A good friend of mine, a talented and accomplished photographer, has decided he’d like to try his hand at writing. He just wrote a piece profiling a farmer, which he is submitting to a magazine along with a series of photos of the man at work. Knowing I’ve done a fair amount of freelance magazine writing, he asked if I’d share some pointers for getting more gigs.
Now, there are many writers who are much further along than I am. I’ve never made a full-time living as a writer (it is rumored some writers have), and I’ve yet to write a book, much less publish one and sell a respectable number of copies. Then again, everyone starts somewhere, and unless you’re already a celebrity or have an organization behind you, there’s probably no way to get around the basics.
So, what advice did I give my friend? I mentioned these five things, each of which has been indispensable in my experience:
- Write a lot. Whether it’s in a private journal, or a blog, a napkin, or whatever, you need to write consistently. This is how you improve as a writer, and it’s how writing starts to come more naturally – which you’ll be thankful for when you’re on a deadline. If you practice diligently, you’ll get better. Personally, I kept a journal for years before I started blogging, and I blogged for years before I started seeking out magazine assignments. It’s wise to start small and work your way up; in other words, begin cultivating your craft privately or for a smaller audience before you seek out a wider readership. This is better for everyone, including you.
- Read a lot. This, coupled with writing consistently, is how you develop and hone your own writing voice. Read books that have stood the test of time. Read books that have won awards. Read books that are on the bestseller list. Read books that interest you. Read books by people you know. Read books by people who are unlike you – representing a different era, or ethnicity, or gender, or religion, or viewpoint. Read books that will help you better understand what you believe. Read books that will sharpen you. Read books that will make you laugh or cry or will otherwise stir your heart. Whatever combination you choose, do what you can to read widely and well.
- Find a niche. As you work to become a better writer, you’ll also want to figure out what topics or themes you’ll focus on. This can shift over time as your interests and experiences change, but this will (at least potentially) position you as an authority, which will come in handy when an editor is looking for someone to write on a particular topic. For example, much of my writing over the past couple of years has focused on faith and justice issues, especially in Central America. These are personal interests of mine, and I’ve received writing assignments as a result of limiting my focus to these kinds of stories.
- Pitch your ideas. Having a specific, compelling story idea and knowing you can write it within a limited timeframe will get you a long way. Be aware that you may need to shop the idea around a bit to find a good fit. If you’ve already connected with an editor, and you think your story would be a good fit for their magazine, start there. If you have friends or colleagues who can vouch for your work, who also happen to have any connections, that’s the next best place to begin.
- Negotiate later (if at all). When I was starting out as a writer, I decided I wouldn’t negotiate payment at all. I ended up getting paid for some projects, while doing others for free. If I needed to rely on freelance writing for my full salary, it might have been different (then again, becoming a fulltime freelance writer isn’t something I’d advise, especially for someone just starting out). In my case, the important thing was simply getting writing experience and developing a portfolio, not making a lot of money. Plus, I believed the stories I was writing were important and deserved to be told. It wouldn’t have accomplished anything to let a negotiation about payment stand in the way of getting published, at least initially. As you gain more experience, you’ll be in a better position to negotiate payment, though you probably won’t find a bottomless pit of money, either (Google the words “publishing industry problems” if you have questions on that). The important thing to remember is that being able to demonstrate both writing ability and subject matter expertise will help you land other freelance assignments, and who knows, it may even impress a future employer enough to hire you for an actual job.
Fellow writers, what advice would you add?