Friday, April 4, 2014

Starting to write as freelancer today?

These days, I’m not sure anyone who started freelancing when I did—1968—can really offer much useful advice, but I'll try. Keep in mind that until recently, I had no interest at all in writing fiction. I wrote, and still write, non-fiction, usually in the do-it-yourself fields that most interest me--cars, photography, woodworking and home repair and remodeling. Along the way, I photographed and wrote feature articles on specific older cars for several magazines, some of which no longer exist and one that now believes my lowest rate is too high.

The successful freelancer spends as much time checking markets as he, or she, does researching and writing articles. Markets come and go, and the Internet has created massive weaknesses in the print market so market checks are even more important today.

Current freelance markets are almost all on a downward slide, producing a sense of futility in those of us who have been doing this for years. Getting $20 to $50 for 400 or 500 words is not a sane option for anyone looking to make a living turning out useful words. This is the primary reason, in my opinion, that there is so much half-assed nonsense published on-line as either news or do-it-yourself material, or, for that matter, as essays on various subjects. About 98% is poorly written, and even more poorly thought out. All is poorly researched, if researched at all.

That said, there remains some areas that still pay at least half decently—The Atlantic comes to mind—while demanding excellence all around. Some of the still existing semi-technical magazines, such as Popular Mechanics, take freelance material and pay decently for it, as do some of the car and woodworking magazines. I’m sure there are others with which I am not familiar because of a lack of interest in the subject matter. I don’t much like the direction the current Popular Science has gone, but for years, I picked up appreciable chunks of money from them. Extreme How To is an interesting magazine that pays decently.

Today, the ability to work fast and accurately is even more important than in the past: for most of my busiest years, I could make a decent living writing from three to five articles a month. Today, it is difficult to find five sensible assignments in any one month, and the requisite numerical need seems closer to eight  (assuming a max of $500 per article).
Ten years ago, I usually wrote two $500 articles, one or two for $800 to $1800 and, if luck was good, one for $3000.

I was able to add a book most years, though for a period of time, I did flat fee books (usually a mistake) for a publisher at the rate of two a year.

If I had to begin as a freelancer today, I wouldn't. It is more crowded, less enjoyable, and pays less. Still, if anyone wants to write today in the arenas in which I worked in the past, I’d suggest checking the magazines on newsstands, and going through various writer’s publications that offer market listings as part of their fare.

I’ve some very modest success recently with short material on Amazon. Such things as “How To Build A Birdhouse” sound simple minded, but I’ve kept the price very low, so it sells a few copies most months. I’ve also put a couple of books on Amazon, but they don’t do as well as the simpler articles, at least so far. From what I understand, sales are enhanced in two ways, one of which is extensive on-line marketing by the writer, not one of my strengths, and by having at least five publications listed. I haven’t gotten there yet because I spent the last year, or most of it, either in hospital or rehab centers recovering from botched knee replacement surgery.

I’m not going to give writing instruction beyond saying the avoidance of clichés is always good and clarity is even better. You obviously need to be able to construct sentences that make sense. In the process, avoid what is known as purple prose, the inflation of descriptions with too many, and too vivid adjectives. Hemingway is a good example there, though a bit extreme.
Otherwise, read good writers as often as possible and try to follow their examples—without plagiarizing.

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