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How top freelancers like Melba Newsome do it

One successful freelance writers share practical tips for staying busy in the current economy.

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Melba Newsome is a Charlotte, N.C.-based writer who has published more than 500 articles in some of the top magazines and newspapers, including O, The Oprah Magazine; Glamour; Self; Time; and The New York Times. Two of her magazine features were turned into Lifetime movies. She wears many writing hats, including blogger and corporate writer, and has conducted writing workshops for Woman’s Day, the American Library Association and Queens University. Staying successful has meant reinventing herself as needed. Here’s how she does it.

What led you to become a freelancer?

I’ve always had an interest in writing but didn’t start freelancing until a friend said, “You’re so opinionated. You should write for magazines.” I had no idea how to start, so I read a few books, subscribed to The Writer and other magazines, [and] started sending off queries. It clicked.

Did your work/income suffer during the recession? What changes did you make as a result?

The recession took a huge toll on my work—90 percent of my income came from consumer publications. In early 2009, three magazines that had given me a lot of work folded in one month. Editors were afraid to assign [articles]. I had always made a point not to rely on just a few publications, but when the recession hit, I realized I was too invested in magazines. It’s taken a while, but I’ve established more of a mix of corporate work, Web writing, seminars, etc. Today business is much better.

Where does business come from these days?

Sometimes I get work for a corporate/business client; sometimes I’ll get a contract to write a newsletter or ghostwrite for a professional. I am also a featured contributor to HealthyMagination, GE’s health website, for which I blog weekly about the intersection of health and innovation. I’m doing a lot of networking, joining business groups, and trying to get my name in front of people who may need a professional writer.


What was your strategy for doing the writing workshops?

I taught a six-week course when I first moved to Charlotte to get out of the house and meet people. I loved the one-day workshops. It was a good way to give back.

What advice do you have for writers trying to establish their careers in this new-media environment?

Familiarize yourself with the industry. These days there are so many content mills that pay $25/article that will get you trapped in a kind of writers ghetto, where you will never be able to make a living as a writer. Try to break into legitimate sites, such as those with a newsstand component. My advice is the same as it’s always been, regardless of the outlet: Be persistent, be professional, and never write for free. Unfortunately, there is no road map. You may have to make dozens of contacts to get one job, but it gets easier if you produce a good product.

Anything else?

Don’t take yourself too seriously, but take your profession seriously.

Debbe Geiger is a freelance writer in Cary, N.C. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Woman’s Day, Cooking.

Originally Published