In The English Major’s Guide to Getting a Job, I explain how you can freelance as a student and earn 2x, 4x, or even many more times what your classmates earn working minimum wage jobs.
However, finding the kind of high-paying freelance gigs that make this possible is a challenge. How can you get the experience needed to deserve high fees without spending years gaining experience?
The answer is to use Shane Snow’s Frank Sinatra method. I used this to leverage several high-paying freelance gigs, many of which paid me up to $400 per 500-word article.
It’s Hard Finding High-Paying Gigs When You Start Out…
There’s a ton of work available to writers. With the rise of content marketing, the need for high-quality, well-written web content has never been higher. Since most businesses serving English-speaking audiences need content written by native English speakers, it can’t be outsourced internationally like other jobs – including software development, web development, and others.
That’s good news for us English majors.
Finding jobs that pay $15–$35/blog post, for example, is easy.
Knowing how to find higher-paying writing jobs, however, can seem impossible.
How Much Experience Do You Need to Get Paid Well?
One might think you need years of experience to land high-paying gigs.
The truth is much more exciting.
For example, I landed gigs that paid up to $100/article within the first six months of freelance writing.
Now, I charge $200 or more for a single 500-word article. It takes me about two hours to write articles like that – that means I can earn $100/hour to blog.
Though I’ve been freelancing for over 5 years, I now know I could have been commanding these kinds of fees much earlier. In fact, I could have been charging these rates after just 3-6 months of experience.
Anyone with a talent for writing (and who’s willing to stretch their skills) can do this, too.
Using the “Frank Sinatra” Method to Build Credibility and Land High-Paying Gigs
Writing for Lifehacker, author Shane Snow explains how top publications (in this case, Wired) look to establish minimum required credibility:
What I realized, however, is that my WIRED editor wasn’t actually looking for a magic number of years of experience; he was looking for a quick way to determine whether I had what it took to meet WIRED’s tough editorial standards. A career climbing the magazine ladder inside of Conde Nast was one way to prove it. But when I looked at the career paths of some of the youngest feature writers for WIRED and other big publications, I realized that it wasn’t the only way.
What I really needed to do was to find what I call the Minimum Required Credibility (MRC for short) to put the editor at ease.
What Snow found was that earning the minimum required credibility wasn’t as impossible as one might think. Instead of spending years taking low-wage jobs to slowly build a reputation, Snow discovered he could quickly ascend the ladder of credibility.
He called his technique the Frank Sinatra method:
Frank’s articulating a timeless idea when he sings, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” He’s talking about associating brand equity wherein New York becomes a yardstick, a proxy for credibility. New York’s reputation for “only the strong survive” meant that if Frank succeeded there, he’d be seen as success material (internally and by others) no matter where he went.
We can apply this principle to climbing our own career ladder : to meet a minimum standard of cred for a given task, you can either show years of experience, or you can show that you’ve “made it” somewhere comparable. You might be the worst investment banker in NYC, but when you move to Kentucky, people will say, “She was a banker in New York. She must be good…”
How does this work? Here’s how Snow did it:
Find an “anti-platform”: something like a rising new blog that seems desperate for content and will let almost anyone in. Pitch it some good story ideas — for free—going out of your way to do tons of pre-reporting and research or even pre-writing the stories, so a blog editor could basically just click “buy it now.” (I pitched several blogs until someone gave me a shot. That person was Zee from The Next Web, then a brand new site trying to compete among a growing number of social media blogs).
After writing numerous stories and establishing yourself as a “regular contributor,” pitch the next tier up, and tout your experience at the previous blog. (I approached Gizmodo and said, “Hi, I’m a tech journalist who’s written for The Next Web. I have a great story for you.”)
Repeat Step 2 until you get where you want to be.
His career path looked like this:
The Next Web > Gizmodo > Mashable > Fast Company > WIRED. The pitch to the second WIRED editor went something like, “Hi, I’m a tech journalist who’s written for Fast Company, Mashable, Gizmodo, and others. I have a great story for you.”
You could do the same thing.
(Read more about Shane Snow’s journey in Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success.)
How to Build Minimum Required Credibility
One of the best things that happened to my writing career was landing a gig for Intel Security. How’d I do this?
- I wrote on Facebook about how I’d started writing content. I also decided to start sharing links about a subject I enjoyed – technology.
- One of my classmates, who was now working for a marketing agency in San Francisco, contacted me and said Intel Security was one of their clients. He needed some help creating content, and asked if I was available.
- After a few emails back-and-forth, I worked on the gig.
Did I get a byline credit on their website? Nope – but it didn’t matter. I could now tell future tech clients I’d done work for Intel. (The gig only paid $25/hour, but that ended up being $500 when it was done.)
The next big name I got was when one of my sister’s friend’s husband worked for Novell as a marketing coordinator. In passing, I told him to let me know if they ever needed web content. I handed him a business card, and a week later, he sent me an email.
That led to $2100.00 worth of business that year – and another big name in my portfolio.
Because of the big brands I’ve written for, I don’t need to say how long I’ve been writing. Here’s a real bio I sent to a prospective technology client this week:
Matt Hall is a Silicon Valley-based technology and business writer. His experience includes creating strategic web content for Intel, Novell, The Huffington Post, Bloomberg, and other leading sites. He is currently pursuing an MBA at Santa Clara University.
See that? There’s nothing about how long I’ve been writing. I’m simply applying a principle about human psychology.
(Remember Catch Me if You Can, the charmin biopic starting Leonardo Dicaprio and Tom Hanks? It’s like that, but ethical.)
So, about a year ago, my college roommate Anthony and I wanted to see if we could pretend that he was a celebrity and if it would translate into anything awesome. So we went to mall. I was dress in my black suit and followed behind him pretending to be his security and at one point another friend came up for an autograph saying that he was the lead guitarist of a fictional band.
As soon as the first person did it, several others came up and actually wanted pictures and autographs. It kept piling on and on and eventually led to him getting the number of a very attractive girl. This works extremely well because by having the initial social validation you can get the second validation. This is true in everything from life and dating to startups (what? you have Microsoft as a client, sure we’ll do a free trial).
Again, you’re not using this principle to cheat people. But understanding the psychology of persuasion helps establish why getting these big names is so important.
As a recent grad, you’ve got a great opportunity to contact classmates, alumni, and others to leverage credibility-building gigs. In fact, by using LinkedIn, you can find these gigs in just a few hours or work per week.
A 5-Step Process to Build Minimum Required Credibility Using LinkedIn
If I had to start all over again, here’s how I would build minimum required credibility.
- Optimize my LinkedIn profile. This means adding my experience as a freelance writer, updating my personal bio, and making sure my school information was accurate. (See The English Major’s Guide to Getting a Job for more information on how to do this.)
- Join alumni groups and personal interest groups. (For me, this would be groups for content writers, technology writers, and similar groups.)
- Ask for writing gigs. In the alumni groups, I’d post something like, “I’m a freelance content writer looking to add a big technology brand to my portfolio. Does anyone work for a marketing agency or big company who would be willing to let me write a few articles I could show future clients? No byline needed – just want the experience.” A lot of people will say no, but the people who say yes will be saying yes to exactly what you need.
- Add all of my classmates as connections, even if I didn’t know them very well. Despite what some career counselors might tell you, a LinkedIn connection isn’t a real endorsement. We don’t need to be stingy with connections. (Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn, too.)
- Connect with marketing alums. Search LinkedIn for alumni who graduated in the last 2-4 years who work in marketing. I would then connect with them as a classmate and enter this message in the connection request: “Hi, I’m finishing up my degree soon, and I’m looking to go into marketing. Can I ask you a few questions?” If they respond, I’d tell them I’m an aspiring freelance content writer who is looking to add some big brands to my portfolio. I’d ask them how they select which freelance writers to work with and how I can write for their marketing team. Most of these conversations wouldn’t lead to gigs, but some would.
I’d repeat this process until I had several biggish brands in my portfolio.
(By the way, I’m focusing my search on marketers since they’re the ones who make decisions about which writers to use. Those working for marketing agencies often have more connections/opportunities with big brands. But even those working in the marketing department of a single company can still provide great opportunities.)
Start Building Credibility Now to Command Top Freelance Writing Fees
With the information I’ve shared above, you could very quickly build your portfolio and impress top clients. In fact, you could build a strong portfolio like this – and command up to $400 per post – in under a year.
(Shane Snow said he did this in six months.)
The stronger your portfolio, the more you can charge for your work.
There’s one more thing you need to know: all of this is based on the assumption you have the writing skills clients (and employers want). Writing professionally is very different than writing a term paper.
If you’d like to learn more about developing skills, including how write impressive first portfolio samples, check out The English Major’s Guide to Getting a Job. You’ll learn this and a lot more practical career advice.