First, do not undercut yourself. Devaluing your time and hard work makes it harder to raise your rates significantly later on. And please do not be one of those freelancers who spends years bidding on work through write-for-hire sites or pay-per-view places. By agreeing to take on these projects that pay pennies, you will soon slam into the burnout wall. You’ll also join the ranks of those who give their work away and make it harder for others to charge a living wage.
So, what can a freelancer do to improve his chances and his bank account when he has no or few clips in his portfolio? Be smart – spend a good deal of time researching the industry. Use search engines to find out what salaries full- and part time freelancer writers earn. A good pay scale calculator can be found here: http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Freelance_Writer,_Technical/Hourly_Rate
Knowing what you’re worth at the outset will serve your career well. Just as in other industries, you’ll have to start out at the bottom, but once you’ve gotten some exposure and experience, you’ll at least know what to charge by the hour or project, according to national averages.
Look for smaller publications and industry newsletters to get your feet wet. There’s nothing wrong with writing pro bono for nonprofit agencies for a while when you’re new. The clips you build will move you into a more profitable future.
Once you’re ready for the next level – paid freelancing jobs and projects – forge relationships with a few editors and publishers. This is easier to do than many writers think. By being accurate, submitting early vs. just at deadline or (gasp) past due, you endear yourself to employers. And always give them lagniappe (a little something extra) with each assignment: a nice sidebar of resources or statistics, free companion clip art, correlating jpegs, or an offer of a follow-up article. Once you’ve got the publication’s style and readership down and have sold a few articles, you can offer to do a feature or series. When your relationship with the boss has solidified with happy results on both ends, maybe you can snag a weekly or monthly column.
Once you have a few reliable markets in your stable, you can branch out. As in all businesses, start slowly and build steadily so as not to take on too much at once until you know what sort of workload you can comfortably manage.
By following the simple equation of thoroughly researching your market, turning in quality work ahead of schedule, and always providing a small bonus, you won’t be lumped into the ever-growing pile of available freelance sources.
Remember: just because “free” appears in your job title, doesn’t mean you have to give your work away.