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How Do I Break Into Freelance Writing? Ask Anne the Pro Writer

Dear Anne:

I’m a subscriber of yours, and have a main question about freelance writing:

What are some of the best ways to “break into” freelance writing, when you don’t have writing experience that can be documented, or any samples of your writing?

I haven’t yet started my writing career (even though I’m 77), but I’ve had an urge to write for money for quite sometime!  Well, the time has arrived!!  However, since I don’t have any writing samples or experience that can be documented, are there places I can go to online that pay for articles (short or otherwise) that don’t require writing experience?

My husband and I live on one Social Security check (no savings, investments, or other income), and–at least in the beginning–I’d be happy to have a minimal writing income.  If you could let me know where I can start submitting some “bare bones” articles, it would be appreciated so much!  I’m looking forward to hearing from you, Anne, and I thank you so much.



Hi GR,
Glad you’re a subscriber. How quickly you can create a retirement income from writing with no credits or experience is problematic. It can be done, at least in theory, but unless you manage to write a blockbuster book or establish a column of the scope of an Ann Landers, the income is likely to be minimal as you suggest.
Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work for the blockbuster or a full and generous income from writing – it can happen, but usually it’s pretty slow.
Now, to your question. My all-time favorite way to suggest you start earning a little bit of money is to write for your local (probably) weekly newspaper. I don’t mean a big daily, but the little ones that are usually given away but have articles about the community. Those papers usually pay $5-$25 for an article, and maybe a bit more if you also have a picture.

Look around your community and come up with about three ideas – a new store or restaurant, something with kids, like little league, and maybe something slightly political, like street sweeping or parking rates.

Call the newspaper’s editor and over the phone say you’d like to write these three articles. Keep it very brief and if they are on deadline ask when to call back. Chances are, because you’ve come with three ideas the editor will okay at least one of them or give you something they need covered. Be sure you know how many words they need and the deadline.

Write well and to deadline and you’re likely to get not only your byline, but a small check. Now you’ve got a real credit. You may want to write something once a week or every other week for them.

The next best bet in my mind is these new article services like Triond, Helium and Associated Content. If you take time to promote the articles you write for any of these services as they suggest, you’ll make some money. More importantly, you’ll have additional credits you can use in your writing resume or credit list. I’ve written quite a bit about these sites.The first of the series is called Anne To Try Triond, Helium and Associated Content. The articles  may help you figure out where you want to start.

So get busy. And good luck!

[askanne] [sig]Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • admin

    Thanks Jessica.
    Matthew, your article on being a journalist is truly wonderful. Of course, for the most part, writing articles for weekly papers isn’t journalism… well, maybe it is, just not hard-hitting investigative journalism.
    Jules, liked your trew sexy post
    Ron! My goodness. Everything you say is true and I’m guessing you’ve had way more trouble with being ripped off than I have, or than I know about anyway.

  • GR, while I think Anne has offered great advice, here’s my ideas:

    I expect that no one wants to hear this, but… in the 3 years that I’ve been freelancing, sadly, I’ve never had a single employer ask to confirm my writing portfolio. That means I could have claimed to have written any web site, article, etc., that I wanted. Of course, I don’t recommend you do that, but be aware that undoubtedly others are. Knowing howmany people are desperate for income, and that at your age jobs are hard to find, I think God will forgive you for fabricating a portfolio until you have enough work to create your own.

    Of course, you would not want to claim work of a quality that you are incapable of replicating.

    2. While it may be unavoidable when trying to work with small local papers, if you are securing work over the internet, don’t mention your age. It doesn’t matter, and most people don’t care, but a few will, so why take the chance?

    3. Be aware that the low-paying jobs you may first have to pursue are typically not looking for the type of writing I suspect you hope to provide. Many are looking for SEO articles, which, IMHO, are mind-numbing torture to write. These are not the type of articles you’ll show off to your friends, and may, in fact, dissuade you from a writing career.

    4. BEWARE of scams and outright thieves. I’ve been taken a few times, and it hurts. Consider using the freelance job boards (Guru, Elance, IFreelance, et al) that offer escrow services, but still be wary. Those sites offer mediation, but they have an inherent bias towards employers. And make sure the entire project fee is escrowed before starting to write.

    5. If you are finding work on the street, consider ways to protect your intellectual property from the con artists and thieves. I typically do not send content in an accessible format until I’ve been paid. By that, I mean that I usually send the first draft as a locked PDF that cannot be copied or printed. And I black out blocks of content so they can’t just re-key it. The idea is to allow the employer to see enough of the content to confirm that you’ve done the work, but not let them use it. That should allow you to get paid, or at least, to get a decent partial payment before sending them the source document.

    But even that is not enough — there are readily available tools for cracking PDFs, and once cracked, they can remove the black out. So, I actually send only images of the content – I take a screen shot of the content (w/black outs) and lock that in the PDF. Even if they crack it, they still can’t copy it or remove the black out.

    Good luck!


  • Great post! It has good advice — some that I should follow : ).

    Jules @ Lovely Las Vegas’s last blog post..Sexy Paris

  • I’m in marketing now but I was a freelance journalist for a good few years. Here are my tips and suggestions about How to be a freelance journalist.

    Matthew Stibbe’s last blog post..Recommended links 17 April 2009

  • Jessica

    Your advice about writing for a local paper is right on!!! That’s how I broke into freelance writing after I decided to stay home with my kids. I had to be persistent in getting the editor to hand me my first project. But he was more than impressed with the results. I no longer write for that paper as I’ve been able to build my client list. But it was a great way to start into freelance writing!

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