When I graduated from college in 2012, I wanted to do some sort of writing. I wasn’t really sure what, but I had plans to head off for my MFA in nonfiction writing. I was accepted… but I had a gut feeling telling me not to go.
The gut feeling was right. A year later, I was in the hospital and got a little too close to comfort to early stage organ failure due to a previously undiagnosed stomach condition.
That was March of 2015, and it was when my then-year-long effort at freelance writing took off.
We’re now nearing the end of 2021, and I’ve officially been a freelance writer for seven years. And while it started out as an attempt to get some clips I could use to land a full-time job, it now is my full-time job.
The business I built while under an intensive physical recovery allowed me to make anywhere from 3-6x more now than I could ever hope to make in a “real” job annually, and I make more per month than I used to make per year as a retail sales employee.
I firmly believe that anyone who has a natural affinity for writing, a love of strategy, and a little experience can eventually build a successful content writing business. I also love seeing other kickass writers succeed, so today I’m going to share the nine tricks that helped put my business where it is today.
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Table of Contents
1. I focused on scalability & niched down
When I first started as a freelancer, I offered just about every writing service under the sun. Anyone who wanted to hire me, the answer was pretty much a yes.
Need a cover letter written for a new job? An academic essay proofread? Site copy? Video scripts? Book manuscripts?
I did just about everything, and then a few more things on top of it.
But I ran into a few speed bumps.
I absolutely dreaded landing site copy jobs, and they became the bane of my existence. I loved ghostwriting books… but I quickly found that they took up massive amounts of my schedule for one-time jobs and then I’d be scrambling to fill the time again.
Content writing, though, I loved.
I was ecstatic when I had inquiries about blog posts, webinar development, and ebook writing. I also realized that I was both very good and very fast at content writing, and that most clients needed ongoing work for months or years on end. Some of my clients have been with me since March of 2015 (and through multiple pay increases).
Realizing that content was the best way for me to create a stable schedule while making more money and not making me lose my mind, I niched down.
I do offer PPC copy for existing clients, but content is almost my entire bread and butter. My income doubled year-over-year after I made that decision, even though it meant turning away some work.
2. I looked for ways to expand my reach while getting paid
When you’re a new writer, there’s a certain amount of “take what you can get” when it comes to work, because getting your foot in the door is easily the most difficult and the most important part.
Early on, though, I did have a master plan in mind: I wanted to get my name on a few bylines that would appear on marketing and business blogs and publications. My thought process was simple: All businesses need marketing and business advice, so they can see my writing on an established blog and then get in touch with me.
And it worked. A post I was paid to write for an early client I met through a prior coworker’s partner was published on Social Media Examiner.
AdEspresso’s co-founder) found me from that blog, contacted me, and hired me. And that’s what set off the chain reaction that became the rest of my career. (And I still write for them six and a half years later.)
My strategy worked, and it still works. People still get in touch to work with me after reading articles I’ve written years ago on small and large sites alike.
3. I prioritized long-term stability
Early on in my freelancing days, I would be anxiety-attack-level stressed out of my mind as each month ended, wondering how much I’d make the following month… even if I was consistently hitting my monthly goals.
That’s when it clicked that I needed to find clients that were in it for the long haul with me. Not only was this an easy way to know what my schedule would look like month after month, but it also meant that I was almost guaranteed a recurring income. That was less work I had to go looking for, and since I knew how the clients worked, I knew how much time each blog post for each client would take.
What this means is that I rolled out the red carpet for my long-term clients. They got the first pick of deadlines and availability. I made sure that edits were complete within 48 hours. I never chose to say no to a project if I could help it with my long-term clients, and I absolutely never favored a one-time rush project over established work.
While I do have clients that come and go, or some that only need a one-time project, my retainer clients will always get priority on my schedule, and it’s helped me keep a full schedule every month while knowing exactly what would be needed for each client project I took on.
4. I had a healthy mix of ghost & Bylined writing
I charge more for ghostwriting, which makes it particularly lucrative.
Ghostwriting, though, naturally means that my byline isn’t attached. I can’t use it for samples, it most definitely can’t show up in my portfolio, and there’s no way for someone to read the post and want to get in touch with me.
Some writers go all-in on ghostwriting because it’s what some brands want, or because it pays more. In my experience, though, being able to name-drop some of my clients and having plenty of links on my portfolio is much more effective at driving new business that helps me earn more overall.
As a result, I made sure that I never had too many ghostwriting projects at any one point in time. If my schedule was 75% full and I had predominantly “ghostie clients” as I lovingly call them, I’d typically choose to work with incoming leads that wanted my name attached to the work if I had multiple leads.
This doesn’t work for everyone, but remember that writers (and any creatives) need to find ways to have samples of work they can share with other clients, and the wider the range of work you can show, the better.
5. I focused on the people
I am a people person. I genuinely like people, I’m good at reading them, and I get along with most people. This is a crucial aspect that has helped lead me to success.
I made real, true friendships with other writers who were doing similar work. We shared tricks and pay rates and client horror stories.
Over time, as you get to know people, you also start sharing work back and forth, too, and even hiring each other. I have made over $80,000 in six years from work I’ve gotten from other writers, and I couldn’t even tell you how much work I’ve referred to others when my schedule is full.
I also focused on real relationships with my clients, especially since I work closely with many for years at a time. While this was never any kind of scheme or intentional decision, I eventually realized it meant long-term work security and more referrals.
And when you focus on people, it’s easier to understand what they’re looking for and how you can deliver that. Knowing why someone comes to you initially is essential. Being able to identify if they just need someone to churn out assigned topics a few times a month or if they need a full strategy with careful guidance is crucial to landing those gigs early on.
6. I incentivized reviews & referrals
Reviews and referrals make the world go round if you’re a freelancer or small business owner.
Reviews are dead useful, because they show people who are discovering your site and/or LinkedIn profile that you can actually deliver on what you say you can do.
Since quality control is actually a major issue when working with content writers, marketers, and creatives in general, having reviews can make a huge difference in getting you hired. They can also help you to get paid upfront, which some freelancers (like myself) require.
Referrals are even better. The majority of my best clients come as referrals from existing clients. These referrals know what to expect when working with me, and they’ve likely heard approximately how much I charge and what my process is. They’re highly qualified before they even end up in my inbox.
So I incentivize both. I run promotions with existing and past clients when I’m a little slow and let them know that if they leave me an honest review on LinkedIn or send me a client that converts, I’ll take 10% off their next invoice.
Pro tip: Make sure you reach out to past clients and offer this. More often than not, they’ll at least leave a review and be tempted to hire you again to take advantage of that 10% off. I’ve had long-lost contracts be brought back to life with this strategy.
7. I never stopped learning
I very much take a #CantStopWontStop approach to education in my career. This is admittedly made particularly easy because I write about content marketing, but it’s important to be proactive outside of that, too.
Take new courses; I love HubSpot’s content marketing course.
Attend conferences— virtual or in person— if possible.
This gives you a competitive edge, even if the clients don’t know that you’re doing this, and it’s part of how I’ve been a top-performing writer on every team I’ve ever worked on. Even a few hours a month can go a long way here.
8. I will never sign a non-compete
If there’s only one tip you take away from this post, let it be this: Freelancers do not need to sign non-competes.
Yep, I said it.
I constantly find myself telling new freelancers that they should run the other way if clients insist on non-competes, because freelancers have absolute zero job security. Someone might hire you for a $200 blog post and then never hire you again, but you’ve got a non-compete saying you can’t work in that space for two years even though it’s your most recent sample.
Non-competes box you in, and they can severely restrict your income.
And if you have a client whose contract comes with a non-compete, ask them to remove it. To my memory, only two potential clients ever declined to work with me because I requested this.
That being said, here’s what I am willing to sign:
- A non-disclosure agreement saying I will not share any of the business’s strategy, details, or inside information with anyone including but not limited to competitors
- That all ghostwritten work remains completely confidential, and I will never acknowledge having written it
- That once content is paid for, it’s completely owned forever by my client
- An agreement with agencies that I will not work directly for clients that I met while working as a freelancer for said agency
9. I chose tools that sped up the process
In the very first tip we covered, I mentioned that I picked a niche that allowed me to be both good and fast. The faster I am, the more money I make, so time-saving tools are essential.
I love Grammarly to help me reduce editing time, for example.
I’m a fan of Yoast SEO for an easy way to plug in SEO data for my clients’ sites.
I chose Freshbooks invoicing software because it allows me to set up retainer information, request deposits, and automate certain finance-related tasks.
And yes, I am an eager subscriber of Wordable, which makes the always-dreaded uploading process much, much easier, and much faster than manual uploads.
I almost always draft my content in Google Docs to prevent WordPress deleting disasters, and Wordable makes an hour-long process into more like five minutes. If I’m uploading four posts a day, this gives me almost four hours back, which means I have time for an extra $300 post each day. Time really is money.
I’m currently seven years into an unbelievably lucrative professional adventure, despite being told “if you want to be a writer you’ll need to marry a rich guy” as a kid (yes, really).
I started from nothing. I had no industry connections, no experience as a content marketer, no SEO knowledge, and no business experience. All I had was a hell of a lot of determination and Google as my friend to teach me everything I needed to know.
Anyone who is reading this can do the exact same thing that I have. Remember that getting your foot in the door is the hardest part, and that with a good work ethic, you will absolutely have momentum on your side. In the meantime, do plenty of research and practice, practice, practice.
Looking to learn more about how I speed up my content production timelines? See how Wordable helps me upload content for publication here.