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Two words often associated with freelance writers are “poor” and “starving.” It doesn’t have to be that way. Life is expensive, and ramen noodles and pbj soon lose any culinary charm. Many writers earn comfortable livings, some even in the six figures. Here’s my advice for becoming a career freelancer:

* Take any assignment offered. We all love bylines, but most magazines and newspapers don’t pay well. Especially not when you’re starting out. My ultimate goal was to do strictly editorial work. However, to keep the cash flowing and my rent paid, I also wrote newsletters, press releases, brochures and speeches. One of my early assignments was a press release about a new battery-operated, plastic sump pump. I got paid $50. At least I was writing.

* Find a steady side job. I tended bar and worked in a jewelry store, 20 hours a week or so. These gigs were flexible enough that I could fit them around my writing assignments. I also got health insurance. As my writing income grew, I ditched the part-time jobs.

* Always have multiple sources of income. The freelance world is volatile, and clients come and go. Years ago I made the mistake of keeping myself busy with only two clients. When one relationship went bust, I lost half my billings. It took me two years to make up the money, with several smaller clients and editors.

* Live under your means. I love great clothes and beach vacations as well as anyone, but what I love more than spending money is saving it. I’m a bargain shopper and a coupon queen. I drive a 16-year-old Toyota Corolla. I could buy another car, but this one runs just fine. Someday you’ll want to buy a home. Lenders don’t look favorably on freelancers, so you’ll need a big down-payment to get their attention. Start saving now.

* Invest in your career. You’ll find many writers groups, organizations and conferences, but most aren’t free. Some focus on professional development, and others are more social. I attend only the events that will help me make money. Networking is fine, but I’m not looking for a sorority. Visit a few groups to see which is best for you. As for getting a master’s degree, I’m lukewarm. Don’t go into debt for grad school unless you know your writing income will increase.

* Fund an Individual Retirement Account. Every year. You don’t have an employer to help finance your future, so you’ve got to do it yourself. The sooner you get started, the less money you’ll have to sock away. Give up a vacation if you must. Or sock away your side-job earnings.

* Writing is an art, but treat it like a business. That means keeping regular  hours, marketing your skills and managing your time and money. My philosophy: As long as I take care of the business end, I can afford to practice my art. You can, too.

My Office Assistant

My Office Assistant

I knew I could write. The problem was, no one else did.

I’d been writing since I was four years old. “Dear Mommy,” I crayoned. “I love you. Do you love me?” My first query letter.

After college, I wanted more than familial correspondence. I wanted to write for the Chicago Tribune. I sent off my resume and soon received a reply that thanked me for my interest but pointed out I had little journalism experience.

No experience? I was an English Literature major. I was the editor of the campus newspaper at Elmhurst College. I had been a high school correspondent for my hometown press. My weekly column, the Dragonland Review, covered basketball scores, homecoming queens, canned food drives and other goings-on of interest to those whose revered mascot was a winged reptile.  That’s experience, I thought.

The job I did land was in the public relations department of a large toiletries company. Mostly I wrote letters of apology to customers who had bought aerosol cans of hairspray that clogged and sputtered. On the side, I modeled wedding gowns at bridal fairs and taught make-up classes for a modeling school.

A year later I updated my resume for the Chicago Tribune and received another copy of the previous rejection letter.

A department store chain, however, was impressed by my background in haute hairspray and hired me as a stylist. I auditioned teen models and produced fashion shows in the mall.

Another year passed, and again the Chicago Tribune turned me down. I still hadn’t written anything, by the company’s definition of “anything.”

I continued modeling and teaching. I produced a fashion show for Bonwit Teller, and I created a feature spread that paired luxury cars and fur coats for a suburban lifestyle magazine. I became a creative consultant for a chain of edgy boutiques. My name appeared in a couple of industry publications, and my wardrobe was quite chi-chi. That’s because more than once my rent money was diverted to a designer dress or boots.

One morning a friendly colleague, who was the promotions director for a regional shopping center, called to chat. An editor at the Chicago Tribune had asked her to write a weekly column about suburban fashion events. But she was too busy, she said, and suggested the editor call me instead. I was thrilled.

The editor called and gave me the first of many assignments: 600 words on fashion trends for men. I didn’t need writing experience any more–I had become an expert, and that was just as good.

100 Queries

May 2, 2009


Self Portrait

I began my career with an IBM Selectric II typewriter, which I paid for with cash from my tips as a cocktail waitress, and a copy of the Chicago Yellow Pages. I was going to be a freelance writer, although I wasn’t sure at the time what that meant. I decided to make 100 telephone calls to anybody and everybody I thought might hire me. I called newspapers, magazines, corporations, and advertising and public relations agencies. By the time I was a third of the way through this exercise, I had enough assignments to live on.

That’s the way it was, until last summer. Publications that had run my byline for years were disappearing. Long-time editors were retiring, usually not by choice. They ones who remained were no longer passing out assignments like Halloween candy. I had to do something to keep my writing business going, and profitably so. Then I recalled the 100 telephone calls I was prepared to make during those early days. I would do it again, in an updated fashion. I call it 100 Queries. For me, a query might be a story pitch, a letter of introduction, a contest entry or a grant application–anything that could lead to paying work. I’m a third of the way through, and I’m getting new assignments and building new editorial relationships.

So, I will not whine about the awful condition of the journalism industry today and its supposed demise until I have made all 100 Queries.

Contact me: pmckuen@gmail.com