It's easier than ever to become a freelance writer if you build a profile, find the right clients and treat writing like a business.
I worked as a freelance writer for several years for local and national newspapers in Ireland. I've worked as freelancer for several well-known websites like Forbes.
It's a great way of earning money either part or full-time from the written word. In this guide, I explain what freelancing is, and I provide practical tips for those who want to become a freelancer.
Let's dive in.
- What is a Freelance Writer?
- 1. Pick a Niche
- 2. Pitch On More Than One Job Board
- 3. Get Out From Behind Email
- 4. Prepare for Interviews in Advance
- 5. Keep An Idea or a Swipe File
- 6. Learn to Touch Type
- 7. Take High-Quality Notes
- 8. Ask What Your Clients Want
- 9. Manage Your Projects
- 10. Manage Your Time
- 11. Treat Freelance Writing Like a Business
- 12. Develop Multiple Income Streams
- 13. Set up a Business Website
- 14. Calculate Your Ideal Rate
- 15. Collect Writing Samples
- 16. Gather Client Testimonials
- 17. Refine Your Writing Skills
- Become a Freelance Writer: The Final Word
- Become a Freelance Writer: FAQs
- [Interview] How to Launch and Grow a Successful Freelance Writing Career With Jessica Lawlor
What is a Freelance Writer?
A freelance writer is someone who writes blog posts, non-fiction articles, and web copy for magazines, publications, companies, and other organisations.
Unlike a journalist employed by a newspaper, freelancers are self-employed, and they typically write for a number of different clients or publications at one time.
They can work full or part-time at home or in an office. Some have a contract with several different clients, while others operate on a recurring commission basis (the dream).
1. Pick a Niche
When I was a journalist, my freelance writing niche technology stories, I didn't pick this niche because I was interested in technology journalism (although that helped). There were relatively few technology journalists in Ireland at that time.
Doubling down made it easier for me to find more suitable clients.
When starting off as an aspiring freelance writer, it's fine to try different niches and charge a lower rate until you gain appropriate experiences. Copywriters follow this approach at the start of their writing career too. However, as you acquire more knowledge and skills, focus on one or two niches and increase your rates.
Popular niches include:
- Health and fitness
- Personal development
- Leadership and careers
- Family and parenting
- B2B technology
- Travel writing
After homing in on a niche, you can spend more time cultivating contacts, develop in-depth knowledge, and build a name for yourself with contacts.
Tip: Combine a niche with a popular content format. For example, I know a copywriter who specialises in producing case studies and creating videos for large technology companies.
2. Pitch On More Than One Job Board
It's tough when starting out as a freelancer. I spent a few years wondering where I was supposed to find clients and was unsure about what type of worked they'd pay for. Thankfully, freelances can choose from more places than ever today, all geared for commissioned writing. Consider joining these platforms and services:
- The Writer Finder
- Writer Access
- Writers Work
- Medium (good for name recognition particularly in the small business niche)
Tip: Check out my full list of places to find writing jobs.
3. Get Out From Behind Email
Email is a great communication tool, and it works for a lot of pitches.
However, it's also easy to misinterpret the tone of a client email, which is why live conversations with editors or clients are so important. I sometimes received more lucrative commissions by attending events, by phoning editors and by getting to know people.
Tip: Use Skype, Zoom, or Google Meet to check in with clients regularly. Transcribe interviews with Rev.
4. Prepare for Interviews in Advance
Interviews are an important part of the research process for freelance writers.
When I received my first 3000-word freelance writing commission, I interviewed five different people for over an hour each. I asked them every question I could conceive.
It took almost ten hours to transcribe these interviews, and I spent far longer on this commission than it was worth.
I quickly learned it's important to get to the point with interviewees faster (they value their time as much as you do). Later on, I started using software to transcribe these interviews. Although it ate into my profits a little, I saved a lot of time.
Tip: Write down several questions for interviewees before you meet, but don't be afraid to go off-script.
5. Keep An Idea or a Swipe File
When I was a journalist, I didn't spend enough time recording ideas, news stories, and research for future articles.
To avoid this problem, keep a swipe file where you store interesting articles, research findings, and other useful facts and figures.
Carol Tice even recommends keeping a future file of news stories and other articles that you've written or read. The idea is to return to these articles and write an updated version in three, six or twelve months.
Tip: Save articles for your future file in Evernote and annotate the interesting parts. Statista is a good resource for facts and figures.
6. Learn to Touch Type
Words are your trade, and the keyboard is your tool.
Yes, you may be able to rattle off a few sentences using your index fingers and muscle memory, but professional writers know how to touch type.
Learning to type is the single biggest productivity hack I've discovered as a writer, and it has enabled me to finish projects faster and ship them on time.
It's also easy to learn how to touch type. Writers who want to get started should check out LinkedIn Learning's Touch Typing Fundamentals course.
I also recommend dictation to writers who want to produce first and second drafts much faster.
Tip: Writers who use more than one computer can reduce the number of typos they make by using the same keyboard for each machine. I use the Apple keyboard as it is an ergonomic and efficient device for touch typists.
7. Take High-Quality Notes
Several years ago, I studied journalism, and I learned Teeline shorthand.
One day, I was sent by my editor to report on a case in the courts. While covering this case, I tried to use shorthand to transcribe what the people in court were saying.
My shorthand wasn’t up to scratch, and my notes didn’t make sense. That’s when I learned Teeline shorthand, and I’ve never forgotten the importance of recording accurate notes.
Today, I use a dictaphone or the voice recorder on my phone to record interviews. It’s a good idea to write notes too, because you will think of ideas while your interviewee speaks.
Tip: Always carry a spare set of batteries for your dictaphone and check it's recording before asking your first question.
8. Ask What Your Clients Want
Knowing what your editor wants in advance will save you a painful amount of editing later on. Always ask your editor or your client for a brief that provides your:
- target word count
- topics to cover
- a deadline
- types of interviewees
- any other information you should include
Before you accept a commission, it's also worth agreeing how many rounds of edits you'll make.
Tip: If you're collaborating with a new editor, ask if the publication uses a particular style guide.
9. Manage Your Projects
Here are five things you need to track:
- time spent on an article
- income and expenses
- commitments or To-Dos
- the status of each of your project
You'll need a system to manage these.
I use a timer on my computer to track my hours, a spreadsheet to record my income and expenses and a professional journal to record the status of each project.
Use Google Calendar to manage deadlines and an app like Trello or ToDoist to manage commitments. I combine Trello with Kanban.
Tip: Create invoices as soon as you complete a project. Even if you don't send them immediately, you won't have to think about what you did at the end of the month.
10. Manage Your Time
Time is your most valuable asset as a freelancer. Most clients pay by the article or word. So if you spend five hours working on a 1,000-word article or one hour, you'll still get paid the same amount. To earn more from a freelance writing gig, eliminate distractions, and also focus on ones you can complete quickly and to a high standard.
Apps like RescueTime will help you track what you do while sitting at a computer, including which apps you're spending the most time in. Freedom App is another good choice for eliminating distractions, as it will block distraction news and social media websites.
If you want to record how long you're spending on particular commissions so you can determine what to accept more or less off, Harvest is a good choice. It supports invoicing clients too.
Tip: Use the Pomodoro technique to get more value from working hours.
11. Treat Freelance Writing Like a Business
Most successful business owners track key lead and lag measures.
Lead measures refer to something they directly control like the number of sales calls placed, leads contacted or articles published. Each lead measure has a corresponding lag measure.
Lag measures refer to factors they can't directly control like stats on a website, converted leads, or product sales.
When a lag measure falls into the red, the business owner looks at the related lead measure and asks how he can increase those measures to fix the issue.
If you want to run a freelance writing business full-time, consider these lead measures:
- How many potential clients did I contact this month?
- How many testimonials did I acquire?
- How many jobs did I pitch for?
Lag measures include:
- Total gross revenue at the end of the month
- Freelance writing gigs completed and in progress
Tip: Track these lead and lag measures in a spreadsheet and review them regularly. You can't directly increase revenue half-way into the month without acquiring more clients first. This type of information will direct your attention, where it matters most.
12. Develop Multiple Income Streams
If you receive the bulk of your income from one employer or editor, you are leaving yourself vulnerable.
Companies sometimes have to make cutbacks, and those without contracts are usually the first to go.
One day my biggest and only paying client said they'd no commissions, which left me without enough money at the end of the month.
In short, always be thinking about the next freelance writing job.
Tip: Setting up a website will help you develop multiple income streams as you can use your platform for advertising your services and for hosting a portfolio.
13. Set up a Business Website
It's all but impossible for clients to find you if you're lacking an online presence. While a profile on a platform like Medium is useful, you don't have full control over it. They may kick you off, reduce the visibility of your profile or charge a fee.
Buy a website domain name, ideally a .com. One in your own name is ideal, but if this isn't available find a variation describing your services or skills. Next, buy a premium WordPress theme and build out a website. Then, register it on Google My Business. Include a link to your website on your social profiles.
Tip: Start writing on Medium regularly about your niche. Include a call-to-action or link to your website.
14. Calculate Your Ideal Rate
An aspiring freelance writer calculates her initial rate at three cents per word, but she really wants to charge ten cents per word.
Some of her key tasks include finding clients, customer research, and producing articles. She is good at what she does but struggles to arrange interviews with her client's customers.
Email discussions—”Are you free on Monday?”—consume hours of her week.
She discovers booking software will help her solve this problem. It enables interviewees to self-select a time that suits both parties, but it costs $20 a month.
Rather than weighing the pros and cons, she subscribes to this software immediately. Then, she can move onto another problem, such as finding referrals for higher-paying clients.
Even if the software is unsuitable, she can cancel her subscription. Her time is spent focusing on revenue growth rather than cutting costs.
Similarly, if she spends more than an hour on a low-value task (like transcribing interviews), she should use a transcription service, once her revenue increases.
Tip: Use AI transcription services like Temi to cut costs and save some time on transcribing. It's not as accurate as Rev, but it is still useful.
15. Collect Writing Samples
Many clients will want to see a writing sample before sending over a commission. On your website, link to samples of your work for other clients, a guest post you write, ebooks, and so on. Freelance designers do this all the time.
Explain what you did and how the client benefitted from your expertise. Bonus points if you can include statistics like the number of page views for a particular article or how it helped a client with a business objective.
I recommend keeping this information on your website as it's easier than emailing over lots of PDFs and Word docs. That said, the latter approach is better than nothing.
If you don't have a website yet, consider using a platform like Medium. You can potentially earn money from your articles, and it will increase your visibility.
Tip: Medium is a great place to showcase your writing… and build an audience.
16. Gather Client Testimonials
Nothing demonstrates competence, like a testimonial or a referral from a happy client. At the end of every job, ask a client for a short review, and ask permission to use this on your profile or website.
If you use a service like UpWork, the platform will probably ask clients for a rating anyhow. However, it's still a good idea to email a client and asks them to write a positive review after a writing assignment. You could also use LinkedIn for this request.
Tip: If a client is unhappy for some reason, ask for feedback so you can improve this particular writing skill before your next gig.
17. Refine Your Writing Skills
Freelance writing is a flexible career choice, but it's also tenuous in that you're somewhat dependent on key clients. To circumvent this problem, diversify your skillset.
You could, for example, learn the basics of copywriting and offer this as an add-on service to business owners. Copywriting usually pays more too.
Alternatively, consider getting into content writing by pitching for commissions for detailed guides (like this article), ebooks, video scripts and so on. A content writer is a lot like a general freelance writer except they've a deeper understanding of how to write for an online audience.
Tip: Take an online writing course to diversify your skill set. It may even be tax deductable!
Become a Freelance Writer: The Final Word
Working on your own terms as a freelance writer is a great career choice. You can rise late, take long lunches, and thrive as a remote worker.
You still need to get the work down, and if you don't have the discipline to sit down in the chair, make calls and do the work on your own terms, you won't get paid.
If you're going to become a freelance writer, your goal should almost always to be to get paid.
Becoming a professional writer also means valuing your services and charging appropriate rates. Unlike other professions, you can start a freelance writing career today, without anyone's permission.
Because I know how tough freelance writing is, why not pick up a copy of this book I contributed to. It will help you get to find your first freelance writing gig and make real money from this profession.
Also, check out this great course by John Soares. It will help you earn more from freelancing.
Become a Freelance Writer: FAQs
Is being a freelance writer worth it?
It's a good choice if you want to earn some money on the side. It takes more time to earn a full-time living from this career choice, but it still offers flexibility and variety. It's worth it if you're comfortable managing yourself and pitching regularly for commissions. That said, develop more than one income stream to survive.
How do I become a freelance writer with no experience?
Join a popular job board like Flexjobs of Freelancer, set up a profile and start pitching for jobs. At the same time, start publishing examples of your work on platforms like Medium so you can build up a portfolio. Build a personal website that explains what services you offer. When you get a gig, ask a client for a testimonial and post it on your website and portfolios.
How much should I charge for a 500-word article?
If you're no experience, start off by charging a low-rate like three cents per word. It's not much, but you'll attract some paying commissions from cash-strapped clients. As you acquire more experience and skills, increase your rate to thirty cents per word.
[Interview] How to Launch and Grow a Successful Freelance Writing Career With Jessica Lawlor
Jessica Lawlor is the editor of The Write Life and offers practical advice for aspiring freelancers. I got together with Jessica to discuss freelancing, and to talk about how she manages a busy website like The Write Life.
In this episode I talk to Jessica about:
- The Write Life bundle
- Opportunities for freelance writers
- How she manages the workflow for a busy website
- How she drives traffic to her site
- The type of content she enjoys writing
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