If you aspire to be an author, then you probably already know that you need a “platform” to land that big book deal. Or any book deal, period.
Most of us are aware, by now, that we’re supposed to have two million Twitter followers, plus a couple gazillion more on Instagram, YouTube and Substack. Platform haunts our dreams in the literal sense. It follows us around like a swarm of starved mosquitos. If you’re anything like me, the word alone makes you want to bolt up from your desk right now and go hide in your hall closet, behind the Swiffer and forgotten rolls of Christmas paper, stopping only to grab a Lime-A-Rita.
It’s not just us link-stained wretches churning out the nonfiction, either. Even fiction writers eventually need a platform. Story alone may get your query plucked from the slush pile, and later acquired by a Big Five editor, but those odds are long. You bet on them at your own peril.
Now what if I told you that you could distinguish yourself amidst the slush, disguise the weaknesses elsewhere in your platform and stick it to your snarky brother-in-law, just by doing some freelance writing?
By “freelancing,” I mean contributing articles to websites and other outlets, and by “byline,” I mean the journalism term for author credits, i.e. whom a piece is attributed to.
But before we get into the how, let’s look at five reasons you might want to do some freelancing.
1. Voilà! You are now a professional writer, not some loon
Adding just one or two freelance bylines to your query letter gives you instant credibility, because bylines prove that some editor somewhere has already deemed you good enough and sane enough to contribute to their publication. Why is this so important? Because it shows agents and acquisition editors that you’re a pro. It says, I know how the writing game works. I know how to pitch and handle edits. And I’ve got some media connections, too.
2. A brilliant cover story for your introversion
Many writers—maybe most?—are introverts. This means that plenty of us, regardless of age, don’t feel super comfortable on social media, or as though our natural register chimes just right with internet speech and customs. Maybe you don’t want to turn your life into TikTok content, or tweet out cruel hot takes, or relentlessly Instagram your infant. (These are not the only ways to use social media, of course, just common ones.)
Freelance bylines can help you cover up such modern-day character flaws, helping you raise your profile another way. Also, because media outlets tend to operate on much quicker timelines than literary journals, freelancing typically offers faster turnarounds than short-story publication, too. You may, in other words, reach payoffs much sooner, which leads us straight to reason #3.
3. Little wins
The book-writing life is grindingly slow, lonely, difficult. It’s hard to feel like you’re gaining any ground. When you freelance on the side, you can scoop up a little validation while you hustle on your longer-term goals. Plus, now you’ve got an answer for the next time your brother-in-law buttonholes you at the family barbecue to ask, “Hey genius, where’s the book?” Instead of flinging your coleslaw in his face, you can take the high road, like: “Oh, I’ve been busy freelancing. Did you see my piece in [publication name]?” So chew on that, ya jerk!!!
4. Crucial pitching and selling experience
To eventually sell a book, you first need to learn how to pitch your ideas. I mean, maybe you were born a virtuoso who grasps the splashiest, most salable aspects of a story from the get-go. The rest of us may need several dozen trials to gain such a sense. Freelancing, because it runs on pitching, offers you a low-stakes way to hone your skills and get experience. (More about pitches in just a minute.)
5. Scoring other opportunities
You’ll notice I have not mentioned money yet in this list, for good reason. There’s precious little money in freelancing. Depending on which outlet you’re writing for, you may not be paid at all. Be that as it may. Freelancing can lead to other opportunities. You could be invited to appear as a guest on podcasts or radio shows, or be interviewed by other news outlets. And this gives you yet more fodder for your queries and submissions: more credibility, more of a platform, more professional experience.
One friend of mine, years ago, published a funny essay about a house-flipping adventure gone wrong, and she still gets emails about it. Another person I know wrote an op-ed for his hometown newspaper, and some five years later, a big-time news producer found the op-ed via Google. They now plan to feature the writer in a documentary.
Speaking for myself, I can say that nearly every podcast and radio interview I’ve ever done grew out of some freelance piece I wrote. I’ve also made friends through freelancing, met fellow writers, and gotten to know some cool people in media. It’s a kind of non-mercenary networking.
Long listicle short, for the investment of time it takes you to get your first freelance pitch accepted, you could realize vast gains.
So, how can you get your very first byline?
The process of getting a freelance acceptance works like this: You email an editor a “pitch,” by which I mean a short, 200-word-ish presentation of an idea for a piece that you’d like to write. Then the editor responds, accepting, rejecting, and/or asking you follow-up questions about your idea.
Who to approach
I recommend first trying editors at your local newspaper, alternative weekly, or any local-interest websites. This is because these outlets tend to be okay with publishing writers who may not have a ton of experience yet.
It’s true (and sad) that local newspapers are fast disappearing. If you don’t have one in your area, or haven’t been able to get a response from an editor there, then you can look further abroad to special-interest websites. Are you into knitting? Search for websites that run articles about knitting. Or fly-fishing. Or Crossfit, or whatever your hobby is. Start with smaller outlets, rather than huge names.
If you’re a parent, you can write for sites like ScaryMommy or Fatherly or similar. If you’re into personal finance, then you might write for a personal-finance site. Et cetera.
Editors’ names and email addresses are typically listed on a publication’s masthead. You can also just Google relentlessly with such search terms as “who is the opinion editor at [publication name]?” or “how to pitch [publication name].”
What to approach them with
Yes, idea generation can be hard. The best way to approach it is to read the publications first to get a sense of what they’re putting out. You might, for instance, peruse the op-ed pages of your local newspaper online. You might spend a few hours browsing the local-interest website.
Now think of topics you’re interested in that might be similar to the ones you’ve just seen covered. Could you write about an arts or literary event in your area? Could you write about a personal experience that speaks to some larger subject now in the news? Is your cat hilarious, could she be the subject of an entire essay?
Bear in mind that you don’t have to have reporting chops to write, say, an op-ed. You’re not doing any reporting—you’re essentially just popping off a seven-paragraph essay about something that you already think.
When I first started contributing op-eds to my local newspaper, I wrote about my deep love for the local airport. Next, I wrote about why I don’t hate Black Friday. I wrote another piece about how I think my hometown is much cooler than the nearest big city. Basic opinion stuff. Nothing too spicy—more friendly and warm.
How to approach them
Below, you’ll find an email template that you can adapt and use. The subject line of your email can be super simple, like: Pitch: [Title of Your Proposed Article].
My name is Yourname, and I’m a writer who’s previously contributed to [any other publications you’ve ever written for, no matter how tiny or long ago; if you’ve never been published, then just say: I’m a writer who lives in Town/City].
I’m contacting you because I’m a huge fan of Publication—especially your recent piece, “Article Title.” I love the variety of perspectives that Publication offers [or some other sincere compliment].
Now I’m getting in touch with another idea you might like.
Title of your article
A 200-word-ish encapsulation of your idea goes here.
Would you be interested? I could have it for you in two weeks [or whatever your timeline is] if so. Or, if you’d like to see a draft first, I’d be happy to provide that, too.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Still confused? Let’s look at an example. While I wouldn’t say it’s hall-of-fame material, here’s the pitch I sent Jane for this very article.
Thank you so much for running the piece on the dozen-year query quest. It got a nice reaction, at least according to my Twitter. Grateful to you for publishing it.
I’m getting in touch now with another idea you might like.
How to Get Your Very First Freelance Byline
Most writers understand that developing a “platform” is crucial. No wonder, then, that so many of us are running the exact same play on Twitter and Instagram—sometimes with quite limited success. Not everyone is going to feel truly comfortable on social media, or as though their natural register chimes just right with internet speech and customs.
So what else can you do to round out your writerly resume? You can publish freelance articles, which will give you professional-writing experience as well as bylines to brag about.
Still, most fiction writers don’t freelance, even though just one or two bylines can really add to your bona fides (and help fig-leaf any weaknesses elsewhere in your platform). At the same time, this reluctance is understandable. Getting your first byline can be a major challenge.
I’d love to contribute a piece about where to start and who to pitch, showing readers how to approach editors in their immediate area, at their local alt. weekly or hometown newspaper. Even though local papers are rapidly disappearing, most metro areas still have one, and in my experience, these outlets are receptive to previously unpublished writers if approached the right way. There are also niche internet and trade publications similarly open to those without much experience, so I’d provide sample pitches and article ideas for such outlets, too.
Getting your first freelance byline is a big hump to get over. But once you’re over it, a new world opens up. All of a sudden, you have experience working with editors, and more of a real-world sense of what it’s really like to work as a writer. Plus, the pitching experience you gain can help you land an agent and, eventually, sell a book.
Would you be interested?
Finally, one weird tip about when to pitch
I have, until now, guarded this freelancing secret with great cunning, stealth and ferocity. Men have DIED trying to… Okay, not really, but it is pretty good, so lean in: The best time to pitch someone an idea is on Tuesday mornings between 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.
Why Tuesday, why mid-morning? Because Monday is an awful day to approach anyone with anything, and by Wednesday, most of us have been sucked into the vortex of the week, with all our mental energy directed someplace else already. Mid-morning because people aren’t off to lunch yet and tend to be at their desks.
Happy freelancing! Here’s hoping it helps you reach your bigger, hairier, scarier, far more frightening and horrible writing goals.
Catherine Baab-Muguira’s debut, Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru, is forthcoming from Hachette in September 2021. She writes a free email newsletter called Poe Can Save Your Life, packed with darkly inspiring self-help tips for writers and other creatives. Check it out here, or say “Hi!” on Twitter.