I have written several stories about orchids.

I have written several stories about orchids.

One of the most difficult challenges to building a career as a freelance writer is finding assignments. You need to keep them rolling to provide a steady income.

At the beginning of my career, I had two part-time jobs: One was a fashion copywriter position for a chic department store chain. I learned about it through a newspaper Help Wanted ad. The other was a weekly column about local fashion and beauty happenings for a suburban edition of the Chicago Tribune. Before I decided to write, I worked as a fashion coordinator, trainer, model and makeup artist. The Tribune editor asked a colleague of mine to write the column. She said she was too busy and recommended me. With those gigs, I could cover my bare expenses.

Since then I have written for dozens of editors, publications, agencies and corporations. Many turned into long-term relationships. Here are some of the ways I found them–or they found me. Perhaps they will work for you:

* Going through the Yellow Pages of the Chicago telephone directory and calling every business and enterprise that might use writers. I introduced myself and asked for an appointment to show my portfolio.

* Responding to requests for writers on journalism message boards, especially those run by professional organizations.

* Pitching story ideas to editors at writers’ conferences.

* Reading industry publications to learn about new magazines and contacting the editors. (Start-ups are tricky. Editors need to cultivate a roster of writers, but indie publishers often are underfunded. You might not get paid.)

* Telling public relations account executives who pitched me stories that I was looking for additional work. PR types know a lot about what’s going on at media outlets.

* Cold-pitching editors who don’t know me.

As you become known for producing quality work on deadline, editors and project managers will seek you out. I have gotten assignments and referrals from:

* Other freelance writers who are too busy to take on a particular assignment or who are not interested.

* Friends and acquaintances in the printing, advertising, marketing, public relations and photography industries.

* Editor-colleagues of my editors.

* Editors I have worked for who moved on to other publications.

* Editors who see my Facebook, LinkedIn and WordPress profiles.

* Former students who became editors.

* Adjunct professor colleagues who are editors in their day jobs.

* Members of networking groups I joined.

* People I’ve written about.

These measures have not worked for me, although they could for you: Touting my college and and high school newspaper experience. Neither of editorial positions carried any weight, perhaps because they were well behind me when I choose the freelance path. I have not used Craigslist, Elance or other Internet sites, but I know of writers who have been successful with them.

Where do your assignments come from? Do you have suggestions I haven’t mentioned?

Writing a Column

July 4, 2011

Celebrating my column and more on July 4

Celebrating my column and more on July 4

Writing a column, for me, is both privilege and challenge. It’s a journalistic assignment that positions the writer as an authority on a particular subject, builds an audience of readers, and earns a somewhat regular income.

In the magazine and newspaper arena, which is where I’ve keyboarded most of my career, there are several types of columns. Some dispense opinion; others give advice. Others are informational. Columns run daily, weekly, monthly or any other frequency, and usually in the same space on the page.

I’ve written several columns. My first effort was for the local newspaper when I was a senior at Silver Creek High School in Sellersburg, Indiana. I wrote the Dragonland Review, which was a compendium of school goings-on. Our mascot was a dragon. Maybe it still is.

My first professional column was also one of my first freelance writing jobs. I’d been working as a fashion coordinator and stylist when I was tapped by a subsidiary of the Chicago Tribune to cover suburban fashion events. It’s customary to ask established reporters to do columns, but in my case, my background filled a need at the paper. From there, I graduated to general writing assignments. I’ve settled into lifestyle features, which includes homes, architecture, design, healthcare and education as well as fashion.

For the past decade I’ve written a column called “Community Living” for the Chicago Tribune. The goal is to give readers information that will make their condominium and homeowner associations more successful and harmonious. I’ve covered a broad range of topics such as new legislation, special assessments, smoking wars, bedbugs and how to have a pool party for 400 people. My column runs twice a month in the Chicago Homes section.

The biggest challenges are coming up with ideas and meeting deadlines. It doesn’t matter how many other projects are on my desk or where my social interests lie. Every two weeks without fail I turn in a column on a brand-new subject, complete with sources and references. The column doesn’t pay the highest of all my freelance jobs, but it’s the most prominent and recognized. I am honored the assignment is mine.

How do you get started as a columnist? Launch a blog. Come up with a subject you have a lot to say about, perhaps your life as an at-home mom or photography advice for neophytes or your hippie political views. Then write about it, and write some more. Just keep on writing.