One Writer’s Success: 2 Paying Gigs With Zero Writing Clips

Freelance writer got the gig with no clipsBy Craig Baker

Every writer in history has stood at the starting line, pen and paper at the ready, eager for that big story that is going to launch them into freelance writing success.

But if you don’t have any professional writing clips — published articles — to give an editor when looking for your first writing assignment, it can make you feel a bit like the freshman serving punch at the senior prom. All you want is to get to the other side of that counter.

How do you go from wearing the server’s bowtie to owning your own tux in the world of writing?

Frankly, I don’t know yet. I’d say I’m somewhere in the tux-renting phase of my freelance writing career.

But I can tell you firsthand that clips will only get you so far. The rest is actual hard work.

My first clip came when I was fresh out of college; I sent an 800-word guest opinion to our local afternoon newspaper as it was spiraling down the print news drain into non-existence. Lo-and-behold, it was accepted.

The same paper took another piece from me a month later, though they printed a grievous error in the headline and then promptly went out of business.

Well crap, I thought. There went that.

Resurrecting my writing career

It was three years before I tried again. I opened my ears to what was happening in my city until something struck me as interesting, and then I pounced. It wasn’t a groundbreaking idea, but it was an idea. Specifically, it discussed various ancient Native American artifacts that can be found strewn throughout my hometown.

Though I’d been warned against writing a piece before shopping it around, that is precisely how I tackled the no-clips issue. I went ahead and wrote the article.

I wrote about 1,200 words on the subject (my best guess for the average length of other local articles based on a little cutting and pasting from the web into Word), did some research on query letters, and sent a pretty standard script out to the editors of every local publication I could find.

In my email, I told the editors I had stumbled on a neat little story about artifacts, there was a local organization tied to the information (I had a source), and I had guest opinions published in the extinct newspaper.

I sent the article out with my messages, and tried my best to forget about the whole thing.

Within a few days, two of the maybe ten editors I had queried sent responses, and to my surprise, one of them said yes.

The editor that accepted the piece told me that it was what he called “evergreen” (my first introduction to that industry term for an article that can run at any time because it has no urgent news hook). He would save the article until he needed one for filler.

Not the instant-clip-and-recognition I was hoping for but, six months later, it turned into a $100 paycheck.

The second editor rejected the piece outright but apparently appreciated my writing style enough to assign me an altogether different article for an upcoming issue of her magazine. Score! Two clients came from my one spec article.

Building on my success

As I waited for the rush that came with seeing my work in print, I knew I had also gained:

  • two publications I could continue to pitch, and
  • a stronger bio for pitches — I could say I had work pending with two publications.

Once the articles were published, I was able to use my small portfolio of local samples to land jobs with bigger, higher-paying clients within weeks.

My new clients included a $2,000-plus-royalties contract writing content for a video game development firm and an ongoing writing position with a language learning company for $0.25 per word.

I haven’t stopped since.

Putting in the work

What does all of this mean to you?

Simple: if you don’t have a clip, make one. If you don’t know how, learn more about article writing.

Learn about your target publications. How long are the articles? How long are the paragraphs in those articles? The sentences?

Are the pieces written in the first or third person, generally speaking, or do the writers use the “we” so common to alternative publications? How many sources does each article quote, and on which side of the story’s argument do these sources stand?

Preparing yourself with this sort of basic knowledge before you start writing will make sure that even your unpublished pieces are as close as possible to the real thing, which may just get you a second look from someone that calls the editorial shots. Don’t be afraid to jump in with both feet—you’ll never publish an idea if you don’t send a query.

How did you get your first clips? Tell us in the comments below.

Craig Baker is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Ariz., and shares author advice on his blog, Starting from Scratch. 

 

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19 comments on “One Writer’s Success: 2 Paying Gigs With Zero Writing Clips
  1. Darlene Strand says:

    It’s a pleasure to read and learn from this site and from other sites too. Thanks. To me I feel the importance put into and getting out of ‘free lance writing’, starts with wanting to and then doing your ‘best’. Sometimes I jot down notes, that will become ideas for me later, where needed, when I write.

  2. Nadia McDonald says:

    I loved your testimonial Carol. Definitely you were a person of action. Naturally, it was overwhelming to even envision writing an article or guest post. But I was offered to write for a guest post this week. They expressed interest. I could of panicked and said: “I’m an experienced writer. Find someone else.” Instead, I replied to them: “Let me do some research on this topic, then I will get back to you.”
    Wow! I have put the confidence button on.

  3. tobyo says:

    This has been very helpful, both the post and the responses. Very inspirational, thank you!!
    tobyo recently posted…Synchro Panache – synchronized skating in MinneapolisMy Profile

  4. Julie Anne says:

    My first clips were from a college newspaper. That’s when I discovered I liked feature writing versus newswriting. I’ve procrastinated doing anything with them, though. However, I finally have them set up quite nicely on a portfolio site of mine. I’m hoping they’re not too old and in the meantime am hoping to find a magazine that will think my samples are good enough even though I wrote them two decades ago. 🙂

  5. My first gig was a pitch to a surfing magazine. My motivation was to get some publicity for a shaper friend of mine. My “pitch” was actually a suggestion to the editor. I closed by offering to do the interview myself if they didn’t want to travel up to the Central Coast. They told me to “go for it”. I did the interview, got paid about $650 and got 3 more assignments from the magazine.
    Rob Schneider recently posted…Why I’m Glad I Got Slapped by Google for Unnatural Outbound LinksMy Profile

    • Craig Baker says:

      Very nice — position yourself as an authority on a subject and often editors will not even ask you to provide clips. More proof that editors will look straight to your queries to get a sense of whether or not you can actually write.

      Thanks for sharing, Rob!

  6. Allen Taylor says:

    Great article, Craig. The freelance life certainly has its ups and downs.

    I don’t remember how I got my first clip, it was so long ago. But I did cold call my way into an editor’s seat with a local newspaper with nothing more than a writing portfolio that consisted mainly of volunteer non-profit newsletter clips and 10-year-old clips from when I was a high school newspaper reporter/editor.

    I got tired of trying to climb the corporate ladder, where I didn’t need to be in the first place, and just started calling newspapers to see if they were hiring reporters. Based on that, I sent out several resumes and got a call back for an interview. That led to me being offered the editorial job, well above what I expected. I kept that job for four years and won several awards, which have been very helpful in my freelancing efforts.

    You just have to put your head down and push your feet forward. I’m glad you did that. Congratulations!
    Allen Taylor recently posted…Is Google A Bully?My Profile

    • Craig Baker says:

      Yes, sir! Thanks, Allen.

      And my head is still down and I’m still chugging along. It’s like walking through thick mud sometimes, with no sign of solid ground around me, but I know that on the other side of that swamp is something beautiful, perhaps even enlightening. If I can just manage to wade through the sources and background and context and get there, to that unseen finish line, I know that whatever that beautiful thing is, it will be waiting for me when I arrive.

      Thanks for sharing the beginnings of your journey.

  7. Great perspective! I think what it comes down to is that more than clips, editors wanted to know that you have ideas and ability.

    I used Linda Formicelli’s LOI/query hybrid model when I was first starting out, and I found the same thing that you did. Giving several good ideas to choose from, and showing in the email that I could write well, eventually got people interested and willing to assign me work even without clips to show off.
    Katharine Paljug recently posted…Taxes for Freelancers and Writers: 5 Things Your Should Read TodayMy Profile

    • Craig Baker says:

      Thanks for that insight, Katharine.

      Mike Sager, a writer-at-large for Esquire Magazine that was kind enough to speak to an eager fan at the early stages of his writing career (see my blog archives if interested in that story), once told me that being a professional writer is something you live. It is in everything you do: your basic day-to-day communications, the structure and delivery of your interviews, right on down to your online comments and certainly your LOI’s and queries.

      It’s tough sometimes to be mindful of your voice and to always keep that editing gear turning, but if writing is your life, you learn to love it. Eventually. And when that happens, you might find that you appreciate the way that little voice in the back of your head forces you stretch your abilities to the limit every time.

  8. Elke Feuer says:

    Great article! I got my first clip by pitching an idea to my local airline’s magazine. It started as a way for me to get my novels (and writing organization) in their magazine, and ended up as a paying job. I’ve done one article so far, pitched a second which they accepted, and got offered another one. Score!

    The best part? (1) The company that manages the magazine is part of a larger company with open opportunities to write for their other magazines, and (2) I get to promote the local authors(and their books) in my group.

    I’d never done article writing before and did the course Carol offers. Best decision ever!
    Elke Feuer recently posted…Advice I’d Give my 16-Year-Old SelfMy Profile

  9. A positive attitude and a willingness to keep trying will obviously carry one far. Congrats on your successes, Craig, and thanks for sharing your tips on ‘making something from nothing’ so to speak…. 😉

    • Craig Baker says:

      Thanks, Lori. I’m just happy to have something to share. Of course, everyone’s path to freelance success will be as unique as they are, but I think it helps to see how others have done it as much as you can along the way. The more I work at this writing thing, the more I find that even the seasoned pros are subjected to the same processes for the most part, and the same stresses as newbies (aside from the lack of clips thing)– ignored queries, basic rejections, lack of confidence as to where to go next, etc. Keeping at it, it seems, is all we can do.

      • Absolutely! If nothing else it makes one realize that he or she is not alone in doubts, insecurities, questions, missteps, etc. And I find that every time I get a “Yes,” or an affirmative reply to a piece I’ve written, it makes those negative responses recede a bit further into the background and gives me the impetus to keep moving forward. 🙂

  10. *How did you get your first clips?*

    I got my first clip as a budding uni student.

    I’d written a to-do list guide (for myself) on what I needed to get done to apply to university.

    A year later, I rewrote that list into an article for a Midlands-wide newspaper. I also sent it in with timely fashion (uni student articles start to get published around Jul-Sept, so I sent the article out around April-May). It got accepted straight away… 🙂

    This lead me to realize that the key to getting an article accepted is timing. Sending a ‘dating tips’ article in around Dec-Jan increases its chances of being accepted, (compared to sending it in around May-Jul).
    Katherine James recently posted…Get Paid To Write Articles by Checking These 5 Job Boards DailyMy Profile

    • Craig Baker says:

      Great advice on timeliness. Also, a good point about never throwing anything away– you never know when a single bright idea can turn into another (or even that very first) byline.

      Thanks for reading and for sharing, Katherine.