I got a question in the comments on a recent post about how I became a freelance writer. This is the second most frequently asked question I get anytime I have a conversation with someone about work (#1 being “What do you write about?”) so it seemed like a good idea to answer it here and get it out of the way. My personal elevator pitch is terrible (it’s about 70% umm’s and ahh’s) despite the fact that I have to explain what I do and how I ended up doing it all the time.
Maybe I can just start handing people who ask me that question a business card with a link to this post on it? Maybe I can just get better at explaining it. Just ideas.
Anyways, here it is: the story of how I became someone who gets paid to write for a living. It’s not long and maybe not interesting, but it does have a moral. Spoiler alert, the moral is networking. (And having good luck.)
In 2011, I was living in San Francisco and had been working at an environmental non-profit for 2 years. I was working in membership, and spending a lot of time entering member data into computers and talking to members on the phone, but what I did the very best was writing emails to members. I’ve always been good at communicating in writing. My two secrets are these: 1. it comes naturally, and 2. my writing is almost 100% driven by one fact, and that is that I want my reader to like me.
Whether I’m writing an email to a customer or an essay for a professor, I am driven by one question: what does *this person* *want/need* to read? Who am I writing to and what do they want to get out of having read this thing? If you can get good at answering that question, your writing and communication will improve immediately. Your readers will like you. This might be the only secret to writing success. That, and good grammar.
My boss knew I was good at and liked writing member communications, but unfortunately there was only so much of that work that needed to be done. So I started looking for other ways to do that on the side.
I got an email from my college’s alumni network advertising a marketing company that needed part-time writers in March that year. I recognized the name of the company as the place a friend from school worked, so I emailed her asking if that was correct. She confirmed it, so I asked what would happen if I applied. She said I’d probably get it, so I sent in some writing samples and applied, and I did get it.
I started writing short, 500-800 word pieces about things like how to get an online degree in graphic design, which was not especially fulfilling work, but getting paid to write felt good. After doing it for 5ish months, and as we were getting ready to move to Seattle, I decided to try writing full time in my new city.
It was a gamble. In preparation, I had been diligently socking away money for months before the move while I still had a salary, so I had a cushion. I knew my new job would require an adjustment to significantly less money, especially at first. Freelance work often doesn’t pay well (especially when you’re just starting out) and it also comes and goes. If you’re not ready to weather a few rocky months here and there, don’t do it.
As it happened, soon after I arrived in Seattle, my college friend and her boss had moved jobs to a new marketing company that also needed part-time writers. So I applied, got it, and doubled my workload.
To make ends meet, I took another job with a friend of a friend who needed a personal assistant for a couple of months. Once that assignment was over in late 2011, I applied for another personal assistant position with a couple of people from the Seattle tech world, who eventually had me writing copy for an interview series one half of them produced. They taught me how to use Wordpress and how to write things people on the Internet want to read – aka punchy, engaging copy. (This is a skill I’m still working on. Obvs.)
Then in summer 2012, they referred me to a friend of their’s who also needed some writing work done, and with whom I’m now doing the bulk of my writing as she launches her own startup and series of really exciting projects in 2013.
Every person in this story who helped me get my next assignment is the reason I’ve been able to be a writer for the last 2 years. I couldn’t have done any of this without them, and as a result am always looking for ways to pay it forward myself. I refer people to opportunities I see and try to make connections for others who need to get their foot in the door somewhere. And while my network isn’t huge, I’m proud of the people in it and thankful to all of them for helping me get to do something I love.
[PS. If you're curious about any of the things I've worked on, some highlights can be found over on my website.]
I hope that rough outline helps give an idea of how I was lucky enough to turn writing into my job. If you have an idea or goal, tell people what you want to do and be willing to take opportunities as they come (even if they’re just writing weird articles about graphic design classes). Be nice and work really hard. Having other people on your team is the greatest asset you can have.
“Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.” — Henry Ford