Podcast Episode 35: No portfolio? No problem. Get writing work without published clips.
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Lots of new freelance writers fear that they will never get any work because they don’t have published articles or novels already. However, when you remember that every successful freelancer started out in the same way, it becomes clear that it is definitely possible to get hired as a writer even if you have no clips to show.
But how, exactly? In this podcast episode, I go through lots of different ways to get yourself some clips, build up your portfolio, and to persuade people to take you on regardless.
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Hello and welcome to A Little Bird Told Me, the freelance writing podcast about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of successful self-employment. This is episode 35 and today I’m going to be talking about how to get freelance writing work when you don’t have clips.
I’m Philippa Willitts and I’m a full-time freelance writer. I’m here without my usual co-host Lorrie, who’ll be back next week, so if you’re missing her, tune in again next week.
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On the Podomatic page, you’ll also find links to the A Little Bird Told Me Facebook page, as well as mine and Lorrie’s various websites and social media bits and bobs.
So, as I say, today I’m talking about how to get freelance writing work when you don’t have a portfolio of published work – magazine articles, commercial samples etc. A lot of people think they can’t possibly approach an editor or business, and pitch themselves to that publication or place because they don’t have any experience – and they expect to be told to come back when they have examples of past writing. And this can happen, however – if you think about it – every successful freelance writer started at some point without any clips or any kind of portfolio. So it is entirely possible to break into freelance writing as a career even if you haven’t been published or had any high profile writing out there.
So what I’m going to do today is look at some of the different options you have if you’re desperate to start out but are scared to get an email back saying, “Send me what you’ve already done” before you can get any work. In my experience, surprisingly few clients and editors have asked me for examples of my past work. Some have and I’ve sent them that, but actually an awful lot don’t ask. If you make a good enough approach, demonstrate knowledge of your subject and produce a good enough pitch, clients and editors can deduce that you’re probably a decent writer and you know what you’re doing.
Now, on my professional sites – philippawrites.com and socialmediawriter.co.uk, I do have links to my published work. And this might be as simple as a blog post, or it might be a link to a national newspaper, but I do have a page dedicated to “Have a look at my writing” so if people want to know more, they can see what I can write – they can get an idea of the styles I can write in etc. So I wondered whether the reason that so few people ask me for clips is because they’d been on my website.
And so I had a chat with my usual co-host Lorrie, because I know on her website, it’s quite different to my own with not so much focus on what she’s written before. So I asked Lorrie whether in her experience clients ask for previously published work, and she has had a very similar experience to me – it does happen, but it’s rare. I think that’s interesting because it suggests that, regardless of having clips on your site, a lot of clients and publishers just don’t ask for them. So if you’re wary, bear that in mind and make an approach – if you write a good pitch email or approach letter, the thing you’re fearing (where they get back to you and say, “Send us 10 examples of work published in international magazines!”) won’t happen.
I think also, if you have good clients who respect you and what you do, they often assume that, if you’re approaching them, it’s because you’re capable and experienced.
Another problem that commercial copywriters and fiction writers can face is if they do ghost writing – they might have tonnes of experience and have written five novels and 18 websites but, if they’ve signed a none-disclosure agreement or have just agreed that the writing they’ve done belongs to whoever paid them and can’t be claimed as their own, then they can still have an empty portfolio. So it’s not just an issue that new people face. But, I think the more experienced ghost writers would have a more confident approach and would be better at wording things to show that they’re capable and competent.
And it’s important to look at this issue, not just because a lot of new freelancers get caught up in it and feel like they don’t have much confidence without clips, but also because it’s used as people as an excuse for procrastination – it’s a nice way to avoid having to put yourself out there and make some pitches and see what happens. So do listen on and find out more ways to prove to people that if people hire you, you’ll do a great job. And also, to start getting those clips so, as they build up, you’ll have more to show what you can do.
So you’re in a situation where you’ve had a great idea for a story or you’ve found a company you’d love to write for but you don’t have anything to show. Or so you think. The first thing to do is really have a think. Stretch your imagination a bit. There’s a chance that you do have something to show that can prove your writing ability. For instance – have you written something to your company’s annual report? Have you contributed an article to your local neighbourhood newsletter? Have you had a letter to the editor published in a newspaper? When you’re starting out, all this stuff does count, even though it might feel irrelevant but it can work as a confidence booster. Over time, as that works, you’ll get new clips and examples of what you can do, so you can stop including the school newspaper or whatever it is – but it gives you somewhere to start from.
If you find you really don’t have anything, or you’re worried that your work is inadequate, it’s time to start creating writing samples. Make your own portfolio. Sure, it won’t have been published by anyone else, but what a lot of companies and editors are looking for is proof that you can write and examples of your writing style. They want to see those things a lot more than an arbitrary publication of something. An unpublished example may not be as influential as a published one, but it’s a place to start and it shows the most important thing: how well you can write.
There’s one easy way to start producing your own clips, and that’s to start a blog. Especially if you have a professional website – a blog is a perfect way to add to it. If you don’t have a professional website, it’s time to build one or to just start a blog anyway.
Now, what blogs do is give you an opportunity to get your writing out there. When you approach someone – especially if you have a target focus, say cosmetics – then you can show potential clients links to four brilliant blog posts on the latest trends in the cosmetics industry. You’ve got a head-start. If you particularly want to write about trade fairs or focus groups, start a blog and do it. It shows you can write, that you have the knowledge and that you’ve taken the initiative and that you enjoy writing and are good at it.
Another approach – and you can do this instead of having your own blog but I’d suggest doing both – is to approach the owners of prominent blogs, especially in your specialism, and offer to write a guest post.
Now, some blogs offer to pay for guest posts but most don’t so you’ll have to make a judgement as to whether that crosses the line into working for free and being exploited or whether it’s a case of increasing your platform, getting your name out there and helping out a blog you enjoy. I’ve done guest posts for some blogs but turned down others. If the blog is making money but not paying writers, then I’m not that keen, whereas if it’s something I feel strongly about or a platform I really like, I’m more keen to go ahead. We’ve all got a line and while I’d never support working for free to get started, where you stand on guest posts is something you have to work out for yourself. But, potentially, it’s an opportunity to get your name out there into the sector you want to work in. You get a link, a clip and some good contacts in the sector as well. We do have a whole episode on how to get started with guest-posting, which I’ll link to in the show-notes, so if you want to know more, do check that out.
Now, another approach you can take is to just write some articles that show off your best writing, your knowledge of your subject, and have them on hand so if a client wants to see more of what you can do, they can have a read. This works well if you have a specialism because you can write your best stuff about the area you know well. If you’re more of a generalist, it still shows your ability to write, be persuasive, be funny, depending on what’s needed. Now this is an option some people choose. Personally, I tend to think that if you’re going to the trouble of writing these articles, it’s worth creating a blog and putting them on there so people can find you there rather than you always having to find people. However, if you really don’t want a blog or website, then write four or five exceptionally good articles and have them ready for if someone wants to see what you can do.
Now, with these or having your own blog, it’s so important to do your best work. If these are examples to potential employers and clients, then they need to be as good as they can be. Make sure everything’s spelt correctly, check commas and capitals, make sure everything’s worded in the best way. A few hours now will pay dividends over time as you use them.
Another way to get some published writing experience is to do some writing on a voluntary basis for a charity or non-profit. Normally, both Lorrie and I do strongly advise against working for free – almost without exception. But, one of the exceptions we share is if you want to volunteer your time and skills, then doing some free writing for a non-profit can be a really good way to do that. If you’re starting out and you want published examples of work, approach a charity you like and support, and offer them some free writing – a pack of press releases, an annual report – and ask them in return whether you can use the work in your portfolio. I imagine most charities will bite your hand off – who wouldn’t want free writing from a professional writer? And you both benefit. So again, I wouldn’t approach a business and offer free writing, but if you find yourself wanting to volunteer some time, have a chat to a charity whose work you support and see if you can come to some kind of agreement.
There are other ways to get published and hired if you don’t have a portfolio bursting with tonnes of experience and published article. A vital one – whether you have a portfolio or not – is to make your pitch or query email outstanding. This is what grabs attention, whether the recipient is a newspaper editor who gets 60 pitches a day or a busy marketing manager who needs a copywriter. The first thing they see if the first few words of their email, then your first sentence, so to get them to the end of your pitch email, it has to be really good. And if it’s good enough, they’re already persuaded you can write – so do make sure your pitch is as good as you can make it. Don’t reuse the same one again and again, bring in something they’ve recently published, make it relevant to them. You should also bring in your strengths. OK, you don’t have a lot of professional work behind you, but what you can do is show you can write by the content of your email.
Also, emphasise the strengths you have. Have you previously had experience in the sector? Going back to the cosmetics example, were you previously a make-up artist? Were you a marketing executive in a huge make-up company? This is something people want to know and could make the difference in getting you the job.
Your strengths and experience are so important. Do you want to write about weaning a baby? Maybe you’ve just weaned your baby. This helps. This will make someone want to hire you over someone who wants to write the same article but doesn’t have kids. Make the most of the experience you have – make it apply to what you want to write for this person, and make them see that. You do have strengths and expertise that you might not immediately think of, but that do apply and can make you the perfect person for the job. So good, in fact, that they forget that they haven’t seen what else you’ve had published.
Also, the way you portray yourself is important. If you sound apologetic – “Oh, sorry I don’t have any experience” – they have no real reason to have faith in you, so go in with confidence. Make sure you know what you’re talking about. Research in advance so you’re not taken by surprise by an awkward question. It’s always a good idea to be honest.
Now, I’m not saying open your email with, “I HAVE NO EXPERIENCE!”, because it doesn’t portray you in a good light, but if they ask whether you have experience and you don’t, say no. Don’t just say no – say “No, I don’t have published articles, but I have written this and this (attached) and I worked in that industry for four years, and it’s also a hobby of mine.” So you’ve turned a negative into a positive, but never lie. If you’re attaching articles to an email, don’t lie and say they’ve been published – don’t mock up some fake Time Magazine layout! If they find out, you’ll never get hired and you’ll damage your reputation.
Similarly, if they ask whether you’ve written about orchestral instruments before, and you haven’t, say “No, but I have written about guitars.” Or “No, but I used to be a piano teacher.” Turn it round to what you can offer. Don’t mislead anyone, or tell lies, but present yourself in the best way you can.
There are also some tips that apply mainly to commercial copywriters rather than the other kinds of writing work we’ve talked about in this episode, such as newspaper and magazine feature writing. The next tips apply to commercial copywriting predominantly.
Firstly, testimonials. If a client can see – ideally on your website – that other clients speak highly of you, this will really encourage them. Make the most of the good feedback you get. Be careful naming people if you haven’t got permission but do try and make the most of it.
The second is to have a filled-in LinkedIn profile and get endorsements and recommendations on there. I think people have even more faith in those testimonials because you have to use full names. You can’t make them up unless you make some kind of fake account and that’s not a big problem on LinkedIn, so if someone sees a testimonial on your LinkedIn profile, they have more reason to believe it. Plus the new-ish endorsements, where you can click a +1 equivalent to various skills that someone’s said they have. So if you’re on the site, it’ll pop up and ask me whether Lorrie has skills in literary editing and I’ll click yes – she gets an extra +1 for that skill. It’s a good thing to do in terms of good karma as well – not least because people get a notification that you’ve endorsed them, and they might do the same for you. But don’t do it always for that because sometimes doing things without self-interest is more attractive.
But yes, if you do have lots of LinkedIn endorsements, make the most of them. There are plenty of ways to get freelance writing work when you don’t have clips or published articles. You can’t get every job without clips – you’re unlikely to get a four-page feature in Cosmopolitan if you can’t show them any examples of writing – but if you start with trade press, maybe you can. Or if you get some links from guest posts you’ve written for prominent blogs in a particular industry, that will help you approach other people in that same industry. There are ways around it. Sometimes they won’t be enough but you can make the most of your situation, so don’t use “I don’t have clips” as an excuse not to approach people. Because that’s the only guarantee you’ll never get any work. Part of being a freelance writer is approaching people and getting no response, or getting, “No thanks, not at the moment.” It’s just part of the job and you have to face it. It might not be pleasant but it’s how things are, so if you’re going to be a freelance writer, you’ll have to get your head around it.
And sure, you might lose out on a few jobs when you’re starting out because you lack published work but plenty of people get their first job without any. Both Lorrie and I rarely get asked for examples and that doesn’t seem to be because I have lots of examples on my website, because Lorrie doesn’t and she still doesn’t get asked for examples. Be persuasive in your approach and they already know you can write well.
And now it’s time for the Little Bird Recommendation of the Week! My recommendation this week is a blog post called, “10 Very Costly Typos” from the mental floss website. As writers and proof-readers, we have to spot typos all the time.
There have been situations where typos have cost companies actual millions of dollars. If you’ve ever doubted the need for a proof-reader, this post will make sure you get especially careful about anything you publish. A book that had to be recalled at a cost of $20,000 for accidentally typing a recipe where instead of “seasoning with salt and ground black pepper” it recommended seasoning with salt and ground “black people.”, so 7,000 copies had to be destroyed. Or the bible publisher that was fined £3,000 in 1631 – a lot of money! – for saying that one of the 10 commandments was “Thou shalt commit adultery” or whether it was the poor guy who sold a 150-year-old bottle of beer on eBay but put a typo in the name. Someone else spotted it, bought it for $304 and sold it for half a million. Gutted for him! I’ll put the link in the show notes. It’s slightly light-hearted but it goes to show that not checking things really can cost a lot of money.
So I hope this episode has been helpful. The message is, don’t hold back – put yourself forward even if you think you’ve got nothing to show what you can do. Follow the tips I’ve given, let us know on Facebook how you get on. Check us out at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, come say hello on social media and tune in next time. Thank you for listening – I’ve been Philippa Willitts.