Ask a Freelancer

Ask a Freelancer: How Do I Make Contacts in Different Fields of Writing?

By Nicole Dieker December 2nd, 2014

How do I make the contacts to diversify as a freelancer?

—I’ve Got The Eggs, Now I Need The Baskets

Making contacts isn’t just about knowing the right people; it’s also about knowing the right time to reach out to them.

In my recent advice column, “Will You Still Be Freelancing in 10 Years?,” I wrote about future-proofing your career by diversifying your writing. Ideally, you want a few copywriting clients, a few blogging clients, a few website copy clients, and so on. This way, if something happens in the next decade—maybe pay rates for bloggers bottom out, or maybe all copywriters will be replaced by robots—you’ll still have contacts and clients in other parts of the freelance economy.

For those who want to know how to break into new fields or write for new publications, I always go back to Shane Snow’s freelance strategy hacks. Visualize your career as a ladder, and don’t try to jump rungs until you’ve written multiple clips for the same pub. Snow notes that editors want to see you’ve written at sites that are as good, or almost as good, as theirs. That’s why timing is so important when trying to reach new contacts. If you ask before you’ve done enough work to get a foot in the door, you’ll get rejected and discouraged.

To build relationships in the blogging world, I’ve told people you only need two bylined pieces in order to send off a pitch. Get your name at the head of a good story in two places—even if one of those places is a tiny blog and the other one is Medium—and then you can end your pitch with “Here are two examples of my writing.” I did that when I was getting started, and I never said, “These are the onlytwo examples of my writing,” even though that was closer to the truth.

This strategy probably won’t get you a story in The New York Times, but keeping with the ladder theme, maybe it gets you work on The Billfold, which leads to work on Today.com, which helps you get bylines with WIRED, which finally lets you land a story in The Times. And by the time you’ve hustled through that whole process, you’ve built up a half-dozen editorial contacts who can help you in the future.

What about other types of writing? Although you can get into blogging by knowing how to tell a good story, you need a different set of skills for other kinds of writing jobs, such as copywriting.

As Copyblogger’s Robert Bruce writes: “Copywriting is not writing. Copywriting is assembling.” (This quotation is from Bruce’s “The Best Damn Copywriting Advice I’ve Found,” which I highly recommend you read.) Don’t start applying for copywriting jobs until you’ve taken the time to study sites like Copyblogger and learn what companies want from their copywriters.

I broke into that niche when a friend hired me to write the copy for his website. I started out writing my own product copy and email campaigns when trying to make it as an indie musician, and I taught myself a lot of the skills from the ground up. I also spent a lot of time on sites like Naomi Dunford’s IttyBiz to learn about building email lists and writing copy to drive conversions.

That meant when I was ready to start applying for copywriting and email campaign gigs—and many of them are contract jobs you apply for, with resumes and cover emails, rather than jobs you pitch—I was able to say “I write email copy with a 37.4 percent open rate and 10.4 percent click rate (industry average is 15.6 percent and 3.3 percent).”

So that’s how you know when to ask. But finding copywriting contacts is sometimes harder than finding contacts in blogging and publication jobs. Journalists can always email an editor on the masthead—but finding contact information for personal and corporate clients requires a bit more finesse. The ladder strategy works pretty well for these kinds of jobs: Start by finding the friend who needs help with a website. Then ask that friend if he/she knows anyone else who’s looking for work—and keep moving up.

There is so much more I could write about building your contacts in the freelance world, so let’s just cover a few quick tips:

— When you make your first contact, keep it short. Even if you’re sending a cover email with clips attached, resist the urge to write four paragraphs—that’s a cover letter, not a cover email. A cover email should be more like four sentences.

— Never underestimate the power of social media. Consider making a Facebook business page just for your writing. Seed your content on Twitter. Publications love when you bring them followers who will likely read and share your work.

— Likewise, don’t underestimate the power of social media as an outlet for clients to come to you. I’ve received messages from editors and clients who liked my work after a well-written story generated a lot of social shares.

— You should also ask long-term clients for referrals and contact information, but as with everything else, you have to ask strategically. Back to the ladder: Don’t try to jump levels; request a referral for a project that’s around the next level up.

None of this will happen overnight—but you will develop contacts over time if you’re patient enough. It’s okay to sporadically pitch a dream client, but if you want to spread your eggs among many baskets, the best advice I can give is to make sure they have time to hatch.

Nicole Dieker knows that “knowing when to ask” is one of the most important parts of building a career—but you can ask her questions about freelancing any time you want. Please send your Ask a Freelancer questions to dieker.nicole@gmail.com.

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