So you want to write a book? Freelance writing isn't your thing?
The vast majority of you reading this article are aspiring authors and novelists. You want to write a book, fiction or non-fiction. You probably believe this is where writers should start. Certainly there’s a romantic aura and glamour around being a published author, and everyone would dearly love to be a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling.
While speaking at the recent Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference here in Seattle, I very quickly realized, to my amazement, that most of the 400 attendees were there to find out how to get their first novel published, while only a few dozen of them had ever been published in magazines or newspapers.
A large number attended my “Freelance Magazine Writing” presentation more out of curiosity than with any intent to learn the fine art of freelancing. Almost simultaneously, as my presentation and the audience’s questions unfolded, they came to realize they were on the wrong starting line by attempting to begin their writing career with a book.
Many of them became converts to freelance writing on the spot as I reeled off reason after reason why this is where they should be starting their writing career, instead of jumping in at the deep end by writing and trying to publish a book. If you are seriously contemplating writing a book, the reality is, you should start by honing your skills with freelance writing for magazines, newspapers, and e-zines.
With the advent of self-publishing and publish-on-demand, it has never been easier to write and publish your own book. As a result, sadly, there’s some shockingly bad writing out there that —I strongly suspect—could have been improved if the author had started out by writing for magazines and newspapers.
Here are seven reasons why you should start your writing career by freelancing, and racking up as many bylines as you can.
1. You’ll get to practice and polish your writing.
Writing a book requires the same skills that you use to write nonfiction magazine articles. i.e. you research your topic, refine your ideas, organize your information, and finally, write the piece. Articles written for magazines have to be “tight”, meaning they need to move along at a nice clip, and have lots of interesting stuff in them, to keep the reader’s attention. This is exactly how a book should read too.
Writing for magazines is an ideal way to learn how to keep superfluous prose out of your writing, and above all, it teaches you how to avoid writing in the passive voice, and to write in the active voice. Any serious freelancer will tell you that having a few articles that you’ve slaved over knocked back to you by a magazine editor for rewriting is a valuable lesson (that is—after you dust off your bruised ego and once you get over the staggering fact that your writing needs improvement).
2. You’ll gain confidence as you get published.
I’ve had nearly 400 articles accepted for publication in the 28 months I’ve been freelance writing. Have I gained self-confidence with this? You bet I have! I’ve had many great experiences through freelance writing that have affirmed my writing abilities. There’s no better confidence booster than having an editor compliment you on your work, or even more exciting, call you up and ask you to write a specific article for them.
3. Freelance writing gets your name out in the field and establishes your reputation and credibility in your field.
This is called building a platform—a marketing base from whence you can launch your book. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of establishing your marketing platform before you write and sell a book.
You see, as a freelancer you will have made a lot of contacts that can help the publisher market your book. This may well have as much to do with your book being accepted by a publisher as the topic of your book, or the quality of your writing. Likewise, if you self-publish your book, you’ll have lots of magazine and newspaper contacts to tickle for some free publicity.
Once you’re a well-published freelance magazine writer, book agents will be far more receptive to your pitch for your book. I’d also bet they’ll pay you a larger advance than if you were not published previously—you’re certainly in a better position to bargain.
4. Freelance writing teaches you about the writing and marketing process.
That big step up to writing and publishing your book will not seem so intimidating after all the writing and marketing you’ve done through freelance writing. The proposal part of trying to find a publisher for your book is simply an extended, more detailed version of the query letters that you regularly send out to a magazine editor. It might take you longer to put a book proposal together, but your experience of writing query letters to magazine editors will have these skills finely honed. Your proposal will stand out above the rank and file because you’ve learned to keep your queries concise, interesting, and attention grabbing.
5. You can sell the same magazine article multiple times before you turn it into a chapter for your book.
I’m a big believer in wringing as much use as possible from a magazine article. I’ve resold some articles a dozen times, and made over $2,000 from them. In all likelihood you’ll make more money in a year of freelance writing than from writing your first novel (unless it’s a blockbuster!).
It’s well established that unless you’re a famous author, you’ll make far more money selling your articles piecemeal to magazines than you would selling them as chapters in your book. Look at it as having your chapters published as magazine articles, as a way to be paid for writing your book, in advance.
If, as a previously unpublished author, you receive an advance of $3,000 for your first book, it would be considered a good advance. Let’s say the book has 15 chapters, each of which is worthy of being a magazine article. An average magazine article will earn you between $200-$500, so the very least you’ll make is $3,000 selling the individual chapters of the book, and if you resell your articles, you’ll make far in excess of that. You’ll earn the same amount writing a few magazine articles as you can from your whole book.
6. You already have a stamp of approval before you tidy your articles up for a book chapter.
It’s nice to know that your articles, which will eventually be the skeletons for your book chapters, have already been “proven” out there. In other words, editors think it's suitable for publication.
7. You can trade ad space for your book for a magazine article.
Once you’ve established yourself with several magazine editors as one of their “regulars”, you can always trade future articles for ad space for your book. Editors by far prefer to give you ad space in their magazines than forking out cash for your article. Additionally, those same editors will be happy to do a book review of your book, leading to further book sales.
Consider this too: if you don’t have the patience to spend a day or three writing an 1800 word article for a magazine, what chance do you have, realistically, of completing a 200 – 300 page book? But if you have lots of practice writing shorter articles, putting a book chapter together is going to be easy—it’s just a series of short articles!
Writing your own book and freelance writing should be seen as synergistic enterprises, instead of stand-alone tasks. The savvy freelancer should always be writing magazine articles with the idea of eventually publishing them in book form.
Here’s an example. Currently, after 28 months of freelancing and 370 published articles, I am only now seriously starting work on my Guide Book about World War II Museums, Monuments, Cemeteries and Battlefields in Western Europe. I’ve essentially written the skeleton of the chapters for my book while being paid to write magazine articles about these museums, monuments, cemeteries, etc.
My writing has also improved tremendously writing freelance articles and I write faster and more clearly than when I started out—big advantages for the aspiring author. I’m also far more confident in my writing and marketing abilities now that I can visit my Barnes and Noble magazine rack every month and find three or four magazines with my work in them. And all the query letters I’ve sent out have been great practice for book proposals.
Additionally, a side benefit I’m anticipating once I’ve published my book is that editors will be much more likely to go for my magazine article pitches, once I am a published author.
Many freelance magazine writers eventually make the leap from selling articles to writing a book, at some point in their careers. Freelancers take this step because they’ve learned a lot about their chosen area of writing and developed a lot of expertise. A book provides the freelancer with a bigger medium to combine all of his previous work in one place.
Publishing a book is a logical next step for enterprising freelancers, and will reap many advantages in the future. It’s a very satisfying culmination of years of writing those articles. But starting out your writing career as an author is really like trying to start at the top of the pyramid, with the odds stacked against you.
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