This September, I will finish my 12th year as a freelance writer.
In looking back, I find that the decisions I made in the first year of my freelancing life acted as the basic building blocks for what would be a profitable writing career. When I first started freelancing, I had never written anything for publication before, I had no experience (I was still in college and hating it.), I had no contacts, and I certainly had no clue.
But during that first year, I had over 100 bylines, some in national magazines, others in small websites that no one had ever heard of.
How did I do it? Here’s the lowdown.
1. I wrote about anything
I often tell new writers not to be too quick to pick their specialization. Explore everything, try everything, do everything, and then over time, it will become clear to you not only what your own interests are, but which areas of the market are most profitable. Hopefully, the two will overlap, but if they don’t, it allows you to make an educated decision about your career and the path you want to follow. My career was a blank slate when I first started writing so I wasn’t picky. If an assignment paid, I took it. There was no topic that I wasn’t willing to learn and write about.
2. I wrote for anyone
Like with topics, I wasn’t picky about the kind of companies I’d write for or what kind of work I was open to. I wanted to write for women’s magazines when I first started, but that didn’t stop me from doing copywriting for a major mobile network, writing advertorials for a big international camera company, publishing bad poetry and submitting my fiction. I took jobs on RentaCoder (now renamed), published articles on e-zines and e-newsletters, and while there were no blogs back then, there were niche sites and I wrote for quite a few of them.
3. I got a job with a magazine
I freelanced for a national magazine here in India and after I submitted my first article, they offered me a job. I took it, freelanced on the side while I worked full-time at this magazine and studied for my college exams. When I left after a few months (the 9-5 life really wasn’t for me), I continued writing for them. This allowed me to keep adding clips to my portfolio but what the magazine experience also did is that it taught me to write hard and fast and without obsessing over every word.
4. I wrote dozens of shorts
My 100 pieces in that first year of freelancing weren’t all feature articles. Some were shorts, some were book reviews, some were sidebars, some were round-ups, many were articles for newsletters and websites. I treated my first year of freelancing as a practice run—I took every opportunity I could and wrote for anyone who’d offer me paying work.
5. I used my strengths
Back when I was a new freelancer, I wasn’t a fan of writing about technology. I was pursuing a degree in Information Technology and I hated everything to do with it. Yet, consumer technology has always fascinated me and I knew that my degree could help open doors. So I mentioned it whenever I could. The magazine I worked for was a technology magazine. I wrote dozens of articles for technology magazines, websites, and newsletters. And much of the work I pitched showcased my technology affiliations. (I once wrote a piece on how cellphones are designed, which was one of the most fun assignments of my entire career.)
6. I kept my eye on the prize
My goal in my first year as a freelancer was not to make money. Income didn’t matter (I was still a student and living with my parents, so I could afford this luxury.) I didn’t work for free and that was my only one rule, but my goal was to build my clips and credits. To get published as quickly as possible as widely as possible. So I wrote for anyone who’d have me and that turned out to be everyone from national magazines to small websites that paid $10 a piece. It didn’t matter back then because it allowed me to add more clips to my portfolio.
7. I wrote without concrete assignments
I didn’t have a lot of assignments handed out to me in that first year, so I focused on three things a lot: (1) marketing, (2) learning, and (3) practicing. I sucked at marketing so all this free time I had really allowed me to get proficient at writing queries and pitches. I read writing newsletters as if I’d be quizzed on the material the next day, and I wrote. A lot. I wrote personal essays and sold several of them. I wrote book reviews and submitted them to places that paid for them. And I wrote how-to articles for small ezines and websites that only accepted completed submissions.
8. I marketed like crazy
Even though I wasn’t very good at it, I knew that marketing could make or break my career, so I was serious about it from the very first day. Back then, the only marketing technique I knew of was to write queries and so I wrote the very best ones I could. Looking back, they were terrible, but I wrote so many that there was no choice for me but to improve. Eventually, my queries started getting personal rejections and further down the line, I started getting bites. In later years, several editors told me that my queries were among the best they’d ever seen.
9. I asked for more assignments
The moment my first assignment would be done, I’d ask for more work. Or pitch another idea. Or just keep the conversation going. I didn’t look for new clients unless there was something happening already with my existing ones. I made sure that all my current clients were being taken care of before I added a new one to my list.
10. I asked for help
I was a sponge, that first year of freelancing, soaking in absolutely everything I could. The first few years of your career are when you learn the most, when you haven’t yet formed opinions on how it should be done, and are much more open to trying new things. You’re not going to have that same capacity for learning when you’ve reached your $50,000 a year target and can feed your family on it. That kind of intense learning happens only once and that’s when you’re new to the business and will do whatever it takes. You’ll ask for help easily and whenever it’s offered. I asked for help a lot during my first year.
11. I built relationships with other writers
I knew more writers back when I was struggling than I do now for two reasons. (1) There are a lot more struggling writers than there are successful ones and they all talk and learn from each other, and (2) There’s more time to network, both online and offline, when you have few clients. I, too, had more time to learn and experiment and share my goals with people when I had fewer clients and editors. This meant, of course, that we all sent each other job leads or recommended each other to our editors or hire each other when we took on full-time jobs. It all helped.
12. I never stopped trying
When I got a rejection, I sent another query. When an assignment fell through, I plugged the hole in my schedule by writing a personal essay. When someone asked what I did, I told them at length about the freelancing life and how I was going to make it. I never stopped trying and I never stopped believing. I gave it my all. I was a freelance writer and I never, not once, felt like anything but.
13. I refused to let go of my starry-eyed dreams
I’m at eternal optimist. Even when things are actively, dangerously, going south and I can see that I’m about to get into big trouble, I have this strange capability of knowing and acknowledging the trouble, but hanging on to my starry-eyed optimism all the same. It’s an insane and weird mix of reality and optimism that shares the same space in my brain, but I feel fortunate because that means that no matter how bad things get, I almost never freak out or panic.
I had starry-eyed dreams about my writing career before I’d even learned how to use a word processor. My accomplishments have exceeded what I set out to do and I never imagined failing in the ways that I did, but as my experience has grown, my dreams have grown, too. I have even more starry-eyed dreams as I enter my 13th year as a freelance writer and I fully intend to achieve them.
I think this faith and determination, more than anything else, is why I wrote and sold 100 articles during my first year of freelancing and why I continue to grow even now, in my twelfth year in the business.