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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Never Been Published? Nailing your First Assignment (Part 1)

Brand-new to freelancing? Or have you been attempting to get published without any success? This post is for you. 
When I started freelancing, I had no experience, no connections, and no clue. I didn’t have a journalism degree, and everything I knew about freelancing I’d learned from reading books like Writer’s Market. But I hadn’t been living under a rock for thirty years. I’d had a life—at least something of one. I’d graduated from college and law school. I’d worked as a lawyer for more than five years. I’d experienced a “starter marriage.” I’d gained 45 pounds (yikes!) my freshman year of college, and then lost the weight and kept it off. I’d flirted with vegetarianism and then committed to it in my late 20s. I was a child of divorce who’d grown up in a blended family. I’d been a runner for more than a decade.
I could go on and on, but here’s my point: Nearly all of my first assignments as a new freelancer were topics I had some experience with. And that's not a coincidence.  
For example, as a young, unhappy lawyer, I changed jobs four times in five years. That experience led to my first freelance sale—a piece on surviving your last two weeks on the job—to Cosmopolitan. My next sale was a story on avoiding legal problems as you plan your wedding. At the time I pitched it, I was planning my second wedding—and I was a lawyer, remember? That piece sold to Bride’s.
Other sales followed, and I realized that while I was sending out dozens of queries, the pitches that were getting assigned all had something in common. The personal experience I had with the subject matter seemedto make up for my lack of actual writing experience. Here’s how I used my background to garner some of those assignments:
          *My husband and I were both in our late 20s when we met, and each had our own apartments. When we moved in together (I relocated to live with him), we had some disagreements about whose furniture should go where, how we’d decorate, and what we’d keep and what we’d get rid of. With the average age of newlyweds continuing to rise, I figured this topic—combining two households—would be a great topic for a bridal magazine. I sold the piece to Bride’s.
          *Remember how I’d toyed with vegetarianism? That’s why a story in the local paper on a new vegetarian group caught my idea. I happened to know the founder of the group through a businesswomen’s group I was a member of, and pitched a piece on how to create your own local vegetarian group (this was long before Facebook and other social media) to Vegetarian Times and it sold. My editor was so happy with my work that she assigned several other stories to me afterwards.
          *I’d met my husband through a “fix-up,” and while we clicked immediately, it was a case of opposites attracting. I’m a natural extrovert; Erik, not so much. Yet after years of dating fellow extroverts (who are great, really!), I found that my perfect mate was on the introverted side. That led to a pitch for a story titled, “When Opposites Attract,” which sold to For the Bride. The story gave advice to newlyweds on how to recognize and appreciate each other’s differences, and was the beginning of a decade-long relationship with the magazine.
          *My pastor was training for RAGBRAI, or the Register’s Annual Great Race Across Iowa, and using the event to raise money for charity. I pitched a piece about him for the religion section of the local newspaper, which assigned it. The story only paid $75, but it was a fun profile to write and helped me get other work from the features editor at the paper.
Get the idea? So start thinking about the topics and areas you already have a background in and can pitch to get your first few assignments. Once you gain experience, you have a good shot of getting other work, but starting out it makes a huge difference to pitch ideas you’re what I call “uniquely qualified” to write.
Trust me, you already know more than the average person about a variety of subjects. Take your employment history. When I first started freelancing, I’d already worked at a variety of jobs. I’d done everything from practice law to deliver pizzas to lifeguard. I’d sold donuts and filed dental insurance claims. I even served drinks at a country western bar, where I briefly dated a fiddler named Jesse. But I digress.
No, I couldn’t sell an idea based solely on my experience politely telling a 60-something geezer to get his hand off my butt, pronto, or on running a snack bar during “adult swim time,” when hungry children swarmed the window waving their parents’ $20 bills. If I pitched a piece on say, how to handle sticky work situations or discipline children that didn’t belong to you, I’d still have to plan on doing additional research and conducting interviews with experts and real people. But I could use my unique background to get my foot in the door as a new writer.
So if you're brand-new to the freelancing biz, think about your life, and start making a list of all of the subjects you could write about. Don’t stop with your own experiences. Think too about people you know and/or have access to, like I did with my pastor. Your friends, your family, your neighbors, your coworkers—they’re more than people you know. They’re potential article ideas! 
Next up, the best market for a new writer to pitch! 
***This post was drawn from Dollars and Deadlines: Make Money Writing Articles for Print and Online Markets. It's aimed at brand-new freelancers who want to go from unpublished to published and paid--and includes a special offer just for readers that I've never seen an author offer before. The Kindle edition is available now; the print edition will be available by March 30. 
More seasoned freelancers will be more interested in Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer's Guide to Making More Money, Second Edition, which is now available on Kindle (coming soon in print)! This freelancing classic has been updated to include chapters on markets and book writing; new queries/templates; advice on social media and blogging; advice on the latest ways to make money; and tips on adding corporate work to your freelance repertoire.  


  1. Thank you very much for your post. It is encouraging to see someone who has made a big career change. I am dealing with just that situation. I am licensed as a counselor and as a marriage and family therapist, but because of the job market I got into a subset of mental health, mental health rehabilitation (MHR). Suffice it to say, it has provided me with enough angst to begin to pursue writing. When I first thought about wanting to write, I envisioned myself writing essays (literary and humorous), book reviews and maybe some researched articles. I now see--by reading your blog and The Renegade Writer blog--that won't begin to cut it. Yet the pain of the last two years has pushed me to the point of doing whatever I have to do to move out of MHR. And now I can see I have to use my experience in the mental health field to get started into writing and as a parent.(I read two earlier posts you wrote on "Using Your Children As Money-Makers"--I have three young children--and that got me motivated.) But after the last few months (I began working at two MHR agencies--talk about out of the frying pan into the fire!), hell, if I had to cut grass in 100-degree heat every day, I would do it. Thank you letting me vent. I'll let you know down the road how it goes. Thank you again.

    Mark D. Haase

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mark! You're right--essays won't cut it. Think about articles and other pieces you can write for a variety of markets, including corporate or nonprofits, to start with and you can always branch out from there. Good luck and keep me posted! :)