How to become a freelance writer online? Is a degree important? Where to find jobs? How to pitch an idea? An interview with a freelance writer and editor Angela Alcorn.
Do you also sometimes think that being an adult sucks? That all this unlimited access to candy and late night shows is not worth it?
All these responsibilities and decision making!
There isn’t a day where you don’t have to decide about things. Whether to move to another city. Which insurance to buy. What apartment to take. Groceries, babies, pets. And most importantly, what to have for dinner.
But it all starts before you even notice it: when you have to decide about your future career – something you’ll be spending 40 hours a week on for the next 40 years.
According to the statistics, roughly 50% of us didn’t do well with this one already. Whether it’s the field itself, the colleagues or the working hours – in 2014, 52.3% of Americans were unhappy with their jobs.
Why? Because, being the responsible adults we are supposed to be, we’d rather stick to a boring but secure job within our comfort zone than look around for something better outside of it.
How would you like to be working from home?
In your field or in a different one. Making pajamas to your new “work clothes”, spending more time with the family, taking vacations when you need them.
Ah, it only works for some smart young people with no responsibilities and some seed money!
Or does it?
What if I told you you don’t need the money? Moreover, you don’t even have to be young or smart (not that I doubt your mental capacity). In fact, there are 10 very concrete things you could do in the next 24 hours, if you decided to take that step – to become a freelance writer online.
But how to become a freelance writer in the world where almost everyone seems to be a blogger? It must be damn hard and something only qualified professionals can do!
Wait. Before you give up on this idea…
Good news: It’s not as difficult as you think, and by the time you’ve finished reading this article you will be good to go.
Bad news: That unlimited access to candy is not good for your figure! (I know it’s off-topic, but there is no bad news on this one, sorry).
Meet Angela Alcorn, a freelance writer, editor, social manager and a passionate advocate of working online, especially for mothers, teenagers, travellers and the elderly.
Full Name: Angela Alcorn
Country: France (originally from Australia)
Occupation: Writer, Editor and Social Media Manager
Hobbies: Singing, reading, binge-watching Netflix
Favorite Quote: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” ~ Ferris Bueller
Angela currently works as an editor and a staff writer at MakeUseOf, but also runs a blog on online careers, a blog on how to make money writing, a social media management company and a family with two small children.
Yes, I also suspect there is actually two of her, because the amount of things she manages on a daily basis is simply insane!
Angela started her freelance career right before she graduated from her degree and has been running her own websites since the mid 90s.
So she’s been around for a while, and I can tell you it shows, because the ratio of the useful up to the point information per meter square you are about to find here will blow your mind.
Do you have your notebooks ready? Have you sharpened your pencils? Prepare to take notes!
Gill: I’ve read on your site that you started writing “on the Internet about the Internet” right after you got your degree in Internet Studies and Journalism. It means you started working from home right after your graduation?
Angela: Actually, I was already working from home as I graduated from the degree. Then I moved to France just as I finished off my last subjects, because I wanted to live somewhere in Europe and travel throughout the rest of Europe from there.
I started by doing my old editing job for a family textbook business remotely, but then moved on to freelance writing.
Gill: You write for so many blogs and have a couple of your own. How many years did it take you to get to the place you are at right now?
Angela: I’ve been running my own websites since the mid 90s and started personal blogs as soon as I realised it would be easier than updating my website every day with a new status. I began doing it professionally in 2010, and it’s only gotten more out of hand since then.
Gill: Was there an event that you would call a breakthrough, or did everything happened gradually?
Angela: In the beginning, I tried answering adverts, bidding on freelance and revenue-share sites like Squidoo and Hubpages. They made a bit of money, but it was a slog, and somehow it never felt like it was getting anywhere. I was also running my own niche sites, but with no real strategy in place.
My big break came when I realised I could search for sites that had a “Write For Us” page, and found out MakeUseOf was hiring (nowadays, most sites will advertise clearly if they’re willing to take on new writers, but not so at the time).
I’d been following MakeUseOf for a year or so before then, so I was keen. They hired me, and I’ve never looked back. Since then, MakeUseOf have taken me on for editing roles and social media management.
Over time, I started to run my own sites with an actual plan for success in place. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to know you’ve planned the subject matter and name of the blog with keywords and business development in mind from the very beginning!
Gill: So now all work that you do is online?
Angela: Well, not entirely. My online work is most of what I do, certainly. But somewhere along the line I went from being a decent chorister to being part of a trio that gets paid good money to sing at weddings and festivals. That’s a hobby that went professional unexpectedly!
Normally, we spend the winter months learning new repertoire and looking for gigs; then in Summer we’re busy every week, often singing with a big band. I’ve now decided to do some solo gigs as well, as it’s a really fun way to earn money. Check out Lotelles.fr, MonestierBigBand.fr and Chiquitita-Sings.com if you’re interested.
Gill: Then why not dedicate all your time to singing?
Angela: Although I earn pretty much the same with singing as I do with writing, editing and doing social media management, in the end, it makes sense to focus on the work that I can do from home, in any weather, any time of day or night, around kids, while sick, and all the rest. But hey, it’s definitely nice to chop and change on occasion.
When you answer an advert or deal with a new site, you’re gambling on whether they will pay.
Gill: What was the very first piece you wrote and got paid for?
Angela: I won’t name names, but the story was a lesson to anyone. I answered an ad for an up-and-coming tech blog, gave them a bunch of titles I could write and eventually wrote one article on “Breaking Up With Your OS” for a decent fee.
They paid quickly, so I was happy with that. They’d also promised a byline with my Twitter ID and stuff, but when the article was published, I could see in the URL that I’d been listed as an author named “PumpNDump”.
That really told me everything I needed to know about them and how they saw me. They have since fixed this up and noted me officially, but the unpleasant aftertaste remained.
Gill: I think this is also a concern to many new writers: How can I be sure it’s a serious publication, that they won’t just steal my idea and refuse to pay?
Angela: In hindsight, I would say that it’s safest to write for long-established sites that clearly have a lot of freelancers on the books already. When you answer an advert or deal with a new site, you’re basically gambling on whether they will pay.
If you want to test yourself, try pitching some ideas as guest posts for a medium-sized blog.
Gill: How do I know I have what it takes to be a writer? Maybe my grandma is lying to me saying she loves my blog posts!
Angela: Well, if you’ve got the knack of stringing together cohesive sentences, that is more than some successful writers have. From there it comes down to having useful or interesting content, a memorable message and a style that works for you.
Me, I don’t think I’ll ever write the sort of fiction I like to read. But I’m good at spreading useful information, so I’ll stick to that.
If you want to test yourself, try pitching some ideas as guest posts for a medium-sized blog. Or use a free highly trafficked site to see if people like what you write, but remember to check their terms and conditions to be sure you maintain the rights over your work.
Gill: Ok, so if a successful writer doesn’t have to be able to “string cohesive sentences together” what is it that he should be able to do?
Angela: Success in online writing comes down to a number of things besides writing, and, thankfully, there is a lot of advice out there on how to do it well.
My advice is to consider your headlines carefully, learn a little about SEO, find out what your audience wants to read, and work out how to promote your blog posts well.
Gill: How does one start a career as a freelance writer? Is it as simple as pitching articles to newspapers/blogs or is there a number of things one needs to do first?
Angela: It is exactly that simple, and yet it’s not quite.
It’s important to make sure you’re correctly registered for tax in your country, that you have a writer portfolio site set up and that you know what your plan is. This way you have a living résumé, and everything you write will help to promote you further as a writer.
It really is best to get YourName.com for your portfolio site, even if it’s just an online business card. It’s good for your reputation when people search for you. Obviously though, if you already have your own site, just having a place you can point people to (for ex., a dedicated page) will do.
It also helps to start a mailing list in the early days so that you can expand later to other ventures and tell your fans.
As for the pitching of ideas, the higher you are aiming, the better your portfolio of clips needs to be. You can start with small blogs and work your way up. But to get into major magazines and newspapers, they will want to see clips in places they recognise.
It’s also worth developing a strategy for pitching that involves researching the blog/magazine thoroughly, studying their headline format intensely, and writing a few similar articles specifically to show them.
I offer a free mini-guide on my site for people who are interested in getting started.
Gill: Is it a problem if I don’t have a degree in writing (not even close)?
Angela: For the most part, proving you can do the work is all it takes. Work on your portfolio regularly, as that is your proof.
Many writers got their break by filling their own blog with posts similar to the style of the blog they wanted to write for. For instance, Whitson Gordon of Lifehacker tells a story of doing exactly that.
Gill: Is there anything specific I need to consider if I’m writing under an alias?
Angela: Aliases can get really tricky. If you build up a lot of clips under your alias, you won’t be able to use them when pitching under your real name. I have a friend who has no problem getting work under her alias, but struggles with her real name, as it is less established as a writer.
The only way to suppress your doubts is to constantly improve your writing in as many ways as possible.
Gill: You are already a pro in this. But I’m sure exactly because you are a pro, you always try to learn and become better. What are the things you do to improve your writing?
Angela: I’m always reading blogs that cover similar material to my sites, mainly because it interests me, paying attention to their style and formatting. I also keep track of interesting stories so I can write my take on them later.
Another thing I do is read blogs about freelance writing, as you’ll pick up inspiration and ideas from them, as well as from reading posts written with great style.
Gill: Do you ever doubt your writing skills?
Angela: I have never doubted my ability to communicate an idea clearly and effectively in writing, but I am constantly doubting my ability to write well or to do the kind of investigative journalism that wins awards.
Honestly, when I read prose by Neil Gaiman or a Pulitzer award-winning piece, I wonder whether I should be allowed to call myself a writer. But I guess a runner is still a runner even if they’re not in the Olympics, and so I am a writer.
If I had been working on my fiction writing or investigative journalism all these years, then perhaps I would be better at those things. Instead, I’m mastering the world of online writing and continue to suppress my doubts by constantly improving my writing in as many ways as possible.
You won’t get a “yes” if you don’t ask.
Gill: I once read a post about the most difficult thing to do for a writer: Asking. Asking for a guest post, asking for a position, pitching an article. How do I overcome this “fear of asking”? I can imagine it’s a psychological issue. Is there some “mantra” I can tell myself to finally write that email/make that phone call?
Angela: I’ve read a lot on this, as I occasionally find myself procrastinating about asking because I don’t want to aim too high. But who’s to say you are aiming too high but the person you’re asking? And you won’t get a “yes” if you don’t ask.
I think it pays to consider things from the editor’s point of view. No response or a “no” is simply a “not now”. They may have a full schedule, or a specific theme for the month, or no time to respond.
If they don’t like your idea, perhaps it was just not right for that publication. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It just means that it’s time to pitch it elsewhere.
Gill: Is it possible to make some money off an “old” post that I have somewhere in my blog’s archives or does it have to be fresh content that I pitch?
Angela: Most websites will require new content from you, because posting already established content can lead to penalties from the search engines. They will use a tool like Copyscape to verify the content is indeed new. Even if you remove a post from your site, it could take a long time for it to be verified as original.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend removing content for re-use anyway. Just keep your original content where it is and write an article on the same topic with a different audience in mind (for instance, the site you’re writing for). Your original article might even be what the editors would want to see as a proof you know the subject matter.
Gill: Suppose, I overcame my fear of asking and am now ready to look around for paid engagements. Where should I look? Are there websites that consolidate such ads?
Angela: There are some excellent resources around, although many of them are in the form of free downloads for signing up to a mailing list. Look at BoostBlogTraffic.com, BeAFreelanceBlogger.com, FreelanceWriting.com, WritingCareer.com, FlexJobs.com, AllIndieWriters.com, WritersWeekly.com, WhoPays.Scratchmag.net
The absolute best thing you can do, though, is start a spreadsheet of your own, noting all the publications you’d love to write for and any information you have on writing for them. Then add any blogs that you know pay, if they fit into your favourite niches.
Gill: I love Jobs.OnlineCareerist.com! I couldn’t believe the information I was able to find there. Great job ads for freelance writers, so many in one place!
And then I joined your latest project, the Online Careerist community, and met real people who have been doing this for years, ready to give you advice.
Is it just me or is it a unique place? Tell us more about it!
Angela: OnlineCareerist.com is a blog I’ve been running offering advice for remote workers and curating an email publication of articles every remote worker would love, including productivity tools, social media tips, writing advice and guides for personal branding.
At some point, I decided to take it to the next level and create an actual community that has access to the best information, resources and support possible.
The Online Careerists community is really new. It brings together remote workers or anyone who is interested in this topic, and everyone is free to join.
It’s neither a forum nor a group or community as you know them from a social media platform. We use the Slack platform, which lets you chat in a number of channels shared by the team, so you only pay attention to the channels that interest you.
In terms of the Online Careerists community, it means that all remote workers can chat in the #chat channel and a number of other channels that are of a common interest to everyone, while channels like #writers and #programmers are only used by people with the corresponding interests.
It’s an ideal way to bring us all together, but filter out the noise we don’t care for.
Currently, the #jobs channel is very popular, as I post there the job ads from Jobs.OnlineCareerist.com I curate as well as a highly tweaked selection of jobs from elsewhere that usually fit the bill in order to help our remote freelancers pick up new work.
We’ve had 100 people sign up for invites in the first month, and it has led to some really interesting discussions.
Some of the members have asked for feedback on their blogs, while others have wanted reassurance that they’re ready to start freelance writing. With everyone coming from such different backgrounds, we’ve all got a new perspective to offer on any given question.
Gill: My favorite so far is the #jobs channel. I can browse trhough it all day! Also because this is another big obstacle for a writer who is just starting their career: the price to ask for their work if somebody reaches out asking about their services. Unless you have a (copy)writer as a friend, you have no idea how much money to ask for.
What’s the average price for 500 words on the market and what does this price depend on?
Angela: Small blogs usually pay $25-$35, while larger blogs can afford to pay $50+ for 500 words. Often though, 500 words turns into 1000, and you don’t get paid per word.
Copywriting agencies will often pay $15-20 per 500 word piece, but you can make these assignments cost-effective by writing a bundle of articles on the same subject in quick succession.
If you’re writing for a business, they can usually pay a reasonable wage, so you should never charge low.
Gill: How many hours per week do you work and how much do you earn?
Angela: I have two little kids, and I’m their primary carer, so I work only about 15-25 hours per week. For this, I take home US$2500 or more per month. I’m looking forward to having more time to work, as I know I could make so much more!
As a freelancer and a mom, you’ve got to do things immediately whenever the time presents itself, and change focus instantly.
Gill: How old were your kids when you started your online career?
Angela: I started working online well before my kids were born. In fact, it was the thought of having kids (and travelling) that made me seriously consider working online as a viable option.
My eldest is now three and my youngest is 22 months. I was really lucky to be able to take leave from my work for my main client each time I gave birth and effectively pick up my duties exactly as before when I came back.
Gill: Do you have any personal tips on how to organize your time to manage family and work successfully?
Angela: I won’t lie and say it’s easy. It involves a lot of willpower, as you’ve got to do things immediately whenever the time presents itself, and change focus instantly.
For instance, I make sure I do housework while I look after the kids, and the second my kids are asleep or in childcare I do my actual work.
I’ve also worked out how to use my phone and tablet to do research and marketing in downtime while I’m doing child care.
Basically, you’re always on the go and you never get a break. But that’s the life of a mum!
Gill: We have a question from my subscribers that perfectly fits this topic. Nina asks: Where do you find the discipline to write/work at home where there are so many distractions?
Angela: Sometimes I alo ask myself that! Honestly, it is hard. I know that if the kids are distracted it’s work time. If the kids are asleep it’s work time. If the kids need extended hugs then at least I can simultaneously think about what I’ll be writing next.
Balancing the workload comes down to a good to-do list and understanding of your time limits.
Gill: Some more questions from the audience, if you don’t mind. Amanda asks: How do you find jobs and balance the work from multiple companies/employers? Are you ever referred to other jobs from previous ones you’ve had?
Angela: I’m always on the lookout for new places to write, and I will seriously consider a publication for a long while before I pitch to them.
Balancing the workload really comes down to a good to-do list and understanding my time limits well. Because most of my work is for one company, I know that everything else has to fit around them. I couldn’t risk losing my top client!
As for referrals, yes, freelancers and business owners are always referring jobs and workers on to each other. And in this online working world, everyone’s a freelancer or an entrepreneur.
Gill: Trudy asks: I am interested in writing about looking after my elderly parents and cooking for seniors, and am planning to share some recipes and food photography. How can I get a company to endorse my blog?
Angela: For endorsements from newspapers, it would be a good idea to sign up to HARO (Help A Reporter Out) as an expert. Keep an eye out on any interviews related to food or the elderly, then offer your expertise until the press interviews you.
If you’re looking for endorsements from food companies or services for the elderly, it might be worth volunteering your time in return for one.
For instance, you could write a recipe featuring an item from a particular brand. Choose a brand that has an active blog and social media presence. Then ask them to take a look and see what they say. If they blog or tweet about it, then you can add that quote to your endorsement list!
It is also possible to arrange official blog sponsorship once you’re established, and any company that has previously endorsed you would be ideal to approach.
Gill: Terry asks: What if I’m a poet? Would the same rules apply to me if I’d like to be a freelancer?
Angela: Generally, yes. Poetry is a niche market, but still requires all the discipline and planning that other freelance writers need. You may even find it takes more preparation, as you enter poetry competitions and pitch to be a part of compilation books.
Gill: Angela, it is amazing what an enormous amount of knowledge you have on this topic! I guess it comes from all the years of experience in the field and from the fact that you are constantly moving forward.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my (never ending) questions! I wish you and the Online Careerist community (on which I’m definitely going to keep an eye on) all the best.
Angela: Thanks, Gill. It’s been great to discuss all of this with you, and I sincerely hope that it helps a few of your readers who want to try a serious work-from-home career to give it a go.