In part three of our series, our guests told you flat out what they thought of querying, and how important they considered the query process in building freelance writing careers. Before that, we found out how our guests land most of their freelance writing jobs these days. And today we'll turn back the clock and find out how each of these writers landed gigs during the early parts of their careers (yep, they were newbies too!).
I asked them whether or not they spent much time early on thinking about things like building a platform or networking, or if they instead stuck to the traditional querying process, letting their platforms build slowly over time.
Let's get right to it:
Early on, I definitely spent more time on querying. In fact, I was sending out several query letters per day as well as many emails. Over time, I realized that I was putting too much effort into this and forgetting to build my online presence and business network. This led me to make more contacts, and to start my freelance writing blog. Looking back, I would have still started with regular queries but would have also been marketing myself in other ways. In my opinion, building a network and reputation is vital to freelance writing success. Just because you work alone, without a lot of personal interaction, doesn’t mean you should forget about building a network.
I started writing professionally in the late 1970s, and early 1980s. Initially, I had no idea what I was doing. I considered myself a novelist (hence the book proposals.)
Then I started to write copy (advertising and press releases) for a business I was running. Other businesses asked me to write for them, and gradually, without realizing it, I became a copywriter. I wasn’t writing copy for anything other than fun at that stage, I enjoyed it, it was a challenge, so I did it.
I started writing for magazines too, at around that time. I sold the first article I proposed, which gave me a real taste for it.. 🙂 After that, I got into querying magazines I wanted to write for because I sensed that I could write for them. If you write enough, you soon learn to trust your instincts. If you think to yourself “I can write that”, you always can.
In those days, the 1980s, as now, it’s who you know, and who knows you. You have to write enough so that people know who you are, and what you can write.
If I were starting out today, I’d do things differently because you have so many more tools available.
Instead of writing book proposals, I’d write a book on a blog, and I’d wait for the reaction. No reaction? OK, dud. Reaction? Excellent. I’d keep on writing the book on the blog, and would then sell it as an ebook, and if I thought it really had legs, I’d develop a book proposal for print publishers, because the book already had an audience...
Instead of writing magazine queries, I’d start blogs on any topic I was interested in, and I’d approach magazine editors and other buyers of writing using the blogs as samples. I’d write something like: “I’ve been blogging on ________(whatever topic) at ___________ (Internet address). It struck me that your readers might be interested in ______________ (three ideas) _______ please let me know if you’d like me to develop these ideas further.”
The blog would provide excellent writing samples, and it would show a degree of professionalism that’s attractive to editors and other buyers of writing. A blog shows commitment, and reliability.
Showing those things is essential when you’re a new writer. Most editors have been burned by writers many times. They come to expect it. Finding a writer who’s writing regularly with a degree of competence is like finding a gold nugget.
Putting it bluntly and no disrespect intended because I love writers, many writers are flakes. Receiving a commission is no guarantee the writer will actually complete the project on time, so a blog at least shows the editor that the writer can write, even when there’s no one jabbing him/ her with a cattle prod to get him/ her to do it.
I spent my time pitching and querying, working my way up. I think I would have done it all the same way again, considering it worked out just the way I hoped it would, and I felt like I had really earned my stripes. If I had tried to "cut the line" and get ahead faster, I probably would have flopped-- I needed to do lots of lower-level assignments before I could have handled big features for national glossy mags. About the only thing I would change is that I would have liked to have learned a little earlier how to write a great query. That took some practice, especially because I was following all the rules in books that were outdated (which I didn't realize, of course). Only after I started tossing out the rules and making up my own did I really take a major step forward in my career.
When I first started freelancing, I joined several online forums and e-mail discussion lists focused on freelance writing. At the same time, I began aggressively responding to posted job openings on freelance job sites and Craigslist while also advertising my services on Craigslist. I built a website for my freelance business and directed potential clients to the site for samples and details on the services I offered.
I also joined a regional organization for writers, Washington Independent Writers (now American Independent Writers) and started attending their seminars and volunteering to help with various events. This helped me build my network and develop relationships with seasoned writers while also providing me with scores of educational programs and opportunities.
If I could go back in time, I’d definitely change a couple things! I feel like my approach was kind of scattered—I did a little of everything and I’m really not sure that’s the best approach. I would say that I was like a scatter gun—just shot out a bunch of stuff to see where it stuck.
I got started before the web. I remember the stacks of SASE and query letters. They worked, then I began to fall into the ghostwriting. I took a career twist (one of many) and began writing for the web, usually as in employee, then as a freelancer and that's when I first started building my own websites and now blogs.
Considering the fact that every one of our guests is successful in their own specialty areas, it's not surprising that for the most part they wouldn't want to change things. Who could blame them! But what about you? How long have you been freelancing, and is your career where you want it to be right now? If not, what would you do differently?
Two more parts left in our series, and Monday we'll pick it up again to talk about the tools and tactics our guests consider the most useful in developing your writing platform!