5 Ways to Get the Experience You Need to Find Freelance Jobs and Clients
Worried about not having enough freelance experience?
Getting enough experience to get started is one of the biggest obstacles for most new freelance writers or editors. Here are 5 ways to get the experience you need.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Getting enough experience to get started is one of the biggest obstacles for most new freelance writers or editors. Fortunately, you don’t need a lot of experience to get started. And there are many ways to get enough experience.
You don’t need a lot of experience to get started because freelance success is all about momentum.
I’m going to give you 5 ways to overcome the obstacle of “how do I get experience with no experience?”
But first, let me tell you how I got some of my early freelance experience. When I was starting my freelance business, I had experience in writing and editing. But I didn’t have experience in freelancing.
How I Got My First Freelance Client
My first freelance gig was proofreading for someone who had just opened a printing business. I had always been a writer and I wanted to be a freelance writer. But I took the work because it was freelance experience.
On my way home from work, I had to pick up the project. The next morning, I had to drop it off on my way back to work. Since it was proofreading, it didn’t pay much.
After about six months, my client referred me to one of his clients, who was looking for a copyeditor for a journal on drug development. Once again, this wasn’t writing. But I took it to build my freelance experience.
Copyediting the journal gave me lots of steady work. Copyediting paid more than proofreading so I was already making more money.
Finding a lucrative and interesting specialty—medical writing—was the biggest benefit of taking this work.
After a while, the journal client also hired me to do some writing. And I was able to use what I learned by editing the journal to get more freelance medical writing work from other clients.
So I was able to get more work from the journal client and to get bigger and better clients from getting this freelance experience.
Why a Prestigious Client Hired Me Despite Lack of Experience
Another early client was a prestigious health system affiliated with an Ivy League medical school. This client hired me to write articles for a newsletter for referring physicians.
At the time, I had never written anything for healthcare professionals. The only medical knowledge I had was what I had picked up editing the drug development journal. Most of this wasn’t relevant to writing articles for physicians.
So why did this prestigious client hire me?
Because my colleague from a professional association was the neighbor of the client. And when the client mentioned that she needed a freelance writer, my colleague thought of me.
The client hired me—even though I had no medical writing experience and virtually no medical knowledge. And after a while, she referred me to a college within the health system who needed help with marketing materials for a medical practice.
This work gave me great experience in medical writing, which I was able to use to get more medical writing clients and really build my business.
5 Ways to Overcome Lack of Experience
#1. Take any Decent Freelance Opportunity
The story of how I got my first freelance client shows how one thing leads to another. By taking proofreading work I didn’t really want to do, I got my first client. That led to my second client, which was copyediting, also work I didn’t want to do.
But copyediting the drug development journal led to finding medical communications—a wonderful specialty—getting more clients, and building my freelance business.
If I had turned down the proofreading work because I only wanted writing work, my freelance journey would have been much harder. And I probably would not have become a medical writer.
So if a decent opportunity could help you build your freelance business in any way, take it. What you learn will be valuable. And each opportunity is likely to lead to other opportunities.
Decent opportunity means reasonable pay and a reasonable deadline for the work. While new freelancers usually don’t make as much as experienced freelancers, if, for example, the client wants to pay you $50 to write a 500-word blog post that is NOT a decent opportunity.
#2. Build a Strong, Trusting Network
Looking back on my freelance career, I can’t believe that the prestigious health system hired me when I had no experience in medical writing.
But as I learned as I built my own network, when people know and trust you, they’re willing to give you a chance doing something you haven’t done before or where you only have a little experience.
My colleague knew and trusted me. Her referral was enough for her neighbor to trust me enough to hire me. Because clients want to do business with people they trust. And they’re grateful for referrals to competent, dependable freelancers.
Professional associations are the best way to build a strong, trusting network and to meet people who can give you referrals.
Volunteering is the quickest way to get to know clients and colleagues and earn their trust. If you’re like most freelancers, volunteering will be much easier than active networking. When you volunteer, you don’t have to “sell yourself.” Doing good volunteer work will do the marketing for you.
Other freelancers should be a key part of your network. They’re a great source of referrals, as well as support and practical advice.
Learn more about getting referrals
But even if you build a strong network, you still need to make the most of the experience you have. And you may need to work on getting some more experience.
#3. Consider Your Experience Broadly
You probably have more relevant experience than you think you do. Most of the freelancers I meet do.
When we think of experience, we tend to think of having the exact experience that the client is looking for. But you probably have similar experience, from work, school, or volunteer activities, that’s relevant to freelance writing or editing.
Here are just a few examples of relevant experience:
- Writing journal articles as a student in medical, nursing, or pharmacy school is relevant experience for freelance medical writers.
- Editing a newsletter for a club or another organization as a volunteer is relevant experience for freelance editors.
And you probably have transferable skills for freelancing. Broad transferable skills include:
- Any writing or editing you’ve done
- Working on projects that are similar to the type of writing or editing you want to do as a freelancer.
Other examples of transferable skills are:
- Analyzing information
- Attention to detail
- Collaborating with others
- Conducting research
- Defining needs and requirements
- Effective time management
- Identifying and solving problems
- Meeting deadlines
- Organizing work
- Suggesting new ideas
- Synthesizing ideas.
Really think about your experience and skills and how you can apply them to freelance writing or editing.
#4. Go “Back to School” to Get Experience
Build more skills and get more experience by learning more. Professional associations offer many opportunities for both informal and formal learning. Their programs are generally less expensive than universities and for-profit organizations. Some educational programs from professional associations are free.
Informal learning is a good place to start to get some basic knowledge, but it won’t help you build skills or experience. This covers things like reading, watching videos, attending webinars, or listening to podcasts about the type of work you want to do and networking with other writers or editors. Networking can help you learn more about great sources of formal learning.
Formal learning also helps you build knowledge as well as skills and experience. It includes:
- Courses, workshops, and tutorials
- Certificate and certification programs.
Professional associations conferences are a great way to learn about a lot of topics while meeting lots of people. At the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) annual conference, for example, you can attend open sessions, take short workshops where you learn how to do something, and participate in roundtable discussions covering specific topics. Workshops include homework so you have something you can use as a sample.
Courses, Workshops and Tutorials
Courses are a great way to build skills and experience, especially those where the homework can be used as a sample of your work. Nearly all courses are available online now. Professional associations, universities, and for-profit organizations and people offer courses. Take courses offered by reputable organizations and people.
AMWA offers workshops where you do homework. So if you take a workshop in a type of writing, for example, you can use the homework as a sample. AMWA also has lots of webinars, mini-tutorials, and knowledge builders that will help you build skills and get experience.
Coursera offers “more than 5,000 courses, Professional Certificates, and degrees from world-class universities and companies.” They have 66 programs in business writing, 22 programs in copywriting, 281 programs in content marketing, and 119 programs in editing.
Webinars are less helpful than courses, workshops, or tutorials because they’re passive. You just watch them but you don’t do any work to build skills and get experience
Certificate and Certification Programs
Certificate and certification programs allows you to build more skills and get more experience than most of the other types of formal learning. Another advantage is that the certificate is a credential that sets you apart in a sea of freelancers. But certificate and certification programs take more time and can be costly.
Examples of certificate and certification programs are:
- American Medical Writers Association Essential Skills Certificate Program
- University of Chicago Medical Writing and Editing Certificate Program
- University of Chicago Editing Certificate Program
- Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS) Certification Program
- HubSpot Academy Content Marketing Certification Program
These are just a few examples of opportunities to learn and build your skills and experience. Google the type of work you want to do and you should find many more.
#5. Develop Spec Samples
Develop spec (or speculative) samples to learn about a specific type of writing or editing and show that you can do it. A spec sample is a fictional sample that’s like a project you would work on for a client.
Say, for example, that you want to write a blog post for clients that help people stay healthy and fight disease:
- Visit the website of a client you’d like to write for and study examples of blog posts.
- Chose a topic like the topics they cover.
- Write a sample blog post.
Label the sample a spec sample (e.g., at the top, write something like “Sample blog post for a disease-focused health organization”) and post it on your website.
If the type of project you want to work on is very big, do a spec sample of part of the project.
If you’re an editor, find a project that’s similar to what you want to do and create a fictional version of it with errors. Show the sample after editing and the version before editing. Clearly label your edited version.
Yes, You Can Build Skills and Get Experience
Now you know 5 practical ways to build skills and get experience so you can succeed as a freelance writer or editor. You don’t need a lot of experience, because once you get your first break, momentum will help you build your freelance business.
In the beginning, focus on all 5 ways build skills and get experience. As you start to build your business, continue to work on building and maintaining a strong, trusting network and learning so you can always build and deepen your skills and experience.