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 to Write an Ad for a Freelance Writer (and Get Responses From Writers You Actually Want to Hire)

  I’m a freelance writer who hates and fears cold-calling with the fiery passion of a thousand suns (who isn’t)?  I do it, but I also spend a great deal of time answering ads for freelance writers on Craigslist and similar sites.

It’s easy to fire off my resume in an email, and I’ve landed some choice gigs this way.  I’ve also run across some major duds.

So, if you’re in the market for a freelance writer, here are some tips for writing an effective freelance writer ad – one that will pull in the sort of competent help you’re (presumably) looking for.

1.  Tell us what you want – specifically.

The more vague a freelance-writer ad is, the less likely any professional freelance writer is to answer it.  Without a clear overview of the work you want done, we writers can’t figure out whether we’re equipped to do it, making us less likely to go through the fuss and bother of answering your ad.

A good ad for a freelance writer should explain, at a minimum, the topic area, the specific project or projects, and what the project or projects will be used for.  For instance, here is a terrible ad:

I need a writer for my website.  Email me.

I wouldn’t answer this ad.  Most writers won’t.  This ad offers zero information on what the website’s focus is, what kind of web writing the author wants done, or what the writing needs to do (sell things?  provide directions?  outline the site owner’s detailed turtle-based conspiracy theories?).  There’s also no direction on what this person wants to see when hiring a writer.

Here’s the previous ad, improved:

I run a website that details my turtle-based conspiracy theories in a series of Elizabethan sonnets.  I need a writer to produce five more sonnets explaining my new theory that tortoises are incapable of plotting total world domination.  Please send your resume and one writing sample that is an Elizabethan sonnet (does not have to cover turtle-based conspiracy theories).

Now your potential star freelancer knows what you need, how long you’re likely to need freelance help, and what the writing is supposed to do – as well as what information you want to see.

Everyone knows the *real* turtle conspiracy is actually hedgehogs.


2.  Check your spelling and grammar.

I cannot tell you how many ads I’ve seen that read like this:

i nede ppr on eLizzabetan sonetes plz email

(Translation: “I need paper on Elizabethan sonnets.  Please email.”)

Counterintuitively, most freelance writers won’t answer this ad.  Why not?  Because, while it’s obvious this person needs a writer – and badly – the amount of work we’re going to have to do just to understand what this person wants is astronomical.  It’s not worth it, especially when there are hundreds of other potential clients out there who can communicate what it is they need.

Before you click “post” on your ad for a freelance writer, run spell check.  Have someone read it over and correct obvious spelling and grammar mistakes.  Writers won’t generally hold the finer points against you – if you were a writer, you probably wouldn’t need to hire one, after all – but we need you to communicate clearly what it is you need a writer to do.

And, if that’s not enough, consider this: an ad that hasn’t even been spell-checked screams “easy to exploit.”  Even if you’ve never hired a freelancer before, don’t advertise that fact – there’s always somebody who will gladly charge you two or three times the going rate because you don’t know better, and you don’t need to be ripped off.

3.  Research pay rates.

Despite my previous advice on not being taken for a ride, remember this: the pay rate for professional writers is probably higher than you think.

Remember my LOL Your Freelance Writing Ad post?  I took the writer of that ad to task for this very thing – failing to check the going rate for a writer with “a proven track record as a well-written blogger or published author, who loves the process of investigative journalism and research,” and instead offered a laughable $0.03 per word.  Then the ad suggested that $0.10 per word was a “premium” rate!

A few writers starting out in the business may take $0.10 per word, particularly in exchange for some much-needed experience.  But no professional writer with a “proven track record” will write for $0.10 per word, much less $0.03 per word.  Offering them will just cause laughter.

Not sure what amount of money would be a fair trade for the kind and quality of writing you’re looking for?  Ask writers to send you their rates.  They’ll typically run from $0.10 per word for beginners up to $1.50 per word for top-notch professionals (National Geographic is famous for paying $1.50 per word).  Decide where the quality of the writing you need should reasonably fall, and prepare to pay accordingly.  And remember – you get what you pay for.

4.  Relax.

Even when an ad explains what the client wants in plain language, it may get passed up by experienced freelancers because its writer comes across as controlling – or worse, defensive.

LOL Your Freelance Writer Ad guy provides a stellar example:

CURRENT PAY IS $30 per article, so we are obviously not a cheap content-farm paying $10-$15 but if you’re looking for a premium $100 an article gig, please DO NOT write to me to insult me.

Aside from the utter failure of math here (600-1000 words for $30 *is* “cheap content farm” rates, and $100 for 1000 words is “entry-level writer” rates, not “premium” rates), the author of this ad clearly has a chip on his or her shoulder.  Even if I was willing to write for the rates offered, would I want to do it with someone so defensive about the job they’re offering that it oozes into the ad itself?  Of course not.

You may not be able to pay well.  You may never have hired a professional writer before.  You may be the reincarnation of Ernest Hemingway, who is only looking for an outside writer because your partner threatened to pull his venture capital from your turtle-conspiracy-theory-distribution startup if you didn’t.  That’s fine; it happens.  But don’t let it show up in your ad.

Google Image Search didn’t know what to do with “turtle conspiracy theory distribution center” either, so here is Lady Liberty hanging out with Brazilian Jesus.

The best way to write an ad that works is to explain clearly what you need, ask for a resume or writing sample, and leave it at that.  Save the concerns for when you’re negotiating with actual individual writers.