10 Entry-Level Writing Gigs That Give You Great Clips

photodune-3246067-laptop-xsWhen you’re just getting started, it’s hard to get clips. Especially if the only assignments you ask for are 1,500-word feature articles or $3,000 white papers.

While some writers do seem able to go straight for the big score, most of us work our way up.

There’s an easy way to build your portfolio up from nothing to the level where you can get the juicy gigs.

It’s to start with entry-level assignments. There are quite a few simple assignments that are pretty easy to get, and a breeze to execute. Kind of un-f*k-up-able.

If you’re a new writer, those are the kind you want. I built my whole early portfolio out of these babies.

Which worked great, since I knew about spit-all about how to be a journalist at that point.

Where to pitch your early article ideas

When you start out, you’ll pitch these to some lower-rung markets: alternative papers, nonprofit and association newsletters, small community daily or weekly papers. These places are always short of staff and thrilled for any help they can get.

You can move up from there to writing these for glossy magazines.

They may not pay great, but they result in some nice-looking clips. I used to get $50-$75 writing some of these.

But they can help you get an editor’s ear to pitch those big, fat features you’re hot to write.

Here are ten easy, entry-level writing gigs.

  1. Charity or organization news. At one point, I wrote short pieces on what was new in my regional library system, for instance. Our libraries put out a pretty nice quarterly newspaper, and it was a great way to get my name around. I know another writer who got started writing for her condo association newsletter.
  2. Business profile. If a local business is doing something exceptional — for instance, landing their product in Walmart or appearing on Shark Tank — it’s always worth a quick write-up in a small-town paper. Chat up the owner and you’re set.
  3. Author/artist profile. If a noted author is visiting or lives in your town and has a new book out, or an artist is having an interesting show, line up an interview and you’ve got a good shortie.
  4. Restaurant reviews and openings. Most alternative papers have regular restaurant columns and are constantly doing dining stories. Their staff reviewer can’t stay on top of every new eatery that opens their doors, so pitch them the one you want to visit.
  5. Book, play or movie reviews. See #4 — same deal here. Their regular critic can’t see every new play or read every book that comes out.
  6. Civic event coverage. From angry protests to staid city council meetings, small papers never have enough people to cover all the doings in their town. If you’re willing to sit through that citizen charrette about the proposed redevelopment of Main Street and can take notes and write up who said what, maybe grab a quick interview at the end, then bang — you’ve got a story.
  7. New store opening. In any small town, nearly every new shop that opens is worthy of a short piece in the local paper. Everybody wants to know who the owner is and how and why they came to open this retail establishment. Volunteer to go chat with the owner, and you’re in.
  8. Web bios. Any business website that doesn’t have a page that tells the story of the founders needs one. Grab their resumes, ask them a few questions about their background, and you’ve added a great story to their site that humanizes their brand.
  9. Brochures. Most small companies desperately need their brochures updated (whether virtual or physical). To learn how to write them, go down to your local Chamber of Commerce and take a copy of all the brochures there. Go home and read them. You’ll see there isn’t a lot of copy on brochures, and it won’t be hard to write something better than average. Ask your client a few questions about the business and you’re done.
  10. News briefs. Nearly every paper and magazine has a “front of the book” section where they include short pieces about interesting news that broke too close to deadline to flesh out into bigger stories. If you’re a news junkie, you can probably find an idea or two to whip up.

These assignments are also great because they give you a little taste of the skills you’ll need for bigger projects. You talk to editors or business managers, you do interviews, ask questions, and learn to tell a little story.

From there, it’s not much of a leap to telling a big one.

What were your first entry-level assignments? Leave a comment and let us know.

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31 comments on “10 Entry-Level Writing Gigs That Give You Great Clips
  1. Daryl says:

    Great ideas, especially on the brochure aspect – it’s something that almost every single company needs, and it’s very easy for even the smallest of SME’s to see the value in having great brochure copy
    Daryl recently posted..7 Reasons Why Writers Shouldn’t Rely on Popular Revenue Sharing Sites

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on, and it’s got like maybe 150 words of copy in it, tops, for a normal 3-fold little brochure. I remember I wrote one on a tradeout for a client in a business exchange I belonged to.

      If you can listen and discover what a company’s unique selling proposition is and what the owner’s passion is for the business, you can write a brochure that is usually 10x better than the one they threw together themselves.

  2. Nida Sea says:

    “There are quite a few simple assignments that are pretty easy to get, and a breeze to execute. Kind of un-f*k-up-able.”

    LOL! Nice, those are my kind of assignments. I’ve scored several more clients since my first one, but I’d really like to get published in a magazine or paper. I’ll try for these. Thanks, Carol!

    • Carol Tice says:

      When I was new at this, I liked things I knew I couldn’t screw up. And I carefully cut and pasted each one into my physical portfolio, which I still have around here somewhere.

      Each little clip like that I think builds your confidence. When I was feeling overwhelmed, I would take that out and flip through it and think, “I wrote these. I can write this next one.”

  3. Great post Carol! I will definitely be putting these ideas to use. My first assignment came from a small local newspaper. I just emailed the editor to see it they hired freelance writers, and now I get weekly assignments from them! It was one of the best e-mails I’ve sent in a long time. I had just finished your J-school course, and it truly came in handy!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Wow, that is a w e s o me Candace! So glad 4 Week Journalism School helped you do that gig. That is why we teach it! Always thrilled to hear people take the info and go out and use it. ;-)

      Dailies are so hard up for help these days, they’ve all had to shed staff. More opportunity for writers to break in with some nice clips!

      Once you’ve written for a daily or weekly newspaper, that really gives you some cred when you pitch magazines.

  4. Carol Tice says:

    Just went in and updated this story, because I can’t believe I forgot BOOK reviews! I did scads of those for an alternative paper at one point.

    Was a steady $75-a-week gig, when I was just starting out…and eventually, I wrote 3,000-word cover features for that same paper.

    • Meghan says:

      Did you get in touch with the paper and ask if they needed book reviews?
      Meghan recently posted..Test Post

      • Carol Tice says:

        As I recall the first thing I pitched them was some protest that was going on that I was planning to attend, and they let me write a short piece about the issue and what happened at the event. After I did that piece I ended up writing a lot of news shorts, and eventually think I got in with their book editor for writing reviews. This was at an alternative paper (a la The Village Voice, LA WEEKLY, etc.).

  5. Erica says:

    Great places to start! And so many I hadn’t even thought of.

    Over the years, most of my work has been done corporate copywriting gigs obtained through creative staffing agencies. (Not ad agencies; staffing agencies that specialize in placing creative types.) While they typically focus on on-site placement roles, they also get a fair number of one-off freelance projects.

    The pay is highly variable, you get limited access to the end client and in *no way* do I suggest relying on them as an only source of gigs (even if you’re looking for on-site placement). But they can provide a wide variety, handle your billing and look for clients for you while you’re busy with other business- and portfolio-building activities.
    Erica recently posted..Writing Condition Experiment #1: Mucking with my noise levels

    • Carol Tice says:

      I personally hate working through agencies of any kind because you give up so much of the revenue. And I hate the thing where you’re playing telephone through them and never talking to the client! Causes so many problems.

      But is this like The Creative Circle? Or wondering if you might mention some names of creative staffing agencies that were good.

      What sort of hourly rate did you get through them?

      If you’re looking to build your newspaper/magazine article writing side, some of those entry gigs might help you!

      • Erica says:

        Yes, it’s like Creative Circle (although I’ve never gone through them). My better successes have been with The Creative Group (a division of Robert Half International) and 24 Seven. There are numerous others (some of which I will steer clear of) but for the past several years, those two in particular have worked best for me, had the better quality clients and have treated me better overall.

        Also, most of the gigs I’ve seen and experienced through these agencies (I also used to hire and contract through them) requires the talent to directly interact with the client and just keep the agency in the loop.

        And yes, you give up a lot of revenue. I’ve seen entry-level and Jr. Copywriting gigs range from $14 to $25 an hour up to more experienced that hit the $65-$75 an hour range. Again, definitely not a one-all solution, especially for freelancers. But for someone who just needs a few portfolio pieces, it’s another avenue to get what you need.
        Erica recently posted..Writing Condition Experiment #1: Mucking with my noise levels

  6. These ideas are a great lesson for a newbie like me into finding paying gigs. That said, I’m fairly certain I could find gigs based on these ten; but, I’m not sure how the pitch would involve money–or rates. So, let’s say I pitch a local newspaper regarding some kind of profile, at what point does payment come into the picture? Do I assume they have predetermined freelancing rates or should I come prepared with a rate of my own?

    Also, what’s a good acceptance rate on these kind of pitches?

    Thanks for this article and any insight you may provide to my questions!

    -Anton

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Anton — You’re right that most newspapers will have a set rate they pay for these kind of pieces. You just ask what it is and what their billing process is if you get an assignment. Some may not even pay. But you don’t ‘pitch’ them a rate. Just pitch them your idea. If there needs to be a negotiation about rates, that happens after you get them interested in your story.

      The point of these types of pieces is simply to get clips, more than getting paid. Once you have a half-dozen of them, you can pitch better-paying publications.

      I can’t really answer the ‘good rate of acceptance’ question. Everyone has different levels of writing skill, writes better or lesser queries, is querying different publications that may be more or less competitive.

      If you’re not getting any nibbles, you need to learn more about how to develop story ideas and how to write queries.

      Hope that helps!

      • Anton says:

        That DOES help!

        Thanks Carol. With all the resources on your site, I’m feeling very confident about this process… and it’s good to know I don’t have to worry about numbers right off the bat. Kinda like not worrying about needing an accountant until money starts rolling in! Haha.

        Thanks for the help!

        -Anton

  7. Rob says:

    I used to restore antique Asian furniture. The owner advertised in a magazine that let advertisers publish advertorials. After reading a few, I asked my employer if I could have a shot at writing one. He was dubious, but I just told him if he didn’t like what I wrote he was under no obligation to pay me for my effort. I ended up writing 4 @ $300 each, but more importantly, I had something new to display in my portfolio.
    Rob recently posted..Can Bloggers Save the World?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Rob —

      I too stumbled onto an advertorial opportunity at one point, at a trade publication I was writing for. They paid $500 apiece as I recall, and were my first introduction into business-side writing.

      I don’t know that they’re so easy to find cold, as a newbie, so I didn’t include them there. But you were smart to jump on the chance to learn them! Plenty of lucrative work there.

  8. Willi Morris says:

    Actually, my very first clips were with the largest newspaper in the state, where many years later I eventually worked. Why? I was a stringer, or a freelancer. And really it’s as simple as just calling the newsroom and asking.

    Also, hyperlocal newspaper are great places to get first gigs – I have actually done a number of pieces recently for a town newspaper. Love ‘em!
    Willi Morris recently posted..12 Business & Blogging Lessons from My First Year

  9. Erika says:

    One of the first things I did was help a friend with her website copy and blog posts blogging for free. I did keyword research, wrote blog posts and learned WordPress better — all great experience for me. I ended up with stats I cold pitch to other clients (e.g., increased traffic by XX%…), along with a reference.
    Erika recently posted..It’s not all about you…

  10. Meghan says:

    Great tips! Very good timing for me as I’m practicing getting my own freelance work noticed more. When you try to write for local publications, do you (or did you) pitch them the idea first and then write, or do a writeup and see if they’ll take it? I contacted one editor about writing a story and never heard back. I didn’t want to be a pest, but perhaps I should have been more persistent? I’ve heard newspaper editors don’t take kindly to spamming…

    • Carol Tice says:

      Newspaper editors tend to be pretty generally grouchy these days, Meghan.

      I always pitched before I wrote, mainly because I was going out to cover demonstrations and city hall meetings and things like that…didn’t want to shlep down there otherwise.

      If you pre-write it, be sure to mind their word counts and their style. I think it’s always easier to be successful writing from an assignment.

  11. Holly Bowne says:

    My first clips grew out of my “mom” job. Because of my kids, I was super involved in our local school system. Over the years, I would learn about different children who were doing cool things for charity. I gained my first clips by interviewing them, and writing up some nice human interest stories for our local paper.
    Holly Bowne recently posted..Quote of the Week

  12. Karen Taylor says:

    Hi Carol,
    I have been dragging my feet in getting my freelance writing career off the ground, but your post has made me realize I can totally do this. I used to work as a journalist, but left it to go back to teaching, and back then I wrote cover stories and hard news. Even won an award for human interest journalism (my real love). Trouble is, I lost the stack of clips I had from my newspaper days, so that’s why I’m happy for these ideas on how to get a foot in the door again. I’m going to make pitches for the web bios, business profiles, brochures and civic events coverage, and see where those take me. Thanks for the advice, especially on a day like today when I needed a kick in the butt to get me out of the general malaise I’ve been experiencing.
    Karen Taylor recently posted..Sage Advice for the Young When Friends Betray: Let it Run off your Back

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Karen — Don’t feel like you have to start over! Newspapers have archives, and often you can go back and get reprints. Age of clips doesn’t matter much — it shows you can do it. See what you can reclaim of your old portfolio, and it’ll make it a lot easier to get going again.

  13. This will be my first comment on your site, and I have to say this is invaluable to someone like me, who has always only ever got the low paying gigs – most likely as I haven’t really known where to start. I began trawling through some local publications and have found some good leads that I’m going to contact, so hopefully this will enable me to start building a credible portfolio! Thanks!

    • Carol Tice says:

      You’re welcome — and congrats on leaving your first comment! Hope to see more of you.

      I do find that with the rise of the Internet, many new writers ARE confused about what are good places to start. Cruise the LinkedIn writer chat boards and you see a lot of answers like, “You can try Elance.” Or “I love Helium!”

      After a while of earning race-to-the-bottom or revshare-peanuts pay, writers come to think there is no living in this.

      Starting in the right place can help you skip the whole earning-pennies phase and also build a portfolio that will help you get gigs, instead of being a liability because of the crummy reputation of many of these cheapo sites.

      Best of luck with your writing now that you have some better places to look!

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