Marketing 101 for Freelance Writers #8: How to Find Clients Without Clips

Carol Tice

Marketing for freelance writers: Land clients with no clips.

Does freelance writing seem like a closed club, and you can’t find the clubhouse door?

One writer told me this week:

The biggest problem is you can’t break into magazines unless you already have clips.

You can’t get clips without experience, and you can’t get experience without clips.

I know that’s the conventional wisdom. But it just ain’t true.

Yes, it is more difficult to get an assignment without any clips.

But you can do it.

Every single freelance writer working today once had no clips. And yet, they somehow managed to start their career.

I did it — without a j-school degree (or any college degree actually), or any inside connections or media contacts.

Here are seven ideas for how to jump-start your freelance writing career and get those first few clips:

  1. Believe you can do it. As long as you think it’s an impossible task, you’re going nowhere.
  2. Volunteer. When I first moved to the Seattle area, I wanted some local clips so I could start pitching publications based here — so I wrote a few pieces gratis for my regional library’s newsletter. Somewhere near you is a nonprofit that would love your help, give you a byline, recommend you, refer you, and give you a testimonial. Find them.
  3. Enter contests. I got my first two steady clients by entering writing contests the publications held. Those essays led to offers to do reported stories. I’m not a fan of contests where you pay an entry fee, but keep your eyes peeled for contests in the publications you read.
  4. Create your own samples. Your blog posts are samples — so write them like they are $1-a-word magazine assignments, and you can use them to get gigs. You want to write white papers? Write a white paper about how hiring a freelance writer can help grow a company’s customer base. Find a local, small business that needs web content and help them out. Presto! Samples.
  5. Try the alternative press. I find alt papers (such as the Village Voice) are pretty open to new writers. Are you going to a concert, or maybe a protest? Call them up and ask if they have anyone covering it. If not, they might just give you a shot.
  6. Take a class. You don’t need a degree, but take a magazine-writing or copywriting course. You’ll improve your skills, and my experience is professors can be a good connection for referrals.
  7. Just go for it. I know writers who have sent query letters to the major national women’s magazines with no clips — and gotten an assignment. Learn how to write query letters, pitch your knowledge of your topic rather than offering clips, and get the gig. Or make cold calls until you line up business clients.

Yes, those first paying clients may not be for the big bucks. But they get you a few samples. Soon, you’re not a writer without clips. And you’re on your way.

How did you get your first clips? Leave a comment and tell us how you pulled it off.

Need more marketing help? Here’s a place where you can get a bunch…

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  1. Frank H. Farmer

    I really like the idea of offering to do some pieces for non-profits as a freebie. I’ll bet that there are plenty of up-start organizations or businesses that are in the same boat and would be willing to give us a shot.

    Carol or anyone else, what about using some entries that have been posted on E-zine articles or other such sites? I’m sure many of us have written articles that have been accepted. Is that a good idea?

    I’ve also considered using an excerpt from an e-book that I wrote for someone in my area.

    • Carol Tice

      Good idea? No. Self-published article sites are held in low regard by editors.

      Thing to do if ezine clips are all you have? Yes. I’m a strong believer that you pitch with what you got. If you’re pitching small business owners, they may not all know how ezine works…and it does give them a chance to read something you’ve written.

  2. FThomas

    Love the blog! Good practical advice. I started out writing for free as well just to get something published and that helped me sell a few articles later on.

    I’d love to do more freelance work but it seems as though the large majority of advertised opportunities out there are nothing short of a writing sweat shop. They pay $1.50 for a 500 word article on topics that are complex and require research and they want you to churn them out like crazy. Makes a person wonder about the quality of the articles that we read everywhere!

    Thanks for encouraging us!

    • Carol Tice

      Hint: The better-paying articles are not advertised. If you stop looking at job ads online and start finding your own clients, you can leave the low-pay underworld of the Internet and return to the real world of first-world pay.

  3. Lee Cart

    I got my first clips as a book reviewer by offering to work for free for an on-line magazine. Once they were published, I had clips, which I then sent out to other sites. The whole thing has snowballed from there. I had never written a book review before July 2011 and I just had one come out in the Christian Science Monitor. Freelancing is hard work, but it can be done.
    I like your blog, by the way.

  4. Steph Auteri

    I’m with you. When I heard this question on yesterday’s call, I wanted to give a big hells no. Luckily, such thoughts didn’t occur to me when I first started querying 10 years ago. Otherwise, I never would have landed those first few clips.

    Here’s the thing. You can win ANY editor over if your query letter is holy-shit-fantastic enough. Your letter just has to:

    – establish a connection
    – be brilliantly written
    – showcase a fantastic idea
    – show you’ve done your homework, and that you’re familiar with the publication
    – show you can get the job done
    – make it a no-brainer for the editor

    If you can wow an editor with your query letter, you can get your foot in the door, with or without clips.

    Still, it can also help to build your online platform (blog), and target the smaller regionals and online publications, if you’re still worried about clips.

    • Carol Tice

      HI Steph — I, too, was too stupid to know it was impossible, so I just blundered on ahead! All of my complexes related to my first form of writing — songwriting. I sort of left them behind when I switched to reporting. I just thought it was fun, and kept going.

  5. Kathleen Shank

    Just wanted to say, “thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you”!!!!!!!
    You and your blog are the inspiration I didn’t know I was looking for……………..
    That’s all I’ve ever done is write….write…..write and write: I have files on my personal laptop computer of all different themed journals that I feel passionate about that go back years……….
    I am what you call a NEWBIE I guess, apparently, in the beginning of your article, I have to say, “it does describe me to a “T”!………
    I particularly enjoyed your blogging about “Writing White Papers”, and have never heard of this before, but upon reading your personal experience and description, I can really relate to being a very descriptive, and “DETAILED” writer!!!!!!!
    So, this is a new subject and very interesting to me that I look forward to researching, etc…………..
    Thanks for the free download titled, “well-written white papers”! I just enjoy researching and learning new information, techniques, anything educational…………
    All through elementary & high school and the community college education I received, I’ve always excelled in English Literature, Spelling, Grammar, reading, writing, books, books, books………
    I recently joined the “Reader’s” and have been interested in entering some of the writing contests……. So it seems your blog was right up my alley and actually, that’s how I came upon your blog!! So, Thanks again,

  6. Katherine Swarts

    Small community newspapers and magazines can also be great starter markets. (Are they really a breed apart from “alternative presses,” as it suddenly occurs to me that I don’t know if the latter include other than “radical” or “countercultural” publications?)

    • Carol Tice

      Alt mags really run the gamut — some are pretty much city papers, while others have a very left-wing slant. I once went to an AAN conference where all the alt-pubs were together, and it was interesting to see the wide variety of what went into that category.

  7. Steve

    Hi Carol:

    “Just go for it. I know writers who have sent query letters to the major national women’s magazines with no clips — and gotten an assignment. Learn how to write query letters, pitch your knowledge of your topic rather than offering clips, and get the gig. Or make cold calls until you line up business clients.”

    Right on! My first query to Entreprenur was a touchdown, and my first to Saveur and Bon Apetit almost were as well, but both editors asked me to submit more ideas ro them personally.


  8. Janna M.

    You just have to believe in yourself. Even if you don’t have clips, you start by doing some samples for yourself. How many samples did you make when you started freelance writing?

    Thanks for these helpful tips!


    • Carol Tice

      I didn’t make my own samples, I won a couple essay contests that got me started.

      But I know Mitt Ray got started in white papers by writing a few himself to use as samples. It’s a strategy that can help you launch.

  9. Amandah

    I got my first clip by writing about my solo travel to Edinburgh Scotland in August 2007. I moved to Arizona in late September 2007 and set-up a job alert through CareerBuilder. A Scottsdale travel company was looking to fill three positions: blogger/writer, marketing assistant, and bookkeeper. On a whim, I applied for the blogging and marketing assistant jobs, and emailed my travel article along with my resume. Voilà! My article landed me the blogging job. I ended up writing for TWO of the company’s websites. I’m no longer writing for the company, but I still keep in contact with the owners.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Amandah — great story! So how and where did you get that first travel article published?

      I love what this points up — one clip could be enough. I think so many writers hold back because they feel like they don’t have enough samples yet, never realizing one good one could be all they need to start lining up clients.

  10. Kenneth

    Thanks for the great post, Carol. You’re absolutely right that nobody has any clips in the beginning. And it does not apply to freelance writers only. It holds true for every single person that wants to achieve something. First thing to do (as you concluded in your post), just go for it. I know tons of guys who just say they want something, but that’s it. They just WANT without any DOING something actual. And that’s the main problem.

    • Steve


      Absolutely correct.


    • Carol Tice

      Right on, Kenneth — I probably should have put ‘just go for it’ as the first point instead of the last one!


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