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Monday, October 20, 2014

Top Tips Writers Series #5: Jennifer Mattern

What's on the iPod: I'm A Mess by Ed Sheeran (acoustic version - and fabulous)

Know what it's like to rub shoulders with one of the most successful freelancers in the business?

You're about to find out.

I met Jenn Mattern through online conversations, and met her when Devon Ellington and I decided to meet for lunch. I invited Jenn along. The result: a fun, lively, decadent friendship. If we don't email every day, it's close. I have the added bonus of living within a short drive of Jenn. Her family live in my town. I've propped my feet up on her footstool a few times.

Besides being wicked fun, Jenn is a wicked-good business pro. Her background in PR and social media is evident -- hers is one of the most comprehensive, top-ranking sites for freelancers you'll find. What's more, you can trust her advice. She's done it herself. No borrowing from others, nor does she tell you what you want to hear. She tells you what you need to hear, and it's the wise freelancer who listens.

Here are Jenn's tips for improving your freelance writing business:

10 Tips for New Freelance Bloggers

by Jennifer Mattern

Something I frequently hear from new freelance writers is that they're afraid to pursue blogging gigs because they've heard there's no money in it. That usually when I let them in on a little secret -- what they've been told before is complete and utter BS.

Freelance blogging can be quite lucrative as long as you know what you're doing and you don't associate yourself with bottom-of-the-barrel providers like search engine spammers. These ten tips should point you in the right direction.

1. Specialize.

I can't say this enough: clients do not pay top dollar because you can string pretty sentences together. They pay top dollar when you bring specialized expertise to the table.

If you want to earn top rates as a freelance blogger (as in at least $500 for a 1000 word post, and often much more), you need to specialize. That might mean specializing in an industry or niche. Or it can mean specializing in a specific type of blog content such as tech tutorials or being a ghostblogger for CEOs.

2. Know your target clients (and their audience).

It's not enough to say "I want to be a freelance blogger." Who do you want to blog for? If you can't describe your target clients, you're unlikely to find them. And that's how you can find yourself surrounded by low-paying "prospects" who shouldn't be on your radar in the first place.

It's where many of the misconceptions around blogging pay rates come from. If you want to ghostwrite corporate blog posts for Fortune 500 clients, then make sure your marketing very carefully targets that group. Go beyond that though. Know who they are trying to reach, and make sure your samples show you understand your prospects' audiences and how to appeal to them.

3. Don't limit yourself to advertised blogging gigs.

One of the worst things you can do as a new freelance blogger is rely on bidding marketplaces and advertised jobs. You can occasionally find mid-level gigs advertised publicly (and yes, $100-200 per post would be a mid-level gig even though it's the highest you'll often find advertised). But most of the really high paying work is never advertised. These include many corporate blogging gigs, small business blogging gigs, and ghostblogging jobs.

These clients tend to find writers through referrals or through their own searches. If your search engine ranking rankings and lack of a network make you invisible, it's unlikely you'll land these gigs. This is why your writer platform is so important. Occasionally these kinds of clients will post jobs through their own internal job boards. So if you do a bit of digging, you can sometimes find decent public leads through those.

4. Pursue prospects who don't have a blog (yet).

Sometimes the best prospects are the ones who don't realize they need you yet. That includes potential clients who don't have their own blog. By approaching them and convincing them to give blogging a try, not only can you land ongoing blogging gigs, but you can also get paid to help them set their blogs up or consult with them on an initial content strategy.

5. Price by the post.

Like with most types of freelance writing, it's in your interest to price by the project (in this case by the post) rather than advertise hourly or per-word pricing. Everyone knows what they're getting. It eliminates some of the tension between freelancer and client (where your interest is in doing a good job and their interest is in having you rush to keep costs down). And as you get better at your job, you essentially get paid more per hour without always having to raise rates. It's like having a built-in bonus system where you earn more the more you get to know each client.

6. Make sure you're being paid for all of the "extras" involved.

Blogging isn't like many other kinds of freelance writing. Your work doesn't stop when the client's happy with your latest revision. They often expect you to answer comments on your posts (sometimes indefinitely). And they might expect you to find legal images they can use or even promote your posts via social networks.

You can account for these things by increasing your per-post rates. Or you can offer a base rate for writing only and charge more for extras. I take the latter approach because much of my freelance blogging work is ghostwritten (which almost always means the client will take care of comments addressed to them).

I also don't consider my social media profiles "for sale." Those networks are for my own audiences -- usually colleagues -- and not for promoting things for clients. A post would have to be incredibly relevant to my own audience for me to make an exception, in which case I'd likely promote it on my own without being asked to do so. I do, however, contract with some clients to manage social media promotion on their accounts.

7. Secure ongoing blogging contracts.

One of the biggest perks of freelance blogging over other freelance writing projects is the fact that clients usually need blog posts on an ongoing basis. That means you have the potential to turn a one-project client into a regular.

My suggestion is to let new clients order a single article from you if they want to "test" you. It makes sense that they'd want to see how their readers react to your writing. But if they're happy and they want to continue, I suggest requiring a certain minimum commitment (anything from at least $XXX per month to at least a three-month commitment).

This can be a good way to stabilize your blogging income early on, and you can always loosen the rules later when you want more flexibility to pursue new projects.

8. Market yourself every day.

You need to market yourself regularly -- as in every single day. (Well, every single work day at least.) This doesn't have to involve a huge time commitment. Email a new prospect. Post to your own blog. Write a guest post. Review and update the copy on your website. Update your social media accounts. Research your biggest competitors. These little things add up.

Need more ideas? Lori's e-book, Marketing 365, is full of them.

9. Don't be afraid to give up a byline.

Not all blogging gigs need to come with a byline. Many of the highest-paying freelance blogging jobs do not. And that's okay. Prospects who need a blog to give them a voice, but who have no time or inclination to write their own posts, are often happy to pay you handsomely to do that for them. Don't get so caught up in seeing your name plastered on everything you write that you miss out on the best gigs. If you can't stand the thought of not getting credit, remember that a testimonial from the client can be just as valuable as a byline -- sometimes more.

10. Have your own blog in your specialty area.

If you want to be a freelance blogger, there's no excuse for you not to have your own blog. Clients expect it. And they should. After all, they want to know you're familiar with blog platforms, comment management, and all of the basics of writing for the web. Your blog shows them that you can handle those things (plus social media promotion, strategic content planning, and search engine optimization). Just make sure your blog speaks to either your target clients or their target readers.

What else would you recommend to new freelance bloggers? If you are a new freelance blogger or you're considering becoming one, what other questions do you have?

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger and freelance business writer. You can join her free community for freelance writers, bloggers and indie authors at where you'll find business advice, writing forums, free tools and templates, and much more. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Free Advice Friday: 4 Freelance Lessons You Should Learn Now

What I'm reading: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
What's on the iPod: Call Girl Blues by Diamond Rugs

Friday already? Where did the middle of the week go? I've been busy, not extremely so, but a focused sort of busy. Time flew by. As this project winds down, another one is about to ramp up. My TGIF celebration may have to wait.

In a conversation with a client not long ago, I learned I wasn't the first freelance writer they'd worked with. At first, he just mentioned it briefly as I explained how to work with a freelance writer (not condescendingly, but "here's the way I usually work"). Then as the conversation continued and became more relaxed, he said it again--the company had worked with a freelance writer in the past, but the writer was horrible.

Horrible? Yes, that's what he said. He qualified it further -- this freelancer gave them content loaded with spelling errors.

Really? Do we really have to be reminded to use Spell Check? Apparently.

I don't know if there were other issues with this writer, but to lose a client over something so...basic is just stupid. Honestly, if I'd handed a client something riddled with spelling errors, not only would I apologize for being so stupid, but I might rethink my career. Everyone makes a mistake now and then, but making them constantly is just sloppy, lazy writing.

It's just one of those lessons we freelancers need to learn when starting our business. These are things you're not going to learn in books (except for the spelling part). These are little lessons that slap you in the face when you least expect it.

For those of you who are professional freelance writers running a writing business, this advice may be moot. For the rest who are just starting or who are struggling and can't quite figure out why, consider these lessons:

Learn to spell. Can a person be called a writer if he or she can't spell? This is America -- you can call yourself whatever you damn well please. However, that doesn't make it true. Yes, we all make mistakes. However, Word makes it simple to avoid many of them by simply clicking that Spell Check icon. Beyond that, proofread your stuff before you send it out.

Learn to take criticism. It always surprises me when a client apologizes for revising something -- it's not my baby they're dressing, so to speak. It's their project, their image, their company, etc. You may hand them what you think is perfect prose (it may well be, too). However, if it doesn't fit with their tone, focus, audience or some other factor, they're going to want to change it. News flash -- nearly every client will change something. Resist the urge to pitch a fit -- do what they ask. And yes, there are times they make it worse (or unintelligible). Advise them in writing, make the changes, and let it go.

Learn to filter. That's good advice that you can apply to nearly any facet of your freelance writing career. Filter out the bad job offers, the lousy advice, the nasty comments from clients, or the piece of your mind you've been dying to give that client. Step back, remove the emotion completely, and filter your response or your reaction from a detached perspective. If you have to, pretend you're someone else -- like the Queen. Would the Queen work for a content mill? Would she tell off a client? She might say "We are not amused" but that would probably be the extent of it.

Learn to let go. Toughest part of the job sometimes, isn't it? As I said before, this is not your baby. Your words are your tools. You use them to build things for other people. If they don't like how you're building something, they have every right to say so. They may have the writing skills of a half-dead octopus. Doesn't matter. If they don't like how you've phrased something, it's up to you to please them, not please yourself. Do what you can to protect their image, but know when it's time to lose the battle or lose the client.

Writers, what have you learned that you won't find in a book?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Writing Career Cross-over

What I'm reading: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
What's on the iPod: Only For You by Heartless Bastards

My busy Monday became a busy Tuesday became another busy one today. The projects I have aren't complicated, but the deadlines are short. Plus, there's some corralling of interviewees, so that takes some time. One project is roughed out and waiting for input. The others -- sales sheets -- are well on their way to being completed.

I had a conversation with a new client prospect last week. In it, the client asked me if I'd ever written anything specific to their business. I had, and I sent over clips. However, even if I hadn't, I had enough clips that touched on that specialty, albeit inadvertently, that I would have sent.

It's a conversation many of us have with writing clients: do you have any experience in this area? Can you show me writing credits/samples or written articles?

The client wants reassurance that we writers can handle their industry. You can't blame them. Still, how do you convince a client who's working in, say, the ergonomics field, that your work in medical case management or workers' compensation translates?

Here are methods I use to show clients that my skills and knowledge translate:

Make the connection in the intro. Whenever I get in touch with a new client prospect, I let them know that my skills lend themselves to their industry. So if you're trying to win over a client in the fashion industry, you could let them know that you've written for the retail shoe or intimates industry. "My experience, which has been in the retail shoe industry, could be an asset to you as I can write about both consumer and manufacturing aspects, as well as talk about trends."

Show them loosely connected threads. For one client, I'd never written about Medicare set-asides (and if you have, you know what I'm talking about). However, I'd written several articles on workers' compensation and how costly it can be to a company. Same thing with the ergonomics company -- I'd written enough on return-to-work programs that showed them I could understand this new-to-me focus area easily.

Use the buzz words. Industries do love their buzz words. While it may drive the freelance writer nuts trying to convince them not to use "value proposition" or "paradigm shift", it never hurts to know a few acronyms or key phrases that will show your client prospect your understanding of the industry. Every industry has them -- use them to gain the trust and the job.

Send high and low samples. Besides reassuring them that the topic isn't over my head, I'll send clients samples that are much more technical than what they need, and I'll show them samples that are more conversational/easier, as well. Then I explain that I can handle both ends of the spectrum as well as anything in between.

Write a short piece and send it as a sample. I don't do this often (last time was years ago), but it's a good way to show them you can do the job by choosing something about blog-post size and whipping up a short piece that demonstrates your knowledge of the topic.

Writers, what do you have in your published background that can cross over into another area?
How do you convince clients that you can do the job even without the exact experience?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Top Tips Series #4: Samar Owais

What's on the iPod: God Only Knows by The Beach Boys
I couldn't tell you where I first met Samar (pronounced "Summer") Owais. I remember her interviewing me for a podcast, and I remember interacting with her quite a bit on a blog or two. Then there were the personal emails, which are always fun. But which came first? Who knows?

All I know is Samar has made a name for herself in the freelancing world. Her wisdom and insight (and her BS meter, which can sniff out a rotten deal in an instant) are impeccable. I'm happy to call her a friend.

Today, Samar shares those tips that she says are essential to being a successful freelancer. I love her take, and I bet you will, too.

7 Things Every New Freelancer Needs to Know

Here’s the thing. Becoming a freelancer is easy - freelancing … not so much.

It’s like jumping in ice cold water. You either get the hell out of it after a few seconds or you go numb and accept the status quo. Unfortunately for you, both scenarios spell disaster.

Who wants to be the freelancer who gave up almost as soon as she jumped in? Or to stay in ice cold water indefinitely? Certainly not me.

Luckily, there’s a third option. Swimming.

You swim to keep yourself warm. You swim to make it to the other side. You swim to save your life.

And that’s really what freelancing is. A fight for your life.

So before I get all sentimental and start detailing the kind of life you’re fighting for, I’ll just get down to business. Below are the seven freelancing lessons I’ve learned in my six year freelancing career. They’re hard lessons but they’ve helped set my freelance business on the right track.

1.      Freelancing is a business – not a hobby
I believe in this truth so much, I have an entire blog dedicated it. 

Freelancing isn’t just this thing you do. It’s your hard work, talent, and experience. It’s your chosen career. 

You’re not doing your friends any favors. You’re running a business. A business where even a friend is a client who needs to pay 50% upfront payment like everyone else.

So do yourself a favor and start treating your freelancing like a business.

2. Freelancing is worse than a 9-5 job

You know how freelancing enthusiasts tell you how it’s all about being your own boss? That’s utter and complete hogwash.

Freelancing is worse than a 9-5 job. You don’t have any timings (especially when you’re starting out), you don’t get to hide behind a boss or HR when irate customers come calling, and you certainly don’t get medical insurance or paid vacations.

So before you buy into the “freelancing is awesome” school of thought, take a moment before you make a decision.

3. You’re your own cheerleader

When it comes to freelancing, nobody is going to sing your praises. Clients will but only when you’re working for them. Once the project wraps up, they’ll move on.

It’s your job to remember your awesomeness and remind people of it.

So don’t forget to ask clients for testimonials, referrals, and/or permission to use the praise they conveyed in your marketing materials.

4. If you think marketing is a dirty word, think again.

If you’re anything like me (a nice, unassuming freelancer who believes your work should speak for yourself), it’s probably safe to assume that the thought of marketing your freelance business makes you shudder.

Now here’s the shocker. You and I are wrong.

Marketing is not a dirty word. Nor is it the underhanded tactic of slimy salesmen. It’s the bread and butter of honest freelancers like us.

Think of marketing as helping your prospective clients. Instead of telling them how awesome you are and what your words can help them achieve – show them.

5. It’s okay to work for low pay when starting out.

When I was starting out, everywhere I’d look, I’d hear the “Don’t work for low pay!” advice. And yes, it was good advice but it wasn’t particularly helpful.

Because if I didn’t work for low pay then I didn’t get any pay. As a new freelancer with no experience or clients, low pay was all I could find.

And because everyone kept telling me not to work for low pay, I resented the low paying work I was doing. Which is not good when you’ve just started out.

So if you’re just starting out, consider this permission to work for low pay – as long as you don’t keep working for low pay.

6. It’s NOT okay to get stuck working for low pay.

If it feels like I’m repeating the previous point, it’s because I am.

As okay as it is to work for low pay when you’re starting out, it’s absolutely not okay to keep working for those rates indefinitely.

Give yourself a time frame after which you’ll charge more. Three months is enough time when you’re starting out. It’s long enough to get the experience, clients, and samples you need to charge more.

7. Other freelancers are not your target market.

This is a common mistake. New freelancers tend to hang out with other freelancers hoping to find work. They aren’t your target market – they’re your competition.

They comb through the same job postings, apply for the same jobs, and hound the same clients.

Don’t expect them to know where to look for client work. If they did, they’d have a roaster full of clients. They wouldn’t be in the same boat as you.

So instead of hanging out where hundreds of other freelancers are too, distance yourself a little and focus on the kind of client you want to write for. Do you want to write for online publications, small businesses, or Fortune 500 companies? What kind of writing do you want to do?

Answer these questions and you’ll have a sketch of your ideal client. Once you do, finding prospective clients will be a piece of cake.

As Cathy said in her post, freelancing lessons keep changing. These are my lessons of today. Make the most of them and get your freelance business on the right track. Good luck!

About the author: Samar (pronounced “summer”) is a freelance writer and blogger. She loves road trips, lava cakes, and convincing other writers to treat their freelancing as a business (and not a hobby) through her blog, Freelance Flyer.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Free Advice Friday: 10 Commandments of Writing Value

What's on the iPod: I Will Follow You by Rivrrs

What a week. A sizable client project, almost completed, has occupied seven of the eight or more hours I spend a day at this electronic box. I'm happy because the client is happy, the project is in a good place, and we're about to wrap it all up. I'm tired -- correction, exhausted -- from all the thinking and typing. But if I made them happy, I've done my job.

There's been a bit of drama here at home. The last few months, my youngest has gone from being laid off to being offered part-time status to suddenly being full time again. She hasn't changed jobs -- this is all from the same place she's been for two years. It's been two months of angst and doubt for her, and it's taken a toll on her confidence. Still, this whole debacle (let's call it what it is) has done something else for her:

It's made her realize her value.

I can't go into the details of why the decision has flipflopped so many times, but I will say it's taught a certain young woman that she's worth much more, both monetarily and personally. She went from tears to worry to anger to disgust and finally to "I'm worth more than this crap."


For us freelance writers, sometimes it takes a similar pile of steaming crud, doesn't it? I don't care where you are in your freelance writing career -- if enough clients dump on you and treat you like a leper, your BS meter is going to peg and you're going to say "Enough!"

Let today be that day.

Easy to say, isn't it? For some writers, it's also easy to apply. However, there are plenty of writers out there who aren't exactly topping out earnings-wise, am I right? Fear, contentment, laziness, client-induced guilt...whatever the excuse, we writers are damn good at clinging to them.

So repeat after me:

1. Thou shalt not undercharge. It's like I told a contractor who'd done some work for us a few weeks ago -- you don't charge enough. If a client says that, that's a huge red flag. However, you shouldn't be waiting for clients to tell you -- most won't. Look at what other writers are charging for the services you're providing.

2. Honor thy skills and background. Don't wait for clients to say "Wow! I have to pay you more because you have eight years of experience writing sales letters!" More likely, you're going to hear pushback on the price --that's when you can haul out your background as proof you're worth it. I've had clients question my fee -- we all have. The solution is to know that what you bring to the job is worth more because you've proven yourself to be reliable and good at what you do.

3. Keep holy thy bottom line. You know what you need to earn. Don't negotiate a deal that's lower than you can accept just because you want to win new work. Instead, negotiate a one-time break in exchange for additional, contracted work. You deserve to be paid for what you do.

4. Thou shalt not compromise boundaries. We all have our limits of what's acceptable. If you have a client who's asking you to do something that doesn't fit within your business scope or moral code, refuse it. No amount of money is worth lowering yourself or taking on work that requires you to give up more than you care to.

5. Thou shalt say no. Just like my daughter did when she was offered a job that was there, gone, half there, then there again, say no when it doesn't fit. If your client isn't valuing your skills, your contributions to date, or your dedication to the craft, don't work for them.

6. Thou shalt not covet without seeking. Seriously. Don't sit there complaining about the freelancer who's always busy or whining because you want to work for that client (and you're doing nothing to make it happen). Go for it. Suck it up, give yourself a "what the hell" moment, and do the work needed to get you what you want.

7. Thou shalt not stop improving. Your value right now is probably more than you realize. Still, every writer -- repeat, every writer -- can improve on the skills or knowledge they have right now. That translates into more value.

8. Honor and feed thine creativity. Do something creative for yourself every day. Blog. Write fiction/nonfiction/poetry. Paint. Cook. Take a class. Find something that gives you a pleasurable outlet for your creativity and maybe even expands your abilities. A happy freelance writer is more likely a freelance writer who places proper value on his/her time.

9. Thou shalt run a successful business. Never forget your skills are your product and your time is your business. Remove the "freelancer" persona and put on the "business owner" persona. Business owners would never undercut their prices or take shit talk from a nasty client.

10. Thou shalt not allow any client to define thine success. No telling you what to charge, either. Client criticisms, if not constructive, need to be thrown out like the trash they are. If a client tells you you charge too much, you need to hear "Our budget is too low." If a client tells you your work is full of errors (and they can't prove it), you need to hear "We're trying to avoid payment." If a client says "You're a lousy writer" or "You should get a real job" you need to hear "I'm an arrogant ass who has no professional tact nor do I have a clue what you do all day."

Writers, what commandments are critical to defining your value?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

6 Ways to Increase Writing Income

What's on the iPod: Sing by Ed Sheeran

It's been a fairly slow week so far. After the last two weeks of 9-hour workdays, I'm glad for the breather. I have a few projects still pending, and I'm working through edits with a current client. I'm marketing (aren't I always?) and there have been a few inquiries as a result.

A writer friend was relating her recent success with a new client in which she was able to double her rate -- a result she's intending to copy in future client dealings. Not that her rate was too low -- knowing this freelancer, it was probably right on the money. But what her experience taught me was that even when I think I'm in a good place, there's always room for improvement.

That goes for you, too. Every one of us, whether we're sitting in our sweet spot or still trying to find ways to get to a decent number, could stand for an increase in the revenue. But at times don't you feel like you're just sitting there, stagnant?

Me too.

Here are a few ways you can increase your revenue without breaking too much of a sweat:

Improve your bio. Does your bio say "Patricia is a freelance writer who specializes in healthcare, technology, and software development"? If so, you're probably missing out on some serious traffic (and client hits). Why not get specific? "Patricia is a freelance writer who writers about the Affordable Care Act, workers' compensation benefits, top business technology, and new software releases for businesses." Why is this better? Keywords, folks. If you tag it, they will come.

Brainstorm the possibilities. Open a Word document or grab a notebook. Now, without thinking too long, write down every possible place you could find writing work right now. Don't dwell on it -- just toss it on the list. You can give it more thought later. Where to start -- where you're already working. Where else to look -- where you'd like to be working, places where your current skills transfer easily, places that are supporting industries/clients to those you already work with, etc.

Promote your current work/projects/clients. Get in the habit of using social media to promote your latest article. Don't forget to promote your clients, too. Also, mention what you can of current projects, especially the type of project. For example, "Just finished the last page of the technology white paper" or "Coffee, then back to work on carpentry blog entries."

Find smarter ways to work. I have a system of article writing that starts with the query letter. By setting up the query (and the questions) to mirror how I'll write the article, I give editors a clear picture of what I'm doing, and I give myself an instant outline. What other project shortcuts can you dream up that can help you decrease time spent and increase the number of projects you can take on?

Raise the rates. If it's been longer than two years, you're due for a raise. Consider that employees get an average of 3-5 percent more every year. Your $50 an hour may have made sense in 2001, but you're way too low to compete with what serious clients would consider professional rates. Do a little homework, then set your new rate where you'll be better positioned to compete.

Knock the small jobs out of the park. I'm not saying spend six hours writing one press release, but really pay attention to every detail. Go over the conversation, the notes, one more time, Make sure the small project is a home run. Happy clients come back. What better way to make them happy than by treating that 300-word piece like it was going in The New Yorker?

Writers, how do you increase your writing income?

Monday, October 06, 2014

Top Tips Writers Series #3: Paula Hendrickson

What I'm reading: Vita and Harold by Nigel Nicolson
What's on the iPod: Serpentine by Chris Bathgate

Know what I love about Paula Hendrickson? Everything.

Here's a person who's not only hugely successful in her niche (and entertainment/celebrity is not an easy niche to break into), but someone who extends herself to her fellow freelancers. When I was held captive in the hospital last year after surgery, Paula came to the rescue. She not only posted on my behalf during Writers Worth Month, but she held down the fort while I recovered.

Oh, and did I mention? Writers Worth Month? Her idea. And despite her occasional grumbling about my monthly assessment posts, she shares openly her results, good and bad.

True to her nature, Paula was one of the first people whose hand went up when I asked for posts offering up top writing tips. Also true to her nature, Paula's advice, so far, is uniquely hers. When I asked her for tips, she took it one step further and gave it direction. It's why I love her.

You're going to love her, too.

9 Tips For Becoming a Freelance Feature Writer
by Paula Hendrickson

Before selling my first feature story, I made the classic mistake of pitching article ideas to big-name magazines. I had no experience and no clips, so of course I wound up with no assignments.

I don’t know much about sports, but even I know baseball players don’t start in the major leagues. They work their way up from Little League, often playing for college or minor league teams before breaking into the majors. It’s not that different with feature writing. Here are a few tips to work your way into the majors:

1. Start Small, Aim High — Writing great articles for smaller titles or local publications will result in clips you can use to impress larger publications. Even a small, local, weekly newspaper is more reputable than churning out something for a content mill — the paper probably pays more, too.

2. Climb The Food Chain — Once you have a couple solid clips from a small market, query a slightly larger publication. Maybe a regional magazine, a trade publication, or a national niche market that covers a topic you’re familiar with. When approaching even slightly larger markets for the first time, you’re more likely to break in by pitching filler stories and shorter front-of-the-book articles, since editors are usually more willing to take a risk with a new writer when only 200-300 words are at stake. Take those clips and use them to advance even higher on the food chain.

3. Rejected? Re-pitch, Twice — When an editor rejects your query, send them a new idea. Keep the momentum going while they’ll still recognize your name. Next, tweak the rejected idea a bit and send it to at least one different market.

4. Check Editorial Calendars — Most magazines post editorial calendars online. They generally offer clues to the types of stories editors might need for specific issues, which makes them a freelance writer’s secret weapon. If the idea you want to pitch fits an issue 10 months out, mention that upcoming issue in your query letter.

5. Time Your Pitches — Poor timing lands a lot of good ideas in the rejection pile. If you want to pitch a story for the issue that’s still 10 months away, check the publication’s Writers Guidelines to see how far in advance the editors work. You might need to send your idea in immediately, but if they only work three months ahead of their publishing date, you’ll have time to polish your query before sending it.

6. Trade Your Way Up — Trade magazines and websites aren’t as familiar or glamorous as consumer titles, but some are just as lucrative as their glossy counterparts. If you’re familiar with a particular industry, exploit your knowledge of it by targeting that industry’s top trade publications. Trades are still a good option even if you don’t have industry experience as long as you’re eager to learn the ins, outs and lingo of a specific industry.

7. Offer Extras — Whether you’re writing features for a local paper, a glossy consumer title, or a trade magazine, offer to turn leftover quotes or information into a sidebar, chart, or infographic. If the editor hasn’t already asked asked you to find photos, offer to track down art to run with your story.

8. Send LOIs — Once you’ve collected a solid portfolio of clips, experiment a bit. Skip the query and try your luck with a letter of introduction. This is especially good when you have the experience required but don’t have an idea in mind. Let the editor know how you can be of service and tell them you’re available.

9. Improve Your Odds — When writing lists, remember — for whatever reason — readers seem to respond best to odd numbers. (Or at least one of my editors insists that’s true.)

Writers, what are some of your favorite tips for advancing up the feature writing food chain?
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