The Beginner's Guide To Freelance Writing
by Jenna Glatzer
Table of contents
“The Big Idea”
Okay. So you’ve figured out that you would like to write for magazines,
newspapers, and e-zines. Unfortunately,
so have about eight gazillion other people on this planet. Therefore, you
have to stand out from the crowd. You have to sparkle. How do you do this?
Simple. It all starts with “The Big Idea.” The first secret you must learn in this funny business is that you don’t
actually have to write the whole article to get a job.
In fact, only bright green novices attempt to write the whole thing before
selling it. What you do need, however, is the IDEA for the great story. You
will use this great idea to convince editors to pay you exorbitant amounts
of money via a proposal letter (called a “query letter.” But you’ll
learn about that in a minute).
So, where will you find this Big Idea? Well, you’ve heard that wise adage “write what you know.” That’s a wonderful mantra for finding
your jumping-off point. You don’t need to stick to “what you know” for
the specific focus of your story, but tap into your already huge vat of
knowledge to find the story’s basis. This is how you will become an
expert. Experts are in demand. People with “stories” aren’t. What you
have to do is sneak your stories into your areas of expertise. Example:
let’s say your hobbies and interests include fishing, watching talk shows,
and traveling. Good! You are a potential expert in those areas. Jot these
things down. Now comes the fun part: brainstorming.
The biggest mistake you can make in pitching your story is being too
general. Never, ever send a letter to the editor suggesting “an article
about fishing.” Not even “an article about fishing in Florida.” This
vagueness is not appropriate for short writing. In general, you will be
expected to write somewhere between 800 and 2000 words on your topic. You
couldn’t possibly tell us “all about fishing” in 2000 words. What you
could do, however, is give us “a comparison of twelve different lures used
to catch sailfish.” Or “the pros and cons of joining a fishing club.”
Or even “how the moon can tell you if it’ll be a good fishing day.”
So… here’s your first assignment. Get out your trusty notebook. (If you
don’t have one, stop reading and get one. Right now.) On the first page,
write down a list of any and all topics that interest you. It’s okay to be
general here. Need some ideas to get you started?
Think through your whole day. Don’t neglect anything. What do you do from
the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep? You turn off your
alarm clock. (An article about alarm clocks disrupting valuable sleep
stages! Or waking up to music versus waking up to that annoying beeping
sound. Or the optimal number of times to press the “snooze” button.) You
brush your teeth. (Article: “What all those touted ingredients—fluoride,
peroxide, baking soda—really do for your teeth.”) You take a shower.
Maybe with your significant other. Lucky you. (“Romantic showers for
Moving on. You go to work. This is the most obvious area of expertise.
Let’s say you’re a secretary. “How ergonomic office equipment can save
you from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, an achy back, and a stiff neck.” “How
to avoid screaming at your boss when he’s a total idiot.” “Five couples (or ex-couples) share their wisdom about dating in the office.”
Think about what cover story would entice you to pay three dollars for a
magazine. You don’t have to have the knowledge to actually write the
article yet. You just have to know you can get this information later.
Next, you come home. What happens? Do you have kids? Great! A wealth of
article ideas. You could write about childcare agencies, potty training,
decoding teenage slang, teaching table manners… you’re getting the idea
now, right? Run with it!
Write at least one page of general topics that interest you, then weed out
the most interesting ones. Narrow it down to three or four. Then write those
three or four topics on top of brand new pages. Now fill up those pages with
specific article angles. Just write. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t judge.
Just write whatever pops into your head. If you need motivation, play it
like a game of Scattergories. Set a timer for ten minutes. See how
many ideas you can jot down before the timer sounds.
Keep in mind that there are markets for almost any conceivable topic.
Don’t limit yourself to the headlines you’d read in “Vogue” and
“Good Housekeeping.” Between newspapers, consumer magazines, trade
magazines, e-zines, tabloids, literary journals, and more, you’re bound to
find an appropriate publication for your Big Idea.
You want to know more about these markets? Read on!
“Researching the Markets”
First, you’ll need a few definitions:
Consumer Magazines: These typically pay the best. These are the types of
magazines you might find in a grocery store check-out line, convenience
store, in your airplane seat pocket, or your doctor’s office. Types of
consumer mags: men’s, women’s, special interest, inflight, teen’s,
school/career, travel, health, ethnic/minority, political, entertainment,
romance, religious, etc. This is the area most writers try to break into.
Literary Magazines: These don’t pay much, if at all. However, what they
lack in moolah, they make up for in prestige. If you’re looking to
jump-start your career as a fiction writer or poet, your best chance at
recognition may come in the form of one of these small publications. Often
published by colleges and universities, their circulation is usually
regional and low. They generally seek scholarly essays, intellectually
challenging prose, poetry, and book reviews. Publishers will be impressed if
you succeed in placing your work in one of the more prominent journals
(Cimarron Review, Ploughshares, and Story, for example).
Trade Journals: Pay varies greatly. Any publication that focuses on a
particular occupation/industry falls into this category. This is where your
expertise can shine. There are trade journals for almost every line of work,
from art dealers to truck drivers. In general, your written eloquence is not
as important as your research and timely knowledge for these publications.
E-Zines: Pay varies greatly. Simply put, e-zines are simply magazines on the
Internet. The only major difference is that articles for e-zines can usually
run longer than print magazines. (No printing costs, so “space” isn’t
as important an issue for e-zine editors.) Most e-zines don’t pay (except
by means of a byline) but this trend is changing. The most popular sites (Lifetimetv.com and Wired, for example) pay quite well. Topics stretch as wide as your
Now that you know, learn how to contact them!
There are tons of ways to find markets that are open to freelancers. If you
were paying attention, you might notice that this very website is looking
for writers! Finding places to submit your work is easy if you know where to
First, the most important tool in a freelancer’s toolbox is The Writer’s
Market. Available at any major bookstore, this is an annual compilation of
more than 2,000 magazines, 1,000 book publishers, and even specialized markets
like greeting cards, script writing, and syndicates.
The next best tools are online. Lucky you! They’re free. Absolute
Markets is a weekly e-zine filled with market guidelines, contest listings,
and marketing tips. Freelancing4Money
puts out a jam-packed e-zine filled with freelance opportunities. Writer's
has a great, searchable database of markets. Writing
For Dollars has a biweekly newsletter with market guidelines, and a
searchable database on the website. And Writers
Weekly lists calls for writers and market guidelines each week.
You can even run a search for “freelance writers” on any major search
engine, and you’re likely to come up with tons of listings. Try specifying
if possible; add words that fit your needs. (Example: paying markets,
romance, teen magazines.)
So, your next assignment is this: go back to your trusty notebook and pick
out your very favorite idea. That will now be known as your Big Idea. Pick
the markets that best fit your idea. Choose several. Find out if you can get
a free or discounted sample copy. (Writers often can, if you specify that
you would like to query them in the future.) Request writers’ guidelines
if available. It’s considered poor form to query publications that
you’ve never read, or know nothing about. Do your best to read at least
one copy of whatever magazine or journal you plan to query. Check your
library for copies if you prefer not to go broke researching.
Got it now? You have your idea, and you’ve found places to submit it?
Great! Then you'll need to learn proper protocol for writing and submitting
the Killer Query.
“The Killer Query”
The job of the query letter is to entice an editor to say, “Hey! I’d be
interested in learning more about that.” Therefore, you don’t want to
spill all your secrets and research yet. You want to tease and tantalize.
Now that you’ve got your fabulous Big Idea, your job is to condense (or
expand) that idea into two to three paragraphs.
To illustrate the components of a killer query, here is an example of one of
mine (using fictitious contact info—sorry!) that landed me the assignment:
(Always use proper formal letter format)
123 My Address
My City, State, Zip Code
Mr. Joe Shmoe
(Make SURE to get a name of the appropriate department College Life 101
editor. Never address a letter to “editor” or “submissions.”)
123 Their Address
Their City, State, Zip Code
Today’s Date, 2003
Dear Mr. Shmoe:
(Colons are used in formal letters. Commas are used in friendly letters.)
Think company cars, expense accounts, and a spacious office with bay
windows. Who do you picture running a business this successful?
(Start the letter with a zinger that captures the essence of your proposed
article/story. Raise a question that will cause the reader to think, or give
a visual image… anything that will make him/her want to read on and find
out what you’re talking about.)
Think again. This company was the brainchild of three Boston University
sophomores whose ambitions led them to thriving careers before they had
diplomas to hang on the wall.
(The rest of the first paragraph should give a concise description of the
focus of your proposed article. Remember to tell why it’s appropriate to
the publication you’re querying. In this case, I was targeting a college
magazine, so I made sure to emphasize the relevance to their subject matter
early in the letter.)
Charles Strader, Richard
Skelton, and Pablo Mondal run Net One, an Internet Service Provider. The three met in the freshmen dorms, then moved
into an apartment together. Opportunity knocked when Strader, who worked for
the university’s computer center, took a phone call from the owner of a
hair salon. She sought help designing a website; Strader volunteered, and
Net One was born.
(Again, concisely, get a little deeper into the content of the article. What
is special about your story? In this case, I wanted to emphasize that these
guys were college buddies who started a booming business by branching out
from their humble beginning.)
“Working closely with friends to build something we believe in” is
Mondal’s favorite perk. Skelton agrees. “We have great trust in each
other, and feel that we’re all in this together.”
(Quotations aren’t necessary in a query, but it’s nice to give something
specific to show that you have done some research into your topic, and that
you have access to resources that will enable you to write the article well.
I wanted to show that I had already spoken to these guys—they happen to be
friends of mine—and that they would be upbeat and inspirational people to
interview. You can accomplish the same effect by including a few quirky
facts or survey results you’ve found out about your topic.)
Considering that their only capital was a computer and a small loan from
Strader’s father, the guys feel very successful. “We’re not
millionaires, but we have goals, and we’re following them,” says Skelton.
“I think that’s true success.” By any definition, Net One’s roster
of more than 50 clients ranging from colleges to Fortune 500 companies attests to
their hard work and talent.
(Look, editor. These guys are big up-and-comers! Notice I mentioned
“Fortune 500 companies.” This lets the editor know quickly that these
college guys aren’t small potatoes. It neatly ties up the opening
sentence, which promised an article about guys who have a spacious office,
expense accounts, and company car. Now the editor has a reason to believe
that these guys actually are that successful.)
I propose a 1,000 word profile for your “Students At Work” section.
(Shows I’ve researched their magazine. I know which section this
should fit, and I’ve read their guidelines to determine an appropriate
I am a full-time freelance writer, and my works have been recently
featured in such publications as 201 Magazine, College Bound…
(Notice I mention the most relevant magazines first. Anything you’ve had
published that might relate to the content, tone, or audience of the
proposed publication belongs here.)
…Bliss!, Working Women, and Video Librarian. Clips are enclosed.
(If you’ve never had anything published, don’t distress. Just shut up
about it. Do NOT tell anyone, “Though I’ve never been published yet,
I’m a real go-getter.” Less is more. If you keep quiet, they may not
even think about the fact that you didn’t mention your credits. Also, do
not get into a diatribe describing how you edited your high school
newspaper. Just a quick list of relevant writing background. See below for
info about clips.)
I can provide documentation and interview notes for easy fact-checking,
and could submit the completed article within two weeks.
(Optional. Some people like to suggest a time frame, others let the editor
do it. In general, the editor will tell you when the article is due,
regardless of your preferences. It’s a nice touch to mention how you will
research your article. Mine was primarily dependent on interviews, but you
may wish to include the names of journals/experts you plan to quote or use
I look forward to your response.
(Obligatory polite ending. Use any variation you wish. No pleading. If you
dare type, “I promise to write a reallllly, realllly good article! Please
hire me!,” you will incur my wrath. I will hunt you down and yell at you.
A lot. Just a simple, dignified ending requesting a response.)
(Oh. Substitute your name and preferred signature ending. Unless you feel
like sending your paycheck to me, in which case, you can feel free to use my
Finally, clips! If you’ve had anything published—or even if you
haven’t, but you have a few good writing samples appropriate for this type
of market—include them. These samples are called “clips,” and they are
used to show the editor that you are an intelligent, insightful, funny,
clever, and/or excellent writer. Photocopy your articles straight from the publication. Just 2-3 clips.
When you're sending queries by e-mail, you can paste the text of your clips
into the body of the e-mail (never as an attachment!), or you can direct the
editor to one or two website URLs where she can view your articles.
“Interviews and Profiles”
I know, you feel weird about this one, right? You’re uncomfortable calling
someone or visiting a business to ask a professional to take precious time
out of their day to help you research your article.
Well, buck up, little camper, because most professionals absolutely love to
be interviewed. They jump at the chance, for a few reasons. These are the
reasons to keep in mind when you feel small and silly for asking:
-It shows you respect their opinion and/or job.
-It gives them opportunities for publicity of their business.
-It gives them the chance to brag to friends that they are quoted in a
-It gives them something to frame and show clients.
-Finally, someone is recognizing their genius and taking an interest in
-They’re usually wannabe writers, anyway, and they will be just as happy
to pick your brain to find out how you got the job.
Before you approach experts:
Make sure you already have your questions mapped out, at least briefly. What
exactly do you need to know from this person? What could this person tell
you that no one else can? Avoid “yes” or “no” questions. Ask
open-ended questions that could lead to lengthy responses chock full of
great quotes. Also, have a synopsis of your planned article ready, so you
can tell your expert what you’re writing and how they can supplement your
How to approach experts:
Get on the phone. Have your idea condensed into 2-3 sentences, so you can
quickly explain yourself to whomever answers the phone.
“Hello. My name is Jenna, and I’m writing an article about the rise in
vegetarianism among young women in Nevada for Youth In Nevada Magazine. I
know Dr. Spuds is a well-respected nutritionist, and I’m hoping she would
be willing to answer a few questions on this subject.”
At this point, the secretary will say, “Hold,” and make you listen to
elevator musak while she summons the boss. Or she’ll take down your number
and have Dr. Spuds call you back. Or it will be Dr. Spuds herself, and
she’ll say, “What do you want to know?”
Your options at this point are (1) Ask questions over the phone, right then
and there. Make sure you check to make sure your expert is not pressed for
time before you begin. (2) Set up a “phone date” to conduct the
interview. (3) Ask if you can meet in person. This is good—almost
necessary—if the person will be the focus of your article. If the person
is being used just to add a few quotes, you don’t have to meet in person,
because it’s unlikely you’ll ever need to write, “Dr. Spuds wrinkled
her brow and stared into her pea soup as she explained that young women are
becoming more health-conscious.” (4) Trade e-mail addresses and send over
a list of questions. This approach isn’t usually the best, because it
doesn’t allow you to react to, and build from, information you gain in
answers to previous questions. However, if the publication will not
reimburse you for long distance phone calls, and you have to conduct a
lengthy interview, e-mail exchanges are acceptable. Just make sure you
specify a “due date” for the responses. Be reasonable—try to give the
expert a week to answer all your questions.
Okay, you sent out your killer query, and you got a phone call from an
editor with the big news: you got the assignment! Congratulations, you! Go
on and do a little dance of joy, then crash back to reality with your new
mantra: “GET IT IN WRITING.” Make sure the editor tells you that a
written contract is forthcoming in the near future.
If you’ve researched your market, you probably already have an idea of the
pay rate, but be sure to cover this ground in that initial phone call if the
editor fails to mention it. Important things to remember:
On Publication vs. On Acceptance
You not only need to know how much you’ll be paid, but also, when you’ll
be paid. Many markets want to pay you “on publication.” This can be a
problem, because many magazines and journals have long lead times.
(Translation: a long time between when they assign you the article and when
it actually ends up in print.) If you write an article in January, and it
doesn’t get published until November, you probably won’t see a check
until December. Do you want to wait a year to get paid? Can you wait that
long? This is a point you absolutely can negotiate. Ask for payment on
acceptance. If this is refused, it gives you a little leverage to work with
on the other “issues,” which are…
If you get the assignment, and, for whatever reason, an editor decides not
to print your article, you can negotiate for a kill fee. This is a
percentage of the sale price. If you are offered $200 to write an article,
you may get a $50 kill fee. It’s a well known fact that big publications
“kill” articles all the time. Some editors admit to assigning 10-20%
more than they could ever fit in the magazine. They do this so they can pick
and choose from the final products, or so they can see how things fit once
the layout is complete. Some articles will be pushed back to other issues,
and some will just be trashed.
We like them. Those are the little blurbs that often follow an article,
giving short biographical information about the writer, and sometimes an
e-mail address or phone number. Ask for one if you can.
Sidebars and Photos
Those are the little “factoids” or columns that rest next to the main
article. For example, in an article about exercise, you’ll often see a
little chart on the side that tells how many calories are burned by doing
specific exercises (riding a bike, climbing a hill, etc.). If you can suggest
sidebars, you can often get extra pay. Same goes for photos. If you’ve got
a decent camera and a good eye, offer photos for a few extra bucks.
“To Spec or Not To Spec”
Especially as a novice writer, you’ll sometimes get asked to write an
article on speculation. This means that you’ll have to write the whole
article and submit it without a contract, or any promise of payment. It’s
a bone of contention among professional writers, because almost no other
field works this way. It’s never “do the job, and then I’ll decide if
I feel like paying you.” Only in this crazy business. Harrumph.
That said, I advise you to take spec assignments in the beginning. Once
you’re established, you shouldn’t need to do this, but in order to build
up your resume and your clips, you need to get published. So go ahead and
submit on spec, and go ahead and do a few free/nearly free pieces for the
Before submitting anything, though, make sure you know in advance what the
terms will be if the editor does use your piece. How much will you be paid?
What rights will they buy?
Even many of the big markets have adopted the practice of requesting pieces
on spec. They do this because they can get away with it. Because there are
thousands of wannabe writers out there who will beg, borrow, and steal for
the chance to be published. So, if you want to compete, sometimes you’ll
have to suck it up and accept this. Once the publication accepts one of your
spec pieces, you’ll be a much more likely candidate for an outright
assignment next time.
“Rights to Write”
There are several kinds of rights a publication may buy:
First North American Serial Rights—The newspaper or magazine has the right
to publish this piece for the first time in any periodical. All other rights
belong to the writer.
One-Time Rights—The publication buys the nonexclusive right to publish the
piece once. The writer can sell the same article to other publications
Second Serial Rights (or Reprint Rights)—Also nonexclusive. Gives the
publication the right to reprint an article that has appeared elsewhere.
Electronic Rights—Covers CD-ROMs, e-zines, website content, games,
etc. Get in writing which
electronic rights are specified-- First Electronic Rights, archiving rights,
etc. Most publications ask for the right to archive
"indefinitely." You can try to negotiate for a fixed term (i.e.,
archiving rights for six months).
All Rights—Pretty self-explanatory. You can never sell this piece to
anyone else again. Try to avoid this one. Most publications ask for First
Work-For-Hire Rights-- The publication has come
up with the idea and assigned it to you, and they will own it, lock, stock, and
barrel. They own the copyright and don't even have to give you
credit. It may be sliced, diced, repackaged, re-sold, etc., and you won't
have any claim to it beyond what you were originally paid.
TV/Motion Picture Rights—Also self-explanatory. Almost always exclusive.
“Recycling Your Big Ideas”
This is the bread and butter of freelance writing. It’s also called
re-slanting. Once you’ve got the Big Idea, don’t waste it by only using
it once. Use the information you’ve gathered and come up with off-shoot
ideas. Slant it to appeal to different markets.
You’re afraid because of the issue of “rights” that we just discussed,
right? (No pun intended.) Well, you have nothing to fear, provided the new
article is sufficiently different in content and intended audience. If
you’ve managed to sell your article to a major national magazine, it is
considered poor form to try to sell a re-slanted version to another national
However, if you’re dealing with regional, specialized, or small
publications, there should be very little overlap of intended audience.
Therefore, an editor from Alabama Aristocrats would probably never know if
you sold a re-slanted version of your piece to Guitarists Today. Even if
they did know, they almost certainly would not care.
It is standard and accepted practice, for the simple reason that it is darn
difficult to make a living as a writer. If you have the choice between
making $100 for selling your piece to one small publication, or making $1000
by selling altered versions to eight different small publications, which
would you choose?
Re-slanting an article is easy, since you’ve already done the bulk of the
research. Scrounge up a few new quotes, and use the information you left out
of the first article. Focus it on the new desired market.
For example, I could sell an article about the health benefits of meditation
to a fitness magazine. A few alterations, and that same article becomes
“Religions Encouraging Meditation” for my local newspaper’s
“Society” pages. Then it becomes “Meditation Makes You Smarter” for
the college market. Then, “Meditate Your Stress Away” for a working
woman’s magazine. And I didn’t even mention all those new age/holistic
publications. What a field day!
With just a few more questions posed to your trusted “experts,” you’ve
got a whole new article. And, look! You’re becoming an expert yourself.
This is how you begin to find your niche—a few specific subjects that you
feel comfortable writing about. Ah, soon those journalists will be coming to
YOU with their questions.
Once you’ve gotten a few assignments, and feel that you’ve really
embarked on this as a potential career (or just a part-time income-booster),
you’ll want to think about the little extras.
A nice touch: get yourself some nice letterhead. Splurge a little with your
second or third paycheck and invest in professionally printed letterhead.
Presentation does count when submitting your correspondence to an editor.
Avoid cutesy clip art of quill pens and inkwells.
Also, an invoice. You should always include an invoice with your completed
article. Often, the person you submit the story to is not the same person in
charge of sending you a paycheck. By including an invoice, you can be
reasonably assured that the billing department will have a record of what
terms were agreed upon, and when they are supposed to pay you.
Receipts: Hold onto your postage receipts and your writing-related supplies.
If writing is your profession, then these can be tax write-offs. Also, if
you are able to negotiate it, editors will often reimburse you for any
expenses you incur while on assignment once you are an established writer.
Submit your phone bill (with the reimbursable call/s circled), your book
receipts, your travel expense receipts, etc. along with your invoice. Make
sure these terms are specified in your contract.
You’re ready? Good! Get out there and get 'em, slugger. Good luck!
Copyright © 1999-2012 by Jenna Glatzer
Jenna Glatzer is an award-winning full-time writer who's written 20 books and hundreds of articles for magazines and online publications. She is the author of OUTWITTING WRITER’S BLOCK AND OTHER PROBLEMS OF THE PEN, available at www.jennaglatzer.com and a friend to small furry creatures everywhere.