Wednesday, December 19, 2012

So You Wanna Be a Freelance Writer? Step One: Research

I’ve been a writer and an editor for over ten years. One of my “day jobs” is editor of a regional parenting magazine, and in that capacity, I see a lot of freelance submissions. They are the inspiration for this series of posts.

You see, this is the time of year when I see a sharp increase in the number of submissions that hit my inbox and desk top, usually from novice writers or those in search of a career change.

An impending new year is a compelling motivator, isn’t it?

If you’re considering starting or expanding your own freelance writing career, these tips are for you. This is the first in a series of six planned posts that is the equivalent of a couch-to-5K plan for writing.

So shall we begin?

Step one is to do your research.

Identify Your Market
So you want to be a writer! Congratulations. Now, where do you want to be published? That’s the $64,000 question (is that even a thing anymore?), because that’s going to determine everything else in this process. But don’t worry; no matter your area of interest, there is likely a periodical publication that addresses it (easily found through a Google search, a trip to the library or a perusal of the Writers Market).

So, think about what you are interested in writing about and then get to work and research publications. A good place to start is with local or regional publications. These usually small publications don’t always have big budgets to pay writers, but might provide a great source of connection and a wealth of information.

Find a handful of magazines or newspapers that interest you and start reading. Even if you’re familiar with the periodical, take care to read it carefully with a critical eye to understand the type and tone of writing that is preferred. This will give you a tremendous edge when you start sending out pitches—but that’s a post for another day. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, here.

Know the Rules
There are very few things an editor dislikes more than submissions that don’t take the publication’s submission guidelines into consideration.

Trust me on this one. Don’t believe me? See paragraph one of this post.

I often receive pitches that clearly show that the writer did not follow our guidelines, either because they failed to look for them or they clearly did read them and decided not to follow them (which I’ve been told plainly in submissions). Please don’t make that mistake when you pitch. But again; this will be addressed later. For now, just familiarize yourself with what’s important.

Why? Why should you do your research? Heidi Smith Luedtke, PhD, personality psychologist and prolific freelance writer understands the importance of research.

Says Heidi, “Do your homework! Successful freelancers study the publications they aspire to write for. Take note of the topics, length of articles and preferred formats,” for instance, does the publication prefer numbered lists, how-to articles or personal essays? Knowing this will give you an edge.

Gather Your Tools
But of course, as with all things in life, it doesn’t end here. There is more research required. I’ve mentioned Writers Market as a potential source for publications that accept freelance articles, but it’s also a great place to find tips and ideas for writers. Look for books, articles, websites and more with information for freelance writers—if this is who you want to be, you need to know who that is, right?

Also consider joining a local writer’s group—writing can be a solitary business, especially freelance writing, which is usually a work-from-home occupation. Joining a writer’s group will help you to avoid becoming a pajama-wearing hermit. Or, you know, at least let you limit that to a socially acceptable 2-3 days per week.

Your week one steps:
  1. Identify your market. Where do you want to see your name in print?
  2. Know the guidelines. What is the editor looking for and how can you make sure that you can provide it? 
  3. Gather your resources. Find the people and publications that will help you to succeed.

Next week: How to get to writing.

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