Book Review: Two Books on Freelance Writing


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Book Review

Two Books on Freelance Writing


Radika Meganathan

Copyright © 2003, Radika Meganathan, All Rights Reserved


Hand Book for Freelance Writing

Michael Perry

ISBN 0-8442-3256-4

How to be a Freelance Journalist

Christine Hall

ISBN 81-7224-698-6


“I would love to join the literary pantheon, but in the meantime, the local hospital needs a 800-piece on skin cancer and choosing a sunscreen.” -- Michael Perry 

How true. 

The truth is that freelance writing pays. P.A.Y.S. meaning paid bills and happy children. And more important by paying the bills we have  hassle-free, peaceful writing time and the mind frame for our passion – be it romance, science fiction or fantasy. On second thought, aren’t most of us freelancing? At least the members of Forward Motion I have met during the chat are working writers. For me, if you write as a second career, then it is freelancing.  

Contrary to popular laments, it is not really difficult to break into this field. There are innumerable local magazines, newspapers and websites that always need current, local articles and seasonal news. The world out there always has some news to offer, as long as you are a part of it.  

But the problem with freelance writing is time. Taking into consideration the response time of magazines and backlog factor, it may take from 3 to 9 months to get your accepted article published and many publications pay after print. Add this to problems like a lackluster query letter, inadequate research, bad structuring of article and wrong submission etiquette, and your freelance career might never even get started.  

So it is very essential you be prepared for this business. That’s why I recommend the following two books – The Handbook of Freelance WritingBy Michael Perry and How to be a Freelance Journalist by Christine Hall – as a primer to jumpstart your freelance career.  

Handbook for Freelance Writing  

Michael Perry has written for publications ranging from Newsweek to the New York Times Magazine  and from  the Christian Science Monitor to Cowboy magazine. His essays and humor are heard in both Wisconsin and Minnesota Public Radio. He is also the author of Why They Killed Big Boy & Other Stories. 

Here is what Michael Perry says in the preface: 

“There is no single path I follow. And so, how did I choose my path through this book?

  First of all, the path reflects my freelance experience. Interpret what you read in that context. Second, the path may not be straight, but it is straightforward. There are no overblown guarantees, no discourses on subjects with which I have no practical experience. This book isn’t about fame or angst or big book deals or the writer as a heroic figure. It is about fulfilling livelihood developed through individual combinations of spirit and craft; a livelihood that allows its practitioners the luxury of practicing survival by indulging a passion.” 

The first 3 chapters focus on Perry’s thoughts about the writing life, secrets to success and what the writer should do to break into commercial writing. In Chapters 4 to 11 you learn what to write, how to write it and how to sell it using the prefect query letter. To know more about rights and re-selling tactics, zoom in on Chapter 13. Chapter 14 – The Business End – offers what to do about taxes and billing when you start your own practice. 

The chapters are strewn with quotes and sidebars about writers and writing-related incidents. More like an autobiography, Handbook for Freelance Writing tells all you need to know to understand the field and build a thriving business as a freelance writer. 

How to be a Freelance Journalist

Christine Hall 

Compiled by erstwhile Editor Christine Hall, the book is packed full of practical ideas and instructions to break into solid commercial journalism. Written from an editor’s view point, this books is an invaluable resource of insider knowledge, revealing the best feature subjects, how to write them and what editors really want. An added bonus is that Christine knows the business from both the sides – she was a journalist before she became an editor.  

As in Handbook for Freelance Writing, Structuring And Writing The Featureprovides extensive information on how to develop your idea into an article.  However, there are other chapters as well, some of which will take you by surprise. There is a full chapter on how to illustrate your articles and how to use photography to raise the value of your feature. The chapter Building A Good Relationship With Your Editor strives to clear the picture about the terrifying role of an editor. Breaking into print – step-by-step lists out the many (local) opportunities the freelance writer has, that will leave you wondering why you didn’t think of that before.  

This book is almost a writing course by itself, with checklists of things to do at every stage, case studies, sample queries and letters, and sections on marketing and payment. There are also a lot of funny anecdotes and advices throughout the book. 

“It is tempting if an interviewee suggests meeting at a restaurant, particularly if they offer to foot the bill. Once I interviewed a manager of an exclusive Swiss restaurant chain. But have you ever tried eating, talking and taking notes all at the same time? While I tried to handle pen, knife and fork simultaneously, the delicious food got cold. And all I could hear when I played back the recorded tape was the noise of cutlery”

Christine Hall delivers the ultimate horror info – she tells you what happens at the backstage, after the Editor receives your manuscript. This section is definitely not for the faint-hearted, but nevertheless, a very useful piece of revelations for those who are into serious freelancing.  

The Comparison 

Now here is the reason why I reviewed two books at one go. 

If Handbook for Freelance Writing is a memoir of a veteran freelancer, then How to be a Freelance Journalist is a how-to manual. The first tells you, from a freelancer’s point of view, what you need to do to get published. The second, from a person who buys manuscripts, informs you what you should be doing to get published.  

Straightforward and practical, these two books show you how to develop ideas into publishable features, how to sell them and how too develop a hobby into a profitable full-time business. Throughout these two books, you’ll benefit from proven strategies and real-world advice on every aspect of a freelance writing career, including:  

Finding what editors really want

Choosing a salable topic

Finding expert sources

Crafting the effective query letter

Structuring the article/feature

Interviewing skills

Commercial writing

Branching out

Rights and secondary sales

Taxes, billing and more sales

Journalists who have made it – and how

So if you want to have a starter kit to go into freelancing buy these two books. They are worth every penny you pay and more.