How to Get Started in Freelance Writing

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The first essay I ever published online, "Coding ‘White Trash’ in Academia," was a rant I drafted in a few hours — about how my rural, small-town origins often left me feeling out of place in academic circles. I wasn’t thinking about publishing it. I saved it on my computer and forgot about it for months.

Then a friend mentioned that an online magazine was looking for submissions. I sent in my draft and it ended up being the first of many things I would write during graduate school for readers beyond my field. I wasn’t paid for that post. But in the five years since, I’ve gone from drafting tiny one-off articles for up-and-coming websites to writing longer, more substantive pieces in national magazines — and getting paid for it.

I’m not an expert on freelance journalism. But I do get a lot of questions from my fellow graduate students about my side gig. Things like: How do you get started as a freelancer? How do you make the contacts? How do you learn to write for a general audience?

What follows is my attempt to answer some of those questions — keeping in mind that there is no expert on this, and that I am just another millennial with a million jobs instead of one.

Think big picture. Yes, there are a few places, like The Conversation, that publish scholarly takes on issues. But if you want to be a successful freelance writer, you cannot simply submit a "public" version of your latest journal article to a mainstream publication and call it done.

Don’t think of this as an appendage to your academic work. Your freelance writing — even if it’s focused on a niche audience or on a topic related to your scholarship — will need to be broader in scope. Of course viewing your academic interests in broad terms is not what you do in a Ph.D program. However, I’ve found that a broad outlook has not only helped my freelance writing, it’s also been great for my academic work. I’m now more open to taking risks and exploring new subjects in my scholarship.

Pitch to a person, not to a portal. Once you are established as a freelance writer, editors sometimes will approach you to write something. But most of the time, they won’t. Especially as a newcomer, you will have to pitch your ideas in order to start writing for general-audience magazines and websites.

Here’s a lesson it took me a while to learn: Try very hard to pitch your idea to a person, not just to a "slush pile" — that is, to a general email box where submissions often go to die. Most publications will have one, and it’s fine to cover your bases by submitting your work to that general account (and sometimes you’ll get a response that way). But don’t stop there.

Find an editor’s name — such as on the publication’s website (look for the "contact us" link at the bottom of its main web page), on the "masthead" of a print magazine (the list of editors is usually in the very front or back pages), or on Twitter — and pitch to a person directly. Even if the editor responds by rejecting your idea, you have a direct through-line for the next pitch.

Some people do get published via the slush pile but it’s difficult. I would say that 90 percent of my success as a freelance writer has come through directed pitches to a specific editor. (Hint: If someone’s email address isn’t publicly posted, the handy formula for figuring it out is to put the editor’s name in front of the publication’s URL: such as "jane.smith@chronicle.com." Play around with the formula. It works.)

Pitch places that fit your work. Not all of the magazines you love to read are right for your writing. That probably sounds obvious, but it’s easy to be blinded by prestige and enthusiasm.

My first couple years at this, I pitched a lot — and unsuccessfully — to political/lefty publications like Dissent and Jacobin. My friends wrote for them, and I knew they were great magazines. What I didn’t consider was the fact that my work focused more on art, literature, TV, and pop culture than on explicit political activism. Those magazines just weren’t the right fit for my writing. Finding ones that were was a matter of trial and error.

You don’t have to be an expert to write about something. Academics are trained to learn a lot about a fairly narrow topic and then write about it over and over for a very long time. As a graduate student or a faculty member, you might assume you can only write on dissertation-adjacent topics or, at most, rework that seminar paper you never did anything with.

But that isn’t true. I’m not an "expert" on teen television, rape culture, immigration children’s literature, or clothing in academia, but I’ve written articles about all of those things for mainstream publications. I write from my experience, from my research, from my reporting. Early on, you may feel uncomfortable straying too far from your discipline or subfield but eventually that won’t seem like such a big deal. And as I mentioned earlier, straying could give you valuable new perspectives on your academic work.

If you agree to write for no pay, know what you signed up for. I won’t say "don’t ever write for free." That would be hypocritical as I wasn’t paid my first freelance article. But it paid off in many other ways: It ended up attracting hundreds of thousands of page views and garnering responses ranging from beautiful to terrifying. It brought me a few enemies in my hometown, an interview on NPR, and a lecture from my mom. Writing that post brought me lots of buzz and Twitter followers — and even some invitations to write (from places I never followed up on).

But by writing for no pay — a privilege I had at the time because my main income came from a graduate-student stipend — I essentially lowered the value of written work for both myself and other writers. Even if writing isn’t your main source of income, remember that it is for many people. So by accepting low or no pay you are enabling publications to get away with not paying writers for their work.

To be clear, I’m not really talking about writing for your friend’s tiny website or for your favorite nonprofit’s blog. I’m talking about writing for for-profit media companies that shouldn’t be allowed to get away with paying you nothing except for the "prestige" of being published on their pages.

My advice is twofold on this front: (1) Be careful about agreeing to work without compensation, and (2) Ask for the fee you deserve. If you don’t know how much you deserve, you can find guidance on sites like Who Pays Writers and Study Hall.

Your advisers might be supportive and impressed — or not. Don’t assume that your professors will be angry about your nonacademic freelance writing. In fact, they might ask why you don’t write that clearly and compellingly for them (true story).

Or … they might think you are distracting yourself from what’s important: your academic work. Lots of academics look down on journalism. Lots of them get mad when their area of research is the subject of mainstream articles written by nonacademics or nonexperts. Lots of academic still think the only route through life and respectability is scholarly conferences, a good dissertation, and peer-reviewed articles.

But you have to decide on your own priorities. If writing for general magazines and web sites is something you really want to do in graduate school or after, prioritize it — even if your mentors see it as unimportant. It is your career and your life. Just be prepared for the reactions from your professors to range from support to bemusement to hostility.

Start with academic-adjacent publications. Some magazines, blogs, and other publications occupy a nice niche between academe and "the real world." Some of them, like Public Seminar, are part of a university. Others, like Contingent Magazine, are wholly independent. Some, like The Conversation, are designed to put academic work in front of a broader audience. One popular with historians, Made By History (published by The Washington Post), attempts to connect historical research with the contemporary moment.

When you see a graduate student or a more-established academic publishing in mainstream venues, you only see the successes. You don’t know how many pitches that article took, how many drafts, how many kill fees. Don’t compare yourself to others further along in their freelance-writing career — it probably just means they started earlier than you and have honed their pitches. You don’t expect to get published immediately in your field’s top journal, so try not to expect it here.

Writing for magazines, blogs, and newspapers isn’t better or worse than writing for academic audiences. Don’t think you are doing community service — reaching an imagined public for your work out of good will. Just do good work because you like to both write and get paid for it.

Holly Genovese is a graduate student in American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and a freelance writer and blogger

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