How to Get Your Very First Article Assignment

Carol Tice

Once upon a time — okay, in the late 1980s — I was a starving songwriter. I had never written an article.

Also, there was no Internet.

Fast-forward to today, when I earn a full-time freelance living from writing articles and blog posts for the past six years, and well more than 1,000 of my articles are floating around the Internet.

How did it happen? How did I go from no clips and get those very first clips, and start building a career as a freelance writer?

Here’s the secret:

It happened by accident

I was minding my own business, reading the local alternative paper, as I liked to do on Thursday afternoons. And whaddaya know — the paper was having an essay contest.

It was about the paper’s 10th anniversary. They wanted people to write about what the past decade of life in L.A. had meant to them.

I about fell over.

I had quit college and moved back to L.A. exactly 10 years earlier to start pursuing songwriting. Since then, life had been frustrating and grindingly difficult.

“It’s like they made this contest just for me,” I told my husband.

Even though I’d never written much prose before, this essay almost wrote itself.

When I won and they paid me $200, it changed my life. No exaggeration. I literally asked musician friends over to my house and handed them my recording equipment. I wouldn’t be needing it anymore.

I had found the type of writing that pays! That essay led to more alt-paper assignments right away. The editors there seemed friendly and willing to help me learn.

Contests lead to article-writing gigs

Then, not long after, it happened again. The real estate section of the Los Angeles Times was having an essay contest.

They wanted readers’ stories of do-it-yourself home projects.

My husband and I were at that moment camped on a mattress on the floor of our living room. We’d bought a serious fixer house cheap and were slowly learning how to rehab it, making lots of mistakes along the way.

It was like they thought up this contest just for me.

And I didn’t know enough to be scared witless at trying to get in the L.A. Times.

After my story of our “young and dumb” rehab efforts ran, the editor wanted me to write cover features for the section.

I felt totally unqualified. But he said I’d be just great.

He thought my writing was fun, and funny.

This contest found me a mentor, and a gig at one of largest newspapers in the country. With my second published clip. It all rolled from there.

I didn’t know that would happen

I just thought it would be fun to write about our pathetic attempts at home improvement.

I didn’t have big career goals here. I was just having fun and loving that this writing paid a bit.

Getting my writing out there in a quality publication turned out to be the way to get noticed by the right people.

As you might guess, I’m a fan of entering local writing contests — especially the kind that don’t charge a fee. And especially if you think you’ve got an idea that’s exactly what they want. Keep your eyes peeled.

But the takeaway from my little story goes way beyond “enter contests.”

Here are my tips for breaking in to article writing from scratch:

  • Start with your attitude. Many new writers I know have a massive insecurity complex. Get over it! Freelance writing is all an adventure. Look for opportunities to have fun doing writing you know you’ll be good at, and you’ll be on the right track.
  • Hang out with the right crowd. I saved a lot of time by starting with quality publications instead of at a poor-reputation place like a content mill. The clips I got positioned me to easily get the next assignments. Look for opportunities to write a volunteer sample at a quality organization, whether it’s a highly regarded charity, local business, or magazine. That builds your portfolio.
  • Look for the easy thing. As I did, you want to look for a writing opportunity that is a natural for you given your work and life experience. You might even feel like they created the gig just for you.
  • Tell a friend. I couldn’t stop talking to people about how much fun I was having with this print writing thing I’d stumbled on. You never know who might refer you to a small business or new publication that needs writers.
  • Realize we all start somewhere. Remember that every writer working today once had no clips. They faced this hurdle and found a place to write. You can, too. The trick is to get over this hump as fast as you can — find somewhere you can write something for somebody, now. Then you’ll never again have to say, “But I don’t have any clips…”

Need help getting your first assignments? Check out my ebook, The Step by Step Guide to Freelance Writing Success. It’s chock full of advice on identifying (and landing) your first clients.

The Step by Step Guide to Freelance Writing Success


  1. John Soares

    Great advice Carol. Every writer has a different path to success, but my biggest early break was landing a contract to write a hiking guidebook for my local area from a major publisher. I love to hike, and there were no other competing books at the time. I bought a book on how to write proposals, wrote a few sample chapters, and — boom!

    And, as you say, having the right attitude is crucial. I’ve seen too many timid and insecure writers in all genres. Most writers will have some insecurities, but it’s important to push past those insecurities and get your work in front of editors.

    • Carol Tice

      Soooo true, John.

  2. Page

    I like your tell a friend advice, as it reminded me about how powerful a positive attitude can be in getting you the kind of work you really want. By sharing my enthusiasm for writing with friends and acquaintances, I’ve gotten more jobs than I can count. I suppose its a form of networking, but it never feels like work when you love what you do!

  3. Amandah

    Loved the tips!

    You’re right, we all start somewhere. I fell into freelance writing by submitting a travel article to a travel company. The liked it and hired me as their blogger. Taking a chance paid off.

    Having the right attitude and mindset is a big hurdle to jump. Thank goodness I’m over it. I know what I bring to the table from writing ideas to my work ethic and other skills.

    I also like “hanging out with the right crowd.” I said “yes” to two book collaborations and have met some great people. I’m receiving opportunities left and right.

    Regarding contests … I took a chance entered a couple from Writer’s Digest. We’ll see what happens.

  4. J. Delancy

    I got started as a cub reporter for a local daily newspaper, after I got interviewed by the editor. The only thing I had to show was one article in my school newspaper and four poems I had written in school.
    If I knew then what I know now, I’d have been too scared to even try something like that.
    Thanks for reminding us that if you don’t ask the answer is always no.

    • Carol Tice

      So much of my career has happened because I was too ignorant to know I shouldn’t be able to do something, J! I got a staff writing job that requires a B.A., for instance 😉 I just applied anyway.

      I actually know a man who is the president of a prestigious university today because his wife saw an ad and sent in his application. He told me he would have considered himself unqualified and never done it himself!

  5. Kathy Kramer

    This post came at a good time for me because I find myself fighting through another case of cold feet. This is the pep talk I needed!

  6. Sophie Lizard

    That’s such a great story! Oddly enough, my path to becoming a freelance writer was both similar to *and* opposite to yours, in different aspects. I guess it just goes to show there are many different routes to freelance writing success!

    I always wanted to write exactly the kind of material I’m writing now, but I didn’t think anyone would pay me for it. In the 1990s (when self-publishing meant a photocopier and a whole lot of staples!) I produced my own alternative music and lifestyle fanzines, but I only sold them at cost.

    There was this notion in my mind that writers got to be paid writers by some magical process I couldn’t even imagine. When nobody showed up to “choose” me and initiate me into the paid writers’ club, I went off and did something else for a living, Then something else. Then something else.

    Roughly 18 years later, the global economic crisis hit and one of those something-else jobs let me go. At that point I finally, purposely, set myself up as a freelance writer and never looked back.

    Every time I read people’s freelance writing stories on here, their progress and their courage inspire me. I hope your story will inspire everyone to take action now, and not spend half their life waiting for permission the way I did!

    • Carol Tice

      I hear from so many writers with similar stories, Sophie — they spent years and decades in some other career because they didn’t see how writing could be a living. Luckily, I was too clueless to realize I shouldn’t go for it 😉

      I call that waiting around you describe “waiting for the luck fairy to bring you a job.” Doesn’t work very well. Where taking action — almost ANY action — that might help you build the career you want seems to help you get there.

      They say that Moses’s biggest job wasn’t physically taking the Jews out of Egypt — it was convincing them first that they had the potential to be free people, when none of them or their grandparents had ever known freedom.

      I find with writers, it’s the same challenge — the really hard part is believing it could happen, you could earn real money doing something you really enjoy.

      Once you believe, the rest can come pretty quickly. I see amazing success stories in the Den all the time, where writers try one thing to market themselves and boom! They’ve got a great client, and it all starts to roll.

  7. Thomas Ryan

    I have a problem many of these so-called ‘contests’ as a lot of them do tend to be bogus. Submitting content to a contest is risky, and with the threat of plagiarism so rampant these days, and because many writers who enter these alleged contests sometimes give up full rights to their work without ever realizing it.

    I understand the premise of getting your work known by entering these contests, but is it really worth all the risks involved?

    This writer doesn’t think so, and I avoid them like a person suffering from Arachnophobia would avoid spiders.

    • Carol Tice

      These were both pretty informal contests run by local papers in my town, Thomas. I’m with you on the ones that seem to just be created so the organizer can make money on fees.

  8. edna

    Hi carol,
    Thanks for another inspiring post. I fell into many of the traps or obstacles you and other writers have mentioned. I think the toughest one for me was the believing it could happen piece. I still need to take more risks as a writer and apply for opportunities I don’t think I can get, so this post is a great reminder.

    And although I joined a copywriting group, I ought to get back into the Writers Den since both groups offer similar but different options to network, grow my business and get that ongoing support we all need.

    • Carol Tice

      We’d love to have you back, Edna! Still time to register for the bootcamp and get in the Den with that. Otherwise…stay tuned for later this summer for a Den opening to new members.

  9. Marnie Byod

    Thanks for the information that you have shared here and I learn so many things about writing and I also check your other blogs regarding writing and I appreciate it. Being a writer is truly not easy because there are so many things to consider first.

  10. Lena

    Honestly, I wasn’t surprised that your career has been caused by an ‘accident’. I think, that the most important changes in our lives are often caused by ‘accidents’, some call it destiny, or faith, but anyway, there must be something which leads us and helps us to find our ways. Your story is really inspirational.

  11. Nell Terry

    Awesome post… contests are a great way to get started – never thought of that! Funny I read this now… I just posted about how I got into the writing game on my own blog last night. My journey took a slightly different route; I wrote for content mills until I bagged enough private clients to hit the door. Now, I’m focusing on building exposure for my byline through staff blogging gigs in my niche.

    The great thing about freelance writing is that there are a million different ways to get from point A to point B.

    • Carol Tice

      Congrats on using mills for the only thing they’re good for, Nell — a quick stop on the way to getting a REAL business going. Too many people get trapped in there…

  12. Stephen Kavita

    I think what prevents people from achieving success in that they procrastinate. If you want to be a good writer you have to start from zero and make your way up. The earlier you start the sooner you will become an expert in your field.

  13. Chris

    I love this piece, and Carol’s bootcamp is just the ticket for freelancer’s starting out. It’s helped me a lot, and will continue to do so as I use the tips I gleaned from the course in my freelance career.

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