Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Types of Beginnings

I was recently asked by a friend of mine how to get started in freelancing. This is such a common question--and, to be honest, frustrating to answer--because there are so many ways people get started. However, thinking about it, I realized that most people I know who are currently full-time freelancers got a start in one of four ways:

The formerly-worked-for-an-advertising-company freelancer. To a lot of people, those who start off in advertising seem to have the advantage. It's assumed they have lots of confidence writing copy, a great portfolio, and a whole bunch of contacts they can use to get their careers rolling. But bear in mind that a lot of copywriters who work for advertising firms have confidentiality agreements that prevent them from working for clients outside of the company for a set period, usually a year. Still, if you're in advertising and you want to freelance, there's no reason why your former employer can't hire you back as a freelancer--or you can't use contacts and friends who work in other agencies.

The formerly-exploited freelancer. Funny enough, several web writers I know come from this background--they're $5-an-article writers who have managed to move into copywriting that pays a living wage. Many of these writers start off with no clue about the value of their own skill--they just want to write, and the idea that someone will pay them anything seems marvelous. Until they find themselves in an article sweat shop. For enterprising people, though, a copy of Peter Bowerman's The Well Fed Writer is all that's needed to get them going.

The no-experience freelancer. This was how I started out. I had zero commercial writing experience, and pretty much built up my portfolio the traditional way--by doing work for free for nonprofits and friends. The difference between doing a few chosen pieces for free and working for $5-an-article, though, is that the free work ends when I get what I need--usable portfolio pieces. You can't really use keyword articles as viable samples. Anyway, I had the utmost confidence that I was a good writer--I'd been writing fiction all my life and majored in creative writing. But I had no idea whether I could do business writing.

The plenty-of-experience-but-not-in-writing freelancer. Some freelance writers come into freelancing from another industry--and can actually make that work for them in starting a career. If you have a background in technology, health care, publishing, foreign languages, sales, or some other niche, you can use that to market yourself to a specific industry--and set yourself apart from competitors. Freelancers like this often have an advantage over those who have a background only in writing.

How did you get started?


Unknown said...

Great post!

I started piecemeal when I had little kids at home. Then I started full time when I lost my editor job at a magazine. This was a month after I graduated from college, too, so the timing was actually good. I managed to use former contacts as my first clients.

Jennifer Williamson said...

I think a lot of people start piecemeal like that. I did a little moonlighting too before I quit my full-time job for good, but I still didn't have enough rolling to really be confident I could make it on my own.

Emily King said...

I definitely fall into the second category. I wrote for a certain content mill and was able to write a ton of articles per day. But the work disgusted me--terrible writing for the sake of speed. I read "The Well-Fed Writer" and the rest is history. Now I work with a lot of great creative marketing companies and can be proud of my work. There ARE companies out there that are willing to pay for quality.

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