Freelance writing: hints and tips

I started taking a course on Freelance writing. It’s not so much a writing course as a ‘how-to’ course on the business of freelance writing, which does include the writing part to a degree, but much more too.

One of the first things that was stressed was how a very big thing in the business of freelancing, due to the nature of the business, is networking. It’s not what you know, but who you know. The class, and the bar sessions after the class, are times where we learn the craft but also where we develop relationships that could last long into our lives.

This is definitely true, but as I looked around the room I noticed a problem too. There were no visible minorities in our classroom. So if there are problems with diversity and representation in the journalism and freelancing fields, and then the networking is happening in places like this, can we identify some problems? Shortly after I’d thought this, a young black man came late into the class, but it’s still predominantly white.

The basic process of freelancing is fivefold:
1) come up with a story idea
2) do the preliminary research
3) do market research to see where could sell the story
4) sell the idea to an editor -> excite them
5) write the story

The spark that excites people is in the lead paragraph or two. Capture the interest of the reader there, or they might not read the rest of the story. The instructor talked about sometimes it’ll take him an hour or more to get the lead down, but then it could take only 10 minutes to write the rest of the story, that’s how things are.

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The difference between news reporting and freelancing:

News Reporting -> inverted triangle structure: the essence of the story, in the form of answers to all the basic questions (who, what, where, when, why, how), is contained in the lead paragraph or two and the headline. After that, the next most important element of the story is included, and then the next most important after that, and so on until you get to the end of the story.

Freelancing -> triangle structure: begins with the nub of the idea and then builds on it throughout the story. The nub could be a question, or a quotation, or some statement that defines what the story will focus on.

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It is interesting to consider where we get our ideas for stories. A general guide is that we write best about what we know, but we can learn to write about almost anything if we so desire -> this is the difference between a specialist and a generalist.

What is important is to have focus, purpose, and a goal -> to choose a direction and keep working on it.

Also, don’t lose sight of your ideas -> the idea of having a weekly freelance writing schedule was suggested, including an ‘idea-checking day’, and is something that could help you keep on top of what you’re doing.

The elements of the course (the different classes) are:

1) the basics of gathering information (ideas – to – researching)
2) types of articles / mechanics of submitting / business of writing
3) interviewing techniques
4) writing a good lead
5) writing and the markets
6) writing and the internet
7) query letters

The website of the instructor is and has a lot of writing resources, for the time being .. there is also an email list, The Writer’s Deadline, where you can plug in to a lot of really good information


The last class featured four experienced magazine editors speaking on some important things to know. They were Rosa Harris-Adler of Ottawa City magazine, Tom McGregor of the Canadian Legion magazine, Sylvia Barret of Canadian Geographic, and someone else who I didn’t catch the name of (formerly editor of University of Ottawa Gazette newspaper, also does lots of freelance in different media)



  • when starting to work as a freelance writer, you can choose to consider yourself unemployed or self-employed (guess which feels better?)
  • networking is very important!!
  • build a library of clippings, with a focus on quality not quantity .. when you’re starting out, don’t do it for the money, do it to be able to write good stories and build clippings (editors use these to judge your ability)
  • you can recycle stories, refresh them by making it for a new audience, then resell story
  • always make deadlines!! there are many writers out there who do
  • editors are interested in your idea, even if they say they don’t need any .. don’t be put off
  • you need to prove yourself at the beginning, so start small .. some editors will take a flyer on someone new, others won’t
  • magazines are a visual medium -> good graphics help make a story good .. stories are a collaborative effort b/w writer, editor, photographer (but as writer, you’re often working in dark)
  • know how much time to allocate on a story (generally based on pay you’re receiving, unless doing it more out of love) .. it’s not impolite to ask how much will get paid for story, plus if any expenses are being covered
  • do you want to be a specialist or a generalist? either way, know what’s good for you .. what do you envision for your career?



  • editors are looking for really original ideas, in a way that will catch attention
  • read one year of magazine to know it (type of articles, styles, tone, what articles have been done)
  • email queries are best way, can also do follow up same way
  • phone calls are good or bad depending on editor -> do background work, know production schedule, when best time would be to call if going to
  • do queries one at a time (can mention that you’d like to hear back so know if should take it to other publication)
  • get to the point real quick (not topic, but story -> refine idea)
  • convince editor your article would be good for them, that it’s focused, and that you’re in a unique position to write story (ex: who you’re going to interview, plus how you’re already connected)
  • 2 paragraphs to query letter: 1 is story idea, 1 is your credentials (don’t be shy, but don’t push it either)
  • editors want to know you’re a good writer, and what you’re capable of
  • maybe include a sample first page of what you’re writing (show them the lead, and the main crux of story) .. tailor it to the specific magazine
  • use timed follow-up to get response from editor, determine status of article
  • although writing an article ‘on spec’ (ie writing without having gotten go ahead or advice) is not widely a good idea, it can be used as a good calling card to get your foot in the door
  • make sure to follow up on any encouragement from an editor .. if they say they’d be interested in having you write something or in the future, they mean it (they’re busy people, they wouldn’t mention it otherwise)



  • STUDY THE MARKET!!!!! figure out where you, your story idea fit in .. what publications are right for you?
  • approx 80% of content in Cdn magazines is freelance
  • beware of ‘pay on publication’ instead of ‘pay on acceptance’
  • rights to what you right: common has been “1st-time serial” which means they have exclusive rights until magazine is off stands .. however electronic rights are now part of negotiations (paid extra for? can opt out of?)


  • looking for strong local angle, but not same coverage as in daily papers
  • 5 feature articles each month x bimonthly = 30 features per year
  • 3 lengthy features per month (2500-3500 words):
    .. profile of someone in community (well-known, notable, controversial, not done to death)
    .. service piece: useful to readers in a very practical way (ie buyer’s guide, how to)
    .. issues piece: something to do with city life (ex: traffic, universities, city hall, ..)
  • there are also columns: they are a bit shorter, covering range of topics (arts, sports, business, ..)
  • there are also portraits of people (800 words, would only need to interview individual themselves)
  • pay is 50-75 cents / word


  • 5  features x bimonthly = 30 per year
  • receive many, many queries
  • feature categories: wildlife, science / environmental research, history, social geography, adventure / travel / ..
  • $1 / word, most articles avg. 3000, range b/w 2000-4000


  •  circulation is 450,000 across country (veterans), six times per year
  • pay approx $500 per page (800-1000 words)

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