How to Become a Freelance Writer, Part One: Why and When Experience Matters

How to Become a Freelance Writer Part 1Lately, this is the most common question I get from readers of my blog: How do I become a freelance writer? For those of you I never responded to, I apologize. I’ve been planning on addressing it on my actual blog, so, here is your answer. In a three-part mini series I’m going to, as best I can with the experience I have, address the big question of becoming a freelance writer.

For me, it all started with a coffee meeting.

A little over five years ago, I asked a friend to coffee who was a seasoned freelancer in the Nashville area. I set up the meeting because I wanted to know how to do what he did, and I had no idea how to get started. Maybe you don’t either. I’m glad you’re here. What occurred before, during and after that coffee meeting will be the framework for this mini series. I hope you find it helpful and feel free to ask questions in the comments section. I love that.

Let’s begin…

Before Coffee

What if I told you my first writing job was writing obituaries?

It’s true. My senior year of college I was a proofreader for our alumni magazine. One of my responsibilities was managing the “obits” sections. It was as glamorous and uplifting as you’d imagine. But it was also something invaluable. It was experience with the craft.

Before anyone becomes a freelance writer full time, they write. They write a lot and a lot of different things. Before that coffee meeting five years ago, I had logged hours in writing obits, I had spent a few semesters as a staff writer for my college paper, I had received a degree in English (read: I knew how to do research aside from Wikipedia), and I had been blogging for two years.

Why am I giving you my credentials? To explain that rarely does anyone simply jump into freelance writing. They’ve logged hours already. Maybe not in magazines and major websites, but in school. On their blogs. Writing a research paper. Writing a few obituaries.

The world of freelance opens up after the building up of experience here and there until you have a few things you can show a writer friend or a few links you can send to an editor. Freelance often happens after you’ve done quite a bit of work already.

For some of you, this is encouraging. You have years of writing experience and the tangible evidence to show for it. You’re ready to jump in.

For some of you, maybe this sounds discouraging. You are just starting. You have barely written a thing. To you I say, take heart. If writing is an interest but not something you’ve really done yet, start small. Start in a journal, a letter to a friend, an email. Start playing with words in the little ways and read my next post (about finding your writing niche) to see if this is something you want to pursue further. It might remain a personal interest. It might explode into a career. You’ll never know unless you start putting words down somewhere, anywhere, as often as possible.

For those of you with the experience but without the pay, think about all of the writing you’ve ever done. From research papers to a blog you’ve been piddling with to a press release you wrote for your company recently to a presentation you had to give or a pitch letter you had to write.

If you were going to have coffee with a local writer in your city, what could you send them before your meeting? What’s there? What is your base? Look at it. All of it.

To start, you have to know what you’re starting with.

My bet is, if the freelance writing bug won’t leave you alone, you probably have more experience than you realize. You’ve probably logged some hours that you’ve forgotten about. You’ve probably written more than you think. It might be time to start looking at it, and it might be time to start showing it to others.

I got a coffee meeting because my writer friend knew I blogged, and I knew I had samples I could send him later. You better believe I was blowing the dust off those college articles. When it comes to writing—you’ve heard this before—none of it is wasted. It could get you a meeting, and that meeting could get you an assignment, and that assignment could lead to a new career.

Take inventory. See what’s in your vault. Ask yourself if it’s time to jump in.

Part two of this three-part series will address what actually happened in the conversation over coffee: discussing the importance of having a writing niche. It was a game-changer for me, and I hope it will help you as you set out on this path.