February 2, 2009

So You Want to Be a Freelance Writer? Get Yourself a Hairnet.

The unemployment figures are climbing and Americans are scrambling to find jobs. While starting your own business surely has its risks — especially in this economy — a growing number of recent college grads, recently unemployed and one-time stay-at-home parents are testing the freelance waters.

One of the most popular jobs for stay-at-home workers is freelance writing. In fact, some of you might be thinking right about now, “Hey, I can write! I should be a freelance writer!”

Well, if you’re considering trying to break into the field, hear this: Freelance writing isn’t some bogus stay-at-home job that just anyone can do. It takes a special combination of talent, skills, connections and marketing to be a successful freelance writer.

Not so sure you have the chops to make it as a freelance writer? Consider this allegory.

When I was in high school, I wanted to get a part-time job as a waitress. I went to the nicest restaurant in town, figuring that the tips would be good. I was told, by the very condescending manager, that I couldn’t get hired by his restaurant without “significant waitressing experience.”

“But how am I to get experience if you won’t hire me to get that experience in the first place?!” I bemoaned. I felt sorry for myself for a few days and then I went down the street to the 24-hour diner and got hired on the spot. I had to wear a hairnet, but I got my experience. And I earned pretty decent tips along the way.

If you want to break into the field of freelance writing, you need to go get yourself a hairnet. Meaning, you need be able to show a prospective employee that you have what it takes. That you can, in fact, write — and write well.

Even without years or months of experience, you can still impress perspective clients. How? By letting your words speak for themselves. What you need is a portfolio — a series of clips, also known as writing samples. These clips should preferably be published somewhere (online is fine). And they should preferably be related to the topic you are applying to write about.

But wait a minute, you’re thinking: Doesn’t that bring me right back to the waitress story?

How am I supposed to get a portfolio of published clips when no one will hire me to write these clips without a portfolio?

It can seem like a bit of a catch-22, but don’t lose hope. Instead, grab a hairnet:

>> Offer your services to a local non-profit organization. Especially in this economic climate, many non-profits desperately need volunteers to help with fundraising and marketing materials. (And hey, your efforts may even turn into a paying job.)

>> Write a color piece for your local paper or magazine. Most towns have parenting magazines and these are a great place to make your start. Smaller towns are always eager to hire local talent to write up local events. (Pay will be low, perhaps even “symbolic”. But remember: You are earning more than just money. You are earning your hairnet!) Even a published letter to the editor can make a great clip, assuming it is well-written and on-point.

>> Accept a low paying job to get some experience. And no, I’m not talking about content farms, that pay their writers $1 for 1000 words. But maybe earning $10 or $15 for 500 words isn’t such a bad idea, if you can gain some valuable clips in the process. Be sure to accept assignments that will publish your content with a byline, as ghost written clips are looked down upon in the industry.

>> Start a blog. You probably wouldn’t want to link potential clients to posts about your dog’s dietary habits or your kids’ first day of school, but blog writing can be a great way to flex your literary muscle. If you are trying to break into a particular niche, blog writing can be immensely helpful in establishing your credibility and recognition within that field.

On the way to earning your hairnet, you will have plenty of time to learn more about the business of freelance writing. I’ll cover some of those topics in future posts — including where to find paying freelance writing jobs, what education freelance writers need, and how much freelance writers earn. (If you can’t wait for my posts, be sure to check out the above links from JobMonkey’s outstanding section on freelance writing.)

So, do you want to be a freelance writer? Tell us how you’re earning your hairnet in the comments section!

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