How to Possibly Become a Paid Non-fiction Freelancer: 10 Rules of Thumb and the Unvarnished Truth from an Old Guy I’ve been a freelance writer for about 30 years, and I can say without hesitation that most of what you read about pursuing this kind of career path is grossly inaccurate. The rapid growth of the Internet and social media have made paid freelance writing opportunities more confusing, overly sensationalistic, much less lucrative, and highly serendipitous. Plus, the number of freelance writers competing in the marketplace has increased dramatically in recent years. In my estimation, there at least 10 rules of thumb that may or may not get you decent work as a freelancer. Note that I said, “may or may not.” There are no guarantees in the freelance writing business, and if you can’t accept frequent rejection, you should not be on this career path to begin with. Here are my 10 rules of thumb along with some truthful notations, based on my experiences as an on-and-off full-time paid freelancer. 1. Build your web presence. Start a portfolio site that highlights your articles, or a blog, or both. A decent-looking website that showcases your work is mandatory in your quest to get assignments. There’s no guarantee this will get you work, no matter how professional your site looks and how great your work samples are, but it’s a must-have. Also make sure you get a free Google analytics account, so you can at least get some kind of handle on how many visitors you get. Unvarnished truth: If you don’t have any connections in the publishing world, nor a large network of close friends and colleagues, don’t expect too many eyeballs, if any. Your mother might check it out, but even that is not guaranteed. 2. Be a creative networker. If you want to obtain business clients who will hire you as a freelancer, find a theme or topic that fascinates you. Study it thoroughly until you feel comfortable writing about it. Search for a company, preferably within driving range, but not necessary, that provides products and/or services related to your topic of interest. Write an article about the topic and include a significant mention of the company you’re interested in possibly obtaining as a client. Make sure the article is well researched and includes direct quotes from experts and/or citations to relevant research/articles. Either publish the article you wrote on your site or on some other site that will publish it (don’t consider getting paid for it, but if you can, so much the better). After it’s published, send a very positive note to the CEO or president of the company you chose, with a link to the article, explaining why you wrote it, how much you love his/her products and services, and how you’d like to write more similar pieces with the possibility of working for them as a freelancer. Mention that you’d be happy to meet face-to-face (if close by) to discuss possibilities and story ideas. Unvarnished truth: Even if you are fortunate enough to land a meeting with a potential client, you may not get any work out of it. However, you will have planted a seed, and that potential client may call you months later when they are in a jam for a writer. This has happened to me several times. 3. Share all your citations. Similar to No. 2, here’s another way to network effectively: Anytime you write anything with citations to any outside source(s), send the link to your article to that source. Highlight what you wrote about them, and add a friendly note letting them know that you admire their work, which is why you cited them in the first place. This is a great way to get your piece shared with new readers as well as gain some recognition in the field you are writing about. You might even get an assignment out of this practice if you promote your services to the citation source in a pleasant and not-too-intrusive manner. Unvarnished truth: This has worked for me as an ice-breaker for making a connection and building a network, but typically they are short-lived. At other times it has not worked at all. Even for those instances when they do respond, don’t be surprised when the next time you send them an email, they do not respond. On the other hand, these efforts have also resulted – although infrequently – in the establishment of bona-fide lifelong connections. 4. If you want your articles accepted by decent-paying publications, play the numbers game, but even then, you might lose. This is probably the most difficult thing you can do as a freelance writer who does not have any solid connections with any editors. It entails spending an enormous amount of time deeply researching multiple topics of interest for writing profound pitches to various publication editors. In addition, it’s very important to maintain a highly organized tracking system of your research and your pitches (use EXCEL or the free Google Spreadsheets program). All this requires straight-on focus and more creativity than most have in their brains, but it can be done if you work extremely hard and do not become too frustrated. For example, spend a week conducting deep research to come up with 10 unique pitches for 10 different articles that fit within the submission guidelines of 10 different publishers. (That could be five highly focused eight-hour days conducting research and writing your pitches, if you take the weekends off). You are basically spending hours upon hours and days upon days without any financial compensation, hoping that an editor will give you the go-ahead. Unvarnished truth: You may not get one assignment, and you may get multiple assignments. It’s the nature of the beast. I’ve been in both camps. Sometimes you may even establish a solid relationship with an editor who will give you many more assignments for years to come – that’s a winning jackpot. 5. Don’t waste your time on freelance-writing-advice-oriented websites, courses, webinars, podcasts, etc., unless you feel so inadequate to believe strongly that you need some outside help. Additionally, skip over any advertisements for freelance writers asking you to write content on spec, or on freelance writing services that put you within some online database that supposedly will get you work. The best advice is to follow your gut, in my opinion. I have found, over the years, that following the typical advice frequently presented online via freelance-writing-advice-oriented websites and forums about how to pitch and communicate with editors to be utterly false. I’ve proven such advice wrong numerous times. So, do whatever you think might work best and hope for a good result. If the end result is negative, despite your honest and sincere efforts, then it wasn’t meant to be. Just move on to the next possibility. Unvarnished truth: Sometimes taking a course will be helpful because it may give you a name and email address of an editor of a publication that interests you that you were previously unaware of. This happened to me once, resulting in about a dozen assignments, but in the end I felt that it might have simply been serendipitous because I had caught the editor at the right moment – it’s very often all about timing. 6. Don’t believe all that stuff about SEO. In my opinion, it is not an exact science and often pure luck. Do the basics with regard to SEO, like using similar key words in your headline and opening graph. Trying to figure out how to get to get first-page-status on a Google search is a waste of time better spent writing, researching, pitching, and attempting to build relationships with editors. Unvarnished truth: Even if you do get to the top page of a Google search, which I have accomplished at times, it does not necessarily bring you any new business, nor a ton of new readers. 7. The skinny on social-media-oriented advertising. I wrote about this some time ago in a Linkedin post. See https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what...ng-here-other-social-media-55-george-lorenzo/ if you’re on Linkedin. The bottom line, in my opinion, quoting myself : “Work with a strong focus on writing good, intelligent stuff and honor you well-thought-out plans over a good many hours each day. Experiment with marketing tools, using whatever you might be able to invest in financially. Utilize free tools carefully - without overwhelming yourself or taking you off your more important tasks.” Unvarnished truth: My experiment in this vein revealed Facebook ads to be the most effective, but I have come to greatly dislike Facebook over the years and no longer use it. However, to be totally honest, I may need to go back to using it because it was pretty effective at building an audience, even if that audience was kind of hokey, for lack of a better word. 8. You don’t need a self-help book, although I have read my fair share of them, to no avail, I might add. Just write and keep practicing, like a musician …. It all really boils down to simply doing the work. Like anything, more practice (and failures) will make you better. Work on your headlines and ledes. The old cliché that “practice makes perfect” will never let you down, and it’s free, except for the sweat equity you put into it. Unvarnished truth: Reading a self-help book about freelance writing can make you feel good about yourself because typically you’ll read about the same challenges and solutions you’ve understood all along – kind of a likeminded comingling effect. Also, let’s face it, as a side note, the freelance creative life is a gigantic financial struggle for the vast majority of creatives, regardless of their talent. Keeping that in mind, I don’t want to sound too negative about the writers of these kinds of books. Writing a book is an arduous, painful process, and should be highly respected in and of itself. 9. Sometimes it’s who you know and not what you know. Sorry, another cliché. . . But it’s true in all walks of life. The more editors and publishers you know well, the easier it will be to get published. Unvarnished truth: Replace “sometimes” with “oftentimes.” 10. Do your own thing – enough said, except for the final note below. Final note: If you are a freelance non-fiction writer, successful or otherwise, please feel free to criticize, agree with, admonish, call me names, offer praise, offer constructive criticism, offer your experiences that worked out or did not work out – whatever you think might help other freelancers.