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

19 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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…

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