It happened again. You met with an editor at a networking event who excitedly requested that you pitch her some topics. Like usual, you put a lot of work into those story ideas, and instead of hearing crickets, you actually got a note back this time (unlike those other freelance writing jobs that ghost you). Except that it wasn’t what you wanted to hear.
“Thanks for reaching out to us. Please contact us again when you have a digital portfolio for us to review.”
This isn’t your first rodeo. You’re not fresh-faced out of college with nothing on your resume but drive and motivation. Yet, you’re not getting jobs you’re perfectly qualified for—because you haven’t stayed up to date with the changes in technology. The truth is, you haven’t really needed to. You’ve had a long, successful career in journalism, so there’s been no need to search for freelance writing jobs. You were given assignments based on reputation alone for decades. However, with so many print magazines and papers shutting their doors, the work is dwindling down, and you’re forced to forge your way in content marketing—the start of a new career at what you thought was the end of your career.
So, what are you going to do? Your options include continuing to chase down print assignments or embracing the digital world, with all its techy nuances. If you choose the latter—which is what I recommend—here’s a list of seven ways to set yourself up for success in your new digital career.
You’re getting overlooked—and it’s because you’re not visible, not because of your age. To get the work, you need to put yourself out there. Brands, businesses, and publishers want to have one centralized location they can go to learn more about you and your services. Know how you keep getting asked for a portfolio when you pitch new outlets? Well, here is the place they’ll look. Website must-have pages include: Home, About, Services, and Portfolio. (Bonus points if you publish a blog or create a testimonials page.)
The beauty of a digital portfolio is that publishers have the opportunity to read your writing before making the decision of whether or not they want to take a chance on you. This is where you get to showcase your finest work. It’s important to include recent writing, but if you have any stellar older articles that make you shine, don’t hesitate to share those, as well. Scan and upload PDFs when you don’t have digital copies of older work.
You also have options for where to house your work online. Your website is one place, but you can also consider using a platform such as Skyword to keep your collection of writing organized and carefully curated for potential editors and publishers to view. If you keep your portfolio elsewhere, all you need is a simple link to it from your website to keep everything connected.
Don’t take the time to build a website (or spend the money hiring someone to do so for you) if you aren’t going to update your head shots so they show you as you are (i.e., in the current decade). Olan Mills glamour shots and yearbook-style pics of your upper body in front of a solid-color background are things of the past. Lifestyle pictures make for ideal head shots. Hire a photographer to take shots of you near your computer or smiling with a cup of coffee. You can even use your smartphone to take a selfie near some artwork or a patterned wall if you’re on a budget.
Chances are, in your long writing career, you’ve played the role of a mentor to many aspiring journalists and writers. Now, it’s your turn to ask for help. Find someone who can teach you how to present yourself online to get more freelance writing jobs. This may mean setting up social media accounts (if you don’t have them yet), sharing examples of quick email pitches, or teaching you the basics of writing and editing on a platform such as Skyword.
Image attribution: David Marcu
If you’re uncomfortable with a young mentor (and you shouldn’t be, at the risk of sounding ageist yourself ), change your frame of reference to consider the relationship a partnership. While they help you be visible online, you can teach them tips and tricks you’ve picked up during your journalism career.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: having a niche in the freelance writing world will open you up to more opportunities than being a generalist will. There are many industries that are desperate for talented writers who have experience in the field. Those fresh-outta-college faces might have the ambition, but tell me, can they claim decades of know-how?
In certain industries, like finance and healthcare, freelance writing jobs will always go to those with experience, not youth. These publishers aren’t looking to hire someone in a full-time position to grow with their company; they want to tap into the intelligence of an experienced professional who knows the industry to fill their temporary needs.
Here’s the only thing holding you back: you need to learn the digital landscape. In a post about ageism in freelancing, freelance guru Carol Tice wrote, “You’re thinking ‘it’s ageism’ when you don’t get a gig, but I believe it’s not. It’s what I call ‘skill-ism.’ . . . Yes, the marketplace has changed—but us old dogs can learn new tricks. And when you combine decades of industry and writing experience with those new skills, you have a strong offer.”
There are so many tools your future editors are using, and you must be proficient, as well. Most important are content management systems such as WordPress, and even Google Docs. Project management tools like Basecamp, Trello, and Asana are also high priorities for editors who want to stay on top of assignments while managing multiple writing projects. Social media is super important for making yourself visible, but you can lean on your young mentor rather than ponying up the money for training. Make a list of any tools you’ve heard of but don’t understand how to use, and start small. Take one class at a time. Eventually, you’ll be a pro, too.
When I first started researching this post, I spoke with a few late-career writers who fit the role of my protagonist in the introduction. Through our communications, I learned they were settling into their new freelance writing careers, working with brands instead of newspapers. They were relearning the ropes and wondered aloud if they were simply “too old” to stay in the field and compete with their younger competitors.
Image attribution: Annie Spratt
And do you know when these objections came up? Whenever we discussed a potential roadblock or doing something that was out of their element, such as cold pitching. While there very well may be some ageism in the freelance writing world, much of it often lies in the anxieties of the individual freelance writers. At the risk of sounding very woo-woo, you can do anything you put your mind to. Age ain’t nothin’ but a number, baby.
I look at my daughter and son and know that these two children can achieve anything they put effort into. If you’ve had a long career, there’s a chance you have children of your own who have grown into adults. What did you tell them about their aspirations? Was there an expiration date on their dreams? If the answer to that is “No, no, no,” give yourself the same grace. Don’t ever let the number of years you’ve spent on this planet hold you back from achieving your goals. You have the skill and experience, don’t allow limiting beliefs to hold you back.
If you identify as an older journalist, tell me: what’s holding you back? What steps can you take to get where you want to be?