AWP Panel: Making Money as a Writer, Part 1

I have been freelancing for about 5 years now, a practice I started to supplement my “stipend” in graduate school and a business that has paid my bills since I graduated. While the entirety of my income has never come from writing alone, I have been able to be completely self-employed since graduation and have loved the freedom! This presentation discusses the practices that worked for me. Along the way, I had great help from writers like Elaine Vitone, Jeanne Marie Laskas, and Rebecca Skloot, among others! I, like them, love to help new freelancers learn about ways they can pay their bills while producing quality writing, ways to really conceive of this writing as a business, and ways to maximize the profits you earn from your writing.

Part 1. Accessible Venues for New Freelancers:

A) I started my work writing for alumni publications. These magazines (usually quarterly, sometimes bi-monthly) are generally produced by the public relations departments of universities and colleges. They tend to pay really well and, more important, they give you great experience learning to work with a specific audience and writing style. The editors of these magazines really have a strong vision for how they want their writing to look and feel. It can never be a bad thing for writers to learn to meet the goals of different clients.

My first clips with these sorts of magazines (like this one, “Par Without Pain,”or this one) were really short, too. I think it’s wonderful for writers to learn to tell a scene-based, detailed narrative in around 250 words. This is almost harder than writing a feature-length piece because you must be so careful with your word choice. Writing short pieces for alumni publications is lucrative and great practice in these aspects of writing. Plus, once you establish a relationship with the editor, he or she will likely come to you with story assignments.

So how do you get involved in these gigs? Whenever you hear a great story idea, jot down the subject’s school and pitch a story about it to that alumni magazine. Whenever you meet someone interesting, think first of his/her school’s alumni pub. Check out this fantastic article on MediaBistro (membership required) for more information about pitching these magazines, but don’t forget your current university or your undergrad institution. Sometimes, all you need is a well-written introduction letter to get in an editor’s good graces.

B) Once I had a few clips with these mags, I branched out to local and regional magazines. These either paid way better or way worse than alumni magazines; it was hit and miss. But these sorts of magazines are fantastic because they help you establish relationships with local editors and other local writers. They also teach you to be constantly sniffing your area for interesting stories and help you become super familiar (perhaps an expert even!) with your area.

I have found that local magazines tend to be on the search for writers they can come to again and again. They often have a set idea of what they want each issue to contain, but need a cache of writers they can rely on to get the goods in on deadline. At the same time, they tend to pay a bit more for ideas that you pitch.

The way I broke in was to email an editor just introducing myself. I attached some alumni mag clips and said I was full of ideas, would love to establish a relationship, and asked for a meeting where we could swap ideas. The editor asked me to come in with ideas and (gasp) I had to come up with some quick. I ended up writing for him for about 2 years and produced some clips I still use today. *the specific local magazine I regularly wrote for is now defunct 🙁

C) The final venue I would suggest any new freelancer pursue is the world of in-flight magazines. These magazines publish the same sorts of stories in their front-of-the-book section as local and regional magazines do. Plus they pay super well. I got to write really cool restaurant reviews and some profiles and even a feature for in-flight magazines.

Another good part about establishing yourself with these publications is that the editors will eventually move onward and upward. If they know you as a punctual, reliable writer, they might just take you with them to their next venture.

To break into this market, I would always steal the magazine from the seat pocket or ask a friend to do so on flights with various airlines. Then, I’d look at how the stories in the front are laid out and figure out a contact person from the masthead page. A well-written pitch about something in my area, and I soon was getting paid to bake bread or get pedicures.

As an example, even though I had never written for US Airways magazine before, I researched their front-of-book sections, found out the editor in charge, and sent her the following successful pitch:

Dear [Editor]:
My name is Katy Rank Lev and I am a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. I have an idea for the All Over the Map section that I thought might interest you and your readers.

Tucked into the depths of Pittsburgh’s South Side, two blocks behind the main drag and away from the bustle of franchise chains, shines a tiny vegetarian cafe called The Zenith. This combination thrift shop, art gallery, and flavor paradise tastes so good you’ll wonder why you ever thought you needed meat. On Sunday mornings, locals line up before the 11am vegan brunch in order to secure a seat as live musicians tune up and massage therapists set up shop on the sidewalk. Customers lucky enough to be first in line get their pick of the best tables–beneath the giant fish sculpture, or perhaps the retro dining booth by the window–and hope a browsing shopper does not decide to buy their seats out from under them. The only buffet in town where everything from your fork to your tablecloth is also for sale offers a cold spread of pastas, salads, fresh-baked breads, and decadent vegan baked goods. The hot entrees range from sinfully rich French toast to Texas-spicy portobello stir-fry. From the shelves of religious iconography to the racks of vintage clothing Gwen Stefani would die for, The Zenith offers a cultural experience no visitor–or native!–of Pittsburgh should miss.

I think US Airways Magazine readers would find the cafe interesting, particularly on days they feature live belly dancers and Arabian musicians. I have been eating there every Sunday morning for the past year and can never grow tired of the peanut linguini or the green potatoes containing an amazing mystery of delicious ingredients. I completely agree with the owners that the Zenith is the best kept secret in Pittsburgh. I can’t wait to spill the mung beans.

I have been freelance writing for several local and alumni publications for the past few years. I have a website, which contains some samples of my published work, if you would like to get a better idea of my experience and background. You can visit it at <> . I very much appreciate your taking the time to read my idea and I hope to hear from you soon.


You can see I didn’t waste a lot of time talking about myself, but I jumped right into the story idea. The text I used there was largely the same text in the eventual story. I tried to emphasize why it was a good fit for the magazine (remember, their specific audience is travelers!) and it worked!

So, hopefully, at this point you feel ready to reach out into the world and get started with some clips while earning money at the same time. In the next installments of this presentation, I’ll talk about working in Corporate Communications, maximizing your profits as a writer, and learning to conceive of your writing as a BUSINESS. Stay tuned!

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This entry was posted on Thursday, April 8th, 2010 at 5:00 pm and is filed under Uncategorized, writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


17 Responses to “AWP Panel: Making Money as a Writer, Part 1”

  1. Libby Says:

    Thanks for this, Katy!

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  6. katy Says:

    Thanks for the note. I had a conversation about “information karma” at AWP, actually. I plan to write about that on my blog sometime soon. I’m not sure what you mean by “did you acquired lots of websites,” though I am definitely happy when people give trackbacks and links!

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