5 Writing Rules I Broke to Get Unstuck

Carol Tice

by Jessica Lunk

When you’re at the beginning of your career as a writer, sometimes an unlikely opportunity can help you gain the chops you need for bigger and better assignments down the road.

If you’re stuck in a rut and unsure about where to find your first few clients, it’s okay to break a few rules.

Here are five rules I ignored to build my freelance writing business:

1. Rule: Never write for the content mills.

They say: “Getting paid $5.00 an article is unacceptable, and lowers the standard for writers everywhere.”

The content mill was my internship. It was not lucrative, but it did provide me with experience in meeting deadlines as well as meeting the needs of a client. It also introduced me to a wildly important acronym: SEO.

2. Rule: Ask permission.

They say: “If you aren’t welcome, don’t go there.”

In 2009, I fell in love with Etsy. But with debates brewing about whether or not digital material could be sold on Etsy, it was unclear if I could market my writing as “handmade” and set up shop.

So I did it anyway. I sold product descriptions and blog posts, in turn landing several amazing clients. These were my first real, non-content-mill writing assignments, and they helped to build both my portfolio and my confidence as a writer.

3. Rule: Steer clear of Craigslist.

They say: “A gig on Craigslist is low-hanging fruit.”

Good clients will post anywhere to find a great writer. I answered a Craigslist ad looking for a content writer for a new website. The description was nice and Craigslist-y, lacking any details to prove the legitimacy of the business or the request.

I took a chance anyway, and it turned out to be a great opportunity. A retired business owner was starting a new recruiting firm and needed a writer with web savvy. He has been a wonderful client, and my experience with his business and the recruiting industry helped me land my current job.

4. Rule: Have a specialty or niche.

They say: “To be highly sought after, you need to have expertise in a specific subject.”

Unfortunately, you can’t become an expert in a day. And while I recognize the value of an expert opinion, I would have gotten nowhere had I waited to develop one.

Every industry is hungry for a fresh perspective. The more you explore, the more unique your viewpoint, and the better equipped you become to make connections between any subject and the rest of the world.

5. Rule: Don’t copy.

They say: “Be original.”

The best formulas always work, and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to write a great piece. One of my most viral blog posts to date, 5 Habits of Highly Successful Recruiters, follows the tried and true list post structure. It is not an earth-shattering post, but it does its job, compelling people to click and share.

Pursuing a writing career can be tough, so go easy on yourself and avoid turning a ‘rule’ into an excuse not to take action. When in doubt, proceed with enthusiasm.

What rules have you broken to find clients? Leave a comment and share your story.

Jessica Lunk is a copywriter and content marketer at Sendouts. She blogs weekly about the recruiting industry on the Sendouts blog. Follow her on Twitter @jessicalunk.


  1. Holly

    The Etsy idea is very interesting. I have heard of graphic design/logos on Etsy but not writing.

  2. Glori Surban

    Thanks for the Etsy idea!

    I think I’m at the “phase” you just described. I’m testing the waters and trying to really get a hold of freelancing.

    I’m starting slow because that’s the best way for me to learn.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Terri H

    Jessica, your last sentence …”Avoid turning a rule into an excuse not to take action” speaks volumes.

    So many veteran freelance writers like to stress the right way to do things. However, I realized that their way is not the only right way. If I believed only their way worked, I would never do anything and would be getting no where in this journey.

    It’s like I always say, “when you follow all the rules, you miss all the fun”. Honor the “right” way, but don’t be afraid to experiment.

  4. Amy Parmenter

    this is just a great post that underscores the need to be creative and open-minded as you build your business. Love it.

  5. Edie Melson

    Carol, this is a wonderfully confirming post for me. I broke all those rules in the beginning, except Etsy, (never tried that, wish I’d thought of it) and that helped me become a full-time freelancer. I’d like to add one more to your list, DON’T USE A BLOG AS YOUR PRIMARY WEBSITE. I broke that rule and it landed me lots of clients who needed to know what could be done on a blog versus a traditional website.
    I appreciate all the information and wisdom you share here, and constantly refer folks to your site. Thanks & Blessings, Edie

    • Steve Maurer

      I totally agree with you, Edie. Of course, it sometimes depends on the blogging software you use. WordPress is fantastic as it allows you to create static pages (just like a “real” website, and also include a blog (I call them “articles”) that can actually be used as your clips when you are just starting out.

      Thanks for pointing that out!
      To you success,
      Steve Maurer
      Maurer Copywriting

    • Carol Tice

      I agree with you — I think a well-done blog can be a great home base for a writer, especially if you’re looking for freelance blogging work.

  6. Jessica Lunk

    Thanks for your comments everyone!

    A point I’d like to make about Etsy is that it’s value is in having a great community around a niche where relationships can be built and turned into writing assignments. Etsy just happened to work for me at the time, but any place where people are passionate about exchanging ideas on a topic can be awesome for networking and finding clients.

    • M.A. WItty

      Nitpicky thing (the editor in me): Jessica said, “A point I’d like to make about Etsy is that it’s value is in having a great community around a niche where relationships can be built and turned into writing assignments.”

      *”its”, not “it’s”

      I LOVE the Etsy tip, though. Never thought about writing as being “handmade” either, but I guess it can work! πŸ™‚

  7. Steve Maurer

    Thanks for the great post. I was a mill-worker too. And yes, while the pay wasn’t great, when I sold my first article the realization came to me that people would, indeed, actually pay for my words.

    Now that more lucrative jobs are coming, I look back on the experience as a sort of launch, albeit a small launch, that started me moving in the “write” direction!

    Thanks again,

  8. Jessica Lunk

    Hey Steve,

    There was definitely a feeling of validation when I got that first tiny payment from the content mill. If anything, it helped me say, “I am a real writer” when approaching new clients for work.

    • Steve Maurer

      Hi, Jessica.

      I definitely know where your’re coming from there. I’m a Textbroker “escapee.” They were decent enough, but the pay was low, and you didn’t often get a byline or clip opportunity.

      I took the 4 Week J-school and it was a real eye opener. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to learn the craft of writing and how to profit from it.

      I can also relate to your “niche” comments. While I do have some specialities, I feel that you can learn to write about almost anything if you’re willing to put in the effort.

      Thanks again for the great post!
      Steve Maurer
      Maurer Copywriting

      • Carol Tice

        Glad you found 4-Week J-School helpful, Steve! I really designed with mill writers in mind, to fill the knowledge gap and allow you to get offa there and have the skills for better-paying gigs.

        • Steve Maurer

          You done good! I woudl HIGHLY recommend the course to anyone.

  9. Jan Hill

    Great post! Writing is an art, not a science and we should all have our unique spin. It’s about the gray areas, not the black and white rules that sometimes make us feel inadequate and hold us back. Love your spirit – tells me I need to revisit mine again!

  10. Jessica Lunk

    Thanks Jan! I agree – gray areas are the perfect time to take action. You’ll either make a mistake and learn something, or succeed and learn something. You have to move to grow.

  11. Anne Wayman

    I’ve had good luck with craigslist over time… I’m picky. And esty – great idea. I’ve never been a rule follower and that’s worked for me too.

    • Jessica Lunk

      Thanks for reading, Anne. Yep, you never know where a good client might be hanging out…

    • Carol Tice

      I got a decent client or two from Craigslist at one point where I was combing through a lot of online ads. My problem with it was it’s very time consuming to look through the ads, most are junk….and when I analyzed I found my best clients were never off online ads.

      But if you’re selective, you can find a few gold nuggets in there. Or maybe copper nuggets. πŸ˜‰

  12. CJ McKinney

    Great job, Jessica! What you’ve said makes so much sense and, I think, gives hope and support for a lot of writers who don’t really know what to do with their work. If they listen to the “rules” of all the people who claim they’re trying to help, they end up more stuck and more hopeless. I would love to try the Etsy idea — can you give some pointers about doing that for writers/artists like me?

    • Jessica Lunk

      Hi CJ,

      A few pointers for Etsy:

      -link to or show samples of your writing in your product descriptions so that buyers can get a feel for your style and voice.

      -offer something small, like a blog post or product description so clients can get a taste of what you have to offer before making a big investment. Use these opportunities to shine and generate more work.

      -participate in the Etsy forums to build relationships with other artists who may need a writer now or down the road.

      Hope that helps!

  13. Mary Sutton

    Great list! I too am just starting out in the freelance world, so I will definitely be keeping some of this in mind.

    • Steve Maurer

      Hi, Mary! I see from your website that you are a budding fiction writer. I am envious! I can read it, but I can’t write it. LOL

      If I may offer one bit of advice: Associate with people of like mind, particularly if they are successful. I would suggest Ali Luke as one of your several mentors. I’m a member of her Writers’ Huddle and find the “company” refreshing. I also belong to the Freelance Writer’s Den, a group with goals similar to my own.

      These are both groups with monthly fees. However, you really need to invest in yourself, sometimes monetarily, if you want to really grow. Choose carefully, invest wisely, but do invest.

      Steve Maurer

      • Carol Tice

        I highly recommend Larry Brooks of Storyfix for fiction — great blog.

  14. Steve Maurer

    I would like to mention that there are times when the “black-and-white” rules do work and should be followed. Part of the reason they are that “color” is that they do work effectively. Remember that Jessica proposed these variants as a way to get unstuck. Sometimes it’s important to “go by the book,” especially if you intend to make a living with your words.

    This doesn’t necessarily stifle creativity, but forms a base on which it can grow more effectively. My first article in the “mill” netted me a whopping $5. Learning how to treat these folks as “real” clients allowed me to raise my rates, increasing the payout.

    However, even at the increased rate (almost triple the usual rate) it still wasn’t enough to make a living. By paying for a good writing education (one of those black/white areas I still follow), my net worth is climbing. Two spec’d blog posts, for example, recently netted $50 each. The 10-fold increase per each was the direct result of learning and following the rules.

    I would also like to say that the rule, “Don’t Copy,” is primarily directed at plagiarism, not technique. Why reinvent the wheel when you have so many experts that can guide you? The course I am currently taking, The Accelerated Copywriting Program from AWAI, encourages you to study the masters and copy their techniques.

    So, yes, there are times when dabbling into the gray areas is the magic that sparks your efforts; however, don’t forget that the tried and true rules can be the ones that continue the momentum.


    • Carol Tice

      I think you’ve hit it Steve — if you’re following the rules but it’s not working, it’s time to do something else. Conventional wisdom exists because often, these things work.

      But as I often find myself saying, will this tip work for you? I don’t really know — and you won’t know until you try it. If it doesn’t work for you, the key is to try something else. And keep trying, until you figure out what works for you.

  15. J. Delancy

    I’ve broken rule Number.1 and encourage other writers to do the same for exactly the same reason. The second reason to break rule Number.1 is to get used to using a pitch swipe file and perfecting the pitch. To consistently get gigs on elance you need both quality and quantity with your pitches. May as well perfect them and get paid. I stayed on elance for about three months and continue to work with a client I found there.
    John Morrow has an entire e-book “Headline Hacks” on why any blogger/writer should break rule Number.5. I take his advice on this because it works.

    • Jessica Lunk

      J. – I’ve never done any freelance work through elance – good tips, thanks for sharing!

  16. PatriciaW

    Great post. I cut my teeth on content mills as well as confessions magazines for fiction. Some writers look down on both, but I wrote and I got paid for both. More importantly, I gained valuable experience and invaluable confidence.

    • Steve Maurer

      Hi, Patricia.

      I wrote close to 400 articles for the mills. I made about $250 my first year, $2600 the second and climbed further that last year.

      You’re “write” in mentioning that it can build confidence. Until then I had no idea that folks would pay me to write stuff.

      Now, I know that they will pay me a lot more.


      PS. I love your site; looks great!

  17. Leslie

    What a timely post. Just this morning I landed a Craigslist gig that I suspect might be a career-maker. A director/producer about to launch a new-age independent film was approached by a major publisher to submit a proposal for a book version.

    He’d put all his resources into the movie, so could only afford a small amount to pay someone to write the proposal — so he listed the job on Craigslist and found me. And the person (me) who writes the proposal will also get to ghost the book — if the proposal is accepted.

    Frankly, I hardly ever look at Craigslist because the jobs are usually so low paying, but this one has major league potential! Just goes to show you never know.

    • Steve Maurer

      Sounds good. But if he didn’t have enough money to get a proposal written, where’s he going to come up with the money to pay a writer.

      Be careful and make sure you get everything in writing.

      Hoping for the Best,

  18. Anita

    I appreciate this perspective. I’ve broken a few of those rules myself.
    My best gig at present, however, is one I got through a referral from a former work supervisor. It’s really true that you never know where clients might turn up.

  19. Karen

    I also broke the ‘Don’t write for content mills’ rule. Then I broke another related rule. ‘Don’t use a content mill piece as a clip to get a magazine assignment’. That’s how I got my first magazine assignment. I’ve also successfully broken the rule ‘Never write the piece first. Always query and write with a firm commission.’ I don’t ignore guidelines, but if the guidelines state that they will look at unsolicited submissions as well as queries, and I feel I can write an excellent piece, but that my query would let me down because I don’t have the right clips, then I write the piece and submit it. Have had a few of articles published this way too.

    Maybe the best advice is to know the rules first, know why you’re breaking them, and know how to do it. If you have a good reason, and can break the rules in the ‘right’ way, go ahead.

    • Steve Maurer

      Great comment, Karen. It think you hit right on the target.

      When writing for the “mill,” I actually had several clients contact me to see if I’d consider writing for them apart from the mill. Seems like clients are getting the idea that the mill is not the best place to get compelling copy written.


  20. Kathy Kramer

    I’ve broken a few of these rules myself. I wrote for the mills. I never had direct contact with any of the clients I wrote for. However, once I came to this site and started learning and absorbing all of this information, I lost all desire to write for the mills and spend that time working especially for the pay.

    I also answered an ad on my local Craigslist for a new magazine looking for columnists for a new digital magazine starting up. The magazine has a local focus. It won’t pay right away, but there is a strong possibility of it being a career maker. I met with the editor in person and I’ve seen the magazine before release. She also assigned me to write an article for an upcoming issue, too. I accepted this offer because if nothing else comes from it, I am getting paid in non-content mill clips and learning the magazine business from a professional editor. It may turn into something and it may not.

    I also accepted an editing gig that doesn’t pay right now. It’s a volunteer basis, but again, it’s for a legitimate online literary magazine that has a lot of growth potential and it’s something I can put down as experience.

    I do list my personal blog on my writer’s website, but I don’t write “this morning I woke up and I brushed my teeth and then did nothing all day” type posts on that blog. I tout that blog on my author’s site as an example of essay, column and creative non-fiction writing. I also list my writer’s website blog in my clips, which does have a niche–which is writing.

    • Kathy Kramer

      I forgot to add that I do have profiles on oDesk and Guru, but don’t look for work because a lot of it is low paying. I read that someone set up a profile there and a good paying client found them through the site.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Kathy —

      Sounds like you’re getting some good non-mill samples…just remember to stop doing free stuff real soon and use those clips to get real paying gigs!

  21. Kimber

    I am so excited. Thank you for this. I’m going to be a freelance writer. πŸ™‚

  22. Neil Heater


    Thank you for the insight to being willing to try things they tell you not to. Sometimes repeating history is not such a bad thing. The Etsy approach…when you had to show your product, how did you “picture” your written work? I am looking at placing some things there…just to take a swing at a new direction.

    Like Kathy above, I too have done odesk and got a few gigs. The work I did get was a way of breaking out of old models of writing and trying my hand at new ventures. Heck, I even did a “very nice paying” job at creating ecard content. But, said it is easy to become too dependent on that.


    • Jessica

      For images on Etsy, I used screenshots Of my work and linked to it in the product description. Hope that helps!

  23. Ali

    I’ve broken 1,3,4,5.. yet to break 2 and am really looking forward to it

  24. Vinil

    #4 is my favorite… it’s great if you can find a niche but if you don’t you can always explore and try different options.. for many of us who are versatile, finding a niche can be a constraint..


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