Mark Terry

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Freelance Writing For A Living, Part 6

February 5, 2008

As promised in my last entry, I will briefly discuss (I'll try to keep it brief after the last epic) how you go about getting writing gigs in the corporate world. My caveat on this is that I haven't done this often and really not that successfully. So, here goes.

First, who to write for? If you live out in the middle of nowhere, this might be a challenge. If you're somewhere in the vicinity of an urban center, use the Yellow Pages and start making a list of companies. That can be any large corporation, medium-sized company, graphic designer or advertising agency. A lot of cities also have business listings you can purchase. Also, keep an eye out for local business organizations. In the Detroit area there's Automation Alley, which is a consortium of a couple hundred companies.

Okay. You could write a nice introductory query letter and a resume and send it to somebody at the company. If you go this route, make sure you follow up with a phone call a week later. Chances are, either way, your letter will either get thrown away or stuck in a filing cabinet never to see the light of day again.

For this type of writing opps, I recommend Ye Olde Cold Call. And if the very idea gives you chills and a case of the heebie-jeebies, well, I don't blame you. Strap on your big-girl shoes and go to work, though. Cold calls suck. But you do get used to them. And they're good practice for when you need to call people and ask them for interviews for the article you're writing. Suck it up and do it.

Give yourself a script. Something like: "Hi, my name is Mark Terry. I'm a freelance writer and I'm calling to see how I might meet your freelance writing needs."

About 95% of the time you'll get a receptionist or secretary who will be, to say the least, confused. She or he will say something like, "We don't hire freelance writers." Or, "I'll transfer you to human resources."

My take on HR, by the way, is that they're a black hole for this type of work. You need to talk to the people who hire freelancers. You need to talk to someone in corporate communications, Public Relations, or, depending on the type of company and type of work, head of the company (if it's a small shop). If you're looking to do advertising type work, someone in the marketing department. If it's technical, then someone in the IT department or other department. Corporate Communications departments are often willing to talk to you.

If they DO talk to you and ARE interested in you, they'll probably ask for you to e-mail or fax a resume and clips. Go ahead. Then follow-up in a few days with a phone call and/or e-mail. Then wait. And wait.

As I said, this isn't really my area. I've done it some and it can definitely be lucrative, but I haven't had tons of luck breaking in. Some of that may just be my particularly urban area. Or my type of writing. Or my voice, or... Maybe because aside from one intense spurt of marketing in this area that didn't work out well, I went onto areas that worked better for me. If you want better resources on it, I recommend Peter Bowerman's book "The Well-Fed Writer" and the Freelance Success website, which has a whole database and listserv concerning corporate writing.

Anyway, I think it's important to bring this up now because it is true for both traditional publishing such as magazines and for corporate writing (and fiction and literary agents, by and large). And that truth is this:

It's a numbers game.

You need to get YOU into the awareness of the right person at the right time with the right skill set and/or right idea.

Maybe you'll send out one query and you'll get an assignment. It happens.

The number I've heard and I can't verify its accuracy except to say that for me it SEEMS about right, is that only about 1 out of every 12 queries gets picked up. So if you want to break into the freelance writing business, you've got to really get the queries out there or the cold calls. Once you get a stable of clients, your odds get a lot better. Once you have a great portfolio to lean on, your odds get a little better.

At the end of last year I wanted to bring on a new big client of some sort. I had some ideas, but I wanted something either regular or big and I went looking for it, using all the resources that I mentioned in my second day on this series. And over the course of a month I probably did send out a good solid twenty queries and/or applications (Remember, I wasn't looking for just any kind of work; I was looking for a specific type of work that would do a specific type of thing for me. Your needs may be different). And immediately, nothing came of it.

Then about January 2nd or 3rd I got an e-mail from one of them asking to talk to me. So I called him back and now he's a new client and my first job with him is paying $7000, and if I don't screw it up, I can expect to do several of these similar projects a year. Hopefully for a long time.

What I'm trying to say here is this: don't say, "I want to write for Esquire, so I'm going to write them a query for this great idea I've got and go back to my day job until they accept my pitch."

If they do, good for you. What you need to do is pick about a dozen magazines or a hundred companies and start pitching them. With the magazines, once one gets rejected, hit them with another idea. (One at a time, though). Keep cranking through the cold calls. Go to the various freelance job banks and apply for jobs that interest you or that you're qualified for. Keep doing it.

Think of it this way: you need to keep up constant pressure. Not always. Once you get busy you may not spend a lot of time hunting for more work (although, as I've noticed, you'll get slow periods or your client situation will change or you want better paying clients, and you'll be back out there hunting and pitching again, often on a semi-regular basis), but while you're trying to build your business, you really need to take this attitude: I will query or call until I get work. I won't stop until I do. And once I do get work, I'll keep doing it until I'm so busy I don't have time to hunt for work.

Tomorrow I'll talk about how much to charge.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very valuable stuff. I really hope I don't have to do this sort of thing again. It is possible the work I have will last till I can collect Social Security and need less work!

One thing I think those who want to freelance need to remember is that it isn't usually trying to sell one individual piece after another but rather you are looking for clients, looking for work, looking for some folks who will keep hiring you for jobs that come up.

In the short time I did some magazine work I sold a piece to Running Times and then the editor contacted me for other articles. Sadly, the day soon came when I got a note from him wondering if I knew any editors because he'd been replaced as editor and was now a freelancer himself! (No, the new Running Times editor had no use for me)

10:05 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

That's happened to me several times. I think it's just part of being a freelancer (unfortunately).

And just to add a bit more to your point, it's nice (and should probably be your goal) to get a relationship with clients, whether magazines or corporations or whatever, where not only do you pitch them ideas, but more importantly, they come to you and say, "We need an article about such-and-such. Interested?"

That makes your life much easier.

10:57 AM  
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