Not long ago, becoming a freelance writer was akin to becoming an actor. Talent, ambition, and hard word were essential, but somewhere along the way you would need a lucky break. Jim Carrey languished in Hollywood for years before ending up on the television show, In Living Color, where his talents were finally on display in front of enough people for someone to notice. Likewise, a freelance writer could work hard to develop their craft but never get in front of the right people at the right time without some sort of a break.
The problem, in writing at least, was that people are reluctant to take a chance on an unproven writer. So, most people who needed to hire writers demanded some proof of skill and ability to deliver under the proper conditions like deadlines and changing requirements. This proof took the form of “clips” or writing samples. The famous catch-22 in any career path is that no one will hire you until you have experience and you can’t get experience until someone will hire you. For writers, no one would hire you until you had published clips to prove yourself and you couldn’t get published clips until someone would hire you. So, you worked for free, or submitted query after query until, hopefully, that big break came along. Once your foot was in the door, your skill and professionalism could finally carry you along.
Make Your Own Big Break
Today, with the ubiquitousness of the Internet, it is possible to develop a wide array of clips to rival all but the most prolific authors without needed to rely on “the big break.” By either starting your own web sites, or writing for those that take all comers, you can develop an array of links and electronic clips to reference for any job or query. However, the ease of establishing such an electronic portfolio means that you may be competing against others with similar pitches. The important thing is to distinguish yourself by generating the “right” kind of portfolio.
The most useful clips are those that match the kind of writing that is being asked for. If you are interested in writing about animals, then make sure you are devloping a portfolio of clips that includes articles you have written about animals. Start by writing basic how-to articles for a site like eHow. Then, move into writing more research oriented or topic oriented articles at another site that accepts such articles. This will allow you to build up a collection of stories and articles that you can point to when you apply for jobs. Make sure that you keep your own copies of these articles and be prepared to format them in a more traditional manner if the need arises. Not everyone is willing to accept “links” so you may need to attach your writing to an email, or even print and present it in person or via mail.
While developing this portfolio will give you some clout, there will be many other writers who have a similar collection of writings. It is paramount to make your writings stand out from the masses. The two best ways to accomplish this task are to develop your own web sites, and to expand fully into your niche.
Build Your Own Site
Developing your own web site allows you to write about everything you want to write about without the constraints of writing for others. If you choose to write very long or very short articles, humorous or melancholy, foraml or informal, your own web site gives you a place to publish them all. More importantly, as you develop your web site, the repository of writings availible also begins to position you as an expert. While there may be dozens of writers with samples showing their ability to write about animal shelters, only you would come with a collection of dozens or hundreds of articles about animal shelters including everything from operations, to fundraising, to community perception. This appearance of mastery makes you much more likely to be the person selected to write the newsletter for your local Human Society. After all, not only can you write what they are looking for today, but you have shown that you are almost certainly able to write what they may need in the future. Even better, you have demonstrated that you will be able to generate content without the constant need for prompting or being fed article ideas. Indeed, you wrote about two hundred different topics all by yourself.
Don’t worry about the complexity of developing a web site. While it is true that a full commerce site like Amazon.com takes an army of highly skilled programers, developing a regular content based web site is suprisingly easy these days. A number of software programs are availible for free to help with your site, or you can spring for the same kind of programs the pros use like Adobe Dreamweaver. Either way, making a web page becomes just like writing a Word document, and if you are going to be freelance writer, you better know how to write a Word document. Pay no attention in the beginning to concepts like search engine optimization, or CSS, or your web site’s design. Just start getting the copy on there. As you do, you’ll pick up knowledge that will help you better understand those things when you are ready. Remember, the purpose of your site is to have a place to show off your writing, not to become the next pets.com. Nobody needs to “find” your site, you’ll be telling them to go there.
The only question becomes understanding the internet well enough to get up and running. If you aren’t experienced with computers and the Internet, just head for the big boys. Microsoft recently began offering a free service to small businesses (that’s you!) to get a website online with virtually no technical knowledge. They’ll even register the domain name for you so you can write for juliarobertsanimalshelters.com. Don’t get discouraged regarding the domain name. Yes, animalshelters.com is almost certainly already taken, but keep trying and look for something that expresses you a bit. For example, utopiananimalshelters.com might be availible. Two rules of thumb to keep in mind. First, get a domain name that ends in dot com. It may seem like animalshelters.info is better than wishfulthinkinganimalshelters.com but everyone is very used to just typing dot com. Even if someone is looking at your resume there is a chance they’ll type dot com instead of dot info. They’ll probably realize their mistake, but there is no reason to give them the chance to make one. When you are big and powerful you can ignore this rule. The second rule of thumb it to never ever use register.com to look up your domain names. They keep track of what you look up and if you don’t buy it right away, they’ll “reserve” the name for you. Of course, then they’ll charge you extra to register the reserved name. It’s a big scam masquerading as a service.
Actually, Build More than One Site
While developing a single web site can be immensely valuable, developing more than one web site can be even better. Consider the pet food company looking for a freelance writer. While your animal shelter web site certainly positions you as an expert in that realm, as well as a compotent writer in the topic of animals, it does not show any ability in the ability to write in a more “corporate” sense. A second web site, perhaps dedicated to innovations in animal products would show that not only can you write about animals from the perspective of animal shelters, but also in regards to the products that exist for them. While you never would be able to develop a web site for every single kind of project that might come your way, just having two related, but different web sites shows that you aren’t a one trick pony. While the animal product web site is right up the alley of the pet food company, the combination of the two web sites shows anyone your ability to write on any animal topic. When the fur industry comes looking neither of your sites matches exactly, but you have already shown both an ability to write in different styles. There is no reason to assume that you won’t be able to write from their vantage point.
Once you’ve published articles both on your site and on others, your goal should be to fully expand into your niche. In construction there is a product used for insulating around objects that by necessity go through holes in the walls. It is a foam that you spray into the area around the object you need to insulate and it exapands until it fills the entire space so that there is not one tiny pinhold of unsealed space remaining. To build up a powerful resume full of clips do the same thing with your writing niche. While there thousands of people out there who want to write about animals, only a few are dedicated enough to follow through to a fully completed portfolio. This is because doing so becomes more difficult the further you take it.
Fill the Hole
Finding a web site that takes articles about animals is easy, as is getting one or two published on them. Starting your own web site is more difficult, but still not cumbersome. Going the extra distance to find a small online publication dedicated to hamster environments stimulating enough to improve the hamster’s ability to navigate mazes would take more research. Having something published on their site, as well as on sites about horse racing, dog shows, cat collars, vetrenarians, and so on again establishes you as not only an expert, but also as a valued and prolific writer. Also, sooner or later someone who reads highintellecthamsterworld.com will need a freelancer and the sample you have from their favorite web site will carry more weight than a hundred samples from elsewhere.
To fill your niche completely, don’t start out by doing research. Instead, start by writing for what you already know. After you complete an article or posting for a web site you arleady know about, read that web site for references to sites or topics you don’t know about. Follow those links until you find your new place to post. Write for that web site, and then follow from it to others and so on and so on. Incidentally, this is how search engines find all the pages on the internet. If you follow all of the links, theoretically, you would eventually find all the pages. While you are building up your freelance writing career, do the same thing. Eventually, you will find yourself far off the beaten path and your writing samples will far eclipse the ones of those around you. When they do, your big break won’t be a matter of luck, it will be a matter of being the best out there. Do us a favor, and remember us when you are writing the cover story for Horse and Hound.