How to bring in the clients when you have no clips, no credits, and no contacts.
It’s a chicken-and-egg situation.
To get clients to hire you, you need to show previous work. But in order to show previous work, you need clients to hire you.
So, if you’re a new freelancer with no clips, are you stuck? Are you screwed? Do you say bye-bye to that dream of freelancing and go get that “steady job” if only so that you can amass some clips?
Trust me, I’ve been there.
When I first started out as a freelance writer, I was a 19-year-old college student in India. Not only did I have no clips, credits, or contacts, I’d never actually had any kind of professional writing experience. All I knew was that I wanted to write—and that I didn’t want to have to get a job in order to do it.
Here’s what I did. And if, like me, you have a lot of heart, but no samples, what I recommend you do to get those first few assignments.
1. Donate your writing services
If you’re starting out with no clips, consider giving away your writing services—say, 10 pages of editing for the winner—at a charity auction or as a contest prize. There are hundreds of websites and newsletters, not to mention local groups, that are often looking for prizes to give away.
Offer to write website copy or put together a brochure for a local business competition, and not only will you have a clip for your portfolio, but increased visibility for your writing business as well.
2. Create samples from existing work
If a corporate client wants to see examples of whitepapers you’ve written, but all you’ve done until now is feature articles, could you perhaps take one of those features and turn it into a whitepaper?
This way, you’re using your existing work to create something in a different format, but that can act as an excellent sample.
3. Work for a nonprofit or a friend’s business
Let me be straight with you: You’ll never get top dollar from friends and family.
I’m always cautious about mixing business and pleasure because all that does is suck the pleasure out of my business. Even though you may be doing them a favor by charging far less than you should, working with close family can be tricky because it’s difficult to set boundaries or refuse unreasonable demands.
Still, when you’re starting out and have little to no experience, asking someone in your network if you can do a quick job for them on the cheap can help pad up that portfolio.
Locate website designers or photographers who are starting out in their own careers and reach out to ask if they’ll do a swap. You’ll write the copy for their website or marketing materials for their business if they agree to provide the design and/or photography for yours. It’s best to ask someone who’s on a similar career progression because:
1. Your services are likely to cost the same, which makes it a fair trade, and
2. They’re more likely to say yes.
For the most part, magazine and newspaper editors will still assign stories to writers based on the strength of their pitches and not their credentials. So roll up your sleeves and learn how to write an excellent pitch with an idea that’s perfect for your target market.
You can read my book, The Freelance Writer’s Guide to Query Letters That Sell, for instruction and inspiration. Readers have received assignments from The New York Times, National Geographic, CNN, The Economist, and more.
6. Sign up for Upwork
Upwork is one of the many websites where freelancers can sign up to bid on freelance projects. While there is some high-paying work available on Upwork and other freelancing websites, it’s typically a place where businesses come to find low-cost freelancers. Plus, with hundreds of people bidding for a single job, it’s not the most effective use of your time. Still, when you’re new, grabbing a few projects on the platform can give you experience in working with clients and work to showcase in your portfolio.
During the dark days of an exceptionally bad year in my career, I signed up for oDesk and landed two jobs—a one-off gig for $40 an hour, and 20+ hours of work each week for $20 an hour. While the projects were neither exciting nor long-lasting, they kept the lights on when I needed the money, and helped me move on to bigger and better things.
If you’re hungry for clips, a couple of gigs on any of these platforms should get you set up for targeting clients with actual money to spend.
7. Write guest posts for blogs and newsletters
You’re looking for clips, not prestige here, so go for the easy wins. As long as you understand their audience and provide value, most small websites and blogs will happily allow you to write for them, regardless of your credentials or publication history.
8. Write personal essays and opinion pieces
Personal essays, humor columns, or opinion pieces, even in some of the largest publications in the world, are sold on spec. Rather than assigning you a story, the editor will read the piece first to decide whether they want to run it. Since you’re selling the story on the strength of that piece alone, the lack of clips is not a problem here.
Write and sell as many of these as you can, and send them far and wide. I’ve had many students break into top publications such as The New York Times and Boston Globe on their first try with personal essays and opinion pieces.
9. Offer your services to freelancer friends
Have writing friends who trust you and might subcontract some of their overflow to you? Ask them. You could start by transcribing an interview or researching something for a story they’re writing, and gradually build up to taking over more responsibility as their career grows. Many successful freelancers often have more work than they can handle and might be willing to direct jobs they’re unable to take your way.
A word of caution: Don’t ask this of freelancers you don’t know. While I know many freelancers who’ll happily pass on names of freelancer friends to editors when they’re too busy to take on those assignments, none of them do it for people they’ve never heard of.
10. Highlight your life experience
I started freelancing while still a college student in India. I was studying software engineering, which I hated, but I was fascinated by consumer technology, which I loved. I wrote to several technology and consumer publications asking if I could write for them, highlighting the fact that I was currently studying to be a computer engineer. Not only did I get assigned stories by several technology publications, I landed a column in a top US magazine and received a job offer from a national Indian one.
11. Find exclusives
The bread and butter of journalists and something you might as well start practicing right away. If you can offer access to a story or a source that no other reporter can, you become indispensable. It could be a story you’ve identified in a regional newspaper that no one else has picked up (how I got my start with The New York Times), or access to a hard-to-reach source. While access can be difficult, story ideas are everywhere.
Find excellent ones and the lack of clips will cease to be a problem.
(Read my book The Freelance Writer’s Guide to Query Letters That Sell to learn how.)
12. Be bold
Finally, be bold. Despite having no clips and no contacts, I sold 100 pieces in my first year of freelancing. Believe me, I didn’t always have the credentials or the confidence for the job. But I applied anyway. I pitched anyway. I wrote anyway. I got by through sheer determination and self belief in the beginning and then, as my experience started building and I had more to show, my career started progressing naturally.
But it started with me and my belief in myself. Because I believed I could do the job, I was able to convince editors and clients to trust in my abilities as well.
Whether you’re a new freelancer with no clips or someone with experience in one type of writing who is trying to break into a new area, your lack of clips and experience doesn’t have to hold you back from a prolific and profitable career.
Use the tips above to bring in your first few clients, and before you know it, you’ll have more work than you can handle. Good luck!
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.
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