The Advice I Wish I’d Had as a New Freelance Writer
Do you know what you’re looking at over there on the right? It’s a brand-new freelance writer looking at one of her very first clips.
On Thursdays, when the L.A. Reader came out, she would pack her new baby into the stroller, whip about eight blocks through the neighborhood trying to work off a bit of that post-pregnancy belly, and hit the nearest mini-mart to grab a copy.
Or three, as you can see if you take a close look.
Could she wait to get home to flip through the pages and find her byline?
In case you haven’t guessed, that new freelance writer is me. (Dig the glasses! Never did stay up, so you can see me getting ready to give them yet another poke.)
I recently came across this photo in a little flipbook of my firstborn’s first year. Boy, did it bring back the memories. (That little squirt is 20 now.)
I had always wanted to be a singer/songwriter, but I had recently made an amazing discovery. I had found a type of writing that pays you, right away.
And I was hooked.
From the emails I get from new subscribers here, I know many of my blog readers are new freelance writers, too.
Seeing this photo made me wish I could send a letter back in time to help new-freelancer me overcome my fears and build my business faster. I had a slow slog of it, floundering around slowly figuring it out, with no connections or clue how freelancing worked.
Unfortunately, my time machine is broken, so I thought I’d leave this advice here for all of you who are in this place right now, just starting out.
Qualifications don’t matter
I spend years dogged by fears that as a college dropout, I was unqualified to be doing things like writing for the Los Angeles Times, which happened about nine months after I discovered journalism. Honestly, even after I won my paper a national award it had never gotten before in 25 years of publication, I was still waiting to get busted.
I wish someone would have told me right off that no one cares if you learned to write under a freeway overpass or at Columbia. If you can get the story and tell it so we want to read it, you’re in.
Often, I hear from writers with master’s degrees who still feel worried they’re not qualified! Stop it, all of you.
I had editors, but it took me a while to take full advantage of their knowledge. Within a year or two, though, I was haunting their offices asking them why they had changed my headline, or my lede. (Yes, that is how journos write it.)
I found three big mentors over the years, and they each taught me staggering amounts and moved my writing up a big notch. I’d probably be nowhere without tapping their expertise.
Write your way to where you want to go
Over the years, I would build a portfolio of clips, and use them to get into new publications I wanted. If you take assignments with an eye to where you want to go, you can pave your way there, on a road papered with your previous published work.
Dive in and be scared later
Honestly, looking back, I was too dumb to realize I should be terrified to take on a lot of the assignments I did over the years. Afterwards, I’d look back and think, “I probably should have never said I could do this!” But it always worked out okay.
Also, I left a lot of my hangups behind in songwriting. As long as I didn’t have to perform my article live in front of a bored audience, clad only in a too-short spandex dress, I was in heaven. Think of something scarier than writing an article, and it’ll be a breeze by comparison.
Develop niche expertise
I was going along, writing about this and that, getting paid a pittance. Then I got a gig writing about business, and found out it paid better to stay focused on niches within that area. But it took me quite a while to figure it out and to market myself as an expert in writing business topics. Once I did, things really took off.
Time will go fast, so stay focused
Once you get going, there will be a lot of opportunities. Some won’t be so great, others will be terrific. Be a little picky. Work with people who love what you do, on assignments you love, too.
When I look at that photo and think that two decades have gone by since I was that girl, it is hard to believe. It all went in a blink, I was having so much fun. And I never did end up writing for Vanity Fair…yet.
If you’ve got that novel you’re dying to write or a magazine that’s your dream, make sure you carve out time to go for it. Life will try its best to get in the way.
What advice have you got for new writers? Weigh in with yours in the comments.