This is a new type of blog for me.
In honor of my 32nd birthday and the new freelance writer coaching programs I will soon be launching, I thought I’d share my journey about how I went from kindergarten teacher to reporter/editor at CNBC in under two years.
When I say this “under two years,” I always have to check my timeline. There were times it seemed like I was NEVER going to get my first writing opportunity — let alone land a job as a reporter/editor at one of the top money publications in the country.
And in hindsight, it did actually take me a lot longer than two years to achieve a viable writing career, when you count the years I spent between graduating from college with a journalism minor in 2012 and when I finally decided to take myself seriously as a writer in 2018.
I didn’t make the best use of those six years. I didn’t have the skills, knowledge or confidence to go out and try to make a living with my words. In 2018, I took an online course that taught me about SEO, how to make a portfolio, and how to start contacting editors — and I soon became unstoppable. That’s why I always say that compared to university textbooks, free podcasts and accessible online courses/coaching can sometimes provide more relevant information for your goal (at least they did for me).
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
My career path wasn’t linear, but with trial and error along with some calculated risks, I managed to learn how to be a freelance writer, then a staff writer (then back to freelancing full time again!) in a very short period of time. And you can, too.
Here’s how it started for me.
Step 1: The unpaid internship phase
To be honest, I would never recommend that anyone take an unpaid internship in digital publishing today, unless they had the resources to do it without sacrificing their financial health.
Even still, with search engine optimization (SEO) playing such a huge part in how businesses make money, there’s simply no reason why anyone has to accept writing opportunities that aren’t paid at least a little bit.
But I graduated college in 2012. I earned a minor in journalism, but the only thing I understood about writing was that newspapers were dying and I didn’t like social media very much. This was a very simplistic view of things, but truthfully the industry was still adjusting to the new business models, audiences, and marketing methods of the digital age. Nobody talked about SEO — only the inverted pyramid. My favorite classes were either too theoretical for the practical job-hunting process (I’m looking at you, media criticism and theory course), or they focused on writing, researching, and reporting — but not how to make your resume competitive and land the opportunities you want.
Scripps Network was nearby, in Knoxville, TN where I lived at the time, but my application must have been one of a hundred aspiring writers who were in my boat. I had no real experience, other than a few shifts at the college radio station, no portfolio — and unfortunately for me — no confidence.
Meanwhile, I had submitted an application to a small, local magazine. The editor asked me out for coffee and gave me a few compliments and tips, but he never offered me a job.
I’ve written articles for free throughout my life. Too many to count. I’ll dive into why this was such a bad idea later, but for now let’s go back to 2014.
What my unpaid internship did (and didn’t) do for me
After deciding everybody was right and giving up on journalism jobs, I spent a couple of years working anywhere I could. I served as an AmeriCorps volunteer, worked in restaurants, nannied here and there, started teaching yoga.
And then, I got offered an unpaid internship at a permaculture school in Asheville, NC. My job would be to follow the urban farming students around with a camera and write blog posts about their time.
Free education and a chance to practice being a reporter? Sign me up.
I worked this “job” for almost a year. I lived with roommates and ate food from the restaurants I worked at (ironically, the farm never offered me any food). I learned the art of being scrappy, which is an important skillset but one that too many people romanticize. Writers, artists, and creatives should avoid thinking they have to spend too much time in the “struggle” phase to be a real creative person.
ABOVE: Wild ginseng cultivating in the Western NC mountains during my first unpaid writing internship
Should writers say ‘yes’ to unpaid internships?
I can’t say I hated my time as an unpaid intern. In fact, I kind of loved it. But I would never EVER, in today’s content-dense digital world, tell someone to spend a year of their life working for free.
Sitting in on our editorial meetings, I started to get a glimpse into how the school I wrote for made money from my free work. Sometimes, my blogs got repurposed into social media content. Other times, the school’s PR team would ask me to write an article they had pitched out to a regional news outlet.
My wheels were turning, to be sure. This was the kind of information I wish I had learned in journalism school: How content makes money, how articles drive traffic to websites, how to write for social media.
But knowing what I do now, and fully understanding just how MUCH money there is to be made from high-quality SEO content, I want writers to a) get good enough to charge high rates, and b) prove to the people hiring them that they are worth every penny of investment. My writing helped the school immensely – but can you imagine how much more successful the school had been if they’d hired me to write for them full-time?!
This is the kind of mindset freelancers need to have when they want to make money writing.
Pros and cons of unpaid internships
As you can see, the cons of unpaid internships outweigh the pros. Why? Because everything that unpaid internships offer, you can get with actual paid work. Unpaid internships might feel safer because they are more of a “sure-thing,” but if you’re going to let someone pay you nothing for your valuable labor, then how much security are you really building?
Pros of unpaid internships:
- You can easily observe the inner-workings of a business or publication.
You feel more freedom to make mistakes in a lower-risk environment.
They can be an OK resume booster.
Cons of unpaid internships:
- You have little control over the assignments you get or the work you do.
- If you’re good, they give you more free work to do.
- You’re not getting paid.
- You’re often juggling outside jobs to make ends meet.
- You could prolong salary increases and promotions in your career because everyone knows your starting salary is $0.
- They teach you to undermine the value of what you bring to the table and make you feel lucky for the exposure.
How to be a freelance writer: Better alternatives to working for free
If you want to be a writer, don’t take a full, year-long unpaid internship like I did, unless maybe you can do it while you’re already in school. Don’t delay your earning potential any longer than you already have to because of college.
Look for guest contributor opportunities at publications with decent-sized audiences. Many publications pay contributors a normal freelance writer rate, especially if you have a good social media following and proven expertise in an important area. This is a great option for career-changers. Leverage your existing expertise to contribute regularly to a publication within your professional niche.
Connect with editors on social media and learn to pitch stories. Even if you don’t have a professional niche yet, you have life experience that might make a good story. As a CNBC editor, I commissioned stories from new college graduates who were navigating the job market during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. They weren’t experts, but they could write well enough, had a unique point of view, and a story only they could tell. Identify your unique point of view and sell a story that editors would love.
Becoming a freelance writer isn’t easy – but it’s also not harder than any other profession. If you have a willingness and the financial means to learn, take a few risks, and adjust your actions based on trial and error, you really can’t fail. You just have to keep going.
However, unpaid internships are a common pitfall of many new writers who are desperate to get their name out there and gain experience. If you’re stuck in this boat, you’re not alone.
Check back tomorrow to learn about Part Two of my Pitch to the Top ™ journey, where I share some more bumps in the road and how I navigated them.