Thinking of starting out as a writer? A few simple tips

I have just returned from a morning at a local school where I was answering questions from pupils who were interested in a career in writing/journalism. It had me thinking back a little under 4 years to the start of my efforts at cobbling together a freelance career. While that hardly qualifies me to claim any level of expertise in the often confusing art of freelancing, here are a few writing tips I would feel confident in passing to those thinking of starting along the same path.

1. Start a blog 

A blog can provide multiple benefits if approached in the right way. It can be an outlet on which to experiment and to maintain a discipline of regular writing during times when work is thin. Most importantly it can be a place where you can hone your writing skills.

2. Get to know people

Industry events allow you to make connections that will help you keep informed which publications are hiring freelancers and where to focus your pitching efforts. You can also meet fellow writers with whom you can share war stories, PR folks who can point you in the direction of potential stories and even the occasional editor to whom you will submit your ideas.

3. Think beyond the big publications

With advertising budgets falling and redundancies aplenty, opportunities for freelancers in the mainstream press are getting harder to come by. On the other hand an increasing number of companies are hiring writers to produce quality content to boost their online presence. These are often long-term or regular requests for work at rates that are comparable to or better than those offered by the big names. It might not be glamorous to write a weekly blog for Fred’s Colour Copying about the latest developments in the world of printing, but if it pays the bills it’s as good a job as any.

4. Find your own opportunities

This is a personal favourite tip and one that surprisingly few follow. As a result of networking (see above), you’ll eventually find that people approach you to do some work for them or you’ll talk to them and find that you can help them with a problem they’ve got. When you are specifically approached it is usually because someone wants YOU to do the job. You can therefore charge a fair rate for the job (see below). This is quite a contrast from the positions found on job boards and freelance sites where hirers are (with few exceptions) looking to buy a commoditised product (a desperate writer) who will work for the lowest fee they can get away with paying (usually extremely low).

5. Be prepared to write for free- but know when to stop

Getting writing commissions without an existing portfolio is incredibly tough. For those starting up an unpaid column in a local paper has traditionally been an invaluable first step on the ladder, as has working as an intern in a newspaper office. Given where most of the opportunities are likely to come in future years, it might be a better use of someone’s time to focus on building up a reputable blog, becoming savvy with social media (some editors now even select writers based in part on their social media activity) and making connections through selectively guest posting some of their best work on high profile sites.

Once you’re getting noticed and starting to build a income, continuing to work for free can send a very negative message about the way you value your own writing. Only you can know when the harm you do by giving your work away for nothing exceeds any benefits you gain from exposure, but that point comes sooner than many people realise.

6. Value what you do

Another obvious point. I get frustrated when I hear the pathetic rates that some people accept for their writing, arguing that they are afraid that no-one will pay them more.  The National Union of Journalists publish a fee guide that’s a useful resource for anyone unsure what to charge. I hear of some people (in the UK) getting paid for a month of regular writing work what others would charge for a couple of days.

As a general rule I have two pay rates – a full rate (depends on the job, but never below what I consider reasonable) and free (helping friends and certain charities/community projects ). There is no inbetween of ‘special rates for start-ups’ or ‘let’s start with this and see how it goes’. It means I lose some work, but not enough to make me change this rule.

 

What have I missed? What advice would you give to someone planning a career as a writer?

 

 

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

10 Responses to “Thinking of starting out as a writer? A few simple tips”

  1. Helen Campbell #

    All salient points, Andy! I would add that old cliche ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’, and that applies as much to those starting out and looking for their first break as it does to experienced freelancers seeking a higher rate! Also, always be polite, especially to other journalists!

    November 29, 2012 at 10:08 am
    • Thanks Helen! Two good extra tips there. “Shy bairns get nowt” as they say up north. One of the main things you have to get used to in freelancing is rejection (or silence), so the more you ask the more chances of getting a positive answer.

      November 29, 2012 at 11:05 am
  2. As someone trying to change courses somewhat later in life I can’t tell you how incredibly useful I found this! The points seem kind of obvious on one level, and yet seeing them there in black & white, knowing someone like you thinks about the same things is very reassuring! Thanks.

    November 30, 2012 at 9:52 am
    • Thank you Linda. I found it really interesting that to talk to the schoolchildren about my work I had to take a step back and look at what I was actually doing, and the logic (or madness) behind the decisions I make. A highly recommended exercise!

      December 1, 2012 at 7:05 am
  3. My own advice for any budding writer: aim high but be realistic in your short-term expectations – and have a Plan B ready in the event that lliterary superstardom proves harder to achieve than you thought. And never turn down a paid assignment.
    Very true, by the way, what you say about the “two pay rates”. Retrospectively, I wish I had always been so rigorous.

    November 30, 2012 at 5:58 pm
    • Thank you Michael – I probably left out the most important piece of advice too: be 100% reliable. Treat deadlines as if your life depends on them (in a manner of speaking, it does).

      December 1, 2012 at 7:07 am
  4. Rig #

    I would endorse the statement above of Michael and I would also say that you must be very much realistic in short term expectations.

    December 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm
  5. I couldn’t have come across this article in a better moment. I just finished drafting my 2013 plan :)

    One question, i understand what you mean when say that getting paid without a portoflio is tough but, would a blog (well structured and written with passion) be considered part of this “portfolio”?

    December 3, 2012 at 11:28 am
  6. Thanks for the tips! As a college student who’s trying to write more about travel and potentially make it a career, or at the very least try to write to a larger audience, these tips were very much appreciated. Thanks Andy!

    December 5, 2012 at 6:12 pm
  7. Andy and all other contributors thus far; I fully agree.
    I started blogging and writing in late 2010 and like you Andy, by no means do I consider my expert. But I have had success. My first few published articles were free, but the payments have started coming in.

    A couple of tips I would add are:
    – Include social media in your networking (it helps connect to the online community)
    – Put the fear of rejection out of your mind, it will only clutter your thoughts and hinder your writing.
    – If you’re planning a trip, contact business establishments (hotels, travel agencies, restaurants, etc.) to introduce yourself and your planned trip. Ask for “journalist” rates.

    Mike
    Travel Thru My Eyes; Let’s GO!!!
    Have fun, travel safe

    P.S. Develop your signature block, and use it

    January 25, 2013 at 12:10 am