If you're just getting started as a freelance writer, it can be difficult to land your first couple of clients without published writing samples. It's kind of a chicken or egg scenario. You need published writing samples to get published, but you need to be published to have published writing samples.
Many veteran writers will tell you that you have to pay your dues and write for cheap or free until you've become well-established. Once upon a time, this was true, but it isn't any longer. Not only do you deserve a reasonable rate for your work when you produce for others, but even publications that offer absurdly low rates don't publish you overnight, and you want to start pitching clients now, not next month.
Fortunately, we live in a glorious technological age where you can put samples of your writing online to use as a portfolio. It's important to be able to display your skills for prospective clients, so getting some samples up should be one of the earliest steps you take. Follow these steps to get started:
1. Choose a Niche
Are there writers out there who freelance across multiple verticals and industries? Yes. Is it easy to do straight out of the gate? No. Therefore, deciding what kind of content you want to write must be your first step. This can be just about anything, but should ideally focus on something you know a lot about. Maybe you're really into dog training or animal rescue. Then your niche could be pet writing. Maybe you're a bit of a cinephile, and would do well writing about movies and entertainment. Perhaps you spent years as a line cook or sous chef: why not be a food writer? The only real limitation here is that you should pick something you're knowledgeable about so that you can produce quality, informed content for future clients. You can start with something very specific and branch out later. For example, my first niche was supply chain and logistics, but after writing about that for awhile I was able to expand into human resources/corporate recruiting, and business-related politics. On the side I occasionally provide op-eds for veteran/military issues (I'm a U.S. Army OIF combat veteran), and I write pet articles for a local non-profit (I'm a life-long dog owner and stay abreast of latest training and care methods for pets). As you can see, it's okay to diversify eventually. But first, let's get you a portfolio and your first client, okay?
2. Build a Web Presence.
If you want to represent yourself as a professional, you must have a website. Ideally, you'll pony up the dough to own your own domain. Domains are usually pretty cheap, and if you purchase a website hosting plan, the domain usually comes free for at least the first year. I use Squarespace, which I like quite a bit. I've also heard great things about Bluehost from other writers. From personal experience, I'd recommend against using GoDaddy as I found the functionality of its web design tool to be extremely limited. To get started, the most basic of plans should be just fine, but make sure you purchase a plan that will let you incorporate a blog. I also highly recommend purchasing an email address that uses your domain name. Through Google's G-Suite this costs about $5/month per address. Most website hosting services allow you to purchase this alongside your website (though I purchase directly through G-Suite so I don't run into issues if I decide to change hosts). I know it sucks to put down cash right up front, but trust me, it's worth it. You'll look and feel more professional to clients.
If you absolutely, positively cannot pony up the cash up front for a website, there are some free services available. Weebly has a pretty good platform, but keep in mind you'll have the word "weebly" embedded in your web address, which looks a bit amateurish. My very first writer website was through Weebly, but I didn't keep it very long because I realized that I didn't come across as professional. I did like their design tool, though, and they also offer hosting services, so if necessary, you could begin with a free site and migrate it to your own domain a little later. Again, I don't recommend starting this way, but sometimes the benjamins just aren't there and you gotta do what you gotta do. If you don't have a blog directly on your website, there are good free blogging platforms out there. When I screwed up on my first website hosting purchase with GoDaddy and didn't buy something that included a blog, my blog was hosted separately on Google's Blogger platform, which is free.
Now, to get yourself on the web. Develop a presence on social media. At a minimum I recommend Twitter and LinkedIn. On Twitter, explore hashtags such as #freelancewriting and #amwriting and follow other writers. Most will follow you back. Also find hashtags relevant to your niche and follow companies. Spend 30 minutes a day just following others (don't do more than this or Twitter will suspend your ability to follow because they'll think you're a spammer). On LinkedIn, make your profile as gorgeous as possible. Flaunt your education. Get anyone you've ever worked with to promote your skills. Don't list your description as "writer" or "freelance writer" or something vague. Be specific to ensure you come up in searches for recruiters. For example, my LinkedIn description is: "B2B freelance writer/journalist specializing in HR/recruitment, logistics/supply chain, B2C about veterans, pet writing." LinkedIn will drive the most business out of all social media, but it's also a great place to connect with other writers. Flesh out your profile and you'll see results.
3. Publish Samples in Different Places
Variety is the spice of life, so they say. A blog is a fantastic way to display your skills, but it's not enough on its own. Here's how you round out your portfolio. I've already guilted you into ponying up some dough for a website, so let's keep these options in the free realm.
First, open yourself a Medium account. Do a little research into your niche and publish 2-3 articles on Medium to add to your portfolio on hot topics. Promote the shit out of them on your social media pages. Get all your friends to look at them and comment if possible. Many people out there in the business world don't even realize Medium is a blog site and consider it on par with a large online magazine or news site. Never lie about this (always be honest with clients), but there's no need to tell if nobody asks.
Second, publish posts on LinkedIn. Again, work up 2-3 posts and push them hard with your network. If you get really lucky, you may get something featured by LinkedIn Pulse, which could dial up your street cred as an expert quite a bit and attract attention from prospective clients. To do this, there's a "write an article" button right there on your LinkedIn news feed.
Three sources (Medium, LinkedIn, website blog) is enough to spread an early portfolio across, but if you want more you could publish on big names like Quora or Hubpages.
If you follow this blog you know how much I abhor writing for free in most cases, but I do make exceptions. While you're trying to land clients you could pitch guest post ideas to editors at publications and blogs that have a broad reach in your niche. You may get paid for some of these, but not most. You could also reach out to non-profits that operate in or parallel to your niche and offer to write a free post or series of posts for their blog.
There you have it. You've built yourself a well-rounded, professional portfolio and online presence with only a couple days' worth of work. Now get out there and start pitching clients. I wish you the best of luck.
If you have further advice for new writers, or if you have questions that you think I could help with, please comment below.
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