Freelance writers tell how it’s done

‘Renegade’ authors succeed by breaking the rules

By Pamela H. Sacks


So you want to be a freelance writer?

You can picture it now: your name over a big spread in Vanity Fair or Atlantic Monthly — even The New Yorker. You have ideas, and you certainly can write. Hundreds — even thousands — of people are freelancing for a living. Why not you?

Why not, indeed.

It may be a while before you crack The New Yorker, but Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell maintain that it is perfectly possible to build a solid career as a freelance writer. They’ve been doing it for years.

And they’ve learned a few things they’re willing to share with you in their new book, “The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success” (Marion Street Press, $14.95).

They urge newcomers and veteran writers alike to be iconoclasts. Many of the common freelance “rules” aren’t rules at all, they write. In fact, if you want to succeed, you must be professional — but bold and confident, as well.

For instance, they say, be persistent. A lot of people send out one query, get a rejection and give up. The more queries you write, the better you get at it.

“It took me two or three years to get into Family Circle and Woman’s Day,” Ms. Formichelli said by telephone from her home in Blackstone. “If you send a query and you don’t hear back, don’t be afraid to call up and get an answer.”

And a query often should be longer than a page. Some magazines prefer the detail that two or three pages will allow. That was the case with Redbook, Woman’s Day and Family Circle, Ms. Formichelli said.

Negotiate for more money? Yes, don’t hesitate. Turn work down? Whenever it doesn’t suit you.

But if what you want is an idea of what a successful freelancer’s life is really like, a chat with Ms. Formichelli brings the picture into focus.

The summer was slow, as it always is, and Ms. Formichelli was worried about whether she’d ever get another assignment. Then September arrived and the work poured in.

She’s writing a piece on dealing with difficult interviewees for Writer’s Digest and two short stories — 250 to 300 words each — for two trade magazines, one on training opportunities for chief information officers and another on inkjet printers. She’ll also write a story for Muscle Media on how to “psyche yourself slim.”

Ms. Formichelli, 34, is the first to acknowledge that this isn’t exactly the stuff of the glossy, prestige magazines. But it’s a living — and a good one.

“It’s a job, like any other job,” she said. “You have clients that you have to keep satisfied. At the same time, the more experience you have, the more likely you are to get assignments you want.”

Ms. Formichelli has been earning her keep freelancing for six years. She found that over time she was writing less on the utilities market and more on nutrition, the field in which she would like to specialize.

“I still get the assignment that doesn’t interest me, and I just do it because I need to make money,” she said.

Ms. Formichelli and Ms. Burrell, who met on an Internet e-mail discussion list, are generally paid $1 a word — but not always. Ms. Formichelli writes for magazines that pay as little as 40 cents a word. On the other hand, the fee at Woman’s Day is $1.75 a word. That translates into $2,100 for a 1,200-word story.

“You have to look at your hourly rate,” Ms. Formichelli said. “If you’re getting $1.50 a word and it takes you three solid weeks to write the story, you’re not doing very well.”

Ms. Formichelli grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. After graduating from the State University of New York at Albany with a degree in Russian language, she moved to California and earned a master’s degree in Slavic linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley.

“I would love to write articles about linguistics, but I don’t think there’s much call for it,” she said.

She went on to work in marketing, a job that took her to the Netherlands for several years.

She and her husband, W. Eric Martin, who also is a freelance writer, moved to Massachusetts in 1997, the year she started her writing career. She’s not sure just what motivated her, except that she had always liked to write and had worked on her high school literary magazine.

Ms. Formichelli’s first professional assignment was a story on informational interviewing for EEO Bi-Monthly, which has been renamed Diversity. “I got the idea because I was doing that kind of interviewing for publishers,” she said.

She said her best assignment so far has been to write an edgy biweekly marketing column for a magazine for independent professionals. She did it for a year and a half and took home $1,400 a month. Then the publication folded.

“I could write about anything I wanted, and I got to write in an obnoxiously humorous style that came naturally to me,” Ms. Formichelli said. “I actually got fan mail.”

Now, Ms. Formichelli earns a good living working about 20 hours a week.

“In the beginning I worked nonstop,” she said. “I would love to make six figures, but I also like working 20 hours a week.”

She and Ms. Burrell want to follow “Renegade Writer” with another guide to getting published. This one would be filled with other writers’ successful query letters, with comments in the margins by assignment editors about what piqued their interest and what didn’t.

“We thought we’d call it ‘Query Letters That Rocked,’ ” Ms. Formichelli said.