Ask Susannah: How Do You Get into Freelance Work?

Q: Love your writing. Curious, but how do you get into freelance work?

Image via  Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

A: There’s no one tried and true way to get into freelancing. More often than not, it’ll happen when you undertake a series of experiments. Think of it as firing a shotgun and seeing what it hits or throwing shit against a wall and seeing what sticks. You never know what’s going to happen. It’s up to you to get moving.

I believe the first published article I wrote was for a local newspaper, and it was a book review. Come up with one idea that you can sell. A review. A photograph. A comic. Identify the publication most likely to publish it. A local rag. A small website. A literary magazine. Figure out the person to pitch it to—the editor-in-chief, the photo editor, the features editor. Find their email address. If you can’t find it easily, and you’re pitching to a publication where people have their own emails, emails usually follow one of these styles: firstnamelastname@company.com, firstnameperiodlastname@company.com, firstnameunderscorelastname@company.com, firstinitiallastname@company.com. You can see if you’ve got the right one by googling it. Usually, their email is posted somewhere, and that search will confirm you have it right. Then write a pitch. Say: I’d like to write a story about X. Or: I’m interested in covering the upcoming cow auction. Perhaps: Are you looking for an op-ed columnist? Tell them what you’ve done that’s impressive. Include some links to your work or even a sample of your work.

A lot of times, editors never respond. That’s just the way it is. I hate when I pitch editors, and they don’t respond. That said, sometimes as an editor, I don’t respond to pitches. It’s the single most passive aggressive no you’ll ever get. Learn to live with rejection. Or ignore it. It’s just one person.

Of course, you can forget that whole pitching-to-publications thing and sell your stuff yourself. I like Gumroad. You can set your own price, produce your own products, and get paid in a reasonable time period.

At first, you might not make a lot of money with your freelancing. If you keep at it, you’ll get better. You’ll connect with other freelancers. People will start asking you to create things for them. Eventually, it just grows and grows.

Good luck!

SB

Buy my digital short, “The Tumor.” It’s been called “a masterpiece of short fiction.”

How to Get a Mammogram

You go to the place. You’ve done this before. You’re not a novice. In fact, you’re a pro. Because you’ve done this many, many times before. So, you get there early. Even so, other people get there before you. So, you have to wait. But not for long. Soon enough, someone tells you it’s time to go in the first room. There, a woman behind a computer does your paperwork. She hands you some papers and tells you where to go. You go down a hallway until you get to a locker room. There, a woman gives you a robe and a bag. You go in a smaller room and change. Then, you come back out. For a while, you wait in another room. Eventually, another woman comes out and tells you it’s time. When you walk in the final room, it’s just you and her. When you see the machine, you remember how big it is. Its plastic panels are waiting to squish your flesh between them so it can see what’s inside of you. For a moment, your mind skips. Is it this time, or the last time, or the time a long time ago when they looked inside and found something wrong with you? Just as quickly, you’re pulled back to reality. For maybe ten minutes, you and the machine are locked in an intimate embrace. One by one, it squeezes each breast as you drape your arms awkwardly around its hard frame. Finally, you’re done, and the only evidence it happened is the pink marks on your chest were it squeezed you so hard that you winced and the woman apologized. As you wait for the woman to hand you a piece of paper, you catch a glimpse of the inside of yourself on the screen. There you are: luminous, the flesh in the shape of your breast, inside of it a map of lines you cannot read. What can you do? You take the piece of paper, you walk out to the car, you wonder when they’ll call you and what they’ll tell you.

Buy my digital short story, “The Tumor” … “a masterpiece of short fiction.”

How to Make a Living as a Writer

Over the last year, as the Lawrence Grauman Jr. Post-graduate Fellow at the Investigative Reporting Program at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, I had the opportunity to mentor graduate students in journalism. What question did they ask me most often?

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How do you make a living?

For me, the answer was simple. I wasn’t precious about writing. I do one thing well, and nothing else well: I am a very, very good writer. One could say writing is my superpower. Writing is the tool I use to make money. How I use that tool is up to me. There is no one correct way to use the tool. There is you, and the tool, and how you use the tool is your business.

At this point, I’ve been a writer for over two decades. Which is a pretty long time to make a living at something. Along the way, I’ve been many things, but all of them involve writing. I’ve been an investigative journalist, a copywriter, a TV producer, a branding consultant, a publicist, and a speaker, to name a few.

While I know that I can write and well, I have a sort of shrugging attitude as to how I’ve applied that talent.

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  • In 2010, a communications company hired me to be the voice of Pepto-Bismol on Facebook. If you’re not aware, Pepto on social media is a personality. P&G was unhappy with what this company had done to give Pepto a persona. It was up to me to provide that. So, I did. One of the most popular posts I wrote featured the caption: “I partied so hard my cup fell off.” The photo featured Pepto with its cup next to it.

  • In 2009, I wrote and published a 10,000-word investigation of the Great Recession’s impact on the adult movie industry: “They Shoot Porn Stars, Don’t They?” Slate included it in their "Seven Great Stories About Paying for Sex and Being Paid to Have It,” and Longform called it “unflinching and devastating.” Subsequently, an essay I wrote about the project, "The Numbers On Self-Publishing Long-Form Journalism," was taught in “Media, Politics & Power in the Digital Age” at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Studio 20 program at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.

  • In 2008, I was an editor for a Time Warner-owned digital vertical for 18-to-34-year-old women. During that tenure, I wrote nearly 1,400 posts, oversaw a team of freelance contributors, and directed the site’s digital outreach program, helping grow the site’s traffic from startup to 4 million unique visitors and 22 million page views a month.

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So, who am I? A copywriter? An investigative journalist? An editor? Pretending to be Pepto made $100 an hour and earned me thousands of dollars every month. The porn investigation I published “made” no money but was read by thousands and thousands of people and, according to one reader, “changed the way I think about the business of making pornography.” As an editor, I made over $80,000 a year and learned slideshows are the easiest way to maximize page views. I’ve also developed TV shows, consulted on films, and worked as a branding consultant and a publicist. Was one job better than the other? Was one a waste of my time? Was one meaningful and the rest not? Does it matter? To me, it’s all the same. I’m a writer.

Awhile back, I published a digital short story: “The Tumor.” I had it professionally designed and edited. Every month, people buy copies of it on Gumroad, where consumers can pay they want ($1+) for it. It might be a bizarre fiction inspired by reality and populated by a monster, but it’s also unequivocally mine.

To young journalists, I want to say: Do whatever you want—as long as its yours.

Buy my digital short story, “The Tumor” … “a masterpiece of short fiction.”

The Real Secret to Selling Yourself

Recently, I was approached about doing a 60-minute presentation at a large tech conference. The person who’d contacted me had read this Forbes post: “How to Sell Yourself.” That post has over half a million views, and I still get emails about it. This is called evergreen content, or longtail content, or stuff that is sticky. The steps I outline are pretty simple: Create a superhuman version of yourself to sell stuff for you, be so persistent no one can ignore you, and offer the thing that no one else is offering. There’s nothing particularly novel about these ideas. But they’ve guided me along the path of my 20+-year career at every twist and turn. I’d venture that while all three ideas are important, the key is the second one. Be relentless. At some point, the dam will break.

Buy my digital short story, “The Tumor” … “a masterpiece of short fiction.”