3 Important First Steps for New Writers

You can become a working writer in less than 30 days


Tealfeed Guest Blog

3 years ago | 7 min read

I recently received an email from a younger friend asking for advice on how he can get started as a freelance writer:

“Assuming I’m starting with no impressive experience, and that I know virtually no one, where would you go to start begging for (or demanding?) on-the-side, little to no pay sorts of writing gigs? Also, how did you get to where you are, generally?”

Two things immediately jump out at me about his email — one positive and one negative:

  1. This aspiring writer is worried that he doesn’t have enough published work to land a writing job — Negative
  2. He wants to get paid to write and is willing to do anything to get started — Super positive

Here’s the thing about freelance writing: It’s not as hard to get started as it used to be.

If you do a few very important — but surprisingly simple things — you won’t have to “beg” for “little to no pay” writing gigs. You can become a working writer in less time than you think.

So instead of pinging him back with a quick “Hang in there, bro,” or “Search Craigslist,” I decided to share with him — and you — the three things that I did when I was starting out that gave me the momentum to keep writing, get paid, and eventually turn my passion into a writing career I love.

Here’s how to become a working freelance writer in less than 30 days.

1. Create a writing portfolio

Yup. The first step to becoming a professional writer is to create an online writing portfolio.

That might seem weird since you probably don’t have a ton of writing samples to highlight right now, but creating a writing portfolio is the crucial first step to becoming a writer for three important reasons:

  • Visibility
  • Intention
  • Professionalism


You have to get skin in the game to be a working writer. It’s nearly impossible to book a freelance pitch or recurring writing gig with a company if you can’t show them a few clips of your writing. Even if you send them the most beautiful pitch ever written.

The editor needs to see something that shows that you know how to write, edit, and publish professional work online. They need to know you’re a “real” writer.

The good news is that your writing portfolio can have four articles in it. That’s fine. And they don’t have to be for the New York Times. Heck, they can be published right here on Medium. You just have to show a consistent (and current) body of work.

If you can’t create a portfolio with at least 3–5 links to your published writing work, you shouldn’t be reading this article. Close this tab and go write something. Then publish it somewhere on the internet and come back here when you’re done.


The simple act of creating an honest to gosh public-facing writing portfolio is magical. You will feel different after you do it because you’ve taken a big first step towards becoming an actual writer. Trust me, it’s awesome.

I still remember the rush I got when I sent editors the link to my writing portfolio. It was just so dang professional.

Your portfolio will be small in the beginning. That’s ok. Looking at all that blank white space on your profile will encourage you to keep writing. Set your intentions with a professional writing portfolio. It’s not only a great tool to land (paid) work, but a wonderful motivator to write more.

For double brownie bonus points, add the link to your portfolio to your Gmail signature. People will click on it. I promise.


You have to look like a writer and quack like a writer to get work as a writer. And since writers rarely interview for gigs in person, your portfolio needs to look as professional as possible.

Add a nice headshot. Use your real name. List your professional skills. Get a little LinkedIn with it. Also, try to diversify your publications (it’s not awesome if you’ve only written for one site).

Finally, include all your relevant work but feature your best pieces at the top of your portfolio — especially if they’re in the field where you want to be a writer.

Once you’ve created your portfolio, keep it up to date. If the last thing you published was from 2015 featuring it will actually make you look less professional than a handful of smaller articles from last month. Again, if you haven’t published anything in years, close this window and go publish three articles. Then come back. I’ll wait.

Portfolios aren’t resumés. You can’t embellish or inflate your writing skills. But you can curate your work. Organize your articles in a way that shows what you can do.

How to create a writing portfolio in 15 minutes

Contently’s online writer’s portfolio is free, easy to update, and looks awesome. I’ve had a Contently writing portfolio for seven years. You should have one, too.

To get started just add the URL of anything you’ve published online (blogs, articles, copy) and boom. Contently will create a visually pleasing tile with the image, title, and lead of your article.

What’s great is that clients and editors can sort your articles based on industry, skill, publication, and topic. So you can upload tons of articles and they won’t get buried beneath the fold.

Make sure you check the featured image (you can change it or upload your own image) and edit the lead copy to make the article more compelling since sometimes the autofill text can be a little meh.

Spend some time tweaking the look and layout of your portfolio. It’s your new calling card. Make it look nice.

Here’s what mine looks like:

📷📷Shawn Forno Contently writing portfolio

If you do only one thing on this list, create a Contently portfolio.

2. Pick a niche

Ok. You have an online writing portfolio with a handful of articles that shows you know how to write and work with clients. Good job. Now it’s time to get specific about your writing career. It’s time to pick your niche.

When I first started freelance writing I was so hungry for work that I said yes to any paid gig that came my way. Copywriting. Blogging. Email marketing. Medical transcription. As long as it was vaguely related to “writing” I took it.

And even though it felt nice to earn money as a “writer,” I wasn’t really writing. At least not the kind of writing I wanted to do long-term.

Low hanging “writing jobs” can be a subtle trap for young writers. If you’re not careful you can spend the first five years of your career working, but never actually “writing” anything.

The work you do today is the career you’re building for tomorrow

I spent several years writing copy and content for companies and clients, but I was only building a portfolio of copy and content work that ensured I’d be writing copy and content forever.

The work you do today is the career you’re building for tomorrow. So while it’s important to pay the bills — we all take writing gigs we’re not jazzed about — you have to make sure you’re consistently writing in the style and niches where you want to see yourself in a few years.

Don’t waste your time as a financial blogger or viral marketing copywriter just because it’s “writing” when you really want to interview bands or write about travel and minimalism.

Carve out your niche as early as possible and commit to it.

Write about things you care about or are an expert in and you’ll set yourself up for more of the work that you actually want. Then all you have to do is reach out to editors and publications in your field when you’ve got a good story idea.

3. ‘Write for Us’

The easiest way to get started as a writer is to apply for writer jobs. Sounds too easy, right? Well…it kind of is.

If you have a portfolio, you can search for freelance writing jobs, click the links, and scroll until you see the three sweetest words in the English language — “Write for Us.”

You can get dozens of paid freelance writing jobs just by clicking on the link at the bottom of websites or brands in your niche and following the instructions.

Heck, I applied for a travel writing job while writing this article. Here’s how:

  1. I typed “freelance travel writer jobs” and clicked on the first link—to be a contributing writer at
  2. I clicked “Write for Us” (it was literally the first link in their header), filled out the short submission form, sent three story ideas along with my (quick) writing background, portfolio link, and current work, and now I’m in their editorial queue.

The whole thing took less than 10 minutes.

While this might not turn into my dream travel writing job, it’s an actual paid writing job that even wants to credit writers with a byline (more fodder for your portfolio).

Pitching articles is still an important skill for landing bigger clients, but it’s not something you need to worry about at the beginning of your writing career. The best way to get started is to apply for niche writing jobs as quickly and efficiently as possible. And to do that all you need is a portfolio, a few recent articles, and a submission form.

Taking the first step

I’m glad my friend emailed me asking for writing advice. It reminded me how important — and confusing — the beginning of your writing career can be. If you take the wrong job or get discouraged from too much rejection early on it can warp or even end your writing career before its begun.

The good news is that you can do this. You can become a working travel writer in less than a month. Just polish that portfolio, keep writing in your niche, and apply for writing gigs that nourish the career you want.

The rest is up to you.

This article was originally published by Shawn ferno on medium.


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