How to be a successful freelancer

Writing is hard. I’ve been doing it everyday for the last seven years of my life and I still have trouble filling the page with coherent, informative and entertaining thoughts. But the name of the game is perseverance. One day everyone catches the break they deserve as long as they’ve put in the work to be there. The good news? Reading this, right here, right now? That’s putting in the work. Or at least a good starting place. 

I’ve been a paid editor in tech/games journalism for the last five years, first at a magazine called @GAMER and now for TechRadar. It has been a wonderful (and at some times brutal) journey. Before that, I was a freelancer – writing for a bunch of blogs that no longer exist – and even before that an intern for Official Xbox Magazine. At the beginning of my journey in 2009, I was simply a kid from Buffalo, New York who liked video games and had no writing experience. 

Here’s more good news: You can go from wherever you are now to where I am now (a senior editor on an awesome tech website, plus a freelancer for places like EDGE, PC Gamer, GamesRadar, Mac|Life, Official Xbox Magazine and more) in seven years’ time.

Here’s how to do it.

Step 1. Find something you love.

While I’d love to tell you that your desire to do this work is all you’re ever going to need, I can’t. It simply doesn’t work that way. It takes passion, knowledge and good luck. We’ll cover the other two points in a minute, but first, let’s focus on passion.

Everyone loves games. But I bet there’s a specific thing that you love that no one else loves. Maybe it’s video games based on comic books. Or maybe you really love RPGs made at a specific time by a specific company … I mean, we all agree that BioWare games made in between 1999 and 2005 were the best, right? 

Having a specialization is going to set you apart from the crowd. It’s going to give you the confidence to tell an editor, “yes, I can handle that story about Anthem because I’ve written a half-dozen articles on Mass Effect games, and I know exactly how these universes intersect.” I’m using BioWare for an example because I love them, but you could use any company or genre or product category of consumer electronics and the results will be the same.

Step 2. Once you’ve found something you love – and I mean really love – write about it.

OK, here comes some bad news. Hopefully it will be the first and the only bad news I have to give you in the course of this document: You probably won’t get paid your first six months. (Unless you’re really good or really well-connected.) 

You won’t get paid because for the first six months, all you’re going to do is build up steam. You’re going to need to write (nearly) every day on a platform like Blogger, Tumblr, Scribblr, any site that ends in an ‘-er’ but they’re so edgy that they’ve reduced it to just an ‘r’.

This step is crucial because it a.) builds your voice as a writer, and b.) builds up a small library of work that you can show to potential outlets down the road. 

This is where most people burn out. Right here on Step #2. 

They give up because they complain that no one is reading what they write. They say that no one is paying attention. They say that writing is hard and yucky and it sucks. (To which I agree.) 

You cannot give up. Treat each of your articles the way you think an editor treats their own. Some of my stuff might only be read by a few hundred people. My column on TechRadar, Off the Radar, routinely has 1,000 views. (For reference, a ‘decent’ article on TechRadar does 10,000 pageviews, while the really good ones do 20, 30, 50 or 100,000 pageviews.) 

If I stopped writing when only six people read my article about the best original Pokémon team, or the time I covered E3 press conferences on Facebook Notes for fun, I wouldn’t be here.

Step 3. (Calmly) Approach your first editor for freelance work

At this point, you should have a topic that you love and a budding base of work that you can show to potential editors. You do? Good! Good! Excellent. 

What most (bad/uninformed/new/red shirt) freelancers do now is bum-rush editors’ inboxes, spamming 10 to 15 of us with the same email. Don’t do that. Craft a great pitch first – a story that only you could write. Maybe it’s “All the ways Final Fantasy has improved in 30 years” or “HDMI cables explained: what you need to know about the weird and wonderful High-Definition Multimedia Interface”. (Seriously, can someone write that last one for me?) 

A good pitch, in my eyes, has three parts: an introduction, a headline or angle and an explanation. That’s it. I have roughly 100-or-so super important emails to read in my day. If a pitch email is long, confusing and from someone I don’t know, I delete it. 

An introduction should be something simple: 

ex. Hi Nick! My name is <insert your name here>, I just read this awesome article on TechRadar about <topic you’re interested in>. You/the writer you commissioned to write this did an awesome job! 

You can then transition into your pitch: 

I’m not sure if you’re looking for more articles about it, but if you are, I’ve been writing about <topic you’re interested in> for the last six months and have collected tons of interesting information. (Include links to work!) I have an idea for a feature: INSERT YOUR POTENTIAL TITLE HERE. 

At this point you’ve got me hooked. I know you’ve read something on the site and now I know that you’re a subject matter expert and you can prove that with the links you’ve provided. Now reel in the catch – provide me with the reason you should be writing this article. 

Ex.1 I’m not sure if you saw this (though hopefully you have), but <INSERT TOPIC> was trending on Twitter earlier this week and it will probably trend again next week/month when… 

Ex. 2 I’m not sure if you use Google Trends or sites like Keywordtool.io, but I saw that there were 10,000 people searching for <INSERT TOPIC> last month. I feel like this article could capture some of that traffic.

Ex. 3 I know this subject doesn’t get a lot of attention, but here’s why people should care about this…

Pro tip: When you’re first starting out, don’t pitch the biggest websites first. Go after well-established but more niche players – BleedingCool, TechnoBuffalo, Comic Book Resources, Twinfinite, ShackNews… If you haven’t published there, you’re probably not ready to be on sites like Polygon, Engadget, TechCrunch, IGN, etc…

Step 4. Use social networks to your advantage.

Even if you do everything right, the editor might not respond to you. He/She/They might be so insanely busy with work – especially around events like E3/GDC/Gamescom/CES that they won’t be able to respond. Most of the time, it’s nothing personal. 

If that happens, give them a follow on Twitter. Like some of their statuses. Don’t harass them or barge in on their conversations. Eventually they’ll take notice and want to see your name in their inbox. The name of the game is perseverance.

And when you finally get the opportunity to write for them…

Step 5. Turn in copy complete and in the right format.

Once you land your first gig, ask the editor for a template to follow or – at the very least – an article that resembles what they’d like the finished copy of your article to look like. Having something in the right format, with very few grammatical mistakes and a clear tone saves editors time and will be the thing that keeps them coming back to you for more work in the future.

The worst thing you can do when working with a new editor is under-deliver. Doing so means they probably won’t hire you for a second article – and when there are only a dozen-or-so publications left in this industry, you have to be careful about burning bridges.

Step 6. Get paid.

Once you’ve paid your time – that six months to a year before your first paid writing gig – don’t work for free any more. You are not a charity. You are a writer, dammit. And writers get paid. At first, that may only be a few dollars an article, but keep writing and pitching and before long your name will be in my inbox landing contracts for $150/$250/$350 an article. 

As for keeping track of these submissions there are a number of great free trackers out there – but, if you’re trying to keep it simple, a Google Doc or Microsoft Excel sheet will work out just fine. Make columns for the publication name, the date you submitted the article, the rate and if you’ve already invoiced them for the article.

Step 7. Pop a bottle and celebrate! You made it. 

Did you get that first paycheck? Good. Build on your first success to pitching more websites on even more ideas. Branch out. Explore a new space. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes are better than practiced hands, especially when that fresh set of eyes are particularly keen. 

Finally, don’t forget what you’ve learned and pass it along to someone else. You never know who you might inspire to break into the industry.

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