Letter to a Young Writer


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

Last week, I heard from a young writer who asked me for advice about becoming a freelance writer. I wanted to encourage her, but I also wanted to let her know the challenges of such a career. Here is my letter to that young writer.

“Dear —

I’m glad you're thinking about a writing career. Once you can establish yourself—and it usually takes quite a while—it’s a nice life.

So, here are some thoughts, not necessarily advice, about freelance writing. Like any other career, there is good news and bad news.

1. Very, very few people make a career out of freelance writing. Most folks who do freelance also have a day job—sometimes in journalism, sometimes in teaching, sometimes in a bookstore—and write their articles or reviews on the side. So, in order to become a freelance writer, you’ll likely need to work for a few years in journalism or publishing to help you gain experience and contacts.

2. Build your experience. You tell me you have written for two-and-a-half years for your college newspaper and have won a writing contest. However, there are literally thousands of people who have exactly your experience, and many of them have attended colleges or universities that are larger and more recognized than Oglethorpe. If you try to find a gig based on your present experience and are up against someone with the same experience and level of recommendation from Harvard, the latter is going to get the call. Your experience so far is good, but it’s far from being enough to give yourself a good start on a career. Your writing up until now does show potential, but it will become livelier as you gain more perspective and begin to write about a wider range of subjects.

3. How do you get experience? Try to get an internship at a magazine or a newspaper. Preferably, though, find an internship at a magazine. You can also try to find an internship at a publishing house, such as Peachtree Publishers in Atlanta (if you're going to stay in Atlanta). I have two interns right now who are in your position; they love to write, they write for the college newspaper, and they’re looking for a gig just as you are. This internship will help them eventually. You might also apply for a job with Atlanta magazine. You won’t be writing right away, but eventually you’ll start getting some small assignments and then some larger ones. If you want to stay in the South, see if Southern Living or Oxford American has any openings or internships available.

4. Location. If you really want to be a freelance writer, you need to leave Atlanta and move to New York. Many of the people who make a living at freelancing live in NYC. You’re right there with all the major magazines and publishers, and you can get face time with the folks for whom you want to write. One of my favorite stories is about Alfred Kazin, one of the best literary critics of mid-twentieth century America who wrote in a freelance fashion but who also taught. His was a different time, though—he used to go several days a week to the offices of the New Republic and sit in the lobby waiting for galleys to review. It is extremely important to get out and meet people face-to-face and to establish relationships. E-mail, Facebook, and MySpace simply can’t replace the face-to-face contact with people. If you’re serious about writing, you really should think about moving to New York, at least for a little while. Once you become established, you can live anywhere you want.

5. Money. There’s not much money in freelance writing. That’s why there are very few folks who live by their freelance work alone. In order to make any money, you need to be writing for the top magazines and newspapers. An annual “salary” for a freelancer is from $25,000-$40,000 (this is a charitable estimate, and this is only if you snag some major assignments) and out of that “salary” you must pay for food, rent, gas—if you have a car—and insurance. Also, there is no steady salary if you are a freelance writer. You only receive payment for the jobs you complete and often the payment comes weeks after you’ve turned in your assignment. This means that some months you might not have any income at all from your jobs but in other months you’ll be flush with cash. You’ll also have to save money to pay taxes at year’s end; Uncle Sam doesn’t take taxes out of your check when you freelance.

6. You can live on a freelancer’s income if you decide to live simply and frugally. You’ll have to brew your own coffee rather than paying $4.00 a cup for the Starbucks brew. If you can live for a while with just your computer, a few books, and the food and drink you need, then you can make the income work out for you. You’ll need to be creative, but it’s entirely possible to live on the income.

7. You must be disciplined and be able to work on several assignments at once. Not only do you need to be writing your present assignment, but you’ll need at the same time to be looking for the next gig and the gig after that. Your next check is only as close as your next completed assignment. This is one of the most important lessons a freelance writer learns; you’re the one who has to look out for yourself, and if you have no assignments, you have no money.

8. What do you write about? Find topics that interest you and that you feel somehow expert on. As a freelancer, you might write about gardens one day and guitars the next. Develop your areas of expertise in whatever ways possible and promote yourself as someone who can write on those areas. Once you become known in those areas, folks will start to think of asking you to write about them. Look around for magazines that focus on your areas and pitch ideas to them.

9. Where to write? Well, the opportunities for writing—except for established writers—are shrinking every day. Magazines are folding (no pun intended), newspapers are cutting back on pages and staff—I’m very sad to say that I no longer write book reviews for newspapers because the publications for which I wrote have shrunk or now take their reviews from wire services—so you need to find creative outlets. Writing for sites on the web is a way to start. You might want to troll the web for sites in your area of expertise and offer to write for them. Some of this you’ll need to do for free at the beginning, but it will build your file of clips and help you get to know folks. Editors might ask you to write on spec, which means you’ll be writing to their specifications until they see that you’re a good writer. Once you’ve established yourself and demonstrated that you’re a good writer that can meet a deadline, then you’ll get more assignments.

10. Sell yourself. Again, you’re only going to make money if you’re writing. Pitch your work to numerous folks. Build your portfolio and experience and get out there and start selling yourself.

11. Keep reading. Your fund of ideas comes from reading, so read anything and everything from magazines and newspapers to books and websites. If you want to write book reviews, be sure that you read widely in the classics as well as in contemporary literature. You’ll want to be able to say how the book about which you’re writing differs or is similar to other books like it. You’ll also want to able to show how the book about which you’re writing takes ideas from classic literature. If you’re going to write about music, be sure that you have listened deeply to all kinds of music so you can write about the influence of older music on the music under review.

Writing is a rewarding career. You have a good start. Your writing has potential. It will be even better when it’s more mature and less self-conscious and has more sense of the wider world. Build experience, gain perspective, see the world, read lots, and have a great time writing.”

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.



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