Have you ever dreamt of making a full-time income while traveling to exotic places all over the world? Have you ever dreamt of being your own boss, setting your own hours, setting your own pay, and living a life of freedom that few are privileged to experience? Do you enjoy writing as a medium of expression? Can you do it almost every day without getting tired? Great!
I started freelance writing while I was in my junior year of college. For some reason, the thought of spending a 35 year slog slaving away in a cubicle for an unappreciative boss and disinterested coworkers filled me with dread. I wanted to find a way to both enjoy my life and support my future family at the same time.
I had previously done internet marketing and had a fairly good handle on how to represent myself, but at the time, I didn’t have the guidance that was necessary to transform my life. Luckily, in this day and age, it is both much easier and much harder to become a freelance writer than it was in the past. Before, you’d have to rely on getting lucky with a connection or endlessly contacting webmasters for guest posts. Today, you can literally begin a lucrative career in as little as a month with the right preparation.
Truthfully, there are more opportunities to become a freelancer today than there ever were before; especially after the recent pandemic. The subtle art of becoming a successful, established writer isn’t realized by putting out endless streams of mindless, untargeted content that doesn’t help anyone. You MUST become the master of your niche and give your readers great content that they will flock to time and time again.
The following steps were created with the absolute novice in mind. If you follow my instructions carefully, you’ll soon find yourself in the exciting, new and life-changing world of freelancing.
Caveat emptor: you make exactly what you put into your small business. The double edge sword of independence is that while nobody will bark orders at you for failing to submit your work on time, you also won’t eat anything if you don’t cultivate and exercise discipline.
1. Become A Good Writer
I’m sorry, but the truth is that unless you want to spend your time competing for $0.02 per word with non-native English speaking workers in third world countries (as intelligent, kind and hard-working as they may be), I would strongly encourage you to improve your writing skills. You don’t have to write like Pulitzer prize-winning pieces or move your audience to the verge of tears with every syllable (haha, wouldn’t that be nice), but you need to have a firm grasp of whatever language you’ll be working in. If you aren’t particularly good, constantly suffer from writer’s block or you’ve always hated writing, just start practicing for 15 minutes per day. Over time, writing will get easier and you’ll improve. Hey, you might even begin enjoying yourself!
Practice makes perfect.
What I’m saying may seem kind of obvious, but there’s a significant group of beginners that think they can write but when they try, their lack of originality, good grammar and self-discipline betrays them. A good writer always takes steps to improve their craft because they are humble enough to recognize both their strengths and weaknesses.
“Good” writing, of course, is highly subjective. What may work in one niche may be a complete flop in another. While humor and a general sense of levity would be well received by a gag-gift audience, it would be highly inappropriate for a funeral parlor advertisement (one would hope). Determine whether you prefer fiction or non-fiction, or perhaps both. Non-fiction is significantly easier to sell than fiction so keep that in mind when making your choice. However, when you write for fun, you have more room to experiment.
Ultimately, a good writer understands the reason why they write. Are you doing it purely for the money or do you actually love expressing yourself with your words? Do you write to fill a gaping void within that can only be filled with a 70,000 word novel in your name or do you do it to have a little extra money for the weekend? Find out your primary reason for being a freelance writer and become good at what you do.
2. Tap Into Your Inner Extrovert
Unless you find the existence of a poverty-stricken, hermit author to be particularly alluring, you’re going to need to communicate with people in order to secure writing deals. Sometimes, you may even have to video chat (GASP!) with clients in order to close a long term writing gig.
Unfortunately, money doesn’t rain from the sky for no apparent reason. In our industry, it comes from providing a quality service at a fair price to an eager client that will hopefully love your work enough to come to you with more assignments. That means you’ll have to promote yourself in some way. Luckily, there are many ways to get the caliber of clients that will keep you happy for years to come; however, you will still have to put effort into reaching out to people and understanding their problems.
Let me be clear: you have to be willing to promote yourself, do business and win clients. Period. You also shouldn’t mind doing quick work that matches the needs and changes of the client or employer, and for all of this, you need negotiation and interaction skills. Fortunately, like everything else, this comes with time, rejection and experience. Don’t feel bad if you strike out your first few…hundred..times. Additionally, most communication is largely be done by email, so you’ll have an additional chance to show off your writing skills.
Lastly, you need to know how to write a pitch. A pitch explains the concept of what you propose to write, along with a very brief explanation of your experience and qualifications.
3. Turning Your Passion Into Your Job May Temper Your Enthusiasm
Regardless of how much you love writing, there will be occasional writing jobs that you hate. In this situation, you need to learn the skill of “just doing it”, regardless of your emotions, your desire to procrastinate, and the lingering urge to shamefully block the client and move on to another job. Learn to break your aversion by seeing it as the work it is and try to look forward to more interesting writing assignments in the future.
Part of the problem is that self-employment can be a very lonely road to traverse. I spend a lot of time by myself, in the middle of the night, and I completely understand how much it can feel like a vacuum. It’s important to learn how to balance your work and home life. Part of the way I got my mind around my lifestyle was by accepting the unusual, and liberating, nature of being a freelance writer; another part was to go outside and be among people as much as possible. Sometimes, I go to the nearest Java coffee shop and start working, just to be surrounded by life.
Work with a notebook or laptop, a portable wifi modem and write among people when you feel lonely – a cafe, a library, a park, wherever you feel part of society. You can do this regularly or occasionally; just find your own rhythm and don’t lock yourself in the house all day.
Personally, when I find that an assignment is boring me to tears and I can hardly wait to finish it, I like putting on some trap music as extra motivation. Ultimately, I get paid well for what I do, so I honestly can’t really complain. Grind it out, champ. It gets easier.
4. Self-Discipline and Financial Management Will Either Make or Break You
While I believe this is the part of any online business that always ends up deciding who will make it and who won’t, it seems like very few people are willing to discuss the incredible amount of self-discipline and financial intelligence required to make it as a freelancing entrepreneur.
If you plan to make a career out of freelance writing, you need to have a good sense of responsibility towards your clients or employers and most importantly, yourself.
I wish I could copy and paste this into every newbie’s brain that wants to venture into this business. You have to keep yourself accountable because nobody else will. Not your wife, your girl/boy friend, parents, dog, kids, nobody. Ultimately, whether or not things work falls squarely on your shoulders and nobody else.
There are a few things that can help you cultivate a well-grounded routine: Be organized; make sure you have a dedicated writing space, make sure all your books are in one place and easily accessible, make sure you have all your writing utensils working, and make sure you have a decent ergonomic workplace. Writing every day can hurt your posture terribly if you don’t take good care of it!
Make sure you have a system for deadlines. Whether you use a diary, an online calendar, a card on the wall, a whiteboard, or whatever tickles your fancy, make sure you have some kind of system that allows you to see at a glance what writing needs to be done when and for whom. That way you can prioritize and you don’t have to rush last-minute. I have a text pad open while I’m working at all times. Before the day begins, I write down everything that I need to do that day. I also have a weekly and a monthly goal and a yearly goal there. I find a great sense of pride and accomplishment when I delete lines from my text file after finishing it.
Communicate well and regularly. It is very important that you are comfortable connecting with people for questions, to assure them of your skills and ability to meet deadlines, and to keep your clients and businesses informed of your progress or any problems that arise.
Don’t take on any more than you can. Part of being organized is knowing your limits. Once you get into a flow of regular writing, don’t be tempted by a false sense of self-confidence that you can do more than just sit there for hours in a day. Don’t forget to keep a good balance in your daily life.
Make sure you have a financial system in place before you take up work and regularly send your invoices, declare your taxes and pay your bills. You can’t afford to be sloppy when it comes to your income! Don’t forget that Al Capone wasn’t busted for being a murderous crook, he got popped on tax evasion. If you think you can fudge the numbers and get away with it, it’ll come back 10, even 20 years from now and bite you back. Get an accountant if you feel like you’re not responsible with your money.
5. Set An Income Goal and Work Towards It
If you’re planning on freelancing to eventually escape the rat race and work for yourself, figure out what income level would allow you to quit your job. Don’t leave your place of employment unless you have maintained that level for at least three months. Sometimes, jobs can disappear and faithful clients can spontaneously disappear without so much as a nod goodbye. It’s important to have a business that can weather many storms and juggle several clients at once. This may not always be possible if you’re currently working over 40 hours per week, but almost everyone can reasonably estimate the amount of work they can acquire if they become full-time writers.
Are you looking for $2,000 per month? $5,000? More? What’s your rate per word? Divide your income goal by your word rate and that’s the number of words you need to write per month to reach your goal. Simple, right?
Alternatively, figure out how many words you can write per day in your niche and multiply that by your rate per word. I can comfortably spew out 2000 words per day in the finance, freelancing, etc… niche and still have plenty of time for other things in the day. However, not everyone can do that. Some can do much more, especially people who use Dragon Naturally Speaking.
Once you have an income goal set, figure out how many clients you will need to reach that level? Do you want to deal with numerous personalities or just a few high paying, steady, amicable people? I prefer dealing with a few clients that give me volumes of work to go through. It’s easier than constantly trying to find new people.
6. Join A Freelance Writing Community
This may seem like overkill, but it really isn’t. I’m part of several writing subreddits and have met numerous connections there that have lead to real deals. It’s also extremely encouraging to read about the successes of other people in the freelancing community.
Furthermore, in many countries, there are writing groups and freelance writing associations, and it’s a good idea to become a member so you can meet other writers, get information and advice and establish yourself as a writer. A quick online search should provide organizations in your location or country. Find a group that meets regularly, gives seminars, invites guest speakers and gives advice on all aspects of writing, including publishing and marketing, contacting publishers and networking opportunities. Many of these groups can also be an excellent source for writing assignments, so if you are a member it will pay off quickly in the form of contacts and job offers.
I’m from Kenya, and I don’t necessarily have the opportunity to interact with such writing groups in the flesh. However, if I was in a country that created an environment that was conducive to such communities, I would gladly go. I’ve still managed to do quite well for myself, but the main point is: take advantage of your resources.
Want to take it to the next level? Attend conferences and conventions that focus purely on writing, authors and freelance writing. At these events, you can meet professional publishers and have the opportunity to network with other freelancers.
As an example, in the U.S., you can join ‘The Writer’, a magazine that provides information and advice on how to write a pitch, how to find publishers and how to run a business as a freelance writer. It is an excellent resource if you would like to become a full-time writer for magazines.
7. Build Up Your Portfolio
Here comes one of the most dreaded parts of the entire independent writing community: the portfolio. Make no mistake, after discipline and financial intelligence, the third most important facet of the whole process is your portfolio. All clients will want to see your work before they hire you. All of them, whether you’re churning out spun articles at a content mill or you’re writing for the New York Times.
After figuring out the kind of niche you want to spend your time writing for, start cranking out articles in it and pass them around. Guests posts are an incredible way to both showcase your writing style and establish yourself as an authority in the niche. If you’re a college or university student, write powerful, well-written essays for the class that you might publish later. You can also offer your services to a copywriting association and write articles for a university magazine, a literary magazine, or an alumni magazine. Make sure you really put your heart and soul into your work, because these pieces will determine how seriously future clients will take you.
Lastly, you can do exactly what I did, which is create an entire site (this one) showcasing your writing skills, generate traffic with a little SEO knowledge and simply link your prospective clients to your website when they request a sample of your work. Nothing shows authority more than answering the famous “can I see a sample of your work” question with “sure, I wrote everything in xyz.com”.
8. Start Looking For Work
Once you’re satisfied with your preparation, specifically you’ve chosen your niche, you’re comfortable writing for an informed audience regularly, you’re financially disciplined, you’re happy with your work ethic and you have a good portfolio, you’re ready to start working as a freelance writer!
For professional writers: Search for the right people in the field that you want to operate in. Find publishers you would like to write for and read their guidelines. I can’t emphasize this strongly enough – submitting a pitch and articles that have nothing to do with the magazine is as bad as having a job interview with absolutely no idea what the company is about. Know what the market is and focus your writing on it. And always send a pitch to an important magazine before you submit a complete article unless you want to guess what to submit or are happy to waste valuable time on an article that may never be published.
For a newspaper: Submit a pitch to the city/lifestyle/sports editor of your local newspaper asking if they are interested in publishing an article on that topic. Provide the first paragraph of your article and an overview of the rest. Call in two weeks if you haven’t received an answer. Another approach is to submit a complete article on the gamble. In this case, the editor can read it but does not have to publish it.
For a Magazine or other important publication: Think of something you would like to write about and then send a pitch to the editor of a relevant important magazine asking them if they are interested in publishing an article on that subject. Give them the first paragraph of your article and an overview of the rest. Call in four to six weeks if you don’t get an answer.
For Online Work: Check online job boards for jobs such as columnist, blogger, web content creator and other job opportunities for copywriters. Use a pitch in your email if appropriate or simply respond directly to the job description.
I use Reddit frequently and have found some good, albeit rather cheap clients there. I highly encourage you to visit subreddits like /r/Hireawriter and connect with people there.
For guest blogs, you should make it clear that you enjoyed reading the blog in question, and keep your suggestion short and to the point. Good blogs get an overwhelming offer of requests, and yours should stand out to make the blogger look at it. If they ask on article collection sites that you apply to become an author, do so and give them all the necessary background information and proof of your qualifications. Expect to spend a significant amount of time acquiring clients by direct email. I’ve also heard of people finding clients on Instagram and other platforms, but I personally don’t use them, for now.
Write your article. If you haven’t already submitted a complete piece, it’s time to start as soon as your client or employer confirms that they want your article. Congratulations! You’re officially a freelance writer! Take a deep breath as a free man/woman that’s earning a living ethically and on your own terms!
Write in your own unique and brilliant way and avoid adapting to the form of other writers. Pay attention to the guidelines of the magazine in question, but avoid clichés, hackneyed expressions, dull texts and dead boring content. You already know that, don’t you?
Keep a thesaurus, dictionary and grammar book with you at all times. If you’re not writing in your native language, make sure you have language correcting tools at your disposal at all times.
10. Keep Growing Your Business
Success in the freelancing world depends heavily on finding permanent freelance writing assignments and long-term contracts. There are plenty of opportunities in both print and online media. The competition will always be tough, so you need to keep your writing style sharp and interesting, have an extensive contact list and an enthusiastic motivation. Continue to improve your writing skills by reading a lot, attending relevant meetings and seminars and staying abreast of the areas you write about. This is especially important when writing about subjects that are changing rapidly, such as technology and fashion.
Continue finding and maintaining qualitatively superior relationships with clients. Over time, your income, peace of mind, and overall happiness will grow and you’ll find your groove as a freelance writer.
All the best!