5 Shortcuts New Freelance Writers Can Take to Jumpstart Their Careers

Carol Tice

Nearly every freelance writer — or even aspiring freelance writer — I meet would like to know how to get there faster.

Who wants to pay dues for years, writing low-pay gigs in obscurity? Writers want to know where the shortcuts are to earning a real living in writing and gaining a solid reputation.

For some aspects of this career, there are no shortcuts, in my view.

Want to improve the quality of your writing? Then write a lot. There isn’t really any substitute for that.

But there are definitely some time-wasting detours you can avoid to move ahead faster in freelance writing.

Here are five of the most useful shortcuts I know:

  1. Stop doubting yourself. Oodles of time and energy are wasted in self-doubt. When you don’t feel confident about your writing abilities, you don’t put yourself out there as much as you should. So start with a belief that your writing offers something unique and valuable to the marketplace. Trust me, it does. There is no other you. No matter where you are in your writing journey, there is a client that is a fit for you and would love to hire you.
  2. Don’t look at online job ads. They are almost exclusively the province of low payers. Look at those enough, and you’ll despair that there’s a living to be made in writing. All the good jobs go unadvertised and are gotten through referrals and active marketing — so commit yourself to promoting your business. You’ll be amazed at how much faster you develop a list of good-paying clients. Scanning the online boards gives you the illusion that you’re marketing you’re business, but you’re really just trolling the same crowded, low-paying pool as the masses. To get there faster, you’ll need to do something bolder. Challenge yourself to spend one week on other marketing activities and completely avoid those Craigslist ads.
  3. Instead of writing for mills, do a few free gigs. Yes, we all want to get paid. But the best way to hurry up and acquire the sort of portfolio that impresses good-paying prospects is to volunteer for a few quality organizations in the industries where you want to write. You can write 100 content-mill articles, and still have no good samples you can use to break in with magazines or quality businesses. Instead, bite the bullet and write pro bono, with a pledge from the client to refer you and give you a testimonial.
  4. Put up a writer website and join LinkedIn. You just don’t look like a pro — especially with online markets — if you have no website where prospects can go to learn about and read your work. Get one up and you’re instantly more credible, even if your only writing samples are your own blog posts. So many writers put this task off, and it’s really a big mistake. Get something — anything — up now and improve from there. Stuff your LinkedIn profile with relevant key words and connect on there with every former teacher, writer pal, and editor you’ve ever known. Then, let them know you’re looking for clients. Your marketing will never get any easier than telling people who already know and like your writing that you’d appreciate their referrals.
  5. Get mentors. My career would never have taken off without help from two editors who were willing to show me what I was doing wrong and how to improve. A pro’s quick scan through your query letter or article — or their tips on how newbies can break in — can save you months of rejection and discouragement and help you start getting gigs lined up that pay real dough.

What shortcuts have you taken that helped you earn more? Leave a comment and share your tip.




  1. Glori Surban

    Hopefully I’ll get over 1 and 2, never thought of 3, not yet done with 4, and I have someone in mind for 5!

    I’m currently building up my pillar content fro my freelance blog because I think that’s the most sensible thing to do for me right now. I know very few people in LinkedIn, mainly because it’s not so popular in my previous work circles… any thoughts on that?

    Thanks for all the shortcuts and the inspiration!

    • Carol Tice

      Don’t worry about how few people you think you know on LI — just get on there and start building your connections. You’ll probably be surprised at how many you can find.

  2. J. Delancy

    The Mental Game is always the hardest (No.1 on the list) which is why so many people are struggling. Keep encouraging us Carol!

  3. Susie Klein

    Thank you, you have confirmed something it has taken me much too long to realize. I’ve been turning down quality job offers at sites that do not pay, because I thought my time deserved to be spent on paying jobs even if they are stupidly low (content mills). Wrong, when I have needed some quality samples, none of the content stuff made me proud enough to send use!
    Thanks for all you do for us!

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Susie —

      We have a ton of Den members who are in this boat right now, they want to pitch magazines and realize they have no useful clips from their mill time. I gather if you’re writing for Textbroker or others in that model, you’re not even allowed to say you wrote them! So it’s a big problem.

      Writers get hooked on the peanut pay, which keeps you so broke you never have time to go out and get a few quality samples as a volunteer. And all you need is about 3-6 of them, and you could pitch anybody and command professional rates. When I had Peter Bowerman on as one of my podcast guests, he talked about the tiny, sad little sample portfolio he had at the start…but it was enough to get him paying gigs and get his career as a commercial freelance writer going.

      Writing for mills is such a timewaster because you’re not really moving forward. It can’t ever get better. You want the writing you do to position your for better things — better clients and better pay. I’d rather see a writer take a night job as a bar back for a few months and do volunteer samples than waste years writing for mills only to find you’re only qualified…to write for mills.

  4. Allena

    I wholeheartedly agree with every single one except #2. New writers likely don’t have the breadth and depth of network that you and I have. So, I would tell them to look at online job ads, but with some caveats: 1) BE VERY SELECTIVE ABOUT WHICH- so NOT Craigslist, but LinkedIn and ones in your niche (for example, I am completing a $25K project that I found on an education writers association pro job board). and 2) Apply quickly- within the first couple days, as the boards (even the good ones such as those in my niche) are absolutely inundated. If the ad is more than a week old, move on.

    • Carol Tice

      Oh, definitely agree Allena — I’m a big fan of quality niche job boards. But most writers aren’t looking at them. I challenge new writers to kick the habit for a week of looking at online job ads and use that time for other marketing. You should develop the habit of proactively marketing. Once you’ve got some of that going on, by all means find some good niche boards for your writing area and check them out occasionally. But checking online ads should NOT be the core of any writer’s marketing plan.

  5. Ali

    I signed up on LI but don’t use it much often… it sounds pretty absurd to me. Why don’t you write a separate post on how writers (or freelancers) can get the most out of it, Carol?

  6. Julia

    Like Allena, I’ve some issues with #2. Some job boards are fine, so I hesitate saying NEVER apply to a job on them. But be selective on the boards you look at, and then selective again on the jobs you apply for.

    In general I try to stay away from job boards, as I seem to always find the creepy content mill posting that sneaks into them. There may be only 1, but I seem to find it every time. (Now if only I could come up with the winning lottery numbers with the same frequency. haha.)

  7. pragya


    I am one of the content mill writers and I am looking forward to improve my skills as a writer and then improve my pay rate.

    People like Carol inspire me to do better. However I have a question. Most of the writers who charge good rates have decades of work experience and skill. On the other hand, I am not really a professional with a decade of experience or more. I am an Engineering dropout as I chose to chase my dreams of becoming successful and rich one day instead of doing something which I had no interest in.

    So basically, what I am asking is, “Is there hope for me?”. After working hard and creating an awesome post, can I ask for similar rates as these experienced professionals?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Pragya —

      I love how everyone thinks they’re substandard because they’re a dropout or got their degree in something other than journalism.

      Except…I’m a college dropout too! 2 years as a music major and then I dropped out to be a starving songwriter.

      Does it get any more unrelated and unhelpful to making it as a freelance writer?

      Here’s how it works: You start at a rate. Whatever it is. Then, you market the heck out of your business and keep taking in new clients at higher rates, and dropping lower-pay ones. Repeat until you achieve the rate you want.

      Can you ask for similar rates as experienced pros right this minute, if you’re not one? Probably not. Can you quickly move up and start getting good rates? Yes. Build your body of work to show the quality of what you do, and you can.

      You can also start from no clips and get good samples and start moving up — that’s what we’ll be going through step by step in the bootcamp, how to get those first clips and get established and start commanding professional rates.

      • pragya

        Thanks a ton. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Anne

    Definitely starting a blog is one way I can fully recommend to any writer who wants to build a platform and increase their network.

    I know that online work can really take time out from your writing. But when you consider how isolated a career writing is, you can see that we need these contacts online for a quick boost.

    My blog helped me find like-minded friends and I think it also helped me find my publisher. I was able to show them what I was already doing, and how I’d built up a supportive fan base over the years.

  9. Ron

    Carol, I was with you right up to item #5. I don’t know any writers personally, and there aren’t any groups near enough for me to visit on a regular basis. Yet, I know a mentor would be extremely helpful at this point in my fledgling career. Are there any rent-a-ment sites for cheap, but good mentors out there?

    As for the content mill, I have had to go that embarrassing route on my blog to help with the bills. But I have also tried (at least lately) to work on posts that develop my writing skills. We’ll see how that goes.

    • Carol Tice

      I think at $25 a month we consider Freelance Writers Den to be one of the cheapest mentoring situations ever invented, Ron. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Beyond that, there’s also online groups such as LinkedIn Editors & Writers, or niche associations for healthcare and science writers and so on. I’ve heard that “I’m in a small town” excuse a million times, Ron — and I’m in a small town too. It’s even on an island.

      When I needed to market aggressively and find new clients, I used to get on a boat and go into my nearest big city to networking events. Which paid off very well — found some great ongoing clients I worked with for years.

      I find writers who really want this to happen find a way to get in some networking, some way.

      • Ron

        Thank you, Carol, for your recommendations. When do you plan to open up the Freelance Writers Den to new memberships?

  10. HP van Duuren

    Yes, point 2 defintitely makes sense, I do believe that it really can help when people somehow see you as a ‘Go To Guy’ That actually once got me a writing gig, by just being at the right place at the right time, with the right specific expertise, while I wasn’t even looking for any of such type writing gigs. A Blog can be a great – Platform – to show some of your Expertise and to Showcase some of your work.

    For what point 3 is concerned, I also know about a famous (SF) Author that started with just writing Short Stories for free or for ‘peanuts’, and finally people begun to ask for his stories
    and he was in business.

  11. Inge Papp

    I agree wholeheartedly with no. 3, Carol, and I would hasten to add that you donโ€™t necessarily have to write pro bono for a client โ€“ you can write an eBook and publish it online for free to get your name out there. Businesses do it, so why canโ€™t individual writers?

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