id you read those Choose Your Own Adventure books as a child? I sure did. I enjoyed making decisions and being the master of the character’s destiny; but even more than that, I enjoyed the ability to go back and start new if something went awry.
Freelance writing is just like that.
And this characteristic of the career—the ability to adapt and try out different “adventures”—is pertinent to you, whether you’re an author looking to take your first crack at freelance writing or an experienced, professional journalist ready to see what else is out there.
Let’s do just that—see what’s out there. Following are several freelance writing “pathways” (that is, fields or genres of freelance writing). Each road has its own set of benefits and challenges, and each requires a freelancer with a unique set of skills or experience. Exploring these pathways can help new, professional, or potential freelance writers make the “right choice.” (And even if you don’t, you can always flip the pages and start again!)
Path #1: Freelance Journalism and Magazines
Writing for magazines, newspapers, and other forms of print periodicals offers writers the thrill of the byline, the tactile joy of holding a piece of their work in a printed format, and the ego-boosting power of a decent pay rate (usually).
Qualifications: You’ll need to be an above-average writer to break into this market, and having some contacts in the field (or being willing to actively develop them) is going to save you a whole lot of rejection and wasted hours. The writer must not be afraid of research, interviewing, and statistics. These are all tools that editors treasure when it comes to a good story.
Competition: The perks described above mean that many writers want in on this field. However, you can mitigate some of this competition by starting with local/regional publications or focusing on topics in which you’re an expert.
Your First Step: Learn a local title inside and out, backwards and forwards. Read several back issues, and then develop a list of story ideas that fit the publication. Learn all you can about pitching your stories to editors, and then get to work selling those ideas.
“You’ll need to understand the end goals of the different kinds of web content.”
Path #2: Web Copy and Content
This is a field with a wide variety of writing opportunities and document formats, ranging from blog posts to short, cheap articles that focus on answering common Google searches to the fairly lucrative and (currently) hot genre of content marketing. The web is all about information consumption, and that information needs to come from somewhere. But, as you’ve likely noticed through your own surfing, the quality of web content differs from page to page.
Qualifications: Writing for the web requires the ability to distill your message into easily scanned, digestible pieces. In addition, you’ll need to understand the end goals of the different kinds of web content. For example, if your copy is meant to sell something, you’ll need the ability to push a reader to action. A blogger hired by a company or organization would need to be able to relay the company’s mission through stories and helpful or informative posts.
Competition: Netting the best writing work online depends on what level of content you’re able to produce. While there are professional bloggers who make hundreds on one post, there are also companies just stepping out into the great slush of the Internet who are desperate for a stringer that can put their ideas into succinct and efficient copy. There is a web-based outlet for most writers, but the trick here is finding your special fit.
Your First Step: In a nutshell, your first task is discernment. What do you like to read online? Why? Can you produce copy at a similar level? Since the kinds of online writing are so very assorted, the initial steps differ. Those interested in writing blog posts will want to begin by populating their own blog with high-quality content in a favorite topic. Those interested in writing quick, but low-paid articles will need to keep an eye on freelance writing job lists for large production companies that are hiring content writers.
“Copywriting often represents some of the upper echelons of pay rates for experienced freelance writers.”
Path #3: Business Writing and Copywriting
Copywriting is writing to sell something—anything. This may be an actual product, service, or something more abstract, such as a buy-in to a candidate’s political beliefs. Also included here is business writing, which forms a kind of default category for many pieces often provided by freelance writers: newsletters, brochure text, talking points, press releases, and so on.
Qualifications: Copywriting is its own beast and requires a thorough understanding of sales-through-rhetoric concepts. There are many different ways to learn these concepts, and the ability to take to the genre depends on the freelancer. If you like to convince others of something through writing, you might be well-served in writing copy. Business writing, on the other hand, represents a very fertile ground for many writers, as the needs of business clients often revolve around documents or copy that is relatively simple to write or easily learned. Many new freelancers get their start here because they come to the career from other professional fields, in which these documents are common.
Competition: Copywriting often represents some of the upper echelons of pay rates for experienced freelance writers. Although the field is competitive, it’s also rich with opportunities and needs. Business writing is similar in that there is always work to be had. However, writers may find themselves competing for work with multitudes of other hungry writers. This could drive pay rates down.
Your First Step: Prospective copywriters who already know the field tend to find work through rubbing elbows and networking with businesses in the position to hire them. If you’re seeking to learn copywriting, check for courses available here at WOW!, or through MediaBistro.com and WritersOnlineWorkshops.com.
Path #4: Creative Writing
Many writers come to freelance writing through their passion for creative writing, such as fiction and poetry. They want to put that talent into making money in a way that is more immediate than penning a novel. Luckily, there are paid outlets for people who wish to write creatively: ghostwriting, greeting card verses, and personal essays.
Competition: Competition is tough due to the popularity of the genre, and a lower overall need for this type of writing. Because of this, the pay rates may be slightly lower than other genres. However, experienced ghostwriters tend to make a great living.
Qualifications: Creative writing requires the ability to paint with words. Since you are being paid for this work, though, it also requires the ability for the writer to be creative within someone else’s parameters. Ah, there’s the rub!
First Step: Personal essays are a great way to put your toe in the water. Outlets for these include print magazines and websites (use the Writer’s Market to find the right publication). Generally, the full essay is submitted to the outlet, so make it perfect! Greeting card companies and those who need ghostwriters often advertise via the standard freelance writing job lists, like those here at the WOW! Freelance Job Board or FreelanceWritingGigs.com.
They’ll likely ask for a cover letter-resume combo with clips of past work, so be ready.
Path #5: Technical Writing
Technical writing entails writing about subject matter that is related to science, medicine, or of course, technology. It might be writing that is aimed at general audiences (therefore, it serves to explain or simplify a technical subject for the masses), or it may be more insular in nature—writing for others within the industry.
Competition: Since technical writing requires specialized knowledge, the number of other tech writers that you compete against is comparatively low. The pay in this field tends to be higher, too.
Qualifications: The ability to simplify for the correct audience will get you far, but many technical writing projects and clientele seem to require a four-year degree or direct experience in the technological, medical, or science sector. However, the few that don’t will still ask about past experience and request samples.
First Step: Are you lacking relevant samples and clips? Generate some by providing writing on a volunteer basis to charities and nonprofits, or simply put together a polished sample piece about a topic that interests you. In addition, navigate to the Society for Technical Communication, and read every last bit of information you can get on your screen.
Remember, just like the Choose Your Own Adventure books, your freelance writing path isn’t permanent. Writers who work with multiple genres and who have walked down different pathways will always have an alternative available if the current road isn’t working out.
Choose a few paths wisely, and learn all you can about them. Who knows? You might find yourself revisiting this article for a brand new pathway in a few years.
Allena Tapia specializes in writing for the education market and Latino topics. She also provides editing and translation services. Find her at GardenWall Publications (www.gardenwallpublications.com) and About.com Freelance Writing (www.freelancewrite.about.com).
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