ou can’t get published or win writing projects without providing a portfolio, but you can’t build a portfolio without clips: a catch-22 for many new writers. Beyond grammar, punctuation, and syntax, writing quality is subjective. Previous work proves your prowess. Some writers complete projects for free or turn to content mills to get published. While donating writing to a charitable cause you care about can give you experience and help a good organization, it may not hold as much weight when trying to get paid work. Writing for content mills can actually hurt your reputation, as it casts you as desperate enough to work for three cents an hour or so. What does that say about your skill?
Fortunately, you can break into writing without a huge portfolio of impressive work, and you won’t have to give away work either. Here’s how.
If you would like to get into nonfiction periodicals, look for markets that use freelance full-length articles and shorter pieces: fillers, quizzes, jokes, quotes, recipes, and the like. Try to get in with the shorter stuff. It’s not glamorous; but if it pays a decent rate, go for it.
Check out the guidelines to parenting magazines, women’s publications, and general interest periodicals. Most of these use short freelance pieces and longer ones, too. Editors accept the entire manuscript for short items because it takes less time to actually read the manuscript than to read a query about it. The editor will never know you lack published writing experience unless you say so in the cover letter (so don’t!).
Some of my first paid, published works were poems. Although I seldom write poetry for publication now, those few rhymes kicked off my writing career that has lasted since 1993 and includes about three thousand paid articles and projects. I went full time in 2000, once I had finished college and racked up a sturdy sheaf of bylines.
As you write short pieces, keep the writing simple and direct. A short piece should be written no less professionally than a 2,500-word article. In some ways, it’s actually harder to write a short piece than a long one. You have no room for rambling and must choose words carefully.
“Editors accept the entire manuscript for short items because it takes less time to actually read the manuscript than to read a query about it.”
After a short piece has been accepted, query the same editor for a slightly longer piece. If you’re turned down, don’t give up. Beyond the writing quality, appropriate tone, and article slant, timing determines acceptance or rejection in many instances. Someone else may have just completed a similar article. Or perhaps you submitted your seasonal item idea too late. Some magazines have a six-to-nine-month lead time. Read through the guidelines again, and query other ideas until you’re in.
After an editor accepts an initial piece, try other editors, too, now that you have a short clip. Stick with topics with which you have expertise and personal experience. Writing on an aspect of rearing a child with a disability will work if you are parenting a special needs child. Some of my first magazine articles were for publications targeting college students because I was a recent graduate, and college life was still pretty fresh to me.
You could also try writing for a small, local newspaper, covering beats in which you have experience or interest: school sports, municipal board meetings, or religious events calendars are just a few examples. Many newspapers like hiring freelancers to cover these sections because they’re time-consuming sections for their staff reporters, yet pretty easy to write.
Like fillers, this may not be exciting work, but you will get a foot in the door and learn while you build your portfolio. In my case, my first newspaper assignments covered board meetings for a small village near where I lived. My few short, published articles helped me get the assignment, as well as mentioning my college degree, even though it wasn’t in journalism. After I had moved to a larger city, those village board meeting stories helped me springboard into event coverage, trend pieces, news, and regular columns.
Eventually, I worked with six local and regional newspapers, covering a few different beats.
When inquiring with the editor, emphasize any writing classes you may have taken, experience such as working on your campus newspaper staff, and involvement in groups related to your desired beat, such as your own children participating in school sports. If you’re at the events anyway, it only follows that writing about it will be easy. Or if you were class president of your school and now frequently attend municipal board meetings, providing coverage should be a snap. (Tip: to keep meeting coverage more profitable, take notes on a laptop, so you won’t waste time transcribing handwritten notes later. Fast typists will also find that their quotes are more accurate, too.)
But as you gain experience, writing about what you don’t know can work if you research well enough and interview qualified sources. When my car buff brother heard I was writing for an automotive publication, he exclaimed, “What does Deb know about cars?”
He had a good point—if I were writing from my own experience. But I had lined up a panel of experts to interview. It doesn’t matter what you know—or don’t know—if you interview well and check the facts with reputable sources. And I’ve written on cars many times since then for that magazine and others.
It’s also helpful to resell the rights to the short piece (if possible) to another publication, so you have yet another byline to list in query letters. Why not get more money for doing almost no additional work? I have successfully sold some articles two and three times because I didn’t sell all the rights, and I later researched publishers that accept second and third reprint rights.
“Boasting that thousands of people follow your blog can provide quantifiable proof that your writing appeals to a readership.”
Get In the Niche
Blogging can help you build an audience and your reputation as an expert in a niche. Boasting that thousands of people follow your blog can provide quantifiable proof that your writing appeals to a readership. If you gain a big enough audience, you can sell ad space, too. But you have to really stand out as a writer many other people want to read to host a successful blog. It will take a lot of dedication to faithfully post and a long time to gain a readership large enough to win an editor’s respect. If you want to get attention, make yours sparkle! Let your own interesting voice shine through. Network with other bloggers to link your blog to others that relate in some way. Everyone can win.
Land a Little Job
If you want to win writing projects such as editing, web copy, or marketing copy, the key is still to start small. Query to industry trade publications or business magazines, and get a few pieces published there before bidding for a project writing marketing materials for a company in the same industry.
If you want to jump in directly, instead of bidding on a $2,000, six-week project, bid on a $50, one-hour project. Or ask the project manager with the huge project if he will hire you to complete a small portion of the project for a small fee, so you can both test drive your working relationship.
Most people are willing to risk $50 but not $2,000. Regularly check online project listings to bid on projects as soon as they become available. Some of my first projects were writing taglines—those snappy slogans that help promote and shape brand identity. A web design company hired me to give them six suggestions for a client for $25. While not a huge fee, I took only fifteen minutes to complete the project, and they liked my work enough to hire me for many more projects. Those projects, including writing most of the text for a couple of websites, have helped me win more work from many other companies, including brochures, press releases, web copy, and even naming a couple of companies.
While winning smaller work may lead to bigger projects, writers should resist the urge to undersell in order to win work. A project manager may think you’re incompetent if you bid too low. If you saw a car for sale for $500 and a similar model for $7,000, you would likely guess the $500-model had some problems. The same goes for bidding on writing projects.
Work Your Way Up
As you build trust with the project manager, you may be able to gain steady work from the firm. Let the company project manager know you would enjoy working with her again. If you notice something else the company could use, let her know. After you wrap up a press release, suggest an area of the website that could use sprucing up, or another press release in a couple weeks to keep the company’s name in front of the media. Many times, I have received additional work simply by suggesting another writing chore I could do for a company.
You may not get a “yes” at this point, but periodically contact the project manager, so he will view you as a reliable resource. Temporary budget constraints, changes in internal policy, and any number of influences unrelated to your writing can make the project manager say no. So remember not to take rejections personally.
A brief e-mail or phone message every two months suffices without being pesky. And make sure you send a card during the holidays. I always send a promotional item, such as a magnet or pad of sticky notes imprinted with my contact information.
If you don’t get any repeat work, try to gain small writing projects with other companies of the same industry until you get a bigger project or two under your belt.
“Many times, I have received additional work simply by suggesting another writing chore I could do for a company.”
Once you have completed some more sizable projects, you can likely shift to a similar industry. Several projects of writing marketing copy for a car dealership could help you win work writing marketing copy for an RV dealership. Eventually, you should be able to complete projects for nearly any kind of company. But if a project sounds too difficult, you will build more credibility if you bow out before accepting it than if you try to tackle it and fail. Attempting a project you cannot complete will only waste everyone’s time.
Another way to build credibility is writing some snappy copy for your own eBay, Craigslist or Etsy listings. Since you’re using it to sell stuff, you’re not giving away work; yet you’re getting practice creating effective copy. Save screenshots and links to show project managers what you can do. Or parlay the experience into writing ads for others’ sites. You’d be surprised at the number of people who have valuable things to sell but no idea how to create effective ads. Some of these are even eBay drop sites, where a professional seller accepts the public’s goods to sell online.
I parlayed my own eBay selling experience into working for a drop site owner who was too busy with other business endeavors to write his own listings. He provided the drop-off site, handled the money, and stored and shipped the items. I photographed the items, wrote the listings, and posted them under his eBay handle. He gave me half of his 20 percent commission, which added up quickly when we sold larger items such as a vintage truck for $20,000 and a rare music record for $900.
After gaining experience writing listings for eBay (for both myself and eventually, the drop site owner), I began writing for a high-end trade publication whose articles relied heavily upon product descriptions.
While none of the small stepping stones seem very lucrative, they all help you along the path to bigger, better articles and projects and a satisfying and profitable freelance career.
Deborah Jeanne Sergeant writes from her home in Clyde, New York for a variety of newspapers and magazines. She also writes web copy, marketing materials, and press releases. Visit her online at www.skilledquill.net.
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