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Freelance writing is one of the harder, yet more enjoyable, professions available. In this interview, freelance writer Robert Bittner explains his views on how to be a successful writer in the field of non-fiction. He wanted to preface the interview by saying this was intended for mainly non-fiction writers, not fiction ones.
What do you think are the essential things a person needs to be a freelance writer?
Obviously, you need to be able to write -- that is, compose clear sentences that communicate with readers. But I think it's also very important that you have a willingness to market yourself and your ideas; articles don't get sold unless writers work at selling them. And that ties in with what I think is probably the biggest essential of all: Perseverance. You need to be able to market your ideas, deal with editors who say no to them, and keep moving on.
What is the hardest part about trying to make writing a career?
This is a tough question for me. All of the downsides I can think of could also be seen as positives (or at least motivating challenges) if you're in the right mind-set. For some, the isolation of working alone might be the toughest thing.
For others, the irregular/infrequent paychecks might be the hardest part. But I do think one of the biggest challenges that every nonfiction freelancer will face is figuring out how to keep building your business in the midst of constant change: editors come and go, magazines come and go, and book publishers are constantly fine-tuning their lists as a result of a changing marketplace, corporate takeovers, staff changes, etc.
The plus side to all of that, though, is that how you handle the changes is entirely up to you. If you're an employee, all of your work eggs are in that one basket. As a freelancer, the more baskets (publishers) you can fill, the better you'll be able to weather any changes that come your way. And you're doing it on your own terms.
What was your first sale and how did you get it?
My first publication was an article called "How to Find Gold on the Silver Screen," a college-student guide for analyzing movies, which I wrote for a now-defunct magazine called HIS. But because I worked for the parent company of the magazine publisher (InterVarsity Press), I didn't get paid for it. I went on to write numerous movie reviews and articles for that magazine, all without pay. Although I did get free movies.
My first sale was to a national Christian magazine called Moody Magazine, and it was a first-person story about my reactions to an accident my sister experienced. That article went on to be the basis for the proposal I used to sell my first book, Under His Wings: Meeting the Spiritual Needs of the Mentally Disabled.
How did I get it? I wrote a query letter that I mailed to the magazine's editor. I went on to write about a half-dozen articles for that magazine over the next few years.
I saw you had some sports articles. Do you think sports articles are a good way to earn income as a writer? What's essential in any sports article?
I've never written what I would call a sports article. If you're talking about my story about the Centralia Orphans basketball team, that, for me, was more of a sociological piece about the state of a fading small town and the one thing in that town that was helping to keep it alive: high-school basketball. The fact that the Orphans are the winningest team in the nation -- and have been for more than 40 years -- gave me the hook I needed to interest an editor in the story. For me, both of those two angles -- the winningest team and a dying rural town -- were essential to selling this piece. And I ended up writing it for both the Chicago Tribune Magazine and American Profile.
What are the biggest mistakes most freelance writers make?
For those freelancers who are just starting out, I think that probably the biggest mistake is not realizing you don't have to do this on your own. There have never been so many resources available to freelance writers: from online forums that keep you plugged-in to a larger freelancing community (and a wealth of up-to-date information about markets, pay, etc.) to in-person conferences where you can easily network with editors, agents, and other writers. Thanks to the Internet, many resources are just a couple of clicks away.
But I also believe that too few writers -- and this can even apply to some very experienced pros -- take the time to build relationships with editors. Editors are people. And the more relationships you can build with them, the easier your life as a freelancer will be.
I encourage every freelancer who is serious about their career to make an investment in personally visiting at least some of their editors every year. If you don't live where your editors are, make a special trip. After all, one sale that results from the trip could probably pay for the trip. And chances are that you'd see a lot more than a single sale as a result of an editor meeting.
Do you think it's easier making a career writing books or articles?
The short answer: no For me, a balance of the two has been helpful; I like the stick-with-one-topic-for-months advantage that books offer, but, as a generalist, I also like being able to hop from topic to topic, which I can only do in magazine articles. Talking strictly about income, you'll likely get paid faster and more per-word for a magazine article than you'd ever make from a book sale. (There are 60,000 or so nonfiction books published every year; most are not best-sellers or incredibly profitable for either the publisher or the writer.)
I do know many freelancers who haven't written books, of course. But most aren't just writing for mainstream newsstand magazines. They're also writing for a variety of trade magazines, maybe producing some advertorials, maybe also even consulting as freelance editors/proofreaders, maybe even teaching/speaking. You can read my friends post about Dave Tomar's Shadow Scholar article which acquire first place in google algorithm.
I saw you wrote a book on Faith? How did you get that opportunity?
Although I've stopped writing Christian-themed articles for magazines (the pay is simply too low in that market), most of my books do have some element of faith in them. So when I saw an agent's post on the members-only forum of ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) where he mentioned looking for writers for a faith-oriented Complete Idiot's Guide, I knew I could easily deliver what he was looking for. I wrote the agent a quick e-mail, pitched myself, and things grew from there. (In the vast majority of cases, Idiot's and Dummies authors are found by agents who are trying to line up writers for projects that are already being developed in-house.)
I read Pages magazine, a zine you have written for, was having financial troubles. Do you think they will make it through this? Why?
Sorry, but I feel compelled to clarify: PAGES is not a "zine." It's a bimonthly newsstand magazine that has been publishing -- in print -- for about a decade. But, having said that, you may know by now that PAGES' parent company -- Advanced Marketing Services -- has decided to shut the magazine down as part of its bankruptcy proceedings. The January/February issue was the final one.
I remember you saying pitching the article is much more enjoyable than actually writing it. How do you write a good pitch?
What I love about pitching -- or "querying," if you prefer -- is the process of coming up with an interesting idea, finding a great angle for it, matching it to an appropriate publication, and then selling it to an editor. I do enjoy actually writing articles, by the way! But snagging the sale is more fun to me.
So it all starts with that inital idea. But ideas are everywhere, and everbody's got them. Finding story ideas has to be the absolute easiest part of being a freelancer. What sets selling freelancers apart from everyone else who just says, "I have a great idea for an article you should write!" is nailing down the angle that helps an editor understand why her magazine should assign this story to you now.
The elements that help you do that are a solid lead (often similar to how you'd begin the actual magazine story), a brief background paragraph that explains why this story is right for this section of this magazine, and enough evidence to explain why you are the one who can do this job.
Of course, this is all pointless if you don't send your pitch to the right editor. Call the magazine and ask the editorial department who you should pitch, if you don't already know. (Don't trust the too-often-outdated info in Writer's Market or similar guidebooks; those are good starting points, but you need to follow up for yourself.) I haven't sent a postal query in 7-8 years, and most of my colleagues are in the same boat. Find out what method the editor prefers, but assume you're going to be e-mailing or faxing your query.
You have published articles in both The Writer and Writer's Digest. How do you approach writing for writers like yourself?
I think freelance writing is one of those career choices that often -- not always, but often -- draws folks who are naturally inclined to help their peers. One person's success is in no way hindered by another writer's success. So lots of us love to offer tips, leads, contact info, or whatever . . . if it can help another writer achieve her or his goals. That's one of the main reasons I've been involved in online communities like FreelanceSuccess.com and with ASJA, the premier nonfiction freelancers organization. So it seems natural to take some of that spirit to print in venues like Writer's Digest and The Writer. (I've pitched a lot more to The Writer because, historically, they've been much more open to articles related to nonfiction and to articles geared more toward career-minded freelancers.)
Like most of my writing, an article for writers arises from my own interests/passions/observations. Because no matter where we are on the career ladder, we all deal with similar issues. We all work to fine-tune our querying skills, we all want to know how to crack new markets, explore new subject areas, bump up our pay rates, or work more effectively with our editors. So I pitch stories along those lines. (My work for The Writer has been a mix of stories I've pitched and stories the editors have brought to me.)
One thing that I strive for in writing for other writers is to always assume that the readers are passionate about making at least part of their income from their writing. I don't patronize writers with the idea that they'll become the next Susan Orlean or Sebastian Junger.
What I do strive to do is inspire them to make the most of their time and their talents to become successfully published writers -- and to equip them to continue publishing for as long as they desire. I know literally hundreds of freelancers who are making their living writing nonfiction articles and books, and I want my writer-readers to know they can do it too if they are willing to work at it.
Too often, freelancers hear myths about how difficult it is to get published or believe they have to settle for less-than-professional pay. Through my articles (as well as through my personal interactions, public speaking, etc.), I want to let them know they're not alone and they can succeed.