Meet Megan Michelson. A California native, Michelson has been a freelance writer and editor for 10 years. She writes and edits for numerous publications including Outside, Backcountry, San Francisco Chronicle, Men’s Journal, Ski, Backpacker, and others. On top of that, she also writes stories and content for brands like REI, Patagonia, and Flylow.
Michelson covers all things outdoors and travel, but really gets into it with skiing. Fun fact: Google “outdoor copywriter”, and Michelson comes up on the first page.
Without further intro, here’s Michelson’s advice.
Year Started Freelancing Full-Time: 2010
Age When Started Freelancing: 28
Preferred Pronouns: She/her
What’s your “about you” elevator pitch for what you do?
I usually say I’m a freelance writer and editor, since that really encompasses all the writing work I do, for various outlets, be it editorial or commercial. But if I’m pitching a new magazine I want to write for or reaching out to a potential source for a story I’m working on, I will often call myself a freelance journalist instead.
What did you do before freelancing?
I was an editor on staff at various publications. My first real job was as a newspaper reporter at a small town weekly paper. Then I got an internship at Outside Magazine, which led to an assistant editor job there. I later worked as an associate editor at Skiing Magazine, then became the freeskiing editor for ESPN.com, before eventually leaving there to go freelance.
What made you decide to start freelancing?
I wanted to move to the mountains and I wanted more freedom and flexibility. I didn’t want to be confined to an office chair from 9-6 every day. I wanted to tell stories across different outlets and actually be able to report them in person, traveling and on the ground. I also knew I wanted to have kids and that being freelance would afford the freedom of schedule that I wanted as a parent.
What was your education before starting freelancing?
I got a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Middlebury College in Vermont.
What preparation did you do before going full-time freelance?
I started freelancing on the side while I had a full-time job. It was something I did occasionally, on evenings/weekends. That meant I had a few relationships with editors before I went full-time freelance and it also meant I knew there was enough work out there for me, since I’d been dabbling in for several years prior to diving in.
What was the most challenging thing for you when you first started?
The fact that you don’t get paid right away. So, the first year or so, I was waiting on checks from assignments I’d completed months prior. It felt like I was making no money, since my bank account wasn’t showing any income, even though money was owed to me. By a year in, I was able to adjust to that process and save accordingly, but still, that was especially hard. Basically, if you want to go freelance, you’ll need a decent amount of savings up front just so you’re not completely broke your first few months on the job. I would also say the rejections from editors were hard to hear, but those are still hard. That part hasn’t gotten any easier.
What helped you the most when starting out?
Other freelancers! I had friends who I’d worked with as their editor when I was on staff and other writers I’d met through press trips and trade shows and such, and having that community to bounce ideas, issues, problems off of was and continues to be hugely helpful. I still call, email, text my fellow freelance friends and say: Do you have a contact at Sunset magazine? Or how much does Men’s Journal pay you? Or can I send you a draft of something I’m working on? When you work for yourself, you have no coworkers. So building your own little set of colleagues can be life and career saving.
How did you get clients when you first started?
Relentless pitching. Lots of networking. Lots of cold-call-style emails to publications I wanted to write for.
How did you get into the outdoors niche?
I grew up in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada and my mom raised me skiing, backpacking, biking, and going on river trips. We all know writing comes easier when you write about what you love, so writing about the outdoors and especially skiing was a natural fit. I remember a conversation when I was an intern at Outside magazine with a very senior level editor there who warmed me against pigeonholing myself as just an outdoor or ski writer. I understood that risk—of being a writer who just writes about one thing—but I also knew that I wanted to write about the subjects and people and lifestyle and gear I was passionate about. And having a specialty, like skiing, has actually helped me a ton, as I get jobs from lots of different outlets who need someone who knows the world of skiing inside and out.
Do you ever go into other topics?
Yes, so certainly. I welcome the chance to write about other things. One can get a little bored just writing about the same thing over and over again. But I most often find ways to write about bigger, broader issues as it relates to the outdoors: a piece on climate change’s impact on the snowsports economy, an interview with a researcher who lives in the arctic alongside polar bears, a story on homelessness or immigrants in ski towns.
When did you make your website portfolio?
I put all my work on a website when I first started freelancing, since I knew I would need a place to compile my work. That was years ago and it was harder to build a website back then, so I paid a friend to build me a very simple site. A few years back, I switched to Squarespace and built my own site and I’m very happy with that.
How do you work in vacation or sick days?
Haha. The benefits of being a freelancer is that you can work whenever, wherever you want. The downside? There are no vacation or sick days, no paid time off. You are on call at all times. I bring my laptop with me everywhere. I take plenty of trips, but I wouldn’t say any of them are actually “vacations,” as I’m always checking in and finishing up projects on the road.
How do you decide your rates?
Most magazines and publications I work for have set rates that are non-negotiable. I try to work for places that offer at least somewhere in the vicinity of $1/word, but I definitely take jobs that pay less than that, too. When I’m doing copywriting, I do usually set my own hourly rate or come up with a project-based fee, which I determine based on how many hours I think the project will take me. I try to aim for somewhere in the $65-$75/hour rate, if possible, for those types of jobs.
Have you ever had to dump a client?
Yes, definitely. If I don’t get paid by a publication or company within a reasonable amount of time, then I don’t work with that client again. Or if the editing process or the editor I’m working with isn’t a great fit for me, I may also decide not to pitch ideas to that publication again.
How do you find the right clients?
Trial and error. I say yes to almost everything that comes my way and I actively pitch ideas to places I want to work with. Sometimes, the work is a great fit—I enjoy the relationship with the editor, the writing assignment is fun and challenging, and the pay rate is appropriate and invoices are paid in a timely manner. So hopefully I continue to work with that client again.
If any of those things don’t work well—say, the writing itself isn’t my speed, the pay isn’t great, or the editor is either nonresponsive or unreasonably demanding—then I likely won’t pitch that place again.
How do you handle clients asking for more work without paying you more?
I consider revisions part of the job. Of course, I do my best to make the first version as complete, thorough, and proofread as possible so it won’t require much extra work. But when I file a first draft, I am very much prepared for the editor to come back and ask for more. When I file a story, I always say: “Let me know what else you need.” Because I want them to know I’m not just dusting my hands of this project. I want to continue to work on it until it’s just right. I do not expect extra payment for a second draft, more research, or for calling an extra source or two.
That said, if the editor is asking for an unreasonable amount of additional work—say, having you write an extra thousand words over the initial assignment or changing the course of the assignment after you’ve done a first draft—then I can see asking for a slight increase in the fee.
How do you decide you’re at capacity or not going to take on any new work?
Saying no to assignments when I’m at a workload capacity is my weakness. I have a really hard time saying no, even when it means I’ll be staying up working until midnight all week trying to get everything done. As a freelancer, it’s hard to turn down work because I’m always afraid if I say no one time, that editor won’t come back with another assignment. (Which isn’t always the case: If you’re good to work with, that editor will understand and will come back.)
But this pandemic—which means schools are closed and my kids are home full time and I’m trying to juggle their remote learning and my own work—has meant I don’t have as much time, so I’ve been practicing saying no to jobs more often these days. It’s still hard to do.
What do you think you’re best at as a freelancer?
I’m responsive, I often file well before the deadline, and I go above and beyond to make my editor’s job easier. That can mean I make sure my writing is clean and proofread, I provide fact-checking resources and photo assets, I offer suggestions for headlines and subheads, and I always invoice promptly. To be a successful freelance writer, you need to be a good writer, of course, but I actually believe that professionalism goes a lot farther than talent in this field. Because you can be the most talented, gifted writer ever, but if you’re always filing your stories late, you take forever to email your editor back or submit invoices, and your copy is filled with factual or grammatical errors, you’re not going to get another job with them.
What do you like the most about freelancing?
I love telling stories. I love the art of finding a good story, chasing down the right people, and then finding a home for that story to be published. The chase of landing a story is the fun part. Of course, I love the writing process too, but the discovering of a story is truly the fun part. I also very much appreciate and value the freedom and flexibility that freelancing allows me. Being able to work on my own schedule, as my own boss, is worth everything to me.
What tools do you use for your business?
My system is pretty low tech. I use two Google docs spreadsheets. One lists my current assignments: who the client is, what the assignment is, rate/word count, and deadline. The second lists my completed assignments, per year: what the assignment/rate/deadline was, whether I’ve invoiced for it, and whether I’ve been paid for it.
That way I can easily go back through my completed work in chronological and see who hasn’t paid me and how long it’s been. I have used transcription services (like Rev.com) before to transcribe interviews but I find that I enjoy the process of transcribing those recordings myself—it saves me money and I get more familiar with the interview and what quotes and information I may want to use. I also keep all of my current and completed assignments in very organized folders per client, stored via Google drive. I keep good notes, save all contact information, and make it easy to find old notes and stories, because you never know when you may need to pull something (like a stat or contact information for a source) from a previous project.
How do you manage to stay inspired or cultivate enough creativity to continually think of stories?
This can be a challenge for sure. Certainly, it’s much easier to come up with good ideas when you’re out in the world—meeting new people, exploring a new place—than it is when you’re just staring at your computer trying to come up with an idea. I have certainly found ideas on social media or deep in some corner of the internet, but most of the time, I pick up ideas on a hike with a friend when they mention something interesting or when I’m out somewhere and I see something that catches my eye.
If you could give one piece of advice to a newer woman freelancer getting into the outdoor industry, what would it be?
We all have a voice. It’s important that you find and use yours. You don’t need to always write in first person or about yourself to strengthen your voice. In fact, pitching ideas just about yourself—the latest trip you went on, or some personal essay—is only going to get you so far. Instead, use your voice and your unique perspective on the world to tell stories about what’s happening in the world at large or in your community.
Also, don’t underestimate your value. Don’t say yes to work that won’t pay you properly for your time and effort. Don’t be afraid to ask for more (more money, more time, more wordcount—whatever you need). And shoot for the stars: If there’s a place you really want to write for, say Patagonia or Outside, then start reaching out and be patient but persistent. Eventually, they’ll notice you and give you a chance.
If you want to learn more about Michelson and read some of her knock out writing, check out her website.
A few of her stories: