Writing Samples: What if I haven’t been published?

One of the biggest challenges in starting out as a freelance writer is getting your first article published. But to get published, you need show editors what you can do. How do you do that when you’ve never been published before?

I faced this problem when I first went freelance in April 2008 (feels like yesterday). I’d been working as a banker for over a year and held previous jobs in software testing, research and teaching. I decided to quit my job and give this writing-for-a-living malarky a go but was left with a dilemma: to get published, I’d need to demonstrate to editors that I can write. But how would I do that without samples of published work? The ultimate writer’s Catch-22!

My solution was to think a bit more broadly about “published work”. I ended up taking samples from teaching material, flyers and a few of my better blog posts and turning them into “writing samples” for my online writing portfolio. With the help of my portfolio (and a good pitch) I was able to land my first commission, an article on endorphins for The Daily Telegraph. After that, my arsenal of “published” writing samples only grew.

Just because you don’t have any published clips or writing samples doesn’t mean disaster – we all have to start somewhere. Here are a few tips for dealing with clips in the early stages of your career.

Think again

If you want to be a freelance writer, chances are you’ve already done some writing. Consider these possible sources for your writing clips:

  • Business reports
  • Technical manuals
  • Copywriting
  • Blog posts
  • Sales letters
  • Press releases
  • Newsletters

Write sample articles

Write a couple of articles in the genre you’d like to write for and be your own editor. Make sure these articles represent your best work and give them the same amount of attention you would to a paid article. Who knows, you might be able to sell them someday.

Publish online

Start a blog or offer to write guest posts on other people’s blogs. This is a great way to build up your portfolio and gain exposure to your work at the same time.

Go for small publications

Many small publications and local newspapers are more willing to take a chance on an unknown writer. You can also try pitching shorter pieces to magazines as fillers.

Query without clips

Don’t let a lack of clips keep you from pitching ideas. Simply write a great query and don’t mention clips at all. Instead, talk up other aspects of your experience that makes you right for the job. As always, play up your strengths and omit the weaknesses. Most importantly, keep writing!

Things you shouldn’t do

  • Write on spec. Some may disagree, but I think life is too short to work for free, so unless you’re writing about something you’d write about anyway because you just can’t help yourself, don’t spend the time until you’re sure you’re going to get paid. Professional writers get paid for their craft, and there’s monetary value in what you do.
  • Don’t acknowledge your lack of writing samples. All professional freelance writers have writing samples – that’s what you are, right?

In fact, that last point is the most important point of all: if you want people to take you seriously as a writer, YOU need to take yourself seriously as a writer. That means creating a presence that tells the world “hi, I’m a professional”. You don’t need a huge collection of published work to do this. You simply need a little creativity and confidence.

Position yourself as a professional writer in your pitches, online profiles and especially on your website, not only through your writing samples, but in the words you use to describe yourself on your home page and about page. Soon enough, you’ll have more writing samples than you can keep up with.

8 new themes and a fresh look!

8 New Writer's Residence Themes

Rob and Alice, the lovely folk at Wired Canvas—a multi-disciplinary, full service design agency in London—have done a smashing job over the past couple of months producing 8 wonderful new themes for our writers to choose from.

To check them out click the “Theme” tab after you log in to Writer’s Residence.

We think these new themes will show off your writing beautifully.

Wired Canvas refreshed our website at the same time and we’re delighted.

When publications won’t pay what’s due


In my three years of freelancing, I’m lucky that I’ve had very little experience with publications that don’t pay. However, I was recently owed £250 by a magazine that published my article then didn’t pay within 30 days of my invoice.

After a couple months of chasing (through email and telephone) I got serious and sent them a “statutory demand”, a formal written request to the debtor for the payment. The publication paid up within a day.

For folks in the UK, a statutory demand is a REALLY handy thing to know about, and you can read all about them and get a template for one at direct.gov.uk:

Use a statutory demand to recover a debt

Another handy guide is from the National Union of Journalists London Branch:

Late payment – How freelances can chase up late payers

I only just found the NUJ’s resource while writing this post and I wish I had it sooner – apparently I was entitled to £40 compensation on each late invoice. (Good incentive for invoicing publishers separately for each piece of work.) Well, it’s probably too late now, but good to know for next time, though let’s hope this doesn’t happen for a very very long time.

Image credit: free-stock

My Writing Day

Linda Jones of Freelancewritingtips.com wrote an entertaining and fascinating post this week called “My writing day”, which basically does what it says on the tin: it describes a day in the life of a freelance writer, editor and mom.

I love posts like these that dive into the nitty gritty of one specific person’s experience. It just goes to show how everyone’s is different. While Linda is dealing with her 12-year-old twins and responding to pitches, others have different responsibilities.

So here’s my writing day, written based on today. Of course, this changes every day, but such is the life of a freelancer – always changing, never predictable, but always free.

My writing day

Home office

I wake up at 5:15am because I’m a morning person. As soon as I’m awake I think of all the things I have to do. This is both exciting and annoying.

I get out of bed, turn on the kettle and prop my laptop on the kitchen counter. There I stand for the next hour drinking a cup of tea and finishing whatever it was I started the night before. Today it was a short blog post on composting. I do my best writing in the morning.

After my tea I’m feeling a little more energetic, so head to the gym to lift some weights. I’m tired today. Sore. Could have used more sleep. But I push on, and feel good for having done something (one is better than zero).

Then I come home and have a smoothie and a cup of decaf coffee. By now it’s 8:15am and the dog is giving me that “is it time to go for a walk yet?” look, so I give in and take him for a half hour romp in the fields.

Home again. The need to start working is nagging at me. But toast with almond butter and tea sound nice. So I get that all set up, and as the clouds descent on what was a sunny day, I decide this is a good day to work from bed.

It’s just past 9am. Right. In my mind I list three things I’ve been meaning to do – follow up with an editor on an unpaid invoice, email one of my clients with some edits to some marketing material, and write a proposal for another client for a bit of social media writing I want to do. I tell myself “get it done in an hour”. And I push.

I make the 1-hour deadline, and it’s on to the next thing: a blog post due Wednesday for another client. This one requires some research. I both love and hate research. It’s fun searching Google and reading about things, but it always feels like fake work for me. Nevermind, I can charge for it. Life is good.

Research is exhausting, even when done in bed. So I stretch my legs with another dog walk, and decide it’s time for lunch. Or rather, brunch. It’s only 11:30am, but I’m famished. Over the weekend I made some salsa and sauteed a bunch of onion, potato and green pepper. This made brunch a simple matter of heating up the potato mixture, adding egg and salsa, and viola: a mexican scrambled egg concoction that really hit the spot. Quick but nutritious lunches are essential for the busy freelancer – I often get the nutritious part right, but not so much the “quick” part. Such is the joy of working from home – ultimate freedom to make involved lunches of fresh baked breads, complicated soups and endless salads with homemade vinaigrettes. But then – whoops! – the day is gone, and nothing got done.

I did not fall into that trap today.

Back to work (and back to bed). There’s an instant message from a client. He’s got two requests: one for a bit of copywriting for his website, the other a blog post. I say “I’ll have this done by 3pm” because I like to set myself deadlines. This keeps me busy for a couple of hours. Then I have a call with another client whose blog I write for to discuss content for the week. It’s getting late in the afternoon, and my creativity starts to wane. Time for another dog walk.

Back at home I’m not in the mood for much writing, so I do some networking instead. I check in on Twitter where I am once again overwhelmed by the numerous online presences I’ve created for myself and promise to make time to consolidate it all at some point. But not right now, because we’re approaching the dinner hour. Time to relax with some Radio 6 and a vegetable-chopping session.

I feed the dog and feed myself then clean up and turn on the kettle. It’s the home stretch and I like to use my evenings to work on fun projects like photography or SmarterFitter. Today, it’s Writer’s Residence. So I wrote this. But I probably won’t publish it until the morning, so I can give it once last look with fresh eyes. Then again, I’m feeling sassy tonight – maybe I’ll just go for it.

Unfortunately, getting up at 5:15am means I’m pretty wiped by about 8:30pm… which was 13 minutes ago. So I make myself a cup of tea, and then tell Jay dog that “it’s time for sleep”. Dog gets a floor cuddle before the end of the day, so I sit on the floor with him and tell him he’s a good boy until he gets over excited and I say “fine, be that way.” Then I get into bed with my tea and a book – Margaret Atwood’s “Blind Assassin” at the moment. But I usually only get through a few pages before I pass out like a lump.

Graphic: The Writing Process

Ed Yong of Discover Magazine recently published this brilliant graphical representation of the process of writing a feature. Can you relate? I know I can, with a particularly long stop at the “it seems I’ve forgotten how to write” stage.

Source: discovermagazine.com

Top Tips for Writers from Famous Authors

I just discovered, thanks to Melody Godfred’s delightful Write in Color blog, an equally delightful series in The Guardian called Rules for Writers. The series features famous authors like Jonathon Franzen, Margaret Atwood, and Zadie Smith, who offer their shirt, pithy tips on writing.

Their advice reflect a certain practicality and sense of humour that must only come after “making it” in the big time. Some of my favourites:

Margaret Atwood:

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

Will Self:

You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

Elmore Leonard:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

Roddy Doyle

Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.

Read more: Rules for Writers [The Guardian]

How to Survive as a Writer in the Real World

When I became a full-time freelance writer in 2008, I dreamed big dreams of lucrative commissions for national magazines, free meals at fancy restaurants, overnight stays at flash hotels and the thrilling rush of impossibly tight deadlines.

Luckily I reserved most of my dreams for sleep-time, and spent my waking hours facing the stark reality of what it’s like to get into freelance writing with zero experience in the freelance marketplace:

  • I had no magazine or newspaper clips
  • Most editors, especially for big publications, won’t take a chance on a newbie writer with no credentials
  • I have bills to pay, and it was hard enough getting one paid commission; to get enough work to make a full-time living felt impossible
  • There were already loads of people out there established as professional writers; how could I compete with them?

Almost two years later, I’m still a full-time freelancer, still making ends meet, but still nagged by these same concerns from time to time. Which is why I really liked yesterday’s article on Freelance Folder by Laura Spencer about how to survive in the crowded freelance writing marketplace. There she listed some very good reasons why it’s still possible to compete and suggests a few ways to strengthen your freelance writing brand.

One of her points rang especially true to my experience:

Consider the more lucrative writing fields of copywriting or business writing. While it’s nice to have a byline, it’s even nicer to get paid. Businesses have the money to pay and the need for writers.

It’s not exactly press passes and celebrity interviews, but business writing is a great way to stay afloat while you establish yourself in more journalistic roles.

I currently work part-time writing marketing reports and copywriting. This takes up about 75% of my working week; the rest I spend on my own projects and writing endeavors. Sure, I might establish myself more quickly as a writer if I devoted myself to pitching full time; but I’ve gotta make a living, and the business writing makes it possible.

It’s all about doing whatever it takes to enable the next step. Right now I’m about 75% business writing / 25% my own stuff. Next year that might be 65% / 45%, who knows.

For me, one of the most important points is that I’ve stayed freelance this whole time. So even if I go into a business environment, I’m still calling the shots, still keeping my head high as an independent contractor. It may not sound like much, but the confidence boost of going freelance is huge, and it just keeps pushing you harder and harder to stay freelance, and to make the next job that much more awesome.

So while you’re figuring how to be awesome yourself, go check out Laura’s piece for some great advice:

How to Survive in the Crowded Freelance Writing Marketplace

How to Increase Traffic to Your Website

Traffic: it’s one of the most sought after commodities on the web, both for our Writer’s Residence users, and for anyone with a website or blog. So how do you increase traffic to your web site? This was the subject of a recent thread on the Absolute Write forums. Amongst the ideas:

  • Participate in forums
  • Post enticing links on Twitter
  • Leave comments on other people’s blogs
  • Publish interviews with people in your niche

It all boils down to two pretty basic things: post high quality content and develop relationships with people in your niche. Although some may argue that you can do some fancy stuff with search engines and key words, there really is no magical, automated way to get your website out to the masses.

The best way is to be consistent, and genuine.

I like how writer Lisa Spangenberg puts it:

You increase traffic to your blog by writing well…by participating in the conversation…by saying interesting things expressed well… Ultimately, it’s all about the quality of the conversation and the quality of the writing.

I love that the web has transformed marketing from a PR-driven chore to something fun, creative and social. It’s truly a great time to be a writer!

New Feature: Upload your head shot or logo to the About Me page

Another feature win by popular demand.  As of today,  you have the ability to upload your head shot or logo to the About Me page.

Simply log in to Writers Residence and click on the About Me page.  From the bottom of the page click on the Browse button.  Select the photo or logo you want to upload, then click Save.

Now click on the ‘view site’ link and see how it looks.

We hope you enjoy this feature, as it provides another way for you to personalise your portfolio.

If you have any questions, or need assistance please contact support@writersresidence.com.

Welcome to Camella, the third member of the WR team!

We’re delighted to welcome Camella Tierney to the Writer’s Residence team.

Camella will be helping us with our customer support.

I’ve worked with Camella for the past year on another project and she’s one of those rare people who really gets what it means to look after customers.