The 13 steps that resulted in 100 paid writing credits in my first year as a freelance writer.
If you know nothing else about your first year of freelancing, know this: you have, right now, the same level of experience as every successful writer had when they started out. None.
In looking back over my own 20+ years as a freelance writer, the decisions I made in my first year of freelancing acted as the basic building blocks for what would become a profitable writing career. When I first started freelancing, I had never written anything for publication, I had no experience (I was still in college), I had no contacts, and I certainly had no clue.
But during that first year, I had over 100 bylines, some in national magazines, others in small websites that no one had ever heard of.
How did I do it? Here’s the lowdown.
1. I wrote about anything
I often tell new writers not to be too quick to pick their specialization. In your first year of freelancing, explore everything, try everything, do everything. Over time, it will become clear not only what your own interests are, but which areas of the market are the most profitable. Hopefully, the two will overlap, but if they don’t, it allows you to make an educated decision about your career and the path you want to follow.
My career was a blank slate when I first started writing, so I wasn’t picky. If an assignment paid, I took it. There was no topic I wasn’t willing to learn and write about.
2. I wrote for anyone
As with subject areas, I wasn’t picky about the type of clients I’d write for or what kind of work I was open to. I wanted to write for national magazines and newspapers, but that didn’t stop me from doing copywriting for a major mobile network, writing content for a big international camera company, publishing bad poetry, and submitting my fiction.
I took jobs on bidding platforms, published articles in online newsletters, and while there were few blogs back then, there were niche sites and I wrote for a lot of them.
3. I got a job with a magazine
During my first year of freelancing, I pitched an article to a national magazine in India. Once I’d submitted it, they offered me a job.
I took it and freelanced on the side while I worked full time at this magazine and studied for my college exams. When I left after a few months (the 9-5 life really wasn’t for me), I continued writing for them. This allowed me to keep adding clips to my portfolio, but what the magazine experience really did is that it taught me to write hard and fast, and without obsessing over every word.
4. I wrote dozens of shorter pieces
My 100 pieces in that first year weren’t all feature articles. Some were quick news stories, some were book reviews, some were sidebars, some were round-ups, many were how-to articles for newsletters and websites. I treated my first year of freelancing as a practice run—I took every opportunity I could, and wrote for anyone who’d offer me paying work.
5. I used my strengths
Back when I was a new freelancer, I knew I didn’t want to build a career writing about technology. Still, I was pursuing a degree in Information Technology, and consumer technology has always fascinated me. I knew my degree could help open doors. So I mentioned it whenever I could. The magazine I worked for was a technology magazine. I wrote dozens of tech articles for magazines, websites, and newsletters. And much of the work I pitched showcased my technology affiliations. (I once wrote a piece on how cellphones are designed, which was one of the most fun assignments of my entire career.)
6. I kept my eye on the prize
My goal in my first year of freelancing was not to make money. Income didn’t matter (I was still a student and living with my parents, so I could afford this luxury.) I didn’t work for free, and that I get paid something was my only one rule.
My goal, in that first year, was to build my clips and credits. To get published as quickly and widely as possible. I wrote for anyone who’d have me, and that turned out to be anyone, from national magazines that paid hundreds of dollars to small websites that paid $10 a piece. It didn’t matter because it allowed me to add more clips to my portfolio. And it built confidence.
7. I wrote without assignments
I had very few assignments handed out to me in that first year, so I focused on three things:
I sucked at marketing, and so I used all the time I had available to get proficient at writing pitches. I read writing newsletters and magazines as though I’d be quizzed on the material the next day. And I wrote. A lot.
I wrote personal essays and sold several. I wrote book reviews and submitted them to places that paid for them. And I wrote how-to articles for small email newsletters and websites that only accepted completed submissions.
8. I marketed like crazy
Even though I wasn’t very good at it, I knew that marketing would make or break my career, so I was serious about it from the very first day. Back then, the only marketing technique I knew of was to write pitches. So I wrote the very best ones I could.
Looking back, they were terrible, but I wrote so many there was no option but for me but to improve. Eventually, my pitches started getting personal rejections and further down the line, I started getting bites. In later years, several editors told me that my pitches were among the best they’d ever seen.
9. I asked for more assignments
The moment my first assignment would be done, I’d ask for more work. Or pitch another idea. Or keep the conversation going. I didn’t look for new clients unless there was something happening already with my existing ones. I made sure that all my current clients were being taken care of before I added a new one to my roster.
10. I asked for help
I was a sponge, that first year of freelancing, soaking in absolutely everything I could learn. The first few years of your career are when you learn the most, when you haven’t yet formed opinions on how it should be done, and are much more open to trying new things. You won’t have that same capacity for learning when you’ve reached your $100,000-a-year target and are set in your ways. This kind of intense learning happens only once, when you’re new to the business and will do whatever it takes. You’ll ask for help easily and whenever it’s offered.
I asked for help a lot during my first year.
11. I built relationships with other writers
I knew more writers back when I was struggling than I do now, for two reasons.
- There are a lot more struggling writers than there are successful ones and they all talk and learn from each other, and
- There’s more time to network, both online and offline, when you have fewer clients.
Also, I had more time to learn, experiment, and share my goals with people in the early years of freelancing because I was a young, single freelancer with very few responsibilities. This meant, of course, that my writing network of colleagues was close. We sent each other job leads and recommended one another to our editors. We hired each other when we took on full-time jobs.
A significant part of my first year of freelancing involved networking. It all helped.
12. I never stopped trying
When I got a rejection, I sent another pitch. When an assignment fell through, I plugged the hole in my schedule by writing the first draft of a personal essay. When someone asked what I did, I told them at length about the freelancing life and how I was going to make it.
I never stopped trying and I never stopped believing.
I gave it my all. I was a freelance writer and I never, not once, felt like anything other than that.
13. I refused to let go of my starry-eyed dreams
I’m at eternal optimist. Even when things are actively, dangerously, going south and I can see I’m about to get into big trouble, I’m able to maintain the belief that everything will turn out all right. I acknowledge the trouble, but hang on to my starry-eyed optimism all the same. It’s an insane and weird mix of reality and bluster. And it shares the same space in my brain. I feel fortunate because no matter how bad things get, I almost never freak out or panic.
In my first year of freelancing, I had starry-eyed dreams of a (wildly) successful writing career before I’d even learned how to use a word processor. My accomplishments have exceeded what I set out to do, and I never imagined failing in the ways that I did, but as my experience has grown, my dreams have grown, too. I have even more starry-eyed dreams as I enter my next year as a freelance writer, and I fully intend to achieve them.
I think this faith and determination (as well as a regular practice of journaling about my dreams), more than anything else, is why I wrote and sold 100 articles during my first year of freelancing, and why I continue to grow even today.
After all, if you believe in yourself, other people have no choice but to believe in you, too.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
Sign up for The Wordling
Writing trends, advice, and industry news. Delivered with a cheeky twist to your Inbox weekly, for free.