FreelancerPro Interview: Building a Writing Career Without Formal Experience
It’s always nice to hear a good success story. That’s what struck me when I read about Andrea Wren. The UK-based freelance journalist successfully made a career out of freelance writing with no previous experience or training. Andrea is proof that as long as you can write well, you can start a thriving writing career at any time.
Q: Give our readers your “story” in a nutshell.
When it came to my higher education I was a late starter, enrolling for my Bachelor’s degree once my son began school. I graduated with a First Class Honors in Applied Human Communication in 1999, working in several jobs before getting recruited as a specialist drug and alcohol worker within a youth offending team in 2000.
I loved this job for a couple of years but after the personal crisis of my son’s father dying in 2002, it became stressful. I ended up having to take time off work with anxiety in May 2004. I was so desperate to change my work-life balance and live on my own terms, it was at this point I decided “I want to be a writer” and follow my childhood dreams.
I began researching exactly how I could make it happen for myself, then started making connections, building a portfolio and contacting editors with ideas. Once I’d returned to work two months later in July, I’d received my first paid freelance writing commission, a travel feature, and was over the moon!
Almost eight years on, I still cannot believe how I managed to create my dream job for myself! My greatest career achievement so far has been the recent six-month column I managed to get commissioned in the Guardian, called “How to Build a Profitable Blog.”
The column is based on a personal endeavor I wanted to take on, working alongside internet marketer Glen Allsopp from ViperChill; someone I respected and wanted to learn from after reading about how successful he’d been. The column runs until Feb. 25 and appears to have gained a lot of interest from many spheres, and has helped many other people start blogging, or even earn money, or achieve charitable goals. I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity.
With regards to other work I do, one of my passions is travel and travel writing, so I’ve managed to forge a way into this niche. I’ve had some incredible press trips and traveled to beautiful places, living in eternal gratitude for these great experiences!
And I’m a business writer too–working for some regional business publications writing on international trade issues. My work isn’t just feature articles though; I also work as a copywriter for a couple of regular clients. I see this as my “bread and butter” income.
Q: Sounds like you really excel at believing in yourself. For those that aren’t as confident, what do you recommend?
Fake it ’til you make it! Visualize yourself as the successful writer (or whatever your freelance field is) that you want to be, and whenever you connect to others, such as editors, see yourself as that accomplished person so that they see it too.
Act like a professional, even if you’re freelancing from your bedroom. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve spoken to editors on the telephone dressed in just my underwear–if only they’d known! And yet I acted like I was in my best business attire. Thankfully!
Also, surround yourself with other positive people who are doing the things that you want to do. Make connections and contacts, and learn from them. Don’t be envious; just see what it is they’re doing and look at how you can emulate their success.
If you’re not very confident, don’t be afraid to ask questions–most people are more than happy to share how it is they got to be great at doing what they’re doing.
Q: Many people talk about following their passion, but the truth is it can be hard, unless you meet a monthly amount of money to pay your bills. Some are lucky enough to have a partner or spouse to lean on financially. What is your advice to people that want to start their businesses ASAP?
Once I’d decided that I wanted to freelance, I was squirreling away my surplus income from my day job into a nest egg fund until I felt that I had enough savings behind me to live off. I also lived very frugally to do this. That money still sits in a bank account, just in case.
So I’d say that if you have the opportunity to save, start doing it right now. Even if you just get enough cash to get by for 3 months, at least you can plow yourself into freelancing at an unrelenting pace to get off the ground.
Otherwise, you may have to consider part-time work to buffer you, and accept it may take a bit longer to get established. As long as you get there, it doesn’t matter if it takes a while, the point is that you’re moving in the right direction.
And cut back on what you spend–ruthlessly.
Q: When you quit your job as a drug counselor, how did you have the financial support while you built up your portfolio?
As mentioned, I had started saving money from the day I knew for sure I wanted to be a freelance writer. I really didn’t spend on anything unneeded, I was very strict. But all my time was used up building my portfolio anyhow, so I didn’t get the chance to be frivolous with my cash!
Even getting a take-out or going for a few drinks at a bar–I just stopped doing all this stuff (except when my boyfriend offered to pay, of course) until I was in a comfortable enough position to start spending again. I employed huge amounts of self-discipline and it paid off. Also, when I actually quit my job I’d been freelancing in my spare time and building up my work outlets, so I knew I had work to do as soon as I left my day job.
If you have the chance, I’d recommend being a position where you build up so much freelance work while you’re still employed that you can barely breathe–then you know it’s time to quit and you will not be strapped for cash!
Q: Agreed. So what is your favorite resource for finding markets for work?
Other freelancers! They are amazing, and not to be underestimated for their kindness and generosity in sharing contacts and advice. Many a freelancer I know has said, “Oh there’s a press trip I can’t make, and it comes with this commission, can you do it instead?” I definitely recommend building up relationships with other freelancers.
Also, I use sites such as Media UK for checking out new markets, but I tend not to go after advertised freelance opportunities anymore. I send my CV and introduction to individual editors or publications that I’m interested in working for and see what comes of it.
Q: What was your biggest query letter blunder?
It was probably one of my very first. I had a scant portfolio at that point and one of the few published pieces I had written was a piece about what men and women truthfully felt about porn. It was a bit of an edgy humor article, something I’d written for an artsy listings magazine. But not really suitable as a sample feature. You can see where this is going.
I cannot believe it to this day that I actually sent a copy of this article with that query letter. The writing itself was actually quite good, but the subject matter did not present the image I should have been presenting!
Q: What is the process like when you’re putting together a story–and after, when it’s submitted to the editor?
I always submit an idea to an editor first and get it commissioned, before writing the story, of course. Once the idea is commissioned it depends on the subject matter really.
I’ll start to gather the material by contacting the relevant experts, hunt case studies down, and then set up interviews. I use various web resources like Response Source in the UK to find my spokespeople and case studies. I also do shout outs through my social media networks and amongst freelancer friends.
Once it comes to writing the story, I just start. I never structure beginning, middle and end. It just seems to be in my head and then all follow along nicely! I may move paragraphs around at the end once editing, but I’ve never been a ‘structuring’ sort of person.
I used to be quite nervous when submitting to the editor, obsessively copy-checking before daring to email the piece. Now I just fire off my copy and forget about it unless the editor comes back for amends.
Q: What is your best tip for people with little writing experience who want to break in to the field?
Contacts, contacts, contacts! Especially with other freelancers doing the work you do. From them you can learn the ropes, seek advice, check your standard of work, and find those all-important inroads into sources of work and revenue.
There is so much scope to network and make connections now with the internet and advent of social media that there is no excuse to say “But I don’t know anyone in this field”. Even if you just start by commenting on the blogs of other people working in your field, connecting though Twitter and online forums/groups–there is just so much out there!
Create some personal relationships and then send a friendly email asking for help. And if a freelancer does offer some support, don’t forget to say thank you. Building a rapport and being grateful for their time is essential. Work won’t come your way without you going out and grabbing it; you have to become skilled at putting yourself in the frame and getting yourself noticed.
The other thing I’d say is don’t let up. Stay single-minded to your goal and if you get a knock, just dust yourself off and get back on track. Develop a skin the thickness of a rhino hide!
Q: Since you didn’t have formal writing training, how do you improve your craft?
I think it’s been a case of a continual process of feedback really. From editors as the years have gone on, when maybe they send my copy back saying “this is good, but can you get rid of this or do that?” and I learn from that. Or, sometimes sending copy to other freelancers who were willing to take a look at my work and offer constructive advice on how I could improve.
I have also spent time reading books about making my craft better, and trying out exercises such as being ruthless with editing my copy. I’ve attended a couple of writing development courses too, when they took my fancy.
I’ve always been fairly confident about my writing though. When I was at university, I got wind from one of my tutors that the external examiners had commented on my excellent mastering of academic language. It was a real boost and sort of carried through!
Q: What’s on the horizon for you as a writer?
My main focus this year is to continue to grow my blog Butterflyist. As mentioned, this has been the case study subject of my Guardian column about blogging, and my aim is to build my own audience here. I’d love to be in a position of being location independent so I can work from anywhere in the world, updating Butterflyist while on the move!
Also, I like the idea of not having to rely on publications to offer me work, earning my living through writing for my own readership instead. I’m very passionate about my niche–helping other people to have the confidence to make changes in their life, for themselves or the world. And inspiring people to travel too!
Cracking a few more travel publications is also on my radar for 2012. There are several magazines I’d like break into and I want to make a concerted effort to start pitching them with some interesting travel angles.
Q:Tell us about travel writing. Not anyone can choose to do it and then get paid to travel and write–how do you “get” there?
I think it was just a real stroke of luck that the first story that I ever had commissioned was a travel feature. I’d been to Amsterdam with my young son, and I thought it would be a good angle to pitch an idea on how to explore Amsterdam with children, while avoiding the less salubrious side of the city.
Anyhow, the feature got commissioned by one of the in-flight magazines, Virgin RedHot (though it doesn’t exist now) and I was as happy as a pig in muck. I didn’t really consider at this time that I’d go on to experience many incredible press trips with solid commissions behind them, but somehow I just seemed to edge into travel writing from there.
I started doing hotel reviews and travel features for sites like handbag.com and iVillage.co.uk, and got myself in front of PRs who had travel clients, so when press trips came along I could get in there first in pitching to magazines.
Travel writing is still only a tiny percentage of my work but I seem to do a couple of ‘big’ trips a year and several smaller weekend breaks, especially hotel reviews. I’ve managed to travel to Bolivia, Canada (Vancouver), the USA (Colorado and Oregon), Morocco, and many parts of Europe, including Italy, Ireland, Norway, Germany, and France on wonderful press trips.
Plus because I do hotel reviews, when I go on holiday or weekend breaks, I can often manage to fix up a few nights in fancy hotels in order to do reviews, so saving me from having to spend much on accommodations!
Now I’m known as a travel blogger, too, so I’m getting even more opportunities and I also blog about travel for one of the UK budget airlines. They provide the trip and pay me to write about it. I love it!