I sold my first freelance articles when I was still in high school, writing a column about school events for the local weekly newsletter. A few years later, I sold my first national magazine story by sending something I had written in my newspaper staff job to Essence; they bought it and asked me to do a couple more similar pieces – short profiles of black women with their own businesses. I got my first corporate freelance project through belonging to the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), when a colleague I met through that group recommended me for a newsletter-writing project based on the writing I had done for the chapter newsletter.
My freelancing took off, and became possible as a full-time venture, thanks in large part to being active in what was then Washington (now American) Independent Writers, because I didn’t just join and use the organization’s job bank. I used the job bank, volunteered to write for the newsletter and became its editor, pitched in at events, helped with the job bank, etc. And I did more than just nail down writing opportunities that came through the job bank. I was what we now call proactive – if I got one assignment, I suggested new ones. If I didn’t have specific story ideas, I asked clients to keep me in mind when they needed someone. If they didn’t need more articles at the moment, I let them know that I could help with editing and proofreading, and eventually desktop publishing, as well as writing.
In essence, I didn’t wait to be given more work; I turned one-shot assignments into ongoing relationships.
At the time, I also belonged to IABC, what is now the Association for Women in Communications, the Capital Press Club and EdPress. I wrote or edited and produced the newsletters for all of these groups and got freelance assignments through the people I met in them.
Perhaps most importantly, though, I went into freelancing full-time with skills, experience and contacts – minor details to many people who want to plunge into freelancing these days, but absolutely vital to success. I had great training in the basics of writing, grammar, usage, punctuation, etc., throughout grade school, junior high and high school. I took a couple of journalism classes in college and worked on my college newspapers. I did writing and newsletter work through college internships. My first full-time job after college was in social work, but I looked for opportunities to write for the agency on its internal publications.
My subsequent full-time jobs were as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, editor of a university newsletter, assistant editor at a magazine, communications manager/newsletter editor for a trade association, and chief of publications at a public hospital. Throughout all of them, I freelanced on the side and kept up my memberships and networking.
I’ve now been freelancing full-time for more years that I care to admit (only because I can’t possibly have been around that long when I still feel as if I’m around 25 at the most!). I don’t have a blog. I don’t write for online sites. I don’t bid for writing work at craigslist, guru, elance, odesk or even mediabistro, which has a better reputation than most such sites. I don’t work for content mills. I do cold queries, maintain my presence with professional organizations, contribute to discussions at LinkedIn and elsewhere, provide an annual conference for colleagues, use Writer’s Market, and continue to offer more than the minimum to my clients. That’s what seems to work.
To my colleagues in SPJ, I repeat what I said in a speech to a recent national conference: As experienced journalists, we have skills and experience that have value and that today’s zillions of wanna-be freelancers just don’t have. In going after freelance work, don’t sell yourselves short. Make the most of that experience and those skills. They are more and more needed!