How I Found Great Freelance Work on My Doorstep

Carol Tice

Freelance writing work comes to your doorBy Gwen Boyle

As a beginning freelance writer, finding your first clients can be overwhelming.

Should you start with publications or companies? Big or small? What’s your niche? How on earth do you reach out to these people?

It’s enough to make you crawl under the bedcovers and pray that clients find you there. But you know that’s not going to happen.

Earlier this year, after getting a couple of pro bono clips, I was figuring out how to find paying clients.

I joined the Freelance Writer’s Den, and discovered a bootcamp: The Step by Step Guide to Freelance Writing Success, which teaches writers how to start from zero, build a portfolio quickly, and start finding good first clients.

The first exercise taught me exactly how to start finding clients. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to look very far for freelance work.

I reconsidered my experience

I thought that freelancing was a chance to leave my resume behind. As a writer, I could write about anything! What did my experience matter?

However, I learned that it makes sense to start with what you know. The first exercise, identifying “low hanging fruit,” encouraged me to reconsider my experience, education, and passions.

After making lists of every job I’ve had, every course I’d taken, my hobbies, and my interests, I pinpointed the intersections between these lists and areas where I might find good clients.

I reached out to likely prospects

With helpful feedback from Den Mother Carol, I found two likely areas to focus on: education and environmental organizations.

I had resisted the idea of having a niche. However, picking a couple of areas made it easier to start sending letters of introduction (LOIs), rather than just thinking about it.

Concentrating on education first, I drew up a list of prospects. I started with the most daunting: large higher education publishers. While it felt great to start contacting people, I realized there was one little thing on my list that I hadn’t tackled.

There was somewhere that used freelance writers: somewhere that was local, and that I knew inside out.

I found a great client in an unexpected place

I had scribbled down “Alumni Office?” on my list, identifying my former university as a prospect. But I kept overlooking it when making my way through my LOIs.

I had spent nearly nine years at a university I loved, finally leaving with a PhD last year. I was keen to make a fresh start in freelance writing – but why had I ignored a potential source of work?

I’m not sure why it took me so long to see a client in my own backyard, but I bit the bullet and sent an email. To my delight, I got a positive response, had a lovely meeting, and landed some writing work with my old university!

I’m looking forward to working with them, and I’m amazed by my blind spot when it came to finding a local source of work.

Clients can be a lot closer to home than you think.

Have you found a client from your past experience? Let me know in the comments below.

Gwen Boyle is a freelance writer from Cork, Ireland. 
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  1. Martin Orton

    One can find leads for work in the most uncanny of places. Sometimes places you would have never considered. That’s why I never discount any avenues to find new clients.

    • Gwen Boyle

      Absolutely! It’s important to be open-minded to possibilities everywhere. And it’s funny how easy it is to overlook an obvious avenue until it occurs to you one day 🙂

      • Martin Orton

        The irony of it all is that I still find that “word of mouth” to be still my best income generator 🙂

  2. Emelia

    Hi Gwen,

    I just read The Step by Step Guide to Freelance Writing Success. I think it’s very resourceful and it really made me realize there could be more clients closer to home. Thanks for sharing your success.

    • Gwen Boyle

      I found the bootcamp that it’s based on incredibly useful – I realised there were more options nearby than I thought. Glad to hear you think so too!

  3. Marcie

    You know what? I have always said that my old university had what I needed, thinking in terms of people. However, I will call them tomorrow to inquire about opportunities. And blessings on this and upcoming gigs.

    • Gwen Boyle

      Thank you Marcie, and the same to you! It’s definitely worth a try, especially if you already know that they’re your kind of people and that you’d like working with them 🙂

  4. Rob

    One of my first paid assignments came as a result of being annoyed that a friend of mine wasn’t being covered in a series of articles about surfboard designers. I suggested that the magazine interview him and added as an afterthought: “If you can’t send anyone up here, I’d be happy to interview him for you.” They accepted my offer and I even got 3 more article assignments from them.

    • Gwen Boyle

      Ha, that’s a brilliant story Rob – delighted to hear you got more assignments out of it too!

  5. Daryl

    Thanks for the tips Gwen. Time to fire up an LOI to my local universities as well then!

    • Gwen Boyle

      No problem Daryl, and I hope you have good luck with your local universities!

  6. Samantha

    Hello Gwen, It’s great to hear about a PhD being able to write for their alma mater. I too have a recent PhD — do you mind if I ask 1) Will you be working within the communications department? and 2) Would you happen to know where they’re getting the funding for your work (e.g. a grant)?

    I’ve tried approaching alumni and advancement offices myself and have had some great conversations with people who said they’d love to hire me but couldn’t. The reasons were various: either the university doesn’t hire freelancers due to union rules, there’s no line in the budget for freelancers, or that kind of writing is delegated to the communications department (usually, it seems, staffed by full-time employees with journalism or communications degrees). Lack of funding seems to be the biggest stumbling block.

    It’s truly encouraging to hear your experience was different and I wish you continued work with the school you enjoyed.

    • Gwen Boyle

      Hi Samantha,

      Thanks for you kind words!
      To answer your questions:
      1) I’ll be working as a freelancer contracted to the marketing and communications department, who also cover university publications such as the alumni magazine. My first assignment with them is a feature article in the magazine, but I know that they have areas (e.g. web content) that they’re interested in working with me on.

      2) I’m not sure how the funding situation works in other universities, but I know that in this case, they’re centrally funded through a combination of public and private funds. They wouldn’t have a specific grant to cover the cost of freelancers. The marketing and communications department would be allocated its own budget within the overall university budget.

      I noticed that the alumni magazine had worked with freelancers (it named each writer and whether they were freelance in the editorial blurb at the front, which was handy!), so that was what put the idea in my head to begin with. It turned out that the editor of the alumni magazine was also the person I needed to talk to within the marketing and communications department.

      Sorry to hear about your frustrating experiences with departments lacking funding – hope you come across one that has the money to work with freelancers and find a way in!

      • Samantha

        Thanks for the extra details, Gwen, that’s very helpful. This gives me some extra things to look out for. All the very best!

        • Gwen Boyle

          No problem, and best of luck with your own search!

  7. Peggy Carouthers

    It’s so easy to overlook part of your experience, because you don’t think it would be valuable to a client. Since I transitioned to being a freelancer full-time, I didn’t think my retail management experience in HR would be valuable. I thought my journalism work would get me more jobs, but my best client actually chose me to write articles on job hunting because I worked in HR and was a hiring manager. You really do have to think about all your experience.

    • Gwen Boyle

      I agree completely, Peggy, and its nice to hear another story of experience being unexpectedly relevant. In my case I initially overlooked it because I was in the mindset of “Right, I’m done with college. Freelancing is a new chapter.” I hadn’t figured out that my recent experience could be a serious asset to me in my new career!

  8. Lori Ferguson

    Great story, Gwen! So glad that you’ve had luck with your alma mater. I,too, have found success writing for both my undergraduate and graduate institutions, as well as a number of other secondary school and college alumni magazines. In my experience, many of these pubs rely on freelance writers for alumni profiles as well as feature articles. I have scared up lots of business by just sending out LOIs to everyone in my region. 🙂

    • Gwen Boyle

      Hi Lori,

      That’s great to hear! I’m planning to get in touch with a few other colleges in the area on the back of this, and I actually never thought of secondary schools – good idea. It’s encouraging to hear that you got a good bit of work from writing for these kinds of clients.

      • Lori Ferguson

        It’s been amazing the response I’ve gotten, Gwen. I would strongly encourage you to reach out to all the schools in your area–secondary, college, university, even medical schools (many of whom have alumni magazines)… everybody. I’ve gotten *lots* of work this way….. Best of luck…

        • Gwen Boyle

          Excellent, I’m glad to hear it! I wondered if the positive response I got was down to my personal connection to the institution, but your experience is giving me the impetus to look for work with other colleges and schools – thanks Lori 🙂

          • Lori Ferguson

            I think that having that personal connection certainly helps to get your foot in the door, but after that, you’ve got a ‘track record’ and other institutions are more willing to hire you. I’ve found this vein a very good one to mine, Gwen, and I’ve received a lot of ‘repeat business.’ I would strongly encourage you to pursue all leads. 🙂

          • Gwen Boyle

            Brilliant, I certainly will – thanks Lori!

  9. Elke Feuer

    I loved what you said about “making lists of every job I’ve had, every course I’d taken, my hobbies, and my interests, I pinpointed the intersections between these lists and areas where I might find good clients.” Great idea, Gwen!

    • Carol Tice

      That comes straight out of our Step by Step bootcamp (or ebook, these days!), Elke — I think you’re a Den member, right? So check that out — that bootcamp has a lot of useful exercises for finding first markets.

    • Gwen Boyle

      As Carol has said, that came out of the Step by Step bootcamp – it really helped, and I identified areas of my experience I had never even thought of. Definitely worth doing!

  10. Pankaj

    Hi Gwen,

    I totally related with your points, sometimes your clients are living right next to your home and you never give attention to them. So apart from looking clients from other areas, you should also concentrate on people in your local area as they’re more likely to convert.

    • Gwen Boyle

      Hi Pankaj,

      I agree, and this definitely opened my eyes to the fact that there are local clients out there. My first couple of clients were based in other countries, and it took a while for me to realise that there were plenty of opportunities nearby.

  11. Carol Brennan

    Hi Gwen

    I enjoyed reading about your success in the Den. I enjoyed reading about your success.



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