I work with a lot of beginning freelance writers, and enjoy seeing them move up to larger publications.
They all understand the need to improve their writing and reporting skills. However, few pay as much attention to their marketing skills.
Here are the basics it takes to get started.
For freelance writers the most important site is LinkedIn.
Once you have created an account under your real name, or your pen name, if you use one, set up a custom URL to make it easier for people to find you.
Then fill out all the relevant sections of the profile, focusing on your writing and editing experience. Only add hobbies and interests that are helpful in positioning you as a professional. Skip the dog-walking gig, but mention golf. If you love babies, puppies and butterflies put that in only if you write about babies, puppies, or butterflies. Don’t post anything that makes you look unreliable, irresponsible or flighty. I’d rather hire an average writer who I can count on to deliver the right story at the right time than a brilliant writer who can’t deliver.
Send invitations to editors, sources and other writers. Post recommendations or confirm expertise of your contacts when you know them well enough, which will encourage them to do the same for you. That helps build your credibility as a trustworthy professional.
Set up professional Twitter account and Google Plus accounts as well, separate from the personal ones where you post funny cat videos and baby pictures.
First, register your domain name at a registrar such as GoDaddy. Pick a professional domain name. If you have an unusual name, like I do, then using your name is perfect. If your name is taken, try adding your middle initial or using .us or .me instead of .com.
I recommend not registering your domain at the same place where you have your website, since you might want to move your website — and moving both the website and the domain name at the same time is a huge hassle.
Then pick a blogging platform. I typically recommend WordPress.com, which is free, but also easy to upgrade to a full WordPress site. If you use WordPress.com, and can afford to upgrade to it’s $8-per-month paid platform, you get your own custom domain with it, so you don’t have to register it separately if you don’t want to.
Now, choose a website design. I generally recommend that you pick a theme that will look familiar to your potential clients, the editors. For example, here is a collection of free magazine-style themes for WordPress.com. Some nice ones for freelance writers include Apostrophe Magazine, Gazette, and Rowling.
Now let’s move on to the structure of the site.
Pages: In WordPress terms, “Pages” refers to any content you add that doesn’t have to have a date on it. Pages you should add right away include “About” and “Contact.” You can also add biography pages, resume, recommendations — everything except your articles and your blog posts.
Posts: These will be your articles and your blog entries. For the article dates, remember to put in the publication date, instead of letting WordPress fill in today’s date. If you have permission, paste the full text of your articles, and a link to the original site where they ran. If you don’t have permission, paste the first couple of paragraphs, and the link.
Categories: You can add any number of categories for each post. I recommend creating one category called “Blog” for your blog posts, and then a separate category for each publication you write for.
Tags: You can also add any number of tags to each post. I recommend using your tags for the topics you write about. For example, if you write about babies, puppies and butterflies, your tags would be “Babies,” “Puppies,” and “Butterflies.” The tags can be either capitalized or all lower case, as long as you are consistent about it.
Now add your published articles. You don’t have to add every single one, but you should at least have a representative selection, so that editors can see the range of your work. Also, add at least two or three per publication, so it doesn’t look like editors gave you one assignment, then didn’t give you any more after they saw your work.
Once your website is all set, point your domain to the website. Then post links to your domain everywhere you can. Add them to your email signature — you do have a separate email account for your professional work, right? Add them to your LinkedIn profile and your Twitter profile. Whenever you add a new article or post to your website, add the links to your LinkedIn page, and also post them on Twitter. If you write a comment or a guest column for someone else’s blog, include your domain name.
The more places you put your domain name, the easier it is for Google to find you — and for other people to find you.
If you’re very lucky, your social media presence and your website will bring editor to you without you having to go look for them.
Some of them will be editors you want to work for, but others will be the kind that have problems keeping writers and are desperate to find new ones. If you really want to find good editors to work for, you’ll have to go out and find them. Attend conference and industry meetings, follow them on Twitter and LinkedIn. And send direct emails to them to introduce yourself.
Keep your emails short and to the point. Don’t ramble. The subject line should be something like “Freelance writer introduction.” The first paragraph should say that you’re a freelance writer, what you specialize in, and to ask permission to pitch them some stories.
Then you want to provide some examples of relevant work. For example, you can tell the editor of “Babies and Puppies Weekly” that you’ve written about babies and puppies before, and paste links to the tag pages for “Babies” and “Puppies” on your website. Say something like, “You can see my recent articles about babies here…”
And if you’ve written for big-name publications, add links to those category pages. For example, “You can see some of my recent New York Times articles here…”
Include all your contact information, links to your LinkedIn and Twitter pages, and then sign off politely.
It’s not likely that the editor will get back to you right away. They might save your email, or pass it along to colleagues, and a year later you’ll get a note out of the blue.
Your goal should be consistency. Schedule a couple of hours a week for updating your website and sending out introduction letters, and stick to it. Also — keep track of whom you’ve contacted so far, so you don’t keep bugging the same people over and over again.