6 Tips for Making It As A Freelance Writer

By Anna Clark on June 2nd, 2014 / Comments

I am a believer in journalism. I believe that facts matter. I believe that, however our media evolves, there will always be a need for articulate, insightful writing. If I can help connect you with the public conversation, I want to do it.

For more than four years, I’ve been a full-time freelance journalist in Detroit, writing mostly for national publications about cities, literature, media, and politics. My business is listening for true stories. Living in Detroit has made me better at this, both in my reporting and in longform projects like A Detroit Anthology. This is also a city where I can actually support myself, doing what I love and working for myself, as a single and self-employed person who lives simply.

How to make it as freelance journalist? Here’s a starting template:

Work at Being a Better Reader
Expand your regular reading so you learn what is happening beyond your immediate network. Subscribe to publications you admire, which both supports their business and helps you become familiar with their voice and the kind of stories they publish, so you can better tailor your pitches to them. Go to the magazine stand and pick up magazines you don’t read or know. Look through them and think—what could I offer these pages?

You should also become a better reader in a line-by-line way. Think analytically about why a story works or why it doesn’t. What craft techniques are used? What effect does it have? The best craft books can help you learn to read like a writer, including John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and Stephen King’s On Writing.

Work at Being a Better Writer
Write every day, and write thoughtfully. Practice your public voice by saying yes to opportunities—even small ones, early on—to get your words out there. Create a blog and get in the habit of writing for it regularly, using your editorial judgment. Play with words. Type out articles and stories authored by other people: the word-by-word attention will teach you more than you can imagine.

Don’t Ever Miss Deadlines
Just don’t. Editors don’t forget. Either you’re a professional, or you’re not. Relatedly, be available and ready to go when editors ask: timeliness is a huge part of the business. And don’t make any promises you can’t keep. If you say you’re going to do a Q&A interview with a music legend, make sure you already have this agreed-upon with said music legend.

Always Look Out for Stories
You’re looking for specific stories to tell, not general ones, so drill it down. Be alert to your own expertise, which can answer an editor’s question of “why are you the one to tell this story?” Expertise can be in your field, in your location, in your access to contacts, or in your life experience. If you are a firefighter, your piece on arson in Detroit becomes especially interesting. If you live in rural Michigan, you have expertise on, say, the rural brain drain. Learn to stretch your ideas out, finding unique angles for different publications. That rural brain drain story could be a feature for a newsmagazine, a Q&A for a tourism/development publication, and a reported piece for an urban planning website (“how do we design rural cities for a changing future?”). Just remember to re-report, and never self-plagiarize!

Be Accurate and Honest
Check and double-check facts. Get spelling and grammar right. Take notes and record interviews. Be skeptical of what you encounter, and also, of yourself. Look for evidence. Don’t misrepresent yourself to the people you are reporting on. If your story ends up being different than the one you expected to tell, don’t force it: talk with your editor and find ways to account for the nuance and contradictions of the real world.

Take Yourself Seriously
You have a right to tell stories. You have a right to interview people and ask them questions. If you are going for a career as a self-employed freelancer, than be a good employer to yourself: give yourself meaty projects, manage your finances wisely, make sure you have regular time off, and make no excuses for not working hard.

Check out Anna’s latest work editing The Detroit Anthology, now available, and online at www.annaclark.net. Image above via Belt Magazine.

About the Author

Anna Clark

Anna Clark's writing has appeared in The New Republic, The American Prospect, Next City, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter at @annaleighclark.