Finding Work in Commercial Writing — Session 2, AIW Going Freelance Seminar — I’m liveblogging the AIW Going Freelance! seminar today at Johns Hopkins University. Forgive the typos, as I’m trying to keep up. You can handle it. Trust me. -kk

 LESTER REINGOLD: The “serendipity” approach to finding work as a freelancer

In short, make your own luck and capitalize on opportunities. He didn’t start off with the intention of writing commercially, but he ended up doing it. He transitioned from full-time to freelance work. He went to Columbia for journalism but found himself not really using it. He wrote for some steady clients, including a trade pub, Conde Nast Traveler, and the magazine of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

Principles that have worked for him

  • Achieve the right amount of specialization. The right amount is the amount that makes you credible but doesn’t close you off from other fields. Identify subspecialties within your specialty. For aerospace, you have air safety, regional carriers, national and international carriers, etc. The value in specializing is that you learn the jargon and the issues you’ll need to be able to speak the language of your field. You don’t have to be a professional in the field to be a specialist in the field. You might not fly planes, but you can right about them.
  • As you write in one field, be on the lookout for related areas. There are many organizations in a single field, as well as organizations interested in the field or in the organizations within the field — and they all need writers. Very often, they want to hire people to write their publications.
  • Build on ideas, topics and research you have compiled for previous assignments. Repurposing your research, knowledge, and concepts can yield dozens if not hundreds of articles.
  • Maintain enough momentum in a field so you become a known quantity. When people know who you are and know what kind of work you do, they will prefer you over unknowns.


Writing for publication vs. commercial work: In publication, the editor makes the assignment, the writer hands in the assignment, the editor makes changes. In commercial work, you’re dealing not with an editor but with a client. Establish up front what the client wants you to do: write it, edit it, both.

You don’t need to have technical expertise, but you need to be able to work with those subject matter experts and take their technical info and translate it to something readable and understandable and clear.

Keep in mind that stuff that may not appeal to you as a reader may be very interesting and enjoyable to you as a writer. If you’ve got work even if it may not be in the most compelling topic, hopefully the process will create at least some level of interest.

To get the next type of job, you just need something to start with, something in print to show that you can write for publication and that you can do what’s needed in editorial work. Even if the subject and format are different, you’ve separated yourself from the wannabes.

 VICKI MEADE: Reflections on freelancing

Freelancer for 12 years after working in associations as a writer and publications manager. After freelancing she got another job and started to realize everything she did wrong as a freelancer. She’s interested in everything so she never really specialized. If she had to say what it was, she’d probably say health care, because she did a lot of that. But as a freelancer she would write about anything people asked her to.

She moved to DC area with a lot of associations and started writing for them: magazines, newsletters, brochures, meeting promotions, etc. She got a lot of good experience doing that, and in 1994 decided to freelance instead of commuting to DC. She made the leap by getting an anchor assignment/ client that she could rely on, and she had $15,000 work she could count on for her first year. From there, she jumped and started doing whatever came her way. She wasn’t terribly organized about marketing herself, but she believes that the most important thing is your relationships. Your writing and editing skills are a given, but your interpersonal skills are huge if you’re going to be a freelancer.

Get in touch with everyone you know to make sure they’re aware you’re freelancing, and let them know what your strengths are. The real key is to be professional and think of yourself as a business. One thing she did later in her freelance life that she wishes she’d done right off the bat, she took some courses from SCORE. They teach you how to run a business. If you freelance, you are a business. You’ll have to think about all kinds of things, taxes, and so own. They will teach you how to market yourself, etc. She also took a freelancing course from AIW when it was still WIW, and also talked to everyone she knew who was a freelancer to get their tips.

Think of yourself as a business, be professional, be reliable, and meet your deadlines. Something she learned when she got a full-time job with a technology company after freelancing was that she could learn about technology and other things she didn’t really understand and grow to understand them. During the 4 years she’s been with this company, she’s learned so much from the freelancers she’s hired about how they promote themselves, how they work with her, what matters to her. It wasn’t until she freelanced and THEN started hiring freelancers herself that it really became clear what she valued. Professionalism is huge, curiosity, being organized. They were always on time, always kept her informed, and there were no surprises.

You have to roll with a lot of things because your clients largely won’t understand what it takes to create the work you do. Make sure you are exactly clear on what the client expects from you. Create a letter of understanding to be very clear on what the job is to avoid any disconnects. Protect yourself by defining everything. You don’t want to seem like a person who always says no; you just want to be a professional.

It’s ideal to start with something you can show a prospect, a portfolio of your work.

She may begin freelancing again soon due to layoffs. Things she will do to hit the ground running and do it right:

  • Think about a specialty to be more focused on specific types of work or areas of focus.
  • Develop something(s) useful potential clients can use to give to them to establish her credibility and stand out as a solution person — something that will help the clients solve a problem.
  • Remember to be positive. Don’t complain about other clients, don’t complain about other types of freelancers, don’t complain about the work, etc. Have good interpersonal skills, don’t make your problems their problems, bond with the client to an appropriate degree, remember that you’re there to help them get the work done.

The key is, again, to look at yourself as a professional and your work as a business. Also take advantage of your contacts and be sure to create materials to market yourself (business cards, stationery, website, etc), and develop a portfolio. The important thing about case studies or anything else for that matter is to make it compelling, find the important nuggets, and make it digestible.

An anchor client can be your previous employer, a part time employer, or just a company that really needs a freelancer for a substantial volume of work. It’s very cost effective for companies to use freelancers rather than hiring additional employees, so it’s very appealing to them. The challenge is letting them know that you’re reliable and they can count on you. The best way to do that is to approve it. Once you’re in and they’re happy with you, they will come back for more and more and more. Anything that’s on an ongoing basis (such as a newsletter) so that they really, really need you, that’s a great thing to pursue.

Ways she will market include: getting back in touch with former clients and offer them whatever useful resource she creates; cold calling companies in the right industry; and attending events where people who are not writers but rather potential clients. Remember that your job is to solve a problem, so figure out what problem you can solve and paint a picture for how you can help the client. Help them to see how you can solve a problem for them.

DONALD GRAUL (AIW’s executive director):

Be sure you make your client look good. The small things, the little notes and networking we did before everything went electronic, resulted in lots of work. Take advantage of that professionalism, and always look for where the next job is coming from. Never ignore the fact that you’re with the next client right now. The work doesn’t always find you. Sometimes you just need to do some cold calling, and be willing to do things the client doesn’t really want to do because they want to have someone to blame for it.

Contents Copyright © 2006-2014 Kristen King

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