Four years ago, I was sitting at my desk, trying to figure out exactly what I didn’t know about having a writing career. I knew that I could write well, but I just couldn’t figure out the missing step between writing for my small blog and actually getting paid to write. I had recently moved into a new apartment and set up an office, but I sat in that room stumped and had no idea how to begin the freelance career I desperately wanted.
Today, I consistently make $6,000 a month freelancing. Although I work from home, I feel like I have colleagues I can rely on because I am connected to a robust network of other people making a career out of freelancing. I have bylines in national magazines and newspapers that still make me giddy when I look at them.
Freelancing has become an integral part of my daily life, so it’s easy to forget that things that seem obvious now were huge challenges at the beginning. That old saying is true: You don’t know what you don’t know. That can make it seem impossible to get started.
If you’re wondering how to go from wanting to write to walking down the right path, here are some first steps that can make a big difference. Although I’m focusing on freelance writing, the same principles could be applied to any freelancing career.
Step One: Present Yourself as a Professional
If you’re like many women getting started on a new endeavor, you’re probably struggling with imposter syndrome. You have to ditch that ASAP, or at least fake it ‘til you make it. You may know that you’re just getting started, but there’s no need to let others on to that fact. You know that annoying guy in school or in the office who thought he was God’s gift to earth? Take a dose of his confidence and run with it.
Since you’re a confident professional, you have to present yourself that way. The best way to do that is by compiling all your clips (i.e., previous projects). If you’re ready to invest in a website, that’s great. If not, Contently offers a great free place to put your portfolio. The site also connects you with clients, but I used it for years just to display clips. At the very least, you should have your clips neatly stored as PDFs on your computer so that you can send them to editors. If a piece was published online, just sending a link to the article is enough.
If you’re really new, you might be worried since you may not have any clips, but if you’re seriously considering a writing career, that’s probably not true. Did you work for the school newspaper in college? Do you have a blog? Those are clips, so show them with confidence.
If you really don’t have any clips, editors will probably want to see a finished piece from you (rather than just a pitch meant to sell them on the idea). This is called writing “on spec.” Taking time to make a piece great before sending it can make up for not having a portfolio.
Step Two: Figure Out How to Contact Editors
When I was getting started, this was the biggest mystery to me. How do I get in touch with the people who will eventually publish my work? Luckily, even in the few years since I started, it’s become easier to find editors’ contact information online. First, figure out the sites or publications you’d like to contribute to. (I suggest starting with local publications or smaller sites initially.) Then, figure out who edits them.
Many websites have a “contact us” section on the bottom where you can often find information for contributors. Print magazines and newspapers generally have the editor’s contact information listed (usually in the front of the magazine). If you only see a name but not an email, find the editor on Twitter, and see if their email is listed there. Another great trick is to search for a publication name and “editorial calendar.” That will tell you exactly what topics the editor will address in each issue.
It may feel awkward to stalk down an editor’s email, but believe me, all your favorite writers are doing it.
Step Three: Embrace the Cold Email
Once you’ve compiled editor contact information and your portfolio, it’s time to put them to use. Cold emailing can feel pushy when you’ve never done it before, but trust me, editors are used to it.
My very first freelance assignment came from cold-emailing the editor of my local newspaper. I didn’t hear back initially, but unknown to me, he had passed my email to the features editor who eventually got in touch. I still freelance for them years later.
When you craft your email, remember that you want to solve a problem for the editor, not ask them to solve your problem. Don’t write, “I’m a freelancer looking for work. Do you have any?” Instead, send a specific story idea that lightens the editor’s burden of finding quality stories.
Also, this is so important: Follow up. Editors are busy, and there are a million reasons why you might not hear back that have nothing to do with you. I suggest following up two weeks after your email and again two weeks later.
Step Four: Invest in Yourself
Once you make some inroads, you’ll hopefully have some money coming in here and there. If you’re really serious about building a career, use that money to invest in your business. There are hundreds of classes out there promising to make you a better freelancer. Like anything, some are great, and some aren’t. So, if possible, get a recommendation or take the class from someone you follow online and know to be legit.
Writers.com offers classes that cover everything from the business of freelancing to the art of writing. I took the Pitch Like A Honey Badger class 18 months ago (well into my freelance career), and it has paid for itself 10 times over.
Another great option is to work with a coach who knows your field. I’ve helped other writers learn the process and perfect their pitching. Having someone more experienced to walk you through things can make all the difference. Just please don’t expect them to do it for free. When you’re freelancing, time is money, and just like you would expect to pay for a class, you should expect to pay for one-on-one coaching.
Step Five: Find a Network
Just like classes and mentors, having a network of other writers is invaluable. There are a lot of ways to go about this. You could find local writing groups through your library, co-ops, or MeetUp.com. If you’re like me and live in the middle of nowhere, you’ll probably have to turn online. Use social media to follow writers you love and don’t be afraid to ask them questions. Search for groups related to writing. Once you start connecting, you’ll realize that the writing world is pretty small and pretty welcoming.