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How Becoming a Freelance Writer Made Me Better at Public Relations

Let’s be honest. I never intended to work in Public Relations.

When I graduated college in May 2008, it was essentially the worst job market for new graduates in recent history. Not to mention I was trying to land a gig in the journalism industry, which was folding publications and firing writers left and right. I was accepted into Burger King Corporation’s summer intern program, specifically in the global communications department, because I had a strong writing portfolio. After about a year, I realized working in internal communications kind of sucked, so I asked if I could help write press releases. I’m pretty sure I said something stupid like, “I’d like to try writing press releases because I have a journalism degree and I’ve read press releases before.” And then I Googled “press release template.”

That’s how I landed in Public Relations.

It wasn’t until five years later, when my impeccable Twitter-stalking skills led me to find an editor with Running Times who went to my high school, that I even considered taking on a writing side project. And, in true me fashion, I said something stupid, “I studied journalism and I miss it!”

That’s how I landed my first gig as a freelance writer. Others who want a literary career may be trying to follow a similar journey as my own or maybe searching for how to become an editor, if this interests them as a freelance career.

Two years later, I’ve written about three dozen stories for Running Times,, RunWashington and The Washington Post Magazine. While I’ve been lucky enough to have only had to pitch one of those stories – pretty unheard of in the freelance writing world, from what I’m told – I’ve learned several important lessons that have carried over into my work in PR. Many people are looking to try their hand at freelance work for themselves – there are some top tips for freelancers available online which will help such people find their feet.

  1. Pitch stories that are shareable.

    It was a rough day when I got an email from one of my editors that said, “I just got the chance to read through the security story and it wasn’t what I was expecting.” Ouch. His point was that the story I wrote simply re-hashed all the security measures being taken at the 40th Marine Corps Marathon. He asked me to take another stab at it, this time writing about “the types of things that would make someone enjoy reading it and want to share it.” So I wrote about the logistical nightmare of coordinating a marathon in the nation’s capital and how there are secret snipers roaming around under the radar. The final story, from what he told me, ended up performing very well on social.

  1. Ask clients the right questions to get the story – the good story.

    A few months ago, I was assigned a story for RunWashington about a 19-year-old immigrant from Eritrea (yes, I had to Google “Eritrea”) who essentially showed up in Northern Virginia one day not speaking English and joined her new high school’s cross country team. Now, she’s one of the top runners in the country. She had a good story, but after a few interviews I started to get the sense there was more to it than just being a surprise superstar. I asked the right questions and found out her home country has a huge emigration crisis and that she had defected, leaving behind her entire immediate family. That was my story – and it was something other publications had yet to write about. Had I not made the time to dig deeper, I may never have missed out on the bigger human-interest angle.

  1. Think through every pitch as if you are going to write the story.

    I mentioned before I was lucky enough to have nearly three dozen stories assigned to me, until I connected with an editor at The Washington Post Magazine and she asked me to pitch her. I was like, “Crap.” Working in Public Relations, we pitch every day – but we never have to write the story. This time around, I was going to have to write the damn thing. The editor was nice enough to work with me after I sent her my initial idea, so really, the news hook came from her. But as I prepped to pitch my second story, I knew ahead of time to think it through and really sell it.