Last week I asked y’all if there was something you’d like to hear about that I’ve not yet discussed, or that you’d like covered in more detail. To my surprise, the very first request came from Liz, who asked: “could you write a little about how you got started in freelancing? Like, the nuts and bolts of it - where did you find jobs, how did you get people to hire you, that kind of thing?”
My surprise doesn’t come from Liz asking, exactly, but more from the fact that apparently I’ve not talked about this before (or haven’t talked about it for a very long time). The catch-22 in nearly any profession is that you need experience to get hired, but you can’t get experience without a job. For a freelancer, it’s even harder, because there’s not exactly a plethora of “entry level freelancer” gigs out there for folks who want to make a go of solo work.
The truth is that my career as a freelance writer was launched in two simultaneous—but very different—ways, both of which happened simply because I went to my personal blog and basically announced that I was going to try to make a go of it as a freelancer.
That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. I went through a particularly rough patch in my life and then took to my blog and announced that I was going to run my own business essentially because I’d decided I had nothing left to lose. And I specifically requested in that post that people offer me freelance work or pass me along to someone who could.
Two people who were regular readers of my blog emailed me and offered me work. Just like that.
Both of them were gambling on me, because although I’d been writing online for over a year, at that point, no one had been paying me to do so. I am extremely grateful to both of the folks who took a chance on me.
The first gig wasn’t writing online at all; it was a gig at a somewhat local business magazine, writing articles on small business happenings. The number one thing I learned from that gig was that journalism and blogging are very different. I’m an excellent blogger (if I do say so, myself) (ha!). I am capable of producing passable journalism, but it’s a very different skill set, and I’m not very good at it. I would be assigned, say, a 350-word article on a local business owner. I’d be given contact information and a few bullet points of what to focus on, and then I’d call them up and conduct an interview that took probably three to four times as long as any someone who actually knew what they were doing would need. Then I would transcribe the entire interview (this takes forever, and if I had any skill whatsoever discerning the salient points during the interview, would be unnecessary), extract what I thought was important, and write the article.
The resultant piece would typically be twice as long as the word limit, because—just in case you haven’t noticed—I tend to be verbose. Entertaining in a blog, perhaps, but deadly for print. So then I would spend three times as long as I spent drafting the article, cutting it down to size. Eventually I would have something passable, which I would then submit to my (kind and patient) editor. She would review my submission, come back to me with notes, and I would have to do another set of revisions… and most of the time, I would also have to call the interviewee again, because things I’d left out that were pertinent were questions I’d not even asked, the first time around. So I’d gather the missing info, edit, go over my word limit, edit again, and resubmit. And then my work was published.
It was a thrill to see my name in print. And the editor in question took an enormous chance on me, which I will forever appreciate. At the end of the day, working out the fee I was paid vs. the time I put into each piece, I was earning… less than minimum wage. Because it took me so darn long to do each assignment. Crazy, right? Totally crazy.
And I’m still glad I did it. For one thing, it added to my resume. For another, it stretched me. I learned a ton in the time I had that gig. (First and foremost, I learned that I prefer creative writing to reporting.) And the boost to my confidence of someone being willing to take that chance on me can’t be underestimated; being able to bill myself as having experience both online and in print was definitely a boost, moving forward.
The other gig came about because I was approached by someone setting up an agency to basically matchmake between companies seeking bloggers and the bloggers themselves. (At the time it was a new concept, though I think there’s quite a few places that do this, nowadays.) I was referred to a company that wanted someone to start a blog for them, and I ended up running their blog for years. Having a long-standing gig like that was a huge boon to my resume, and because they were just starting out, I was allowed to make a lot of suggestions and decisions about how the blog was operated. And that was great.
Now, the cautionary part of this particular tale is that the company who hired me to blog for this other company (not naming any names, here, but I mean the agency that paired me with the company that needed the blog) was also handling some programming for them, and at a certain point, something went horribly wrong. Horribly wrong—I don’t know if the site was hacked or the software broke or what, but basically the site was brought to its knees. And the response from this intermediary company at the time was… lackluster. I wasn’t involved in this side of things, but what I do know is that mistakes were made and the people who had gotten me this gig were subsequently fired. But I worked for the (now fired) people, not the parent company directly. So now what?
The parent company came to me, let me know what had happened, and asked me if I would be willing to continue working for them, without the intermediary company. Of course I was, and fortunately there was nothing in my contract with the other company that prohibited me from doing so, but politically that could’ve been a disaster. Fortunately, I think the folks who hired me originally were aware that they’d screwed up, and didn’t want to take me down with them, and it worked out okay (for me). But it was uncomfortable, to say the least.
So, finding an agency that may get you work can be advantageous; their reach probably exceeds yours, and they make find you gigs you couldn’t get on your own. But keep in mind that—in addition to the cut of your pay they’ll be taking for this service—you are then somewhat at the mercy of someone else’s conduct. If the company behaves well, you look good. If the company has problems, well, you may end up with someone else’s egg on your face. Just keep it in mind. All of that said, I would say it’s a worthwhile avenue to explore, particularly if you’re just starting out.
Once I had those two gigs under my belt, I made sure to network with gusto; I attended conferences, always had business cards with me, etc. It’s absolutely true that once you’ve gotten work it’s easier to get work. The rest, as they say, is history.