Although I have a full-time job as the managing editor for explore magazine, I work as a freelance writer on the side. I spend evenings and weekends crafting pitches and writing stories for various publications from HI Hostels and Insider to The Globe and Mail and this very blog you’re reading.
It can be difficult to make a steady income as a part-time freelance writer. Most of my time is spent writing pitches, researching magazines, finding editors and waiting for responses that never come. It’s a passion, and I’ve managed to make a small income from it. I enjoy working for diverse outlets (especially larger publications) and writing about various subjects from personal stories of grief, heartache, love and travel to profiles of amazing individuals improving their communities. I hope my freelance work can be inspiring, encouraging and meaningful to readers.
As both an editor (who works with freelance writers) and a freelance writer (who pitches different editors), I have a unique understanding of both sides of the writing and publishing world.
Here’s what it’s really like being a freelance writer:
Most freelance writers don’t start out with personal contacts at newspapers and magazines. Cold pitching is essentially finding the right person to pitch at a publication, seeking out how to contact them and sending them a well-written email introducing yourself and your idea—when you’ve never spoken before.
While cold pitching can result in article assignments, it’s obviously more helpful to have an in. I joined an online group dedicated to women freelance writers called Binders, which allows me to see calls for pitches and gain motivation from other writers.
Part of the difficulty of pitching is that in order to create a really good pitch, it’s best to have everything lined up: who I’m going to interview, the angle/focus of the piece, the ability to write it and the willingness to share the story—even if it’s extremely personal. It can take hours to craft a good pitch, and then sometimes I don’t ever hear back. Most of my time is spent pitching, and I don’t make a dime until an article is assigned.
Some publications ask writers to submit the finished piece rather than a pitch, such as NYT’s Modern Love column. I’ll spend hours, days or even weeks crafting an article I’d be proud to publish, and I might never see it in print or get paid for my work. It’s part of the risk of freelance writing.
After I pitch, I wait. And I wait… and I… sometimes hear back. More often than not, I send a follow-up email. And then…
Getting a rejection, to me, is a win: it means I reached the right person at the right email address, they (or an assistant) actually read my email, considered my idea, and responded.
I’m so used to rejection, it doesn’t really bother me. Sure, I feel way happier (i.e., dancing around, laughing and sometimes crying) when I get an article accepted, but I’m not ashamed to get a “no.” I never email editors back explaining why they’re wrong not to accept my idea… although, depending on their response, I might take their feedback and adjust my pitch before resubmitting it. I also write down the rejection and use it for reference when pitching the editor again.
Acceptance and Writing
When an editor accepts my pitch and tells me how they want me to write it, I get started! My writing process is just to go. I don’t like staring at a blank page, so I start typing, even if I have to delete most of it later. I typically go through five to 25 drafts.
When I write, I like to go to a coffee shop, sip a cup of steaming tea and let myself experiment. It’s like creating a painting or other form of artwork—it starts off raw and from the heart. The most important thing for me is just to get my ideas onto the page, to write like I’m speaking to someone and let myself be creative. I save separate drafts whenever I make impactful/plentiful changes, so I can revert to an earlier draft if I decide. When I’m home, I read it out loud and use the document’s “read aloud” speech function to recite it back to me, making edits to ensure my message is clear, before sending my draft before or on the deadline.
Working with Editors
Every editor works differently—some only want to see a polished draft; others want to be involved in the entire process. I’ve worked with editors who have inserted errors into my work and editors with such a light touch, I didn’t even notice their edits—except to realize my piece was subtly better and easier to read.
As an editor, I try not to smother a writer’s voice (unless absolutely necessary for the publication). Many times, a phrase I love gets changed because it doesn’t fit the magazine’s tone or audience.
Most of the time, it’s best to accept an editor’s changes, unless something is wrong, untrue or doesn’t sound like something you’d ever say. Even if I push back, the editor might not change it, my piece might be killed (i.e., not published) or the editor might not want to work with me again.
A good rule of thumb is to accept at least half of the edits, choosing which changes you want to fight against carefully. I often get caught up thinking of my work like my baby, but nothing is perfect, and it’s okay to let go of some word choices. It’s impossible to have an unbiased, removed view of my writing. I love working with editors who I trust, and if they make changes I truly despise, I simply don’t work with them again.
Seeing My Work Published
By the time an article I’ve written, edited and cried over is published, I rarely read it again. I’m sick of the story or scared to see any last-minute changes. I skim it and share with my friends and followers. Although it’s amazing to see my work in print (digitally or physically), there’s a bit of grief and fear that accompanies it. The highs can quickly be accompanied by lows—thoughtful emails from strangers contrasted by negative comments from trolls; congratulations from literary colleagues deflated by friends and family who don’t have the time to read it. After it’s published and I’m paid, it’s over—what I wanted to achieve is done, and I find myself thinking, now what?
Ideally, I’ll already be pitching my next story or researching a new topic by then. I have an Excel document to track all my pitches and the responses (or radio silence) I receive.
Although it’s difficult and frustrating at times, it’s incredibly rewarding to publish my ideas and stories as a freelance writer. So, I keep going—looking back only to see how far I’ve come.
Really awesome job on cbc article. Your Dad was an incredible father and I’m so sorry for your loss ten years ago. No doubt he would be ultra proud of you. Workplace safety needs more attention.
I wanted to ask, what typically is the range of fees a freelancer receives? And does the editor set it as part of accepting the pitch?
Thank you so much. Freelance work varies significantly… some places don’t pay, others pay 10 cents a word, others around $1 per word. They can also set a flat fee for a project. Editors are given budgets from their managers/CEOs. The editor sets the budget with the writer at the beginning of the project, but it can change (expand) if the scope of the project changes, too. Everything is agreed upon though!