How to Get Writing Experience (Without Wasting Your Time)
One question that I see from a lot of writers is how to get writing experience. It’s a particular issue for freelance writers, but it applies to pretty much all types of writing – in the recent Aliventures survey, one reader asked for a post on:
“How to get ‘writing experience’ so publishers will take you seriously without getting sidetracked into projects that keep you from finishing your novel.”
The type of experience being talked about here isn’t simply the experience of writing a novel (or any other project). It’s really about the experience of having your writing published in some form.
So how exactly can you get this kind of writing experience … without spending loads of time writing “extra” things that derail you from what you really want to focus on?
I’m going to cover a bunch of suggestions, but first, let’s take a look at whether or not you even need them.
Do You Need Writing Experience?
I know a lot of new writers feel that they need experience to show that they can write – but this isn’t necessarily the case, depending on your goals.
You don’t need experience to submit a novel to publishers. While most debut novelists will have some kind of prior experience (often, with short stories), this isn’t a requirement.
Agents and publishers care about the quality of your novel. Typically, you’ll initially submit the first three chapters along with a synopsis. The agent or publisher won’t take you on as an author until they’ve seen and liked the whole thing.
Of course, it certainly won’t hurt to have experience. If you can point to published short stories, competition wins, or other success with short fiction, that will help to get agents and publishers to at least take the time to look at your submission. But the experience isn’t a requirement. What matters is the quality of your novel chapters.
You generally do need experience to land freelance clients. Because they’ll typically hire you as a freelance writer before you’ve written anything for them, they do need to know that you’re good at the type of writing they want (e.g. copywriting, article writing). This means having some samples you can show them.
While some freelancers write pieces “on spec” and hope to land a client, this is rarer and riskier, as there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever get paid for the piece.
It helps to have experience if you want to write a non-fiction book. With non-fiction, you’ll typically enter into a contract long before completing the book (often, you’ll supply the first 1 – 3 chapters plus a chapter by chapter summary). This allows the publisher input on the book as it progresses.
When I wrote Publishing E-Books For Dummies, Wiley approached me, rather than me sending in a submission. It definitely helped that I’d written a lot of blog posts, plus several self-published ebooks. The conversational style of Wiley’s For Dummies series is very similar to the tone of most blog posts, and the fact I’d written ebooks meant they knew I could complete longer projects.
How to Get (Valuable) Writing Experience
Here are some great ways to get experience, without spending loads of time writing something that isn’t going to help you.
Writing Experience for Non-Fiction Authors
If you write non-fiction, there are loads of great ways to get experience – and many of these let you get your work published quite quickly.
Some of the best methods are:
- Guest blogging (also called guest posting) for large blogs or websites. Guest blogging is where you write an article for someone else’s site, which they publish under your name, normally with a “bio” that tells readers a bit about you. This is a great technique because you can easily share the link to your guest post in order to provide a writing sample. Some blogs pay, making this a particularly good option if you’re aiming for a career as a freelance writer.
- Writing for local publications. If you have a local newspaper or magazine, they may well be happy to publish a short piece from you. Some will pay, but very small publications won’t generally have a budget to pay contributors.
- Writing for student publications. If you’re a student, your college (or even high school) may well have a magazine or newspaper that you can write for. You don’t generally need any prior experience to get involved.
- Publishing sample pieces on your own website. If you’re hoping to land freelancing work but you haven’t got any published samples, then write some articles and put them on your own website. This is a good method to use if you haven’t been able to land any guest posts, or if you want to write and publish something as quickly as possible.
If you write fiction, you may not need any creative writing experience beyond the project you’re working on. But if you’re writing something long (like a novel), you might enjoy finishing and submitting shorter pieces. Plus, of course, being published or winning a competition can be a huge confidence boost.
Some options to look into are:
- Flash fiction competitions. The big advantage of these is that you only need to write a few hundred words – so you don’t have to spend a lot of time on your piece. They’re a fun way to explore a single idea. Flash fiction is under 1,000 words – most pieces are even shorter, with 500, 300, and even 100 words being common limits. You can find a handy list of flash fiction competitions here.
- Short story competitions. Like flash fiction competitions, there are plenty of short story competitions out there, with a wide range of genres, lengths, and prizes. Some are small competitions run by local writers’ groups – and others are big, prestigious national competitions. It’s well worth having a go: even if you don’t win anything, a competition deadline can help push you on to finish a piece.
- Writing for magazines that publish short stories. There are a number of literary magazines out there, usually publishing short stories and poetry – but there are also magazines for more popular fiction, particularly in the women’s market. If you’re interested in giving these a try, Womag Writer has tons of information, plus tips direct from editors.
- Writing for a group anthology. If you’re part of a writers’ group, you could put together a creative writing anthology and get it printed. This can be a great way to raise funds (if you have plenty of willing friends and family between you to buy copies!) and it can also be very rewarding for members of your group. You could let group members contribute any form of writing, so long as it’s under a certain length (e.g. short stories, poems, or novel/memoir excerpts) – or your group could agree on a specific theme or type of writing.
Keep Your Focus on Your Main Project
While you’re trying to get experience, you want to maintain your focus on your main project. If you’re writing a novel, you don’t want to take 6 months off part-way through to work on short stories, for instance. If you’re working on a non-fiction book, you don’t want to stop entirely to write articles.
To keep your focus on your main project, I’d suggest that you deliberately limit the time you spend on side projects.
You could allocate a specific time slot to short pieces each week – e.g. Wednesday evenings are for writing short stories, the rest of your writing time is for your novel.
Alternatively, you could take a short, focused period (say, a week or two) away from your main project. A great time to do this is when your main project is naturally in a resting state. That might mean finishing the first draft of your novel and setting it aside for a couple of weeks while you work on short stories.
What if you’re worried about losing focus on your novel or non-fiction topic? Look for ways your side projects can support your main project.
That might mean writing articles that explore topics you’re covering in your non-fiction book, so you don’t need to do any extra research. You could even write articles that might become sections of your book. With fiction, you could write a short story that forms a prequel or digs into a minor character’s story, helping you develop and deepen your understanding of your story world.
Don’t Bother With These Three Types of Writing Experience
So what types of writing experience aren’t worth it? If you’re only doing them to try to impress agents, publishers, or clients, I wouldn’t bother with any of these:
- Writing letters to the editor. Many magazines and newspapers publish letters from readers, and while these can be fun to craft (and sometimes win cash prizes), they aren’t something you can point to as real writing experience. They’re too short to show that you can write something sustained, like an article.
- Writing your own blog, if you’re a fiction writer. If you’re writing a novel, there are plenty of good reasons to blog (like building your online platform), but your blog isn’t likely to sway agents or publishers.
- Posting on social media. Of course, it’s fine to write on social media, and you may have a particular knack for writing posts that get shared a lot or even go viral … but again, this isn’t really writing experience.
None of these are in any way bad things to do. So please don’t feel you need to stop altogether. All of them can be very rewarding, in lots of different ways. But if you’re doing them only to get writing experience, I’d suggest you try something else instead.
Everything you write gives you more experience: I firmly believe that no words are “wasted”. But if you want the type of experience that will help you land a freelance writing job, try some of the ideas above for fiction and non-fiction writers.
For more help with your writing career, check out my Self-Study packs. These are sets of seminars on lots of different aspects of writing, covering time management, novel-writing, editing, freelancing, self-publishing, and more.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
If you're new, welcome! These posts are good ones to start with:
My contemporary fantasy trilogy is available from Amazon. The books follow on from one another, so read Lycopolis first.
You can buy them all from Amazon, or read them FREE in Kindle Unlimited.