How to start a freelance writing career without writing samples

Suppose you’ve started a career in another field and look back somehow longingly on the print industry.

You want to freelance on the side, make some cash and rekindle the love with the sight of your byline by slumming it in the currently self-destructing print industry. But, of course, if you have any writing samples or clips they’re outdated, if not lost, irrelevant or, dare I say, embarrassing.

That doesn’t mean you can’t begin a freelance writing career today.

Get online, start small, aim big and try not to take any work from me, OK?

Show me your resume, one focused on whatever writing experience you have (see mine here), and anything you’ve written. But show it to me online.

If  that seems daunting, just go get a free blog, like Blogger or WordPress, even they’re just the latest cheap Web site craze. I use the latter because it’s simply the best and most used in professional settings. Regularly blogging does serve many purposes for the freelance journalist, but don’t think you have to, particularly if you’re only looking to freelance part-time.

Many young journalists I know use simply templates to host a resume and clips, like here, here, here, here and here. I’d recommend spending the $10 a year to buy your name as a dotcom domain, but again, you don’t have to do so.

Now that you have a satisfactory Web presence, which I argue is an absolute must for a freelancer, you’ll need some clips, right? Old school papers, essays, submissions, anything that you think is written well is worth getting up to start, but we both know you need some publication names.

Yes, the general rule is to never write for free (or give anything away as a freelancer). That rule, though, is for those who gave it away for free in college. I had to learn once I graduated, I became a trained professional, so I won’t, nay, I can’t do it unless I’m getting paid.

If you’re not in that situation, we can get you there, but you might likely have to start giving it away for free, particularly if you want to avoid icky Craigslist scams offering big money or great access or some other lie to beginners. If you’re giving it away for free, do it right.

It helps to have someone give you a sense of the freelancing ladder because it exists in every media market.

One emerging market that increasingly offers high visibility, reputable names without the hurdle of convincing an editor to pay you as a newcomer (because, of course, they don’t pay) are city blogs, general interest daily-updated Web sites like Philebrity and Phawker in Philadelphia. In their case, they both feature very cool columns from bright writers who never saw a dime.  Maybe you can see that action, too!

Philly is a big blog town, but wherever you are, you are likely in proximity of a halfway readable blog that might be interested in a couple free features from you. Hell, maybe they even will have a heart and offer to pay.. you.. something.

Find the editor of your nearest city blog and offer a niche – if you’re new to the city, write about the experience, if you cherish the power of a certain art, cover it. You’re doing the work for free, so do something you enjoy.

Look toward community blogs, Web sites and newspapers. Many cities and regions are silly with community newspapers, many of which won’t pay and if they do it’ll be hardly worth it. In a city like Philadelphia, every neighborhood has a community paper or at least a community Web site. I contribute to, a community blog for Northeast Philadelphia.  They’ll happily take you on and, actually, they offer a real education in niche coverage, advertising and the chance to learn about a new community, which can lead to future stories.

Look at arts and entertainment blogs and newspapers, which are often looking for people interested in covering events or organizing listings. In Philadelphia’s case, I contribute to, such a blog that is decidedly cooler than I am. Look around, sites and newspapers like these will offer opportunities.

Look, and just like that, you have a handful of relatively attainable clips with names familiar to editors who might be willing to pay you.

On your Web site, link out to those stories – if your clips are with a publication that won’t move links around on you, I think it’s dirty to take clicks away by having all the words on your Web site.

Now, when you e-mail an editor, instead of attaching cumbersome text writing samples, you can link out to your resume and clips.

In every e-mail I send an editor, or really, almost any professional contact, I include the following sentence:

Please see examples of my work here and my resume here.

I find most editors far and above prefer that to attachments or mailings. But with what editor to start?

Again, corner any professional freelance journalist in your region you can get, and have him give you a sense of where to start in your region.

In Philadelphia, a writer with good clips can choose one of two long-heralded alternative weekly newspapers to begin a meaningful, professional freelance writing career. I am a contributing writer with Philadelphia Weekly, the alma mater of the Inquirer’s Kia Gregory, Philadelphia magazine’s Steve Volk and even Philebrity’s founder and editor, Joey Sweeney. A number of friends of mine work for or freelance with CityPaper, which has grown talent like graphic novelist Duane Swierczynski and New York Post transit reporter Tom Namako.

Once you get to the grounds of alt-weeklies, you’ll be able to develop and spread any way you think you can. Though they’re facing real hurdles in this economy with falling advertising – and some love to relish in it – both CP and PW remain a wonderful goal.

How to develop there?

Get to know your community or the coverage you hope to cover by reading every source you can find on it, and organize it all using RSS feeds. Collect the sources that will make you hone your craft. Pick up the habits of effective freelance journalists, and improve your Web presence. Take control of Web searches of your name, and, with your other work, figure out how to create an active Web presence you don’t have to constantly maintain.

Next look at the multimedia technology that might be worth making you a more versatile mobile journalist. Take note of how you should package those clips you’ll now collect.

Then you can take on the print world from there. Just don’t forget about me.

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5 thoughts on “How to start a freelance writing career without writing samples”

  1. Nice post, Chris.

    You know what’s really interesting…since I started freelancing I’ve shot for probably 12 newspapers/clients/outlets/whatever. Out of all of them I can’t honestly think of one that legitimately put stock into my portfolio.

    The first freelance assignment I had was about a year ago and the first photos I took with any interest in photojournalism was about a year and a half ago…so up to that point I had such a small (and bad) portfolio.

    The newspaper never asked for any work samples so I never provided one (they never asked for a resume either). I just started shooting pictures for them and I still work for them on a regular basis.

    In fact, I’ve never had a newspaper ask to see my work or resume — they only reason “a” saw it was because I applied for their summer internship which ended up getting canned and the only reason “b” saw it was because I emailed the photo editor with a link to my resume and portfolio. The other two papers I work for pretty often never once said anything about work samples.

    It really shocks me that I’ve done so much work and so few people have seen my photos before I start working for them.

    Of course if I’m doing jobs for NY Times or whatever they want to see a portfolio, but some places I don’t think care. They assume that if someone is interested in freelancing for them they know how to shoot/write (this is a bad assumption of course).

  2. Kevin,
    That is interesting to hear about you experience with photography gigs, but I have to say what I’ve seen from writing is a different world. I’m not sure I ever even got the chance to sit down with an editor before my clips were checked out. Not necessarily read through, but my ledes critiqued and the publications for whom I was jotting reviewed.

    It just might be different for writers, perhaps.

    Nevertheless, glad to see you’ve gotten the chance to build up your portfolio. Keep it up.

  3. Thanks for the post. Your Web site has so many useful information for student journalists. I will definitely be a regular visitor from now on.

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