I never considered myself a writer and was never given positive reinforcement by my teachers growing up that I would be a good writer either. I was never able to sit still when I was a little kid so it was nearly impossible for me to read a book cover to cover and unlike today, I wasn’t a big reader. I played video games and watched TV like most of my peers, which limited my writing potential. I still believe today that the best writers are also the best readers since reading helps you learn sentence structure, grammar, vocabulary words and general storytelling. A lot of my early work as a teenager wasn’t strong and thus my readers, mainly teachers, didn’t think highly of it. In high school, even though my writing had improved, I chose the wrong topics to write about so I wasn’t inspired enough to put the necessary thought and hard work to churn out high quality pieces. Then, in college, since my goal was to get straight A’s, something I couldn’t have obtained in high school, I had a lot of pressure to become a better writer. I took various classes, including creative writing, where I honed my skills and was able to select topics that more aligned with my interests.
After I started my blog back in 2006, which eventually became PersonalBrandingBlog.com, I realized that I needed to write in other place sin order to grow my own blog audience. Top bloggers will unanimously agree that writing articles for other media outlets and blogs is one of the best way to grow your own audience. I knew this back then, but was nervous because I had never written for a legitimate news site before. The first person I reached out to was Alison Doyle, a blogger for the “Job Search” topic at About.com, a website that is owned by The New York Times. In my email to her, I expressed my enthusiasm for writing about the topic of personal branding, gave her an outline and a headline “Gain a Competitive Edge by Establishing a Personal Brand”. She graciously accepted my article and published it, which might not seem like a big deal today but back then it was truly life changing. I had never had anything published and once the link went live, I felt like my writing was validated.
In the same way I had gotten internships in college, with using one to get to the next, I took the link to this article and pitched The American Marketing Association to write a best practice article focused on personal branding, which they kindly accepted. From there, I pitched BrandWeek Magazine using the links to both published article and a one paragraph summary. It literally took months to hear back and when it was finally published, I remember showing the Head of PR at my company, who couldn’t believe that a twenty-something could get published there. The article helped seal the deal for me creating the first social media position at the company and it enabled me to start pitching even bigger publications.
A year later, right before Me 2.0 was published, I leveraged the book in order to pitch BusinessWeek on a new column focused on personal branding. I became the youngest columnist at BusinessWeek after several articles and was even able to interview some big names, including Tom Peters (my hero), Perez Hilton, MC Hammer, Tim Ferriss and others. This platform helped build my interview platform and the brand name opened the door to me writing for a variety of other outlets in the years ahead. Maintaining the column was time intensive because the bigger media outlets have more editors, scrutinize your writing more based on their standards and have an actual publication calendar. This press made me improve my writing and it forced me to read more in order to generate new topics to pitch my editors.
Over the years, I’ve used my portfolio to write for nearly every business media outlet, from Fortune to The Economist and now maintain a column at Forbes under their leadership section. From the process, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to build a freelance writing career and here are my top tips for anyone who is just getting started:
- Start small. Instead of pitching a major publication, start your writing career by writing for free on a blog you start or a small one in your industry. By doing this, you get to practice your writing without constraints, getting feedback from your peer network, and the published articles can be used in your next pitch to show evidence of your writing.
- Build your network. Editors have to give you permission to write for their media outlet so you have to create relationships with them if you want to get published. You can do this by pitching them directly with a relevant article topic, getting introduced by someone in your network or meeting them at a local event.
- Create a strong pitch. Your pitch should include links to your previous work, a “click bait” headline, a short summary and any new research or facts that would back up your argument.
- Be persistent. Your topics will get rejected and many outlets will never give you a chance to write for them but that shouldn’t make you give up. Keep pitching new topics, and improving your articles, and eventually editors will give you an opportunity. I still get rejected by outlets that I had previous contributed to, which is part of the writing process.
- Have a unique angle. The Internet is saturated with “me too” articles so you need to have a creative angle or viewpoint if you want to stand out. Know the media outlets audience, and what’s already been published there and elsewhere, before you start pitching.