A Short Guide to Freelance Writing
This is a short guide to freelance writing, or perhaps rather a hodgepodge collection of things I learned in my (short) time as a freelance game critic. Before we start, I should stress that 1) I’ve been doing this for barely a year, and 2) this is the first time I ever tried to write a guide of any kind.
But then again, this is not supposed to be an exhaustive, definitive guide, but simply a list of personal strategies and experiences that I compiled both for myself as well as people trying to get into freelancing. It’s also a provisional list, and I may well return to it at later dates to keep it updated with new thoughts and advice. Also, this guide was made with game criticism in mind, but most of what I talk about here should be universally applicable to freelance writing.
1. First Steps
First, you need to have some kind of online presence and make yourself noticeable. Descending into the bottomless pit that is social media to compete with millions of other shrieking pit dwellers for attention may feel scary, but all you need at first is a humble little niche for yourself and your work.
Build a little portfolio of work that you’re proud of and that you can show off online somewhere, as you’re gonna need a few articles to link to in your pitches.
I’ve also found it invaluable to connect to other people and put myself “out there”. This isn’t exactly in my nature, but I’ve found it to be immensely rewarding. Follow other freelancers and writers, whether they are already established or fellow beginners. Read, comment on and, if you like it, share their work.
Don’t feel entitled to anything in return, but chances are you’ll enter into a few reciprocal relationships. A few people who regularly read your work and can offer advice about writing or pitching are not only useful (don’t be Machiavellian, please), but important for morale.
Also follow lots of editors whose work you like or who work for outlets you’d be interested in writing for. Get a feeling for their interests and keep an eye out for windows of opportunity, like the occasional call for pitches on specific topics.
Contact and engage with people even if you don’t expect a response. You never know what might happen. My very first real, paid gig came about due to blind luck after I responded (without ulterior motives) to one of Rich Stanton’s many Bloodborne tweets. But of course, you can open yourself up to strokes of luck simply by consistently engaging with other people online and carving out a little niche until someone happens to notice you (it’s not as depressing as it sounds).
Also, don’t fret about your follower numbers. A handful of more substantial connections with other writers or even editors is far more valuable than hundreds or thousands of followers that don’t really engage with (or care about) your work.
2. Inviting the Muse
Even more important than a portfolio or connections are, of course, the actual ideas you’re going to pitch. Ideas are fickle things with a will of their own, and it’s hard to give advice about how to come up with them. In my experience, you cannot force a good idea, but there are processes that will create a fertile environment for your subconscious to surprise you with the occasional Eureka.
Firstly, if you want to come up with ideas about video games, it might be beneficial to play lots of video games. You probably have that part covered, but it’s also helpful to consciously and attentively seek out and focus on aspects of a game that might be neglected or entirely missed by a more casual player. If you feel like you’re onto something interesting, take a short break and try to develop your initial thought into an argument of substance.
Take craploads of screenshots of anything even remotely interesting (you never know what’s going to be relevant later); going through your shots after playing a game may remind you of vital details and provoke new connections and ideas. Having an extensive archive of screenshots ready just in case you eventually need them is a lifesaver, too. I’ve wasted far too many hours going back to games I’d already played just to get one or two specific shots I needed for an article and that I could have easily taken the first time around.
In my experience, however, the most interesting ideas make themselves known not while you’re actually playing a game, but when you’re taking a break. Do some online research, read a novel or nonfiction book, watch a film. Go to a museum, take a walk or have a discussion with a friend. Again: you never know what might inspire a good idea, and spending some time outside the game-osphere will provide interesting new perspectives on games.
Personally, I often chose the next game to play or revisit based on reading I’d done earlier (such as playing space exploration games after some research into astronomy). Since you never know when an idea might hit you, you should be prepared to stop in the middle of whatever you’re doing to jot down your thoughts. I repeat: Write it down. “I’ll write it down later” rarely works, so just grab a pen or your phone and make a note. Even if a thought seems at best like a fragment of an idea, write it down. It might be a central puzzle piece in a bigger picture that only emerges at a later point. There’s always the chance that two or three separately useless thoughts suddenly merge, in an explosion of mental alchemy, to create a single, promising idea.
Don’t worry if an idea you’re excited about seems too out there: it’s more of an advantage than a drawback. Don’t try to appeal to your conception of a mainstream audience. Focus on what makes your angles unique instead, even if it seems too niche. If you have some special knowledge about areas outside of gaming, like architecture, gardening, gender studies, or anything else, double down on what makes your perspective different and illuminating. Stand out, don’t fit in. Those ideas that I really wanted to do but worried about being too “boring” or niche were often the ones that were the most successful and popular.
Also, your ideas don’t have to be topical. It might seem like a good idea to pitch ideas involving the most recent trends and sometimes that’s the case, but you should consider a few things first: For every highly anticipated new release or event, any given editor will likely receive dozens of pitches. Unless your angle is particularly interesting and unique, it might get lost among a flood of pitches, which is a constant risk at the best of times. Also, freelancing and recent trends are uncomfortable bedfellows. Consider the following math: it will take you perhaps a few days to finish a new game, a few days more at the very least to come up with a worthwhile idea, choose someone to pitch it to, finally formulate a pitch... By this time, at least a week will have passed. Chances are it will take another two weeks to a month until your pitch is considered (if all goes well), another week for you to write it, and perhaps another two weeks until it’s finally published. This adds up to one and a half months. In one very extreme case, four (!!!) full months elapsed between the day I sent the pitch and the day of publication.
By the time your piece reaches its potential readers, they will likely have already moved on to the next big thing. It might be a better idea to pitch a novel angle involving perennial favourites, like Bloodborne or The Witcher 3, even if they’re older titles. That way, you don’t have to worry for weeks or months that your piece will be outdated by the time it’s published, which can be detrimental for your mental health as well as your productivity.
3. Prepare to Pitch! (aka “the Dark Souls of Freelancing”)
Once you’ve cultivated some ideas, the pitching process itself can begin. First, you have to choose a publication for your pitch. I recommend compiling a list of all the outlets you’d like to work for, including all the contact information you can find for each one. Some sites have specific addresses for pitches, but many of the larger ones do not. In those cases, never ever use the generic contact@soandso address! Always address a specific person. Sometimes it can be hard to find the email address of the editor you want to pitch to, but any editor will do in a pinch: don’t hesitate to pitch your feature on medieval cityscapes to a news editor, for example. If you’re unsure who to pitch do, don’t be afraid to just ask an editor via email, twitter etc. The editors I’ve met so far were uniformly friendly and helpful (if occasionally a bit forgetful).
Also, don’t send the same pitch to several outlets/editors unless the last place you pitched to rejected it or still haven’t responded after, say, a month. This might be an inconvenience, but you don’t want to be forced to turn down an editor because more than one accepted your pitch. You’d make a very bad impression and perhaps ruin your chances to write for an outlet you’re interested in.
Also: Even if you’re an absolute beginner, don’t aim too low in your selection of potential places to pitch to. The fact that you haven’t published anything yet doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve a real audience or a proper compensation for your work. If your work is good, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be published by a big site.
Regarding the actual writing of the pitch: There are few rules unless a site has explicit guidelines, and different editors may prefer different approaches. Still, there are some generally applicable rules of thumb. First, come up with a catchy headline and write your email’s subject thusly: “Pitch: [insert catchy headline here]”. Finding a good “proto-headline” for an unwritten article isn’t easy and I’m the first to admit that I’m not very good at it. But it’s worth the effort, as a catchy subject line may be the difference between an opened and a neglected email. Second, perhaps self-evidently, introduce yourself and refer to two or three links to pieces you’re proud of.
Third, keep everything as short and pithy as humanly possible. Introduce yourself in one sentence. Your actual pitch shouldn’t be longer than one or two short paragraphs. Never ramble or repeat yourself. Depending on context and the complexity of your idea, a few simple sentences might be enough. Your pitch should straddle the line between concise outline and appetizer, leaning towards the latter. Obviously, once a given editor has become familiar with you and your work, things like hooks become far less important and pitching in general becomes much simpler and more relaxed.
The most stressful thing about freelancing, in my experience, isn’t being rejected or wondering whether your article is good enough. It’s the waiting.
Freelancing can often feel like 5% pitching, 5% writing, 90% sitting around and anxiously checking your emails every five minutes. If you’re anything like me, this can wear you down and seriously impact your motivation to pursue other projects and work on new pitches in the meantime, which is essential if you want a steady stream of commissions. Dealing with this can be quite difficult and I’m still having trouble with it occasionally, but deal with it you must. Take breaks, distract yourself, do whatever is necessary to push these things to the back of your mind or it can drive you crazy.
BUT: It is equally important to say to yourself “enough is enough” and do something about it after an unreasonably long period of waiting for a response. If you haven’t heard back after, say, two or three weeks, the time has come for a reminder. Your time is valuable, after all. This is, perhaps, the most important thing I’ve learned as a freelancer. Follow up emails are as essential as they are awkward. Editors don’t ignore you on purpose. Get used to writing follow up emails and don’t fret too much; editors are usually understanding and will get back to you eventually. At least three of my articles would never have been published if it hadn’t been for my reminders – and in each of these cases, it took at least two reminders, in one, four (!). I never followed up during the first six months or so of freelancing, and I regret not doing so.
Of course, once a response has finally arrived in your inbox, it may well be a rejection. It’s important to learn how to deal with those, too. A rejection doesn’t mean that you don’t belong on a given site. With few exceptions, every first pitch I sent to a site I’d write for at a later point was rejected. Plus, a rejection may even lead to a commission in some cases, if, for example, the editor liked the articles you linked to in your pitch and steers you in the right direction for your next try. Of course, getting rejected will never be entirely painless, but after a while, you’ll accept it as part of a process that will hopefully lead to good things. Again, persistence pays off.
I hope this guide contained some helpful pointers! If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or criticism, please don’t hesitate to contact me.