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Movin' On Up: Graduating to Better Paying Markets
by Audrey Faye Henderson

Return to The Business of Writing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

You may have been grinding away for years to produce 400-word, 500-word or even longer articles for less money than it takes to fill the gas tank of your car. But your pitches are almost certain to be accepted without question. Or the publisher pays reliably every week, or even twice per week, which makes budgeting a snap.

You may consider yourself to be in a good place as a freelance writer. In reality, your complacency in reality, a fear of venturing beyond your (dis)comfort zone is doing yourself a serious disservice. If you rely too much on any one or two freelance outlets for writing income, you are only one editorial job change or search engine algorithm adjustment away from finding yourself without work.

As any wage earner who has watched helplessly while his or her job was shipped overseas can attest, you never want to find yourself in this position. But if you've consistently been writing for one or more publishers, you have the skills you need to protect yourself against such a fate. However, you must be willing to diversify into new markets, as well as move up to markets that pay more for the words that you produce.

Are You Ready to Move Up to "Better" Writing Markets?

Don't get me wrong; I'm the last person to turn my nose up at less than prestigious writing work. I still do content writing, but much less than in previous years. And while I'm not yet writing for The Atlantic, I can visualize the day when I might. And so should you. Maybe. The following list can help you determine whether you're ready to move up to higher profile, more lucrative consumer and B2B writing markets.

Signs That You're (Probably) Ready

  • Are you recognized as a professional by your peers? A reliable gauge is determining whether you are eligible for membership in selective writing organizations. Note the word "selective." Some organizations accept anyone who is willing to pay the price of admission. On the other hand, it's not necessary to qualify for membership in the American Society of Journalists and Authors to be considered a professional writer.

  • Do you have published clips (that you're proud of)? The fact that your work was good enough to be included in reputable publications lends credibility to your stature as a writer. If you're genuinely proud of a piece of work, there's a decent chance that it will pass muster as writing sample. On the other hand, if you have trouble identifying any work you've produced that you're willing to provide as a writing sample, you'll have a hard time breaking into top tier or even mid-level markets.

  • Are you on a first-name basis with one or more editors and/or publishers? Do your incoming messages open with the salutation "Dear Audrey" or "Dear Ms. Henderson"? You'll probably never become best friends with an editor, but if you've moved beyond chilly surname exchanges, that's a fairly good indication that you'll be seriously considered for juicy freelance writing assignments.

  • Do you have at least one specialty or area of expertise? Once upon a time, I was a GA (general assignment) reporter for a daily newspaper near my hometown. Writing about regional festivals and covering the local police beat was fun when I was 22, but the seasoned reporters whose stories regularly appeared "above the fold" on page one had established "beats," specific areas where they concentrated nearly all of their writing. It's the same with freelancing. Many of the highest earning writers have established at least one specialized niche.

  • Are you at the top of your game? Do you routinely receive praise (from editors, readers or well respected experts) concerning your work? Are other writers consulting you for advice? Are you considered a subject matter expert in your specialty? If your answer to each of these questions is "yes," you're almost certainly ready to move up.

  • Are editors saying "not now" rather than "no way" to your pitches? No one is successful 100 percent of the time. However, if you nearly always receive the dreaded "Dear Writer" response to pitches, take an honest assessment of your writing credentials. If you're shooting too far over your head, focus on becoming better established within your niche so that future pitches have a better shot at being accepted. On the other hand, maybe a particular editor just bought a piece similar to the one you're proposing. Perhaps he or she likes your writing style even if your pitch missed the mark. If editors encourage you to stay in touch, take that as an encouraging sign for future prospects, even if the rejections still sting now.

  • Do you receive detailed feedback from editors? Even the best writers sometimes miss the mark. That's why God invented editors. If editors take the time to explain where you've gone wrong and how to fix things, it's a safe bet that they believe that you have the writing chops to produce good work. In my experience, editors have provided guidance for refocusing pitches and even manuscript drafts so that they were a better fit for their publications.

  • Do you demonstrate willingness to do research or revisions? Taking a one-shot approach is a savvy way to deal with many content provider assignments, where you must churn out work rapidly to earn anything approaching a living hourly wage. It doesn't make sense to labor over multiple drafts or conduct more than a quick Internet search to flesh out an article that pays $25 or $30. However, an editor who is paying you hundreds or thousands of dollars will expect you to pick the phone and put in shoe leather to produce credible sources and reliable background data for your work. And yes, you may need to execute one or more revisions before your work is ready for publication.

    Developing a Specialty Niche (or Two)

    It's a hard truth that editors at mid-tier and top level publications look for freelancers who know what they're writing about, or, at the very least, who are able to tap thought leaders as sources. Demonstrating subject matter expertise or industry contacts for one or more specialized writing niche(s) helps you establish the credibility you need to gain traction with better paying consumer and trade markets. Don't hesitate to let editors know about your unique qualifications to write about certain topics.

    Let's say, for instance, that you're really passionate about environmentalism and you'd like to develop a specialty as an environmental writer. If you have an advanced degree in biology, geology or even public policy, you're that much ahead. Or if you are a tax attorney who has (legally) saved your clients thousands of dollars on their federal income tax returns, you'll find a receptive audience with business publication editors if you can translate dense tax code legalese into anything resembling plain English.

    Likewise, if you have cultivated prominent contacts in specific industries that would make good interview subjects, you're in a great position to snag high quality writing assignments. For instance, if you're on a first-name basis with Mike Holmes (of Holmes on Homes fame), editors for home improvement publications will definitely sit up and take notice.

    All very well and good, you may be thinking, but how can writers who don't have celebrity contacts or advanced degrees establish specialty niches in the first place? If an honest self assessment of your portfolio and credentials determines that you're just not ready to move up to higher paying markets, don't despair. It simply means that you must be willing to take a creative approach to developing the expertise you need.

    For instance, if you would like to become an environmental journalist but you don't have an advanced degree or published clips, it's not necessary to go back to school. Instead, gain subject matter expertise by becoming a regular reader of publications like TreeHugger. Stay abreast of environmentally related issues in the news. Join Meetup or other local groups related to sustainable building practices, clean energy or green transportation to begin making contacts. Establish a blog devoted to topics related to sustainability and contribute regularly until you've assembled a respectable body of work that you can present to editors along with your pitches.

    Making Your Move

    As you rack up good quality writing samples and credits in high quality publications, mention your previous publications in your queries. Even if your published clips aren't directly related to the publication you're pitching, the fact that you've passed muster with other editors demonstrates that you have the writing chops to produce good work. For instance, I frequently mention that I won a prize for a story published in the Transitions Abroad webzine even when I'm pitching publications unrelated to travel.

    If you've been toiling away writing $25 articles, aim initially toward markets paying $100 to $150. It's also totally legitimate to shop a few of your better previously published efforts as reprints as long as you hold the proper copyright to do so you'll get credit for a clip for almost no extra effort. Once you've gained your first few acceptances at mid-tier publications, move up to markets paying $200 or $300, and then on to even higher paying markets. Don't be deterred by one or two "no" responses along the way. If you're receiving personal feedback, it means you're on the right track.

    When the Editor Says "Yes"

    If the news is good concerning a particular pitch, you're allowed to celebrate for the next five minutes. However, especially if this is your first assignment for a particular publication, recognize that in a sense, you're on trial. If you don't submit your best effort (tsk, tsk) all the hard work you put into earning that coveted assignment will have been wasted, which would truly be a shame. On the other hand, you can parlay a well executed finished product into even more well paying assignments. You may eventually earn a place as a regular freelancer for that particular publication, or even begin receiving your own unsolicited assignments.

    You Really Know You're Ready When . . .

    The email message had a promising opening: "Hi Audrey, (using my first name friendly!) This was a thoughtful, well articulated pitch. However, it's not the right topic for us at this time . . ." Although I was discouraged, I kept reading until I reached the closing sentence: "Please do pitch us again." However, before I had a chance to develop another pitch for the publication, the editor actually contacted me. Was I interested in taking on a prospective assignment?

    In my case, stretching beyond the constraints of familiar writing outlets, along with good published clips, positioned me to receive this unexpected and pleasant surprise. My story is not at all unusual. Writers with established portfolios or who have otherwise demonstrated their merit to assigning editors regularly receive unsolicited assignments. If you're willing to put forth the effort, there's no reason why you cannot become a go-to writer for editors too and receive increasingly lucrative assignments in the bargain.

    Find Out More...

    The Art of Negotiation 16 Tips on How to Ask for More Money - Devyani Borade

    Five Magic Phrases: Tips for Negotiating Contracts Like a Pro - Jenna Glatzer

    Copyright © 2013 Audrey Henderson
    This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.

    Audrey Faye Henderson is a writer, researcher, data analyst and policy analyst based in the Chicago area. Her company, http://www.knowledge-empowerment.net/, specializes in social policy analysis concerning fair housing, affordable housing, higher education for nontraditional students, community development with an asset based approach and sustainable development in the built environment.


    Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
    All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
    without the author's written permission, unless otherwise indicated.
    For more information please contact Moira Allen, Editor

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