Breaking into freelance: The tragedy of the commons


Writing for a living is a much broader prospect, thanks to the growth of commercial outlets and institutions. Freelancing has rapidly become the go-to starting point. However, actually getting past everyone’s square one is no easy task.

Prospective writers looking to gain standing in their industry of choice will want to start with the must-know rules: Be professional, know your worth, write carefully and, as DailyWritingTips points out, don’t miss deadlines.

These guidelines are the meat of freelance writing, but it takes more than mastering the basics to make a name for yourself in a competitive and crowded industry.

What Employers Want

Some think of freelance writing as a be-your-own-boss position, but industry vets will tell you that clients and editors are at the top of any freelancer’s chain of command.

Impressing the higher-ups is the best way to find more work. Referrals and reputation go a long way in any industry, but freelance writers truly live on the words of others, as much as they do on their own.

Editor Scott Tailford of WhatCulture oversees dozens of freelancers, as much of WhatCulture’s content comes from outside the outlet’s UK headquarters, and knows what to look for in prospective candidates.

“Character and confidence,” he said over the phone from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. “Someone has to have something that really draws me to them over the thousands of other people that are already working or trying to get noticed.

“Engaging your reader straight away with intelligent phrasing, no repetition of words, and a unique way of presenting the subject matter is what stands out,” he said.

Once your foot is in the door, however, you have to perform. Freelancers are tasked with pitching their own articles, which makes for a Darwin work environment: Only the best ideas make the headlines.

Fortunately, freelancing by its very nature allows for flexibility in pitching. Although some projects may take several months, most writers work and are paid on a one-month basis, meaning they decide in the early weeks of each month how much work they take on.

“Although we like regularity [from freelance contributions], there are people who do one piece a month,” Tailford said. “It really depends on what needs to be covered, the medium itself, any time-sensitive element … and the responsibilities of the position itself.”

Room To Grow

Mike Splechta, GameZone Editor-in-Chief. Photo by Austin Wood.
Mike Splechta, GameZone Editor-in-Chief. Photo by Austin Wood.

Once you’ve flung the door wide open, what next?

Freelance writers have the advantage of not being tied to a hierarchical title; you decide your worth, and your portfolio has no cap. More experience lands bigger projects, and it only snowballs from there.

Many freelancers aim to find a more permanent position within a single outlet while managing side projects externally. Ideally, this leads to more stable work without doing away with the freedom freelancing is known for.

Editor-in-Chief Mike Splechta of Florida-based entertainment outlet GameZone began his career as a writer himself, and believes putting your name out to be a more reliable means of finding top-shelf positions than dropping your résumé into the corporate pile.

“Of course, it will vary by site, but so far from what I’ve seen, [freelancing] is the best way to get yourself noticed,” he said over the phone from south Florida.

In Splechta’s industry of interactive entertainment, he has also seen many writers move beyond publications altogether, he said.

“There are plenty of freelancers in the field that have grown so large that publishers send them games [for critique], and invite them to events without being associated with an outlet,” he said.

“[They] generally have enough clout to offer their articles to sites that will gladly accept them.”

The Pay: Taking The Free Out Of Freelance

Freelance writing is best known for its in-home work opportunities, but it’s an industry offering far more competition than leisure.

Getting your foot in the door is hard enough, and earning a decent wage while doing so only ratchets things up further.

“Freelancers are paid by article, and in the case of GameZone, only if an article goes live that month,” Splechta said over the phone from south Florida. In-house writers receive salary and therefore lack this constraint, he said.

A lack of salaried pay means freelancers are able to set their own schedules and, to some degree, decide how much they earn per month. But as the month’s final week gets closer, there is less and less time to submit articles and for them to generate worthwhile revenue.

This is especially true for outlets like WhatCulture, a UK-based cultural site, which follows a revenue-share payment system that allows writers to earn a direct percentage of the income generated by article hits.

WhatCulture Editor Scott Tailford said his freelance contributors receive 40 pence ($0.63) per 1000 views on each article submitted.

“Depending on the talent of the person and the ideas they have, it can lead to millions of views and a great return,” Tailford said over the phone from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.

Consequently, revenue-share means hours of work could prove fruitless. If the hits don’t come, the pay won’t either.

This puts pressure on freelancers to play to the crowd and write what will sell, and may not leave room for writing where their passions lie.


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