Today on WriteWorldwide, freelance writer and journalist Davina Van Buren talks to us about treating your writing career as a business, the skills you need to make it as a freelancer, and more.
Let’s get down to it….
1) Hi Davina! Please tell us a little about yourself and your career as a writer.
I split my time between journalism, content writing and editing. On the editorial side, I specialize in travel, food and environmental reporting and write for both print and online publications.
On the content writing side, I work with big brands, family businesses, agencies and everything in between to create and implement successful marketing strategies.
2) Did you grow up wanting to be a writer? And how did you break into the industry?
I knew I’d be a journalist in seventh grade, when I served as editor of my junior high school newspaper. I’ve always loved reading, and unlike most of my classmates, breathed a sigh of relief when a test was heavy on the essay questions!
My idols back then were women like Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey and Connie Chung – I loved how worldly and well-traveled they were, and how they changed so many lives by being curious and outspoken. I wanted to do that, too.
3) What advice do you have for beginner freelance writers?
Invest in classes and education from the outset. This doesn’t have to cost much – subscribe to a bunch of writing newsletters, get the freebies and actually utilize them. Learn what a pitch is and have a solid foundation of how freelancing actually works.
If you do not have an extremely strong work ethic and a penchant for self-discipline, freelancing is not for you. If you can’t handle rejection on a daily basis, find something else to do. It’s a lot like acting or any other arts-related field: rejection is just part of the job and you can’t take it personal.
Also, a successful freelance career does not happen overnight. It takes years of practice, failed pitches and cultivating contacts to make it happen, and even then you must be diligent about staying up on trends within your niches and within the writing industry itself.
If you are looking a typical 9-5 with job security and weekends off, this is not the line of work for you. You need a hustler’s spirit to make a living as a freelance writer.
4) Do you have any advice for writers juggling freelance writing with a full-time job?
Save as much money as possible before going freelance. Coming from a fancy big city editor job, I just assumed people would be falling all over themselves to hire me as a freelancer.
WRONG! Determine exactly how much you need to make to cover bills, taxes, health care, and personal expenses. Get yourself a good bookkeeping system and a handful of good clients on the side, then cultivate your contacts and make sure you treat your writing business as such: a business.
This is not writing poetry or short stories for fun, it’s now your livelihood. In freelancing, there are no safety nets except the ones you create for yourself.
5) What’s your opinion on the subject of choosing a writing niche?
Having niches has worked very well for me. Because of my passion for healthy food, sustainable agriculture, adventure and travel, I always write the best stories about those subjects. These are things I care deeply about and would be researching anyway, so the work is fun and rewarding.
However, I don’t limit myself. Over the past four years, I have done everything from ghost writing for psychotherapists to writing copy for a website about structured cabling.
I never thought when I was in journalism school that I’d be writing about napkins or landscaping, but writing for trade magazines has become one of my favorite niches. I’m no longer concerned about “byline glory” now that I know about other kinds of writing that pay much better.
6) Winning new clients is always a hot topic on the WriteWorldwide blog. What’s the most effective prospecting method you’ve used to find new work?
Pitching, by far, is the most effective way of finding new work in my opinion. You have to get comfortable with pitching, and unfortunately for many freelance writers, it’s the hardest part of the job.
I’m also a member of several online writing groups and discussion boards that share job opportunities, and I use the list and search features on Twitter to track calls for pitches. Often, editors will post exactly what they are looking for and practically beg for fresh voices and new perspectives.
7) What do you wish you’d known at the start of your freelance writing career?
I wish I’d been smarter about keeping track of my deductions and the business side of things. I wish I’d kept detailed spreadsheets (like I do now) about my word counts, how much money I made from each and every client, how many pitches I was sending, and what the response rates were. Now, I keep track of everything so I can see what is working and what isn’t each year.
8) Name one book, one tool, and one article that have helped you in your writing career.
Book: Query Letters That Rock by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
Tool: Trello (I love having boards for each of my clients, personal projects, reading lists, etc).
Article: Why it’s So F*ing Hard to Be a Freelance Writer (So many great links within the article)
9) Who are your biggest influences and people you admire in the freelance writing industry?
I don’t think too much about what other writers are doing. I know what I want to do, what makes me happy and what I want my life to look like – that’s what matters most to me.
I know it’s not the typical romanticized writer mantra, but I’m just not one of those “writing is my life” kind of people. I love it and feel blessed to be able to do it professionally, don’t get me wrong – but it’s what I do, not who I am.
I’m also a traveler, fearless adventurer, mother, loyal friend, athlete, food producer, community leader…all of those things are just as important, if not more so, than my profession. The people I admire most are activists, farmers, artists and environmentalists…the people who are out there doing the work that I write about!
10) What does the future hold for you – are you involved in any new projects related to writing?
I teach freelance writing classes through Dabble, and am excited to offer my first classes on the east coast soon.
I just returned from a month on the road, where I gathered tons of new story ideas, so I’m taking the rest of the year to pitch some “dream” outlets. It’s important to keep challenging yourself.