This is the Hugo House “How-To” series, where Hugo House teachers share tips related to the writing life. This week’s post comes from writer and editor Nicole Dieker. Her class, Writing for the Internet, is a one-day intensive on Saturday, August 13.
I wrote 64 articles this May. Just over 54,000 words. My articles range from 146-word posts, where I tally up how much money I spent over the weekend, to 4,635-word researched pieces that take the whole month to complete—and 64 of these per month means I’m writing roughly thirteen articles a week.
My summer class at Hugo House will look closely at how to write the kinds of pieces I do, and how to pitch them. We’ll discuss how to use specificity to build connection, how to guide readers from beginning to end, and how to turn an idea into a narrative.
What we won’t discuss is how to write thirteen articles every week. (It’s only a four-hour class, after all.) So that’s what today’s How To is all about. If you’re interested in boosting your freelance productivity, here’s everything I’ve learned in my freelancing career:
1. Build really great relationships with your clients.
To be a successful freelancer you have to be good at the writing end and the relationship end. Getting those long-term client relationships is essential to my productivity, because it means I spend much less time sending cold pitches to editors I don’t know. Instead, I check in with the editors I do know and immediately get to writing.
2. Plan as many columns and recurring topics into your work as you can.
Here is a short list of columns I’ve written this year:
What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money (The Billfold)
How Gilmore Girls Do Money (The Billfold)
Let’s Talk About Downton Abbey (The Billfold)
Show Us Your Receipts (The Billfold)
Checking In With My Savings Plan (The Billfold)
Tracking Freelance Earnings (The Write Life)
Pitch Fix (The Write Life)
From The Diaries of Minerva McGonagall (SparkLife)
A lot of those columns are for The Billfold (where I am both a writer and a senior editor) and that’s because my Billfold work requires two posts every day, Monday through Friday. It’s immensely easier to think “okay, today’s Wednesday, it’s time for What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money” than “okay, it’s Wednesday, what am I going to write about?”
If I can’t work something into a column, I’ll still latch on to a topic I really like and write as many stories on that topic as possible. I’ve written four Billfold articles about “people living in pods to save money,” for example. I can connect these stories to each other, which drives traffic back to previous Pod Life stories (always important) and gets me both my introduction and my conclusion.
3. Develop templates.
On “gets me both my introduction and my conclusion,” above: I have a lot of rough templates for my work, and although I play with those templates as I write, having the template means I don’t have to create every piece from scratch.
Here’s a sample template I often use:
Opening two paragraphs: Introduce idea, connect it to previous articles if relevant, ask a question.
Next three paragraphs: Explain idea, cite sources, cite “the other side of the story.”
Next two paragraphs: Connect idea to specific personal experience. Explain how idea affected that experience.
Last two paragraphs: Ask reader to connect idea to their personal experience. Reference previous articles on similar ideas and how they connected to personal experiences. Ask reader a direct question to be answered in the comments.
Once you’ve got the template in place, you can get a lot of writing done very quickly. (We’re going to be talking about templates in my Writing for the Internet class, if you’re interested in learning more about how to incorporate them into your articles.)
4. Know what you’re writing as far in advance as possible.
I know what I’m working on a month in advance. Sometimes two months in advance. I plan it out day by day, and make myself a spreadsheet detailing exactly which articles need to be worked on every morning and every afternoon, as well as “overflow days” to catch articles that still need extra work.
Knowing what I’m working on every day helps me stay focused. Knowing what I’m working on a month in advance helps my brain do that weird-but-essential background work that helps me when it’s time to actually sit down and draft the article. All of that “hey, look over there, it’s something that’s relevant to what you’ll be writing in three weeks!” stuff, and all of the brain-churning that goes on between “research” and “consolidating the research into an organized and structured 4,600-word piece.”
5. Block off the time.
I have to tell myself, weeks in advance, “from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m., I will work exclusively on this article.”
I can do roughly 800-1000 words an hour if I already have the research and the outline/template in place. So I plan out my hours to make sure I get all of those words written. I also plan out when I’m going to do the research and the interviews. Making the time helps me make my deadlines.
6. Accept “good enough.”
When you write thirteen articles a week, not all of them will be the best thing you’ve ever written. Sometimes you have to turn in a piece even if you know it isn’t your best work, because you’ve got 1,200 more words to write that day.
(This doesn’t mean “cut corners” or “do sloppy research,” by the way. It just means “this piece is good enough to meet my—and my editor’s—standards, so let’s turn it in.”)
What you’ll find is that all of your work gets better over time; your “not my best work” this month might look like your “best work” from three months ago.
So that’s how I do it. All of it. 50–60 articles a month, twelve months a year.
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer and Senior Editor at The Billfold. Her work has also appeared in Boing Boing, Popular Science, The Toast, and numerous other publications. Nicole regularly speaks on or facilitates panels about the intersection of art and money, and her practical, actionable freelance advice is available at The Freelancer’s “Ask A Freelancer” column and The Write Life’s “Pitch Fix.” Nicole is also writing a novel, The Biographies of Ordinary People, and is funding the process through Patreon.