samples to back up the author’s claims. A distant cousin of this marketing tool is a quick email to past editors and clients, letting them know that you’re available. Both of these marketing strategies save time and can be effective for established writers.
This Is The End
Now you know where to find work and how to contact editors. If you follow my tips (even when I yell) you’ll be ten steps ahead of those writers winging it and shooting off ideas to whoever, whenever the ideas strike. (Those people do exist…and they drive editors crazy!)
You know what it takes to land assignments, both online and in print. And if you haven’t yet, you can still grab a copy of 50+ Writing Markets and Resources which includes links to tons of those job boards I was talking about, as well as other opportunities to find markets for your work, ranging from newbie to old pro.
So are you ready to start marketing-and earning from-your writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments! Let me know where you’re at in your writing career and you’re welcome to ask questions and share your own wisdom!