Image by Roland O'Daniel - cc - by
Image by Roland O’Daniel – cc – by

Maybe you’ve been following the RN2Writer blog or newsletter and have been thinking: I really don’t understand how the whole shebang works. Fair enough. Let me give you a brief overview of how freelancing works.

It’s a lot like baseball

In freelance writing, you play multiple positions on the team. You’re the pitcher. But you’re also the batter. You’re always trying to hit a homerun.

Broken down to its basic components, freelancing involves pitching and catching. You throw a pitch (could be a query or a letter of introduction) to a likely target (we’ll call this person the ‘catcher’), and if you do this often enough eventually the catcher will throw the ball back to you with an assignment attached. Or at least a request for more information. That is the freelance life in a nutshell.

The freelance process for journalism

Let’s say you have decided you want to use your experience in oncology nursing to report on breakthroughs in the fight against cancer. Here’s how freelancing works for journalists:

  1. You learn of a novel treatment (or some other story idea) that hasn’t been extensively covered in the mainstream news.
  2. You research a potential market (that is, publication — online or print) that may be interested in this type of news item.
  3. You craft a query (aka ‘a pitch’) with an intriguing lead and very brief outline of how you intend to approach the story.
  4. You send it to an editor at your target market (i.e.: the publication you identified in Step 2).
  5. You wait.
  6. You wait some more.
  7. After waiting for some time (the length depends on how timely your story idea is), you politely follow up with the editor.
  8. And then you wait.
  9. If you don’t hear something back, you send the query to an editor at a different publication.
  10. Repeat steps 5 through 9 as often as necessary.
  11. Eventually, with luck, one of those editors will email you back and say, “Great story idea! Let’s discuss it.”
  12. You take a moment to do the happy dance in the privacy of your home office setting.
  13. You chat by phone with the editor or simply receive an assignment letter that details your deadline, word count, number of sources to include, etc.
  14. You find sources and interview them.
  15. You distill the information into a story that meets the word count.
  16. You submit the story on (or, ideally, in advance of) the deadline.
  17. You wait.
  18. You wait some more.
  19. Eventually the editor gets back to you with comments and requested changes.
  20. You incorporate these into your story and submit the revised draft.
  21. After some time (the duration may be longer or shorter, depending on whether it’s a print market or online), the editor gives you a big thumb’s up and says the article is ‘good to go.’
  22. You take a moment to do the happy dance in the privacy of your home office setting.
  23. You send an invoice.
  24. Meanwhile, you have been repeating Steps 1 through 4.

That’s pretty much it. This cycle repeats endlessly throughout your career. Because I’ve broken the process down step by step, it may look more complicated or arduous than it really is. Truthfully, if you cover a specific beat for awhile you’ll develop relationships with editors, so you probably will have an easier time placing articles — and you may even get assignments directly from your editor(s).

A word about Step 4. The old-skool method of freelance journalism is to send just one query per idea at a time. I think this concept has gone by the wayside over the years. With the advent of thousands of online publications, there’s no reason not to query several editors all at once with the same story idea. However, do not send a mass email with everyone “bcc’d” on it. Make sure your queries remain targeted to likely candidates, and send each query individually with a personalized note.

Next time, I’ll cover how the freelance corporate (aka: commercial, marketing, content) writing process works. It’s a bit different from what I just outlined. Stay tuned.

What questions do you have about how freelancing works? Put them in the comments section!

Wishing you well,

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