Humble Beginnings — How I Got Started in Freelance Writing!

Posted on April 29, 2011


Someone recently asked me how I got started in freelance writing, so I thought it was a great idea for a new post.

I posted a brief history of it on a previous post, but will provide more details in this one.

Construction and Contract Work

After being laid off from Sprint in 2002, I took over my ailing husband’s company, a small asphalt business. I bid all of the work, managed the financials of the company and often led the 11-man crew in completing work. I had it positioned for sale in 2005 and went back to work at (now) Sprint Nextel as a contract project manager. I worked two different contracts there. At the time, Sprint adopted Nextel’s policy in relieving a contractor permanently (for life!) after completing two separate contracts. That was my situation — I completed two different contracts and would not be accepted for another one there again.

Challenges in the Job Market 

I put in applications for other project manager positions, but the job market was flooded with laid off project managers. In attempts to find work in the interim, I looked for freelance writing gigs. I received kudos for my writing skills from English teachers throughout my childhood, and one of the most highly rated aspects of my annual performance reviews was my writing communication skills. In addition, I’d always had a hidden desire to become a professional writer, so I began looking for writing jobs.

Humble Beginnings

It took me quite a while to even find freelance writing job sites. Initially I found five or six. Now, they are everywhere on the Net. I created a writing resume and standard email cover letter/introduction that included several writing samples — real estate, investment and advice column articles — and applied for every writing job I could find, tailoring my cover letter and resume for each. Two or three months later, I got my first writing gig for $35 per article. I was ecstatic. Then, six months later, I received $2,000 per (4500-word) article writing for an investment company.

I thought I had it made, because I continued to be offered writing jobs. The highest-paying ones did not last long, though. The economy continued its decline, and the companies that I work for did not need as many articles or no longer needed articles.

Strategies That Work

I found some strategies throughout my experience applying for freelance writing jobs that really helped me get accepted by companies. I did the following:

  1. Had no professional writing experience, so I combed through my background and noted every writing responsibility I had in past jobs.
  2. Dramatically modified my resume to highlight all past writing experiences.
  3. Applied to/was accepted by Demand Media Studios (DMS). The company provides a variety of writing opportunities and the gamut of article titles. I claimed a variety of topics and became expert at writing in several fields.

Companies want to see that you have years of writing experience, even if it is in employed positions. I discovered that if you can show a history of writing, even in employed positions, companies accept that in lieu of the actual freelance writing experience they require. My past positions required extensive business, financial and IT writing, which beefed up my new freelance writer resume. I was a licensed real estate agent for several years, which opened up the door for me to write for real estate and financial companies. I wrote technical documentation as an IT project manager at Sprint, so I was hired to write technical content for some companies. Those are just some examples.

After becoming an expert at writing on different topics at DMS, I was able to get accepted for higher-paid freelance positions with other companies writing on those same subjects.

Flux of Freelance

Last year, I lost one of my best jobs, because they had enough content. That is sometimes the case. You have to be looking for work even when you have enough work, to ensure that you continue to have enough work.

At times, I’ve had more work than I could handle. That was the case earlier this year. I dug in my heels and did the work myself, though, because I needed the income. You don’t always know when companies will have enough content or decide they don’t need as much content. The lulls in work are the times that make me not-so-much appreciate freelance writing, and I don’t like the continuous job hunting. I like long-term contracts. I still do ad-hoc projects for two of the companies with which I started in my freelance career, but that doesn’t pay the bills.

Writing for Publishing Companies

The best writing scenario is if you can get in with a publishing company writing as a ghostwriter (fiction or non-fiction). That typically sets you up for long-term work. Another great scenario is to get accepted by a high-profile magazine (People, Playboy, etc.) or newspaper (New York Times, etc.) and become a regular contributor. That’s a tough one, because those people are typically high-profile published writers already.

Wiley Publishing accepted my application to write academic copy and had me sign a non-disclosure, but has yet to contact me to begin work. They write curriculum based on enrollment numbers. Agate Publishing offered me work to write academic copy. They only wanted to pay $.10/word, and their contract contains language my high-profile editor friend strongly suggested I stay away from. You don’t want to give a company the option to not pay until all work is completed and accepted, or not pay you at all if, after several iterations, they are not happy with the content.

Although I would love to work for a publishing company, I won’t settle with a contract that strips me of all dignity in the process, while paying less than most mainstream magazines, let alone academic publishing companies. I understand that major academic publishing companies pay very, very well. I have a friend who makes $2 per-word and more for ghostwriting academic copy. Other major publishing companies pay well, too, writing fiction and non-fiction as a ghostwriter. A writer friend makes $50 per-hour ghostwriting fiction.

Freelance Survival

I continue to receive job offers and somehow survive in the freelance writing / journalism industry. This year, I also started co-writing books — working with two separate individuals on two different projects. One will be published this year and the other may not hit print until early next year.

Freelance writing is not for the faint-of-heart, but for the pioneers, the dare devils and those who want to push the limits. To all my fellow freelancers — I SALUTE YOU!!