ou fantasize about breaking into the publication of your dreams. You’d love to get more regular writing assignments. You’re this close to that kitchen renovation, if only you had a little more cash coming in the door. Forget that genie with three wishes or a winning lottery ticket! What you need to do is work it—network it, that is.
To keep engaging assignments flowing through the in-box, most successful freelancers have mastered the art of networking. Here’s how to harness your inner social butterfly and make networking work for you.
Worth Its Weight
Writing great queries, developing original ideas, and producing top-quality work are all important to keeping a freelancer’s career thriving. Certainly, if you’re weak in any of these areas, networking isn’t going to be a magic elixir that will build your long-term success. But if you’re strong in your technical skills and have a solid understanding of what editors are looking for, networking can take your career to the next level.
Some of the business benefits include:
- Connecting with potential new clients/editors
- Breaking into a new industry or type of writing
- Keeping your client list fresh
- Meeting others who can support your work, such as a great website developer, graphic designer, or photographer
- Boosting the range of assignments you’re offered
Even if you’ve got more work that you can handle, networking can be an invaluable way of stimulating your creativity. By staying connected to what’s going on in your industry, your work will only get better.
Some of the creative benefits of networking include:
- Getting new story ideas
- Connecting with possible sources
- Spotting trends
“A lot of people discount or discredit networking because it rarely leads to tangible benefits, but you can’t quantify the importance of relationships,” says Matt Villano, a freelancer whose work has appeared in dozens of publications including the New York Times, GQ, and Time.
“A lot of people discount or discredit networking because it rarely leads to tangible benefits, but you can’t quantify the importance of relationships.”
(Photo: Matt Villano)
Expanding Your Network
The most successful freelancers are continually expanding and deepening both their personal and professional networks. As someone who’s naturally chatty and curious about others, I find myself meeting new people all the time. Many times, those conversations have resulted in sources for my articles or inspiration for a query.
It’s easy enough to chat up the person standing in line behind you at the grocery. But how do you make new connections that are lasting and effective?
In the era of rampant online networking, it’s easy to make new “friends” on your computer. However, Villano recommends that you dust off that business attire and get out there!
“It’s important to meet people face-to-face whenever possible because nothing seals a deal like that interpersonal connection,” he says.
When many of us think of networking, images of name badges and awkward introductions come to mind. But networking is much more than just swapping business cards with your table-mates at a conference. Get creative: opportunities to expand your network are all around you.
Writers’ Events—Join a writers’ group. Depending on the type of writing you do, there are a host of professional organizations that provide opportunities to network at conferences, small group meetings, and online. Consider groups such as the Society of Professional Journalists, International Association of Business Communicators, or Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Writers’ groups provide support, encouragement, professional development programs, and a great network. I’m a big fan: I got to know one of the editors of WOW! through a writers’ network, and well, you know how that worked out.
“Writers’ groups provide support, encouragement, professional development programs, and a great network.”
Industry Events—Are you a travel writer? Join the Society of American Travel Writers. A public relations pro? Check out the Public Relations Society of America. Whatever your industry, chances are that there’s a professional association that can keep you connected. If you’re not sure which group is the best fit for you, think about where your ideal clients network and get yourself there!
Alumni Organizations—My alma mater has always been my favorite place to network. I love sharing stories about that torturous copyediting class back in college! Whether the person I’ve met graduated thirty years before me or is just out of school, our shared experience provides an undeniable connection. Once they’ve learned that we both went to the same journalism school, many potential editors and clients stop asking about my background and start asking about my availability.
Community Groups—Local community groups are a good place to start making connections, if you haven’t done so already. The Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, or local service league can help you expand your network to others who are in your area, but not necessarily in your field. Villano, who is based in Northern California, says he has gotten some great assignments related to the wine country from people he’s met through the local Chamber of Commerce.
My own involvement in the community has led to some terrific articles and valuable connections. Though I never thought of my kids’ school as a networking opportunity, another mom recently hooked me up with a newspaper assignment—thanks to some mutual interests that got us talking. Just visiting with my neighbors alerted me to trends and story ideas that I never would have considered on my own.
Vanessa Grigoriadis, who writes regularly for Rolling Stone and New York magazine, advises freelancers to always be on the lookout for story ideas. “Whenever something interesting happens to you personally, you have to be ready to turn it into a piece,” she says. “That’s what you have—your stories, your experiences. You have something personal to bring to the table.”
“Whenever something interesting happens to you personally, you have to be ready to turn it into a piece... That’s what you have—your stories, your experiences. You have something personal to bring to the table.”
(Photo of Vanessa Grigoriadis by Tanya Kechichian)
Networking it the Right Way
The next time you’re at a networking event, be sure to cast a wide net among your fellow professionals. “You never know who will be someone who can really help your career, so it makes sense to talk to everyone,” says Lee Kessler, a freelancer who specializes in communications for financial services companies. “It may even be three or four connections down the road that a single contact pays off.”
When you’re making new contacts, remember that this is a long-term investment, and take it slow. It’s important not to oversell or annoy the members of your group. If you simply listen, ask the right questions, and truly take an interest in other professionals, you’ll build effective connections.
“One important thing about these face-to-face meetings is that you can’t be a jackass,” Villano warns. “Be honest. Be humble. Listen to others. That will make an impression. And get you work.”
Is Online Networking Really Social?
While rubbing shoulders with decision makers will probably never lose its status as the best way to network, online networking is gaining momentum as an important way to make business connections.
Villano, who is savvy about using online tools and careful about what he posts, has had good results getting assignments this way. “Sometimes it’s actually easier to pitch an editor on Twitter than it is via e-mail,” he reports. “I bagged an assignment this way recently. The editor was terrible about responding to e-mails but responded to Twitter direct messages within minutes. I pitched her in 140-character increments and sold the piece.”
If you don’t have a Twitter or Facebook account, you know what to do when you’ve finished this article. Don’t forget to search for blogs related to your specialty as well as online communities for your alma mater, former employer, or any other groups you may belong to. While you’re exploring ways to network online, don’t forget to check out WOW!’s blog and Premium Green Markets. Be sure to use these social media tools properly, though, and portray a professional image.
“Everything you do and say online can be misinterpreted by the person on the other side,” Grigoriadis cautions. “People may form opinions of you based on that misinterpretation. Social media can be a fun house mirror in a way that people don’t realize.”
Working Your Current Roster
Networking isn’t all about meeting new contacts. It’s also about staying close with the client who sent last week’s paycheck. Networking with your current clients or editors will help you stay up-to-date on their needs and preferences, so your pitches stay fresh. Grigoriadis stays in touch with the network of editors she knew from her time in the New York publishing world. “I know what they want, their style, how to inject enough color that the piece will be an enjoyable read,” she says.
And let’s face it, you want to stay top-of-mind so you’ll get that next assignment because editors are likely meeting new people through networking, too!
Turn Inspiration into Action
You know that networking is a good idea, so don’t just pay lip service—prioritize it. “The time to market yourself is when you’re busy because you never know if you’re going to stay busy,” Kessler advises.
“The time to market yourself is when you’re busy because you never know if you’re going to stay busy,” Kessler advises.
Only you can decide what level of networking is a reasonable commitment for you to reach your goals. Whether it’s a conference once a year or blogging every day, put it on your calendar and stick to it!
Now that you’ve recommitted yourself to networking, it’s time to sign up for that conference, join a new group, and call your old boss. And don’t forget to Tweet about it.
BJ Marshall is a freelance writer in the Chicago suburbs. She’s written for newspapers, magazines, websites, and corporations for more than fifteen years. Read more about her at http://www.bjmarshall.net.
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