February 20, 2022

Oddly enough, we’re all freelance writers. Every day, people tell stories to each other: We imagine what we would do “if this” or “maybe that.” Daydreams, not-quite-true stories we tell our friends, the reviews we write for social media sites or Internet catalogues, comments that we write on news and political sites. It’s all good: We’re simply trying to communicate.

If you want to take that human desire to tell stories to the next step, to actually become a true freelance writer, it only takes a simple – and extraordinarily difficult – step to go beyond the casual noodling and focus on what is involved to catch the attention of someone who is willing to actually pay for that imagination and willing to write.

Are You Really a Writer?

The first, and most important, issue to address is whether you are really willing to write, or are you just a wanna-be? It’s one thing to casually tell friends and family, “Oh, yes, I’m a writer.” When it comes down to nut-cracking time, though, the question really is: Do you write? Show me those pages of manuscript, bring up those files on your laptop (coyly hidden in the file “Writing” – c’mon, you know they’re there), drag out those shameful rejection letters or emails that you saved. That old excuse, “Well, I’ve got lots of ideas” just doesn’t cut it in the real world of freelance writing.

It doesn’t matter if you haven’t actually been paid for anything you’ve written – there’s no shame in that – but unless you’ve put your time, imagination and self-control to put pen to paper (or keystrokes to file), then you are not a writer. Bash those keys, get your imagination going, strike out – and strike out – again and again. That is what it means to be a freelance writer.

There Is No “Free” in “Freelance”

Forget the romantic image of writing. It’s a horrible life. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. You are not free; you are a slave to the words and the worlds you write, the late nights and early mornings, the self-doubt and mockery of the “no” or, worse, the silence. You hunt for ideas that get rejected, assignments that don’t come through, fantastic ideas that get old and rot on the page before they can be published, the articles lovingly written and yet rejected at the last minute as “not quite what we were looking for.” But… when you make that connection, when the right idea finds the right magazine, or Internet site or publisher and is actually accepted, that is worth more than all the gold of Ophir.

Hold that ideal before you – heck, even lie to yourself late at night, if that’s what it takes – and keep plugging. There isn’t a writer who has ever made a living by the word who hasn’t gone through the same thing. The “possible” becomes the “is” only through sheer determination. The only difference between a hunter and a writer is perhaps a lack of blood-lust.

The Flavors of Freelance Writers

The first image that comes to mind for a freelance writer is a novelist, writing the Great True Story that will take the world by storm. (Forgive the dramatic capitals, but it’s hard to resist taking a gentle poke at the writer who has a fervent vision of their novel. Bless them all, because I’m not one of them: I’m just a non-fiction writer. But, boy, I’d sure like to write that novel…) There’s also the polemicist, writing long, earnest political articles. (And good luck with earning any money out of that path.) But there are smaller, easier steps to take.

Consider, for example, the idea of “how-to” articles. Do you know how to strip down a two-stroke engine for a lawnmower or sharpen a chainsaw? Have you ever come up with an idea for keeping flower bulbs wintered-over? It may seem mundane, but it’s the bread and butter of writing. History, bird-watching, video games, computer tricks, anything you can imagine… they’re all fuel for the writing fire. Absolutely everything you can imagine or consider or wonder about or ask someone else “how do you do that?” is your treasure.

Your Market

The next time you have a chance, go to a large bookstore with a great selection of magazines. Look at all those thousands of titles. Think about it: Every month, they have all those pages to fill. Now, consider all of those publishers have to fill all of those pages, for every issue they put out. They are hungry for copy – your copy!

Then, go to your favorite search engine and scroll down through your “favorites” files. There is another treasure. If you were interested enough to find that website and log it into your favorites, then you must have a mutual interest. Perhaps you like the history of tobacco pipes, or the early history of ichthyology (you think I’m kidding, don’t you?) and you might have something to add. Which leads us to:

Small Steps (Finding Your Niche)

Understand that the publishing industry – all the formats, including Internet, magazines, books – is profit-driven. They need sales, clicks, whatever. Your job as a freelance writer is to provide the content they need to fill their pages or spaces, to attract the sales they need to keep in business. Yes, they need you, but you have to subsume your own creative ideals to their needs. Go out there and knock on doors (well, e-mails), and offer your services. Write what they want. Build your resume. Be patient. Above all, never, ever, ever, stop writing.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Get up early in the morning. Stay up late at night. Find your little place – a tiny desk or a place in the kitchen – that is your writing place. Wrap yourself up in your writing and then… let it go. After the designated hour or two, just walk away. What you learn and experience from life and family and happiness will only add to your imagination and skills.

It can happen.

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