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Launching A Freelance Writing Career - 7 Questions To Consider

Launching A Freelance Writing Career - 7 Questions To Consider
By Janice Campbell

Have you always wanted to be a freelance writer? Or are you considering moonlighting as a writer to earn some extra income? Although most beginning writers think first of fiction when considering writing as a career choice, there are several questions you may want to consider before making a final decision between fiction and non-fiction. Making the choice that is right for your circumstances can mean the difference between financial success and a drawer full of rejection slips.

Do you need to earn money from your writing?

If you need to earn money quickly, short non-fiction items, including articles or columns, or commercial writing, such as brochures and website copy, are usually the fastest way to get started earning. Commercial writing can pay very well, but it demands professional quality writing, a business-like approach, and often a fast turnaround time. Peter Bowerman's The Well-Fed Writer is an excellent introduction to the world of freelance commercial writing, and his website and e-newsletter offer consistently sound advice on the subject.

If you want to write fiction, are you well-grounded in good literature?

While you don't need a degree in English to write a story, you need a strong background in reading quality literature in order to write well. If you don't understand the elements that make strong characters, realistic settings, and compelling plots, it's unlikely that you can write a story that will stand the test of time.

To understand what makes a book great, you need to read books that have endured-- books that have spoken to readers over decades or centuries. And you can't just read superficially; you must read to understand! If you have not taken any advanced literature classes, I suggest choosing a few classics, and reading through them, using the commentary and study questions found in SparkNotes or CliffNotes to help you read analytically. I suggest beginning with Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. When you understand the ingredients of greatness, you may be able to write fiction that will be read for generations.

How much time do you have available?

If you are at the stage in life where small children tug at your skirts and take joy in your attention, you probably need to focus on the kind of writing you can do in bits and pieces of the day. During this stage of life, I chose to write short pieces, such as newsletter articles, short stories transcribed from family memories, and journal entries. These pieces gave me the opportunity to practice my writing skills, while building a portfolio of work I could use in the future.

If you want to write for publication, have you had objective feedback on your skills?

Writing for publication takes more than being able to spell and use language correctly. It takes imagination, research, and the ability to write fluently and to self-edit before turning your work over to an editor. If you're not sure that your writing skills measure up, you can't go wrong by reading William Zinsser's classic On Writing Well, and taking his advice to heart.

You may also benefit from taking a class in writing, either online or at your local community college, or working with a writing coach or evaluator. You can find coaches, developmental editors, and evaluators through the classified ads in the back of writer's magazines such as Writer's Digest or The Writer, or through professional organizations such as the National Association of Independent Writing Evaluators. Feedback will help you grow!

Some writers enjoy networking with others in an online or local writers' group, and this can be truly helpful. However, it may take awhile to find the group that meets your needs.You will usually get the best feedback from a group of experienced, serious writers who have been published, or are nearing that point. It can be fun to socialize with other beginners, but beware of accepting a lot of advice from those who are as inexperienced as you are.

Do you have the ability to work for a long period of time without any outside reinforcement?

Being a writer is challenging at best. Until you have established a reputation as a trustworthy and talented writer, it's unlikely that you'll find it easy to get published. If you have a story to tell, and the vision to keep plugging away, you may eventually succeed with fiction. If you just want to write in order to communicate an idea or to instruct or encourage others, non-fiction is probably the best place to start. You can build a portfolio and refine your writing style, and if you want to try fiction in the future, the option will always be open. Earning a living as a writer takes both skill and perseverance, plus the discipline to sit down and write regularly.

Do you want to practice writing as an art or a craft?

Generally speaking, writing that is considered art is poetry or fiction, while craft writing is usually non-fiction. There are, of course, exceptions. Henry David Thoreau's Walden is creative non-fiction, but its beautifully crafted prose raises it to the level of art. Shakespeare's poetry and drama are certainly art, as are the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the imaginative worlds or Lewis Carroll and J.R.R. Tolkein, and the thought-provoking fiction of Joseph Conrad.

On the other end of the spectrum is commercial writing, from brochures, websites, and sales letters, to journalism. In the vast middle ground between useful and beautiful lies all the rest of the stuff you find in bookstores and libraries - genre fiction (mystery, fantasy, series books, and so forth), and all the middle-of-the-road books that disappear after a few years. Genre fiction is a lot of fun to read, and a good series can be an excellent source of income for the writer.

The only requirements for writing as a craftsman are a reasonable amount of skill, dedication, and self-discipline. Writing as an artist requires inborn talent, plus all the other attributes. I suggest starting to write as a craftsman. If you have the necessary talent to create art, it will show up. If not, you can still serve others and possibly earn a decent living by writing whatever you do best, whether it's fiction or non-fiction.

Do you understand the business of writing and how to market your work?

A writer's work doesn't end with the completion of an article or book. Often, it has just begun. When you choose the type of writing you want to do, you are choosing how you want to market your work. If you choose to write books, especially fiction, you will first market to agents or publishers, then if your work is accepted, you will be expected to help market it to the target retail audience.

If you will be self-publishing your work, you can skip marketing to agents and publishers and market directly to the appropriate retail and wholesale markets. Be ready for the fact that promoting your book will probably take as much time as writing it, but a good marketing plan means the difference between a steady seller and a garage full of books. Peter Bowerman's The Well-Fed Self-Publisher will help you understand the fundamentals of making a book successful.

If you choose to write short pieces, such as essays, short stories, or articles, you will most likely be marketing to magazine or newspaper editors, or corporations, with little or no further obligation once the piece is purchased. Marketing is an important piece of the writing puzzle, so be sure to consider all it involves when deciding what sort of writing will meet your goals.

A career as a freelance writer can be truly satisfying when you find the right niche, and hone your craft. It takes time and perseverance to reach the point where you are making a living, but if you have something of value to say, and you learn to say it well, you should eventually find success in the writing career of your dreams.

Janice Campbell, Director of the National Association of Independent Writing Evaluators (, and author of Get a Jump Start on College! A Practical Guide for Teens, Transcripts Made Easy, and the forthcoming Excellence in Literature series, has been writing and speaking in central Virginia since the late 1980's. Writers who need a copy editor, proofreader, writing coach, or other writing evaluator are invited to search NAIWE's free database of qualified evaluators, and sign up for a free weekly writing tip at

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