Freelance writing is a great way to share your expertise and to earn a little extra money. Making a career of it, or at least, expanding to the point where writing generates a dependable source of income, requires that you publish lots of new content every month. But there's more to freelance writing than writing; you must aggressively work the business side. These tips will help writers of all ilk, but they're aimed at technical writers, who have a bit of an edge over the creative types in this area if they can speak with authority on a specific subject.
1: Ask for work; ask for more work
Freelance writing is a business, and you need customers for your product. That means you must query editors often; you can't get new work if you don't ask. To write queries that editors notice, keep the following in mind:
- Introduce yourself and share article ideas that match the publisher's focus.
- Check the editorial calendar and make suggestions that fill their needs if possible. (Many technical publishers don't produce editorial calendars.)
- Keep your queries concise.
When you complete an assignment with a new editor, send a short thank you note and let them know you're available for more work. If you have an established relationship with an editor, ask for more work -- stay on their radar.
2: Be familiar with the publisher's needs
Before querying a new publisher, spend some time reading their product. If you're familiar with their product, you won't waste time suggesting topics they've recently covered and you can fine-tune your expertise to match their audience. When possible, mention a current or previous article or author to demonstrate your familiarity with their product. For instance, to pitch an advanced article on SQL transaction logs, you might say, "My article on SQL transaction logs picks up where 'SQL Logs, use them or lose them' ends." Of course, this won't always be possible, but keep your eye open for these opportunities. Writing a great article or book isn't enough; fulfilling an editor's needs will get you published.
After studying a potential publication, you might decide that your expertise isn't a good match for their audience -- but you might be wrong. Try to find something in common between their audience and your expertise and wait for inspiration. You may think of a unique way to introduce your expertise that the editors might appreciate. Innovation drives the technical industry, why not your technical writing?
4: Keep editors happy
A one-time gig is better than no gig, but recurring assignments are better! That means keeping editors happy. Fortunately, that it isn't hard:
- Write the article the editor expects. If you feel the need to stray from the original scope, discuss it with the editor first.
- Submit articles in the required format; apply their styles and template (if provided). If there's no template, keep formatting to a minimum.
- Submit graphics in the required format.
- Submit articles on time. If the worst happens, and you can't meet a deadline, let the editor know as soon as possible.
- Always be ready to make editorial changes. You might have the technical expertise, but the editor knows the audience. You do your job and let the editors do theirs.
When you fulfill your promises, editors are more inclined to assign you more work.
5: Let editors know you're open to their ideas
Editors will expect you to pitch your ideas when querying them. They want you to! However, it's a good idea to let them know that you're available to write about other topics. Tell them you'd be glad to consider their ideas. Be sure potential and current editors know that you're available to tackle subjects you haven't personally suggested.
6: Don't make promises you can't keep
If an editor asks for an article that's outside your expertise or if you can't meet their deadline, don't accept the assignment. Tell them why, suggest a compromise if you have one, and offer your future services for other assignments. Never make a promise you can't keep. If you do, you will probably never get an opportunity to make amends.
7: Hang out with other writers
Writers are like restaurants -- you can benefit from one another's overflow. When you can't accept an assignment, recommend someone who can. They might also do the same for you. Even if they never return the favor, the editor will probably remember your willingness to help. Editors are human beings too, and they remember a kindness the same way you do.
8: Query low-paying markets
We all want to make more money, but waiting for high-paying jobs might leave your bank account empty. Don't be too proud to fill your free hours with lower-paying assignments. Generally, they're much shorter, so they balance out nicely. Learn to write quickly, satisfy the specific goal of each piece, and churn out as many as you can fit into your schedule. You won't write Pulitzer-winning content, but you will receive payment, and lots of small checks add up. Few writers, especially technical writers, make a reasonable living writing only a piece or two each month.
9: Ask for referrals
After completing an assignment, consider asking for a referral. Most technical editors work for large publishers and have a broad network of industry coworkers. By tapping into their network, you can expand your own. Moreover, a referral carries a recommendation, even if implicit -- they won't refer you if they're not satisfied with your work.
10: Be seen!
Join forums, user groups, lists, and other social networks that support your technical expertise. Publicly offer free solutions and helpful advice. Give a presentation to a local user group. Create free and helpful how-to videos. Host a recurring chat. Create a Facebook page and publish free tips or other helpful resources. Join LinkedIn and keep your profile updated. Find something to tweet about often. Attend workshops and conferences. Go a step further and submit a presentation paper to a conference; they're always looking for new voices. You don't have to do all of these things, but do some of them. Get your name in front of users and editors.
More on writing
- Job snapshot: Technical writer
- Five tips for becoming a tech writer
- Five apps to simplify your writing projects
- 10+ ways to improve your writing by self-editing
- Five simple tips that will improve your writing a thousand percent
Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.