How to Start Freelance Writing With No Experience

One of the most common questions I hear as a freelance writer is “I want to start freelancing, but I have no experience. How do I break into the industry?”

I’ve thought about this question a lot. I’ve written about it a lot as well. And the more I think about it, the more I think “How do I start freelancing with no experience?” is the wrong question.

Here’s why it’s the wrong question, why we ask it anyway, and what to do about it.

Here’s why “how do I start freelancing with no experience?” is the wrong question.

Many – probably most – people come to freelancing with experience having been an employee, but not having been a freelancer. As a result, these people tend to think of freelancing as employment, just with lots of different employers.

This is totally understandable! It’s normal! But it’s also doing the new freelancer a disservice.

As a freelancer, you’re not at the mercy of one employer. You don’t have to convince one company to take you on, throw a bunch of resources at you and hope it works out. As a freelancer, you are a business approaching other businesses with a value-add proposition.

That’s really important, so let me repeat it:

As a freelancer, you are a business approaching other businesses with a value-add proposition.

So the question isn’t “what do I do if I have no experience”? It’s “what value do I bring to the table”?

Here’s why we ask it anyway.

Experience on past freelance projects is a form of value. In fact, it’s a nicely-packaged form of value. That experience becomes shorthand for reassuring value-add concepts like:

  • I know what I’m doing.
  • I understand this topic area.
  • I can employ the conventions of projects like this.
  • I speak the jargon of this topic area and/or industry.
  • I know how to meet deadlines.
  • I add enough value that other people think my skill worth paying for.

That’s why a lot of places looking for freelancers seek experience. It’s why freelancers that have experience make sure to mention it. “Experience” is a way to communicate a lot of different aspects of value in four syllables.

It is also wildly misleading.

Packing down any set of complex concepts into a single word leaves out a lot of detail. It leaves that single word open to misinterpretation by both parties. For instance, “experience” can cause client misconceptions like:

  • This person just knows exactly what I want.
  • This person has done progressively more difficult projects.
  • This person has a well-ordered system for dealing with upsets, mistakes, third-party fumbles, deadline miscalculations and a host of other problems.

While experience makes it more likely you have (some of) those abilities, experience does not guarantee you have any of them. For instance, your “ten years of experience” may involve having done the same type of project over and over for ten years. You didn’t gain ten years’ worth of learning or development; you simply repeated one year of learning and development ten times.

In other words, “experience” isn’t a land-a-new-client free card. In fact, if you understand what that word stands for, you can beat out experienced freelancers to land a client.

Here’s what to do about it.

“Experience” is a small word that packs a lot of expectations into it. By unpacking the word, you can demonstrate that you offer a client value worth paying for.

Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • When have I been responsible for similar projects in my life? Can I show the results, such as by uploading them to a digital portfolio?
  • What’s my knowledge of the client’s topic area? If I don’t have any, what experience do I have learning new topic areas quickly?
  • Do I know the jargon of this type of freelance work (writing, graphic design, coding etc.) and/or can I speak the jargon of the client’s industry (SaaS products, law, dentistry, etc.)? If not, how can I demonstrate my ability to learn that jargon quickly?
  • When have I had to meet deadlines in the past, and what were the results? Can I show the results (for instance, with that digital portfolio)?
  • How have I been “paid” for exercising this skill in the past? Payment isn’t always about money. For instance, have you received a high grade in a class on graphic design? Did you create a brochure for a local charity that got lots of praise? Has your fanfiction been upvoted a billion times?

If you have nothing whatsoever to show in your answers to these questions, you’re not prepared to freelance, full stop – because you have zero skills to show in these areas.

For instance, while I’ve been a freelance writer for a decade now, I wouldn’t even begin to seek out freelance work in graphic design. I rely on Canva templates for my featured blog images; I don’t compose those myself. I can talk about graphic design; I can resize and lightly edit photos in Photoshop; I can talk about basic color theory. But ask me to design your logo or branding color scheme from scratch, and I’m going to shake my head.

I don’t have the skills to do graphic design projects well – so I don’t offer that service to clients.

However, if you know graphic design software, concepts and lingo well, and if you’ve had enough exposure to a client’s line of work to have some idea what it’s all about and why good graphic design would matter, you may be equipped to look for freelance clients, even if you’ve never had a freelance graphic design client before.

If this sounds familiar, it’s time to move on to the next set of questions:

  • Can I talk to clients about my ideas, listen to theirs, and find ways to meet in the middle?
  • Can I show growth in my skills over time?
  • Have I thought/read/learned about the most common roadblocks in a freelance project, and do I have a plan for addressing them?

The first one is a matter of confidence. As a brand-new freelancer, you may just have to “fake it till you make it.” If you love the kind of work you’re doing, however, you’ll find it easy to get enthusiastic in conversations about it.

The second one can best be done by setting up a freelance portfolio, which is easy for writers to do on sites like WordPress (see mine above). For graphic designers and coders, there are sites that specialize in showcasing visual works and/or code.

The third one is something you can learn, often from online sources like this one. You can’t be prepared for every weird eventuality, but you can learn what the most common problems are for freelancers and prepare for them. You can learn what should go in a freelance contract and how to read contracts that clients offer to you.

If you can express your value and understand how to interact with clients as another business, you can freelance. Yes, even if you have no freelance experience.


If this article is helpful to you, please consider helping me by sharing on social media or leaving a tip. Best wishes on your freelance adventure!

A Day in the Life of This Freelance Writer

Yesterday, I stumbled across this article at Wait But Why, proposing a new way to think about the value of our time and how we use it. It works like this:

If you sleep about eight hours a night, that leaves about 1,000 minutes a day in which you’re awake. Think of these 1,000 minutes as 100 ten-minute blocks of time.

What do you do with each of your 100 blocks? Is what you’re currently doing worth the number of blocks out of 100 that gets devoted to it each day?

While neither the author of the piece nor I recommend trying to schedule every block every day (it’s an exercise in hair-tearing), it has provided me a useful way to consider exactly where my time goes.

So Where Does It Go, Exactly?

The 100 Blocks method is especially intriguing to me in the context of one of the most commonly-asked questions I receive on Quora: “What do freelance writers do all day?” “What does a day in the life of a freelance writer look like?”

While I won’t subject you to a list of where my 100 ten-minute day-chunks go, here’s what an average day in my freelance life looks like.

A Day in the Life of this freelance writer

Morning

6:30 am: I roll out of bed, because if I don’t, I’ll miss a chance to get a hug from my husband when he leaves for work. If I don’t get a hug, I am cranky the rest of the day.

6:40 am: I feed the cats before the sheer force of their STARVACEOUS YOWLING tears me to pieces. The cats wish it to be known that they WILL DIE if they are not given canned food at 6:40 am. No, the bowl of kibble is NOT SUFFICIENT. THEY WILL STARVE. I AM A TERRIBLE CAT PARENT.

7:00 am: The yowling has subsided. I sit down with my toast and tea to read the Internet. If the Internet is terrible, I read a book instead. The Internet is usually terrible.

8:00 am: I decide I should probably do something useful with my life. I load the dishwasher and clean the litter boxes in order to avoid selling my labor for money.

8:30 am: I sell labor for money. I may also blog, work on things for rehearsals (see “Evening”), send invoices, and so on.

12:00 pmish: I am done selling labor for money, unless it is Tuesday. On Tuesdays I get done at 1:00 pm, because 12-1 pm Tuesday is the Holy Hour of Client Meetings.

Not-Morning

12:30 or 1:00 pm: Having eaten whatever tasty glop was leftover in the fridge from the previous evening (or microwaved some chicken nuggets), I proceed to the gym for a hot date with the elliptical, weight room and/or pool. On nice days, I go into my backyard and throw things.

2:30 or 3:00 pm: I get home from the gym, or I run some errands, depending on which needs doing. When I have to schedule appointments, they’re nearly always between 2:30 and 5:00 pm. If I’m not running errands, I might do some composing, or photography, or spend 12 of my daily 100 timechunks murdering werebears in Skyrim.

Evening

5:00 pmish: Usually, the husband is home by this time. He makes food. We eat food. While watching Netflix. This is literally the only time we spend watching television at all, so I have no guilt whatsoever about abandoning the upper-middle-class manners of my youth to cram nachos into my face on the couch in front of the boob tube.

6:00 pmish: Time to go to rehearsal. Which rehearsal it is depends on the time of year and the day of the week. Candidates include marching band, wind symphony, drum ensemble, colorguard, and winterguard. Sometimes I perform in these ensembles and sometimes I yell at them.

8:30 pm: I feed the cats, because once again, they will STARVE without canned food, even though kibble magically appears in their bowl on the regular. Then I write fiction.

10:30 pm: I sleep.

On Wednesdays, I clean the house instead of selling my labor for money. Otherwise, things are pretty much the same.  A few times a year I go on vacation, during which I might spend an hour or two working in the mornings.

Your schedule as a freelancer may, of course, vary. My work time is scheduled with two major constraints in mind:

  1. When do I have the focus to do this work most efficiently?
  2. How can I get my work done in the handful of hours I have allotted per day to do so, which I cannot exceed because addiction?

As For the Blocks….

It’s interesting to me how quickly things fall into perspective when I analyze them in terms of the 100 blocks of time.

For instance: The gym costs me 120 minutes, or 12 of my 100 timechunks every day.

Prior to thinking of it as 12/100 timechunks, I struggled to go to the gym. It felt like recreation. It felt like “wasting time” or “ignoring my responsibilities” (because I wasn’t checking the clock every five minutes to make sure I hadn’t dissociated into some frivolous project, because ADHD means I have no idea what time is).

Now, however, 12/100 timechunks feels like a total steal. That time I spend at the gym manages my chronic pain, alleviates my anxiety, provides the only workable method for me to meditate, lets me catch up with my best friend by snarkily texting her between sets, and enables me to kick people twice my size through windows should I ever wake up in an action film.

I get all that for twelve percent of my day. That’s what we call “good value.”

It’s also made it easier to stop hating myself for things like scrolling Twitter, while simultaneously helping me put limits on things like scrolling Twitter. Yes, sometimes I just need to sit and scroll Twitter for 1/100 timechunks. That’s okay.

But I rarely need to do it for 3/100 timechunks. That’s when I start getting restless. So I can allot 1 timechunk to it totally guilt-free, then go do something else, again totally guilt-free.

For the record, I have allotted 11 timechunks today to selling my labor for money and 3.6 timechunks to the writing of this blog post. Now I will go devote about 2 timechunks to eating food and a few to preparing for this week’s Holy Hour of Client Meetings. Happy Tuesday.

How You, the Client, Can Get Fired by Your Freelancer

Sometimes freelance writers and artists just have to fire a client. Here are some of the easiest ways to find yourself searching for a new contractor.

So you want to hire a freelance writer. Or an artist. Or a graphic designer. Or a web developer. Or a drill writer. Or a “consultant.”

There are plenty of articles out there about how to hire a freelancer. This isn’t one of them. This article is about how to get the freelancer you hired to say, “Sorry, I won’t accept any more work from you.”

I’ve been freelancing for nearly a decade now, and in that time, I’ve had outstanding clients, terrible clients, and everything in between. I have been fired by a client exactly twice (both times for the same reason–see below), and I have fired more clients than I can count (every time, for one of the reasons below).

Here’s how to make sure that all the time, money, and energy you put into advertising for freelancers, screening candidates, and developing creative briefs goes entirely to waste:

how to get fired by your_a guide for clients

1. Don’t say what you want up front.

I asked a community of freelancers what it takes for them to fire a client, and some version of this problem came up in every single answer.

To send your freelancer packing, don’t say what you want up front. Provide just enough detail for your freelancer to think they understand the project–but when they turn it in, send it back with demands you never made in the original ask.

Do you want your freelancer to fire you, but you aren’t sure this method will do it quickly enough? Do you want your freelancer to fire you and to call you out publicly at every opportunity, making it even harder to find qualified freelancers in the future (and yes, we network too)?  Then I recommend….

2.  Blame your freelancer for not reading your mind.

Not telling us what you wanted is provoking, but it’s not insurmountable. Provide a reasonable amount of time to make the fix and clarify whether or not you’re going to need the same thing going forward, and generally speaking, we’re happy to do the work (assuming it’s covered by our contract).

However, if you want to torpedo any chance that your freelancer will roll with the punches, blame your freelancer for failing to read your mind the first time.

Both clients who have fired me as a freelancer did so because they blamed me for something that they messed up. The most memorable one was in 2013 or so. The client had asked me to do an extended project that required me to contact their end client and get some information.

I tried. I tried contacting the end client for months, via every avenue my client would allow me to use: email, telephone, you name it. I got nothing. The end client would not communicate with me.

Eventually, I told my client about this, and was told “Okay, I’ll take care of it.” When I emailed a few days later, asking “Do you have anything else you need me to do?”, I was assigned another project. Every time asked if they had anything else they wanted done, I was assigned another project.

Fast-forward a few months. Suddenly, Silent End-Client’s project is coming due, and my client is emailing me in a panic, wanting to know where their copy is.

Excuse me?

Last I heard, client, you were going to take care of it, and every time I asked if there was something I should be working on, you directed me to another task (at one point, to another editor!) instead of asking how this client’s website is coming. I am not the one who dropped the ball on this.

Nevertheless, I got fired. My client found it easier to cut me loose than to admit their own mistake.

I fired a different client some years later for utterly failing to articulate their expectations for copy.: everything from basic organization to what counts as “personality” in tone to when to use a serial comma. When I asked for clarification, the answer was always: “Oh, there are no hard and fast rules….”

So I’d send in the project–and get personally berated for failing to follow some “rule” the editor had chosen not to tell me was a rule when the project began.

Needless to say, I dumped that client pretty quickly.

Definitely blame your freelancer for failing to read your mind. If you don’t want to work with freelancers anymore. Or you could….

3. Presume you’re entitled to your freelancer’s time.

In truth, treating your freelancer like an employee in any way is a great way to get us to walk out. We’re professionals and this is a B2B service, not an employer-employee relationship.

But one of the best ways to treat us like employees so that we’ll walk on you is to act as if you’re entitled to our time when you want it, whenever you want it, for no additional pay.

I fired a client just a few months ago for this exact problem. I warned this client up front that I do not do the sort of copy the client sought with fewer than seven business days’ lead time (now, thanks to this client, that’s a month’s lead time). The client decided that “seven business days’ lead time” meant “three to five calendar days’ lead time, always over a weekend” and threw a complete fit when I refused to turn work around in that time frame.

Oh, and of course this client never offered to pay me extra for the rush job. Which reminds me: you will find yourself out on your freelancer’s curb posthaste if you…

4. Screw with payment terms.

Early in my career, I did $1500 of web copy once for a client and was immediately ghosted by not one but two editors on the project. Attempts to contact them were unsuccessful. I never saw that money. Meanwhile, I know the end client used the copy because I saw it on their website.

The second client who ever fired me only got the title because I was lazy about firing them. I was planning to walk because they were a stellar example of Point the First (don’t articulate what you want), but they sent the Dear John email first.

Honestly, that’s fine. It wasn’t working out, and had that email been the end of it, this client would not have made my Wall of Shame.

But they’re on the Wall of Shame now because, after firing me, they then decided to announce they were only going to pay me about 2/3 of what they had initially agreed to, based on terms they made up as they were writing the email and that had never appeared in the original contract.

Thanks for confirming my decision to stop working with you, former client!

Wait! What If I Don’t Want To Be Fired?

Naturally, the inverse of this post is also true: if you want to keep a freelancer around (and save yourself the time, money, and hassle of hiring a new one), clarify your expectations from the start, take your share of the responsibility for errors or miscommunications, respect our time like you would any other business you do business with, and pay promptly and fully according to the agreed-upon terms.

For every client I’ve fired, I have one in my portfolio who has been there for years and for whom my work is practically magic. They tell me what they want, I send it to them. Voilá. You, too, can have outstanding relationships with your freelancers–if you treat them right.

Freelancers love coffee. Buy me one.