The life of a freelancer is like a blank page waiting to be written: as open as your imagination and full of possibilities, or a lonely wilderness that sucks your confidence and makes you want to go and do the dishes.
As a writer of any type – hobbyist, professional or literary artist, hands hovering over a pregnant page is an experience we’ve all had. Will words of wisdom be written, or letters so lacklustre we screw up the page (or if we’re terribly modern, pull into the little trash can at the bottom of the screen) and wash the floor / hoover the car / eat a packet of biscuits? Embarking on a freelancing writing career needs focus, drive and a padlock on the biscuit tin. But the benefits are enormous. You dictate your own time, you constantly polish your skills, you learn about issues you never knew you needed to know, and most of all, you write. You write words that will be published. You write words that will be read. You write words that will inform, surprise, highlight, voice, engage. And as a writer of any type, there is no better experience.
Many writers feel they can’t switch. If you write short stories, you can’t write press releases. If you write literary non-fiction, you can’t write newspaper articles. If you write children’s books, you can’t write corporate website content.
But you can!
If you can write, if you can say something that compels, motivates, emotes or explains, you can write anything. You just have to learn to wear different hats. The only hard core rule of writing professionally is to remember your audience.
I have worked words for a living for many years – as a professional fundraiser writing compelling copy that requires urgency and calls to action, and as a freelance writer producing factual features and exploration of issues. One is full of emotion and imagery, and one is full of facts and focus. I can write about the same issue but produce two very different pieces of copy depending on whether I’m writing a press release, a feature article, a fundraising appeal, or a blog piece. I use the same facts but my voice changes according to the audience.
How to get started
- If you have no portfolio of published work, you will probably have to write some full length examples to sell.
- Pick a subject you know fairly well, be it parenting, gardening or the insides of an ipad.
- Then research your target publication. Do they use humour, first person, testimonials, fact files or features? Think about who their audience is, and write your piece to them. You may be pitching to several different magazines / websites / newspapers so adapt each copy to each audience and style of writing.
- Be professional. Ensure your email query is well written and you have the right details of the editor. Adhere to copy guidelines on their website.
- Don’t take rejection personally. My first article was rejected by two magazines (one never responded to me). On the third I plucked up the courage to ring, had a great chat with the editor and not only got that essay published, but went on to write for every issue of that magazine for 6 years. Which leads on nicely to…..
- Build a relationship with the editor. Don’t just email when you have something to pitch. Email to congratulate on a good issue, or even to say thank you for being paid!
- Network. There are plenty of blogs and LinkedIn groups that will not only help you with ideas and advice but provide online water cooler moments when you feel isolated.
- Never, ever miss a deadline. Ever. If you absolutely have to, give as much notice as you can.
How to write
Writing features or content is usually the opposite of literary writing. You write less to say more. There is no build up, no scene setting, no characterisation. You replace wordiness with word count.
- Get to the point quickly, with a hierarchy of communications tumbling down the page. If you are writing a press release or a news piece – the date and venue are never the news. If you catch them at hello, they’ll read on to get the logistics. But you have to catch them at hello.
- Plan your piece. Features or web content need structure, point and angle. I draft the intro and conclusion, and headings. Then I write the piece accordingly before removing the headings.
- Figure out your issue, your story and your angle. The story is not the issue you are writing about – that is context. The story is the impact of the issue, and your angle is the point. If I pitch a feature about sugar in our children’s diet, the story is not that there is sugar in our children’s diet. That is the issue or context. The story is the IMPACT of sugar in our children’s diet. The angle is how we reduce it, fight it, overcome it. If I pitch an article about coeliac disease, the story is not coeliac disease. That is the issue. The story (could be) that Ireland has the highest rate of coeliac disease in the world, and why. The angle (could be) how coeliac-friendly is Ireland?
- And again, remember who your audience is……Take some big news:
Ireland wins the World Cup!
This is obviously big news. But its impact will differ depending on who is reading it.
The national paper might carry a picture of the team holding up the Cup, with a headline – Ireland wins!
A regional paper might carry a picture of a local player, with a headline – Limerick shooter!
A town paper might carry a picture of the local football club cheering in the pub in front of the TV, with the headline – Local football club trains a world class winner!
A school magazine might carry a picture of the Cup, with a headline – School closes to celebrate World Cup Victory!
A Blogger might carry a picture of a man dancing with a dog wearing an Ireland jesters hat, with the headline – Men just can’t multi-task! My hubby forgot to pick the kids up from school he was so busy dancing around our kitchen with the dog!
A Press Release might carry a picture of a farmer kicking a cabbage like a football, with the headline – Kerry Kale Boosts the Boys in Green! The Irish football team kick-started their way to World Cup success with body-boosting juices made with Kerry organic farm vegetables.
The life of a freelancer is like a blank page waiting to be written: foreboding or inspiring. But like all writing, there is only one way it becomes a black page – one word at a time. Just keep them short!
(c) Alana Kirk
Alana Kirk is a fundraising creative and freelance writer (and is also ‘switching’ to novel writing!). www.alanakirk.com