Word perfect: how to become a freelance writer

If you’re a graduate wanting to start your career in writing or journalism, freelancing could be for you. Here is some advice on finding opportunities, and building your portfolio

There are more graduates than ever entering an increasingly diminished job market. With opportunities in the arts and media as scarce as they've ever been, graduates are having to be more creative in the ways they earn money and gain experience in their chosen field. Although for many, freelancing is synonymous with living in your pyjamas and rejoicing you're not stuck in a 9-5 job, this wears off pretty swiftly, usually around rent day. However, for those with a flair for the written word, freelance writing can be worthwhile.

Everyone's path to getting freelance work is different, but as long as it leads to money in the bank, they're all just as viable. When starting out, many people turn to websites such as Freelancer, Elance or oDesk where you can bid for work. These can be great for building experience and a portfolio while getting paid for it. Just make sure the employers are verified to avoid getting into a situation where you've spent hours on work for them to conveniently disappear.

When looking to get work for magazines and newspapers, keep pitches short, sweet and interesting. Even if you're sending your fifth in a row of rejected pitches, be polite and professional. If your writing and ideas are interesting and relevant, then you will eventually get a response.

Whichever way you get into freelancing, the absolute key to success is persistence. Chances are you'll get knocked back a fair bit but keeping going is the only way to ensure that you get noticed. Once you've managed to get your foot in the door with a good idea, things should get a little bit easier and more work should start coming your way. Building contacts and maintaining a good relationship is important in any profession but when you're responsible for finding your own work everyday this is even more essential.

The pros

The positives of freelancing as a graduate are numerous. It's incredibly satisfying to be working for yourself and having the responsibility of determining your own workload. Making a living doing what you love is hugely rewarding, and of course it's extremely flexible work. New graduates are generally used to working unusual hours thanks to energy drinks and 24/7 library opening hours. So, if you're most comfortable working late at night or at the weekend, then freelancing may be the way to go. Depending on how much work you manage to get, which can vary wildly, especially when you're just starting out, it also leaves open the possibility of working part-time in something which might pay you a steadier wage.

The cons

It is not steady and it is not always a money maker. Graduate writers are notorious for always working for free, and it's because there are so many people willing to do it that companies simply choose not to pay. This is often wrapped up as a "great opportunity" but it's important to be wise about what's an opportunity to get some great experience, and what's an opportunity for them to get some work done for free. Websites and magazines which don't make a profit but have a wide audience are usually worthwhile writing for, as you're likely to get bigger exposure for your piece than on your own blog or online platform. However, any commercial publication worth its salt should be paying professional writers, just like they pay their designers, printers and publishers.

Freelancing is probably not for people who lack self-motivation. If you don't go looking for work, spending your days shooting off emails and writing pitches, then it is very unlikely the work will come to you. For most people, freelancing does not provide regular work at the beginning. So if you find it stressful not having a steady income then it's worth looking at other options, or indeed getting a second paid job for some initial security.

Graduates should not be afraid of freelancing, in the field of writing it's a fantastic option. It may take a while to break into but this world isn't as closed as you might initially think. The key is to write constantly, pitch all your ideas clearly and concisely to the appropriate publications and don't give up when you get knocked back. Rejection will become like water off a duck's back, which is pretty handy in all areas of your life, and when your work does get the green light, it will all be worth it.

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Laura Kay

The GuardianTramp

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