Updated: Dec 23, 2020
From what I've read, the best advice about getting into freelance writing surrounds gaining experience and skills as a writer. Go to college. Devote thousands of hours to your craft. Beat the Catch-22 of getting professional work by showing samples of professional work when you have no experience.
In other words, get good before you get started.
My own experience taught me that isn't necessarily the right first step towards getting into freelance writing.
Yes, really. Hear me out...
When I decided to get into professional freelance writing, I thought the first thing I needed to do was get better. Because I was new, I had no experience. I sucked.
I didn't actually suck at writing, I thought I sucked because I didn't have experience.
Thinking lack of experience = lack of value was a common mindset that held me back from getting started. It made me afraid of wasting someone's time. It made me feel like I didn't deserve to get paid for writing. It made me feel like there was a void that I needed to fill in order to become worthy of becoming a professional freelance writer.
And I'm sure there were a lot of gurus offering magical $1,000 classes and programs who were drooling over how insecure I was...
In reality, being a writer with a lack of experience can be a valuable asset, because believe it or not some people and companies are specifically looking for writers with no experience. In fact, I didn't even realize this at the time, but...
The first "real" writing gig I ever got was for someone looking for writers with no experience.
BUT I DIGRESS
Here's what happened:
Long story short, I practiced really hard and got better at writing.
Annnnnd the problem I ran into was that, while I knew I was improving my ability to write, I didn't know what it would take to be "good."
How does anyone? Can there really be a "best" writer?
I don't think so. But for all intents and purposes, I was striving to prove that I was "good enough" to be paid for my writing.
You're Already "Good Enough" To Get Paid To Write
In hindsight, I think I was capable of being paid for my writing much sooner than I realized, and my ability to write well wasn’t what got me into freelance writing so much as my ability to understand how to sell, which was a skill I developed later.
Don't get me wrong, once I started getting into freelance writing, my skills as a writer helped; honing my writing skills to the degree that I did helped me land solid freelance writing gigs, especially for someone with no experience. But my skill level wasn't the key that unlocked the metaphorical freelance writing door that everyone’s trying to get their foot in.
The problem was... I didn’t have any rates for freelance writing jobs, packages for monthly freelance writing services, or any real idea of how the freelance writing industry works.
I just expected someone would see the value in my work and offer to pay me for it.
Nobody did, so I thought either my writing sucks or maybe people just don't know about me.
So I started putting myself out there. I said
“Hey world, I’m a freelance writer, someone hire me!”
And… nobody did.
So I thought, “nobody is hiring me because I must not be good enough, so let me try to get better.”
How To Get Better at Writing
Simply put, you practice. Just like anything. You read, you study, you ask questions, and you experiment.
That’s how I got to the level I am at today (whatever level that is). I practiced, whether it was in school, at a workshop, or in my own time.
Education is a great tool to invest in. When I was starting out, I was only interested in free resources (except college). I only read blogs like this, watched youtube videos, or got books from the library.
Some might say I had a scarcity mindset, but at the same time, I had made a plan to spend everything I had on a college education. I stuck to that plan, and because I was a college student, I had access to all sorts of “free” resources like the University of Delaware library, guest lectures, campus internet, etc.
Those things definitely helped.
Could I have spent money on additional classes and resources? Absolutely. Sometimes I did. But there’s an infinite number of ways to get into freelance writing. I wouldn’t even look at college as a path towards success in freelance writing, rather it is a resource.
Do You Need A College Degree To Get Into Freelance Writing?
Does Having a College Degree Help You Get into Freelance Writing?
I would say no with an asterisk.
My degree hasn't helped me much with getting freelance writing, but my education absolutely has. Learning things like AP Style, common nuances of British vs. American English, email etiquette, networking and and how to manage my time have really been invaluable skills I happened to learn in college. I could have learned them in the real world, but being in college facilitated learning those things and a lot more.
I give credit where credit is due: the University of Delaware is an excellent school and I got a really great education there. Like any program, you get out of college what you put into it, and some schools offer more than others. But I didn't find my degree program = optimal preparation for a freelance writing career, it was optimal for a career in academia.
I can’t remember any client ever asking or caring about my college degree. That said, some of the classes I took in college helped me learn skills that I now apply to freelance writing. So I would say a college education helps you get into freelance writing, because you learn how to manage your time and send an email to someone, but a college degree or where you went to college doesn’t make you a good freelance writer.
Asterisk: there may be some clients who care what college you went to.
For example, if you want to write web copy for an Ivy league school, it will help if you yourself went to an Ivy league school, or if you want to write for a big finance company, it might be relevant that you studied (or are studying) finance.
And if I'm running a finance blog, I'd be looking for finance writer before a finance expert, because even though the expert might know more about finance, the writer knows more about writing.
After all, are the best movie critics filmmakers? Food critics chefs? Sports analysts athletes? Sometimes, sometimes not. But if LeBron James or Michael Jordan sat down to debate Skip Bayless, who would make a stronger case for who the greatest player of all time is?
When you become a successful freelance writer for the work you produce, I think it's safe to say it doesn’t matter where you started to get to where you are.
Should You Take Freelance Writing Classes?
If you want to be a writer, why wouldn’t you do something that will help you improve your writing?
The question is not whether or not you should take classes, the question is how do you want to improve your writing? Taking classes is one of many ways (that you usually have to pay for) to improve your writing. You can also read blogs like this one for free.
And to be honest, that's what I did. I taught myself a lot of stuff using libraries and free internet resources. I also learned over the years through taking many classes that time is worth more than money, and classes tend to help you gain more knowledge faster and more effectively. And they help you network.
For all those reasons, college was definitely a net positive for me.
The real question is, will the University, workshop, writing class, etc. you’re considering help you in the way that you need it to?
Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot about writing and I got pretty good at it. So good that I was publishing articles in the student newspapers and lit journals and writing admission letters and scholarship applications that saved me and my friends tens of thousands of dollars...
But I didn't think I was good enough because I felt like I had something I needed to prove before I unlocked the ability to get paid to write as a freelancer.
But when it comes to freelance writing, it’s not so much about how good of a freelance writer you are that gets you work. Your skills as a writer, your command of the language, your flawless grammar… that’s all icing on the cake.
The core ingredient to successful freelance writing is well you understand marketing and sales. Understanding the mechanics of selling is the core to both getting gigs as a freelance writer (selling your service) and how to produce effective content (which is a sales tool at the end of the day.)
Speaking of which, check out my class for freelance beginners and get 60% off with the code n00bSauce
Learn How To Sell
The single most important skill in any business is being able to satisfy the needs of your customer.
So the first steps are actually
Decide on a customer (this is what finding your niche means)
Determine their needs (why do they need a writer?)
Determine how you can satisfy their needs (can you write the kind of content they’re looking for?)
Communicate that to your customer and make a deal (learn how to pitch)
Satisfy their needs (do it.)
“Okay, great,” past Jason used to think, “I understand how to sell, but like… I have nothing to sell because I have no experience.”
How To Start Freelance Writing With No Experience
The same way you would if you did have experience.
Follow the five steps above.
A lot of people say it feels like a Catch-22 that you can’t work a freelance writing gig without experience and you can’t get freelance writing experience without working.
What if we rephrase the question? Instead of asking “how to start freelance writing with no experience” what if we ask “who wants to work with a writer with no experience?”
Now it’s easier to brainstorm some answers for potential leads...
Who would hire a freelance writer with no experience?
Someone who is looking to groom potential talent (which could be you)
Someone who pays little or nothing for writing.
Friends, family, community, etc.
In other words, you don’t need to wait for permission to start freelance writing. Instead, ask yourself “who is looking for what I have to offer?”
A writer with no experience is valuable to someone who is looking to pay a low rate and therefore not expecting high quality writing. And when you find clients like that, who hire you for your low rate and whatever experience comes with it, you can easily exceed their expectations by writing something that doesn’t suck.
This is exactly what happened to me.
Remember that spoiler alert from earlier? Here's the story...
When I was a young student I pitched writing Op-ed articles for University of Delaware's student newspaper. I knew the opportunity would be unpaid but hey, looks good to have your name in print, and maybe I'd create some buzz around campus with an article. I wrote about how there weren't enough gluten-free options in the dining hall for people like me who have Celiac disease. I was thrilled they accepted my article and thought it was a promising sign that maybe I had what it takes to become a professional writer.
By chance, the editor at the time of Gluten Free Philly came across the article somehow and reached out to me to write for his blog. He didn't have a budget to pay anyone but was looking for college students to review local gluten-free restaurants and build their portfolios.
I said yes.
Three articles later, I had reviewed all the gluten-free restaurants in the immediate area of Newark, DE that I could get to without a car. The articles created some buzz, and I used them on my portfolio for years, expecting a bigger blog to then reach out to me and offer me a paying gig to write for their blog.
That could have happened, but it didn't.
What also didn't happen is me reaching out to paying blogs, pitching articles for them and using the Gluten Free Philly articles as samples.
Moral of the story: if you have no experience, it doesn't mean you can't find work, it means you have to hustle to find work. It’s the internet. You’ll find someone.
How do you find someone? First decide what you’re offering.
Find Your Freelance Writing Niche
You don’t actually need to do this. You can be a generalist like I was--I said “I’m a writer and I can write about anything!”
I made decent money writing about anything. I hustled for every single project. Sometimes I got gigs that were up my alley, and sometimes I got gigs that I had a lot of trouble with. I thought that’s just life for freelance writers, and maybe that would be true in a world where there are few freelance writers.
In reality, there are so many of us that people who hire freelance writers have the luxury of choice. This means a company that sells camping equipment can choose to hire someone for a standard rate and get a decent article about hiking, or they can hire a hiking enthusiast who lives and breathes writing about the outdoors.
And if you’re the company, who would you rather hire?
Maybe they’ll go with the generalist writer for a lower rate. But as the generalist, why would you trouble yourself to write about unfamiliar writing topics when you could be focusing on familiar writing topics that are easier and more fun to write about? In other words, why spend more time and effort to earn less money?
In hindsight, the trouble for me usually wasn’t worth it--ask me about how I almost got a full-time gig writing for PCMag, but that's a story for a different time.
I learned the hard way how overgeneralizing your niche can hurt, but when you’re starting out you don’t have to be hyper-specific about what you write about.
In fact, being somewhat of a generalist makes you a good candidate for agencies looking to outsource to a freelancer. When you’re starting out, freelancing for agencies is a good way to gain experience while getting paid and even prepare you for full-time work if you ever chose to go that route. But at the end of the day, the more niche you go, the less competition you face and the more you can justify a higher rate.
The bottom line is, you work for who you market yourself to. If you think your lack of experience means your writing doesn’t have much value, you’ll probably find yourself writing for low-paying clients.
So Where Do You Start Freelance Writing?
Who Do I Pitch to become a Freelance Writer?
Literally anyone you want.
Some people like to look on job sites like freedomwithwrtiting.com, others reach out to hiring managers on LinkedIn, some people cold email pitches, some writers have prefer inbound marketing strategies like SEO and becoming an influencer.
What seems most fun to you?
I’m not going to tell you who to pitch or who not to pitch. I’d encourage you to pitch for gigs you truly want, even if it’s a gig you don’t think you’re ready for yet. Impress them with your effort, get on their radar. You just never know.
In theory you could pitch the New York Times to feature your travel guide about your hometown today, they could accept it, and catapult you to all the freelance writing fame and glory and wealth you could ever ask for.
Who knows what the statistical likelihood of success is? Even the best statisticians in the world are not mind readers. Neither are you or I. So if you want to write for NYT, then pitch them. Who knows? Maybe the editor went to your hometown on vacation and fell in love with it, and this is just the piece they’re looking for but they never imagined it would fall into their lap.
Or maybe your first pitch doesn’t work. Try a different approach. Find out how they like to be pitched. Or decide it’s not worth it and pitch someone else.
You decide what shots are worth taking. To me, if you know you want something, it’s worth going after.
If you just want to get started and get writing and get money, that’s fine. Gather some leads, ask yourself, would I write for them? How confident am I that I can write something that they would publish?
If the answers are “yes” and “confident enough” then what are you waiting for? Go pitch!
But Wait, How Do I Pitch?
You email someone and say in your own words “hey can I write for you?”
If you hesitate to do that, is it because you wouldn’t be able to do the job, it’s not worth your time, or because you’re just feeling insecure?
No confidence? Build some. Hype yourself up, study the craft, get your friends to encourage you, read how to build confidence as a freelance writer, do whatever you’ve got to do to make yourself pull that trigger and take that shot!
So now you’ve sent the pitch. Now what?
Send another one.
Send as many as you can find.
If you want to find work, chances are it’s not going to come to you unless you have prominence. If people don’t know you exist, they can’t hire you.
What’s the Best Way to get Noticed as a Freelance Writer?
Sure, having a website, a portfolio, a LinkedIn profile, etc. all help but you honestly don’t need all that to get started. I used to think that I needed to craft the perfect resume, the perfect website, the perfect profile, etc. and then people would start reaching out to me for work.
I mean, it did happen--some people reached out to me on Fiverr when I was a beginner. I set a low price and used keywords like “Native English speaker” because I was setting the bar really high to earn $0.01 per word minus 20% commission.
The clients that reached out to me on Fiverr didn’t have the greatest of offers. That’s because most of those employers were likely looking to get cheap service from someone who’s competent, not expert.
Moral of the story: Fiverr sucks
On the other hand, when I was a college student with no professional experience, editors and employers reached out to me with good offers. Why? Either someone knew me as a good student and referred me, or they saw something I had written in the student newspaper and thought I’d be some good talent to groom for their company.
Everyone else I wrote for I cold emailed.
I said something like
“Hi my name is Jason and I’m a creative writing student at the University of Delaware looking for writing credits. I’ll write for you for free if you give me a byline.”
They accept? Congrats! Now write the article!
Make a good first impression by taking your best shot at it. DON’T LET THEM SEE YOU SWEAT. Don’t apologize or say “I’m new at writing, so I’m sorry this is all I got.” Imagine going to a restaurant and the waiter comes out and says “hey the chef wanted to apologize that he’s new and if you don’t like this meal you can just send it back.”
That’s what I used to sound like when I’d apologize for being inexperienced. The only people who didn’t care were not paying me or not paying me enough. Any good teacher or mentor I have ever had said immediately “stop apologizing.”
But do acknowledge the insecurity if you have it. If you feel like apologizing for the quality of your work, is it because you’re new and scared or it’s not the best you could do?
The way you make sure it’s not the latter is to polish your work--spellcheck it, use an editing app like Hemingway to make sure you’re being concise, get feedback from a friend or mentor.
Then when it’s ready, say “hey editor, here’s a draft what do you think?” and THAT’S IT.
When they come back with changes, don’t take it personally. Style guides are more arbitrary than you think, it’s usually important to stick to them for brand consistency more than anything, and in my experience, many editors will revise your work just for the sake of revising it. Regardless, whatever they tell you to do is their call. They’re the editor! So you execute the revisions, someone publishes the piece, should get paid according to your agreement, and if they don’t give you more assignments, pitch again!
Say “hey it was great writing that last article. I have some ideas for future pieces” if they don’t have anymore work for you say “no problem, please feel free to keep me in mind or refer me to anyone who could use my services”
And believe me, if you did a good job for them, there’s a good chance they will.
How Can I help You Become a Better Writer?
I learned how to become a freelance writer from studying online gurus for free, so now it’s time for me to give back. I publish content like this for free so anyone can learn the way I did, and I offer coaching and classes on freelancing for anyone who wants to accelerate the process.
What other topics would you be interested in reading about? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below!