How I Wound Up Freelancing

At my building staff meeting tonight, the question of the week (our little closing ritual) was where we saw ourselves in five years. It being Emory, half the group answered “med school.” I said that I was planning to be working in the Smithsonian by then, but on second thought (after much debate among the med school kids about whether residencies are in a lottery that, I must confess, I did not pay attention to) I said that I might want to run social media outreach for an interesting company. One of my co-workers said that she could see me doing that, and another pointed out that I have job skills that are not like normal college kid job skills.

Though I don’t think I’m unusually skilled, I do realize that my sources of income outside of school–primarily freelance writing gigs–are weird. So, I thought I’d talk a little bit about how I stumbled into getting paid for writing.

I didn’t do paid writing until this year. As a high school student, I spent three years as an editor on the school paper, the last two as the Editor-in-Chief, and that gave me some experience writing on a deadline and a lot more experience with badly-applied AP Style, group writing, and how to manage an illegal install of InDesign and hook up a network the school didn’t want–plus how to deal with our printers in rural Georgia and fiddle with a WordPress supplement that my teacher didn’t want. All of these–particularly group dynamics and learning to work around silly restrictions–were tremendously useful skills, but when I graduated I quit using most of them.

This summer, while working at school, I saw that Kelly put out a call for new writers on HackCollege. I’ve been reading the site since I was in high school (yes, I’m that kid) so I applied. I was accepted, and after a truly geeky happy dance, started writing for the site regularly. I don’t get paid for the site*, but having someone force me to write regularly in a non-academic context made me more confident in my writing abilities and gave me a body of work that other people read.

Purely by luck, a friend of mine received an invitation to write profiles of universities for a college guide book as a freelance writer. He didn’t want to do it, but in a fit of kindness that I am still struck by, he sent it along to me. I emailed asking if they wanted me to write–with links to HackCollege stuff–and they accepted me. I spent most of last semester churning out 1,000-word summaries of colleges I’d never been to, and the money allowed me to buy a Kindle and some very tall combat boots.

In the middle of last semester, I did a writeup on OpenStudy, a local startup, for HackCollege. I was interested that they were in Atlanta, and when it turned out that they had paid internships available I applied. After a somewhat strange meeting with one of the managers, I was hired as a copy editor, and spent the next two months writing weekly columns for the company’s blog on education and technology. This was the most fun freelance gig for me, because I mostly got to choose my topics and my boss was universally supportive.

Before Spring Break, I was solicited by a mass-market store to write a little blurb for their catalog for a flat fee. This was my first one-off paid writing gig, and the first in which I was actually edited (repeatedly) by someone else. I’m proud of the final product and I’m excited to see it in print, and if the money all works out I’ll be using it to pay for my cell phone for the next 10 months.

Basically, I stumbled into paid writing through friendships and through attaching myself to a much more visible site. I’ve never pitched anything, which is something I need to learn to do if I want to start making any substantial money at this. I have no formal journalistic training and the one English class I’ve taken was on Crime Fiction. So, for someone who doesn’t want to do it the conventional way, I recommend staying in touch with friends at well-connected schools and attaching yourself to a larger site (perhaps by offering to do a guest post, which is how our current managing editor got his start at HackCollege)**. Exposure is super-important.

In addition, I think finding something that you are uniquely qualified to write about–in my case, almost all of my pieces have to do with college or with technology or with both–can make up for a lack of journalistic training because there’s going to be a limited pool of people. Being lucky helps a lot, particularly if you are like me and laughably awful at networking. So does–and this is easier than luck–writing regularly. If left to my own lazy devices before this year, I wrote something maybe once a month. I’m now shooting for three unpaid things a week–this site, RiotCampus, and HackCollege. They’re scheduled. This both attaches my name to more things (some of which have to interest someone), and makes me a better writer. I operate on the assumption that if I do this enough times, I will eventually not suck at it and then I might even eventually get good at it.

tl;dr: Stay in touch with friends, offer to do guest posts, and write a lot. Then pray.

* I do get some very cool non-monetary perks, but there’s no regular paycheck. It is a totally sweet gig, though.

** Those looking to learn the conventional way should check out Lena Chen’s Freelance Fridays pieces. They’re super-awesome.

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