By Devon Ellington
For years, many freelancers have bought into the myth of the need to have a “niche” and “branding.” And many of these same freelancers are struggling in the economy, because they’ve written themselves into boxes where opportunities have dried up.
You want to know how to make a living as a writer? Work at your craft so that you’re damned good; write whatever you’re passionate about, and market your butt off to find people to pay you for writing about your passions. It’s not easy. But it can be done.
You want easy money? Writing’s not for you.
If you’ve spent a lot of time writing in one particular area, how do you break out? How do you move out of writing something that’s comfortable into something else?
You treat it like on-the-job training. You avoid the content mills that pay crap at all costs, because if you get stuck in that hole, you won’t get out and you’ll be trapped in an even bleaker prison: The cheap labor prison.
What you do is approach it like taking a class or learning a language or taking up knitting. You put in the time and you learn from qualified people.
I’m going to give two examples of working out of one’s comfort zone.
Let’s say you wrote reports and newsletters while you were the administrative assistant in a big corporation, but you really want to write for non-profits.
- Put together your portfolio, using samples of the work you did for the big corporation.
- Look at non-profits and find one about whose mission you are passionate about.
- Learn everything there is to learn about them.
- Take the time and write one or two short pieces for your portfolio that are specific to their line of work.
- Take them on as a pro-bono client.
- Write up a contract, the same way you would if they were a paying client. In my experience, you often have to set firmer boundaries for a pro bono client than for a paying client.
- Decide how long a period of time you are willing to work with them and what you’re willing to do for them.
- Do it.
The clips you get from working with them, even as a pro-bono client, will give you the skills, the quality of clip, and the legitimacy to vault you into the paid arena.
In the meantime, while you work with them:
- Attend every networking event and meet as many people in the non-profit world as possible.
- Go to conferences and lectures.
- Maybe even give a few talks yourself.
- Network, network, network.
- Find discussion groups and message boards and loops.
- Start scouring the job listings for paying work—not a percentage of a grant “someday,” but paid work.
- Use the pro-bono work you’ve done as part of your portfolio package.
- Take on freelance assignments from a variety of non-profits—these paid—until you land the job you want.
What about your original pro-bono client? In the best of all possible worlds, a paid position will open in the organization and they’ll hire you.
Unfortunately, an organization who receives pro bono work from someone sometimes doesn’t see the person as a viable hire. If you develop a clear relationship, you should be able to communicate your wish to move into a paid position. After working with them for six months, you may be ready to move on for a variety of reasons.
You’ve published a handful of romance novels, but you have the hankering to be a sports writer. Maybe you’ll even write a mystery series set in the sports world.
- Pick your sport.
- If you don’t know about it, immerse yourself in it. Go to games. Write up articles about the games as an observer. Maybe even start a blog—but only if you’re willing to commit regular content.If you love a sport that happens to have a minor league team in your town, such as a minor league baseball team or a minor league hockey team, see if you can cover it for a local newspaper or community website. The money won’t be great, but it will be better than a content-mill site or a $1/post blog-mill site; and the clips, again, will be of a better quality and give you a legitimacy to gain better paid work.
- Talk to fans. There are some unique fans with unusual views of the world out there. They make great human interest stories.
- Attend charity events for the team. Better yet, work them.
- Attend press events. Ask questions.
- Get to know the staff of the team. Let them know you’d like to write about the team. If they like what you wrote for a local paper, you’ve already got a leg up if an internal marketing position opens up. Find a reason the team can’t live without you, and convince the staff.
I write both fiction and non-fiction about ice hockey. I spent a lot of time with several minor league teams a few years ago, and everyone was lovely. They were delighted to talk about the ins and outs of what they do.
They knew I wouldn’t burn them by misrepresenting them in my articles, they also knew if I disagreed with them about something I’d be upfront with them.
I’d been a hockey fan since I was a little kid, but it wasn’t until I started writing about it that I really learned the game intimately. I grew even more passionate about a sport I loved.
On the flip side of that, I pitched an idea to a publication for which I write regularly to cover the America’s Cup. I can’t even swim and knew nothing about sailing. I had two weeks to learn.
I tracked down some former racing yachts, got my hands on them, and learned the basics.
Part of my angle for the articles was the outsider perspective—an unusual sport, along with a sense of “come learn with me” communicated to the readers. The articles got a great response.
If you love it enough, you find a way to make it work.
My approach to freelance writing has always been to follow whatever interests me and convince someone to pay me for it. I’ve put in the work on my craft, so I’m a good writer. I’m also passionate about my interests. That communicates to both editors and readers, and helps land assignments.
If you move out of your comfort zone in a purely mercenary sense, chances are you’ll just build yourself another prison. You don’t want your work or your time disrespected.
Any dues paid without physical money changing hands has to be worth it for you—not something a content site will resell and make money from indefinitely. Pick your pro bono slots carefully and use them to work—quickly—into reasonably paid work.
If you move out of your comfort and into your passion, chances are the quality of the work will be superior, and, after the first one or two articles, so will the pay.
About the Author Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. Her work appears in publications as varied as New Myths, Books for Monsters, Espresso Fiction, The Rose and Thorn, Femme Fan, The Crafty Traveler, Hampton Family Life, The Armchair Detective and ELLE. She writes “The Literary Athlete” for The Scruffy Dog Review. Her Jain Lazarus Adventures are published by FireDrakes Weyr Publishing and the YA horse racing mystery Dixie Dust Rumors will be published under the Jenny Storm name by eTreasures, summer 2008. Her plays are produced in New York, London, Edinburgh, and Australia. Visit her blog on the writing life, Ink in My Coffee, the site for the Jain Lazarus Adventures and her websites www.devonellingtonwork.com and www.fearlessink.com.