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Fundamentals of freelancing: Approaching writing as a business

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Freelance writing can be a rewarding career that brings you into contact with inspiring people who love what they do and love sharing it with the world. It can give you a measure of control over your own time, but it can also bring nail-biter months where you won’t be able to pay your bills. If your goal is to become a successful freelance writer, you have to approach writing as a business. You have to think about money, time, networking, and the nuts and bolts of the job. Here are some tips on how to do that.


1) Money, Money, Money!


Do the math: There are 40 hours in a workweek and 52 weeks in a year. Thus, a work year without vacation time is 2080 hours. But people don’t work continually. Consulting firms estimate that consultants can bill only 70% of their time as they spend 30% on administrative tasks and vacation. Multiply 2080 by .70, and you get 1456 hours of billable work time in a year. Someone has to pay you for those hours.


How much do they have to pay you? Add up monthly expenses such as rent, utilities, food, insurance, student loans, credit-card payments, administrative costs (domains, ISP, business cards and other business expenses), etc. Include how much you want to save and the amount of play money you’d like to have. The result: what you need to make per year.


This metric should help you prioritize your time on money-making activities. If you are falling behind on this metric, you must ask yourself if you are spending your time correctly. If you need to be paid $30 an hour and you get $100 for a story, you should be able to complete the story and all related tasks in about 3 hours.


2) Taking care of business


In addition to your sales, you also have to make sure that the money gets into your account. Invoice every project in a timely manner. If you don’t get paid on time, call the customer and ask when you can expect the money. It takes two to three months on average to get paid. The key is to build up enough incoming revenue streams to have a steady cash flow even if a client or two pays late.


Giving up your day job and joining the ranks of the self-employed increases the probability that the IRS will audit you. So it is vital you keep track of all your sales and all your expenses. The easiest way to do this is to grab 12 big manila envelopes. Write down the current month and year on the envelope, and put all your receipts, copies of payment stubs, and invoices for that month in the envelope. At the end of the month, enter all the receipts into a spreadsheet: expenses in one column, income in another, and type of expense in the third column.


You can deduct all expenses related to your business, including travel, food, books, magazines, lodging, equipment, supplies, phone and internet services—pretty much anything you use in your day-today work. At the end of the year, take your envelopes, your spreadsheets, and go see an accountant for tax \ preparation. The accountant will know how to deduct expenses, such as home offices, and amortizable expenses such as office furniture and computers. Be prepared; keep those envelopes in archive boxes. There is no statute of limitations if the IRS accuses you of filing a fraudulent return.


3) Practice makes perfect


Good writers write a lot. Set a daily word count goal and track how many days you actually meet that goal. The world is full of distractions: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, news feeds, friends who want to hang out because they think you don’t work. Adhering to a daily word count is one way to keep you focused on earning a living.


4) To market, to market


To get published, you have to market yourself. The three most important ways to do this are pitching your stories to editors, networking with editors, and building up a good readership circle online.


Pitching is the technical term for approaching an editor with a story or a story idea that he or she might like to purchase. Email a pitch or a story, or pick up the phone. Your pitch needs to answer the three questions.



The answer should be a succinct explanation about the story’s topic. If you need more than a couple of sentences, you need to spend some more time refining the concept.



Whether you are writing essays, reports, or opinion pieces, you need sources. Editors need to know who the main sources are, how they are relevant to the story, and how you will get the sources to talk to you. Existing relationships with sources, a history of writing on a topic, an acceptance from the source’s PR representative, or credentials to the event at which the source will speak will help your case, but the best argument is if the main sources have agreed to talk.


So contact the sources before your pitch the editor. Tell them that you are working on a story and where you intend to pitch it, making it very clear that no publication has accepted this story yet. Then you can tell the editor that the sources are ready to talk to you.



Tell the editor why you are the best writer for this story by listing your notable previous publications, your expertise on the topic and other pertinent information.


5) Where to pitch it


You have a great idea and a pitch letter, but no recipient. It’s time for some market research.


First, ask yourself whether any publication you read might be interested in the story. If you are interested enough to write about it, you probably read about it regularly. Start by researching those publications, then pan out to identify other publications in that market.


When it comes to finding whom you should pitch, most paper publications have a masthead somewhere in the first few pages. Online publications are a bit trickier, but with practice, you should be able to dig up staff lists and phone numbers. Services, such as Writer’s Market, give you access to databases that tell you what the publications are about, who to pitch, and how much publications pay for freelance assignments.


When it comes to making the pitch, though, Writer’s Market will not replace getting to know the publication. Take time to look at the magazine or website. Search through its online archives to learn what the publication has published on your story topic. Staff reporters go through the archives before pitching a story to the editor. You should, too.


When in doubt, call the publication. Your side of the conversation should go something like this: “My name is Lene Johansen, and I am working on a story about reading candidates’ body language during the presidential debates next month. To whom should I talk about this story?”


If there are publications in which you would love to get published—both for your self-esteem and your resume—get their publishing calendar, the tool that the advertising department of a publication uses to sell ads. Basically a list of future issues and their themes, the publishing calendar helps the advertising department sell the advertisements that fund the paper. It can help you find topics for stories that could get into those issues.


The editorial calendar could also help you dig up pertinent story ideas. Big Builder magazine is doing a special issue on city planning. You recently saw a research article by a scientist modeling climate patterns caused by urban landscapes. An interview with that scientist may be the pitch that gets your foot in the door.


The editorial calendar is usually found inside the Media Kit on the publication web site. Media Bistro actually publishes editorial calendars for a range of big publications, but this information is hidden behind Media Bistro’s membership pay wall. Sometimes, it is just as easy to find it online or even call the magazine and ask if they can email one to you.


Some publications do not have editorial calendars because the cycles of Congress, a particular industry, or some other entity drive their calendars. For those publications, it is best to follow the news in the beat. You will soon pick up the cycle. There may also be relevant calendars, such as the congressional calendar, FEC filing cycles, and trade conferences. The key is to get to know the beat by digging through back stories—if you haven’t already been following coverage.


All this pitching and market research business is much easier if you actually know the editor. Having a personal connection with you makes an editor more inclined to listen to you. You don’t have to have babysat the editor’s kids. All you need to have done is met and exchanged business cards at an event or even struck up a conversation on Twitter. I have even used the line, “I ran into Joe Blow at this event. He suggested I get in touch with you to chat about writing for you.”


I also make a point of sending a letter of introduction to four new editors per month. This email will include a brief introduction of who I am, a couple of story ideas, and two to four clips that might be relevant for this editor. These clips should show your range and be different types of stories, such as a hard news story, a feature, and an obituary.


6) Final product


Your editor will expect you to know some newsroom basics, even if you have never set foot in a newsroom. I will cover some of the basics in this section, but I recommend that you try to get some experience at your college paper and through IHS internships and other opportunities.


7) Format


Copy is always turned in as plain text without any formatting. “Pretty” fonts, different sizes for headlines, and italicized introductory paragraphs are a nightmare for the copydesk that must remove those flourishes before putting the piece into the content management system (CMS).


Never use the Tab key to indent as the copy desk must remove each one of those tabs. My manuscript template is set up so that the first line of each paragraph is indented. Do this using the paragraph settings in your word processor. This setting is the same as what is used by the CMS in most newsrooms, so your text will paste neatly into the system and eliminate copydesk nightmares. Avoid an empty white line to indicate a new paragraph: each one of those extra line changes must be removed by the copydesk.


You will never write your own headlines, so don’t waste your time by doing it. The editors on the copydesk are likely to be much better at it than you are. The only magazine that has ever asked me to write headlines is the Columbia Journalism Review, and it still changed them.


I will sometimes write subheads when I do really long stories, fully expecting those to be changed by the copydesk. Don’t indicate a subhead by making the text bold, bigger font, or anything silly like that. Professionals write “SUBHEAD:” in all caps at the beginning of the line, followed by proposed title.


The next line should start with “TEXT:” with the copy starting on the same line directly thereafter. On some big story packets, you will write pullout boxes with relevant information. These should be at the end of the document and tagged with “PULLOUT:” and the text starting on the same line directly thereafter.


Turn in your document in plain text, usually as an attachment in a commonly used document format. These document formats include .txt, .rtf, and doc. Do not use .docx format or any other kind of document extension that makes it hard for the editor to open and read your story. If you have Office 2010, save your document in the 2007 format. Some editors don’t even want attachments but the copy pasted into the body of an email. Send your emails in plain text, not html, and no “cute” backgrounds. Attachments are the most common in my experience. The editors that prefer the text in the email will most likely tell you this.


8) Edit


Impeccable editing will make both copyeditors and editors love you, while texts full of spelling and grammar errors can make them reject any other stories you pitch. Use your word processor’s spell check religiously. I have my word processor set to check for grammar AND STYLE. I have all the style options set. If you do this in a program like Word, the program will help you comply with guidelines from Elements of Style, which is a great resource on how to write more clearly.


Ask your word processor to provide readability statistics at the end of the grammar and spell check. In most cases, you want your readability to be around sixth to eighth grade.


Don’t use a complicated word when a simpler one will do. It is a great way to lose a reader—and not get another assignment. I also read all my stories aloud to myself during the proofreading phase. It helps me identify awkward sentences and other mistakes.


You probably encountered style guides during your years in college. The style guide of choice for news people is AP Style. Buy the book, read it, and test yourself in those skills. Many newsrooms have their own internal style guides as well. Ask for them if you start working for the same publication a lot.


Spare yourself the shame of being publicly corrected: Fact check your work. Your editor will appreciate your thoroughness and be inclined to trust your accuracy in the future.


Use the fact checking process to build trust with your sources and your editors. Send your sources an email including the quotes you used and the facts they gave to help catch any errors.


Don’t send sources the entire story. They should not get an opportunity to rewrite the story or change quotes and facts that are awkward for them. Keep good notes and any sound recordings in case you have to discuss backtracking sources with your editor. Some people will stir up a stink. At the end of the story, include name and contact information for each of your human sources and URLs and references for nonhuman ones.


9) Socialize


People in regular jobs have an instant network of people from their industry every morning when they walk into work. Such a network is invaluable. It keeps you informed about trends and new technology and gives you sounding boards for issues you are pondering.


As a freelance journalist, you have to build your own network. You can start in cyberspace. There are some helpful freelancing blogs out there such as The Renegade Writer and the Well-Fed Writer. The Missouri School of Journalism has a student blog on mobile journalism tools where they test gizmos and gadgets of all stripes. Poynter regularly does live web chats on specific issues and has tons of other information about the news business as well.


Online groups are a good start, but they won’t replace actual human contact. Groups like American Independent Writers and American Society of Journalists and Authors offer health care plans, companionship, and industry news. Various types of journalists have their own groups, such as National Association of Science Writers and Society of American Business Editors and Writers that offer skill development and community. Put aside money to join groups such as these and go to their conferences and events. You will find new friends and endless amounts of advice and inspiration.


10) Accept mistakes


Despite all the attempts to professionalize it, journalism is a skill. You learn by doing. You will make mistakes. Everyone does. Just apologize and try again. Writing about topics you know and about which you care are the keys to a successful career as a freelance journalist. Build your freelancing career on your persistent passion, and you will be successful.



I can be reached via Facebook, email:, and Twitter @lenejohansen.


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