Wednesday, July 3, 2013

So You Want to be a Freelance Writer...

I'm the editor of a fairly large print magazine about guns, Western Shooting Journal, and about once every couple of weeks, the same scenario plays itself out. A potential writer will contact me about submitting an article to the magazine. They will ask about compensation, and I will explain that we offer relatively moderate compensation. The potential writer will respond and say they are "insulted" and give me a laundry list of why they are an outstanding writer and how much they are used to being paid for articles. I sigh, and try to explain that the writing business isn't what it used to be anymore, but it doesn't seem to matter, they disappear in a huff with some choice words.
The reality is times have changed.Print media is gradually being replaced by the Internet. This has had two effects. First, it has made it more difficult for print publications to stay in business. This is evidenced by the steady trudge of newspapers and magazines  going out of business. So there is less money to spend int their budgets. Secondly, the Internet allows more people the ability to easily submit their writing to publications. Years ago, it was much more difficult to find writers to write on specific topics. Now, anyone can go post a request on craigslist, or many of a number of sites requesting a writing project. The pay for many of these projects is appalling, and is no doubt driven even lower by international competition - you're competing against third world writers who are fine with earning pennies per article. It's the law of supply and demand, and the free market at work. The value of writing has decreased as technology has advanced. Contrast it to all the factory and farm labor jobs that have disappeared as computers and farm equipment technology advanced. 
I suspect that many of the top newspapers and magazines in the country don't pay freelance writers anything, and in fact may even charge writers to publish their articles. Writing is a lot like entertainment - there is a reason why the vast majority of actors wait tables in addition to acting. You are getting a benefit by writing for a publication that you don't get from, say, washing dishes or copy editing. You are getting fame, a reputation as an expert in that field, the ability to make key contacts, possible radio interviews, etc. I suspect most major newspapers and magazines survive mostly off of the work of unpaid freelance writers; there are few 40-hour week employees left.
I've been regularly freelance writing since 1997, and I've never been able to make even close to enough money to live on from it. I've developed a fairly established reputation in the conservative political world, but money doesn't accompany it. There are too many other good conservative writers out there who are willing to write for free - or even pay for the privilege.
I am always amused when someone - usually someone I barely know - will contact me and ask to become a writer for the publications I write for. I grin, thinking it's taken me 16 years to get where I'm at now, slaving away through many working weekends foregoing leisure and rest, building up my writing reputation and reportoire. One of my editors told me he scans the top conservative publications and finds the top writers - who usually then provide him their articles for free - you cannot even submit your articles to him. 
So unless you have writers' blood flowing through your veins (or you have an "in" at some publication or a lot of money), don't expect to make much money as a writer. If you want to slug away and give it a shot, here are the most valuable tips I've learned from the process: Start out at a smaller publication and work your way up. If you want to write about conservative politics, submit your articles to my website or similarly sized conservative websites (please note - this particular site prefers more intellectual writing, like the style of the late William F. Buckley, Jr., so we may not be for everyone). We don't pay writers for articles here, but the exposure isn't bad and some of my writers have moved on to much larger publications. I also recommend writing a book. It's amazing how fast I've seen writers' careers accelerate once they've gotten a book under their belt. Even if it's just a bunch of your columns.
So good luck aspiring writers, and the next time someone offers you a modest amount of money for an article - be glad they're not asking you to pay them to run your article.

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