How does someone become a freelance writer in this day and age?
In many ways, it’s easier than ever. Technologically speaking, we can now work wherever we want, maintain clients overseas, and leverage social media and blogs to find, retain, and assist client work.
However, there’s still tons of competition, and the business model of freelance writing isn’t exactly straightforward – at least making it work successfully and making enough money to be comfortable.
It’s totally possible, though. Tons of people do it. You just have to have talent, make the right moves, and void the common mistakes.
This will be a complete guide on how to become a successful freelance writer. It will cover:
- The Basics Steps to Starting Out with Freelance Writing
- Ways to Find Freelance Writing Gigs
- Raising Freelance Writing Rates and Making More Money
- Common Mistakes Freelance Writers Make
- Building and Maintaining a Freelance Writing Business
How to Become a Freelance Writer: Getting Started
Seems everyone wants to run their own business. The benefits are plentiful. You get to:
- Be your own boss.
- Have a theoretically unlimited earning potential.
- Do what you love (probably).
However, the downsides are that there’s no real safety net or tried-and-true road map that will give you blanket security in your endeavors (medical school may be difficult, but it’s fairly clear what the path looks like to get through it). You’ve gotta risk it to get the biscuit in the freelance world.
If you break it down, there are really four components of becoming a successful freelance writer:
- Have writing talent that people are willing to pay for.
- Have at least one channel through which you can acquire clients.
- Have the talent and management skill to keep clients.
- Have some business acumen or the ability to outsource the business operations components.
This article won’t cover the first part of the equation – the writing talent – because we’ll assume that is there.
Obviously, if someone is paying for a consultant, the consultant should bring something to the table that the company can’t provide internally. You can’t get by without actually being good.
Other than that, this article will cover the many acquisition channels where you can acquire clients, some tips on how to keep them, and some tools for managing your business.
Superpower Tip: Differentiate and Niche Down
However, there really is one impactful lever you can pull to bring success faster, especially in the beginning.
The biggest lever you can pull early on is probably to differentiate and specialize. Be known for something.
“Specialization [is my biggest point of leverage].
I write blog content for a very specific group of clients, rather than doing any type of writing for any type of client. Doing that has helped me become known as a go-to person for that “one thing.” It’s the antithesis of the Jack of All Trades, Master of None idea. It wasn’t until I took Paul Jarvis’s Creative Class course (which I now co-teach!) in 2013 that I made this change–but once I did, my freelance career became MUCH more sustainable.”
Of course, there are exceptions, but most successful freelancer writers started out by niching down.
The smaller and more specific the client profile, the better. From there, you can expand outward, but it’s really hard to start from the standpoint of “I can write anything,” and actually differentiate and get business.
Additionally, it helps to have something to show for your writing – some sort of portfolio. When starting out, you may have to do some free work. Yes, it sucks, but it’s a catch 22: you need to show your work to get work, but you don’t have work yet.
Often, in these cases, it helps to volunteer with a project, take an internship, or write guest posts for free.
Now, let’s go into some ideas for scoring clients…
16+ Ways to Find Freelance Writing Gigs
First, before you look into acquisition channels, define who the right client for you use, both in terms of niche and scale/maturity.
Some businesses, in addition, just aren’t prepared to hire freelancers. As Kaleigh Moore put it in a GrowthHackers AMA:
“In my experience, people hiring freelance writers generally pursue this option for a few different reasons:
- They don’t have the internal time/team to effectively manage the level of content production they’d like to achieve
- They want to work with a subject matter expert who can research and write about a specific topic
Most of the time, this is triggered when the brand reaches a certain level of growth/financial security that they have the resources to hire extra help and they’re ready to go all-in on scaling up content efforts. In the conversion-centric sector of freelance writers, however, sometimes it’s merely a matter of wanting expertise on how to optimize different pieces of copy to produce better ROI.”
Figure out who is your ideal customer, and then find channels by which you can reach them.
It will vastly vary based on your industry and niche, though there are some similarities at the broadest level.
In other words, industry meetups are always a good idea, but if you’re a real estate blog writer, the type of meetup will be much different than a high technology sales copywriter.
Anyway, here are 16 ways to find freelance writing gigs. Some may work well, some not at all, but these are just ideas to get you started.
1. Ask Your Current Network and Friends
When you’re first starting out – heck, even when you’ve been going for a while – this is probably the fastest path to clients. It’s a great way to casually put out the feelers without doing any cold outreach.
Chances are, someone in your network wants some writing done or at least knows someone who wants some writing does. If you’re just starting out, start here.
2. Cold Pitch People on LinkedIn
This one is pretty annoying in my opinion, but hey, maybe it can work for you.
3. Cold Email Businesses Using Mailshake
More likely, if you’re doing cold outreach, it’ll help to do some very strategic targeting and to use a tool like Mailshake to automate and personalize your outreach.
This isn’t easy. It’s really a unique skill set on its own – business development.
But since you’re a professional writer, you may have an edge to all the other people trying to cold email for business – at the very least, you can stand out with superior email copy!
4. Apply to Jobs on ProBlogger
ProBlogger is a pretty fantastic job board for freelance writing gigs. Not everything there is gold, but tons of great companies and websites posts there.
5. Look for Freelance Opportunities on Mainstream Job Boards like Indeed
As someone who has hired writers before, I’ve found the quality from mainstream job boards like Indeed is lower. However, that doesn’t mean that you, as a writer, can’t find good gigs on them. I’d say the special jobs boards like ProBlogger are better, but why not set up an alert on Indeed?
6. Look for Jobs in Special Communities like GrowthHackers and Slack Channels
There are tons of WordPress communities and special copywriting Slack groups as well. You’ve just got to seek them out.
7. Put the Feelers Out on Twitter
Kaleigh Moore mentioned in her GrowthHackers AMA that she got her first client on Twitter. I’m not a big Twitter user, but that right there is at least one data point that it could work!
8. Follow Job Related Twitter Accounts
There are many job related Twitter feeds, many of them specific to writers. Such as:
9. Guest Post on Top Websites
We talked earlier about building a big portfolio of work, at least in the context of being able to prove you can write.
One of the best ways of doing this is guest posting to top websites in your niche. It positions you as an expert, gives you the credibility of the blog you’re posting on, and brings in inbound traffic.
10. Go to Conferences and Meetups
Obviously it’s a longer term play, but relationships usually end up being the biggest rainmaker for freelancers. It’s hard to build relationships if you never interact with people. So try to get out once in a while and talk to people in your industry.
11. Try to Network with Local Businesses
Local businesses tend to be less knowledgeable about online marketing and copywriting, but they usually excel in their core business, so they have some cash to spend on experts who can help them in those digital areas. Most towns have small business associations and meetups; try to break in and start networking.
12. Join Facebook Groups and Slack Channels
There are several great writing related Facebook Groups and Slack Channels:
13. Ask for Referrals from Current Clients
If you’re a great writer, you’ll have happy clients. Happy clients know other businesses. They can refer you to those other businesses.
14. Offer Affiliate/Referral Payouts
Some agencies and freelancers will offer a “finders fee,” anywhere from 5-40% of the business, for people who refer new clients to them. This will cut into your profits, but it’s a good way to get new business.
There are some downsides to subcontracting, but if you partner with a reputable agency, it can be a great way to get steady freelance work and income.
16. Create an Inbound Channel by Blogging
This is my favorite play, but it’s the one that requires the most time and commitment. Essentially, build a blog, create great content, and let new clients come to you.
Like I said, growing a blog isn’t easy. But once you’re cranking, you’ve got a flywheel. It’s a longer term play, but it’s incredibly effective when done correctly.
Not all of these tactics will work for everyone, but at least one of these tactics on this list should work for you. Try a few out and see if you can get some traction.
How to Raise Your Freelance Writing Rates and Make More Money
The number one way to have a more successful freelance writing business, at least once you’re up and running, is to increase the rate that you charge clients.
It’s through increasing your rates that you begin to create better profit margins and a little bit of breathing room for your business.
According to most data, the majority of freelance writers don’t make a ton of money. It’s really the few at the top 5-10% that bring in the big bucks. Venngage, for instance, found that most writers make less than $0.25 per word
But some do bring in more money and charge more per word and per client.
It’s not really a straightforward formula how to do that though. So instead of purporting to have some one size fits all formula here, we’re going to embrace the nuance, and instead, link out to some of the best sources on increasing your freelance rates. Check out these sources:
- How To Tell Your Clients You’re Raising Your Rates
- Double Your Freelancing Courses
- Creative Class
- 4 Things You Need to Raise Your Freelance Writing Rate
5. Common Mistakes Freelance Writers Make
Sometimes I feel like most of what makes a successful person successful is that they avoided, or quickly recovered from, the biggest and most common mistakes.
It’s like Warren Buffett’s investing strategy: “Rule No. 1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1.”
Anyway, there are many mistakes, but here are some of the biggest mistakes freelance writers make:
1. Underprice Yourself
If you can’t make money, you can’t stay in business. Heck, you want to be comfortable, able to afford good food and housing, in order to perform at your best. If you’re starving, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Don’t accept insanely low rates.
2. Take Just Any Client
Remember the advice above from Kaleigh Moore? Specialize.
If you’re a Google Analytics expert, you want people to think of your name when they think “Google Analytics consulting.” If you’re a writer specialized one SaaS landing pages, you want your name to come up.
A writer that does “everything” damn well better be established and popular, because otherwise, they’re going to struggle being known or remembered for anything particular when a client is ready to hire someone.
Here’s what Kaleigh told me regarding specialization:
“One of the most common mistakes I see is that beginner freelance writers don’t specialize and find a niche. You need to find a specific service for a specific audience to offer–and stick to that ONE thing. It makes you a subject matter expert that’s known for that one thing he or she is really good at. Otherwise, you can easily fall into the “Jack of all trades, Master of none” category.”
3. Stop Learning and Growing
Always be growing. As a freelance writer, you need to be a knowledgeable subject matter expert as well (or at least know how to spot one).
Shayla Price puts it like this:
“Most people doubt their abilities to learn new industry topics when becoming a freelance writer. They automatically think writing technical or jargon-laden pieces will be difficult.
To avoid this common mistake, it’s important to know anything is possible with research. You write better when you seek out knowledge. It all starts by reading existing content about the topics.”
It’s important, no matter what your job but especially with freelance work or consulting, to always be improving and to have a set of knowledge on your topic.
You need to maintain that edge over the competition, you need to keep up to date on trends (SEO and content marketing are changing daily). The moment you stop moving forward is the moment you start moving backwards.
Invest in courses, books, seminars, etc.
4. Spread Yourself Too Thin
Focus is the name of the game. That which you’re good at, you should own. That which you’re not, delegate, outsource, or eliminate.
When you find yourself doing tons of stuff you hate or aren’t good at – accounting, business development, or even tedious work like uploading Google Docs to WordPress – it’s time to pause and reflect. Try to figure out a way to return how and focus more on your craft.
5. Ignoring the Business Aspects of a Freelance Writing Business
One piece of advice Kaleigh Moore gave on a recent GrowthHackers AMA is to “save for tax season.” She continues:
“I work with an accountant for the bookkeeping and taxes of my business, because I abhor it. I’m completely intimidated by that side of things, so I defer to an expert. But even though I faithfully pay my estimated quarterly taxes (both federal and state, mind you) I have owed at tax time every year on April 15. Not a ton, but I owed. No tax return for me.
Keep a reserve of at least $2,000-$5,000 in the account you pay your taxes from in April, ‘cause there’s a good chance Uncle Sam is gunna claim it.”
She also advises to “Make Retirement a Priority.” Here’s her quote:
“I had a nice retirement match at my first job out of college, and setting that whole situation up was a breeze because the employer helped me through the process. Once I left that job, I quickly realized that to keep on pace with my retirement planning, I needed to make it a priority and set up some accounts of my own.
I worked with a local broker to establish a Roth IRA and a SEP IRA that I could contribute to on my own, and make regular, monthly contributions to these investments.
It’s really easy to let this slip down the priority list when you’re doing a million other things, but be sure to do this early on when you start as a freelance writer. Time is money when it comes to compound interest, so don’t put it off. It’ll cost ya.”
In summary, don’t forget about the nuts and bolts of running a business (luckily, that’s what our next section is all about)
The Business Side of Freelance Writing
To become a successful freelance writer, you first have to be a good writer. That’s clear, right?
But that’s not all. You also need to be good at business.
That may come less intuitively to you.
There are two real parts to this:
- Client management skills
- Accounting and other boring business stuff
You have two options with both of these:
- Learn them
- Outsource them
There’s no right answer, though at the very start you’ll probably have to be scrappy and get by with just yourself. There are definitely some tools that can help, but at the very least, you’ll need some client management skills.
Unfortunately, there’s no “one size fits all” answer as to how to keep and maintain clients.
I’ve heard good advice like “overpromise and overdeliver,” and “maintain constant communication,” but the reality is that some people have specific styles that work for them, and sometimes that style meshes with certain clients and with others, it doesn’t work.
The world of human relations can be quite messy.
I recommend reading up as much as you can on account management and on managing a freelance business. Try some of these resources:
As for the second part, “Accounting and Other Boring Stuff,” I recommend using as many (free) tools as you can, and when you get big enough, try to outsource this stuff as much as possible.
To get you started, here are a few business management tools like I like to use for freelance writing…
8 Freelance Writing Tools to Help You Out
It always helps to have some blogging and productivity tools in your court. Some of my favorites for running a freelance writing business include:
Freshbooks is my favorite accounting software. It seems to be catered to the small shops or the one person teams. It’s super easy to use, and you can integrate other financial apps like Stripe or Expensify.
I love Expensify for tracking expenses on the go. If you want to rock your taxes, it helps to have a handy app like this one to track as you go.
Obviously, if you’re writing a lot, you want to save time and effort. So what better way than with a Wordable account?
Seriously, if you write more than a few articles a month, the time you save uploading Google Docs to WordPress with Wordable will easily cover your investment and more.
I love Airstory for building longer form content, especially ebooks and other time intensive ventures. It’s great for organizing thoughts and resources – quotes, images, research, etc. – to save you time when you compile and write. Made by writers for writers.
If you need to accept international payments, TransferWise is the service you want to use. It’s great!
If you want to set up your own site, WordPress is the platform to use. Free, big support community, tons of plugins, themes, templates, etc. It’s a great way to go whether you’re big or just starting out.
I’m not the most detail oriented person, so Grammarly has saved me from embarrassment on more than one occasion.
You’ll want a way to organize yourself, especially an editorial calendar or some sort of project management tool. Trello is the best one I know of, and almost every writer I know uses it.
Becoming a freelance writer is a noble dream, one that is entirely possible so long as you’re talented, patient, and diligently follow the right steps (and pick yourself up when you fail from time to time).
It’s a hard path, but it’s endlessly rewarding to escape the 9 to 5 and do what you want to do.
I say, take the path. Hopefully this article helps you on your way, no matter how far you are into it.