Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Audrey Faye Henderson
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
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.
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.