So you’ve decided to pursue your career as a freelance writer, but you have no idea where to start.
We’ve all been there. It’s considerably easier to find work when you have some experience under your belt, but when you’re just starting out, finding work seems impossible. In order to get the gig, you have to prove your writing chops – how do you do that without any bylines or writing samples?
It takes time to establish yourself as a freelance writer, but there are a few things you can do to speed up the process.
1. Get a website with some clips.
The best way to write for someone else? Start writing for yourself. If you’re new to writing professionally, you need to prove you can write like a professional.
Before an editor hires you, she needs to make sure you can get the job done, and if you’re starting from scratch, the best way to prove yourself is with a website. Your website is an online writing portfolio that will serve as your resume as a writer. It should include a bio and some samples of your writing. Here are a few ways to go about it:
- Start a blog on a particular topic you want to write about, then build that blog as a brand. For example, if you want to write about travel, you might start a blog called “Traveling Solo” or something. I’m positive the URL is already taken, but you get the idea.
- Buy your actual name as a URL and blog from there.
- Blog on a free shared platform like Medium or Tumblr.
- Start a free newsletter using a service like Substack.
You don’t need a fancy, self-hosted WordPress blog or paid domain, although we recommend at least buying your name as a URL if it’s available (and you can get a discount via Bluehost with our affiliate link). The most important thing is that you have a platform to showcase your work.
For anyone trying to figure out how to become a freelance writer with no experience, a blog is the best way to start.
2. Write for the job you want.
Most of us aren’t lucky enough to start writing for the New York Times from scratch. You have to work your way up from smaller gigs, but if you ever want a shot at the New York Times, you have to take those smaller gigs seriously.
For example, let’s say your goal is to write for Fortune magazine, but right now, you have a gig writing web content for the latest Fintech startup. Everyone knows writing for iCash or whatever isn’t your dream job, but if you ever want that dream job, you better write well.
In other words, if it’s your goal to write for Fortune magazine, write like you’re writing for Fortune magazine. It’s like the “dress for the job you want” advice but with a much more important metric: your skills. Of course, you can take this advice too far. iCash may not want your 3,000-word reported essay on their blog, so we’re not telling you to turn your writing gig into something it’s not. The point is, anytime you’re given the chance to write, write as well as you can. You never know who’s reading.
Also, when someone offers you a job, even if it’s not your dream gig, they are still paying you to write, so you owe it to them to give it all you’ve got. From a more selfish perspective, if Fortune magazine ever does consider hiring you, they’re going to want to make sure you can handle the job. The only way to prove that? Show them you can handle the job.
3. Look for ways to leverage every gig.
Similarly, another way you move forward is to leverage your opportunities. Think of those first gigs as small puzzle pieces that will fit into your overall goal.
For example, when I (Kristin here) was a technical writer, my job seemingly had zilch to do with the kind of writing I actually wanted to do. But I leveraged the opportunity by:
- Writing copy: In my technical writing job, one of my projects was writing a brochure for a client. I leveraged that experience to apply for a job writing copy for a local business. They figured if I could write brochures, I could probably handle an “about” page on their website.
- Blogging for companies: I leveraged my experience writing “about” pages for that local business to apply for a blogging job at a local furniture store. They figured if I could write an “about” page for another business, I could probably handle writing blog posts for them.
- Writing for media: I leveraged my experience writing blog posts for that business to write short, 200-word reviews for a local magazine. They figured if I could blog, I could handle writing small columns on local art galleries.
In a few short steps, I took my technical writing 9-to-5 and turned it into a magazine writing gig. Even recently, I’ve cited my experience as a technical writer when interviewing with major clients.
I’m not special. Think of a way your current job can somehow, even indirectly, relate to the skills required for your dream job. Maybe you want to review resorts for Travel + Leisure and, right now, you’re a teacher. What is the link between your current job as a teacher and your dream job as a travel writer? Maybe it’s research. Chances are, teaching requires at least some research, whether it’s about specific topics you assign or just about childhood or adolescent behavior. Leverage that! Maybe apply for a gig as a research assistant for a travel writer. Or maybe a blogging job for a travel research firm.
With an industry like writing, there’s no one-size-fits-all blueprint to reach your goals. You have to be resourceful, and that means leveraging your current opportunities, even when they don’t feel like opportunities.
4. Don’t be afraid to network.
Networking doesn’t have to be sleazy. It’s not about using people to get ahead. At its best, networking is simply a group of peers that support each other. Writers of all levels need some support from their peers, but it’s especially important when you’re starting off. Having other writers around you makes it easier to figure out where to look for jobs, how to set rates, and so on.
And networking does often lead to new opportunities. When many companies and publications are looking for freelance writers, they often ask for recommendations. This is much easier than posting a gig online or spending hours searching for the perfect writer. Overwhelmed freelancers often turn down clients and suggest someone else for the job, too. There are direct and indirect benefits to networking. If you’re new to it, here are some tips for getting started:
- Join a local meetup or writer’s group (we have one in the CWWU workshop)
- Start a writer’s mastermind group with 1-2 other beginner writers
- Search local writer’s conferences or events
5. Learn to embrace criticism.
If you want to be a writer, you’ll have to get used to rejection. Most writers will tell you: For every accomplishment, there are ten rejections that were necessary for that accomplishment to happen. As a writer, it’s not enough to just be comfortable with rejection, you have to embrace it. This means applying for writing gigs, pitching editors, and submitting your work even after getting turned down.
People say if you want to write, you should learn to have thick skin. But that’s not the most effective way to deal with rejection. While you don’t want to be so sensitive to rejection and criticism that one nasty comment sends you into a fetal crying fit for days, you also don’t want to be so immune to rejection and criticism that you don’t take it seriously. Soak it in! If an editor says your topic idea is too broad, that’s free advice, and you should take it. Most writers send hundreds of editors the same pitch, get rejected and give up. Instead, learn to take the criticism so you can use it to improve your odds.
Many writers are afraid of the worst criticism of all: that they’re not good writers. As a result, they fail to improve their weaknesses. The first step in becoming really good at anything is accepting that you might not already be really good at that thing. And that’s okay! You can get better, and accepting criticism is part of the learning experience. Embrace criticism and you’ll get you there even faster.