Mark Terry

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Freelance Writing For A Living, Part 3

January 30, 2008
Part 3 comes down to this: leverage your experience.

Okay, what does that mean?

It means, if you have worked as a nurse and want to become a writer, focus on nursing magazines and healthcare and medicine-related topics at first.

If you're a business person, same thing.

If you're a lawyer, look at legal issues either for other lawyers or for consumers.

But, but, but... you might say: I don't HAVE any of that.

Yeah, you probably do. Are you a parent? Do you have parents? Do you like sports? Cars? Scrapbooking? Are you a musician? A teacher? Like gardening? Vacations? Beaches? Travel? Disney World? Kinky sex?

There are publications that focus on all of those and more.

In my case, when I started dabbling in nonfiction, it was anything BUT clinical diagnostics, because that's what I was trying to get away from. And I did get a couple things published, primarily articles about mystery authors for The Armchair Detective. But that's not much of a market.

Then one day, my boss,  who knew that I did a lot of writing (and at that point had published a couple articles and a lot of book reviews) asked me to write an article for "ADVANCE for Medical Laboratory Professionals" about cytogenetics labs with the notion that it would focus on the Henry Ford Hospital cyto lab and they'd get free publicity. I didn't quite work out that way, but it changed my life. I had a degree in microbiology and public health and had been working for some time as a cytogenetics technologist, which is essentially a medical technologist with a specialty.

I wrote an e-mail query to the then-editor and she jumped at it. It paid probably $125 or $150 and that was the most I'd ever been paid for an article at the time, and that tends to be its own positive reinforcement. So I pitched her on something else and she accepted. Then I pitched her on a column on genetics and she went for it, and I did that column for several years.

Here's the thing: one of the first things you need to get started are clips; that is to say, copies of some published articles. You don't have to have been paid for them. The people you pitch don't need to know that. But they're going to want to see something you wrote that got published so they know you can write. (You CAN write, right?) You might have to write something "on spec", which means for free, for a nonprofit or for some crappy magazine that nobody's heard of, or for your church newsletter or your school or a newsletter you're involved with. (Hey, are you a member of a writer's organization like ITW, MWA or one of the many others? Volunteer to write something for their newsletter. Voila! Published clip. Or try a local newspaper.)

Once you've got a couple published clips, you can start to build on those.

I wrote tons of articles and columns for ADVANCE. I still do from time to time--just had an article in the latest issue. I also wrote for some of their sister publications. Then I took a piece I'd done on genetic and biotech patents for them, and pitched a publication called Drug Discovery & Development with the same topic. And they bought. And boys and girls, DDD didn't pay $150 an article, they paid $.85 per word and the article was about 2000 words in length. And so I pitched them another. And another. And they had a sister publication, Genomics & Proteomics, and I did some pieces for them. Then they started an online publication,, which didn't last long, but I wrote a lot of $100 news pieces for them--about 7 a week for a while.

And then, you see, although I no longer write for DDD or GP or BioPerform, I also wrote for Biotechnology Healthcare, because it was a related topic. And I write regularly for Podiatry Management, mostly about the business of doctor's offices. And when Podiatry Online was utilizing freelancers, I wrote for them. And I did a few articles for a publication that focused on the regulatory issues involved with healthcare.

And then I applied to a job posting for someone looking for a freelance researcher and healthcare writer focusing on the clinical lab business, and that's turned out to be my biggest client, writing about the business and regulatory issues involved with clinical diagnostics. But I'm also branching out a bit this year to write about business and regulatory issues of biotechnology and telemedicine.

And that's how it's done.

So if your only experience is as a pizza delivery guy, there's a publication for the pizza industry; and write about security for pizza deliveries people, or bizarre customers, or the economics of tipping, or wear and tear on your car, insurance coverage if you're a pizza delivery guy...

Here's the thing that can be a bit frustrating. Like I mentioned earlier, I wanted to get away from the clinical lab industry. And I ended up writing about it. Then, I was making a deliberate effort to write less about it, when I got a big client that dragged me back. I'm reasonably happy with that (money, as I said, can be its own reward), but I do make an effort, within a certain framework, to make sure I write about a variety of things--government regulation, business, marketing, technology, trends, etc.

And it can take you in some interesting places. And you'd be surprised how things might work out--I wrote an article for a publication for plumbing contractors on what they needed to think about when purchasing health insurance. Which led me to write other things for plumbing contractors--like liability insurance and then... about dealing with plumbing pests like rats and snakes and insects... and how to get into commercial refrigeration work...

You see? Your expertise isn't just the entree to the topic. It's your entree to the publication.

So, think a little bit about what you can leverage.

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

That would be cool, but I don't seem to have a big enough itch for it. Well, I worry, because the one creative nonfiction essay I wrote took nearly a month to research and write, and it was only 4,000 words. Sheesh, in fiction, I can do that in a day! The research bit is the part that stops me. There are only a few topics that inspire me enough.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Melanie Avila said...

I've really enjoyed this series. You insight into where to start and get ideas has got my wheels turning.


7:44 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

--I don't think freelancing's for everybody, or even most of the people who think they might want to do it. It does tend to resemble other jobs after a while, only without security, paid vacation or health insurance.

There are perks: a relatively relaxed schedule, no commute, and, for me, anyway, the pleasure of being in charge of my destiny, so to speak.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Ok, I'm starting to make lists. What have I done with my life?
Dental Assistant-Yuk!
PTO slave
Band Parent slave
Retail manager
Student Exchange Program slave .er.. I mean, manager.
Jack of all trades, master of none
I do know what cytogenetics means now because I went and looked it up. Now, that must have been interesting.
I definately want to give this a try. I love research, love to write and like working on my own. And I'm a virgo so I can definately keep to a schedule. I have a dh for benefits, security and all that other stuff. Now if I can just get someone to publish me so I have a clip! Next time I see the editor of the local newspaper I may have to tackle him.
Thank you for these great posts.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, I don't know if cytogenetics was interesting or not. I kind of got to hate it. I like editing the journal, I find genetics interesting, but the actual work of cytogenetics--for me--really resembled doing the same damned jigsaw puzzle over and over again, several hundred times a day.

11:16 AM  
Anonymous Beth said...

Excellent description of how to thing turning into another. Thanks...I'm convinced.
Now just gotta start writing...BTW, what's the name of that book you have of mine that you like so much--gotta find a used one cheap.

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