|Notes on being a Professional Writer
My heroes were the Chinese poets who floated along the back
roads of green mountains as, "banished immortals." They
survived on the good intentions of strangers they met on
I would always recommend writers to venture out and
bum around for awhile. Some of the mountains of youth can
be downright dangerous. When you come back, if you do, start
thinking about the business of writing. If you don't apply
a little bit of intelligence to it you'll get cynical and
hard and lose that fine balance between imagination and
intelligent common sense necessary for anything good and
"So, Mr. Eide, how can I become a professional writer?" Yes,
I got this note a few weeks ago from Melissa of Iowa. She
explained that she had a degree in journalism but wanted to
be a freelance writer; "...a real professional."
Well, it's a crucial moment of discovery. A writer will
spend their college days focusing on the inspired art or
craft of writing and then enter the world without a clue
as to what to do.
I will offer a few clues and some excellent links that
can better explain some of the foundations for a professional
* * * * *
A staff writer is a professional writer as is the full-time
freelance or contract writer. And I have to recommend the
link in For Freelancers Only below, "Contract Employee's
Handbook." Insightful, resourceful, with nice comments on
It's my understanding that staff writers are being cut at
magazines in favor of freelancers. A magazine once called me
a contributing editor because I wrote a lot of articles for
them. It felt like I was on staff but I didn't get paid any
benefits. In fact, that is one of the many tradeoffs in
deciding whether to go solo or get hired somewhere.
Wrangling with Sunoasis.com I've come across many business
problems that confronted me with the question, "do you
really want to continue this?" And I know from the questions
I get, many writers are lost when it comes to getting low-
balled in salary negotiations or getting money from a
publication that promised to pay in a timely fashion.
------- s o m e c l u e s -------
- Know how much work you do per hour.
- Know how to pick up the telephone and call someone who
owes you money.
- Know what you can deduct from taxes.
- Know how to invoice publications.
- Know how to sell the rights that permit you to re-sell
the same material to different markets.
- Know how to stay flexible so when an editor is removed at
a magazine that has accepted a piece you can approach
the new one.
- Know time-management.
- Know what to do when no new assignments appear and the
bills pile up.
Get into this habit: Whenever you do something you
aren't sure about, like business, write out what your
problems are, locate the key words and phrases and enter
those into Google. I'm shocked when people don't know how
to use Google. State the problem. Extract the key word(s)
from the problem, and enter it in the search box at Google.
I recommended this article by Danielle Hollister,
"What You May Not Learn in College." It's useful to
freelance and staff writers.
According to The U.S. Bureau of Labor there will
be an increase in writing jobs by 28% in the
next five years.
* * * * *
One of the first acts of the professional is to write
down a "mission statement." This helps define what and
what-not to focus on as you develop.
For instance, a mission statement could be stated as: "My
writing business is going to explore all the diseases dogs
get, how they are treated, with poignant tales of dogs and
their illnesses. I will find every publication, consumer and
trade, that carries material on dog diseases. I will speak
to dog owner groups and, eventually, this mission will evolve
into writing books." Once that statement is down then you can
start developing "tactics" to get there. What will you
have to research, who are your circle of experts, what
is the universe of publications to choose from? And most
importantly, what sort of revenue stream do you calculate
from this mission?
By doing so you've eliminated 99% of other writing activities
or markets that would simply confuse the matter. Go up to
your favorite mountain and think about the nature of writing
you want to do.
The writer must define the business and set goals for that
business. Some of the best advice deals with setting an
income amount that will allow you to live and then quantify
those goals down to a monthly, weekly, and daily total. The
idea isn't so much to get exactly at the total as it is to
set a goal as a target and see how close or how far you
range from the target. Experience is invaluable. Experience
will tell you how long it will take you to do a particular
project. It will also clue you into the person you are
dealing with and if they are going to pay you on-time.
Remember that up to one-quarter of your time is going to be
spent in marketing. That means preparing cover and
query letters, sending them to editors who might be
interested in your material, going to writer conferences,
approaching clients who might be interested in your services
and so on.
Chip Scanlan chronicles his life as a writer; that is, "the
life of a salesman."
We've said it before: Completely separate the business from
the art. They do not mix. When the writing is good, everything
else is good. When the writing is necessary, nothing else
is necessary. Business is a chore and filled with a kind
of dread. You have to get used to it. Accept it as a challenge
and go forward.
Based on questions I get from young writers these are some
>>>>>>>>>Setting Fees/Collecting Fees<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<
Obviously, most freelance rates are set by publishers,
although many will negotiate a fee. However, if you are
writing for business clients or individuals you need to
find out what others are charging. This is a tricky area
with no fixed method.
It's a fact that professional writers make more money
writing commerical material like annual reports, speeches,
direct mail advertising and so on then they do writing
articles for magazines and newspapers.
Don't charge the highest rate and don't charge the lowest.
Here are some considerations when you take on an assignment.
What is the level of your expertise? Are you simply going to
write or will you proofread and copy edit as well? What are
your expenses and is the fee you charge going to cover those
The links at the bottom of this summary will take you into
involved ideas about how to set and collect fees. One thing
to keep in mind: When you go solo, a free agent, you are
adding a lot of overhead. Make sure you calculate that
overhead into your per hour rate.
When you are researching a magazine look to see the range
of payment (usually assigned articles get more) and
method of payment. If a magazine says it "pays on acceptance,"
it's more favorable than if they say, "pays on publication."
There are magazines that will sit on a piece they have
accepted and contracted for up to a year.
Another item to look at is your invoicing system. At
Sunoasis I created a simple invoice on a wordpad and FAX
it to clients or e-mail it. It seems to work. On the invoice
I put the date, client's name, company name, address, the
invoice number, a description of the work, ending date for
the work, fees, and some expectation of payment, as well as
a thanks for your business. I used to wait a while before
sending out an invoice but expereince has taught me to send
it out the day a job comes in. If you are dealing with a
large organization it's quite likely that the paperwork gets
shuffled around and lost. Make sure you note down the day
you sent the invoice and contact the person or company after
a month. Be courteous but stay with the person until the
invoice is cleared up.
My experience is that established companies pay. They might
not pay in a timely fashion but they will pay. I've run into
a fair share of non-payers, especially during the dot.com
And I have had more than one freelance writer complain that
a magazine hasn't paid her yet. One writer was owed $700
from a reputable magazine and it took months and months
of haggling to get the money. And some publishers are out
and out crooks. They usually don't last long but we've run
The best thing to do is be persistent. Give the publication
two or three tries at it. Don't be beligerent. Simply let
them know they have an outstanding bill and it isn't going
to be forgotten. The link above is useful.
Resource Links for Setting Fees:
Writers learn over time that ideas are what excite editors.
It's an idea that will get an editor to ask the writer to
develop a proposal. Even if the editor hasn't commited
to the idea, his interest is significant.
Every writer has ideas or comes across them. If you are in
the business of writing you need to take those ideas and
transform them into articles, books, and web pages that can
be exchanged for coin-of-the-realm. It's important that in
the business phase of writing you review the ideas you've
written down and get them moving toward a solid project.
This may seem more like art than business and they do blend
a bit, but the point is that the idea, hopefully collected
in a folder or notebook, is nothing unless it is developed.
And the development needs to take place in relation to the
market you've studied.
Another important point is that when you begin to research
the idea you build up a base of facts and information that
can be transformed into more than one article. Always keep
that in mind!
Anything and anyone can be the source for ideas. The
newspaper, magazines, TV, radio, conversations, observations
can all be the source for ideas. Once you have an idea or
list of ideas you can isolate them and begin asking pointed
questions. What is the problem? What is the solution? What is
missing? What is too obvious? These questions are naturally
generated when looking at an idea.
Read in your area of interest. And read with a large
dose of curiosity. Treat ideas as the best friend
you never had. Read philosophy and social criticism. Read
everything you can get your hands on. Read as though your
life depended on it.
For the purpose of professional writing an idea is
interesting in the way it lays out facts and in the
imagination brought to the subject by the writer.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Be The Boss<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<
Be a dream boss and a dream employee all in one. The thing
that stymies freelance writers is that they aren't prepared
for the hard work involved. Assignments don't come floating
down from the trees. Payment is often difficult to extract
even from a reputable publication. You run into all kinds
of personalities who don't communicate well. Be the most
productive employee you, as your own boss, have. And be a
good boss to your favorite employee. And treat all you deal
with respectfully and as equals.
Have excellent habits when it comes to doing tasks and
managing time. Batch similar tasks together and do them at
If you have any questions about careers in freelance writing
don't hesitate to ask!
Back to the Freelance Resource Page
For those new to the Net or overwhelmed by the nature of the
online job market I suggest you look at the Cyber Search Tutorial.There
are more job boards and classifieds from metro newspapers.
Don't forget to visit Sunoasis Joblog for
daily updates on the writing and publishing industry.