Freelance Writing: Nothing Has Changed & Everything Has Changed

The IBM Selectric - the height of technology for many freelance writers in the '80s.
The IBM Selectric – the height of technology for many freelance writers in the '80s.

Every now and then I like to focus on the business of freelance writing and how things have changed over the past 25 years. Though I wasn’t freelancing in the mid-80’s to late 90’s, I worked with many freelance writers. I helped to assign articles and chased those who were late on their deadlines. I also acted as a sort of liaison between the accounting department and freelance writers to ensure they received payment. Mostly, I gave them my ear. As assistant to the Editor in Chief, I was one of the few in our company who had my own office,  complete with oversized cow-spotted comfy chair. My office, in front of my desk,  was where freelance writers congregated and discussed their craft and their business.

I was thinking about my old office yesterday and many of the conversations I had with freelancers “back in the day.” In comparing some of today’s freelancing tales with the freelance life of 20 years ago, it’s occurred to me that although much has changed, very little has changed.

Let me explain and you can see what I mean.

Freelance Writing in the 80’s and 90’s

Freelance writing jobs

I worked in publishing which meant the majority of freelancers hired were for magazine articles. Many queried or sent complete manuscripts which ended up in a tall, towering pile in my boss’ office. Once a month or so, we’d sit on her floor and go through all the queries and manuscripts. I was in charge of calling or writing each writer with the response. We also hired writers to create media kits, brochures, sales letters, marketing reports and more. When I moved from publishing to work as an editorial assistant in a graphic design firm in the 90’s we hired writers for all our projects including catalogs, brochures, one sheets, corporate reports, and yes, even web content.

Though we had a roster of freelance writers on call, we also found freelancers via word of mouth. We rarely took out ads. The best places for freelance writers to find work was through artsy or hip type newspapers such as the Village Voice. The New York Times also ran occasional ads for the freelancers but that was rare.

The majority of freelance writers found work via cold calling, pounding the pavement and personal recommendations from friends. As you can imagine, it was a lot more difficult to break into freelancing back then, but the same channels freelance writers used  to find work, are the same channels we use now with a few exceptions.

Freelance writing pay

Freelance writing pay in the 80’s & 90’s ran the gamut. There was a big uproar over non-paying newspapers and magazines, but many freelancers took these opportunities to get a boot in the door. While there were some magazines paying $1 per word, there were also plenty of magazines and newspapers paying $5 to $50 for an article. Most old schoolers considered these rates awful and wanted nothing to do with them, criticizing those who stooped to these levels.

Networking and Marketing

Freelancers networked at networking events, writing workshops and conferences. They carried portfolios with them to show writing clips to potential clients. Many New York City writers went door to door to  seeing which businesses needed their services, or cold called for business. They placed ads in the Yellow Pages and wrote up index cards to place on coffee shop or laundromat bulletin boards.  Those who were trying to break into freelancing begged established friends and colleagues to introduce them to contacts. Business was generally local.

Freelance Writing Today

Freelance writing jobs

Today there are so many freelance writing opportunities to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start. Writes can create content for websites, write for magazines and newspapers, do some copywriting for businesses or even create their own passive income streams.

Today’s freelancers also find work through a variety of channels including word of mouth marketing, cold calling and cold emailing. They query magazines and and answer want ads in newspapers. The majority of freelancers, at least the majority of freelancers I speak with, find work using various online job boards until they’re established. Once that happens they continue to find work thanks to repeat client projects, and referrals and recommendations from other freelancers. Though there are more jobs in 2010, there is also more competition thanks to a global marketplace. Freelance writers are no longer confined to a region.

Freelance writing pay

Freelance writing pay in 2010 runs the gamut. There is a big uproar over non-paying websites, but many freelancers take these opportunities to get a boot in the door. While there are some magazines paying $1 per word, there are also plenty of magazines and web content sites paying $5 to $50 for an article. Many old schoolers  or established freelancers consider these rates awful and want nothing to do with them, criticizing those who stoop to these levels. The best thing about being a freelance writer in 2010 is the freedom of choice and the variety of opportunities available at different pay levels.


Today’s freelance writers network using many of the same methods from 25 years ago, but thankfully they don’t have lug portfolios from place to place. In addition to networking events, freelancers also take advantage of social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook in order to build relationships with potential clients. Online forums, blogs and nichey social networking groups allow freelance writers to share tips and ideas and get to know the people who are hiring.

The more things change, the more they stay the same…

There are more opportunities now with more freelancers vying for each. However, the nature of the business hasn’t changed much at all. It still pays to build up relationships with clients so they’ll continue to seek out our services. To find the highest opportunities, we may have to pick up a phone or pound the pavement. In the end though, we’re still enjoying the freedom and flexibility that makes us determined to succeed.

When did you start freelance writing. What sort of changes have you seen since that time…and what hasn’t changed much at all?


One response
  1. Jeanne Avatar

    Hee hee…I started freelancing around 1988 or so…pounding an old manual typewriter. I felt grand when I moved up to an IBM selectric. And then – whoa! A word processor? Be still my heart….

    The first magazine article I sold I wrote entirely and sent it off with the SASE to the editor. I always knew when an acceptance would come – the SASE would be skinny instead of fat. It was like figuring out whether or not you were admitted to a college. “Is it the fat envelope or the skinny one? Hurrah, I can pay my rent!”

    Writers Digest and The Writer were the only ways I knew to find publishers. Writer’s Market was my guide.

    Thanks for the blast from the past.

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