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!

How I Became a Writer

In my Quora inbox there are, as we speak, no fewer than nine different answer requests for variations on the same question: “How did you become a writer?”

Gather round, and ye shall hear my tale.

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I Discover Chapter Books

About a month into kindergarten, in ye fabled year 1987, we went to the school library for the first time. We were read a story by one of the school librarians and then turned loose onto the two rows of children’s books at the front of the room.

I didn’t even make it to the shelves, however, before the school librarian stopped me. “Are you Danielle?”

I said I was.

“I want to show you something,” she said, and led me to one of the tall shelves full of “big kid books” that we’d passed on the way into the library. And that’s how I met Ramona Quimby.

Ramona the Pest was the first chapter book I ever read. It took me a little less than a week to read, on my own, in between kindergarten activities like playing with clay and trying to trace my name. And I was hooked.

I knew what books were long before that first library day. I’d grown up surrounded by them, and I was reading fluently when I started kindergarten. But something about Beverly Cleary’s work made me realize, at age five, that books didn’t appear out of thin air. They existed because somebody wrote them.

I wanted to be that person. I wanted to be a writer.

I Become a Master of Plot

Fast-forward to the spring of 1990. I’m now in second grade, where reading Beverly Cleary is pretty common (I’ve moved on to The Boxcar Children, Agatha Christie, and the Baby-sitters Club). My teacher announces that we’re all going to write our own stories.

Over the course of several weeks, we write stories, edit them, draw the accompanying pictures, and paste everything into those little blue booklets I wouldn’t see again until 2005, when I had to write law school exams in them.

My book was called The Violet That Played the Violin. That was also the entire plot.

That book was the moment that I realized that not only did books exist because people wrote them, but that I had now written a book. That meant I was a writer.

Writers Write

The Violet That Played the Violin had rocketed me to the pinnacle of writerdom. Suddenly, I was no longer a kid who wanted to be a writer; I was a writer.

And writers write. So I wrote.

I acquired the first of a truly staggering collection of blank books and wrote a short story, “The Cat Who Made a Quilt.” In the interests of full disclosure and also total self-embarrassment, here’s the full text:

Once upon a time in the old city of Swanland, which is now Paris, there was a cat. She loved to sew patchwork quilts. Almost everyone in Swanland had a quilt made by the cat.

Everyone except Old Barney, the bulldog.

The cat’s name was Kitten. Kitten said one say, “I want to make a special quilt, but I don’t have an idea.” So she set out to find an idea.

First she tried to think of an idea. All that popped into Kitten’s head were the ideas for her old quilts. So she asked her friends. They didn’t have any ideas either. So she went to the fabric store, where she usually got her patterns and fabric.

First she decided to make a quilt for Old Barney, to make him feel better. There was only one problem. Old Barney was her enemy, not her friend.

But she found a pattern. She found a pattern just right for a dog. It had dogs doing almost anything a dog can do outside.

Kitten sewed it together and then asked Anne, the prettiest poodle in town, to deliver it to Old Barney. Anne did, and Old Barney fell in love with her, and Kitten’s troubles were over.

So she went back to the pattern store, and got a new pattern. This one was beautiful. It had all sorts of different things on it. Kitten sewed it together and kept it in her family forever.

The End.

One can see the rapid evolution of my craft in this piece. It has a plot!

Starting at this point (May 1990), I was never without a working notebook again. Sometimes that notebook was the same notebook as the one I used for schoolwork, and sometimes it wasn’t. But I always, always had a notebook with me, and I got extremely itchy when I was separated from it.

And I wrote. Daily. Because writers write.

Stealth Writing and What I Learned from Fanfic

Nearly all of the “note taking” I did in high school was actually writing fan fiction. A friend and I had a joint X-Files fanfic that we’d pass back and forth between classes, each of us writing a paragraph or two instead of actually doing our schoolwork. I wrote the equivalent of two or three novels’ worth of fanfiction every year between tenth grade and the end of law school (ca. 1997-2007).

I had help from my dad as well. He and I wrote several stories and poems together when I was in elementary and middle school. There was Snow, the Christmas Horse, a novella about a poor family that sells its beloved horse and gets her back just in time for Christmas, and a 24-installment mystery in which the original American Girls (Kirsten, Samantha and Molly) search for a missing silver cup, which was probably the first piece of fan fiction I ever wrote.

Fan fiction was absolutely essential to my eventual career in which I actually write in exchange for actual cash moneys. Fan fiction taught me a lot about characterization, pacing and scene development. It also taught me why Shift+F7 is not your friend and why words ending in -ly will not in fact make your story better.

Where Ideas Come From

I honestly don’t remember having been troubled by “where ideas come from” when I was a kid. The point of being a writer was to write, not necessarily to have ideas for The Great American Novel or whatever.

So I didn’t always try to write fiction. Sometimes writing consisted of copying entire poems out of my dad’s Oxford anthologies. Sometimes it involved character assassinations of whichever classmate had treated me crappily that day. For two weeks in eighth grade, it consisted of trying to translate the US Constitution into ordinary middle-school English.

The point was to fill a notebook a month. I didn’t matter what I filled it with.

All that copying, translating and character assassination taught me a lot about writing, too. By copying, I started to see how other writers had constructed sentences and paragraphs. Character assassination taught me how to build characters convincingly, making their flaws and position within the story clear without sounding too melodramatic or unreliable as a narrator. Translation taught me how to state clearly what I meant.

By the time I left high school, the basic structure of my writing skills was already in place. My writing has improved dramatically during that time, but the fundamentals I fall back on today were all things I learned between the ages of seven and 17.

I learned them by writing. Because that’s what writers do.

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.