Article by Jess Gately
Image from Canva Free Stock Images
The last few posts have been a whirlwind of information! While it may feel daunting and overwhelming, our resident professional freelancers Ruth Dawkins, Lindy Alexander and Abby Alexander are here to help you break it all down. So, what do they have to say about portfolios, pitching, and finding work?
How did you find work as a freelancer when you first started out and didn’t have much of a portfolio?
Ruth: I did a few things. Firstly, I wrote a regular blog on the topics I wanted to write about (travel and parenting, mainly) so that people could get a really good sense of my writing style, and I could demonstrate that I had an interested audience for my work. Secondly, I did a handful of free pieces, either for sites I cared about or sites that reflected the areas where I wanted to develop a reputation. I don’t recommend doing that for long. It’s important to value your time, but as an example, when I moved from the UK to Tasmania and was starting to establish myself I wrote two pieces for a non-paying travel publication about Tassie and having those in my portfolio has then led to several paid pieces with more prestigious publications. Third, I did some skill swaps with friends—for example, I needed a logo for my website and a graphic designer friend needed some product descriptions written for her Etsy site, so we exchanged skills and helped each other out. Finally, I just called on the people I already knew—former colleagues from other jobs, my kid’s school, people I’d met at networking events—and I let them all know that I was available for work. Every single job I’ve had as a copywriter has led to another job—through a recommendation—so as soon as you have your foot in the door even a little bit, it becomes much easier.
Lindy: I just pitched and pitched. My first gig was for a well-paying publication and I didn’t have any samples to show, but I did draw on my professional background (as a social worker) to get the pitch over the line. So, if you have a professional background, use that as a way to sway an editor. It can also help writing for smaller, more intimate, publications or even publications that don’t pay but that will treat your work with respect and edit your work judiciously.
Abby: I think I may still be at that stage, to be honest. I was lucky to have a bit of a portfolio from internships and work experience I had done when I was 18, but there was a lull for a couple of years while I was settling into uni and figuring out what I was going to do (I still don’t know but I have made peace with that now). Building up experience post-lull was really hard—I ended up getting a contract position that made a really big difference and attending industry networking nights can be really useful.
Have you used any third-party groups/websites to get work? If so, who and what was the experience like?
Ruth: I’ve picked up a couple of things through private Facebook groups for writers but nothing beyond that.
Lindy: I have used Commtract a couple of times and it’s been a great experience. In general though, I try to find clients myself rather than go through third-party websites or agencies. I do think it’s important for freelancers to paddle out into the deep end when they are looking for clients. So many just want to fish in the shallows —and there’s lots of other freelancers there!
Abby: I do from time to time but it’s usually not very good. Often they want you to work for really cheap or they take a really long time to pay your invoices. Facebook groups are a little different—because the work is linked to someone’s personal profile, there is more accountability.
What’s the most valuable advice you were ever given about pitching?
Ruth: Keep it short! Editors are busy and don’t have time to read 800-word pitches. A couple of sentences on your idea and why it’s a good fit for that publication, and then a couple of sentences about why you’re the best person to write it (with a link to your site or portfolio) is all that you need.
Lindy: That it’s a numbers game. That a rejection or silence from editors doesn’t mean you should quit—it may not be the right time for a particular story, the editor may just have commissioned the exact same story or be running a similar one or they may not have the budget—we don’t always get that insight but it’s important to see rejections as a step closer to success, tweak that pitch and try to find a home for it elsewhere.
Abby: To keep it short and sharp. And to be polite. Editors go through so many pitches, so yours has to stand out. Put the gist of your pitch in the subject line, tell them if its urgent or time sensitive, and address them properly.
Want to learn more?
We’ll be covering a lot more in future segments of the Freelance Writing series but, in the meantime, if you want more information, head on over to our guest’s websites and check out their wonderful resources.
Ruth Dawkins: http://ruthdawkins.net
Abby Alexander: www.abbywrites.co