By Sandra Phinney
I’ll never forget the day I announced to my husband, “Barrie, I’m going to be a freelance writer.” The look on his face was priceless. You see, 19 years earlier I’d said, “Barrie, I’m going to be a farmer.”
That actually happened; I grew 10 acres of organic fruit and vegetables—before the word “organic” meant anything to anyone—and lost money for 16 years. We had to sell the farm and start over. So you can imagine the look on my husband’s face when I made the grand announcement that I intended to be a freelance writer.
To complicate matters, when I told Barrie I intended to be a freelance writer, I was 54, and didn’t posses any writing credentials or track record.
I wasn’t a trained journalist; I wasn’t a household name in the magazine or newspaper world; I didn’t even know what a query or tear sheet was. I knew dilly squat. But there’s something to be said about starting from scratch. Much like jumping in the deep end of a pool when you don’t know how to swim—it’s do or die.
Today, most people see me as a magazine writer. But if I were to rely solely on the income I generate from writing magazine articles, the cupboard would be pretty bare. For me, the key is to diversify. That means I not only diversify the kind of writing I do (travel and lifestyle to business, health, the environment, profiles, book reviews … ad infinitum) but I also entered the realm of corporate writing.
What have I learned?
Skills are transferable.
Presuming that you can research, interview, write, revise and do some basic editing, then you can find more than one type of market to sell your wares.
For example, if you can write decent editorial, you can also write decent advertorial, web content, scripts for videographers, content for interpretive panels, brochures, green/white papers, speeches, newsletters, books … you get the picture.
The power of networking.
The trick is to meet people, network, and let folks know you are available.
Join a professional organization. All organizations have annual general meetings and most have listservs and/or newsletters. Participate!
Better yet, volunteer. Offer to help on a committee or serve on a board. You’ll meet colleagues and make friends. In the process you’ll also hear about opportunities. Once you’ve established friendships, people will refer you to editors/clients. (And you will do the same for them. Think: “Pay it forward.”)
You can also do a lot of networking by attending trade shows and conferences. Want to write web content, profiles, brochures or “whatever” for an organization? Find out what trade shows are going to happen in your town or city for the next year, select one or two to attend, and then make the rounds.
Matters not if it’s a trade show related to aerospace, entertainment, the fishery, flowers, or funerals. Everyone needs writers! Hand out your business cards. Let people know you are interested in their products/services/stories and invite them to contact you if they need a writer. It will happen.
Visit municipal, provincial and federal offices in your town/city. Introduce yourself as a writer. Likewise, visit heads of organizations in your community. Even small towns have Chambers of Commerce and services like firefighters, YMCAs, art galleries etc. Who knows? Perhaps they are going to celebrate their 50th year and need some profiles or a newsletter. And there are always business start-ups that need marketing materials.
Develop some expertise.
Capitalize on your interests. What are you passionate about? What would you like to know more about? I happen to have a huge interest in the outdoors/nature/environment and paddling. I seek out opportunities to write about these topics.
Although it didn’t happen overnight, I also became the go-to person for Atlantic Canada in the eyes of editors needing content from the region (mags and guide books).
Take courses whenever you can afford the time and money to do so. I have increased my abilities to write and edit by taking writing, editing and photography courses. Plan and budget for this; then do it.
Can you teach others?
In a past life I was a teacher, so giving workshops is a good fit for me. If you are comfortable showing others how to do things, then you can also research, plan, promote, and deliver writing workshops.
Now, I offer workshops in memoir, travel writing, narrative writing, and how to start a freelance business. It’s hard work, time consuming to organize and set up, but lucrative and fun. Find something you are passionate about and set up some workshops!
Create a team, offering a one-stop shop.
Team up with people who have skills you don’t. For example, in the past, I’ve teamed up with a videographer, translator, graphic designer, and narrator to produce an anniversary campaign for an insurance company which included a special newsletter, newspaper and radio ads, and some TV commercials.
I met with the prospective client, determined the client’s needs, and worked out a budget. Once approved, I sub-contracted with colleagues and/or found people to get the work done. Clients love this as I provide a full service approach, taking projects from start to finish. If I’m doing a lot of writing (web content, brochures, company profiles etc.) I also hire an editor to check my own work.
These tips are not the be-all, end-all, but I do hope they get you thinking of ways and means to expand your portfolio (and expand your bank account.)