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Best and Worst Writing Advice – Newbie Freelance Writing Guide

The internet is filled with writers, opinions and advice. Some of it is excellent. Much of it is utter nonsense. To paraphrase my favorite favorite fictional vice president as played by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss: I’ve met plenty of people, and most of them are pretty fucking stupid.

Sometimes it seems writers spend more time writing about writing than they do actually writing. I know. You’re probably thinking, Jeff, isn’t this exactly what you’re doing right now? You got me. Guilty. The only reason I’m adding to the nonsense is because people have asked. And, well, let me be perfectly honest. I should be productive and start working on the two articles that are due Friday morning, but I’m putting that off by blogging about writing instead.

That’s the real secret these writers don’t want you to know. That’s why we’re always blathering on about writing. We don’t have writer’s block. We’re just lazy. What better way to procrastinate than talking about what we should be doing.

Worst advice for new writers

1. “Write what you know.”
Quite possibly the dumbest advice I’ve ever gotten, and also the most popular. How limiting is that? And for a new writer! The other day someone said, “If you like antique piggy banks, then write about antique piggy banks.” Okay, not terrible advice, unless you want to actually get paid real money by real people to write.

This is horrible advice for two reasons. First, not to be rude, but no one gives two shits about you. Even if you have an amazing story — you sailed the world, you lost 100 pounds — maybe you write a story or two about that, but then what? Second, when you’re new you should be doing the exact opposite, branching out. Then once you have experience covering different fields you really will be able to write what you know. That’s how I got involved in covering cybercrime and tech news. I found a job posting I knew nothing about, and since I knew nothing, I found sources to tell me what I needed.

2. “You need published clips before anyone will take you seriously.”
Yes, you definitely need clips. They’re probably the single most important thing for a writer. When you apply for a writing job online, those who may hire you have no idea who you are, if you can write or if you’re reliable. All they have to go by are samples of finished products — your portfolio. But they can be unpublished, and they can even be from your blog.

If you’re seeing jobs you wish you could apply for but have no experience, make your own up! That’s what I did here on this blog. I couldn’t find a decent round-up of vegan news on the internet, so I started a weekly column. A few weeks later a tech company was hiring for a once-a-week gig rounding up news in their field. I submitted a few samples of my blog and landed the job ghost writing for them.

3. “Only write when you’re feeling inspired.”
Yeah, and only pay the rent when you feel like it. If it’s a hobby, have fun and do it when you want. If it’s a job, then get to work.

Best advice for new writers (from the masters, of course)

1. Start writing
“Write without pay until somebody offers to pay” — Mark Twain

So many people say they want to write, but then they never actually write. They say they’re looking for work. They say they don’t know where to start. Sure, that may well be true, but you should still write. Then when an opportunity does arise, you’ll have some good clips to seize the day. That’s why so many people have blogs now. But don’t just write to write. Write with a goal, to get where you want to go. If you want to be a financial journalist writing for Forbes, then write those types of articles for your blog and try to move your way up.

2. Then write some more
“I don’t think anybody can teach anybody anything. I think that you learn it, but the young writer that is as I say demon-driven and wants to learn and has got to write, he don’t know why, he will learn from almost any source that he finds. He will learn from older people who are not writers, he will learn from writers, but he learns it — you can’t teach it.” — William Faulkner

You will learn ten times as much writing articles and stories — and all the successes and failures within them — than you will thinking about them.

3. You can be unreliable. You can be an asshole. You can be an average writer. But you can’t be more than one and remain employed.
Neil Gaiman gave arguably the best, most practical and enlightening commencement speech on writing I’ve ever seen. No one can say it better than him.

Want more tips on freelance writing? I’ll collect them all on my Freelance Writing Guide Page for future reference.


  1. Reblogged this on Writer's Zen Blog and commented:
    A must read for writers.

  2. My favorite quote about writing comes from John Steinbeck. I read it over 30 years ago and haven’t been able to find it since.

    But, as the story goes, a friend of Steinbeck’s father, a surgeon, took John golfing one day and struck up a conversation with –

    “You know, John, one day I’m going to take some time off and write a novel.”

    “Funny you should say that,” Steinbeck replied, “I was thinking one day I’d take some time off and perform an appendectomy.”

  3. This is great; I’m bookmarking this post. I never realised you could use your blog in your portfolio. I’ve been thinking about freelance work, but just had no idea how to get started. This post has helped me more than everything else I’ve come across. Love Neil Gaiman.

    • Yeah, no one said I couldn’t so I did. Sure it would be nice to have a clip from Time magazine or some big name, but I imagine, if it’s well-written and along the lines of what they need, that they won’t care where or how it was published.

  4. Great advice from Neil Gaiman – ‘If you do not know how to do something, pretend you are someone who does know how to do it, and simply do what that person would do.’ And the best advice of all – Enjoy the ride.
    I hope you are enjoying the ride, Jeff. I know I am. – 🙂

  5. That was wonderful. The bit about when you feel like you’re walking down the street naked, you might be on to something is spot on. Love that.

    I met Gaiman at a SF/Fantasy con 100 years ago when he was that worried, uncomfortable success. It’s nice to see him relaxed into his fame.

  6. Only “doing/writing things you’re passionate about” is such classic nonsense. This is great advice for the independently wealthy, and retired.

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