How to get started as a freelance writer
This is a bit different from my regular posts – each month I’m going to be doing a post for people new to freelance writing, but with a downloadable resource for everyone. I’ve had a bit of a rush of new subscribers and visitors to my site recently (hello and thank you!) and some of these lovely readers have been in touch and asked if I could go back to the very beginning.
I’ve been getting lots of questions about how you can become a freelance writer for magazines, how to get into freelance writing without experience, and how to become a freelance writer online. So here is a quick crash course in getting started.
How to get started as a freelance writer
I have been a freelance writer for the past five or so years. I had always written but I’d never been brave enough to actually call myself a writer. Writers had book deals, writers had their by lines in glossy magazines and writers got paid to arrange words on a page.
When I was pregnant with my first child I searched on the Internet for a writing course. I found the Australian Writers’ Centre course on writing for magazines and newspapers* and I immediately knew I wanted to do it. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the course changed my life.
So what started as something fun to do while I was pregnant and on maternity leave, has become my new career.
This year I’m freelancing full time and I couldn’t be happier.
This post explores how you can become a freelance writer for magazines, newspapers and digital publications. Although I do write some content for businesses, not-for-profits and big organisations, this is not the focus of this post.
And if you are already a freelance writer, you may be interested in this resource that contains 10 real-life pitches that were commissioned by editors at Travel + Leisure, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, The Sydney Morning Herald, Peppermint, Dumbo Feather and more.
But first, I want to take you step-by-step through the key points of what you need to know to break into freelance writing.
Break into freelance writing with no experience
1. Know why you want to get into freelance writing
You probably know why you want to be a writer but it’s worth thinking about these questions:
What motivates you? Are you one of those people who anticipate the arrival of a particular glossy magazine each month? Are you someone who follows a particular journalist’s writing and reads each of their articles? Do you rip pages out of magazines or bookmark specific articles because the writing or the ideas blow you away?
Or maybe it’s not that grand – maybe you quite like writing and want to see if you can get an article published.
Whatever your reason – have a think about the type of writing you want to do, the kinds of stories you love to read and your favourite publications. They will all serve as motivation as you embark on (oh my goodness, I'm going to say it), this journey.
2. Come up with a stellar idea
Lots of new freelance writers run into trouble when they are trying to decide if they should brainstorm ideas for stories or whether they should look at a particular publication first.
Personally I come up with an idea for an article first and then look and see which publication I could see it fitting in. I know freelancers who do it the other way around – both is fine – you just need to make sure you cover off the next two points.
3. Think of your angle and your hook
This is crucial. Sending editors topics rather than stories is one of the most common complaints about pitches from freelance writers. Your idea has to be more than a topic.
This means that you have a specific area you want to explore within a topic - this is called the angle.
As you’ll see from my example pitch (point 5) below I wanted to write about children’s behaviour. But children’s behaviour is a broad topic – I needed to drill down and find a specific angle within that topic – so I did some Internet research and bingo, found that there was a relatively new way of addressing children’s behaviour that hadn’t been given much attention.
You also need a hook – ask yourself what is going entice the reader to keep reading this article? Why is this story important now? Why will the readers want to know about this idea you are proposing to write about?
Every article has a hook - it may be that there has been a new scientific discovery about allergies, you may be taking a humorous look at a typically serious issue or you may want to shine a light on an issue that hasn't had much media attention.
Whatever your idea is, you need to make sure that you can clearly articulate why this article needs to be written now and for a particular publication.
4. Know the publication inside-out
As a new freelance writer, you need to ensure that the idea you are pitching is a good fit for the publication. You may be a long-time reader of a particular magazine and have a strong feeling that a specific story would sit beautifully within the pages.
But look carefully at the publication – what tone do they use? What is the average length of the articles? Who are their readers and what are their interests? (You can often find this information if you search the Internet for the publication’s name + ‘media kit’). Have they run a similar story recently?
Knowing this information will ensure that you are giving yourself the best chance of success.
Does this publication accept freelance writers? This is a bit trickier to find out – if it’s a print publication look at the bylines or the list of contributors usually on the front couple of pages of the magazine. Google a couple of the names you see – are they staff writers or freelancers?
With online publications you can do the same – often you can click on a writer’s name on an online article and the link will take you to their bio. There you’ll get a good perspective about whether the publication commissions freelancers.
If you’re not sure if the publication works with freelance writers, you can always email or phone and ask. Most magazines and newspapers will have a generic phone number to ring and you can ask whether they use freelance writers and who is the best person to pitch feature stories to.
5. Get the editor’s details
So you’ve got your idea with a strong angle and hook, and the publication you want to pitch to.
Now you have to find out whom to direct your pitch or query letter to. This is a crucial step – if you send your pitch to the wrong person they may not forward it on to the correct individual, or they may not even open your email.
If it’s a print publication, often you’ll pitch to the editor, the deputy editor or the features editor. Their name (and sometimes their email address) is found in the masthead of the magazine or newspaper.
If it’s not, you can do a bit of sleuthing – does the publication have any email addresses on their masthead? If so, follow the email format (e.g. it may be JaneSmith@glossymagazine.com) so once you have the name of the editor you can slot their name into that formula. If there aren’t any email addresses on their masthead you can always look at their media kit and see what the email format is for that particular publication.
I’d also do a quick check on the Internet to see whether that looks like it’s the right email address for them.
For online publications, it can be a bit harder, but by no means impossible. Some websites will have a ‘contact us’ page and there will be a specific email address for pitches and submissions. But if you can, you should always try and send your pitch or query directly to the correct person.
Use Google, LinkedIn or Twitter to search for the editor. You may type ‘digital editor + publication’ and see if you can find their name. Then you can use a tool such as hunter to grab their email address.
If you know other freelance writers, ask them if they know the editor’s email address. My experience is that freelance writers are generally very happy to share contact details.
6. Write a pitch or a query letter
Ok, so this is it.
Now you have to email the editor with your idea.
Editors are incredibly busy – so you need to sell your idea, and quickly. Start with a great subject line and make sure you write “Freelance writer pitch: 10 unique ways to make spaghetti” or “Freelance pitch: 10 unique ways to make spaghetti” rather than “Article idea: 10 unique ways to make spaghetti” or “Pitch: 10 unique ways to make spaghetti” as the editor may mistake your email for a press release from a PR.
Introduce yourself but just give the editor the information they need to know. If you feel comfortable it’s totally ok to say that you are a freelance writer – but if you do so, be prepared for them to ask you to send them examples of your work.
I’ve dug out my very first pitch I sent to an editor (way back in 2012) – notice that I didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a freelance writer so I didn’t. It was to the editor of Fairfax’s Essential Kids website.
I am wondering if you would be interested in an article about some new and interesting ways to guide young children's behaviour for the Essential Kids website.
There is a growing movement called 'the guidance approach' which looks at young children's emotional and social development in much the same way as their physical development. For instance, we don't say to children learning to walk "If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, just put one foot in front of the other". Yet with children's emotional learning (such as when they are learning to regulate their own behaviour) we rarely have the same patience and can fall into the trap of branding them 'naughty' or 'manipulative'.
I'd like to write an article for your website about the broad ideas behind the guidance approach with some practical hints and tips for parents wanting to learn more and implement some of the ideas. I'd also speak with Dr Louise Porter, an Australian psychologist who has written many articles and books on guiding young children's behaviour.
Thanks for your consideration of this idea, I look forward to hearing from you.
You can see that very early on in the query letter I put the words 'new and interesting', which alerted the editor to the fact that this idea hadn't necessarily been covered before. I noted who I was going to interview for the piece and what I was broadly going to cover.
The article was commissioned and published here
If you would like to see more real-life pitches of articles that have been commissioned by publications such as Travel + Leisure, The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age, Dumbo Feather, Peppermint - click here.
7. Press send
This is the scary part. Press send. Editors are busy people so please don’t hang around at your computer refreshing your inbox every 10 seconds; it may be days or weeks before you get a reply.
But you’ve done it. You’ve taken the first step to becoming a freelance writer.
Some THINGS TO BE AWARE OF:
Writing on spec
As a freelance writer who is just starting out, you may or may not have previously published pieces. If you don’t, it’s not uncommon for editors to ask you to write ‘on spec’. This means you write the article without any commitment from the publication that they will publish the pieces. It’s a safety net for the editor who may be keen on your idea but less keen to commit to publishing a new writer.
Some first time writers prefer to write a piece in full - this is totally fine, especially if the piece is a reflective or opinionated first person article. You can always email an editor and say, "I wrote this piece with your publication in mind" and give them a one or two sentence overview.
If your article is timely, that is, if it relates to a certain news event, make sure you flag that in the body of your email as well as the subject line. For those pieces, can you follow up in 24 – 48 hours.
If it’s not tied to a news peg, then wait at least a week before following up. If you’re after more information about how to follow up with editors you can read it here.
But, If you really want to fast track your entry to freelance writing for magazines and newspapers
I did this course back in 2011 when becoming a freelance writer was a bit of a pipe dream. Within a few weeks of finishing the course I had my first article commissioned for $400.
Within a few years I was a regular contributor to Sunday Life, The Age/SMH and other well-known magazines and newspapers.
I’m now a full time freelance writer and it’s all because of that course.
And apart from the course itself, which is taught by freelance journalists and writers, one of the best things is that you get entry into a super active community full of generous graduates, who you can ask any questions you may have about pitching, writing, or contact details for publications.
I have just become an affiliate with the AWC, but the truth is, I’ve been singing their praises for years. All up I've completed four courses with them, and I'm eyeing off more! I’m so grateful that I took the leap and enrolled in the course - as I mentioned before, the course changed my life.
Are you looking to get a start in freelance writing? What questions do you have?