Freelance writers are usually the ones asking the questions. But sometimes, the tables are turned — especially in social settings where the number one ice breaker is always “so, what do you do?” Here, I address a few of the questions writers hear most often.
Who do you write for? One of the best parts of being a self-employed journalist is the freedom to choose which publications I contribute to. While I currently have a few editors that assign stories to me regularly, the list varies month by month. For more specific details, check out my portfolio.
How do you get your story ideas? Many story ideas come directly from the assigning editor. Others are the result of conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers. I also get ideas by reading lots of newspapers, magazines and Web sites, observing the world around me, and from things I have personally experienced that could either help others or that I would like to learn more about (for example, after my first series of “fitness boot camp” classes, I wrote a short piece about it for Cooking Light).
What is a query letter? A query letter is essentially a sales pitch to an editor. The letter explains the topic of the piece, how I intend to approach it, the types of sources I will interview, and why I am qualified to write it. Usually, query letters are sent via e-mail.
How do you find people to interview? I find sources through professional associations for the appropriate field, colleges and universities, Google searches and books (to name a few). I also find sources by asking friends and colleagues for referrals, and occasionally I’ll post a source request on a Web site called Profnet, which helps connect journalists to interview subjects. The bottom line is sources are everywhere.
How much do you get paid for your articles? Much to my dismay, this question comes up a lot. While I openly discuss pay rates with other freelancers, my closest companions (i.e. my husband or my best friend), and potential clients, I am not compelled to discuss my earnings with anyone else. Still, people are curious so I’ll just say that rates vary greatly. Some publications pay by the word, some pay a flat rate.
How do you avoid working-at-home distractions? When I am on deadline (whether it is an assignment or a self-imposed deadline), nothing takes me away from the task at hand, so fortunately this isn’t too much of an issue for me. But everyone procrastinates, so I try to work downtime into my schedule so I can e-mail friends, read message boards and listen to my favorite music. I also don’t take personal calls or turn on the TV during work hours.
When are you planning on going back to work? Unfortunately, it is a common perception among the general public that freelance writers aren’t really working, or at least don’t have “real jobs.” The truth is, I do have a “real job” and I am working. Yes, I love what I do, but it is work. I am a small business owner with one employee (myself) who, in addition to writing, does everything from marketing and accounting to scheduling and correspondence.
Is a degree in journalism a prerequisite to a career as a freelance writer? Not necessarily. This is the route I took, but there are many other avenues. Some people decide to become freelancers specializing in a particular topic after a career in another field (i.e. a registered nurse might become a health writer). Others simply decide it is a career they want to pursue, and go for it. In any case, I strongly recommend that those who did not attend journalism school take classes and seminars on freelance writing and journalism in general. Excellent writing skills are, of course, essential, but there is a lot more to journalism than having a way with words.
Are you ever going to write a book? Maybe, if the opportunity presents itself (either because someone, like a publisher, asks me to a write one, or if I come up with an amazing idea of my own). If I do, it will probably be nonfiction.
Where can I read another writer’s thoughts on these questions? Jane Boursaw wrote a great article that debunks the many, many myths about freelance writing. Read it here.
You interviewed me for an article: may I read it prior to publication? No. Allowing sources to preview articles is an overt violation of journalistic ethics, as it can compromise the integrity and objectivity of the piece. Furthermore, most publications have a policy against it (either written or implied), and showing a story to source would violate my contract with those publications. Nonetheless, accuracy is a top priority for me. If I have a question or need further clarification about a topic discussed with a source, I will always ask. And, many publications have a fact-checking procedure of their own in place specifically for the purpose of avoiding factual errors and misquotes.
Will you send me a copy of the article after it is published? If the article appears online, I will definitely e-mail a link. For those that appear in print only, I will snail mail a photocopy if the publication is local to Portland and you live/work elsewhere, or if the publication is not easy to find on newsstands.
Aspiring writers have lots of legitimate questions. So many, in fact, that I could devote a good chunk of space just to answering them. But other writers have already done this, so why reinvent the wheel? Just drop by The Renegade Writer , to find out everything you ever wanted to know about getting published.