Essay, Writing

Plucking the Fruit: Freelance Writing Tips

I attended a freelance writer’s workshop yesterday at The Arts House. Sat at a marble table in a white room with a high ceiling where the Prime Minister once held his office. 20 aspiring freelance writers showed up. By the end of the workshop, I realized I was going around my freelance writing business (see #3) in a horribly wrong way. The $20 I paid for my seat was the best investment I ever made for my future.

1. Write what you know about.

Plenty of successful writers have said this time and time again. Write only what you know about. I knew this refrain, I’d heard it frequently enough, but I realized yesterday how superficial my understanding was. What this really means is that stamp collectors write about stamp collecting (even if it’s not a “real job”, so to speak); readers write about books; marathon runners write about marathons; overweight people who’ve just lost 50kg write about the exercise of discipline; partygoers write about clubs and nightlife; self-professed fashion critics write about fashion disasters; kitchen gods and goddesses write about food. When you stick to what you know, you can’t go wrong. It’s really that simple. 

2. Stories. Stories everywhere.

Stories are all around us. This was a ground-shaking epiphany for me. Anthony Koh, the full-time freelance writer who led the workshop, gave an example of how a simple daily occurrence can become a good story. His female friend, a cool, classy lady, was suddenly besotted with Edward Cullen during the height of the Twilight fever. She’d seen the movie once and wanted to see it again, only this time, fearing Robert Pattinson-induced jealousy, she asked Anthony instead of her boyfriend. His interest was piqued. Why was a woman who didn’t fall under the Twilight demographic so smitten by a fictional teenage vampire? He bought the book, read it and realized that Edward Cullen was the perfect boyfriend. He knew exactly what to do with women and how to do it. Twilight was a 101 guide on how to woo a woman. That became a selling story.

3. You are a salesperson first. Writer second.

Writing is a passion. The passion is what keeps you going. But at the end of the day, you’re writing for money. There’s no point churning out article after article if you don’t know how to sell yourself. Get a website blog. If you are as yet unpublished, use your website as a platform. When editors ask you for sample writing, point them to your blog. Just make sure it’s professional, and you aren’t writing about how your pet died. Market yourself on social media. Get yourself a namecard and distribute it. Send out holiday cards to everyone that’s helped your writing career in some way. It shows gratitude, humility and helps them remember your name.

4. Your pitch will make it or break it.

I’ve been writing freelance for 4 years now, and until yesterday, I had no idea how to pitch a story. This is a moment for my wall of shame. Before you pitch your story to a magazine, do some research. Read their past 3 issues at least, so you know you’re not giving them something they’ve already printed. In your e-mail, summarise your story and angle, and convince the editor why your story will be good for their publication (i.e., sales).

Imagine you are a door-to-door salesperson. You knock on the door, they open it and ask, “Hi, what do you want?” And you have only 30 seconds to sell your idea. That’s your pitch. An Indian entrepreneur once told me during an interview: “You’re sitting below a mango tree. You can’t wait for the fruit to drop into your lap. You have to climb the tree and pluck the mango yourself.”

5. Know when to write for free.

There are some publications that any writer would give an arm and a leg to write for. For me, it’s National Geographic and Time Magazine. I’d write for them at no cost in a heartbeat. The honour of having your story in such respectable publications is greater than any monetary remuneration. Unfortunately there are very few magazines that inspire that level of respect. For everything else: agree on a sum of money that you feel is a fair compensation of your efforts. Stay away from the ones that pay $20 for 5 articles. That’s not fair in any world, let alone this. Remember: you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.


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