Freelance Writing

“Take your writing assignments seriously. Being able to clearly and effectively communicate, from emails to lengthy documents, is a very valuable skill set to have."

Pat Tubbs '79

Read an interview with Patt

By Emily Lockhart '04; Revised by Aaron Stewart '09

Freelance writing covers a wide range of interesting topics in the English field, which can include fiction, non-fiction, journalism/ magazine publishing, technical/ business writing, electronic writing and many others. As Jan Goldberg, the author of Careers in Journalism, says, “the list could continue indefinitely” (104).

If you’ve thought of a career in freelance writing, you may have imagined being as popular as authors such as Stephen King and Dean Koontz, earning large amounts of money turning over a new book every month. In reality, the chances of that happening are slim. According to Blythe Camenson in Careers in Writing, “Midlist authors can make a comfortable living turning out two or three books a year, but the largest group earns less than a family needs to survive” (19). When starting out in freelance writing, it is a great idea to have a separate job to help pay the bills while your work is being considered by publishers.

Read an interview with Pat Tubbs, class of 1979.

Freelance writers are usually self-employed, requiring a large amount of determination and self-discipline. Though you are not in an office with people reminding you of your deadlines every day, there are deadlines—and they have to be met. As the author of the Handbook for Freelance Writing, Michael Perry states, “Waiting for inspiration to strike before writing is like waiting for inspiration to strike before breathing” (12). Waiting for new ideas is not going to help earn money.

Writers also have to be ready for rejection. As Camenson states, “Rejection is the name of the game… savvy writers let rejections guide them rather than stymie them” (1). Use the rejection letters to help improve your work, so that it may get accepted the next time around. Keep in mind that rejections are due to a great number of reasons and none of them include the editor disliking you. As Perry points out, “If you are fortunate enough to attain a level of notoriety at which editors are rejecting your work because of their personal dislike for you, it’s time to get an agent” (66).


Come on, folks, it says it in the job title—writing! You have to have a thorough knowledge of writing skills. Nothing will annoy an editor faster than a story with a lot of fundamental errors and bad dialogue—in fact, they probably won’t read past the first page. Get some “how-to” books and brush up on your techniques, because no matter how good you think you are, there’s always room for improvement.

Along with writing stories, get used to writing query letters ad infinitum. If you don’t know what a query letter is, it is a short one-page letter explaining to the editor why they should even bother looking at your manuscript. Keep the description of the book to a minimum—let it speak for itself. Tell the editor why it’s an interesting topic, your qualifications (anything you’ve had published and where it was published, what degrees you have, &c.) and thank them very much for giving you the time of day.

Along with being a good writer, you also need to have knowledge in business. Camenson says that “the new writer faces stiff competition from experienced writers with proven records” (1). They want someone who is sure to earn the company money, so beginning writers are going to have a very hard time finding a market for their work. In order to be ready for this, the successful freelancer needs to “develop a strong business sense, and remember you are selling a valuable product” (54). If you have problems selling yourself (and trust me, you’re not alone), get an agent—that’s what they’re there for.

Finally, the most important skill that any freelance writer can utilize is the art of practicing limitless patience. While this may seem like a fun job, it is not an easy one. You’re more likely to get 1,000 rejections before getting your one acceptance letter—but that’s ok. The editors would probably be more annoyed with you if you gave up, because their rejection letters aren’t meant to put you down—they’re supposed to make you better.

Qualifications and Training

I’ll say it again—it’s in the title, only this time I’ll emphasize “freelance.” There is no real training, and the only qualification is to write something that will impress the people that publish it. There are ways of getting there, however. One: go to college. Just like any profession, an editor is going to be more interested in someone with a degree than someone fresh out of high-school (or even worse, someone 20 years out of high school who never published anything). The reason: college is meant to give you experience. There’s nothing you can learn about writing in high school that you can’t learn better in college. Second: get outside experience. It’s a proven fact—living off freelance writing alone is not good if you ever want to eat. Work for a newspaper, publisher, or be a teacher. The jobs look good in the “Qualifications” section of your query letter. Third: get published. Start small and work your way up—again, like any other business. Remember, a newspaper clipping is still a published document. Last but definitely not least: train yourself. It was mentioned earlier—“how-to” books aren’t populating the bookstores to look nice. They actually work. Build your dialogue, practice your journalistic skills, whatever you need to do to make yourself a more interesting writer. Get to work—your editors will love you.

Courses at Heidelberg

So how can Heidelberg help you on your quest to becoming a successful freelance writer? The English Department offers a wide range of courses that only grows every year—take as many as you can before you graduate. Creative Writing courses are definitely needed, in order to gain feedback on your material. Also, Linguistics is crucial in helping you learn the structure of a sentence. I know no one really likes to diagram sentences, but knowing the little things can help make a more interesting story. There are also several literature courses, as well as those devoted to novels. If you are looking for areas in electronic writing, it may be helpful to take Computer-Science and Communications courses, as well as “Computer-Mediated Communications,” an English course that focuses on designing web pages and advertisements.

In groups outside of classes, it is also helpful to write for the Kilikilik, our school newspaper, as publishers are more likely to be interested in an author who has previously been published. If you’re focusing on electronic writing, it may not hurt to join the Aurora, our school yearbook—learning how graphics and words mix is very helpful. Also, strive for good grades in your English major, because it may get you inducted in the English Honorary Society, Sigma Tau Delta. Once you can get past the funny acronym, it looks extremely good in your “qualifications” list—go for it.

Works Cited

  • Camenson, Blythe. Careers in Writing. NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc.: Illinois, 2001.
  • Goldberg, Jan. Careers in Journalism. NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc.: Illinois, 2000.
  • Perry, Michael. Handbook for Freelance Writing. NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc.: Illinois, 1998.

Resources - Occupational Outlook Handbook— Published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this site contains information on a wide range of occupations. Search by occupation or browse through the listings. – “The one tool you need to help market your work, get it published, and get paid.” The website from a popular reference book series, this shows you all the freelance magazines in the country where you can submit your work. It is updated every year to provide you with the largest list of choices you can find. – A great source for beginning writers. This is a social networking site that provides you with the opportunity of submitting your work for others to review. If you want feedback on your writings without the pang of rejection, this is an excellent alternative.