How to Land Your First Freelance Writing Job

http://www.freelancewritinggigs.com/2010/03/how-to-land-your-first-freelance-writing-job/

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I’m thinking back to the early days of freelance writing. I’m remembering a time when the possibility of landing freelance writing jobs was overwhelming, yet seemed very real. I’m remembering the days when I couldn’t wait to look for work, but was afraid to look for work. I’m remembering the time when fear and lack of confidence kept me from doing more than reading the freelance writing job ads.

Today, we’re going to talk to the folks who want to write in the worst way, but something is keeping them from taking that first step.

Today we’re going to discuss landing that first freelance writing job.

If you’re scanning the subheads below, you might think, “well that all looks easy enough, I can do that.” Yes, you can, but it’s not easy. I can tell you that you may not land the very first gig you apply to, and you will  make all sorts of mistakes. Just because you’re taking those first steps, doesn’t mean you’ll actually land the gig.

However, nothing will happen if you don’t try.

Step 1: Assess Your Skills

Passion Counts

I have an anecdote for you:

My friend Kurt wasn’t a writer, but he wrote well and his friends encouraged him to continue. He’s dabbled in novel writing, but never really sought out freelance writing jobs. When a friend with a car website approached me to ask if I knew anyone with a passion for cars,  Kurt was the first person to come to mind. Kurt wasn’t a writer in the traditional sense of the word, but I didn’t know anyone else with such a genuine passion and enthusiasm for cars and motorcycles who also wrote well. Now my friend Kurt is lead writer for RideLust and works as an automotive journalist. As I write this, there’s a long list of luxury cars waiting for Kurt to have a turn at driving  (for two weeks at a time) and reviewing them. Kurt is freelancing full time, talking about his passion.

You can be a generalist with your writing, this has worked for many people. In the beginning, I wrote about saving money and family finances. It wasn’t until I blogged for a few years that I began writing about writing and blogging. Think about all the things you love or the things you can do best and exploit your passion.

Passion alone won’t get the gig

So here’s the kicker – just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you can write about it. First of all, there may not be any gigs available in said niche, but also, you may not have the writing skills.  It’s easy to get writing gigs every day. For some clients it’s more about cheap labor than hiring the best writer for the job. However, if you’re not a very good writer you’ll only get the cheap gigs. Be realistic about your talent and skill. If you’re always having your writing corrected or don’t know basic rules of grammar, consider taking some writing courses or having your work critiqued.

We all think we’re good writers, but sometimes we’re in for a major reality check. I can tell you that I thought I was one great writer when I graduated from school because my family and teachers told me so. However, when I began working in publishing I learned from the editors there that certain things needed work and I went to school. There’s no shame in brushing up.

Step 2: Think About the Types of Writing You Would Like to Do

Ok, so now you know you have mad skills and something to offer to the world. Where are you going to write? Do you want to write a newspaper column or magazine articles? Do you want blog or write web articles? Would you rather explore business writing? There are so many possibilities available to you. Think about the types of writing that most appeal to you.

But wait…you’re not done yet….

These gigs don’t just fall into your lap. Now you have to figure out what is involved with each. You can say that writing white papers looks interesting, but unless you’ve done so, you’ll need to know a little about it.  No one is going to hire you if you don’t have a clue about white papers are and how to write them.  Think about your skills and the best way to profit from them. Research all the different ways to break into these gigs and markets.

One of the biggest mistakes I made as a freelance writer is not researching markets enough. I knew about magazine markets from publishing, but I thought all markets were the same. Though I landed the first job I applied for, the rest didn’t come so easy. Not knowing a thing about approaching the markets wasn’t a smart move. I did better after I took the time to research.

Step 3: Figure Out a Rate

What do you want to earn? No, seriously, what do you want to earn? Do you want someone to set your rate, or do you want to take charge from the very beginning? Knowing how much to charge will help to shape your career from the get-go.  What do you think your writing is worth? That’s not an easy questions as it encompasses several factors. You’ll want to consider the type of writing, the amount of research involved, whether or not you will conduct interviews, expenses, fees and taxes. So if you state off the bat you want to charge $50 per hour, also work out if you will be able to support yourself on that amount after all is said and done. (For help, try this freelance rate calculator at Freelance Switch.)

Now stick with those freelance writing rates

You may be tempted to fiddle with those freelance writing rates. You might want to bargain in order to get your foot in the door. Sure, you could try that. Consider this though, when you negotiate lower rates, clients catch on quickly. They know you won’t stand firm. They know they can talk you down. If you’re firm, you will land the clients who will respect your rates, but make no mistake, they will expect value in return.

Sure, there may be times when negotiating might be in order. For example, if you’re tackling a variety of projects or if you want to offer a trusted client a discount to reward customer loyalty. For the most part, your rate is your rate. Stand firm. It may be harder to find gigs with this rate at first, but once you land a few clients you’ll be happy you held your ground. Be the one to set your rate and clients will be less likely to lowball you.

Step 4: Press Send

It’s time. You know you have skills, you know what you want to do and you know what you want to charge. What else is there left to do but start querying and submitting. Notice I didn’t say “look for work?” That’s because if you’re like me, you spent a lot of time looking for work already. You know what’s out there. You can look for work until the cows come home, but unless you actually sit down and start typing those queries nothing’s going to happen. Stop looking and start taking action.

Create some samples

Notice how everyone wants samples of your writing? This shouldn’t be a deterrent. Unless a potential client specifically asks for “published” samples, you can create a few relevant samples to send with your query or application. Samples are meant to give potential clients an idea of your writing style. If you put your best effort into some samples, some clients will hire you, regardless of whether or not you have published work.

Research query examples

So, yeah…you’re going to have to send a cover letter or query and it’s going to have to be better than everyone else’s. Your query is your first impression. An editor or client should look at it and say, “That’s it! This is the person I want writing for me.”

We’re starting a query letter series here at Freelance Writing Jobs, and also, Linda Formicelli often features “query letters that worked” at her wonderful and helpful Renegade Writer blog. Do investigate successful query letters before submitting your own.

Editors are sticklers for details so proofread several times over before hitting “send.” If necessary, enlist another pair of eyes. As you gain more experience, the query and application process will get easier.

Step 5: Follow Up

When I worked in publishing, many of the editors had stacks and stacks of queries and submissions to go through. Many of them put it off as long as possible. I know one editor who only looked at queries once a month. When freelancers called to inquire about the status of their queries, we would unearth them from the pile and take a look. Not hearing from an editor or potential client is frustrating. Many times, they only respond to the person who landed the gig. Many times your query is lost in a pile somewhere. There’s nothing wrong with waiting a couple of weeks and sending a polite follow up.

Another story

A few years ago, there was a gig I really wanted. The pay was terrific and the subject matter was right up my alley. I sent in a cover letter and some of my best writing samples.

Nothing.

Three weeks later I sent the client a polite letter, only a few lines long, to follow up on my application. I told him I’d love to discuss the gig in detail more. The client sent me back a note telling me he already chose someone for the gig. However, two weeks later he contacted me again saying his first freelancer didn’t work out and since I seemed to really want the job he offered it to me. We still work together  from time to time.

Step 6: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Now that you sent out your first query, cover letter or completed your first application, what will you do? I hope you’re not going to rest on your laurels. You may not land your first gig. You also many not hear from a potential client right away. Continue querying. Use it for practice. Don’t stop after one try. The third time might be a charm or you it may take until your 20th try. Eventually your persistence will pay off, but only if you continue looking for work.

Are there easier ways to find freelance writing jobs?

As a freelance writing blogger I’m not supposed to tell you this. I’m not supposed to encourage this type of writing, but if we’re going to talk about the ways to find freelance writing jobs, not mentioning web content sites would be a glaring omission. In 2010 plenty of freelancers are earning a living this way. Keep in mind that “easy” doesn’t always equal “lucrative.”

There are plenty of easier ways to find work, for example you can work for content sites. However, most content sites are not high paying opportunities. You’ll have to see how they fit into your game plan. Is this the type of writing you want to do? Is this the rate you want to earn? If so, by all means start out writing for content sites. After a little while, take that experience and your new found confidence and look for higher paying gigs.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing for content sites, I did. Be careful though. You can find yourself getting caught up in the “easy” lifestyle. Content sites can be a terrific springboard to more lucrative gigs, but the easy way isn’t always the realistic way. Sometimes writers start with content sites to get their feet wet and that’s all they’re  doing three years later. Make a game plan if you’re going to take on content site work. Use it to start out or supplement your work. Use it full time, if that’s what you want to do, but make sure it fits in with your vision.

Freelance writing is work. It’s not a fun “bon bon and bunny slippers” gig. We work hard to find work, we take pride in what we do, and we work hard to give our clients the best writing possible. Before you embark upon a freelance writing career, be sure you can deliver. Take it seriously as you would any other job and you’ll do fine.

Do you have any questions about finding or landing freelance writing jobs?

Comments

  1. Thanks for the shout out Deb!

    When I first started writing for RideLust, my biggest fear was being able to provide sufficient content. Could I put up 6 to 10 relevant, worthwhile posts per day? Could I do this day in and day out and actually make a living from it?

    The short answer is “yes”, and now I often find myself with too much material to post daily. If you’re passionate and knowledgeable about something, the content is easy to develop.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. This is EXACTLY the point I am at. You have given me a lot to think about. Samples stand out significantly to me. That is a point that has stopped me in the past. I thought they had to be published samples. This gives me something to work on.
    .-= Jules – Big Girl Bombshell´s last blog ..Outrageous! =-.

  3. Melissa says:

    Thank you very much for this post. Just like Jules, this is where I am at right now. I am glad you pointed out that you can create samples-that they don’t have to be “published” examples, unless specifically asked for. I was thinking that I needed to be published! So, I guess I will start working on a few writing samples. :)

    Much appreciation!

  4. Jill Preston says:

    Deb Ng rocks! This is exactly what I needed! Thank you. I have several areas that I can write on. I am already a travel examiner on examiner. I love that work! Just not enough pay but it does give me great experience and the page views are climbing.
    I used some resources i found here and identified some magazines I want to send articles to. My photography skills will also be well used. This article gives me a shot in the arm. Thanks

  5. Of course, you can always apply to (and probably be accepted at) a Demand or Suite 101, etc. And in that way you do get first gig. But I also recommend considering the old fashioned approaches. For example…

    Remember networking?

    Are you interested in business writing? who do you know who owns their own business who might be interested in a brochure, web content, an ad? Do you have an interest in fundraising writing? Consider offering a low-cost service to a favorite charity, and get your feet wet in grant writing, annual appeals or direct mail.

    There are also a thousand publications that come to you by mail, and SOMEone has to write them. Who writes the articles for your local newspaper? Your alumni newsletter? The publications that seem to litter your doctor’s office? All of these hire writers.

    I got my start as a planetarium script writer by volunteering at the local science museum. The long term outcome: a gig doing multimedia writing for Goddard Space Flight Center and Space Telescope!

    The web is just one venue. Hard to believe, but it’s really the truth. And the reality is that MOST writing gigs are not advertised. It’s up to you as an entrepreneur to sniff them out.

    Lisa

    • Hi Lisa,

      You are exactly right – and we’ve talked several times about the unadvertised opportunities.

      To be honest, I hesitated quite a bit before throwing in the last bit about content sites. I really wanted this piece to encourage folks to look beyond content sites for breaking into freelance writing. However, I don’t want to pretend they don’t exist either, because they do. So I’d rather put all that upfront, list the pros and cons and let the reader make his own decision.

      One thing I like to suggest (and have a blog post about it somewhere) is to do a search at Indeed.com for “freelance writer”. You’ll receive plenty of listings for jobs that aren’t looking for freelance writers but people to work with freelance writers. This is valuable because it tells us these businesses hire freelance writers and we can approach them about keeping us in mind for their projects.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Lisa. It really is my goal to see all freelance writers succeed.

  6. With real unemployment at more than 10 percent, there are many people out there competing for even the scraps. The same is true of graphic designers. Many of them were associated with the newspaper/magazine industry, and that has been hit with massive layoffs over the past two years, in particular.

    Welcome, former full-time professionals, to the freelance world of free logos, $199 Web designs and content copy that pays $5 for 500 words.

    If you have a job, better hang on to it for dear life. Ditto if you have a spouse with a good job (or any job for that matter)…

    When someone suddenly loses a job or several key clients due to economic constraints, it is going to be a challenge. Yes, it can be overcome, but in this job market, it is going to present some obstacles for even the most accomplished writer.

    Businesses have tightened their belts, too. Unless you’re a proven PR or Web writer, a genius networker, or you have a direct political connection to a job, you might have better luck taking a tin cup and a dancing cane out to your local street corner.

    I really think people fail sometimes to take this into consideraion. That’s why you have Pulitzer finalists and other journalists who have done some pretty complex and in-depth work — writing for content outlets. I doubt they’re really shining when they write a story about How to Make a Hot Dog Cart from a Wheelchair. That’s like having a principal dancer from the New York City Ballet do the Hokey Pokey.

    It does need to be said and it should continue to be said that some of the sites do not pay enough or have a drastic range of ability levels. I’m sure some people are fast enough to make a living off of it, while doing reasonably good work. They are the exception. Most people are simply not fast enough. But you know what? Thank God for something that allows them to make some money and hopefully get some enjoyment out of it.

    Still, if you can write 25,000 words a week, you need to look into writing books (or even selling e-books on a hot topic) because in one month that’s how much copy you’ll produce.

    I don’t claim to have the solution. And I certainly don’t want to ad insult to injury to those who are caught up in this economic mess. It is what it is.

    All joking aside, it’s actually a pretty complex issue.

    • Not to be a Pollyanna but I, at least, have found the freelance market is turning around nicely these days. In fact, I’m now – for the first time ever – getting calls from people I’ve never met or heard of with very nice opportunities for large (multi-thousand dollar, long term) jobs of work in my areas of expertise.

      For anyone interested, those areas include:

      educational publishing/digital textbooks
      video scripting
      exhibit label writing
      fundraising/grant writing
      (and a few others)

      Right now, I would say the climate feels very much as it did as we rounded the recession bend after 9/11: there aren’t as many job-jobs, but businesses are starting to think positively. Rather than hiring full time people, they are reaching out to skilled outsource consultants. Of which I am one.

      I predict a rise in opportunities over the next year for freelancers who have skills and experience. Just don’t let all your time and energy get sucked up in writing those 500 words for $10 pieces!

      Lisa

  7. bkdaniels says:

    Wow! Everybody seem such educated writers and very talented, wonder where I’d fit in, here? Seriously, all joking aside….

    You all have given me some great ideas. I seem to write better when I am around other great writers. I understand now what the Bible says, “Iron sharpens iron….” I have been writing almost ten years, now, but has never really set out to do it professionally; you know, get paid for doing it. My true passion come from writing about medical and health issues, so I decided to enroll back in school to get my BA in Biology to do scientific writing for pharmaceutical companies. However, as the saying goes, “Can’t win for loosing,” I am stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    Can’t get in the door because companies want to know that you know what you are talking about, now matter how much you have written – to seems. I have been studying medicine for over 15 years and I know a few things, but its not easy convincing a company to invest in you, in a field such as medicine, because of the sensitivity of the subject. Nothing shows that better than a degree. I know I’ve used one quote from the Bible already, but here’s another one to describe the situation I am in.

    The Bible say’s “Study to show thy self approved…” Can you imagine letting a Physician operate on you if he has not studied what he is doing? Would you let your son or daughter leave to serve in a war if he or she has not properly trained for that? Same is so for writing in one of there sciences without a degree. Unless someone -here- can give me some enlightenment, I will faithfully continue to pursue my only lead. And that is to continue with school until I am qualified to write in the area I am attracted to the most.

    Signed: Any suggestions?

  8. bkdaniels says:

    P.S.: I still have to work on my editing and spelling skills….

  9. bkdaniels says:

    Pardon me, I have a lot more issues with spelling than I thought. And there is now way to edit. This is “embarasskin, ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh, ugh, as Popye would say. It shows I am very excited about writing. So excited that I do not edit very well. Everybody tells me that I would make a much better surgeon than I would a writer. Ha Ha! Anyways, excuse me mistakes.

  10. Good pointers. I’m just getting started with a few online ad supported sites, and appreciate the encouragement not to get stuck there.

  11. Thanks for timely advice. I’m a poet by passion, but I need to earn money. My full time job will probably shut down in the next year. This is exactly what I needed: advice about the next step. Thanks Deb.

  12. Hey Deb

    Great content in your post, many thanks!

    As some of the others have mentioned, your point about samples not necessarily needing to be published examples was a good and timely one.

    I love to write, and find that time disappears when I do – but I haven’t found a way to really channel that into an income-generating activity … yet! Your comments have helped me to dip a toe in the water though, and for that I am very grateful.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts!
    Kind regards
    Jo

  13. Dear Deb,

    This is a truly insightful thread. All the trials you recall at the beginning of this piece had me saying,’YES!’, even out loud. Recently, I embarked upon my own journey as a freelancer and have felt overwhelmed by many of the obstacles you mention. Thank you for helping to relieve me of some of those doubts and for ushering light into some dark places. Ultimately, I guess what I’m saying is, you’re the shiznit!

    Keep up the good work :)

    Cheers,
    Kevin
    Kevin Daniel Gibbons´s last blog post ..My Favorite Extracurricular Activity – A Job App Prompt

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