How to become a freelance writer (and get paid for it)

freelance writingOne of the best things about working as a freelance writer is the ability to schedule your own diary. One of the worst things about working as a freelance writer is clients who think they can schedule your diary for you.

Becoming a blogger is tricky enough, but when you become a fully fledged member of team freelance writer, you’re in for a whole new ball game. Gone are the self-imposed deadlines and articles of fancy: replaced by a hard-nosed necessity to earn cash and the constant uncertainty of where your next project will come from.

There are obvious upsides to a life sat on your sofa: I can listen to music slash watch repeat runs of Judge Judy without recourse, my cats are extremely tame, and my work ‘uniform’ can be as elaborate or slovenly as I damn well choose it to be. Best of all, I have a choice: if a client offers me a task that sounds as boring as a fart, I can politely turn it down. No questions asked.

Unfortunately a lot of the time the downsides are so overwhelming, I only survive because I fundamentally love what I’m doing: writing is my passion, and I’ve not lost sight of that. Still, there is a tendency for clients to think they own the ground you walk on, short deadlines and terrible rates of pay are par for the course, and the long hours – oh, the long hours. Work is unpredictable and you live in constant fear of having a ‘quiet period’. That means when a super-huge and dubiously quick turnaround project comes in you’ll work all hours to ensure it’s finished before your client sits down for their morning coffee the next day. It’s not fun, and quite often it’s thankless.

But hey, isn’t every job like that, at some point?

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Part of the reason I put up with all of this is because I’m unbelievably stubborn. When someone tells me I can’t, I have to prove to them that I can. I’m equally tired of being told I can’t do something because it’s ‘unobtainable’. Most things are obtainable when you live in a country that’s as economically and culturally blessed as the UK. We all have access to water, education, and healthcare. Many of us are connected to the internet, we have a roof over our heads, and can afford a massive bag of £1 Asda Smart Price pasta at the worst of times. Side note: this will especially come in handy when you reach freelance writer status.

Do not let some ungrateful, scaremongering so-and-so tell you you’re not in a position to make it in whatever industry you choose. Hard work perseveres, eventually. Yes, you’ll meet people who’ve been graced with better luck and family connections. Those people will struggle too, but they’ll do so in the confines of a gum-chewing internship that will eventually pay them to live and may see them swan into the offices of a well-known magazine quicker than you can spell ‘nepotism’ backwards.

If like myself you’re not part of this elite group of people, you’ll have to work five times harder and 10 times longer to achieve exactly the same thing, but for less money. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Nothing is ‘unobtainable’.

So, what are the first steps towards becoming a freelance writer? There are different routes, but below, I share my experience.

Step One:

Volunteer your writing services for free!

If you contribute to a few publications for free, you’ll quickly build up a good portfolio while also getting your name out there as a reliable and committed writer. If you’re friendly and helpful, the chances are editors and peers will remember your name when it counts. That’s how I get lots of my contracted work. I know I make a conscious effort to support the DrunkenWerewolf alumni who have put their back into my project, too.

If you don’t fancy writing for free for someone else, that’s okay. Start your own blog and write for free for yourself, instead. Warning: this is a lot harder work. You’ll need to be organised, driven, have a really good ear for music, and the guts to step out on your own, whether in musical direction or opinion. Even then you can’t just open a WordPress account and expect to be an overnight success. When you do reach the towering heights of Hype Machine et al, you probably still won’t draw a wage from your project. DrunkenWerewolf doesn’t pay me a bean, but it has undeniably acted as a stepping stone into the freelance world.

Do you want to write for DrunkenWerewolf? You don’t need experience, just a head on your shoulders, a dictionary to hand and an ear for a tune. Head over here to sign up!

Step Two:

Stick with it!

Keep writing. Keep going for years. This is where the fast track of joining an internship and/or moving to London will tempt those who can afford it away from the grinding stone of blogging, blogging, and more blogging. And I don’t think there’s any shame in that. It’s the system that’s the problem, not the individual.

As for the rest of us? I wrote for free for 5 years, supporting myself with a full-time admin job and writing into the evening. It’s physically and mentally exhausting and thank God I did in my early 20s because if I had to do it now, I don’t think I’d have the stamina.

Step Three:

Lower your expectations, and keep working…

This is where it gets as serious as a Celine Dion song. You need to register as self-employed, and sign up to sell your writing services through online platforms such as the following:

Yes, work on these platforms can be low paid. Yes, those already in the industry will tell you this constantly. They will also tell you it’s not worthwhile. Whether that’s because they were lucky enough to grow up outside of the recession or with the support they needed to skip this step, I do not know. Neither do I really care, because those people are wrong. It’s not fair, but you’re going to have to start on a low wage. The quicker you get over the fact, the quicker you’ll get through it. Once you’ve broken through the barrier of building your presence on a network such as one of those above, you can expect to earn roughly £1-1.5k a month on a full-time basis – and though that’s not going to make you a millionaire, it will leave the naysayers who said you couldn’t do it red faced.

Step Four:

Get pitching.

Now that you’re earning some money from your freelance work, and probably some well-deserved confidence too, you can start to engage with publications that pay. There’s no secret to this.

Contact: Some websites will helpful list a commissioning editor’s email address. This is where you should send your pitches, no matter what section of the website you want to contribute to. If there’s no commissioning editor but there are other contact details, start at the bottom of the pile. The sub-editors will escalate your request if they like it and think it suits the site, and your pitch won’t get lost in the deluge of emails the editor in chief no doubt receives. If there are no contact details, then you’re out of luck, son/daughter. Network to your high horses; join Facebook groups; rub shoulders with writers; engage on social media. It works… sometimes.

Pitching: Accept that you will fail. Blunt, but true. Just like the real world, deadly silence means you’ve been miserably unsuccessful, and no one’s going to wipe away your tears with a rainbow unicorn tissue no matter how many follow-up emails you send. For every 10 pitches you submit, you may only get one gig – and that’s if you’re lucky. Don’t take it to heart, it happens to everyone, just keep pitching.

Fee: What you charge is ultimately up to you. Sometimes publications will set a rate of pay across the writing team, other times it’ll be up to you to guess what’s reasonable. As a starter for 10, I’ve not come across a decent writer who’s charged less than £20 per hour in the UK. The rates on my services page are discounted slightly to accommodate smaller businesses whom I like working with, but they are relatively realistic and have served me well. Remember you’ll have to deduct tax from your pay come April!

…And if you get further than Step Four?

Well, I’m likely to call on you for advice at some point!

Do you need editing help? Perhaps you’ve got a piece that needs proofreading before you submit it to a client? I offer both on my services page!

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