Freelancing Academics: Raise Your Profile and Income Through Writing

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A bit on the side: Raise your profile and your bank balance through freelance writing as an academic

It’s part of an academic’s everyday life: taking weeks to write journal articles that only 25 people will ever read. The impact may seem dispiritingly small, but with each writing project you hone skills that could build your reputation, help those affected by the issues you research, and even bring you extra income.

The writing abilities that make your reports shine and get your journal articles published are also in demand outside of academia. How can you break in?

Find your niche.

The first step is identifying suitable publications. Most people’s idea of a freelancer is a newspaper columnist dashing off witty paragraphs over a latte, but the truth is less glamorous. The vast majority of publications are in the “trade press”—specialist magazines, newsletters and Web sites about topics like managing computer networks, running a small business, or social work.

That’s good news for academics, because what the trade press wants is experts on their topic who can write well.

Make a list of who cares about the topics you research. Next, find out what publications target these audiences. If you have knowledge of use to primary school teachers, what magazines and professional Web sites do they look to? These may be commercial publications sold on a newsstand, subscription-only sites, or publications members of a professional association receive. Your students can often give you useful tips.

Perfect your pitch.

Look at stories these publications run, and think of ideas along the same lines (only better) that you could write. Turn these ideas into pitches: a title and two or three sentences describing the story you want to write. Make these strong and snappy.

Selling your ideas requires getting them to someone who can say yes: the commissioning editor, or the editor of the best section for your story ideas. In print magazines, staff contact details (the “masthead”) may be up front, or hidden in small type; for online publishers they’re usually under a heading like “About Us.” If only one editor is listed, you’re in luck, because fewer full-time staff means more reliance on freelancers.

Also check the Web site (including for print publications) for authors or contributors guidelines. These tell you what kinds of pitches editors want to see. Of course, not all will have a formal document, and some will only send it to you after your first approach.

These days most pitching is done by email. If you’ve written for the general public before, such as an article for the University alumni magazine, include it as an attachment. In your email, hit the editor with two or three great ideas, and explain why you have the background knowledge to be a good contributor. Invite them to discuss possibilities further, and follow up if you’ve not heard back within two weeks.

Avoid rip-offs.

Commercial publications should always pay contributors, although many will try to avoid it. Arm yourself with knowledge. The National Union of Journalists’ London branch publishes information on current rates (, which you can use to guess what to expect at similar publications to those listed. In the US, the National Writers Union ( provides a similar service.

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