By Carol Tice
Each of us found some other way to get our career started. I bring this up because as I read the writer chat forums, it’s difficult to recall that there was ever another bottom rung of the writing-career ladder! But there was. And I think the pre-mill routes are still better ways to quickly establish your career and start earning well.
Even better, the traditional routes to good pay have been enhanced in the past few years by all of the new pay opportunities that have arisen online.
What are the other ways to start a writing career that can get you earning more, faster? Below, I count the ways I earned in my first couple years. Almost all of these paid more than mills from the very first assignment. The hourly rate wasn’t the greatest at first because I had so much to learn and wasn’t efficient, but they very quickly became good earning options on an hourly-rate basis, and led to work that paid very well.
1. Win writing contests. I won two of these early on, and they led immediately to long-term editor relationships and $500 article assignments in major publications. Great visibility, and it starts an “awards won” page for you that impresses prospects.
2. Write for the alternative press. I did this for years, and worked up to writing cover features. Alt papers are a great place to develop as a writer and get paid $50 an article or more off the bat. It can lead to a lot of other great opportunities — I got a full-time reporting job that paid more than $40,000 a year to start from my alt-press clips, and one of my feature stories was optioned for a movie for $20,000. Alt papers have gained reporting cred over the years, as so many highly successful writers such as Elvis Mitchell have started there and spun off to national radio, paper and TV gigs.
3. Write for daily papers. Yes, many have disappeared, and some don’t have freelance budget anymore. But many of the major papers need freelancers more than ever. The pay isn’t great, but I get $300 an article for Seattle Times pieces that aren’t terrifically complicated, which beats $15 an article any day.
4. Write for small, regional papers and magazines. When I first moved to Seattle and needed to find my first local markets, I wrote for Today’s Careers, a free local job paper, for about $200 a story. Easy, interesting work.
4. Write for local nonprofits or small businesses. The first small, startup business I wrote for paid me $750 an article. My second client was a $1 billion-plus global corporation that paid $85 an hour to start and sent me more than $20,000 a year of work for several years running. Moral: It doesn’t take much to get launched in the world of copywriting if you can write clear, compelling content. Walk around your town, hit your Chamber breakfast, approach your favorite nonprofit, and find a business or organization that needs something written. Now you’ve got samples and you can pitch anybody, including the biggest corporations in America. And writing a business profile for the business can lead to writing an article about business for a magazine — the two realms cross over quite easily.
5. Write online content. Businesses across America are waking up to the reality: their Web sites suck and aren’t attracting customers because they are static and dull. They need writers! Study the Web sites of your local business establishments and call the ones that look the worst. Suggest they add bios, case studies, a blog. Despite what you see on Craigslist, all Web content gigs do not pay $5 a page. Demand decent rates, and you’ll get them. And some great samples.
6. Write a couple free samples. You may be surprised to hear me say this, but I’m a big believer in just writing a few sample articles on your own, to create your first clips. I like it because you don’t get confused and think what you’re doing might be a living. You’re clear about moving on quickly to paying gigs. Here’s a great story from this week’s Writer’s Weekly about how this paid off big for one brand-new writer.
7. Take a class. I got into journalism kind of sideways, from songwriting. When I realized I wanted to write reported stories, I went and took some UCLA Extension classes in journalism. While I don’t believe basic writing talent can be taught, you’ll never regret taking the time to study and learn about this field, particularly about reporting technique, article formats and ethical issues. Many writers are coming into the field now without any training, and it limits their options. Getting a bit of education can jump you ahead of the pack.
Just being in the class may help jump-start your career. You may write for a school paper or online site, getting a few clips that can lead quickly to paid assignments. Your professor might refer you if they like your work — editors do call them. The school’s career center could connect you with internship opportunities where you could compile solid clips. Possibly most importantly, you’ll leave with increased confidence in your ability to write for a variety of markets.
Yes, all of these alternative routes I’ve outlined for breaking into freelance writing involve a bit more work. Most involve actively marketing your business. If you love writing quick, easy articles and don’t yearn for more, keep writing for mills and enjoy your life.
But if you’re focused on earning as much as you can right away, explore some of the other paths to earning well. They’ll likely offer you more interesting assignments with more opportunity to grow as a writer, and get you earning more sooner.
This post originally appeared on the WM Freelance Writer’s Connection.