So you want to get paid for your writing, but you’ve never been published. You have no formal experience, and no one’s ever hired you for a writing-related job. The professional legwork that comes with getting paid to write can be intimidating. Honing a few important skills can help you get started.
Writing, the simple act of putting pen to paper, is challenging enough on its own. But most writers have no problem putting in the creative effort. It’s the business side of writing that trips us up — the work that comes with writing to earn a living. Beyond creativity, here are the life skills that will help you launch a professional writer career when you have zero work experience.
Not all writers are introverted, but many of us certainly are. It can be a tough hurdle to jump, but social skills are a necessity when you’re trying to sell others on your ability to communicate with words. Here are a few ways you’ll have to break out of your shell.
Don’t Be Afraid To Network
I’ve always hated adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” It implies you can make it simply based on your contacts. While that may be true for some, most of us will eventually have to prove we can do the work, too.
Still, it’s true that many opportunities are given to people through networking. After all, it’s just convenient. If I need to hire a writer, why spend hours looking for one when I already know a handful of skilled ones? You probably already know how to network — meetup groups, keeping in touch with colleagues, communicating with fellow writers, etc. But if you have a hard time doing it, here are some tips:
- Come up with a networking “quota”. Force yourself to commit to a certain number of professional engagements per month.
- In chatting with people, don’t worry about being funny or clever. It’s enough to just be nice.
- Give before you receive. Offer to help someone out to build your network. A simple gesture can go a long way.
You also want to make sure to be professional, diplomatic and kind. If an editor turns you down, thank them for their time. When you leave a job, stay on good terms with not only your employer, but also the employees you interacted with.
Of course, you’re not guaranteed a gig just by being diplomatic and friendly. But opportunities often arise through networking, and a professional social demeanour goes a long way.
Embrace Social Media
We all know the writing landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade. Social media is a big part of not just writing, but many other industries, too. You can complain about it, or you can use it to your advantage.
Nimble explains how social media can benefit you as a freelancer. These points are especially helpful for writers who haven’t yet been professionally published:
- Demonstrate your talent: Create a public page with examples of your work. Update your social circles when you write something new.
- Build a reputation: Get people to like, retweet or recommend your stuff, and you’ve got an instant endorsement.
More than that, an adeptness in social media, in and of itself, is an added bonus for a client or employer. In fact, many of them expect it. Over at Make a Living Writing, freelance writer Carole Tice explains:
Want to know the first thing Entrepreneur magazine asked me when I started blogging for them a few years back? “Can you retweet your posts?” At the time, that question was novel. Now, it is increasingly commonplace and no longer an afterthought, but part of the main deal.
Whether we like it or not, establishing an online presence has become an important part of freelancing, especially if you’re just starting out. Don’t give into the mentality that embracing these changes means you’re not a true artist. Margaret Atwood tweets. Salman Rushdie is on Instagram. Technological evolution is nothing new, so it’s best to embrace it. Part of being able to make a living doing what you love is keeping up with the world that’s going to pay for your work.
Don’t be afraid to just ask for opportunities, either. You don’t have to be annoying about it, but you might be surprised at the simple power of speaking up. Tell your network you’re interested in freelance opportunities. If a friend or former colleague lands a new job somewhere, let them know you’re available, if they ever need work.
Here’s a personal example. When I lost a job a couple of years ago, I was afraid to speak up and let people know I was looking for work. I didn’t want to bother anyone, but, if I’m being honest, I was also kind of embarrassed. But I got over it, told an editor I was looking for work and would be grateful for any referrals. As a result, she helped me land several lasting gigs. It made me wonder if I should have spoken up sooner.
Of course, don’t incessantly email an editor or friend asking for favours. No one likes that, and if you do it, your emails will probably be ignored and deleted.
Some professions come with a pretty standard blueprint. If you want to be a doctor, you go to medical school, complete your residency and get your licence. It’s not easy, but that’s pretty much the roadmap for every doctor.
But writing doesn’t work that way. Some professional writers have a writing degree; some don’t. Some get jobs because they launched a blog that became popular. Some writers are hired because they have friends who are also writers. The point is, the specifics are different for everyone, so you have to work with the opportunities, skills, talents and experiences that are unique to your situation. In other words: be resourceful.
Optimise The Skills And Resources You Do Have
Author Ahyiana Angel is a great example of the power of resourcefulness. She was a publicist for the NBA who simply got tired of her job and wanted to do something different. She found that she liked writing, and started pitching her very first manuscript.
In going through the process, Angel didn’t have any previous professional writing experience. But, as a former publicist, she did have marketing skills. She optimised them, and basically became her own publicist. As a result, she landed a few bylines and then became published by Simon and Schuster. (In fact, I asked her for some specific tips for marketing yourself as a writer. More on that later.)
Also, Writer’s Digest suggests leveraging whatever experience you do have, even if it seems unrelated to the work you want to do:
Treat every personal experience or article written as a credential or building block. I got my start as a college newspaper editor. Then a favourite English professor invited me to review a novel without pay for a local newspaper, The Charleston Gazette. That “free” review led to a paying job at the newspaper. Years later, I became interested in wine. I parlayed that into teaching a wine-tasting class, which led to a gig as a newspaper wine columnist.
Find a link between your past experience and your current aspirations, then use that experience to your advantage, as much as possible.
Part of being resourceful is learning to adapt. If you’re leveraging your experience, for example, it could be enough to convince a client you might be worth the job. But to convince them you’re definitely worth it, you might have to adapt to their way of doing things. Maybe they have a different standard for writing. Maybe they expect you to look for photos to accompany your story.
Author Mark Kobayashi-Hillary discusses this with The Guardian:
I’d tell aspiring journalists to open their mind to the way journalism is changing…In the short term, the best thing any aspiring journalist can do is ensure they are multiskilled. Today, it is no good just being able to write well. You need to understand how to record good audio, edit it, record video, edit that too, and interview/publish in all these various formats. If a potential editor can see that you are familiar with various forms of multimedia publishing then you have a big advantage over the crowd lining up for that job.
If you can learn to adapt to the changes of your industry and accommodate a client’s needs, it will make it easier for them to say yes to you.
Similarly, it also helps to be a little marketing savvy if you want to break into freelancing or earn money with your writing. Here are a few specific marketing skills you should familiarise yourself with.
The word makes me cringe, but I can’t deny the importance of building a personal brand. And you can do it without being sleazy and obnoxious. Build an online portfolio. Start a blog and engage with readers. Find like-minded people online. Our full article on the matter is worth checking out — there are some great tips. If you’re an introvert, you’ll probably find these tips helpful, too.
Angel agrees that it helps to start a blog, where you can regularly post content.
This will give you a point of reference for your work when pitching new outlets, editors, or agents that you would like to work with. Create content with a fresh twist and voice. Look to grab the attention of an editor with your storyline or title and content.
She adds that part of branding yourself is just being genuine and showcasing your unique voice. We have some tips for starting your own blog, too.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Search engine optimization is a fancy buzzword for a simple concept: making sure your writing comes up often when people are Googling that particular topic. Some tactics for making sure your stuff appears in search engine results: coming up with good headlines, using tags the right way, and thinking about how people will search for your topic.
SEO tactics are always changing, but it’s important to have a basic understanding of it is, and how it currently works. Websites like Quicksprout keep up with the changes for you, and break it down in simple terms.
Guest Posting And Pitching
If you need a byline, consider guest posting. This can help with branding, but it can also beef up your portfolio. This way, when you pitch an editor, you have multiple bylines — not just content from your own blog.
To land a guest post, you’ll have to come up with some relevant ideas and pitch websites. Check out our thorough article on how to write a good pitch, but here are a couple of useful tips.
- Write an effective, exciting teaser
- Add a narrative to make the idea more interesting
On the topic of pitching, over at Writer’s Digest, one writer shared his tactic:
Another approach that’s sold articles for me is sending a short introductory note inquiring if an editor is receptive to pitches from new freelancers. The logic is simple: You’re asking her only to accept you as a potential contributor, not to assign an article. If she says “yes”, I follow up with ideas while the connection — however tenuous — is still fresh.
Angel adds that it helps to thoroughly research outlets. You might look for less popular sites that are actively looking for new talent. Or you might look for new websites that are just hungry for content.
Any writer will tell you: thick skin is a must. Writing for pay normally involves a lot of rejection. And if that’s not fun enough, there are different types of rejection, too! Here’s how you’ll have to get over any sensitivity.
Don’t Be Afraid To Share Your Work
In other words, “don’t be afraid to put yourself out there”. Share your work. The stuff you’re most embarrassed to share might be the most well-received. Don’t be afraid if the work isn’t perfect, either. Plenty of hugely successful works are far from perfect, depending on whom you ask. Plus, you learn by finishing things, and you learn even more by sharing those things with others and getting their feedback.
I was born with thin skin, but I’ve learned to toughen up over the years. One trick that’s helped me? I not only expect criticism, I ask for it. These days, when I send someone my writing and ask for their thoughts, I tell them, “I’d love to know what I could do differently.” This makes them feel more comfortable telling me if something sucks. Also, it prepares me, emotionally, for the critique. Bottom line? Learn to use criticism as a tool for improvement.
Of course, some people can be real jerks about it. They will criticise your writing with the goal of hurting your feelings rather than trying to help. But you can use this to your advantage by removing the emotion from their statement to see if there’s anything constructive or useful in it.
It’s important to remember that, for most people, doing what you love for a living doesn’t come easy. This is why persistence is so important.
Of course, sometimes you try one method over and over and it just doesn’t work for you. It’s OK to try something else. But don’t give up simply because you’ve been rejected or you didn’t get what you wanted right away. Learn to get back up and keep trying, even if it means tweaking your plans. That’s where resourcefulness comes in, too.
When it comes to the specifics, every writer’s success story is pretty different. A particular route to success may have worked for your favourite writer; that doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. Your personality, experiences and situation are unique. But there are a few skills that are universally indispensable, no matter what route you take.