One of the questions I’m asked most often is, “How do I get started as a freelance writer?” Today I’m going to give you my answer, but be warned: There is no advice that works for everyone, and my path will likely not be your path. Also, there is no magic bullet or golden ticket. It takes time to build up a client list that keeps you busy enough to earn a full-time income. If you’re looking for easy money, freelancing isn’t it.
(Also, I’m going to assume that you already know the basics of writing: Grammar, syntax, a mastery of the language in which you intend to write, etc. If those things are a problem, brush up your skills before you even think about trying to freelance.)
But if you want to give it a try, here are some ideas for getting started and building a client base that can bring in a living wage.
Develop an expertise.
The most successful freelancers I know work in well-defined niches or areas of expertise. Some are travel writers, others are technical writers (and many of those have sub specialities, such as science or computer writing). There are people who write grant proposals and marketing brochures, website copy, or magazine articles on parenting, food, or finance.
You want to develop an area of expertise because you want people to associate you with a certain type of work. That way, when they need a writer with your skills, they’ll know to look you up. You’ll also make a name for yourself in your field and get referrals and recommendations. If you write about every singe thing that interests you, you’ll never make a solid connection between your name and your work.
That doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to just one thing. On the contrary, it can be helpful to have a couple of areas of expertise. That way, if work in one dries up you have another. But generally you want to keep your name closely tied to a couple of fields. Inventory your life, knowledge, and skills and figure out what field(s) are open to you. Generally you want to stick with things you already know and have experience with, especially in the beginning. Long learning curves are not conducive to making money.
Use your day job.
If you can finagle writing into your day job, use it. If they need someone to write copy for the website, volunteer. Ask if you can help in the marketing department writing brochures or catalog copy. If your company uses technical writers, or writes proposals or grants, see if you can get in on that action. You may have to work extra hours and learn as you go but this is, by far, the most efficient way to a freelance writing career.
Ultimately, if you are a writer at a regular job it’s easier to take those skills and contacts and go freelance than it is to start from scratch. You’ll have built-in experience and completed pieces to show prospective clients. You’ll probably also have made some friends who may go on to jobs at other companies who may then recommend/hire you when that company needs a writer.
Build a portfolio of quality pieces.
If you can’t use your day job to get work samples, you’ll have to build a portfolio on your own. There are many ways to do this, including:
- Blogging: You can start your own, guest post on someone else’s blog, or get a regular blogging gig on an already established blog.
- Write some ebooks. If your area of expertise translates into book-length material, write some ebooks and post them on Amazon. Make sure they’re edited, have attractive covers and are representative of your best work. Don’t just slap something up there for the sake of “getting noticed.”
- Volunteer. Lots of organizations need writers. Find some causes you believe in and volunteer to help with their websites or promotional materials.
- Start small and local. Tiny local businesses and publications have need of writers, but often can’t afford a big paycheck. Offer to help out for a greatly reduced fee (or free) in exchange for the clip.
- Work in your hobby fields. Think of the hobbies you enjoy and then see if there are opportunities in that field, even if unpaid. For example, I enjoy board games and small publishers always need rulebook writers/editors, or people to write the scenarios/backstories for their games. They also need marketing help, writing copy for their advertising, Kickstarter campaigns, and box art. There are also blogs dedicated to the subject that need writers and guest posts. Most hobbies offer similar opportunities, even if they don’t seem obvious at first.
Learn to market and pitch your work.
Marketing. Nobody likes it, but it has to be done. Figure out how your chosen field selects writers and learn that craft. In magazines, it’s typically query letters. In the corporate world, it may be responding to a proposal, a job ad with a resume and samples, or cold-calling/emailing likely candidates with a quick pitch. If you’re blogging, you’ll probably have to provide links to past work and perhaps include a ready-made post. Whatever you have to provide, learn how to show yourself and your work to best advantage. Practice your correspondence, hone your pitch, shine that resume, and make sure any samples are your best work.
Learn the conventions of your industry.
Most industries have their own styles/conventions/expectations and you will be expected to adhere to them. In blogging, that means mastering SEO, learning how to craft attention-grabbing headlines, and understanding the value of white space. In some fields, the Chicago Manual of style will determine how you present your work. The AMA has their own style guide. Journalism uses the AP Stylebook. Other industries have their own style guides. Some fields, like writing online help or working on websites, require that you learn special software or master WordPress. Find out exactly what you’ll need to know in order to work in that field and master it. If you’re already up to speed, you’re more valuable than the writer who will have to learn.
As with marketing, networking isn’t always fun but you’ve got to do it to move forward. There are always online and offline opportunities. There are conferences, industry events, social media, connections with past employers and co-workers, people you meet at parties, and on and on. Whenever you’re asked what you do, don’t just say, “Freelance writer.” Have a better job title ready and be able to quickly explain what you offer.
Add value to your writing.
The more you can offer a client, the more valuable you become. If you can offer graphic design, image manipulation, website creation/maintenance, photography, or layout/typography skills, you’re a lot more useful than the person who can only write. Can you offer a turn-key solution for your clients? If not, think about forming partnerships with people who have the skills you lack. It will give both of you more opportunities than you could secure on your own.
Look for quality online listings.
Problogger and Freelance Writing are two of the best, but there are others. You’re looking for reputable sites that clean out the spam and junk postings and have a good reputation among freelancers for offering quality leads. You might also try some of the larger job boards like Simply Hired, Monster, and the like. Many list writing jobs and while some are not listed as freelance, you might be able to negotiate a freelance job. (Many companies don’t realize that they really don’t need an in-house writer.)
Skip the content mills, unless you have no other options.
Content mills don’t pay worth a damn, many exploit the writers who work for them, and they rarely lead to the types of work/clips that will garner you recognition. Yes, they’re billed as “the way in,” but they rarely are. Find other, professional options and only hit the mills if nothing else is working. (And even then, get in and get out. Don’t get sucked in.)
Diversify your client list and types of writing.
Once you’ve been at it for a while, you’ll want to branch out into other types of writing and a broader client base. It’s great to have that one client you can always depend on, but what if they go out of business? Similarly, if you’ve tied much of your work to one industry and that industry slows down, where will you look for work? The more diversity you have in your portfolio, the better positioned you are to weather downturns. Just don’t go nuts in the beginning trying to write everything for everyone. It makes you look like an unfocused amateur. Gradually expand your offerings.
Make a plan.
If you have a day job, don’t quit tomorrow. Make a plan for yourself and work toward that quitting date. (Unless you’re already wealthy, have a trust fund, or other income source.) Plan how long you’ll need to learn whatever skills you lack. Figure out how long it will take you to build up to a full time income, or figure out how much income you need to “get by” if you cut expenses to the bone. (And be realistic! Remember that many jobs don’t pay instantly; you may not see the money for months depending on the accounting cycle.) Don’t forget to factor in the time it will take to gain clients and build your reputation. Revisit the plan frequently as you advance in your efforts. Eventually you may be able to quit that day job, but it doesn’t (usually) happen overnight.
I’ve seen too many writers end up in financial trouble because they quit their jobs too soon and were unrealistic in their planning. They assumed it would simply happen for them and it didn’t. Freelance writing isn’t any more difficult to succeed in than many other jobs, but neither is it the sure-thing, easy job that some make it out to be.
However, if you go into it armed with a plan and some knowledge about what to expect and what you can offer people, you’ll have an easier time and a better chance of success than the person who just wakes up one day and says, “I think I’ll be a writer.”
(Photo courtesy of Geralt)