Don't Interview for a Writing Job Before You Read This

About to interview for a writing job? Getting nervous that they won’t “pick you”? Stop right there. We need to talk.

At the start of your freelance writing career, it can be hard to know how to handle the waltz of impressing clients and getting gigs. Hell, in the beginning, everything is a mystery.

I get it—I’ve been there!

Aside from pre-interview jitters, however, I’ve noticed a more destructive pattern amidst the freelance writing crowd.

There exists an unsettling idea that clients are elusive, mythical creatures. That they’re limited in supply and hard to keep. That they must be coddled and wooed if you’re to pay your rent this month.

These stories translate to one detrimental idea: that clients hold all of the power.

I’m here to tell you that this simply isn’t true.

I’m here to remind you that you left the employee-employer mindset behind in the 9-5 world, and the rules are different here.

If you keep telling yourself this story, however, you’ll continue to look like an amatuer and perpetuate a vicious cycle.

We need to level the playing field in your head, so you can drop this rookie mindset and start seeing actual growth—even if you’re just getting started.

There’s a powerful mindset shift that can make the difference between being seen as hired help vs. a coveted specialist.

The way potential clients perceive you can impact the money you make, the working relationships you have, and how quickly your network (ie: your writing job referral machine) flourishes.

Obviously, this one’s important, so for eff’s sake, pause Netflix. Pay attention.

If you’ll do that, I’ll explain why taking back your power as a freelance business owner is the ultimate key to unlocking long-term success.

And please—read this post before you apply to or interview for your next writing job.

 

The Mindset Mistake That's Hurting Your Writing Career 1

When it comes to the mad rush for clients and our attempts to woo them at all costs, I boil the debacle down to one key problem:

The archaic interview mentality

Visit any freelance writing forum or Facebook group right now and you’ll likely find a similar theme: writers are always hunting for clients, and the majority of them are feeling pretty frantic.

I see people cold-pitching generically, lowering their rates to get any job they can find, and letting clients call all the shots when they finally get them on the phone.

This isn’t their fault—and if you recognize any of these behaviors, know that it isn’t your fault either.

The truth is, no one teaches freelancers how to handle this part of the process.

It’s just a dive-in-and-swim situation, so naturally, you bring your previous experience to the table and try to apply it to the process of securing work.

As you may have suspected, though, it doesn’t really fit.

Like many new freelancers, you’re stuck in what I call the 9-5 “archaic interview mentality”.

You’re probably familiar with the standard employer/employee-hopeful interview process, which disproportionately places power on the side of the potential employer.

If memory serves, it goes a little something like this…

You sit across from someone who looks up at you from a copy of your resume. They fake-smile at you, taking notes as you respond to questions.

You try to remember what your “biggest professional weakness” is. When they ask for it, you say, “Well, I’m a biiiit of a perfectionist.”

The interviewer throws up a little in their mouth.

They jot down some more notes. You squint to see what they’re writing. They make eye contact with you and realize you’re reading their notes.

They hide them under a post-it note.

Awkward.

You leave wanting to know what they thought of you and how you compared to the other candidates.

You wonder if you said something stupid. You think of a brilliant answer to a question they asked, but it’s too late.

What if they didn’t pick up on how clever your portfolio was? Did you bring enough writing samples? When will they call you back? Will they call you back?

You can follow up, but they hold the power.

They get to decide when (or if) you’ll get your answer.

Ugh.

After enduring a few interviews of this nature for full-time jobs and internships, I felt that prospects were grim. I could also feel the heavy reality of relying on the whims of a hiring manager to determine one’s foreseeable future.

I didn’t like it.

I began to wonder if there was a better way to enter into a professional collaboration than through a limiting, imbalanced, twenty-minute interview.

The Mindset Mistake That's Hurting Your Writing Career 2

The “interview” that changed everything

Fresh out of fashion school, I accepted that interviews were prescribed cross-examinations of work history and skills.

I accepted that they were something terrible and panic-inducing.

I knew the scales were tipped, especially for a total newbie, and that convincing anyone to hire me would be hell. I hoped my stammering, systematic answers would cut it until someone took a chance on me.

All of this changed during one interview in the summer of 2009, after I applied for an internship at (what was then) the coolest fashion website in existence.

Despite having no formal writing experience, I got called in for an interview.

I spent hours picking the right vintage dress to wear. I remember wondering whether my outfit,  hairstyle, or ability to articulate my fashion obsession would be enough to land a spot in front of one of their computer screens.

When I walked into the Refinery29 office—then a TriBeCa basement—the editor-in-chief greeted me with a warm smile.

As she motioned for me to sit at a conference table, she did something unexpected.

She told me to put my resume and portfolio away.

“I just liked the way you wrote your email,” she said. “Let’s have a conversation.”

I was shocked.

This was, hands-down, the coolest gig I had applied to, and she wanted me to take off my interview mask?

To just… talk?

At first, I felt thrown off, unable to use my rehearsed answers. But then, it hit me.

This was awesome. This was explicit permission to step out of the “interviewee” role and just be a person.

We chatted about fashion, my interests and goals, and why I liked the site. I wasn’t asked to produce a premeditated list of reasons I was hirable. She leveled the playing field by treating me like an equal.

The idea that I deserved to have the floor to share my honest ideas and opinions during an interview blew my mind.

(Oh—and I got the internship, and would later be hired as a copywriter, but that’s another story.)

This experience taught me something crucial that I was able to utilize over and over in the years to come.

The Mindset Mistake That's Hurting Your Writing Career 3

The hiring process at Refinery29 is far more complex these days—but this experience unveiled some major wisdom:

In order to level the playing field with a potential client, you must…

Reframe the interview into a conversation

The R29 interview was reframed by the editor in chief. She decided that was how she would screen talent. I didn’t even know that was a viable way to begin a professional relationship, but you can bet it opened my eyes from then on.

Now, I share this long-ass story because shortly after, I dove into the freelance world.

Unlike my friends, all of whom were hoping to be employees for the long term, I was a rogue freelance writer looking for brands to collaborate with.

During “interviews”, I took it upon myself to reframe the meeting—even when it was a corporate gig—and speak to the hiring manager like a business owner bringing a service to the table.

Despite a glaring lack of experience, this allowed me to land freelance roles with some of the biggest fashion brands in the world.

(That also meant I had to jump in and swim in the deep end, which brought on a completely different set of problems, but again—story for another day.)

It quickly became clear that freelance writers could better represent themselves to potential clients by leveling the playing field.

I realized that what’s really happening during a job interview is a conversation between someone who is seeking a solution and someone else (that’s you, cutie face) who is offering a solution.

That conversation is a chance for them both to decide whether the collaboration would be ideal.

Got it?

You’re no longer the hiring manager and the job seeker.

You’re a problem-holder (the employer) and a problem-solver (the writer).

Try this:

Scribble the word “interview” out of your vocabulary. Replace it with the word “conversation”.

In the corporate world, “interview” suggests a situation where one person sits above the other, collecting data as they slide their pen down a checklist.

“Conversation”, however, evokes a two-way exchange and a chance for both parties to share information. It gives the equal shares of power back to you, which extinguishes the whole scrape-for-clients mentality.

That desperate-for-clients vibe, by the way? It’s hurting you. Big time. Especially if it’s creeping out during interviews.

And… I guess we should talk about that for a second.

The employer’s focus is what’s best for the company, not whether or not the person they’re interviewing will be able to pay their rent next month.

That frantic job-seeker mentality and the proactive problem-solver mentality are polar opposites and will yield very different results.

Which brings me to my next (and last) point!

Don't Interview for a Writing Job Before You Read This

Your goal is NOT to impress clients

It’s a little counter-intuitive, but hopefully, you’re catching on by now.

Your goal is actually to determine whether you want to work with the person sitting in front of you (or speaking to you over the phone).

Going back to those freelance writer groups, I’ve seen some really unsettling instances of writers lowering their rates, begging for clients with 5+ emails, and using other unprofessional, nose-to-the-dirt behaviors to try and “win” work.

Here’s the deal:

You’re not a desperate amateur.

And even if you are, you can’t act like one and expect to enter into successful collaborations with good clients.

You can’t show up like you’re starving for work and will do anything to get it.

It’s time to reframe the scenario and show up as a professional with a service to provide: solutions, creativity, value.

You’re not just a potential employee, so your goal is not to impress someone else who happens to need a writer.

You’re a freelance business owner. Your goal is to determine whether the collaboration is a good business move.

Yes, say it with me: You’re a freelance business owner. 

Suddenly you have the advantage.

Pretty awesome, isn’t it?

As I’ve worked up the ranks as a fashion copywriter I’ve seen the word “interview” slowly drop off from my correspondence. Now I have conversations, calls, and meetings. I’m on the same level as the person sitting in front of me.

If it’s not a good business move, I don’t go for it.

In fact, one of my highest paying gigs came after the marketing director of a major fashion label requested to have a “conversation” with me via Linkedin.

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So, let’s review:

When it’s time to get on the phone or head into an office and investigate a new opportunity, reframe your role.

Stop thinking about yourself as someone being “interviewed”.

Ditch the checklists, the nervous rehearsed answers, and the whole idea that anyone has the power to make you or break you.

Get real about the solutions you bring to the table.

You’ve got something big to offer. You’re there to save the day. But first, you’re there to have a conversation.

Consider this your official permission to start showing up like a boss.

Have you ever used this technique during an interview? Drop us a comment below—we would love to hear from you!

Want to talk about freelance writing with other writers like you? Join us in our Facebook group, Wi-Fi Writers Club

Freelance Writing Tips - Day Job Optional Newsletter

Michelle Christina Larsen is the Co-founder of Day Job Optional. Strong coffee, strong wi-fi, and absurd inside jokes are some of her favorite things. She spends most of her time penning copy for fashion brands, doing zany DIY projects, and planning the next stamp on her passport. In her spare time, she founded a holiday marker's market, a daily drawing blog, and an independent clothing line.

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