10 Steps to Become a Successful Freelance Writer

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Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, they always ask the same two questions: “What kind of things do you write?” and “How do you get into freelance writing?”  I firmly believe that to be a good freelance writer, you have to undergo a kind of apprenticeship; there are no quick fixes to achieve overnight success, and writing is a skill which has to be learned and honed over time as your experience grows.


If you still want to get into writing articles for magazines, newspapers or online publications, whether as a hobby, to supplement your income or as a full-time career, these 10 steps are essential to getting published. 


1.      Write about what you know


It’s an old saying, but it’s absolutely true.  If you’re a beginner writer, it’s best to start by writing about subjects you already know.  Think about your hobbies and interests, your life experiences, your occupation – all of these can be the basis for interesting articles.  Try listing out all the things you know about, you’ll be surprised how many there are!


2.      Complete an article writing course


Even if you think you can write, it’s well worth completing an article writing or freelance journalism course, especially if you’re serious about wanting to write articles for publication – it’s how I started!  You can get tips about finding angles, tailoring your writing and perfecting your pitches, as well as an independent point of view.  Try Writers’ News or Writers Bureau  (I tutor for Writers’ News).


3.      Research the market


Go into any newsagent and you’ll find hundreds of magazines and newspapers, and those are just the ones for consumers.  But make no mistake - every single publication is different, targeted at a specific readership.  That’s why it’s vital that you study and read at least three issues of a publication that you’re interested in writing for.  This will help you to understand the kinds of articles which are published and the formats in which they are written.


4.      Identify the angle


When flicking through your chosen publication, you’ll notice from the contents page that it’s divided up into sections.  In order to get an article accepted for publication, you need to come up with an idea which would be right for one of the sections.  You also need to identify the angle of your article.  For instance, I write for quite a few family history publications and I’ve been doing some research about nurses for my new book Tracing Your Medical Ancestors.  I could approach an editor with an idea about the history of nursing, but the angle has to be very specific e.g. the first district nurses, the training of nurses in Scotland, or the First World War from a VAD nurse’s perspective.


5.      Know your audience


It’s important that you always have the reader in mind when you’re coming up with ideas for articles, and when you’re actually writing them.  Put yourself in their shoes: think about what they would be interested in and what they’d like to know, not your own personal preferences!


6.      Make the perfect pitch


Writing a pitch email or letter to an editor is an art in itself, and it takes practice.  The purpose of the pitch is to suggest your idea and angle, why it would be right for this particular publication, and why you, and not another writer, are the perfect person to write it.  If you’re a beginner writer, it’s likely that if the editor is interested in your idea, he or she will ask you to write it on spec with no guarantee of publication.  This is standard practice and means the editor is not taking a risk on commissioning your work.


7.      Build up your cuttings


In the beginning, it’s worth trying to build up your cuttings of published work in local newspapers, parish magazines, online sites etc.  You may get little or no payment for these, but being able to offer cuttings to an editor is invaluable when pitching new ideas.  The editor takes less of a risk if he or she can see that you can write well.


8.      Be professional


If you’re writing for publication at any level, it’s vital that you’re professional about it.  Write the article you’ve been asked to write, keeping to the specified number of words.  Stick to the deadline you’ve been given and never let it slip.  Finally, always check your work meticulously for spelling and grammatical errors.


9.      Recycle your ideas


When you start writing articles regularly, you’ll usually find that you have to do quite a lot of research for each one.  Make sure you keep a file of your research, because it’s perfectly possible to re-use it and write another article on the same subject, but with a different angle.  Recycling your ideas is a great way to increase your number of published articles, whether the subject’s health, dogs or learning Japanese!


10. Become an expert


It’s well worth developing a specialism if you want to progress further with your article writing.  Although I write about lots of different subjects, I suppose I am most known for writing about Victorian social history.  If you become known as someone with a considerable amount of knowledge and expertise in a particular subject, other opportunities may arise, such as giving illustrated talks, writing a regular column for a magazine or having a non-fiction book published.


I hope this blog has inspired you to get writing – let me know how you get on!






















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