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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Guest Post: Freelancing is a Numbers Game--Here's How to Win It

I'm happy to welcome Mridu Khullar Relph as guest-poster today, talking about how to successfully market yourself as a freelancer:  

I’ve been a freelancer for roughly a dozen years and I can tell you, precisely and in detail, about the years that have been the hardest for me. You know, the ones in which you woe the day you ever became a freelancer, eat Ramen noodles for weeks in a row, and call your mother to say that if things don’t improve drastically, you’re moving in with her, husband, child, and animals in tow. 

Heavens be thanked, I’ve never had to move in with my mother. Because each time I’ve struggled with money, I’ve realized that it comes after a busy period in which I’ve neglected my marketing. And each time I’ve realized that, I’ve committed myself to 40+ hours a week of marketingEvery single time I have done this, my bills are magically paid by the end of the month and my mother’s guest bedroom remains dog-free.

Years ago, when I was living in Berkeley, my freelance business smashed up against the US economy. The results were not pretty. By the time I returned to India, my freelance business was bruised and had cuts all over its face (you should have seen the other guy). I came up with an idea: I would send 30 query letters to national publications in the span of 30 days. That year, I wrote for The New York Times, became a regular contributor to Time magazine, was named Contributing Editor at Elle’s Indian edition, and made more money than I ever had before in my career.

When freelancers say that pitching is a numbers game, we’re not saying send three queries and go relax. Those are not the numbers that will get you results, not any more. But send them every single day and twice on Sunday and the results are almost guaranteed. 

Your queries have to be fantastic and your letters of introduction head and shoulders above the rest of your competition, but once you’ve got those sorted, the only way to grow your freelance business is to put your work out there in front of as many people as you can.

It’s a numbers game. And if you aren’t winning, here are a few ways in which you can get started:

1. The only way to do something is to do it.
Researching story ideas is not pitching. Finding out who edits what section of a magazine is not pitching. Adding two dozen people on LinkedIn and wading through their list of contacts? Not pitching. You know what counts as pitching? Hitting send on a query. Now, don’t get me wrong. You need to do all those things. You need to know who to query, what the magazine publishes, and how Richard Branson remains productive, but many freelancers fall into the trap of constantly researching, constantly interacting with editors on Twitter, constantly reading magazines for story ideas, but never actually sending out a pitch.

Don’t be the writer who squirrels away information for later. When you come across a market you find interesting, send them a query. Immediately.

2. Getting started is more important than getting it right.
We’re writers, so there’s no point talking to us about letting go of perfectionism. We’ll just ignore you. I say get it perfect. Send the best damn query you can to whoever will read it. But you can’t do that if you don’t take the first step of writing that first word and that first sentence. Getting started is important because if you’re going to be pitching the numbers that I teach my students to aim for (30 queries in 30 days), you’re going to have to find a way to get started. And the very best way I know is to make a list of 30 publications that you will pitch in a given month and one by one, start working your way through them.

3. You can restart any time.
One of the most inspiring things I ever heard was from a former yo-yo dieter who had lost 20 lbs. and then managed to keep it off. His advice was simple: You are going to binge, so accept that, but also know that you must recover immediately. Don’t wait until next Monday. Start again now. You’re not always going to hit your goals in marketing. Once the work starts coming in and you get busy, finding new clients is something that takes the backseat, as it should. But most of us don’t just chuck our marketing in the backseat, we throw the poor thing out of the car altogether.

If you have done this, offer it an arm. Draw it back in. You’re going to lose sight of the marketing every now and again, but you’ll be okay if you can recover quickly.  

4. Keep it simple.
I’ve now interacted with dozens of writers, many of whom have ran their own successful versions of 30 Days, 30 Queries and the one thing that continues to trip writers up repeatedly is that they overcomplicate things. The questions I receive in my Inbox daily when I’m running a challenge of this sort include versions of “Does an LOI count as a pitch?” “Should I address the editor by full name or first name?” “Is it Ms or Ms.?” My answer: It doesn’t matter! And it’s not important. If an editor falls in love with your idea, she’s going to buy it no matter whether you addressed her by her full name or her first name.

But I also understand the need to ask these questions. Human beings, when we’re faced with big fearsome tasks, tend to focus on the tiny aspects that we feel we can control. And therefore, instead of spending time on crafting our pitches, we find it easier to worry about the correct way in which to address an editor.

My advice is simply to follow a step-by-step approach. Pick 30 markets. Study them. Find the names of the editors. Come up with ideas. Write the query. Hit send.

30 Days, 30 Queries. What are you waiting for?

Thanks to Mridu Khullar Relph for this insightful post. Relph is a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times, Time, CNN, ABC News, The Christian Science Monitor, Ms., Elle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many other publications.

Her e-course 30 Days, 30 Queries guides writers through a month of intense marketing to reach a new level in their careers. If you're looking to take your career to the next level, I highly recommend it! 


  1. I really like number 3...I've had to stop a few times along this journey, but I've found my way back in. Never give up!!!

  2. Number three is what got me before too.