2016 was the year that I buckled down on my freelance writing. I sent more pitches, placed more articles, broke into new publications, and also received more rejections than previous years.
Overall, I made a lot of progress in freelance writing over the past twelve months. But with each accomplishment comes the sobering reality of how challenging this career is to maintain, and how much more work I need to do.
If you’re interesting in freelance writing (travel-related or otherwise), I hope that the lessons I’ve learned this past year will serve to guide you in establishing some goals and realistic expectations moving forward. If you love to write so much that you can’t imagine doing anything else, then this is an exciting and rewarding career path to follow. But not one without its challenges.
First, let’s break down the numbers on my 2016 pitching efforts.
As course director at Travel Blog Success, my job here took up approximately 40% of my work hours.
The other 60% were devoted to pitching and writing freelance articles.
Of that 60% devoted to freelance pitching and writing, about half was for established clients. For the most part, those clients give me assignments and save me time on pitching, so those hours are more lucrative. It’s still freelance work, but it’s dependable and consistent. I highly recommend searching for these types of clients early on in your freelance writing path.
Regular clients are also known as “anchor clients”. This article from Contently does a great job of explaining how to find and keep high-quality anchor clients.
Ideally, I’d like to spend less time pitching and more time writing paid pieces. However, at this point in my career, I don’t have established relationships with enough editors to sit back and wait for assignments. That means that I’ve got to put more hours into pitching in 2017, without detracting from the hours I spend on paid work. (Which means longer work weeks but I’m a on career path that I genuinely love, so I’m OK with that!)
Pitches sent, placed, and rejected
This year I sent out 52 pitches. Each of these pitches were for unique stories. Some of them were tweaked and sent again to other publications when the first (or second, or third) rejected them or simply never replied.
Of those 52 pitches, 15 resulted in paid, published pieces. 19 of the pitches that haven’t been published can still be pitched elsewhere. I’ll be reviewing those and adjusting them for new publications in the coming year.
Lessons learned in one year of freelance writing
The process of forming ideas, writing pitches, and sending them into the abyss of an editor’s inbox can be exhausting. Sometimes it can feel like a disheartening percentage of these work hours lead to a dead end. But the lessons I’ve learned through every single pitch, whether it’s accepted or denied, has value. It’s so important to remember that. A pitch that isn’t placed (and therefore, isn’t paid for) still provides the practice and experience of fine-tuning a pitch and testing the market for what works and what doesn’t.
In order to hold on to the value of each and every pitch, it’s critical to look at what’s working, what’s not, and how you can adjust your pitching and writing habits while moving forward.
Here are the lessons that pitching as a freelance writer taught me in 2016.
Pitch more and collect rejections.
In reviewing my numbers from the past year, one thing is clear. I need to pitch more in order to make more money.
There was an article published last year on Lithub that encourages writers to aim for 100 rejections a year. So about halfway through the year, I started aiming for that milestone. Sadly, I didn’t hit it. I didn’t send nearly enough pitches to collect 100 rejections. But the point of the article stuck with me, and I’m determined to hit 100 rejections in 2017.
The point of collecting rejections is that it forces you to simply pitch more. Pitching is scary. Successfully pitching and writing articles involves a lot of rejection. But learning to embrace the “no’s” is a big part of landing the “yes’s”. If you stop focusing so much on the success of your pitches and focus more on the quantity (while also ensuring they’re each of high quality), then you’re bound to see your acceptance numbers increase, too.
In 2017 I’m aiming to send twice as many pitches (which gets me well over 100) and hopefully make twice as much money!
Brand yourself, but don’t limit yourself.
We talk a lot about finding a niche for your travel blog at TBS. Having a niche and developing a personal brand is important in freelance writing as well. It tells editors and potential clients that you have expertise on a specific topic.
But freelance writing is different than blogging in that you have the freedom to reach different audiences with every article you write, making the parameters of niching and branding more flexible.
As a travel blogger, when I first branched out into freelance writing, I focused on pitching travel publications. I’m guessing many of you have done or are doing the same. But travel allows us to touch on a huge range of topics. Don’t limit yourself.
Over the past two years, I’ve settled down in one city and developed interest in topics outside of travel. Expanding the industries and topics that I pitch has greatly expanded my portfolio and my potential for future work.
For example, prior to a cross-country road trip, I pitched this article on the Indian Relay National Championships, and this one on the Standing Rock protests. Neither are travel-related, but they’re topics I was able to research while traveling. If you focus on travel, you could write about cultural events like these ones, while also writing about what to see and do in locations where they take place.
Also, remember that it only takes a small tweak to turn a travel topic into a culture topic, an arts topic, a political topic, etc.
Before your next trip, consider stories based in your destination that aren’t travel-related. This will give you more options for stories and outlets on each of your trips. By considering publications outside of the travel industry, you can stack your writing assignments and make more money.
Establish your niche and your brand, but don’t be afraid to pitch outside of the lines.
Track your pitches and follow-up.
It wasn’t easy reviewing my progress over the past year, because I wasn’t very good about tracking my pitches. I started several Google docs over the months, with intentions to maintain a process for tracking and following up on pitches. But ultimately, I was left with a mess of an inbox to search through when looking to summarize the results of my year.
Take advantage of a fresh calendar and start a document where you can track each and every pitch you send.
Most of your pitches are not going to lead to an assignment on your very first try. Successful freelance writers try multiple editors at multiple publications before landing most stories. If you’re sending out a pitch and then forgetting about it, you’re essentially throwing your work away.
By tracking each pitch, you can stay on top of follow-ups. (And you should ALWAYS follow-up. Editors inboxes are like black holes if you don’t.) If an editor still doesn’t get back to you, there’s still an opportunity to rework the story idea for another publication, which you should also track on your pitch document.
Develop relationships with editors.
Placing a story in a publication you’ve never written for is really exciting. But sending cold pitches can be very time-consuming. I’ve found that editors I’ve already worked for are much more responsive. I don’t have to wait weeks to hear back from them, and they already have trust in the quality of my work.
This year I’m going to focus on developing stronger relationships with publications I’ve already written for.
It’s still important to branch out and reach new editors, but in building relationships you’ll find better-paying and more consistent work. Also, relationships with editors can lead to assignments in new publications when those editors leave one outlet for a new job (which happens a lot in this industry).
Ask for more money.
I asked for more money on a small percentage of my freelance assignments. But one of the most shocking things I learned by reviewing my pitching history over the past year was that every time I asked for more the answer was, “Yes.” They didn’t always meet me at exactly what I asked for, but when I politely explained that I charge more than they were offering and suggested a higher rate, I was consistently met with a fair compromise.
Writers possess a valuable skill. Unfortunately, the proliferation of online content makes many of us feel like our jobs can be done by anyone with a computer. That is far from the truth. Publications and brands still want and need high-quality writers — and they’re willing to pay for them.
Don’t sell yourself short. It can be tempting to run with an assignment for whatever rate is offered, but if you think you deserve more for the work you’re doing, don’t be afraid to ask.
Ready to pitch and see your stories published in bigger, better-paying outlets this year? Check out our course, Blogger to Bylines: A Guide to Freelance Writing.
What lessons did you learn in freelance writing this year? What will you be working on in 2017? Tell us in the comments below!