Even if you think you have no writing experience.
If you can remember what it was like to get your first job in high school or maybe in college, every interviewer asked about your previous experience. But when you’re looking for your first job, how can you talk about your experience? The same thing is often true for freelance writers.
You don’t have experience getting paid to write and yet every gig or writing job you find wants to see samples of your writing. And what if you want to get paid to write in a different area than your work experience or your degree?
How do you show potential clients you have experience when you’ve not yet been paid to write? How do you demonstrate experience to your very first clients?
You can’t get experience without a job and can’t get a job without experience. It can often seem like a no-win situation.
But I’m here to tell you it’s not. If you’re new to freelance writing, there is hope. I’ve worked with and coached many freelance writers who thought they were stuck in this impossible situation. It can be done and I’m going to show you how.
Forage through your past
Most people I’ve worked with are surprised to discover they actually do have more experience with writing than they realize. So, the first step to building a writing portfolio when you have no experience is to forage through your past. I know you think you don’t have writing experience, but I bet you do have something you can translate and use. So bear with me.
Create a list of each job you’ve had in the past. Every single one. There is no job too small to be on your list. It doesn’t have to be writing related.
Make sure to put down volunteer experiences and anything else you helped with for your church, for school, for your neighbors, etc. Did you and your sister have a lemonade stand every summer? Did you sell girl scout cookies? Were you in the church choir? Put that on your list.
Now that you have your list, we’re going to look at those jobs and projects with new eyes. It doesn’t matter if they were paid or unpaid, formal or informal, every experience counts.
I want you to look at your list and think about everything you did while in that role. If you think of anything writing, sales, or marketing related, write it down.
- Was it up to you to gather the news every week or month for a staff newsletter?
- Did you have to talk to people and either give them information about something or persuade them to do or participate in something?
- Were you involved in creating a church or school newsletter?
- What about school or university? What writing and writing related experiences did you have there?
- Have you ever worked on any part of a website?
- Were you involved in a newsletter for your local parent/teacher organization, your university, or your local service club?
- Did you work on procedure manuals, lesson plans, or write up monthly or annual reports?
- Did you tell new bedtime stories for your kids, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews when they grew bored with their printed books?
- Did you write and send letters or poems regularly?
- Maybe you were the one who wrote or edited the instruction manual for the new video conference system at work.
Just about every job or experience you’ve had in the past will likely have some type of writing involved in it. You won’t be able to use every instance but it’s good to do this exercise so you can be aware of the fact that you do have more writing experience than you think you do.
Discover your writing sweet spot
Now that you’ve thought about your writing experience from your past, find your writing sweet spot by making these four lists.
- What are you good at? What’s the thing that comes easy to you? (whether you like doing it or not)
- What would you like to be good at? The things you’d like to learn or develop.
- What are your interests? Are you a Walking Dead superfan, have you seen every episode of Outlander more than twice? Do friends/neighbors commend you on your garden, landscaping, or home decorating?
- What’s interesting about you? Think about your family life, places you’ve lived, or any other experiences you’ve had, positive or negative.
Now that you have your lists, circle three to five topics you’d like to write about. Check those topics for viability through a keyword search tool like Keywords Everywhere or UberSuggest to see just how popular they are. Look for the ones that have a high monthly search volume and low competition.
There are so many types of freelance writing to choose from. Pick one or two areas and learn all you can about the expectations and standards for length of content, headlines, level of detail, format, etc. Determine whether you will write content that is primarily business to business (B2B) or business to consumer (B2C).
When you write, do you want to be known by your personal name, a business name or do you need/want to consider a pen name? If you can’t image your business existing without you, then you want a personal brand and to be known by your name.
If you can imagine building a writing business and then selling it to someone else or hiring multiple people who work with you, then you likely want a business brand.
Once you’ve chosen your brand name, find some contract templates you like, set up your invoicing and customer management system (CMS), and start getting your social media accounts setup, or if already setup, make them uniform and branded.
Create your portfolio
(This post contains affiliate links for products I’ve used and recommend. I may receive a commission at no additional cost to you if you purchase)
Most experts will tell you the best way to create a portfolio is to have a website dedicated to your writing services or at least a website with a portfolio page to visually show your writing to clients. And in some ways the experts are correct. If your website is properly optimized, it will attract potential clients for you and all you have to do is respond and close the deal. But getting that website properly optimized has a learning curve and takes time. In addition, you may start out writing in one area and evolve into a different type of writer.
For that reason, I often recommend that instead of spending the time to build a full-fledged website at the start, use a portfolio service such as authory, clippings.me or journoportfolio.com. You can get started with these for very low cost and in just a matter of hours you can upload your portfolio pieces. If you want to further customize, buy a branded domain name (less than $20 annually) and connect the portfolio app to that domain until you create your website. It’s also essential to get a domain email (email@example.com) as soon as possible. I used a portfolio with a custom domain on clippings.me for over ten years and it worked just fine.
Come up with three to five ideas and write those pieces. If time is of the essence, create an account and self-publish them on a blogging platform such as Medium, Quora, or Vocal. You’ll use those published links in your portfolio until you have other published pieces.
Once you have a professional email address and three to four high-quality pieces that are perfectly polished, you’re ready to start looking for clients. There are many different ways to go about this. Work on getting that professional website up gradually, as you start earning more money and building up more published clips. Here’s how to find write for us opportunities for your niche.
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Meg Stewart has been freelancing for nearly two decades. She’s a multi-passionate skill hoarder and the intersection of freelance writing, technology, and teaching is her sweet spot. Freelance Ladder was founded to help writers get paid and help solopreneurs do business better online. Meg and her family, (along with two dogs, two cats, and two leopard geckos), live in Northeast Ohio.