A Freelance FAQ for New and Niche Writers

i really want to get into freelance journalism, but i don’t even know where to start. i know that’s probably still really broad, but i just love writing so much and i have no fuckin clue what i can DO about it besides feel like i’m too paralyzed to start….

I’m glad you’re asking this question, because now more than ever, it’s really, really difficult to get started as a freelancer. When I first began freelancing, in 2014, there was a wide variety of large, well-known sites that ran work by young and emerging writers. In the five years since, many of these websites, for various reasons, have folded: Rookie, The Toast, The Awl, xoJane, etc. An entire ecosystem that used to foster young writers simply doesn’t exist anymore.

What’s more, individual social media feeds have kind of taken the place of blogs, and culture journalism has adopted this format of established journalists regurgitating the clever, insightful tweets of inexperienced young people who don’t even know it’s possible to pitch publications and write their own articles.

So please know that this feeling of paralysis is not your fault. The media industry has stacked the odds against you; the barrier to entry has always been high, and in recent years, it’s only gotten higher. But I believe you can clear that barrier.

If you don’t have any bylines to speak of — like, if you’ve never, ever written an article before — I would recommend you cut your teeth with a school newspaper or a website that caters to and prioritizes writing by young people, like Scarleteen. I think it’s really important, especially when you’re first starting out, to work with editors and learn how to be edited.

That being said, though, you don’t actually need anyone’s permission to start writing. Nothing is stopping you from starting a blog and publishing your own articles, and this can be a really powerful way to broaden your audience and make connections. My friends and I started The Niche for fun two years ago, fully as a joke, and I’ve since been hired by editors for Vanity Fair, Billboard, and Pitchfork on the strength of my writing here. Don’t be afraid to do your own thing!

Where is a good place to start for someone who’s interested in freelance writing, specifically in the realm of music journalism or music-adjacent writing, but who has no formal experience? Also, what sites are reputable, what’s the best return on my time, etc.

First up, I’d advise you to check out Who Pays Writers, a crowdsourced database where freelancers report how much they were paid for their work, and how much time it took for the publication to pay them. Typing in the name of the publication will give you the average payment per article, plus a score that indicates how quickly you can expect to be paid.

Second up, subscribe to Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week newsletter for the low, low price of $3 a month. (You can also e-mail her directly and ask for a fee waiver; see the link for more details.) Sonia combs through Twitter to find reputable pitch requests from editors, and every week, a long-ass list of writing opportunities will land in your inbox. This is a great place to start. You can take a DIY approach here and just search Twitter for the words “pitch me” to see pitch requests from editors, but Sonia takes a lot of the guesswork out of it.

For ur how to become a writer article, i was wondering how to tell when your work is of a good enough standard to submit to places? a bit vague but i find it hard when ppl i ask to read stuff either don’t 100% say what they mean or aren’t versed in stuff like that

I totally know what you mean — it’s one thing to have all your friends cheering you on, and it’s quite another to know if something you’ve written could make the cut at your dream publication. My advice, honestly? Spend a lot of time reading high-quality journalism, and do your research on how to compose a proper pitch or query letter, and then just shoot for the fucking stars. You’ll only learn if your work is “good enough” for a particular publication if you pitch that publication. If they say yes, terrific! If not, you can take your work elsewhere and continue working toward your goal.

how do you list writing work on a resume?

I typically just say something along the lines of “freelance journalist with bylines in X, Y, and Z; visit my portfolio at myportfolio.com.” Set up a free portfolio at contently.

what’s the best way to query an article? Should it already be written or should you submit just the idea?

Nope, you never submit full non-fiction articles. You essentially send a note to an editor that says, “Hey, I would like to write about this subject; here is the special angle I’m planning to use. Let me know what you think.” The editor will then work with you to develop your idea and draft the article according to the publication’s unique standards. This means less work for you (you don’t have to spend ages writing a full article and then begging people to publish it, with no guarantee that you’ll be paid for your work) and less work for the editor (they don’t have to hammer an article into the shape they need; they can work with you to sculpt it correctly from the beginning).

Submitting fiction and poetry is a different story, though. Generally, with literary journals, you’ll need to submit a finished product (or, at least, an excerpt of one).

How do you learn when you need to push yourself to write, and how do you learn when you need to take a break, especially when you always fear you’re lazy?

I can’t answer this question for you! Only you know your specific limits. Listen to your body, prioritize rest and relaxation, and cut down on negative self-talk in the vein of “I’m lazy, I’m stupid, I’m so unproductive,” etc.

how do I convince myself/others that what I have to say is worthwhile? a problem I have especially when working on a longer term project is I lose steam bc I find other people saying similar stuff, I don’t see a market for it, etc. how do you motivate yourself to keep at it?

I totally feel you on this. It can be really hard to feel confident in your own abilities and your own voice, and it’s especially hard to stay motivated on really long, arduous projects. When you get discouraged, come back to what makes you special, and think about what you can do that nobody else can. If lots of other people have written takes similar to yours, that’s just a signal that you need to find a newer, fresher angle. It’s not a reflect on your creativity or your potential.

As for the question of marketability, as a creative professional or a journalist, you really do have to divorce yourself from the idea that your work must be marketable. For one, it’s incredibly difficult to make a living as a writer in any medium. There’s no get-rich-quick path in culture journalism. Many published authors keep their day jobs and write on evenings and weekends. Your job is to write the piece; the marketing department’s job is to market the piece. Focus on your end of the bargain.

what’s the process of interviewing ppl/ finding sources? Do you pay them or do they do it for free? Does it depend? Do you call and ask around until you get access to a direct source and ask them if they wanna be part of your interview? Any other general comments in this regards would be great, like your own steps, thank you! 

Nope, you never, ever pay someone to interview you. Paying for interviews is journalistic malpractice. Your interview subject is giving you their time and expertise for free; if they demand money, don’t give it to them.

In some situations, you can contact sources directly and ask for an interview. Say, for instance, you want to interview a university professor about a recent study of theirs. Arranging an interview is as simple as looking up the professor’s contact information on the university’s website, and sending a quick e-mail (or a voice mail message) introducing yourself, briefly explaining the article you’re working on, and asking if they’d like to be interviewed. You don’t need a middleman here!

In other situations, you’ll need to go through publicists. That’s not as scary as it sounds, believe me. When I interviewed Rob McElhenney for an article about LGBTQ representation in Vanity Fair, I began by googling “fx publicity.” That brought me to this page, which instructed journalists to send press inquiries to a specific e-mail address. I sent this e-mail:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I’m a contributing writer for Vanity Fair and I’m working on a feature about LGBTQ representation in television and film. I’d like to set up a brief interview with Rob McElhenney sometime in the next two weeks to discuss his character’s coming out arc. If Mr. McElhenney is unavailable, I’d be happy to speak with another of Always Sunny’s producers or lead writers.

The article will look at television’s structural advantage in normalizing LGBTQ themes through serialized storytelling, and examine the potential of the “cinematic universe” model to do the same in film. I’ve been impressed by Always Sunny’s handling of Mac’s storyline, and I believe that Mr. McElhenney‘s perspective would be a valuable addition to the piece.

Let me know if you have any questions or if you need any further information. I would be happy to conduct the interview by phone or e-mail.

Best,

Peyton Thomas

From there, I exchanged a few more e-mails with FX’s publicity team about the nature of the piece and worked with them to coordinate schedules.

Most film studios, TV networks, music labels, etc., have similar channels for journalists to submit interview requests — do some research online and polish up your interview requests for maximum efficiency!

how polished should a work be before you start querying agents?

Polished as fuck. Both your manuscript and your query letter should be completely error-free. Have people you trust review your manuscript and give you detailed feedback before you submit it. I cannot stress this enough: querying agents is not something you want to rush into. Do your research. Get good feedback. Triple-check your spelling. Be really, really patient, and take your time.

do you have any words of wisdom for people whose work doesn’t fit neatly into a specific genre? i hear “don’t write to fit a genre/trend” all the time, but then every agent profile i see says “i am only looking for one genre”.

Which agents are you looking at? My agent reps everything from pre-school picture books to young adult novels about police brutality, so I can attest that there are agents out there — damn good agents, too — who represent multiple genres. I suspect you’re running into are agents who specialize in, say, young adult, or sci-fi/fantasy, and have a lot of experience selling books under those labels. What you need to remember is that these are very, very wide umbrellas, and your book probably fits under one of them in some capacity.

The best way to find an agent who’s a good fit is to look up authors whose work is similar to yours, find out who represents them, and target your queries very specifically to them. Fishing on Publishers Marketplace to find a good fit is always going to be a frustrating experience; make it a little easier on yourself.

how exactly do you go about getting a literary agent?

You write them a letter introducing yourself and your book, and you include the first few pages of your book. Sometimes, you include a synopsis, too. If the agent likes your letter, they’ll ask for a full or partial manuscript. If they like your manuscript, they’ll talk to you about representation. It is so much easier and straightforward than, say, trying to get discovered as a musician, or trying to launch a career as an actor. The process is the same for everybody, and literally all you need to be able to do is write a good letter and a good book.

That being said, there’s obviously a lot more to it than what I can condense in a few sentences. For more information about the querying process, check out the Query Shark blog, look up interviews with agents, and check out books like Juliet Mushens’ Get Started in Young Adult Fiction.

One thought on “A Freelance FAQ for New and Niche Writers

  1. opisaheretic says:

    Thank you so much for creating this resource! I’ve been thinking about freelance writing lately. While I don’t think I’m artistically mature enough to start pitching, it’s good to have a sense of my options for the future. Also, congratulations on building your freelance career. You are incredibly inspiring.

    Like

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