How to Jump Back into Well-Paid Freelance Writing

Happy successful writer jumps for joyFreelancing is often a career we pursue in fits and starts. I’m a perfect example — I started out as a freelance writer back in the early ’90s, then had staff writing jobs for 12 years and started freelancing again in 2005.

Many women writers (and some men, too) take big breaks from work when their kids are young. Then when the kiddos head off to kindergarten (or college), we look to pick up our writing lives again.

Recently, I’ve noticed a trend among many returning freelancers: They feel like newbies. Take a look at this recent comment on my blog, for instance:

 

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I don’t know where writers get the idea that if you’ve been out of freelancing for 5 or 10 years, it’s like you’re starting over from scratch. But it’s a common delusion.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You are not the same as a newbie writer! You have written and been published before, and that means you can prove you know how to do it. Your skills should enable you to move up more quickly than a newbie, too.

This is not a situation where you have to go back to Start like in a game of Chutes & Ladders. Your goal should be to scrape off a little rust and get rolling again quickly, more or less where you left off.

Here is an action plan for getting back into freelancing at good pay rates, rather than going to the bottom rung of the ladder again to begin your climb:

Start spackling the holes

Yes, there is a whole online world of writing that has sprung up since you’ve been away. Social media and blogging can be great income opportunities, along with writing website content and sales pages.

The first step to getting into this new world of freelancing opportunity?

Stop “Hands-to-Shoulders Syndrome” — throwing your hands in the air to exclaim “But it’s all so overwhelming and I don’t know anything about it and I’m not technical!”

Then, start learning.

There are ample online resources that can familiarize you with how to put up a blog post, promote it in social media, and more. Start a blog of your own, even if it’s just an experiment to learn how it’s done.

One thing’s for sure: It won’t be easier to “catch up” your social media knowledge a few years from now. There will only be new platforms and methods to learn! So start getting a grounding in the basics.

And try not to obsess about how much you don’t know. You may find clients who love your writing and are willing to train you.

All of my early blogging clients had to train me, as many used proprietary, custom-made platforms (and also, I had barely started blogging). I learned three or four different blog systems on the job — so remember if a prospect asks, you can do it.

Reclaim your portfolio

Writers often tell me their clips are all lost to the sands of time. To which I say, “Bull*#%!”

Newspapers keep morgue files — an archive of at least one copy of every issue they published. Same with magazines.

If they folded but were bought out by a competitor, that competitor may still have their morgue. Inquire and find out.

Businesses also tend to keep folders of past marketing campaigns so they can recycle ideas and review what’s been done. Ask and see what you can find.

You can also often be surprised what you can find from the dark past that has been re-posted on the Internet. I once reclaimed an article I loved that I’d done for a magazine that closed after spotting a reprint on a trade group’s website.

To sum up: Find your clips.

If you have only paper copies stuck in a dusty old physical portfolio, work with your local copy store to get the best, most readable PDF file you can made from them. Worst case scenario: Retype them onto a page of your website, noting the market where they first appeared.

Use your clips

Are your samples all older than five years, and you feel you can’t use them anymore? Wrong.

I’ll tell you a secret: Prospective writing clients do not care when you wrote that piece.

They care that you have the chops to write for a daily paper or weekly or magazine or a business. That is all.

I know because I routinely send out 5- or 10-year-old clips if they demonstrate a particular expertise. And I have never once in my life heard a prospect say, “We loved your writing, but these clips were too old to consider.”

Writing on the job counts

One final note here — if you wrote it at a day job, it counts as a clip, too.

Don’t know why many writers exclude these samples, but you still wrote them! Prospects don’t care what your work status was at the time.

If you wrote it, it means you can write it. Period.

Stop “applying”…and apply yourself

Whenever a writer tells me “Nothing I’ve applied for online has come through,” warning bells go off. Applying to Craigslist ads is not the way to restart your writing career — not if you want to get paid a living wage.

As an experienced writer, sending off a resume full of gaps to a website that’s getting 200 responses is not going to get you anywhere, as this writer found.

And with the kind of clips most of these lowball jobs offer, the work won’t help freshen up your portfolio, either.

The big thing that’s changed while you’ve been gone is the rise of what I not-so-fondly refer to as the Underworld of Online Freelance Writing Gigs. Dirt-cheap pay for loads of work for websites with shaky business models. Race-to-the-bottom bid sites. Revenue-share articles that usually earn pennies.

Just know that these places aren’t for you. You don’t need “exposure” or practice perfecting your craft.

If you used to work for mid-sized businesses, go right back to pitching them. If you wrote for national magazines, send queries. Start networking — look up former editors on LinkedIn, see where they are now, and connect. Let them know you’re back freelancing and would appreciate their referrals.

You know you’ve got the skills. You’ve got something else, too — more life experience than you had last time.

Don’t discount the new interests, industries, hobbies, or jobs you’ve had since your last freelance stint. They’re all possible fodder for article ideas and client leads.

Have you come back to freelancing after a gap? Leave a comment and tell us how you ramped it back up.

Freelance writing success

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49 comments on “How to Jump Back into Well-Paid Freelance Writing
  1. Arlene Colandrea says:

    Very inspirational piece. I loved writing features for newspapers across the country in the 1980s; however, I have not been able to revive my career, since newspapers are on a budget and only using in-house writers. Very discouraging, and I don’t know where to pick up and begin again. Any suggestions?

    • Carol Tice says:

      I don’t know where you heard that, but many newspapers still use freelancers — some use them more than ever. As it happens, we’re having a Freelance Writers Den meeting call today, as I read this, about freelancing for newspapers! If you’re a member, you’ll want to attend.

      But beyond newspapers, which never did pay great, you should pull your best clips together from the previous freelancing stint, get them scanned and up on a website, and think about pitching magazines, online or off, and not just ones aimed at consumers. Trade publications have a lot of opportunity and usually pay quite well.

  2. Emily says:

    Thanks – this has given me some great ideas to ramp up my search for clients at a reasonable rate.
    Emily recently posted…Writing Tip of the Day, 21st October, 2013My Profile

  3. Gerry says:

    Any writer that has been fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to have had an extended break of maybe a few years, are in a commanding position to capitalize on this. Surely within that time period there must have been memorable experiences that could easily become a worthy topic for a book or magazine. How about a series of articles on your experiences?

    • Gerry, you are so right. I have tons of stories, however not all of them are pretty. I have posted some of my experiences on HubPages. Whether or not I could make money off them is another story. Then again, all of my stories or tales have to do with my survival through hardship. Inspiration is what they provide. That’s where I’m happiest – inspiring people thru my downfalls and how I’ve overcome.

      You’ve definitely given me food for thought. Sometimes (oftentimes) it takes an outside perspective to see the trees through the forest! 🙂
      Shauna L Bowling recently posted…Dream Catchers vs. Dream ChasersMy Profile

      • Carol Tice says:

        Your instincts are good, Shauna, — most well-paid freelance work is not in telling personal stories — it’s in nonfiction, reported articles, or in writing for businesses.

  4. Thank you Carol, gave me the kick in the butt I needed x
    Sarah Cruickshank recently posted…Why Work With A Virtual Assistant?My Profile

  5. edna says:

    hi carol,

    great post. Wish I’d read that years ago.
    Do you have any articles on monthly retainer rates and processes?
    Or can you point me to someone who has a legit article.
    I have a couple clients who are interested and I need to be prepared
    and put something in writing for myself as well as others.

    thanks! Edna

    • Edna, if you need help accommodating your clients, I am available.

      If you’re looking for rates, you should have the current Writer’s Market in your office within arm’s reach. It’s the writers’ bible and should have a prominent space in your office, right next to your dictionary and thesaurus.
      Shauna L Bowling recently posted…5 Warning Signs That You Are Slipping Into a FunkMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I haven’t worked on retainer myself and don’t really know anyone who blogs about it…but I know we have several informed discussion threads about this inside my Freelance Writers Den community. If you’re interested in that and on the waiting list, watch your email for an opportunity to join.

  6. Vicki says:

    Thanks for this article. I am new to Freelance and trying to find some niche to get published beyond what I blog about daily. I am truly glad that the market bears both new and “reborn”. It gives me hope that this writing career may just take off 🙂

  7. Nina Anthony says:

    Throughout the 80s I worked for various ad agencies as a copywriter. I freelanced throughout the 90s when my daughter was young and, once she was old enough, I worked for 10+ years as an in-house copywriter. I taught myself SEO skills in the early 2000s because I could see the writing on the wall. Now that my daughter is in college, I feel I’m perfectly positioned to re-enter the freelance world as a “Content Strategist/Copywriter/SEO Analyst”

    Writing for the Web is quite a bit different than writing for print and broadcast (a lot less fun/creative IMHO), but there a plenty of resources online to brush up one’s skills for digital audiences.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on! Really — Google what it is you want to learn about, and enjoy. There’s W3Schools for learning about coding. Blog posts galore on how to do social media. Go for it.

  8. Jordan Clary says:

    Thanks for this article! When I quit freelancing about 5 years ago to take a full time job I had been in one of those golden periods where I seemed to be getting more “yeses” (or highly encouraging “nos”) than flat out rejections. Then last June I quit a full time job and for months felt like I was hitting wall after wall. My first assignment came out of the blue from a former editor, but the other nibbles were few and far between, although a few things trickled in. Now, I’m slow again but it’s because I’ve deliberately slowed down querying for a bit. I realized that with careful budgeting I can live for quite a while on what I make from a part-time online teaching gig, so I’m taking the time to build a platform and am only querying magazines or companies that will pay what I want. I’m pretty flexible on topic, but not on what I’ll accept as pay, and I’m loving it! It’s a huge milestone to not grovel for work. And thanks to folks like you and Linda, I have faith that it’s all going to work out if I’m disciplined and stick with it. Having “enough” to not panic changes everything. Of course, enough is also a state of mind. Lots of people would be panicking at my monthly income!

    • Carol Tice says:

      It IS a huge milestone not to grovel for work!

      I’d like every reader of my blog to have that goal, to be able to get their life and finances into a place where they can pick and choose clients. Because that’s how you end up building a real, lucrative business. Desperation breeds working too many hours for too little pay for clients who don’t appreciate you, because you have to grasp at any gig you’re offered.

  9. Willi Morris says:

    Hooray! You’re the first person to say it’s okay to use old clips. I may have to dig some up. I wrote some really awesome stuff back when I was in the newspaper biz.
    Willi Morris recently posted…3 Reasons Writing Every Day Can Be a Useless SnoozefestMy Profile

  10. Carol,

    All I can think to say is BLESS YOU, BLESS YOU, BLESS YOU for this post!

    I have degrees, as well as good clips and internships from the late ’80s and early ’90s. In between then and now, I have 14 years of job experience that includes daily copyediting duties. Just the other day, I was told by a freelance writer that none of that stuff counted, that people would only care about my current stuff.

    Again, BLESS YOU! 🙂

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ugh, who’s spreading that negativity around, anyway?

      How can 14 years as a daily editor not “count”? You weren’t really doing anything? Of course you were!

      You’ll be surprised how impressed clients are with that, too. A stint as a staff writer or editor can convey a lot of credibility. And nobody has done the volume of work and understands meeting deadlines like those of us who’ve held down staff gigs.

  11. Lisa Baker says:

    Loooooove this, and it was exactly my experience when I came back to writing after years away. I broke into a brand-new niche, too, using a clip that was almost a decade old. Got myself a bright shiny new clip in my new niche, and I’ve been happily writing away in my new market ever since.

    And I think this idea applies to a broader principle too, one you say all the time, Carol: to present yourself as what you want to be (that’s my condensing of a lot of advice I’ve heard you say!). So often we writers think we can’t claim to be a writer — or a particular type of writer — because we haven’t done that writing, or haven’t done enough of it, or did it too long ago. But get yourself one clip (and be as creative as necessary to bring that clip back from the grave, or claim it even thought it’s ghosted, or whatever), and BAM — you ARE that kind of writer. Then you present yourself that way, and clients will usually believe you. I’ve been amazed sometimes when clients or editors don’t even care about clips. They care about ideas and writing. They don’t really care what you did in the past; what matters is what you can do for them — in the future.
    Lisa Baker recently posted…The Care and Feeding of Screen Time: The Ultimate GuideMy Profile

  12. How about copy from an ex-employer’s web site that you think is yours but doesn’t have a byline? I wrote some copy for an old job and saw some content on their web site that looks very much like what I wrote, but first, I’m not sure it’s mine, and two, even if I could get them to confirm that it was, how do I use it as a clip without my name on it? I also found something I wrote years ago as a volunteer for an entertainment web site that would be a great portfolio piece, but it’s got an awful typo in it…

    • Carol Tice says:

      Lindsay — unless you signed an NDA swearing yourself to secrecy, you are free to use ghostwritten clips. Having a testimonial from the company helps establish their legitimacy.

      Everyone who does business writing, most all the work doesn’t have a byline…and of course you can still claim it as your own.

      And that one typo…I’d just use it.

      If you’re not sure it’s really yours, that’s a problem, though.

      • Yeah I think I’d have to check to make sure it’s mine. I just wasn’t sure if you could use something as a clip without a byline. The one with a typo, yeah that’s true but I’m trying to set myself up as writer and editor, so it looks pretty bad if one of my pieces as a writer has a typo if the other part of my business claims editing skills. 🙂 I might contact them and see if I could get them to fix it though!

        Thanks for the tips!

        • Carol Tice says:

          I think you’d be surprised how many people wouldn’t happen to pick up on the one typo, Lindsay.

          If you can’t claim clips that don’t have a byline, how would copywriters ever have a portfolio?

          • Good point, Carol. I actually looked at it again after reading your comment, and it’s really not as glaring as I remembered. Even with my trained editor’s eye, I had to look twice to find it. Thanks again!

  13. Somehow, this is exactly what I needed to read this morning. After taking a f/t job and then returning to freelance I felt like I was starting over. But one guy I spoke to asked me why I wanted to write for him; he wasn’t paying the top market rates I deserved. Truth is, I’ve been holding myself back, afraid to send queries and pitches. It’s time for me to get over the fear so I can have the freelance success I so desire. Thank you for all of your amazing work, Carol.
    Kimberlee Morrison recently posted…MAFIA: Fashion in Pursuit of the American DreamMy Profile

  14. Great tips for getting back in the game. I took about 6 months off when my daughter was born, and it was hard to get refocused, but I’m still relatively new to it all. Good article, thanks for sharing!

    EWM
    Emily McIntyre recently posted…That Endless Sky has Captured MeMy Profile

  15. Cheryl Rhodes says:

    Good post with great tips!

    The reclaim your portfolio part isn’t always that easy. I wrote a few articles for a magazine and received my payment and a copy of the magazine (not sold anywhere locally). The last article I wrote for them in 2006 or 2007 they told me was pushed back a few months. Then I found out it had been published on schedule, a few months after the fact. When I pointed that out to the publisher, she looked into it and within 2 weeks couriered me a check but didn’t send a copy of the magazine or the article. I decided not to write for them again and forgot about it. I read on another writer’s website where writers were having difficulty being paid by this publication. A couple of times over the years I’ve asked for a copy of the article, just scan and email to me is fine. The last time I requested the editor was a couple of months ago and still no response.

    Do I really think that issue has been lost to the sands of time? It might as well be because I can’t get my hands on it!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Have you tried calling their reprints department? Somewhere, at every magazine, is someone whose job it is to get money for those. Obviously, this editor isn’t going to help you…so move on to asking someone else. Ask the receptionist. Pose as a reader and say you want a back issue or an article reprint.

      Don’t. Give. Up.

      This magazine still exists, yes? It has an archive and the issue you want. I promise.

  16. Encouraging, again, Carol. I’d like to add that in six years of freelancing, I’ve never had an editor actually ask to see my clips. I mention them in a cover or query letter, but they’ve never requested them.

  17. Carol, imagine my surprise when I found myself to be the inspiration for this post! 🙂

    I would love to go back and get old copies of what I wrote in the 80s. My problem is I wrote TV commercials for a production house that went out of business years ago. I don’t even remember the names of the businesses I wrote the spots for, with the exception of the Miccosukee Tribe. Oddly enough, one day I was channel surfing and stopped at a show called “Florida Today”. It was about the Miccosukees and was hosted by the member I dealt with when I wrote the copy. They aired a commercial and it was my copy – still alive and well. The photos had been updated but the copy was mine.

    I’ll see if I can contact the Tribe. When I wrote the TV spots, copy wasn’t turned over to the clients, rather dubs of their spots. I’ll have to see what I can do. Having a testimonial from the Tribe or being able to somehow get the copy would do wonders for my re-entry into writing.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Shauna —

      Well, you outed yourself there! I usually don’t do that without permission.

      And…great thinking! I find once you have the attitude of “I’m going to find my old samples,” it’s amazing what creative strategies you’ll think up.

      There are websites online that collect old TV commercials, too. And where are the people you worked with at that education house? Maybe one of them has an archive of old work somewhere.

      • Obviously, you have my permission Carol (is this what you’ve been trying to email me about?).

        As far as my co-workers from the production house, I’ve lost touch with them. There were only a handful of us and I can’t even remember their names. Not their last names, anyway.

        For looking up old commercials online, I don’t remember the names of the local businesses (South Florida) so how would I go about that?

        BTW, your site and others that use CommentLuv don’t like my web address. I see what your site is reading in the ‘hover’ box below, but I have no idea what I’m looking at or how to fix it. 🙁

        Lesson learned: don’t throw anything away that’s career related. Who knew at the time that I’d come back to writing 30 years later?!

        • Carol Tice says:

          I think it might have been one of the things I was trying to say on email. 😉 Glad it worked out!

          Do you use Commentluv on your own blog? If you go on the Commentluv site they can help you troubleshoot it. I remember at one point it wouldn’t pull my blog link properly when I commented on other sites.

          Bummer about not recalling names…my husband is amazing that way. Faces, too. I’m not so great.

          But if you’ve written commercials…you’ve written commercials. The good news is with the rise of online video there’s a lot of demand for writing short scripts. Seems like a great niche for you!

  18. It’s so true. O Desk is a great place to start too!

    You don’t need to start from the bottom. I mean, all you to do is type ‘how to___’ into YouTube. Boom you got a blog!

    You could write and make it into a video for YouTube also…something to think about.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Alexander — not sure if you’re new around here, but I DON’T think oDesk is a great place to hang out, especially if you have done a stint as a writer anywhere in the past. I tend to steer people away from those race-to-the-bottom bidding sites.

      Not sure I follow you about YouTube, either. We’re not talking about how to find ideas for your own blog or market it, but how to find freelance clients.

  19. Great tips. I fell into a lot of the traps you listed when I started freelancing after taking a 6 year break when my kids were born. Although I hadn’t freelanced before, I had worked as a corporate writer and technical writer for over 10 years. I had a ton of clips, but I thought I couldn’t use them because they were from a fulltime job. I ended up basically starting as a newbie writer in my mind, which wasn’t true. Live and Learn. I think that your advice pertains to those who worked a fulltime writing job as well, took a break and are now moving to freelancing. They don’t really fall into newbie writers because they most likely have a lot of contacts and clips.
    Jennifer Gregory recently posted…The Importance of Social Media for Content Marketing WritersMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      E x a c t l y.

      I don’t know what it is about writers, but often it seems our tendency is to discount and discredit what we’ve achieved in the past, instead of having the instinct to grab every scrap of evidence of our past writing and turn it into our portfolio. And then move forward from there.

      I have met SO many seasoned, trained journalists who got laid off from a paper and then started writing for mills for $10! As if filing 3-4 stories a week on deadline for years meant nothing and they needed to start over at the bottom.

      I think the rise of the Internet has exacerbated this problem, because writers coming back to it feel thrown by all the new online markets and marketing methods.

      But at the base of it all is good writing — and you already know how to do that.

  20. Daryl says:

    Some great tips there Carol!

    While I haven’t had a gap, I actually have some on the job experience that for some explicable reason I’ve never pitched – I generally write the press releases for my department (numbering several dozen) yet I’ve never thought about expanding my offerings to press release writing!

    Food for thought I suppose!
    Daryl recently posted…5 Reasons Why I Hate Bid Sites Like Odesk and ElanceMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      As my daughter would say… “Ya think?”

      But you know, Daryl, don’t feel dumb. I think it’s a common problem of all of us that we don’t see things in our bag of talents that would be obvious to others.

      I’ve talked to so many writers who have spent years writing at a day job, but think they’re starting from scratch as a freelancer because “that stuff doesn’t count.” Oh yes it does!