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Freelancing 101

Five freelancers give their advice to up-and-coming journalists

 

By Mandy Ross

When Toronto freelance writer Paul Lima received a $10 cheque for the first article he sold, he wanted to put it on his office wall as a reminder of his accomplishment. Unfortunately, Lima needed the money to pay for transportation to an event he was covering, so he cashed the cheque and settled for a framed photocopy.

In his first year freelancing full time, Lima made around $9,000. In his second year that number grew to around $11,000, and his income kept increasing. Now, Lima says he’s learned how to market himself, which has paid off both financially and professionally.

To become successful, freelance writers need to be multi-talented. They also need to be determined, patient and have networking and selling skills. Many writers with these skills are living their dreams of getting paid for what they love to do: write.

GETTING STARTED

Getting started can seem intimidating to new freelancers. Writers considering freelancing must research target markets, know how to write a query letter, have interviewing skills, and always act professionally. Freelancers should also consider writing books, building and writing for websites, and public speaking.

Many Canadian freelancers, including Lima, are members of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC). The national not-for-profit organization, originally named the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, was started by freelance writers in 1976. The group has grown to about 600 members across the country and helps give freelancers a voice and advice on the industry.

Lima graduated from York University with a major in English. Sixteen years ago, while working in the corporate world as an advertising copywriter, he started to freelance part time. About eight years ago, he decided to make it his full-time job.

Mandy Ross
Kathy Buckworth, Paul Lima, Andrew Borkowski and David Menzies Courtesy

Anne Marie Aikins, a freelancer for 10 years, advises newcomers to be patient and creative. Aikins started her career writing editorials for community newspapers. Her first paid job was an article for the Toronto Star on sexual abuse. She says working for a community newspaper can help any new journalist learn the craft of journalism and get published.

“One of the first things you have to prove to people is that you can write. You should have a portfolio of samples to show that,” says Aikins.

Andrew Borkowski has freelanced for 20 years. In the early 1980s when he was in his twenties, Borkowski started out writing for the publications T.O. and Scene Changes. He says writing is a simple process. Freelancers need to look, listen, observe, and process.

“Really work at studying the world around you. Observe. I started out thinking I had to have a message. I then realized I have to see the world,” he says. “Start by writing a journal before you attempt to write for papers or magazines.”

New freelancers should write about topics that engage them. David Menzies, a freelancer for 14 years, initially wrote for Canadian Hotel and Restaurant. In 1994, when the magazine folded, he transferred to Canadian Computer Reseller. He says he was unhappy with the writing assignments he received so he left to pursue freelancing.  He says the decision was his only option because freelancing gives him opportunities to write about topics he’s passionate about.

Kathy Buckworth chose to leave her 20-year marketing career to freelance full time five years ago. She writes about her motherhood experiences. She’s able to write from home surrounded by her inspirations, her four children. She says seeing her name in print for the first time was more validating than the money she received for the story.

MARKETING AND BUSINESS MANAGEMENT

New freelancers must market themselves in order to survive in the industry. Lima spends about half his time teaching the business of writing and the other half writing. He has eight published books and has written for PROFIT magazine, TIME Canada, various trade magazines, and many other publications.  He also conducts seminars on how to become a successful freelance writer. Lima stresses that freelancers need to add a corporate factor to their job.

“Freelance writing is a business. You have to treat it as a business. As a freelance writer, no one is giving you a paycheque,” he says. “You have to earn your paycheques. You have to find your article ideas, publications, and then you have to sell your ideas.”

Buckworth advises new writers to expand their targets. She says while rates vary, projects coming from big corporations typically pay very well, and can earn you $50,000 per year. However, usually they demand a tighter deadline and have specific expectations, leaving little room for creativity. Buckworth says corporate writing generally pays the most, followed by speech writing.

"Unless you're dead or have got your head in a sling, you never feel like you're working hard enough."

SETTING UP SHOP AND APPLYING DISCIPLINE TO THE WRITING PROCESS

Working from home is another factor any new writer must take into consideration. Borkowski says there are many expenses that come with having a home office.

“You certainly can’t go out there and do your business from an Internet café. You have to have a newsroom in your house,” he says.

All of the freelancers interviewed say to survive in the industry you have to be self-motivated. Borkowski says diligence is a key factor in coming out on top. However, laziness is an issue freelancers often struggle with.

“Unless you’re dead or have got your head in a sling, you never feel like you’re working hard enough,” Borkowski says.

Menzies says corresponding with readers is on his list of priorities, and it’s important to respond to feedback even if it’s negative.

“If someone has taken the time to read your item and then communicate with you, it’s a matter of professional courtesy to give them a response.”

WORKING WITH EDITORS

Freelancers need to be patiently persistent when dealing with publishers. Borkowski says editors tell him to write shorter pieces and he sometimes feels as though he is writing for people who don’t read.

Borkowski says it’s because the computer screen is the new paragraph, so expectations from editors have changed because short pieces are what people want to read.

Lima says he has experienced a lack of respect from publishers. “They want to get as much content and as many rights for as little pay as possible.”

John Degan, executive director of PWAC, says freelance pieces are usually sold with first publication rights, however editors are trying to gain more control. He says they are aiming to buy moral rights and integrity rights, including full control of the by-line.

"I started out thinking I had to have a message. I then realized I have to see the world."

NOT A BAD LIFE

Still, building a respectable reputation with publications has led to many opportunities for Menzies. While writing for the travel section of the National Post, he went on all-expenses-paid trips to South Africa, the Arctic, Siberia and Florida. Menzies chuckles when recalling his trip to the Arctic. He says he basically spent two weeks freezing on a snowmobile. His article, Polar Safari, was published in the National Post and the Calgary Herald. Trips aside, Menzies has experienced other successes. He has written for Canadian Business, Marketing, and several different trade publications. He also does some broadcasting work.

As for Lima, he is a living example that full-time freelancing can result in financial success. What started out as a passion for writing and a $10 cheque has resulted in Lima being the breadwinner for his family of four, “if you include the dog.” He says reaching a six-figure income as a freelancer was a goal that motivated him when he began his career.

“When I hit six figures I thought, ‘Wow, I will never have to go back to a straight job again’.”