Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash
How do you gain experience when you have no experience? It is a question that has befuddled college graduates and career transitioners for years, and which is only getting worse in our gig economy. Companies no longer invest in employees from the get-go, they no longer have an interest in improving the people they hire, but instead, seek someone pre-trained and perfect for that one piece of work they need. This is making it even harder to get started when you have no experience.
This new landscape has the frustrating consequence of reinforcing social inequalities because when no one will pay you until you can prove your ability, that means that your first experiences have to be done for free. Kids from richer families can afford to do an unpaid summer internship and land their first byline, or volunteer at a local paper — those that are less well off will meanwhile be working full time to pay for their next semester.
This is an annoying reality, but luckily, whatever your background, even with 0 experience, it is possible to catch up. After all, all you need is to land one writing job, and from then on, you will have experience to showcase.
The question is how do you get that first job. Say you have seen a perfect gig on Upwork, and you need to show your portfolio to apply. Or you’ve got a response from an editor about that pitch you sent, and they’re asking for writing samples.
1. Create Your Medium Page
The advantage of Medium posts is that you can showcase your talent while writing about whichever topic you are most comfortable with. You can draw up a few pieces about something you know well, allowing you to produce content quickly while focusing on structure and style, or you can write about a topic relevant to the job you are applying for.
If you write as a hobby but have so far not shown your work to anyone, Medium is a great place to start posting. You get feedback, you grow more comfortable sharing your work, and you enter a community of other writers. Plus, it encourages you to finish your pieces, and polish them. You can even make money from your work straight away — it might just be a few cents, but depending on how you market and how much you write, you might also start making a solid amount from your writing. However much you make, your Medium articles can be an ideal starting point for your writing portfolio.
2. Create your blog
This takes more time than Medium, as there are more things to format, but you also gain control over your page, and a blog can be a great addition to a website presenting your writing services.
3. Think Back
Are you 100% you don’t have any writing samples to use? Have a think about the work you’ve produced in the past. If you have an interest in writing professionally, I assume that you have at least some experience, even if the pieces you have penned so far have never made it out of your Notes app or torn scraps of paper. Maybe you have written product or restaurant reviews that went long and which, looking back, are actually solid pieces of writing to show to potential employers. Or maybe that angry response you wrote to a troll on Facebook turns out to be such a structured argument that you can make it into an opinion piece or blog post with only a few tweaks.
4. Write mock pieces
This is unpaid labor, but it can be a good solution if you have nothing else to show. Write fake samples of the type of writing service you are offering: this could be descriptions of random products, an interview or feature article about a friend, copywriting for businesses … Just make sure you don’t make up facts or figures, and that your work, even if it is about businesses or products that don’t exist, there are no factual inaccuracies in your piece. Make up a client and a product that are realistic.
5. Write pieces on spec
This is similar to writing mock pieces, except that you write them with a real client in mind, and you are aiming to sell your piece after writing. It involves doing the work with no guarantee of payment, but I recommend this option rather than mock pieces because it actually makes it easier by focusing your work, and it is good practice for writing for a client, taking into account real-life restrictions of style, length, and topic.
Other important tips for beginners
For your first job, focus on having three pieces to show, all well-written, factually accurate and grammatically correct. Ideally, you should have at least one piece similar to the form of the job you are applying for, and one piece that is related — even loosely — to the topic of the job.
Presentation is particularly important as a novice, to make your work seem more professional — even when you have no paid writing to show. Check and double-check your spelling and grammar. Post your articles on your website — making sure it is neat. Minimalist is fine. Messy is not. Rather than sending PDFs, put the titles of your piece in your email with links to your work.
Landing your first paid writing job does require a little effort, but with these hacks, you should be able to produce a small portfolio in less than a day. And once you have your first paid writing job, you may never have to write for free again!
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