How to Become a Freelance Writer – No Matter Where You Live
April 20, 2016
Are you thinking about ditching the 9-to-5 to try your hand at freelance writing? If so, you’re not alone. As a longtime freelance writer who’s been a writing-business mentor for 8 years, I meet hundreds of people who share this dream every year. After all, who wouldn’t love this lifestyle – setting your own hours, being your own boss, and being able to live anywhere there’s wifi.
Why isn’t everyone a freelance writer? It’s a big mindset switch, from employee to business owner. There’s a lot to know, and usually, you need to figure it out pretty fast – before you run out of savings and have to take another full-time job. If you think the life of a freelance writer is about following your muse, let’s burst that bubble now: You’re starting a small business and this means writing to please clients.
How can you become a freelance writer fast, and make it successful? You’ve got to avoid time-wasting, low-pay gigs, write-for-hire online scams, and other time wasters that don’t build your business. Then, you’ll need to do proactive marketing to find the clients that are a fit for your talents.
Here are my 10 best tips on how to launch a freelance writing career quickly:
1. Find the Intersection of Interest, Experience and Income
The freelance marketplace is vast, and can be boggling to a newbie. There are so many possible different types of writing you could do!
To make a quick start in freelance writing, you’ve got to get focused and choose a direction. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself writing a smattering of this and that, and never see your rates increase.
Answer these questions:
- What topics am I interested in?
- What do I have experience in?
- What types of writing am I interested in?
- Which industries pay best?
At the intersection of your answers lies your best money-making opportunity as a freelance writer. The key is to find a sweet-spot between what you are qualified to do and what you feel most passionate about.
2. Find Good First Clients — And Avoid Ripoffs
A lot of writers make the mistake of signing up for a bunch of anonymous, low-paid ghostwriting gigs online when they get started. They answer anonymously posted ad or sign up with a content mill.
Even if the clients you find through these intermediary sites do pay, there are often other problems: My advice: Read the terms of service carefully to make sure what you’re doing will help you move up to better-paying work.
Instead of falling into these traps, get started by seeking to do small pro bono or low-fee initial projects for real clients, ideally, on the sorts of topics you hope to write about in future. This way, you end up with a good writing sample, as well as the possibility of referrals and testimonials. That will quickly give you a solid portfolio—and the beginnings of a network you can leverage to find more clients.
The easiest way to find good first clients is to tap the network of people, organizations, and topics or industries you already know:
- Friends and family who own businesses or know business owners
- Publications you read
- Nonprofits where you donate or volunteer
- Professional organizations where you’re active
- Locally owned businesses you patronize
- Small, local newspapers
- Free weekly papers (i.e. The Village Voice, Working World)
By using your network and knowledge, you should be able to find legitimate first clients — established publications or small businesses that sell a product or service.
What sorts of assignments might you get, as a new freelance writer? Try to find easy-to-execute writing gigs that don’t require extensive research or interview work. Examples include restaurant, play, movie, and concert reviews, personal or business profiles, short updates, event coverage, personal essays, Web pages, and blog posts.
A First-Pitch Template
A good cold pitch requires finding the right contact, addressing the email to them and also offering to share samples of your work. Here’s how to pitch for pro bono work and structure the deal so it pays off for you:
“I’m reaching out to you because I’m a freelance writer looking to build my portfolio in the area of [insert the industry or type of writing assignment]. In analyzing your current marketing materials, I noticed you were missing [describe the piece they need here – it could be an About page on their website, a blog post, or a short article].
Because I want to build my reputation in this area, I’d be willing to do [name of project] for you without charge. All I’d ask in return is that you refer and recommend me in the future, if you’re happy with my work. I’d also need you to not mention that I did this project for you without charge.
We both win here. You get a free marketing piece [or article], and I get a valuable entry in my portfolio.
I’m happy to tell you more about my writing background and discuss this with you further. Let me know if you’re interested.”
3. Work Your Geography
While freelance writing is a global business in the 21st Century, it will often be easiest to find your first clients close to home. If you live in even a moderate-sized city, this can help you scale your efforts and also make it possible for you to meet clients in person and build deeper connections than might happen remotely. .
If you’re in a tiny town, you may have no choice and need to be more aggressive looking for clients outside your area. If you need to travel a little — do it.
In any decent-sized town, you can find businesses by checking out your local chamber of commerce, searching on Manta for local companies, or grabbing a Book of Lists — if you’re in the U.S., your local public library probably has a copy of your closest major market’s edition.
4. Take Your Company Back as a Freelance Client
Pitching freelance writing to your existing employer is one of the easiest ways to jump into freelance writing with one steady client already locked down. Don’t assume they’ll say no — as it’s often easier for them to enlist the services of somebody they trust. Make your pitch compelling and highlight the advantage your insider-knowledge brings!
If you’re already writing in your current job, you might pitch to continue this work as a contractor. Many freelancers get their start this way. You can also look back at past employers before your current one and pitch them for freelance work.
Also, think about company vendors and partners you may have interacted with at your job and let them know you’re freelancing. One of my first clients was a company I’d profiled for a publication I was a staff writer at — and when they heard I was freelancing, they asked me to ghostwrite their CEO’s blog.
5. Get Support
There are already millions of freelancers out there. Don’t try to launch a freelance business all alone.
- Join a writer community or organization, and take advantage of their resources
- Find a writer accountability buddy you can check in with weekly, to stay on track with your goals
- Get advice from more experienced writers
- Find out who takes six months to pay in your town, and who’s a delight to work for
Having a writer network you can ask questions of and benchmark fees with can save you years of going down side trails that don’t pay off.
6. Charge Pro Rates
Once you’ve got a small portfolio together — 4-6 samples is great — you should start to get paid. To find out how much, ask the client what their budget is, or their regular article fee.If it’s a magazine, ask what they pay writers. Often, what they’ll say is much more than you were thinking of proposing.
If they won’t spill the beans, reach out to your network and do some online research. There are resources on rates, including The Writer’s Market‘s What to Charge guide, and Chris Marlow’s survey of copywriting rates.
Bottom line: Pick a price. Next time, bid more. Try to bid by the project rather than by the hour — it’ll make less accounting work for you, and you’ll be able to charge more per hour, since clients don’t know how long it takes you to complete their work.
Lather, rinse, repeat until you’re earning a decent wage. Track your time spent on projects and shoot for making at least $50 an hour. Yes, even if you were making $10 an hour at your day job. Remember all the benefits and dependable income that day jobs offer. As a freelancer, many of your work hours will not be billable, and you’ll pay some expenses yourself that your company used to cover, so rates need to be higher.
8. Get a Contract
Freelancers are contractors. Ever hire a plumber or an exterminator without signing a contract? Of course not. Don’t ever start writing without one, either.Otherwise, the client has no obligation to pay you. You wouldn’t even be able to take them to small-claims court and sue for your money.
If your prospect balks at the idea of a contract, move on. Good clients understand that contracts are needed to define freelance hiring situations, and shady operators seek to avoid contracts.
9. Ask for an Advance from Business Clients
If you’re looking to become financially stable quickly as a freelance writer, I strongly recommend you include businesses in your client mix. They tend to be a source of steadier work, and to pay faster than publications.
Another big advantage: with business clients, invoicing for an initial payment up-front is standard practice. This is another litmus test that can help you weed out bad clients — ask for 20%-50% of the project fee up front and see if they’ll cut a check. If not, that’s a big red flag.
If you have any qualms about how reliable a new client is, request a 100% up-front payment for the first project. I know writers who make this their policy, especially if the client is in a different country (which means your legal avenues for collecting an unpaid debt are few). It’s a good move to avoid getting ripped off.
9. Bust Your Fears
If you want to become a freelance writer, you’ll need to put yourself out there despite your fears. Practicing pitching a friend if you have to. If you’re worried that one mistake will destroy your chances of making it as a freelance writer, let me put that fear to rest. There is no Universal Editor Network that will alert every possible prospect if you mess up on one gig! You can always prospect and find more clients, if one situation crashes and burns.
The best way to improve is to keep writing. It’s also important to find good editors that can guide your style, tone and structure. You don’t need to be a perfect writer to be a successful one.
10. Expect to do Lots of Marketing
When you’re starting a new business, almost all your time should be devoted to seeking out clients. Don’t get caught in the trap of endlessly reading and studying about freelance writing, and never taking action.
What form that marketing should take depends on your personality and the types of clients you want to go after. For instance, if you’re super-shy, in-person networking may not be for you. Or you may find it too time-consuming to put together elaborate query letters, or letters of introduction to businesses.
The best kind of marketing is a kind you’re willing to do, consistently and in quantity. Try different approaches and see what you can stick with.
Writers want to hear that there’s one easy, simple, best way to quickly launch their careers, but in fact every writer’s path is different. It’s trial and error. So get out there and start pitching! Marketing is a numbers game — the more connections you ask to refer you, and the more prospective clients you pitch, the faster you’ll find yourself with enough work to pay your bills.