Okey doke. This is a summary of some issues raised at the Get Money, Get Paid Emerging Writers’ Festival panel. I’ve edited, sub-edited and written for a couple of dozen magazines and websites here and overseas in the last six years and this is what I’ve learned, some things I wish I’d known sooner.
Writing For The Internet Pays Terribly
Web publications pay hardly anything, and often nothing at all (which is why some of them have decent balance sheets.) If you are going to write for these publications, you need to decide if it’s worth your time, and what you’ll get from it. If a publication pays you $100 for a piece, then knock it out in 90 minutes, and no more. Will it bring a lot of traffic? Great. That’s one thing. Is it an avenue for something important you want to impart? That’s better. But remember it’s your time, and so don’t labour for hours/days (WHAT) on something that will not deliver you much money.
Magazines Pay Proper Rates
If you are going to be making money from your writing, you need to pitch broadsheets (while they exist) and magazines that will pay between 70c-$1 per word. Those are the top rates unless you are super famous and can negotiate more. Freelancers who are doing well enough to pay their bills from writing alone are filing on average between 4-6 magazine feature length pieces per month, every month. This means doing your research: understanding the publication’s target market, style/tone, the kinds of stories they are interested in and being able to generate several of these ideas at a time to pitch to editors.
Get right to the point: don’t send editors page long outlines, just get right to the heart of your pitch in the first couple of sentences; explain who you will interview, how the research will be gathered and what shape the final piece will take. Sell the idea here or it’s not going to fly. Always stick to word lengths: 800 words does not mean turn in 1400.
Be the kind of person you would want to work with. There is almost no piece that isn’t made better by working with an editor, so learn not to be precious about your work. It’s a job, it’s not art — which doesn’t mean you can’t execute it artfully.
Always talk rates first, file after. Freelancing is a business first and foremost. Pitch for the top; most magazines pay 50-70c per word, and that’s what you should ask for. Editors have pages and pages and pages to fill and are desperate for good content. Clean, well-researched, engagingly written copy filed on deadline and to word length is what they want. You would be amazed at how many writers can’t deliver those basics.
Write For Free When The Benefits Are Worth It
If you are offered, say, a great interview opportunity through a publication that doesn’t pay great, take it. You can parlay that interview into as many other stories as you like to sell elsewhere, to different markets. Support small press and lit mags, they are the lifeblood of the publishing industry and the people who run them actually care about language, words and ideas. Remember otherwise that writing for free is building someone else’s for-profit business and they’ll use your hard-produced work to line their offices with Eames chairs.
This is the Internet! It is AWESOME. Reach out to people, find them on Tumblr and Twitter and contact them with queries (within reason!), you will be pleasantly surprised to learn that most people are not dicks and are happy to help. Also, look up writing/pitching/freelancing seminars in your city and if you can afford to invest in them, do. It’s a great way to learn the kinds of basics that will keep you in good stead down the track.
Keep good records. Organise your inbox properly (folders! You can have them!) and keep track of conversations. Be prompt getting back to people. Keep every single receipt in your life. Make friends with spreadsheets. Keep a calendar, sync reminders for yourself. Put aside enough money each month to cover your tax bill (ask an accountant what this amount is based on your earnings.) Chase invoices through the accounts payable department, not your editor. Ultimately accounts pay you, so don’t be afraid to get their details through the switchboard and chase them hard if they are overdue.
Do Other Work
To make a living as a freelancer, you have to really thrive on the kinds of pressures that propel you to keep coming up with ideas and producing a lot of work. If the thought of that terrifies you, then you aren’t going to be cut out for that kind of professional life.
Which doesn’t mean you won’t write, it just means you need to find a way to pay the bills that will leave you enough time and space for your writing.
There’s lots of areas in which writers work on the side to make ends meet: copywriting, teaching, research assisting, editing, corporate and custom publishing, there’s tonnes of things. There’s also just regular, honest day jobs which are a great thing to have. If all you know is your freelance lifestyle (which can be great if you get in a niche), then perhaps you won’t have the experiences to draw on in your writing that you need? It all depends entirely on the work you want to create. There are no set rules for doing it, everyone is making their own way.
Writing is hard, and it can take time. Just putting the deliberate practise into being as good as you can be takes effort enough, adding financial pressures to that can be the last straw for a lot of people. So I think the real key is finding the balance between doing the work that matters to you, and earning the wages you need to make ends meet.
Read. Read read read. READ. Read, read, read, read more. Read.
Lastly I recommend that you listen to Natasha: don’t go to j-school.
PLUS! Five books you need to own:
The New New Journalism
A Writer’s Life
The Journalist and the Murderer
Usage and Abusage