And the catch-22 is that you need to start writing before you start writing. You need samples before you get published. But fear not; you are a writer after all. This is the fun part!
It can be difficult to write about a topic that you’re not interested in, so I would always recommend to pick a topic that you’re either extremely knowledgeable about or something that you want to learn more about (writing about a topic is a great way to learn about something new).
I began my freelance career with two writing samples, essays about my own personal experiences that stretched my abilities as a wanna-be writer. I wrote them for no particular purpose other than to get some words and thoughts on paper at a time when I was desperate for a change of career. I wanted to be a writer! I didn't want to be a [insert the name of the job that you're doing just to pay the bills and/or pass the time right now]. I stashed these essays in a drawer and found them a year or so later. I read them, smiled a little, cringed a little, and put them back in the drawer.
But then, by a twist of fate, I met an editor. I took a giant leap of faith and offered myself to her as a writer (I was currently editing and writing a newsletter and looking to expand my expertise). When she asked for samples, I thought of those essays. What did I have to lose? You know, aside from my pride. But I wrote those essays for a purpose, and this was it.
These essays were enough to get me into the door with that first editor, and she gave me my chance. These weren’t necessarily the types of articles that the magazine was searching for, but they let her know what I was capable of, and they showed her my unique voice (more on this later). She asked me for samples of my work so she knew what she was working with, a reality that you, too should be prepared for.
So, what do you want to write about? Consider current events, conversations with friends, things you see your family doing, ways you think a need can be met—these are all great resources for topics. When you find a topic that really speaks to you, your research on it (not to mention your writing) will flow most beautifully.
Pick several topics that interest you and that are topical; these samples are good practice and good examples for you to have on hand should you be asked for samples. And years from now, when your writing career has taken off and you’re dusting your Pulitzer, you can reread these little articles that started it all and you can laugh at how much your writing has changed.
Because yes, it will—everyone starts somewhere and grows from there. Don’t be afraid of that. For now, just focus on your writing. This is your practice, but make it count. Don't reinvent the wheel; if you've read an article about how to throw the perfect holiday party, don't try to write the same article; turn the idea on it's head and look at it from a different angle. How can you throw the perfect pet-friendly holiday party? Or a holiday-themed playdate for young kids to get out and explore nature in winter? See—somewhat similar but different.
If you want to write how-to articles, pick something that you know how to do and start from the beginning to explain it. Such as making toast (I love toast, even though I've sworn off carbs for the most part); explain the best way to make toast. Why should the reader make toast? What is the history of toast? What are the variations of toast? Where can the reader find more resources on toast? The best place to find toast? Yes, toast is a bit of an absurd example, but you get the gist, right? I for one am craving some toast. But that's not the point here. Replace "toast" with your topic, and you've got a pretty decent starting point.
Also consider what your article will need to be complete: statistics? Interviews? Anecdotes? Expert opinions? Each story requires a different approach. Lela Davidson is a freelance writer and TODAY Show blogger (and author, and speaker ... she knows a lot about time management is what I'm saying here). Lela recommends thinking ahead when planning your time. "If you have an interview, see if you can get a couple of articles out of it," says Lela. That's a creative way to make constructive use of your time, and if you're serious about writing (and you are, aren't you?), then you need to start thinking about time management. Trust me. This one comes up a lot. Including right now.
The worst part of this writing step is finding the space and time to do it, because it takes the most time. You have to plan consistently to get your butt on the chair and get to writing. Making it a habit, finding that time will help in the long run to make it easier to allow yourself what seems like idle time to write. Carve out a space (remember Virgina Woolfe's assertion that every woman needs a room of her own? This applies doubly for women who are also writers.) where you sit and regularly write; if the room is not going to happen, make it a chair in a certain room, or any room and a certain cup for your coffee, a certain notebook, a certain playlist that you listen to. Set up a routine, a ritual that announces to yourself (and possibly everyone else around you) that you are not to be disturbed; you are writing.
Because, make no mistake about it, writing takes time. Lots of time. Did I say that already? I need to say it again. Because it takes probably double or triple the time you think it will take. And if you can easily get yourself into the mindset of writing, all the better. Most articles require lots of research, interviews, note taking, reviewing, writing, reading, rewriting, reading and then resting. And the resting is important. You do that before you read and edit it again.
Also be sure to save your work, says Myrna Beth Haskell, syndicated columnist and author of Lions and Tigers and Teens. “I lost a complete feature piece when my computer fried several years back, and I didn't have a recent draft saved! I had to rewrite the piece in 24 hours,” says Myrna. “I actually liked the version I did under pressure much better... although, I wouldn't recommend this. My note taking saved me!” Final word? Take copious notes (paper or digital or audio—or all of the above) and save your work frequently!
Get started: three steps to start writing:
- Brainstorm. What are you going to write about?
- Start writing. Because there's no other way to start.
- Be Consistent. Sit down and write. Make the time to do it and then sit down and do it again. Repeat as necessary.
But what about if you're just not sure where to start? Just start. Spill it out on the page and you might be surprised. Some of the most engaging articles I’ve ever written were those that were the most difficult to pull from my brain. I just started to write, coming at the story from an unexpected angle, and it helped me to find my way. Did you think that I had forgotten about using your unique voice that I mentioned above? This is how you find it, this is how you access your true voice; you ignore the things you should write and you just ... write.
There's a great, slightly irreverent but extremely informative piece on blogsexier.com by Trevor van Hemert about freewriting and how to spin crap into gold. A great read and a great exercise for everyone to try, new and experienced writers alike.
Next week: The perfect pitch.