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Breaking In as a Freelance Writer

Beginners Must Have Patience, Persistence To Make Initial Sales

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page K01

Freelance writer Caralee Adams has a steady stream of magazine assignments on parenting, health and business topics for publications such as Better Homes and Gardens. But it wasn't always this easy.

When she began freelancing in 1997, she took one job -- editing a parenting book -- that a mom at her son's preschool had rejected and another that involved background research for someone else's article. Back then, "I was willing to take anything," said Adams, who lives in Bethesda.

Before Proposing Those Article Ideas to Editors

Some suggestions:

• Don't be picky about where you write when you are starting out.

• Be persistent about e-mailing editors with well-crafted story ideas.

• Network with others in the writing community through online and in-person workshops and forums.


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Finding work can be challenging for beginning freelancer writers, who typically earn their living through a variety of short-term or long-term assignments. So it pays to be realistic about where you can get published, several editors said.

"Don't expect to leapfrog into freelancing and write for the Atlantic Monthly or Cosmo Girl," said Brett Harvey, executive director of the New York-based American Society of Journalists and Authors, an association for freelance nonfiction writers.

She suggested that beginners contact their local village or community newspaper. Early on, "you have to write for whoever will publish you -- it could be your local Pennysaver -- to build up your repertoire of clips," she said.

Be patient and don't get discouraged by rejection, said Jennie L. Phipps, editor of Freelancesuccess.com, a weekly online newsletter and community forum for freelancers. "You can't be discouraged that the first 10 e-mails don't go anywhere, because eventually you will hit on an editor who likes your ideas," she said.

Once you have some article clips that you can send to editors, target a few publications for which you would like to write, suggested Harvey. There are listings of potential markets that need freelancers in magazines such as the Wisconsin-based monthly, The Writer (www.writermag.com), or on Web sites such as www.freelancesuccess.com or www.writersmarket.com. Study each publication's style and content, then choose an editor from the masthead and send a proposal, called a "query letter."

Elfrieda M. Abbe, editor of The Writer, explained that the query letter should include four components: a catchy opening, a statement or statistics indicating why the story needs to be told, a description of how you plan to write the story, and an explanation of why you're the best person to write it.

Also, signal to the editor that you are familiar with the publication. "A lot of times we get queries and it's really obvious the person has not read our magazine. That turns an editor off right away," Abbe said.

Consider specializing in one writing area, said Kelly James-Enger, an Illinois-based freelancer and author of "Ready, Aim, Specialize!: Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money" (2003, Writer Inc.). Having a specialty "sets you apart from all the other thousands of writers out there," she said.

Choose a specialty from topics you know or have written about and make sure there's enough demand, James-Enger said, noting that business and health top the list as the two most lucrative markets for freelancers. "Both of those areas affect everyone," she said.

As home to the federal government and thousands of nonprofits, the Washington region offers a broad range of freelance job opportunities, including writing speeches, special or annual reports, fundraising letters and newsletters.

And don't forget all those handouts that you see at meetings. "Somebody has to write those," said Donald O. Graul Jr., executive director of Washington Independent Writers, a trade association and support network. He estimates that there are approximately 25,000 freelance writers in the D.C. area who earn anywhere from a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000 annually.

At any stage in your freelance career, it's important to network with editors, connect with other writers and keep up with media developments. So it can make sense to join a writers' organization such as Washington Independent Writers (www.washwriter.org) or the American Society of Journalists and Authors (www.asja.org) and to tap into online writing resources such as Mediabistro.com (www.mediabistro.com).

Freelancing can be a risky way to earn a living because you don't always know what your next assignment will be. Editors leave, publications go under, and staff writers may get the assignments you were hoping for. Persistence is necessary because as a freelancer, "you are always selling yourself," said Carmen Scheidel, East Coast education director for New York-based Mediabistro.com.

Adams, the Bethesda writer, knows this firsthand. When an editor she knew well at Better Homes and Gardens left, it took two years of querying before the new editor accepted a story idea.

Still, she loves the creative outlet and the flexible hours that freelancing offers her as a busy mother of three young children. She said, "It's the perfect job for where I am now."


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