“Experience is the best teacher”.
Proverb, origin unknown
Becoming a professional writer can seem like a catch-22 situation. Publications, editors, and clients seem unwilling to give you a chance if you don’t have an extensive portfolio, but you need someone to give you a chance before you can get that portfolio started. What is an aspiring writer to do?
Don’t panic! I was in this position not all that long ago. Almost every writer has been there at one time or another. Read on, and I’ll show you a few strategies to get your first publication anyway.
Once you’ve landed the first one or two, you’ll find it much easier to get more. After that, your writing portfolio will grow with surprising speed.
Write on spec
As a general rule, I don’t like the idea of professionals doing work on spec (creating the work without having a guaranteed buyer for it). It’s not the norm in any other industry, so why should it be the norm in creative industries? However, while you’re trying to get your first publication, writing on spec can be a good strategy.
Be aware that not all publications like to receive work on spec. Some prefer pitches only, so that they can work with the writer to shape the piece. Always read the guidelines and target those publications that will accept work for consideration on spec. Then make the piece as good as you can possibly be.
Tap into your network
Is there someone in your personal or professional network that you can write for? They might hire you for a small assignment, allow you to write a guest post for their website (more on that in a minute), or even have contacts at a suitable publication.
One of my first ever non-fiction publications was for Peace Matters, the UK’s pacifist magazine. I got the opportunity thanks to my friend and former housemate, Symon, who works for the organisation that publishes it. Way back before I even went to University, I also got to write for a now-defunct blog run by a friend of my parents.
My point is that you probably have more potential opportunities in your network than you think. So reach out to people and ask!
Write guest posts
A guest post is a piece of content you write for someone else’s website. Many people do guest posting for SEO purposes, because it builds backlinks to your website (which means that Google will rank your site higher in relevant search results).
Most guest posting opportunities are not paid. The understanding tends to be that you get a backlink and a publication under your name, while the site gets free content. But as a portfolio-building exercise, it’s worth the time when you’re starting out. Don’t forget to include a link back to your professional website or blog in your guest post – no point wasting that valuable link juice!
Since guest posts are usually unpaid, the barrier to entry is somewhat lower than for paid work. However, you’ll still need to pitch relevant ideas and produce top-notch content.
Want to learn more about how to guest post? I wrote a piece on just that for one of my clients! (A guest post about guest posting. How meta.)
Start a blog
People who might hire you to write need to understand one thing: that you can write.
But paid writing work isn’t the only way to demonstrate that. Starting a blog can be a great way to showcase your writing skills and build an audience. If you work at it consistently, you could even monetise your blog later on.
Pro tip: make sure your blog is on a subject you truly love and are excited to write about, otherwise you won’t stick with it.
Remember: just because your blog isn’t subject to outside editorial scrutiny, this doesn’t mean you can let standards slip. You still need to ensure the content is of the highest possible quality if you want to use it as proof of your ability to write well.
Competitions are particularly useful for fiction writers, since they’re so ubiquitous. But there are also writing competitions for screenwriters, playwrights, poets, non-fiction writers, and even journalists. I got one of my first ever professional publications through winning a fiction writing competition.
Choose a competition or two to enter, and get going. You’ll probably need to enter a few before you get anywhere, but every single one will make you a better writer and get your closer to your goals. And if you do win? You’ll get a nice prize, a publication for your portfolio, and the ability to call yourself a “prize winning writer”. Nice.
You can find competitions by doing a simple Google search or by subscribing to a publication like Writing Magazine.
Is there an organisation, charity, or cause you’re passionate about? If so, why not offer yourself to create some content for them on a voluntary basis?
While large charities now have their own in-house marketing and content teams, many smaller organisations don’t – they simply don’t have the budget or resources to do so. They might be only too glad to have someone create some social media content, write for their blog, or revamp their website copy at no charge.
Writing on a voluntary basis for a charity or cause-based organisation has a number of benefits. Aside from building a portfolio of work to show off, you will also learn more about working to a brief, writing to deadline, and creating content that is aligned with a particular mission and brand voice. If you do a good job, you also stand a good chance of getting a testimonial out of it!