So you want to be a freelance writer
I get asked quite frequently how to become a freelance writer – particularly by people who are just graduating from school, looking to transition careers, or who enjoy writing in their spare time. While I don’t pretend to be an expert on the nebulous freelance writing industry, I can share some insights based on my adventures in this career.*
My experience won’t ring true for everyone (and there are differing requirements depending on what field and medium you’re interested in) – but this is pretty sound basic advice for MOST aspiring freelance writers.
IMPORTANT PREFACE: If you really want to be a freelance writer, don’t let anything I say discourage you (or anything that anyone else says, for that matter)! There are MANY ways to become successful in this field – you’ll figure it out, if that’s what you want. It is eminently achievable.
The thing you don’t need:
**A writing degree of any kind. **Seriously – I have a BFA in Acting. I now have many years of work experience, but I entered this field with no formal training beyond general aptitude, a good public school education, and several years tutoring students in English.
Would a degree in writing or English have helped me get more work at the beginning of my career? Maybe! Do certain writing programs impart valuable skills? Probably! Does it make any difference once you start landing clients? … not that I’ve found, ever.
The things you do need:
1. You need to be a very good writer.
Is that obvious? Yup, but it’s key. You don’t need to be Tolstoy (and occasions to bust out your best, most challenging writing may in fact be few and far between when freelancing), but you need to be good enough to be competitive. There’s certainly room for growth – everyone becomes a better writer through writing frequently – but ask trusted mentors, teachers, and friends for their honest opinion. Do they think your writing has real potential? If they hem and haw, do not fret. YOU CAN STILL BE A WRITER! I SWEAR, YOU CAN STILL BE AN AMAZING WRITER! DO NOT LET ME TAKE YOUR DREAMS AWAY, I DO NOT KNOW YOU (OR YOUR WORK), AND I BET YOU ARE WONDERFUL! But you may need to polish your skills before you start to make money off of freelance writing.
2. You need to be a decent editor.
Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to have my client be a great editor. That has rarely been true. Most of the time, I submit work to clients that has only been edited and proofed by… me. Even when you have an editor, you’re expected to turn in clean, fairly error-free copy. I know a few freelance writers who are fantastic and happen to be lousy spellers – but they make up for it with VERY strong style and points of view, and spell check helps them along. Overall, to be a successful freelance writer, you need to have basic mastery of grammar, syntax, usage, and tone – and the ability to proof your own work and make cuts.
3. It helps to be (relatively) speedy.
This skill definitely develops with practice, so don’t worry if you’re not the fastest pen in the desk at the moment. But if you take a loooong time to finish pieces, be aware that this habit will probably need to change; many clients have fairly strict deadlines, and nothing impresses them like a fast turnaround. It’s not entirely requisite – but I know I’ve beaten out competitors just by virtue of speed.
4. You have to really, really like writing.
Nothing tests your love of the written word like having to produce it full-time. I LOVE to read, and I really, really like writing. And yet even I occasionally get to the point where I feel like I will throw up if I have to type one more letter. I can’t imagine how wearing it would be if I didn’t fundamentally enjoy it.
5. The foremost thing you need to know: There is no One Right Way to become a freelance writer.
People come to it from all kinds of backgrounds, and work in all sorts of niches. If your work is strong enough, you’ll find clients. If you’ve got a hunch you might be good at this, it’s time to give it a go!
So how do you get started?
1. Seek out help
Before you start freelance writing, learn as much as you can about the business you’re attempting to break into. Is there any sort of niche you’re particularly interested in? Pick up a book or two and do your research. In the Internet age, this kind of foundational investigation is easier than ever. A good Google search will get you information ranging from standard freelance rates to pitch formats. Is there anything you’d be particularly qualified to write about: a former career, a lifestyle, a specialty? Do you prefer writing long-form pieces or short-form, or both? Now’s the time to start thinking about it.
The best way to learn about the realities of freelance writing is by talking to someone who already does it. If you can find a professional writer (don’t be afraid to ask on social media), offer to take them out to lunch or coffee in order to pick their brain. Nobody minds being treated as an expert, and most people like a free lunch. If you’re lucky, they may even be able to point you towards clients who they’ve outgrown, or tell you where they get their gigs.
When I was beginning to freelance, I was advised by the very kind and generous Jennifer Williamson of Catalyst Writing Services (see her work here) – she also helped me get one of my first gigs. Thanks, Jenny!
2. Build a portfolio
The good news is that nobody appoints you a freelance writer; if you get freelance writing work, you’re in the “club”.
The bad news is that nobody wants to be your first client. So how do you gain experience?
While companies (and individuals) are often loath to pay untried writers, many will not turn down volunteer work. When you’re starting out, you may need to do some low-paying (or non-paying) work to get samples.
Non-profits are a great way to build your portfolio while creating some good karma – they often have limited budgets, and are eager for the help. Research some smaller non-profits in your area (you can try big ones, too, but they often have dedicated marketing departments) or look up pro bono writing jobs on Idealist.
Small businesses are often great “starter” clients, too – offer to proof menus or develop fliers.
Pitch yourself as someone who can help them out with content: newsletters, emails, social media posts, press releases, etc. Be clear about your enthusiasm for the organization, and specify that you are a writer interested in using your skills to help them – while building your portfolio.
If you’re in school, reach out to clubs and student organizations (or even the institution itself) and offer to help them with writing work. Do they need fliers? Posters? Website copy? All of these things make nice beginning samples.
Look over writing work you’ve done for recreation or for school; is any of it re-usable? A nice erudite essay goes a long way.
If none of these avenues is fruitful for you, make up samples (or make your own work). Research the right way to write a press release, and make one for your friend’s band. Start your own blog and post to it faithfully. Write an opinion piece and submit it to Huffington Post. The point is just to build content samples.
With relatively little effort, you’ll have a starter portfolio – now package it and start promoting it. Antonia wrote a nice run-down of writers’ portfolio sites; I use Pressfolio, but there are lots of options.
3. Find clients – and then find more clients
By now, you have a nice little portfolio and have done your online research about freelance rates. Time to start charging!
Since you’re just beginning, price yourself at the low end of the spectrum – but don’t go too low. Writing for minimum wage is NOT acceptable. Take a comfortable hourly rate; you’re a skilled contractor now, after all. Resolve to raise your rates at reasonable intervals.
Finding freelance writing clients, unfortunately, is just like finding any other employer. Reaching out to others on social media has always worked well for me; does anyone in your network need a writer? Online job boards can be an exhausting crap shoot (and full of dreck) but I have found decent gigs through many of the usual suspects: Craigslist, Idealist, FreelanceWritingGigs.com, LinkedIn, eLance.
Make a list of your favorite organizations and companies, or ones that operate in your areas of specialty. Send them a nice inquiry with a link to your portfolio. 85% won’t respond – but that one bite makes everything worth it.
In the meantime, keep finding your circles and networking. If you’re like me, many of your clients will eventually come through word-of-mouth; you just have to keep on plugging. Finding new gigs and clients is part of freelancing; there are many excellent articles on this blog dedicated exclusively to the “hunt”. Take some time to read through them!
4. Carve out a specialty (or a couple of specialties)
After a while, you’ll have a couple of clients – and you’ll be getting more and more into your freelance writing groove. Time to narrow things down!
What field are you getting a lot of experience in? What work gets the best feedback from your clients? Most importantly, what do you really enjoy doing?
Start focusing your searches when you look for gigs; look for projects and clients that fit your ideal work profile. You’ve started working a lot – now it’s time to get picky. Specializing allows you to develop expertise, which allows you to raise your rates and find repeat clients more easily.
5. Don't expect to succeed overnight – and keep on going
For the first year or two, I supplemented my freelance work with part-time jobs. They weren’t always very satisfying, but they provided a consistent income stream while allowing me to continue developing my freelance skills. If I had expected freelance writing to be very lucrative immediately, it would have been pretty frustrating – but the knowledge that I was building towards a goal helped me over several of these speed bumps.
You’ll need some talent. You’ll need some luck. But if you plug away at it long enough, odds are you’ll find freelance writing work sooner than you think. It takes some time, and you’ll always have to hustle a little bit (as you do in almost any job), but the dividends are really satisfying.
So if you wanna be a freelance writer – congratulations! You are hereby empowered to become a freelance writer. You don’t need a degree or a certification or a fairy godmother to deem you worthy; you just need to give it a try, and see what develops. I did, and I’ve never been sorry.
*This article is aimed to serve people who are interested in beginning down this path, or who are just starting out – experienced freelancers will need more detailed advice, obviously. Building your intermediate freelance writing business is a whole different post!
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