Every June, I mark the anniversary of leaving my last full-time job, at CNET in SF. It’s been 15 years with lots of highs and lows, but I’ve never regretted the decision to walk away from the rigidity of full-time work and hang my virtual shingle. Here are some tips that have helped me make it as a freelance writer:
Following is a roundup of advice, tips, and thoughts from freelance writer and editor Michael Shapiro. These suggestions cover the business of freelancing, rather than writing advice. A student at the first Book Passage Travel Writers Conference in 1992 and a 13-time faculty member, Shapiro has developed a productive freelance career by employing the techniques below. Michael also works with writers to develop, polish, and edit stories. He can help writers place articles in top publications. Contact me for more info.
Making a Living as a Freelance Writer
It’s not just an adventure, it’s a job: Travel writing can be romantic, but recognize it’s a job — don’t start out writing grand epiphanies about your summer vacation. Focus on service (consumer or advice) pieces, such as a story on five little-known museums in New York. You don’t have to be a superb writer to be a competent reporter. By providing service pieces, you can develop relationships with editors that lead to more interesting assignments, including destination stories. A good way to break into magazines is by writing “front-of-the-book” features, which can be as short as a couple of paragraphs.
Stick to a routine: get up in the morning; take a shower, have breakfast and go to work. Put on shoes and get dressed. Slippers and a bathrobe don’t cut it. You can tailor your schedule to fit your personality. Be sure to carve out work-free blocks of time. I find it essential to take at least one full day off each week. Part of the attraction of freelancing is flexibility, so I give myself some leeway, for example to spend a couple of weekdays on a river trip or to take an occasional afternoon off.
Accuracy first: Be a thorough and accurate reporter above all else — then strive to be an excellent writer. Clear and concise prose is important because editorial space is so tight today. You don’t have to write with the lyrical beauty of Pico Iyer to get published. You do, however, need to get the facts right. An editor will hesitate to give you another chance if you make significant errors. Most newspaper travel editors are too busy and don’t have the resources to fact-check, so double-check your facts before submitting. Use online resources to fact-check but be aware that not all info online has been vetted or updated, so confirm by phoning or seeking multiple sources for corroboration.
Find a niche: Develop an area of expertise and work it. Only after choosing Internet travel as a niche was I able to make it as a full-time freelancer. My goal was to get editors to think of me as the Net-travel guy, so when they needed a story on this topic they’d contact me. This opened the door to more literary destinations stories: Because the Washington Post had run my Net-travel pieces, the editor there knew my work and published my Cuba by bike story.
You don’t always have to travel: Not all travel writing involves travel. My SF Examiner story on frequent-flier programs won a Lowell Thomas award, and I didn’t leave the house. Of course most of us want to travel, but we can typically earn more from service and research stories because these don’t incur travel expenses, and most newspapers don’t reimburse for travel stories. Better magazines, however, will pay expenses. Be willing to do work that’s not romantic.
Send tips to editors: Help editors by sending them information or advisories without expecting compensation — keep yourself at the front of their minds. I know that by keeping myself in their consciousness they’re more likely to think of me when they need a story done. Think of it this way: You’re a brand and your own PR agency.
Read editors’ stories: Read everything you can that’s written by prospective editors. When John Flinn became travel editor of the Examiner-Chronicle travel section, I read his work to get a sense of his style and what he might like. I even asked him who his literary heroes are (Tim Cahill and Bill Bryson) and read most of their books. Don’t try to copy another writer’s style — that would be a weak imitation. Be yourself, but tailor your stories to fulfill that editor’s requirements. At other newspaper travel sections, such as the Washington Post, the editors rarely write. But I closely study the type of stories they run – the Post often has a strong consumer advocacy bent – so when I write for the Post I take that tack if appropriate.
Consider new publications: Through contacts I learned Arthur Frommer was launching a new travel magazine in the late ’90s. I pitched several ideas before the first issue appeared and developed a working relationship with the staff at Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. New magazines are generally more open to new writers because they don’t have a stable of regulars. Even if you don’t get in before the first issue, scan the magazine racks for new publications and query them.
Pitch to a specific department: Your odds of success increase if you target a magazine’s regular department. Pitching a story for a department shows you read the publication, especially if you understand the requirements of the department. As a first-time writer for a magazine, don’t expect to land an assignment for a 2500-word feature. Your odds are much better if you try to write a short “front-of-the-book” piece or 750-word story for a department. Finally, pitch to a specific editor, not the editor of the magazine but an associate or deputy editor who’s more likely to read your query.
Consider non-travel magazines: Travel stories appear in more than just travel magazines – you can often place articles in lifestyle and food magazines, to name just two examples. The wider you cast your net, the better your odds. I’ve recently written for a magazine that goes to country-club members, certainly not my demographic, but the editor has sent me to Kenya, to Maui and on an Amazon cruise.
Know when to pitch: Though this is not etched in stone, I usually pitch to newspaper editors on Thursday afternoons or Friday morning — this is after they’ve put the Sunday section to bed.
Self-syndicate: Major metro newspapers typically pay $250 to $600 (sometimes you can earn more by selling photos) for travel features. It’s nice to get one newspaper to accept your story but before you pop the cork, send it to several newspapers as long as their circulation areas don’t overlap. If you submit a story to the Chronicle, don’t send it to the San Jose Mercury News unless the Chronicle rejects it. Several newspapers, such as the Washington Post, require first national rights. So try to sell to them first and then to newspapers in Dallas, St. Petersburg, etc.
Keep it tight: Editors have always appreciated brevity, but today space is tighter than ever. Try to keep stories under 1,500 words, 2,000 tops. A 750-word story has a much better chance of selling than a 2,500-word piece.
Promote yourself online: Create a web site featuring your published work, expertise, photos (if you shoot) and contact info. It’s virtually essential to be able to refer editors to your site and much easier than sending them a sheaf of clips (though some editors may request hard copy). If you don’t have published work, you can publish online to show editors how well you can write. And be active on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites to build a community of interested readers.
Join a writers group: At best, a writers group is a supportive community offering honest feedback. Members also share strategies for getting published. But don’t take all criticism as gospel – listen to it, incorporate what feels right, but remember it’s your story. Book Passage has a monthly salon called Left Coast Writers, a great venue for networking and listening to monthly guests who are leading editors, writers and publishers.
Consider joining a professional organization: During the first few years I tried making a living as a freelancer I shunned professional groups such as the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). I figured that all they did was schmooze and booze – I wanted to be roughing it in Guatemala or Cambodia. In 1998 I was invited to lead an SATW workshop during the group’s annual convention in Jerusalem. I found that schmoozing could lead to story assignments.
Define your goals: Do you want to make a living as a freelance travel writer or simply publish a story now and then? Either way, even if you don’t have an assignment, pick a destination, write a story with a narrow focus, and send it out. Be realistic about the time commitment required – you can’t make a living by viewing travel writing as a casual endeavor. Then again, you may not want to make a living; some writers want to keep their day jobs and write an occasional story. That’s probably a wise decision in the current journalistic climate.
Rule of fives: Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, credits the Rule of Fives for his success. His theory is to do five things every day to sell or market your work. Start now and don’t expect instant results. Though it sounds hokey, this type of perseverance can help you succeed and make a living
A final thought: Malcolm Margolin, a naturalist best known for The Ohlone Way said his ideal in his 20s was to be a poet and playwright. Early on he realized his chances for earning a living as a poet were slim, so he turned to natural history books because he thought they would sell reasonably well. But he made it clear that Native American history and nature guides were his passion – he wasn’t writing them just to earn a dollar. Margolin, now the publisher of Heyday Books, said that his few attempts to create books for sales potential were flops and that the books he’s passionate about have sold better. Follow your bliss and be willing to sweat — the rewards make it worthwhile.
Copyright 2013, 2014 Michael Shapiro