While there’s no magic formula for success as a freelance writer, there are specific things you need to do to succeed. Here are the key actions that have helped me to advance in my career, and should help you do the same:
1) Build relationships: Nearly every opportunity I’ve had came about because I knew someone who helped me get my foot in the door at publication X. From that point on it was up to me to prove myself, but a relationship helped me get that first shot.
One caveat, however: Never cultivate relationships with the idea that “this person will help me get into X paper” or “there’s a chance this person could get transferred to Y Magazine someday, so I should be really nice to them” or anything like that. Connect with like-minded people, be genuine in every interaction, help people whenever possible and you will naturally develop alliances that will help you achieve your career goals.
2) Seize every opportunity – When I was just starting out, I told a friend and fellow writer that I was doing my first story — a graduation piece — for a local newspaper. “A graduation story?” she scoffed. “My God, how demeaning.” Perhaps she wasn’t the best friend, and that might explain why we don’t speak anymore, but the bottom line is I didn’t see the assignment as demeaning. I didn’t see it as a lowly graduation story. I saw it as an opportunity to capture this event, which was quite important to a large number of people, in the most vivid way possible and showcase my abilities. The result? The newspaper got phone calls from multiple people raving about how great the story was, which apparently had never happened before. My editor said it was one of the best graduation stories he’d ever read.
Do you think that story and the other graduation stories I wrote helped me land meatier assignments, which led to them hiring me full-time three months later, which led to me freelancing for a major newspaper and national magazines? You bet.
3) Be reliable and available – Flaking on assignments is a big no-no if you want to get ahead. The only legitimate reason to flake on an assignment is an unforeseen personal emergency, and it’s the only reason I’ve ever flaked on one. If my editor calls me at the last minute to do something, I generally do it. If I accept an assignment, I follow through on it and do the best job possible. If I’m having difficulty with some aspect of the assignment, I let my editor know as soon as possible and ask for their advice in navigating around the issue.
When editors know they can count on you for assignments, they’ll give you more of them. If they know they can call you in a last-minute jam, next time they’re in a jam, guess who they’re going to call? Being reliable and available sets you up to become your editor’s go-to writer.
4) Do what others will not – To rise above the pack and become one of the select few who make it at major newspapers and national magazines, you must be willing to do what other writers will not. You must do the assignments that have you sitting in a field at 3 a.m. when it’s 20 degrees outside, just to write about an explosion that’s being filmed for the latest Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz movie. Yes, it was me sitting in that field in the wee hours of the morning. You must be willing to do virtually anything, as long as it’s ethical, to get ahead.
5) Find out exactly what editors need and want — and deliver it to them error-free and on-time. Many editors have told me I’m a “breath of fresh air” or that they love working with me. I’m always surprised by these comments, and when I ask why, they say it’s because I’m easy to work with and I give them what they ask for. This seems like common sense to me, but apparently it’s not.
One editor told me that writers often disregard his directions and turn in stories that have more to do with their ideas than his, even though he clearly lays out what he’s looking for in every assignment. Maybe these writers think they’re wowing this editor with their creativity, but in reality they’re just frustrating him and decreasing the likelihood he’ll give them future assignments. It’s important to understand exactly what’s expected of you and then deliver to a T. This is how you delight editors.
6) Promote, promote, promote – In an ideal world, newspapers and magazines would come beating down your door after reading that awesome article you wrote. In the real world, this likely will never happen. Newspapers and magazines have people beating down their doors to write for them, and great as you may be, they simply don’t need you. It’s up to you to consistently let publications know you exist, let them know what you’re capable of, and follow up when you don’t hear back right away. And once you get the chance to show them your stuff, you MUST delight them. Give them exactly what they want. And they’ll be calling you back for more.
7) Come up with great ideas – When you develop relationships with publications, they will assign you stories, but if you simply wait for assignments, you’re missing out. Part of your job is to be an idea factory. The world is full of ideas just waiting to blossom into stories; it’s your job to spot those ideas and then select the right publications for them.
While nothing in life is guaranteed, if you consistently do all of these things, you should start to taste some of that success you’ve dreamed of.