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How to be a freelance writer

Be a Writer by Steve Peha and Margot Carmichael LesterWant to become a freelance writer? Here are some tips from someone (yours truly) who's been doing it since 1993.

1. Save up at least six months of living expenses.

That’s before you even start, so begin salting away a few bucks a month even if you're still a student. One less beer or outfit won't kill you. Freelancing is a tough way to make a living – and sometimes, particularly early in your career, you might not make a living. So create a stash to live on while you have other sources of income and build your business. Consider an interest-earning savings account so your cash is safely cached and working a little for you. For tips on setting rates, see this extremely helpful post from Christopher Penn: How to set your consulting rate.

2. Don't forget taxes.

If you're a successful freelance writer, there's a good chance you'll get enough work from one client to trigger a 1099 form, and that information is reported directly to the IRS. Know your tax rate and be sure to figure out how much you need to clear each month after taxes. I strongly suggest meeting with a small business tax accountant or professional business manager to figure this out so you can stay ahead of the taxman and creditors. Plus, these folks can help you out should you encounter slow-to-pay clients.

3. Get health insurance.

Sounds crazy, but you need it. Maybe not if you're still in school, but once you're off Ma and Pa's policy. Even if you’re young. Even if you're going to live forever. There are good but basic plans that are pretty affordable available in many states if you aren’t covered by a spouse’s coverage.

So you're probably wondering why I started with this decidedly unsexy stuff. Well, if you're freelancing, you're running a business. So you need to deal with this stuff first before you write the first word. Trust me. As painful as this part may be, you'll thank me later. If you can't afford to freelance, there's no sense investing time in trying to do it. Take care of business first. Then you can write all you want.

4. Start writing.

Writing for magazines and newspapers or companies and non-profits will give you the most cred, but don’t totally discount blogs because this is where you can really show your personal style and subject matter expertise. If you can’t get a gig (even a non-paying one), write op-eds and submit them widely or volunteer to write for non-profits you support. Do whatever you have to do to showcase your ability to string sentences together in an appealing way. Consider contributing regularly to sites like IntrepidMedia.com, a nifty online community of writers, where you can also get your work critiqued.

5. Network like crazy.

Follow other freelancers, journalists and editors on Twitter and connect to them on Linkedin, then engage them. Go to professional events for journalists, editors, writers and communications pros in your area. In the world of work-for-hire, it’s all who you know, so having a great Rolodex is key. And don’t just make connections – work them. Ask for guidance, Linkedin recommendations, assignments, introductions, etc.

6. Don't forget to sell.

This is probably where most freelance writers screw up. They don't like to sell themselves. You don't have to don a shiny suit and channel your inner used-car salesman. But you do have to promote yourself and your work. One tactic: have a place on your site for visitors to see your published clips en masse like I do. For more promotional tips, go here.

7. Use social media.

Create a blog site where you can showcase your work and share your observations, opinions. Promote it via Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin. When you get something published, post a link. Don't forget to "favorite" any flattering tweets about your work and link to them from your blog or other social accounts, like this.

8. Join freelancer job sites.

Consider joining something like Media Bistro’s Freelance Marketplace if you’ve got a decent number of clips. It’s pretty inexpensive and I’ve gotten a few jobs from it. You also get a basic site with membership if you don't want to invest in building your own. Odesk and Elance also are good, but it can be time-consuming to separate the wheat from the chaff, and I've seen a lot of super-low-ball work out there.

9. Develop a niche.

If you've got an area of expertise, flaunt it. You can make the case that because you have subject matter knowledge, you can spend more time crafting content than learning the industry or specialty area. That's important in the "always-on" Internet age. Be sure you've got proof to back up your claims (here's an example).

10. Create great pitches.

Freelance writers live and die by the pitch. Start making lists of story ideas, pieces you’d like to see, etc. You can get a lot of intell on how to pitch various publications through MediaBistro's How To Pitch series (available via  AvantGuild premium membership). You also can get a line on successful pitches for free from that network you’re building. Just ask editors for models of what works.

Hope this helps!

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