Seven Crucial First Steps for Your Writing Career

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writing-dreams

Image from Flickr by nic519.

Have you ever thought about – or daydreamed about – turning your writing into a career?

Perhaps you’ve already made some progress (buying a website domain, submitting some pieces), or perhaps it still feels like more of a dream than a plan.

The good news is that it’s probably not as complicated as you think. If you have visions of creating a complicated business plan, or spending hours doing market research, or investing loads of money in expensive courses … forget all that!

There’s really not too much you need to do to start making money as a writer.

I had the pleasure of chatting to Thursday Bram a few weeks ago – she was the June guest speaker for Writers’ Huddle – and one of the things we discussed was what new freelance writers need to do when they’re getting started.

Thursday said, and I agree with her, that the two most important things are to:

  • Get a website set up.
  • Write pieces for your portfolio.

These apply to pretty much every writer – a very simple website is fine initially, unless you’re actually specialising in writing for the web.

Of course, these aren’t likely to be the only two things you do – so I’ve expanded them into seven first steps to take, ideally in this order:

Step #1: Decide What Your Focus Will Be

Hopefully, you’ve already had some writing experience – enough to let you know what area you want to focus on.

It’s tempting, when you’re just starting out, to offer any type of writing that someone might be willing to pay for. This is a mistake: it’s much better to choose a specific area and specialise.

That doesn’t mean you can’t take on other work if a client asks you to, but it does give you a focus for your website copy and your marketing.

When you’re choosing what to focus on, you might want to consider:

  • Is it an easy area to break into? Making a living from fiction, for instance, could take years of hard work for little initial reward. (That’s not to say you shouldn’t try it; just make sure you have another way to support yourself until the money’s coming in.)
  • Is it something you enjoy? I could probably make more money doing business copywriting than producing blog posts, but I’m not that keen on writing sales pages and adverts.
  • What extras will the work involve? You might prefer to work with small businesses rather than large ones, for instance, if that means quick turnarounds and less admin.

Step #2: Figure Out Your Business Model

Before you can go very far with setting up a business, you need to figure out how you’re actually going to make money. Unless you’re applying for funding, you’re unlikely to need to write a whole business plan – but it’s important to be clear on this before you set up your website, get tweeting, etc.

Some possibilities are:

  • Working with clients and charging them per project (e.g. $60 for an 800-word blog post).
  • Working with clients and charging them per hour.
  • Selling an ebook (and/or print book).
  • Selling an online course – this might be related to writing, or another specialist interest you have.
  • Offering coaching or consulting – particularly in conjunction with editing.
  • Selling advertising or affiliate products through your website.

Of course, lots of writers have more than one income stream (I’ve done all of these at one point or other in my business), but it’s a good idea to get clear on how you’ll be making money when you start out.

Personally, I found the easiest thing to get started with was working directly with clients: while I love writing ebooks and running ecourses, these are easier once you’ve built up an online audience.

Step #3: Set Up Your Website

Your website doesn’t need to be anything fancy. If you’re going to be mainly working on offline projects (e.g. magazine articles), then a very simple site at about.me could be enough for you.

Ideally, though, you’ll want to have your own website domain – either your own name (aliluke.com) or your business name (aliventures.com). It costs about $10 – $15 per year for a .com domain name.

You’ll also need website hosting: I use Dreamhost for all my websites and have found them very helpful and responsive whenever I’ve needed to contact customer service. (You can read my review of Dreamhost here.) You can register your domain name through them, which keeps life simple.

Once you’ve got a domain name and hosting, the next step is to create your website. I always recommend WordPress for this, which is free. Dreamhost, and many other web hosts, have a “one click install” process for WordPress.

There are tons of WordPress tutorials online – I particularly recommend the articles at WPBeginner.

I know setting up a website may seem pretty techy and daunting, but you can take it a step at a time, and if you have a problem or get stuck, a quick Google search will almost always find you a useful blog post or video explaining things.

Step #4: Build Your Profile on One Social Media Network

It’s tempting to get involved with every social network going, but it’s much more effective (especially in the early days of your business) to pick one network to focus on.

Which one?

That depends on your target customer. For instance:

  • If you want to work with online entrepreneurs, you’ll find them on Twitter or Google+.
  • If you’re targeting middle-aged women, you probably want to hang out on Facebook.
  • If you want to write business-to-business materials, try LinkedIn.

Of course, you might have an even more specific audience: if you want to work with crafters, for instance, Pinterest is probably the way to go.

Once you’ve chosen your network, sign up for an account, and make sure you completely fill in your profile – in particular, add a profile image (otherwise you’ll look like a total newbie). Search for any of your existing contacts on the network, then look for people whose blogs or newsletters you read.

It can be tough to know how to join in when you’re new to a social network: I’ve  found it’s best to watch what other people do (particularly people you admire) and use a similar strategy. For instance, I love the way Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn tweets lots of useful links to other people’s blog posts.

Step #5: Start Building a Portfolio

Naturally enough, potential clients will want to see evidence that you can write well before they hire you. This means having a portfolio of “clips” – pieces that you’ve written for other people.

When you’re just starting out, this can seem like a bit of a Catch-22 situation: you can’t get hired because you don’t have any clips, but how can you get clips when you don’t have any work?

The solution is to write for free, just for your first couple of pieces. When I started out freelancing, I wrote a simple website for a small charity. You might look for a non-profit to help or, if you’re interested in writing articles or web copy, you could guest post on well-regarded blogs.

Another option is to have a blog of your own, which can showcase your writing. While this may be enough, I always think it’s a good idea to have at least one piece published elsewhere (either online or offline).

Step #6: Gather Testimonials

What you say about yourself matters … but what other people say about you can have a lot more influence.

If you’ve worked for free for a non-profit, or maybe even a friend or former colleague, there’s a good chance they’ll be happy to write a testimonial for you. Don’t assume they’ll do this without prompting – most people simply won’t think of it (or they won’t get around to it).

Here’s a sample email you could use:

Hi [name],

It was great to work with you on [project]. As you know, I’m setting up as a freelancer [or setting up a business, etc] and I’m just getting my website online.

I’m including some testimonials from people I’ve written for, and I wondered if you would mind writing a sentence or two for that?

Thanks very much,

[your name]

If you and your contacts are active on LinkedIn, another option is to ask them to recommend you through LinkedIn. You can then copy-and-paste these onto your website, or even use a WordPress plugin like WP LinkedIn to display them.

Step #7: Tell Your Existing Network

Finally, once you have a portfolio and testimonials to impress potential clients, it’s time to spread the word.

Before you start building new connections, make sure your existing network of contacts know that you’re in business as a writer. (And don’t assume that because you’ve mentioned it on Facebook, they must know – not everyone sees every update!)

It’s a great idea to email round your family, friends, past colleagues, and any other contacts who you think will be interested in hearing what you’re up to. Don’t worry about this being seen as spam, or as blowing your own trumpet. Obviously you don’t want to be constantly sending them promotional emails – but one email to share the exciting news about your new career is fine.

Make sure you clearly explain:

  • What you do (e.g. “I write blog posts and articles for websites”)
  • How they can help (e.g. “If you know anyone with a small business who wants some help with building their web presence, please do pass on my details.”)

And that’s it! You’re in business … and you’re ready for your first client.

If you’re a self-employed writer, what useful early steps would you add to this list?

And if you’re just getting started with making money writing, have you got stuck at any of these steps?

Drop a comment below to share your experiences.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

11 thoughts on “Seven Crucial First Steps for Your Writing Career

  1. So glad you put “having a focus” at the top of this list. It’s so important to know what you want out of your writing (or your blog) before you start: the end result that you want your blog/writing to give you. Because this gives you something to aim for every time you write. And it gives your readers a clear idea of what you’re about (and why they should read you).

    Your other great point is just to focus on building up your network on one social media platform. I learned this the hard way and wasted too much time trying to be everywhere and got nowhere. Now Twitter is my main social media haunt. Facebook is second, although more for my personal profile sharing daft things, mostly pompous cats!

    Pick a social media you enjoy and that gives you most response for your work.

    • Thanks Tom! I definitely agree that you need to pick a social network you actually enjoy using. It’s easy to spread yourself too thin.

  2. Hi Ali,

    Very detailed post about making writing as a career.

    I didn’t know you had a domain named aliluke.com (nice and short name), but you should soon put a writer website there. I know you’ve been too busy with other things.

    I’ve been through all of the above steps, but now I’m focusing on creating e-books and guest posting. I guess both these help each other too.

    I plan to join the huddle sometime soon too, though I know you won’t be there for the next few months or so.

    Beginner writers/bloggers get too overwhelmed by the things they think they need to do in order to be successful. Even I was, at one point.

    • Thanks Raspal! You’ll be very welcome in the Huddle — I’ll be around until the start of November, then away for a few months (but there will be seminars etc while I’m gone). 🙂

      Best of luck with the ebooks and guest posting; I found that guest posts are a good way to market ebooks — it’s how I sold a lot of my Blogger’s Guides, especially early on when I didn’t have much audience of my own.

      Yes, a writer website hasn’t been the priority. I guess I figure, for now, Aliventures does the job fine. Once I have more fiction books out, I’ll probably do something with AliLuke.com.

  3. Hi, thanks for this post. Will gathering testimonials from people who aren’t so influential work? I’ve contributed for small NGOs and people, but many readers would have never even heard their names. Also, I’ve had my letters published in reputed newspapers. Can they help? I’ll be grateful for a reply.

    • Sorry for the slow reply, Shadab! It’s fine if the people you’ve worked for aren’t influential or known to your audience — people won’t expect that (especially when you’re starting out). If you can, do link to their websites, as it helps show you’ve not made them up!

    • Yes, Twitter is, IMO, best for writers and bloggers. Not to forget it’s the easiest to learn. I still don’t know many things with Facebook, but using Twitter is chid’s play.

      I use FB only to join groups I’m interested in. I find LinkedIn better than FB as far as business is concerned. So, Twitter and LinkedIn for business.
      Raspal Seni’s last blog post ..Five WordPress Theme Mistakes You Want to Avoid

  4. Hi Ali,

    Thanks for the inspiration and letting me know, you also started small, and sold your e-books using guest posting. I’ll follow the path with closed eyes, without any fear!

  5. Hi Ali,
    I just found your blog and I’m going through all the posts that interest me (which is almost everything!), so I know this is old but I hope you’re still willing to answer questions.

    I feel a bit ridiculous cause I am stuck in Step 1. I cannot seem to find my focus, I have a good idea of both what I enjoy writing the most and what I am good at but I don’t know how to pin point it nor can I find any websites dedicated to it. I don’t even know what to call it. The closest thing I can think off is some sort of newspaper column-like personal blog? I’m not even sure what that means.

    Anyway, I would really like a more detailed post on this step, about how to find your focus as a writer to exploit your interests and talents but also detailing what the options are out there and what demand is there for them.

    Please forgive me if I sound ignorant or if you’ve already talked about this somewhere else but this is really something that I have been thinking about for a long time and yet I haven’t been able to figure it out properly yet.

    • Sorry for the slow reply, Katherine (we’ve had a bit of a crazy couple of weeks here)!

      It sounds to me like you’re thinking of a personality-driven blog, one where you write about your life — the sort of thing that Tim Dowling writes for The Guardian perhaps?

      You might also want to look into “personal essays” as a form of writing here, if you want to write for publications other than your blog — The Write Life has some good posts about these:

      About potential markets:
      http://thewritelife.com/19-websites-magazines-want-publish-personal-essays/

      List of posts about personal essays:
      http://thewritelife.com/?s=personal+essays

      I agree with you that there’s definitely plenty of material for a whole post (or possibly several posts) on this: I will see what I can come up with! Stay tuned. 🙂

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