Writers need markets to publish their work and, right now, the Internet is the biggest market there is. It is so large, in fact, that it is overwhelming, for writers, for readers and particularly for web site publishers. The key to successful online freelance writing is to make sense of this potential market, approach it rationally and professionally and use the strengths of the medium to your advantage – while avoiding its pitfalls.

I’ve been a freelance writer (part-time and full-time) for nearly 35 years, so I began with the print-only market, and yet somehow survived the transition into the mixed market that exists today. While there are similarities between physical print and online publishing – writing is, after all, still writing – there are particular approaches that can help improve the success when freelancing for online venues.

Focus Your Writing

It’s difficult to believe, at least for me, but the Internet, as we know it, is less than 25 years old. From its origins in 1991 as a basic file-sharing system for academics until about 1999, there were fewer than 100,000 web sites; over the next 15 years, the curve that plotted the number of new sites was so steep that it might as well have been a vertical line. Now, it is estimated that by late 2015 the number of active web sites online will reach one billion.

That is simply too large a number to comprehend. Admittedly, not all of those sites are potential markets for freelance writers, but even a fraction – “just” a few hundred million sites – is still overwhelming. The first step is to target a specific market and a select number of sites to approach with proposals. Pick your field – current affairs, politics, religion, history, science, beauty, sports, whatever you feel is your strength – and search for the sites that you think might be willing to consider a proposal from a freelance writer. Start with the obvious ones (the ones you read on a regular basis), but add as many to your “possibles” list as you want.

Be Professional (Only More So)

Just about everyone thinks they can write (and, judging from the quality of what you read online, just about anyone does). Therefore, one of the secrets to successful online freelance writing is to treat it as if it were any other type of writing: When sending a proposal by e-mail, present yourself as a true professional and web site editors will note the difference and give your proposal a fair hearing.

Research the site to make sure that your proposal is within their scope of interest and that it isn’t a subject that they’ve already covered (or, at least, give it a fresh angle). Proposals should cover the traditional ground: Brief description, why it is important/interesting/timely, your qualifications to write it, length and delivery date. Since publication lead times are shorter for web sites than they are for print (most magazines need submissions at least three and often six months before the issue date), you can offer seasonal material sooner than in the Old Days, but don’t cut it too fine: Editorial, fact-checking and layout still take time. Keep to a standard length for the letter, just a few hundred words that can be read and absorbed in a few minutes.

Include all contact information, not just your email address; the editor might want to call you to discuss your idea. If you have published online recently, add URLs for those articles at the bottom of the proposal (the electronic version of clippings). Under no circumstances should you send a cold proposal with attachments. The text of the proposal should be entirely within the body of the email. And, of course, try to find a way to send the proposal to a specific person on the editorial staff, instead of using a generic email address.

Don’t Just Rehash Online Sources

It is amazing how many writers think that it is acceptable to just spend a few minutes doing some generic searches online, re-package it into a “new” article and consider it a job well done. One of the major keys to online freelance writing is original research – create something fresh! Find new sources, reference printed books and journals, telephone (or at least email) experts or insiders, and then document it all. Any editor worth his salt will fall upon your shoulders and weep with joy (metaphorically, at least) if you give him something that isn’t going to appear with almost copy-and-paste similarity in every competitor’s site.

Create Your Own Site

The old saying about a shoemaker’s children not having new shoes applies to writers. After spending all day writing, who wants to spend evenings and weekends doing more writing – without pay? In point of fact, however, it does pay, in the long run. It doesn’t even have to be that difficult or time-consuming a task.

There are so many plug-and-play web site formats that are available; you don’t have to hire a specialist to create one for you. Any website that looks clean and reasonably professional, even if it is a little generic, will do the job. The point, after all, is to showcase your qualifications, experience and, most of all, your writing skills. A photograph or two (don’t get too carried away), some samples of original writing in your areas of expertise, perhaps samples of what you’ve published elsewhere (get permission from the sites, of course) and every point of contact you possess and you’ll have what is horribly called an “author’s platform.”

While, in my old fogy ways, I consider that term to sound uncomfortably close to the place where a writer stands just before he is hanged, a platform can be very useful. It provides a fast and easy way for an editor to check you out before deciding whether to accept your proposal. Also, it means that everyone who reads your articles will also be able to contact you so you can write for them, because you will always insist that your platform’s URL will be included in your by-line, won’t you? Of course you will, because you’re a professional and want to be successful.