When I graduated college, I got a job as a technical writer. I signed an apartment lease, wrote “technical writer” as my occupation, and my friend Nolan looked at it and said:
“Dude, you’re a writer!”
Um, I guess, I told him. Does that really count, though?
Technically, I suppose I was a writer. However, when I tried to use that line on the Houston Press or any other publication I wanted to freelance with, they didn’t seem interested in my “technical” writing credentials. I might as well have told them I walked dogs for a living. It’s a decent enough profession, but it didn’t exactly prove that I could write articles, essays, or anything else that wasn’t an operating manual.
Over the years, though, I finally did reach my goal to write articles, essays, and other content for publications, some of them pretty big: from Lifehacker to Fox Digital to NBC News. And now, it’s how I earn a living. It sure as hell didn’t happen overnight, though. It takes time, but there are a few things I could’ve done differently to speed up the process. If you’re looking for tips on how to become a freelance writer with no experience, here’s what I would do if I had to start from scratch.
Start a Blog
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 actually write professionally. And writing is hard. Some of the smartest, most eloquent people I know are terrible writers. (I’m not being a jerk, they admit it!)
Before an editor hires you, she needs to make sure you can actually get the job done, and if you’re starting from scratch, the best way to prove this is with a blog. Your blog will serve as your online writing portfolio if you don’t have any clips yet. There 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. I purchased www.kristinwong.com a long time ago and used it as a blogging platform. I changed the topics of the blog depending on what I wanted to write about at the time.
- Blog on a platform like Medium or Tumblr. If you don’t want to bother paying for your own domain or designing a free blog, you could certainly use a medium like Tumblr or (the aptly named) Medium. These platforms are a mix between social media and blogging.
There’s a lot more that goes into it, and I’ve written a more detailed guide on how to start a blog here. You don’t necessarily need a fancy, self-hosted WordPress blog, although I’d recommend at least buying your name as a URL if it’s available (and you can get a discount via Bluehost with my affiliate link). The most important thing, though, 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.
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. Let’s say your goal is to write for Money magazine. But right now, the only gig you can get is writing blog posts 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 sure as hell better write your ass off. In other words, if it’s your goal to write for Money magazine, write like you’re writing for Money magazine. It’s like the “dress for the job you want” advice but with a metric that actually matters: your skill.
First of all, 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 Money 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. Write your ass off whether you’re writing for a small startup or the job of your dreams.
Leverage Every Job You Get
Similarly, another way you move forward is to leverage the present. Think of those first gigs as small puzzle pieces that will fit into your overall goal.
For example, when I was technical writing, it seemingly had zilch to do with the kind of writing I actually wanted to do. But my friend Nolan had a good point: technically, I was a writer. Surely there was a way to leverage that job into something more in line with what I wanted to do. So here’s how I leveraged it:
- Writing copy: In my technical writing job, one of my projects was writing a brochure for Shell. I leveraged that experience to apply for a job writing copy for a local business. They figured if I could write Shell 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 blog posts for a small local magazine. They figured if I could blog, I could handle writing small columns on local art galleries.
Basically, 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 figure if I can write about mile-long drilling tools, I can handle writing about a 401(k),” I tell them. Most clients find it interesting. Even though it’s not at all applicable, I’ve linked one position to another.
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 what you’ve got.
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 you could apply for a gig as a research assistant for a travel writer. Or maybe it’s a blogging gig at 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 what you’ve got.
Network Like Crazy
I used to think networking was sleazy. I thought of it as something desperate entrepreneurs did to jumpstart their lame business ideas. But then a sketch writing teacher at UCB kind of changed my whole perspective on it. He explained something he noticed from watching students succeed in their work over the years:
“When one of them succeeded, everyone in the group succeeded. So it’s not about using someone; it’s about making progress and moving ahead together.”
Networking isn’t using people to get ahead. It’s creating a group of like-minded friends that support each other. If you think of it as asking for a favor and using someone, you might as well not network because you’re doing it wrong. Networking isn’t selfish and it isn’t immediate. It’s more about support, learning, and inspiration than it is finding new job opportunities.
That art writing gig I scored? Yeah, it helped that I leveraged my past experience, but my friend Eric, a fellow writer who was much more successful than I was, introduced me to the editor. In other words, all of these methods work best in tandem. Again, it’s all about resourcefulness, right? And that means using whatever resources you have to make stuff happen. It also means using those resources simultaneously whenever you can.
In other words, I don’t think it works to just try one thing. You have to try everything. For a long time, I just focused on working hard and writing like crazy. It was a necessary part of the equation. But it wasn’t enough.
Finally, I wish I would’ve learned to embrace rejection a lot sooner as a writer. Most writers will tell you: for every one accomplishment, there are ten or more 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 actively embrace it. This means:
- Pitching agents who say you can’t write books
- Pitching publishers who say your platform isn’t big enough
- Applying for writing jobs. Getting turned down.
- Submitting articles and reading comments like this from your editor: “????”
People say if you want to write, you should learn to have thick skin. I think that’s a terrible way to deal with rejection, though. I mean, 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. That’s not a good look. However, 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 agent says you can’t write books, there’s probably a reason she said this. Maybe your proposal needs work. Maybe you need better writing clips. And–gasp–maybe your writing needs work.
Many writers are afraid of the worst criticism of all: that they’re not good writers. As a result, they fail to improve on 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! That’s what learning is for, and accepting criticism is part of the learning experience. Embrace criticism and you’ll get you there even faster.
There’s no blueprint for this stuff. If you want to become a professional writer and make decent money at it, you’ll have to figure out what works for you, depending on your experience, your job, and your overall situation. If I had to do it all over, though, this is where I’d start and what I’d focus on.
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