For years, I was afraid of trying my hand at freelancing. It seemed like such a steep learning curve. And it was. Freelancing took over my life and my energy for the first month or two. There was so much to learn.
However, I had allowed my fear to stop me from trying for a long time. And once I jumped in, it wasn’t as scary as I had expected. If I can do it, so can you.
What were the most intimidating aspects of becoming a freelance writer? Here are the 7 things that really threw me off before I started, but that ended up going (relatively) smoothly.
Building a Portfolio
For me, this was the scariest thing. I had gotten an MFA in writing, but I hadn’t been published in more than one or two places. Surely I needed more clips to be able to label it a portfolio, right? But I had a hard time getting those samples before I launched my business.
Building a portfolio was a catch-22.
Until I decided to say, screw it, and relied on the samples I did have: My blog. I had been blogging for a long time, so I used the good pieces I had already written and threw them into my portfolio. Then I got to work writing new samples on my professional blog in the niche I wanted to pursue — personal finance.
And it worked. I landed my first client within 2 weeks after cold pitching them. My samples didn’t really come into play. And my next client reached out to me after I wrote this piece and said they loved it so much they wanted me to write for them. They asked for 3 samples, and one of them was a blog post I had written.
They still took me on.
You don’t need to be published in a well-known magazine in order to get your first client. All people want to see is that you can write legibly about the topic they focus on.
Creating a Professional Website
Honestly, this one was a bit tricky. But I did one thing that helped me so much: I paid for an e-course that walked me through step by step. It’s called WriteTo1K by Elna Cain, and I can’t recommend it enough. There are many others out there, as well.
These e-courses often come with Facebook groups where other folks in similar shoes can gather and support each other. In Elna’s Facebook group, we often ask questions or air grievances and get lots of helpful feedback in the process.
My best advice when you create your website is to not strive for perfection, like I did. I felt like mine needed to be pretty and fancy. That’s not the point, at least not when you’re first starting.
And if I had to do it again, I might just hire someone to do it for me. That way I could have spent my energy on finding clients. But if you choose to do it yourself, it’s totally possible. Just find someone to guide you.
Researching Potential Clients
Why did this intimidate me so much? I think because people make the concept of “research” into a bigger deal than it is. In my mind, I needed to go to the library, sit down with piles of magazines, take meticulous notes on each potential zine I could pitch to, and re-type those notes later on my computer.
This intimidated the hell out of me. And I might still do this, one day. But I’m not there yet. Right now, I’m focusing my efforts on online content, which has a much lower barrier to entry.
Which is good for you as a new freelancer.
Because guess what’s easier than searching through a printed magazine? Searching for something online. If you have an idea for an article you want to write, go to the website you want to submit to. Most websites have a search icon at the top that allows you to type in your keyword. Do that, and scroll through the articles to see if they have published anything on your topic in the last couple of years.
No? You have your first place to pitch.
Figuring Out What to Pitch
Maybe we should back up. How do you even figure out what to pitch? It seems complicated — like you should have some perfect idea that has never been written about. But you’re putting too much pressure on yourself, like I did.
Instead, think of the following:
- What do you like to do for fun? You can easily transform a hobby into an article, like I did with camping for the popular travel website Matador Network.
- What do you like to read? I like to read about personal finance, so I write about it, too. And I’ll read other blogs or websites to get ideas. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. As long as I can put a new spin or a personal take on an old idea, I’m good to go.
- What do you like in general? Mine your own life as much as you can, and you’ll be inspired to write the pieces you end up pitching. Do you love cheddar cheese? You better believe you could write an article about it. Like how much cheddar cheese Wisconsinites (is that a term?) eat per year. Or a breakdown of the cheese aging process. Or how much milk it takes to create a roll of cheddar. There are so many routes you could take. What matters is that you care.
Your first article doesn’t have to be perfection. It shouldn’t be. Don’t over-stress yourself and just write what you like.
Writing a Pitch
I was terrified of actually pitching before I started the process. How do I know who to email? What format should my pitch be in? What the hell do I say in a pitch?
Luckily, none of this is actually very complicated. Answers as follows:
- How do I know who to email? Any decent website that is accepting pitches will have writers’ guidelines posted online. These guidelines normally include a name and email address of who to send the pitch to. Or they may not include the name and just a standard submissions email address, which is fine. Try to search their website for the name of the editor, if they have one. Sometimes a simple Google search for “publication name + editor” is helpful. If you can’t find it, that’s OK. You tried.
- What format should my pitch be in? This should also be included in writers’ guidelines. It’s not always the case, but if any company cares whether they receive a Google Doc or a Word Doc, they will specify. If they don’t specify, just go with a standard Word Doc, Times New Roman, font size 12. One thing to note: When sharing a Google Doc, make sure you are sharing with the ability to edit turned on.
- What the hell do I say in a pitch? Lucky for you, pitches should be pretty casual. Don’t start with “Dear Mr. Smith.” Honestly, that formality would put people off. Just start with “Hey Matt.” Then include a brief 2- or 3-sentence description of what you want to write, as detailed as possible. After that, I usually outline all the subheadings I want to include in the piece, with a brief description of each. This has been enough to get me the job in the past. Check out these examples from The Write Life for more detailed wording.
Landing Your First Client
You might be surprised how quickly things work out when you try. Even if you don’t land a $2,000 client within 48 hours of launching, like some people claim, you’re fine. Your first gig might even be a free guest post. That’s great. It gets your name out there.
Once I did land my first client, I felt really intimidated for a few days. I was thinking, “People are actually paying me to write for them. I better make this amazing.” And I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself.
It turns out that all I needed to do was my best. And my best was definitely good enough. As long as you turn in your work on time with no spelling or grammatical mistakes, and it flows enough to read well.
Rejection still kind of stings for me. But that’s the great thing about freelancing — you’re involved in so many different projects that a single rejection doesn’t make or break you. Unless you’re going through a dry spell, and then you might end up shedding a few tears in the bathtub. But usually, a rejection sounds much worse than it is.
And it’s something that you get used to. My first rejection felt like a punch in the boob. The next was more like an elbow to the stomach, which is significantly less painful, for those without boobs. And it kept getting better from there. Now I get a rejection and I feel a slight annoyance. But in a superior way, like, “I’m better off without them, anyway.”
I’m telling you this: It is so easy to talk yourself out of trying because you are afraid. I did it for so long. But trust me, freelancing is way less scary than the monster you are making it out to be.
Actually, it’s a lot of fun.