Magazine articles and making a living as a freelance writer

So here are five books on writing for a living.

What I find interesting about these authors is that they have pretty different views of where writing for articles fits into the plan of becoming a successful writer. Some think it is essential. The first thing you do is go buy Writers Market, and then start writing and proposing. But for others, writing articles is only helpful in that it distracts other capable writers from competing in the ad copy business. Articles are fine for PR and self-promotion, but they pay far too little to be pursued as a real source of income.

For myself, I did buy a copy of Writers Market in a fit of hysteria, but after looking at it, I couldn’t understand why I did so. The pay is way too low, the time between acceptance and payment way too long, and you are supposed to be motivated enough to work on a proposal without knowing for certain that you have a customer. Maybe some people are able to do this often and fast enough to build a business, but my sense of things is that you would be far better off finding a couple of people who will let you write a brochure for them (for free if necessary) so that you can make a portfolio and try to get some business clients.

I talked to a publisher of a news magazine recently who was an editor about fifteen years ago when I did a few stories and book reviews for his publication. I asked him casually if he still did any journalistic assignments, as he did back when I worked for him. His answer didn’t surprise me. “Writing is for young people.” The people who write for those rates are those for whom writing is still somehow romantic as an activity. For those of us who are trying to make a living, it simply doesn’t make sense.

Of course, I’m sharing my opinion on the premise that I began a writing business earlier this year–that I am a “beginning writer” as of 2007. But I got my first job based on previous work I did part-time while a solo pastor. And I got that work based on relationships I built up before seminary when I did that low, low paying work. So I can’t deny that a history of writing can help–including a history of writing articles.

It all depends on your needs. If you have an income and can do some work on the side part time for awhile, then it might be worth investing a year of barely-worth-it writing so you can get a portfolio going (“Here are my two most recent projects,” is always technically true). My strong advice is to do some non-controversial pieces on health or technology or something that might be perceived as translatable into sales writing.

For the record, I personally found all of the above books worthwhile, even if I disagreed with a couple of them about the usefulness of writing articles for magazines.

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