Moira Allen Teaches People How To Start Their Career As A Freelance Writer
Moira Allen has been writing professionally for over 40 years. She is the host of Writing-World.com, one of the largest websites for writers, and the author of several books on writing, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer and The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches & Proposals. Allen lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer’s cat.
What motivated and inspired you to start your own business?
I’d already done quite a bit of writing and freelancing but hadn’t really settled into doing it as a serious “business.” What finally got my business off the ground was an encounter my husband had with a fellow involved with Amway. This fellow was very persuasive, and one of his points was that most people are only two or three months away from bankruptcy (i.e., they don’t have a financial cushion against losing their day job).
But as we listened to the odes to selling soap and ending up with your own private helicopter, I decided: yes, I wanted to help build that financial cushion, but I didn’t want to do it selling Amway. I knew taxes for freelancers were a thing, and that I would have to organise it myself, but I still wanted to write! I wanted to do it in a way that had meaning and (to me) real value. So I sat down with my Writer’s Market and basically committed to launching a freelance writing business. That was in 1996.
Tell us about your business.
My business as a freelance writer began with writing for periodicals: namely, submitting articles to print and online publications. It has evolved in a number of unexpected directions since then.
I became involved with the writers’ website “Inkspot” and ended up doing a great deal of research and writing about how writers could make use of this new thing, “The Internet.” That led to my first work for Allworth, “Writing.com.”
When Inkspot folded, I launched my own writers’ website, Writing-World.com, which has become one of the largest websites for writers and attracts over 1 million visitors every year. While I did quite a bit of writing for my own site, I handled it as an online publication. It was difficult at first, but with anything, the more you work on it, you eventually get used to it. When I think about this business, it always reminds me of a friend of mine who was really struggling when it came to looking for a new job in the creative industry. She had gone through a number of interviews, but had been unsuccessful. Following this, she was then recommended to learn about Berke and other specialist companies that focus on what it takes to get through an interview successfully, for both candidate and the interviewer. Through this, she became a lot more confident when it came to interviews and she has finally landed the job of her dreams. Whether it is starting your own business or applying for jobs, it can feel like forever before anything can happen, but it is worth it once you finally see the results you have always been after.
In other words, I became an editor who bought material from other freelancers, and this was quite successful for over 15 years. (It still is, but it has been scaled back quite a bit in the last two years.)
Lately, I’ve moved more toward writing books than writing articles. I have three books with Allworth now, and each of them has gone into multiple editions. So my focus is both on writing and on website development.
I’ve won a number of awards for articles, primarily from the Cat Writers Association. My book, Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet, also won a “best book of the year” award from the Dog Writers’ Association of America.
Where is your business based?
I’m currently based in Maryland. One of the best things about a freelance writing business, however, is you can do it anywhere. I’ve worked from California, Washington, Virginia, Germany, and England!
What were the first few steps you took to get your business up and running?
Basically, getting my name into the Writer’s Market and hunting for possible places to start pitching articles. I already had the business basics in hand: a computer, a place to work, business supplies, etc.
I was already writing but hadn’t moved into the phase of saying “this is a business, and I’m going to run it as such.” The first steps were really making some connections with various publications, several of which turned into steady markets for several years.
In freelance writing it’s also important to realize that these “first steps” never really stop. Markets constantly change. None of the editors that I first connected with are still at those publications, and most of the publications themselves are now gone.
One of the dangers of this business is the old “20/80” rule – 80 percent of your income will come from 20 percent of your clients. This is very true, but publishing is a volatile world, and you can wake up one morning to find that your biggest client has just been bought by another company, or shut down, or your editor has quit, and the new editor doesn’t know you or is impossible to work with, so on and so on.
Suddenly, you’re back to sending out a bunch of queries to totally new markets trying to find a replacement for a big chunk of your income.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness of your business and getting new customers?
This type of question only applies to the business of “freelance writing” if you offer your writing services to other businesses – for example, you act as a “copywriter” for various companies. In that scenario you do indeed need to “raise awareness” of your business, and the best way to do that is to build an effective website and use social media to attract customers.
If you freelance for periodicals, however, your challenge is not really “raising awareness” or “attracting customers.” The basic strategy for writing for periodicals is still conducting market research, locating publications that you feel qualified to write for, sending out queries and submissions, etc. It’s a one-to-one exchange.
The good news is that if you make a good impression on an editor, that editor is likely to come back to you for more articles. But there really isn’t a great deal you can do to create some sort of “presence” that “gets customers” when you’re in the article writing business.
What have been your biggest challenges so far?
I’d say that the biggest challenge I find is the changing face of the writing and publishing world. When I started, magazines were still being run largely by an “old guard” of dedicated editors (often the people who founded those magazines), whose primary interests were in finding good writers and providing good material to their readers.
Over the past 20 years, there has been a trend toward large media companies gobbling up the many smaller magazines that used to be out there. This tends to result in one of two outcomes. Either the magazine ends up being drastically changed to suit the interests of the new owner, or the new owner finds that this small, mom-and-pop publication just can’t produce the revenues that a huge corporation requires to be profitable. And so the magazines get shut down.
Dozens of magazines that I used to write for when I started out are gone now, and we aren’t seeing new ones arising to take their places. New publications arise on the web all the time, but many don’t last, and many have much lower pay rates. So finding new and worthwhile markets remains the biggest challenge.
How did you overcome these challenges?
In the past I’ve overcome the challenge of, say, losing a market by just getting out there and searching for new markets. Today, however, as I’ll explain below, I’m in a transitional stage – moving out of “freelancing” and into fiction writing, so I will be facing an entirely new set of challenges. And since I haven’t actually faced them yet, I can’t really tell you how I will have overcome them.
How do you keep motivated through difficult times?
As a writer, I think the thing that motivates is the desire to keep on writing. Making the money is nice, and freelancing is a business. A lot of writers overlook that and focus on the creative side, but yes, it’s a business and you need to think of it as such.
But there’s no reason to be in this business (as opposed to, say, driving for Uber) unless you genuinely love to write. There are many, many challenges for freelance writers; if you don’t love to write, you won’t ever have the motivation to keep going when editors turn you down, publishers don’t pay, or you hit that dry spell where you just can’t think of anything to write about.
How do you distinguish yourself from your competitors?
For a writer there are two basic ways to distinguish yourself from your competitors. Keep in mind, again, we’re not talking about a business where you put up advertising and try to “attract customers.” You have to go out and get those clients and then try to keep them. So yes, you definitely want to stand out from the pile of queries on the editor’s desk or in her e-mail inbox.
The first way to do that is to understand the market to which you’re pitching. As an editor, I’ve received so many queries from people who clearly have not even bothered to read my publication. I recall one would-be freelancer who kept trying to pitch me travel articles. When I told him I didn’t publish travel articles, he kept saying, “but you do!”
Turns out, all he’d done was look at Writing-World.com’s navigation menu, which does indeed have the word “travel” in it – because we have a section on “how to write and sell travel articles.” Looking no further, he just assumed it meant we published travel pieces.
That’s one way to stand out from the competition – the wrong way!
The first and best step you can take is to demonstrate in your query that you’ve actually reviewed the publication you’re pitching to and checked their guidelines. If you say “what are your pay rates?” and these are clearly posted online in the guidelines, you’ve just told an editor “I don’t do my homework.” This more than anything else makes a good first impression. Come across as a professional, even if you’ve never sold anything before.
Second, follow up with quality writing. That means writing that an editor doesn’t have to spend hours cleaning up. If you don’t know how to use a comma correctly, learn. Editors look for writers who don’t make a lot of extra work for them. If you can be one of those, you stand out from the competition.
What is the best advice you have received recently?
Rather than look at advice I’ve received recently, I’m going to share the best piece of advice I ever got, which is… “If you don’t try it, you’ll never know whether or not you could have done it.”
This was the advice I got when I was offered my first job as an editor, and I was wondering how I could possibly do this since I’d never done it before. My husband gave me that advice, so I took the job; and that was really the foundation of all the writing and freelancing that I’ve done since.
If you are considering a challenge, and it looks scary, well – try it. If you don’t, you’ll never know.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
One of the biggest problems “entrepreneurs” face is that we’re caught up in the excitement of the business, but we forget that it is a business. Writing is wonderful. Most freelancers write because they’re passionate about writing. Spreadsheets are boring. It’s very hard to get passionate about spreadsheets. (I’m something of an exception; I actually enjoy spreadsheets.)
But when you’re running a business, you must allocate some of that energy and passion to the dull, mundane side of things as well. If you’re not paying attention to your expenses, keeping track of income and costs, tracking submissions, tracking the time you spend on various projects to find out what you’re actually making per project, you will not succeed.
You’ll keep working and working, harder and harder, and wondering why you’re never achieving your goals. Freelancing isn’t just a creative art; it’s a business. The word “freelancing” applies to the business aspect of what you do, not the mechanism that you’re using (for instance, writing) to do it. To be a successful freelancer, you must do the dull stuff.
What are your favorite business tools/resources and why?
My tools are still pretty basic: a computer, a printer, a scanner, paper and pencils, etc. But if I were to tout a product that I find indispensable, I’d have to say “TurboTax.” In the old days, having a business income I’d always played it safe (yet expensive) by having an accountant do my taxes. Now I can do it myself – for a lot less. And when you’re running a freelance business, every bit of savings helps.
What is a good article or book you have read recently?
What are your goals for the next few months and how are you striving to achieve them?
As a writer, I’m transitioning from nonfiction freelancing to fiction writing. That’s a new business area, and one that I hesitate to refer to as “freelancing,” because the goals are somewhat different. When writing a novel one doesn’t pick a market, send a pitch, and then write only if and when the editor says, “go for it.”
One must do just the opposite – write the book, then try to find a publisher or agent who will consider looking at it. Since writing a novel can take quite a long time, it’s not an active “money-making” process while one is involved in it. But it is also, for many freelancers, the ultimate goal that got one into the writing business in the first place.
So let me comment on that just a bit, as it’s an important point for freelancers. Many of us started out wanting to write a novel. But we needed to bring in an income instead, and so we moved into some form of nonfiction freelancing – whether it’s writing for magazines or selling our copywriting services.
Now, that’s great, and it’s a wonderful career. But what I hear from freelancers everywhere is a sort of sighed statement, “Oh, someday I’m going to sit down and write that novel…” It seems as if the more we freelance – a career we started because we wanted eventually to write a novel – the farther we get from actually writing that novel.
So it’s important to take into your planning some consideration of when and how, one day, you’ll tackle your original writing goals. Otherwise, you can spend the rest of your life “making money” as a writer but never tackling the project that you dream of doing.
The challenge is that I am not sure it’s possible to be a freelance writer and write your novel at the same time. I don’t know any freelancers who have successfully done this. It’s similar to the issue I have found for people who want to start freelancing and think the way to do this is to get a job that involves writing – if your “work” is writing, you’re not going to do more writing on the side. If your “work” is freelancing, you’re not going to write fiction in your “spare” time – you’re going to be “written out” when any spare time comes along.
So I am in that stage of “freelancing” where I am moving out of the freelancing business itself, even though that means giving up the income, so that I can pursue a different dream. This seems to be the “next step” for a great many freelancers; as to how it’s going to go, all I can say at this point is “we’ll see!”
What social media outlets do you use? List them below.
Sorry, I’m a social media dinosaur. I go on Facebook periodically to look at photos of my niece and nephew; that’s about it.
- Of course I highly recommend my writing website, www.writing-world.com – a vast compendium of information for writers
- My site on pet loss bereavement (which is based on my first book, “Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet” – The Pet Loss Support Page – www.pet-loss.net
- My site on Victoriana, where you can subscribe to my monthly e-magazine on Victorian history: VictorianVoices.net – www.victorianvoices.net