10 responses to “Dear WordCount: How do I break into freelance writing?”

  1. Edna

    I broke into freelance writing by getting clips — newsletters I had done — from a job I had at a non-profit. I went into our local paper to apply for a parttime writing position and the editor offered me a fulltime position which I turned down and took a stringer position instead.
    I really wanted to write for a local alternative health magazine so I basically pestered the editor for a couple months until he gave me a topic to write about.
    I totally blew the first article and the staff had to rewrite most of it, but the editor gave me another chance and I wrote for them for 10 years or so.
    You’ll need to get some clips first…try volunteering somewhere and writing for free. That will get you some clips and maybe a couple assignments.
    Or start your own blog. Good luck!

  2. Howard Baldwin

    Terrific list of suggestions, Michelle, to which I will add one more: if you work with a local non-profit, volunteer to work on its newsletter (and if you don’t, find one!). It will give you experience with editing, layout, graphics, and writing, all in one shot. You won’t be paid, but you’ll have something to show and it’s a great way to learn.

  3. Denene @ Freelance-Write-Now

    I broke in by starting with the little pubs and by focusing on subjects that I knew a lot about. My first story sold to a small travel magazine. I’d been doing a lot of travels, so it fit really well because I could draw on my personal experience.

    From there I started sending out LOIs to trade editors and picked up some assignments. I focused on industries where I had relevant work experience (and plugged that instead of a large portfolio of clips). I met deadlines and gained confidence. Everything just grew from there.

    It takes time and patience in the beginning — and throughout your career.

  4. Jane S

    Thanks everyone for the great feedback. I appreciate it so much.

    I’ve heard the “find a nonprofit and write for their newsletter” advice a million and one times, so I did that. I found a professional organization in my field, struggling to stay in existence. They were desperate for help. It seemed like a win-win situation.

    I took over producing their newsletter and rebuilding their web site, which was in a shambles. I spent the better part of a year promoting this organization and trying to get the word out. I hired someone out of my own pocket to redesign the web site’s home page. I started a users’ group for newsletter editors from other chapters of the same organization across the state that was well-received.

    Throughout this time, I learned, most painfully, that the board of this organization was made up of a half-dozen daft control freaks. They ran me ragged. Every time I made a decision, I submitted it for their approval. I hardly sneezed without checking with them first. They would change their minds at the last minute for some whimsical reason. They would get together and vote in favor of things that each of them had told me privately they did not approve of. They would make decisions with no regards whatsoever for rationality, sanity, or fairness. Their determination to control everything took priority over everything, including the wellbeing of the organization.

    Dealing with these people was one of the most maddening experiences of my life. It was like trying to nail jello to a tree. Of course, the reason the organization was (and still is) headed for extinction is because it is in their hands. The whole time I saw people join this organization, get involved, and then run from the place screaming, until I finally became one of them.

    Did I mention that I did all of this as a unpaid volunteer? And I have nothing to show for it. I never had time to do any actual writing for the newsletter, because I was always too busy putting out fires. I did not have time to finish rebuilding the web site and it is still up on the Internet, broken, and not something I would want to show someone as a sample of my work.

    If you are considering the “write for a nonprofit” route, I would advise extreme caution. Get to know that organization pretty well first and see how it operates. If you think infighting, backstabbing, and dysfunctional behavior happen in the work place, they happen in professional organizations, too. I have no statistical data pertaining to volunteer burn-out, but everything I’ve seen and experienced persuades me that it is pretty high.

    I am deeply skeptical of the “volunteer your way into a job” approach. I’ve spent the past 3 years volunteering like gangbusters and it has yet to put a single penny in my pocket. People do not value what they don’t pay for and they are not inclined to pay you for something once you’ve proven that you’ll do it for free.

  5. Jane S

    I should add, I’m still in that organization, but only because one board member went out of her way to ask me to stay. She did it so prettily, I was moved, and so I’ve stayed out of loyalty to her. Almost everyone else is afraid to say my name. I’m the only one who tells it like it is. So I’ve found my place in that organization. It just doesn’t have anything to do with writing.

    I belong to another professional organization, it is outstanding, and I’ve met some wonderful people. I’m active in it and I’ve found it all very worthwhile and enjoyable. I was on the planning committee for a conference they put on recently, and one of the other committee members asked me to co-write an article for an industry publication about the conference.

    The evening before the conference—when we were supposed to be writing the article— my colleague got tied up with an important call, so I went ahead and wrote the article. And, I tell you, it was a good article. Then I handed it back over to him, because I had to get up and be onsite at the conference at 6:00 a.m.

    The next day, at the conference, he showed me the article, and he had changed everything. I didn’t much like his rewrites, but I was not the lead writer on this project, so what could I say. I gave him permission to submit the article as is, and then forgot about putting it in my portfolio.

    I don’t have any hard feelings towards my colleague, he’s a supportive and caring friend, and I value my relationship with him. He has praised my writing and recommended me to others, which was quite a compliment, since he’s a published author. He even took me out for a swanky lunch to show his thanks. But—once again—that coveted writing sample eluded my grasp. Story of my life!

    And so, every time someone says, “Write for an organization,” I think, “Okay, try it, but don’t count on it.” Organizations are usually very structured; they have to be. You can’t really expect to use them as your sandbox. Your goals, such as “build your writing portfolio,” probably are not part of their mission. In any case, your goals will come second.

    P.S. I’ve decided to write a blog post about the pros and cons of career development through volunteering.

  6. Tish Grier

    Ok..here’s a *really* good question: where do you find the names of publications to query??

    I know of Writer’s Market (which can be a bit intimidating) but aren’t there other sites/places to look?