It’s the one question I’m asked more than any other: how on earth do you become a freelance writer?
No matter how often it’s asked, the question always flummoxes me. Where do I start? How do I even begin to identify all of the things an aspiring writer should do if they want to turn themselves into someone who’s paid to write? The fact is that there are so many different routes into freelance writing, and so many points to bear in mind, that I suspect if you asked a hundred writers for their advice on how to do it, you’d get a different answer every time.
I think perhaps the best way for me to answer The Question is to start by explaining how I did it. I started out with nothing: no experience, no portfolio, no clue. All I had was a degree in English Literature (not essential) and the knowledge that the only thing I wanted to do in the world was write (totally essential). Neither of these were getting me anywhere, so at last, in desperation, I sent off my CV and a begging letter to our two main local newspapers, and asked them if they’d give me some work experience.
Yes, that’s right, I offered to work for free. It’s probably the most controversial thing a freelance writer can admit to doing, and yet that’s what worked for me. It worked well, too. One of the newspapers responded by offering me a paid, part-time position as an editorial assistant. The pay wasn’t great, and the work was monotonous, but I made it known that I wanted to write, and when a writing assignment finally came up that none of the staff writers had the time to cover, I was allowed to take it.
As for the other newspaper, well, they didn’t have a paid position to offer me, but they told me to come in anyway and they’d give me some training. That gave me my first by-line, and my first few portfolio pieces. After just a few shifts, they started paying me freelance rates, and after a few months, a vacancy came up for a reporter and I got it. I didn’t even have to interview.
The experience I gained in this, my first official writing job, was invaluable to me when I decided to go freelance. It meant that I could prove my ability: I had dozens of published clips to show, covering a wide variety of styles, from serious news to reviews, opinion pieces and interviews. Could I have launched my freelance career without this experience? Probably: but I’m willing to bet it would have been a good deal harder.
Offering to work for free is always going to be a risk. In my case, that risk paid off. I have no doubt whatsoever that I wouldn’t have managed to break into journalism without it, and while it would be nice if new writers could be paid right from the get go, the reality is that there are very few employers willing to offer an acceptable rate of pay to someone with no experience.
There is, of course, a big difference between working for free and taking on work experience with a newspaper or other publisher. When you work for “free” there’s often little or no benefit to you. Yes, you may gain a portfolio piece, but you’ll have learned nothing about writing, or about the business of freelancing. Work experience, on the other hand, can be an invaluable means for aspiring writers to gain experience, contacts and skills, which they will then take with them to their future careers. In one example, you’re being exploited. In the other, you’re taking an opportunity which will ultimately be of benefit to you. There’s a subtle, but important difference.
That’s my story. Of course, yours will be different. There are a hundred or more ways to break into the fabulous world of freelance writing, and we’ll be discussing at least a few of them in the coming weeks.