How to Get Skeptical Clients to Hire a New Freelance Writer

Skeptical business womanWhen you’re a newbie freelance writer, it can be hard to see how to take the first step. How will you talk that first client into hiring you?

At first, many prospective clients you pitch will turn you down. Which can be discouraging.

And yet, somewhere in the back of your mind, you know it must be possible to break in and get hired — because every writer once had no clients.

One writer recently complained to me about her troubles breaking in.

I’m getting responses from prospects,” Tina told me. “But this is what they say: ‘Great — you talked us into it. We need a freelance writer! But you’re not the right writer. You don’t have enough experience.’ How do I get them to hire me?”–Tina

If you’re a new freelance writer who’s getting this response, there are three basic problems you may have. Here’s what they are, and how to fix them:

1. Targeting the wrong clients.

When you start out, you need to pitch your writing services to clients you are a perfect fit for. But that’s not what most new freelancers do. Instead, they apply for everything and anything — and then wonder why their response rate is so poor.

The way you sell a client on hiring you as a newbie is to show your connection to their subject. Maybe it’s a magazine for veterinarians — and you used to be a veterinarian. Or it’s an article for a parenting magazine about how to talk to your child’s teacher, and you’re a teacher. It’s Web content for a shoe store, and you used to work in a shoe store.

That’s one way to focus your marketing, to clients where you’ve got some inside knowledge most writers don’t have that makes you perfect for the gig.

One other way is to focus on likely first markets. Many new writers start out pitching major national publications, which rarely work with new writers. Then, the writer wonders why nothing’s happening.

When you’re a new writer, you want to go for some easy gigs you stand a good chance of getting off the bat, so you can start building your portfolio. In my new e-book on breaking into freelance writing, there’s a rundown on what these easy, break-in markets are. They include:

  • The newsletter of a charity of professional organization where you belong, give, or volunteer
  • Alternative papers
  • Small businesses you patronize
  • Small-town newspapers (may be daily/weekly/biweekly)
  • Business journals (especially in smaller or more rural markets)
  • Businesses owned by family or friends
  • Free-box publications such as employment newspapers

These places are often hard-up for writing help and would be thrilled to have you revamp their Web pages, cover the city council meeting, or write a play review. These are also all places that give you a real client you had to please, and who could give you a testimonial to impress future clients.

All of these types of first gigs are preferable to writing junk for content mills that will never impress a prospective client.

2. Not making your case properly.

Another problem new writers experience is that you’re pitching markets you have expertise for, but you don’t successfully convey that expertise. You want to flash your knowledge throughout your query letter or letter of introduction, starting right at the top.

Also, it pays to prospect locally, if you can — your nearness is another positive you can have going for you that a lot of the competition won’t.

Finally, count any writing experience you have, whether it’s from your blog, your day job, the college newspaper — anywhere.

Then put it all together into a pitch like this:

“As a freelance writer who had a 15-year career in financial services, I was intrigued by your new payment solution. I looked you up and saw you’re based right here in my town.

I noticed you’ve set up a blog, but that it hasn’t been updated in a few months. As it happens, I’ve been blogging for years. Would you be interested in having a freelance writer with a banking background keep that updated for you? I’d be happy to drop by and discuss it with you.”

Simple as that. Now, you’re not just any writer — and you’ll notice I said nothing about being a new writer, either. You’re simply the best writer for them, because you understand their industry and the type of writing they want, and you’re nearby.

3. No portfolio.

This is the problem that plagues every new writer. You need clips! If you don’t have any luck finding paying gigs right off, the best way to break this no-clips, no-job cycle is to do a little pro-bono work.

When I say that, I don’t mean you should sign up to give free samples to some website. You’ve got to do pro bono right — and that means a small, definable project for a good company or publication with a good reputation, where a clip from them will impress prospects. The scenario also has to include their never telling anyone you weren’t paid, and they’ve got to be willing to give you a testimonial and refer you business if they’re happy.

Put these three steps together, and you should be able to overcome objections to your newbie-writer status, build your portfolio, and start getting paying gigs.

What’s keeping you from getting gigs? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

Freelance writing success

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18 comments on “How to Get Skeptical Clients to Hire a New Freelance Writer
  1. Nadia McDonald says:

    I definitely agree that there are avenues a newbie writer can take. I have no clips to present to a major magazine at this time, nevertheless I want to target my niche when it comes to ‘Literacy and Books’ and helping teachers use creativity in the classroom. I am an avid passionate reader connected to Random House Circle of Readers, a member of Goodreads and Read it Forward. As a former teacher, I coordinated my own creative arts club teaching children to be creative and original using their talents.
    These experiences can play a pivotal role on how I go about bringing traffic to my audience. With that being said, I have a wordpress blog that I have yet to use. However, beginning in July I will be officially writing blog posts.

  2. Ashley Pham says:

    #3 definitely hits home for me. I always get a little nervous whenever editors ask me for writing samples. I don’t have a lot of high-caliber clips so I end up sending links to what I think are my best blog posts and Yahoo! Contributor articles (I know, for shame). It’s gotten me a couple of assignments that’ll boost my nearly non-existent portfolio. I figure I’d use what I got until I get more impressive clips under my belt.

  3. Jaton Lyles says:

    Excellent Article, Carol! Very informative with solid advice!

  4. Great post. No. 2 really speaks to me. I think there are plenty of local opportunities where I live. I just have to find them. As for No. 1, I’m moving on from smaller publications. I’ve adjusted my flooring (to reference a previous post of Carol’s).
    Bonnie Nicholls recently posted…Piacere Mio Italian Restaurant Now OpenMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Actually, the ‘post’ about flooring was one of my super-secret subscriber emails…folks should be sure to sign up on email, as these days I only post about half of my stuff. The rest goes out only on email as ‘extras’ for my subscribers. 😉 Been loving doing that, and emailing with my readers.

  5. #3 is the real killer on this list. It’s almost the same problem that a lot of new grads experience. No job – no experience. No experience – no job.

    This doesn’t apply to just freelance writing though. It can apply to freelance anything. The issue is when early clients want to see references and testimonials from other clients you have helped, but you’re so new that you’ve only done things for yourself (or perhaps family members) before.
    Jonathan Holowka recently posted…Blogging for Money: 7 Ways to Get the Most Bang from Your Google Adsense BuckMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on, Jonathan — getting a couple of real client samples with testimonials goes a long, long way. Doesn’t have to be loads of them, but you need some. Peter Bowerman always talks about the three sad, little samples he pitched with initially, and how that was enough to get him gigs.

  6. Elke Feuer says:

    Great tips, Carol! I haven’t been turned down yet, but I think that’s because I haven’t pitched to that many companies, and because I pitched locally. I also run them by one of my bff who is a brilliant marketer and makes sure I presenting my pitch the best way possible.

    I’ll need these tips when I start pitching outside my comfort zone next year when my series is completed. 🙂
    Elke Feuer recently posted…Three ways to use public speaking to promote your bookMy Profile

  7. Kathy says:

    I have so many ideas of things I want to write about but actually sending the email to an editor makes me freeze. What if they say no? What if they actually say yes and I have to write it! What if they get angry because I blindly contacted them? All of that I know is just fear but it’s paralyzing.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Kathy, I’ve got some resources for you here: http://www.makealivingwriting.com/overcoming-fear

      Also, stay tuned for a free video I’m putting out next week to kick off the next session of my 4-Week Journalism School that I teach with Linda Formichelli, that’s all about busting all those fears.

      I can kill one fear for you right now: Editors are never angry that you’ve pitched them…they get many pitches every week, so your query is just part of their daily normal workload.

  8. Thank you for the excellent tips in this post! I know these will help many writers. Love the tip about doing pro bono the right way!

    A big part of it for me is knowing how to research to target the right industries. Like you said, it’s important to target the right clients. Chapter 1 of your new book covers this flawlessly! It’s great to know which life experiences and jobs can yield the best income.

    Loved the post and I look forward to getting great clients!

  9. Tricia Mool says:

    This is exactly what I needed to read today. Though I have a few clients who pay well, I am not getting the response rate I want. I feel good that there are things within my control that I *can* do. I am tightening up the copy and profiles on my marketing materials . And I think going back to basics in where to look for those paying clients who will hire me is spot on. The more I fish in a pond with biting fish- the greater the chance I get a bite, right? 🙂 Thanks.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Exactly, Tricia! If you need more clients and clips, look locally and within your expertise.

      I know a lot of writers think there aren’t any clients near them, or feel their town’s really tiny…if so, look at the next-biggest city, if there’s one you can drive to. That’s what I did — started targeting Seattle instead of the island I’m on, and that paid off really big.