FIVE STEPS TO BECOMING A FREELANCE WRITER.

When I was in the first grade, our teacher made us all stand up and tell the class what we wanted to be when we grew up.

“A fireman,” said the boy next to me, predictably.

“A marine biologist,” said the little overachiever in front, the one who always wore tight ponytails and tucked in her t-shirts.

“I would like to be Janet Jackson,” I told the class.

And it was true.  I grew up watching Star Search and listening to Rhythm Nation, so at age six, these influencers were as strong as any on my future vocation plans.

But what I didn’t know, was that my fanciful imagination — that I could become a pop star, that I could become a Jackson, that I could become black — was actually steering me down a different career  path.  Writing.

Now I’ve had a lot of jobs between my teens and now, but writing has always loomed in the background.  Pre-Internet, I hungered to see my name in print, in a story byline.  I freaked out when my very first column ran in the illustrious Hoof Print Weekly (published by Alamo Heights High School).  It was a story about a local car repair place, and how they had been in business since 1973.  Aren’t you dying to read it?

Twelve years since my hard-hitting mechanic profile piece, I have written for a variety of outlets.  Some of which you’ve heard of, some you definitely haven’t.  The most well-known are probably TreeHugger and Planet Green, both owned / operated by the Discovery Channel.  In 2009, I also had a brief stint writing for The Village Voice’s now-defunct feminist blog.  These days, I’m still freelance writing, and while it’s hardly enough for me to quit my day job, I’m still angling for bigger stories in bigger media outlets.  I’ve been rejected a lot, but I do feel like I’ve got the game down.  Since several friends and blog readers have asked me lately about freelance writing, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far on this textual journey.

Here are my five essential tips to becoming a freelance writer:

1. Decide what you want to write about.  Ok, this probably seems really obvious.  But seriously.  Take a moment and write down what three topics make you feel completely jazzed.  This is important, because it will help define your direction as a freelance writer.

While some of us daydream about a spread in Glamour, others are shooting for a column on Politico.com or in The Wall Street Journal.  Do you want to ask people in positions of power the hard questions?  Or do you want to test-drive recipes with chefs?  Forecast Spring 2012 runway trends?  It changes for me all the time, but right now, my top three story topics are:

  • Interviews with writers and visual artists
  • Food, both restaurant reviews and chef profiles
  • Essays on becoming a grown-up

I admit that last one is pretty open-ended.  But the thing I want to point out here is that in addition to topic, think about format.  Do interviews make you excited, or make you cringe?  Do you actually like reviewing restaurants?  Or would it be annoying to stop in between bites and take notes on what you just ate?  Ross gets irritated with me all the time when our food comes out, tantalizing and piping hot, and as he’s reaching for his fork I slap his hand away so I can take a picture of his plate.  So think about that too — how the shape of certain pieces affect your research process, before you ever sit down to type.

2. Consider an internship.  I got my first magazine internship when I was well out of college.  I was in graduate school in California, and I was 24 years old.  It was at a new, local city magazine in Sacramento, and my editors came from Money Magazine and In Style.  I worked for free and, due to the miniscule staff and multiple overnighters spent at the office, I pulled my hair out a lot.  But in exchange, I got this awesome, New York school education in magazine journalism.  I learned about all the boring aspects of freelance writing, like fact-checking and copy-editing (if you’ve read this blog for any amount of time then you can tell I still need lessons on copy-editing), and I also collected all these splashy, well-designed clips.  When I came back home to Austin and was trying to get my freelance writer thing happening, I scanned my clips into PDF’s:

 My first food writing column, courtesy of my Sactown internship

So what I’m saying is, think about a part-time internship.  For those of us who work full-time, that may seem unrealistic, and I hear you.  But if you do have 10 hours a week to spare, interning at a media outlet will give you some freelance writer street cred.  Mostly though, it will give you a spread of nice clips, and that’s really what I’m driving at here: Trading your time, for free, to get your name in the byline of an established media outlet.

3. Write for free at first.  Not just because it’s a down economy.  But again, when you’re starting out, you just want to build up your clips.

When I first moved back to Austin, I got in touch with the editor (now my buddy) Matt Swinney at the late Rare Magazine, and sent him my clips.  He said ok, I could write for them, as long as it was cool that they didn’t pay me?

I said that was fine, and proceeded to write for them for two years — four stories per monthly issue.

I also asked Austinist if I could write for them, and eventually, they said yes.  That wasn’t paid either, but I wrote a cocktail column and got compensated handsomely in complimentary spirits tastings and boxes of liquor mailed to my home.

My column at Austinist, The Informed Drinker

(Now that I think about it, why did I ever give that column up?)

When my old editor at Rare moved to Launch787, I blogged for them for a while.  Also for free.  In the end, it was only after I clocked in two years of free writing that I started getting offers for paid work.  I linked to that very column above when I applied to Planet Green, my first paying writing job.

So the next time a new website (or a magazine) launches, contact the editors.  Ask if they’re looking for contributors.  Be up front with them, let them know you’re trying to build up your clips and would be willing to trade your free time writing for them in exchange for some bylines.

4. Blog and networkThe Village Voice blog editor found me via my blog.  So if you’re blogging now, keep it up — and start chatting with other writer bloggers.  (I say “writer bloggers” since not all bloggers aspire to be freelance writers.)  Use Twitter, and don’t just chat with writers — chat with publicists.  They’re eager to turn you into a media contact, so they can eventually pitch their clients to you.  I’m a publicist too, so I can state that with authority!

Let me give you another example.  Years ago, I became friends with one of Austin’s most beloved social queens, Rose Reyes.  She works at the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, and has always been a big supporter of my blog.  When SheKnows contacted ACVB looking for local Austin writers, her team recommended me — and voila!  That’s how I got that new gig I mentioned on Friday.

(And, PS, Rose and I met through absolutely normal, non-fabulous circumstances: I babysat her kids.  If any of you know Rose in real life, you’ll be pleased to know that she had incredible shoe taste back then, too — seven years ago).

5. Pitch ideas appropriately (and name your price).  This is the stage I am at now: Approaching outlets who have never run my work, and pitching them story ideas.  Sometimes it works (like with Austin Monthlya few months back), and sometimes it doesn’t.  Meaning, a LOT of the time it doesn’t.  But I’m still going for it.  I’m still Googling editor’s names and email addresses, and sometimes I’m shamelessly calling the website / magazine office and straight up asking to speak to somebody about a story idea.  You have to have balls in this line of work.

It also helps if you’ve first made friends with one of the outlet’s existing writers, who may kindly offer to introduce you to their editor.  Again, this is where Twitter can be your friend!  Find writers whose work you admire — and whose writing homes you admire — and make nice.

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That’s it!  Ye writerly wisdom from a humble foot soldier.  Some freelance writers have amazing connections, like a sibling or parent at a media company; for the rest of us, freelance writing involves a slow, patient execution of the steps above — and lots of free labor.

One more thing.  Beyond the thrill of seeing one’s name in print, I can honestly say that I’ve met some of the most interesting people through interviews, and a few who turned out to be my very good friends — designer Rene Geneva, vintage princess Sarah Jessica Dean.  So when you’re not getting paid in ch-ching, at the very least, you’re probably getting paid in intriguing company.

Good luck!