Certain professions come with a set of instructions. Assembling a career as a physician, for example, is no easy feat, but the steps involved are quite clear: one must first earn their Bachelor’s Degree, then pass the MCAT, then graduate medical school, then complete a residency, and so on.
Freelance writers don’t have that same luxury (those pesky physicians have all the luck!). There is no freelance writing degree, no freelance writing residency program. Instructions, unfortunately, are not included.
The following is a set of instructions aspiring freelance writers can follow to assemble a career. It’s not IKEA furniture complicated, but it will require dedication, perseverance, tenacity, and other synonyms for hard work.
A Note On Credentials
You don’t need a specific degree to become a freelance writer. Sure, majoring in English or Journalism can certainly be beneficial to a career in writing, but you’ll find there are successful freelance writers who majored in Theater or Chemistry or Vacuum Repair. There are freelance writers that didn’t attend college and freelance writers with PhD’s in Nuclear Engineering.
But all successful freelance writers do share one commonality: they can write, and they can write well. For a profession that lends itself to many undefined variables, good writing remains a constant. You don’t have to be the world’s greatest wordsmith, but you do need to excel in your field.
Step 1: Find Your Writing Niche
Your niche is your beat, your specialty, your strong suit. It’s a special blend of your own interests, passions, and talents, and while having a niche (or multiple niches) isn’t mandatory when kicking off your freelance writing career, it will prove very valuable down the road. When you choose a niche, you’re branding yourself as a thought leader in that particular area, and clients, especially higher paying ones, are looking for the cream of the crop.
Financial reporting, yoga blog posts, articles on becoming a freelance writer – these are all valid niches, as they are concerned with a specific industry, activity, or topic. While finding your niche is a personal process that may come more easily to some than to others, ask yourself the following questions to get the ball rolling.
- What is something outside of writing that you’re particularly good at?
- What issues are you passionate about?
- Is there a topic, activity, or industry you’re particularly well-versed in?
- Do you like broadcasting your own opinions, or the opinions of others?
- Do you like describing things in great detail, or are you more concerned with the bigger picture?
If you know a lot about interior design and prefer broadcasting your own opinions, a viable niche could be Interior Design How To’s. If you’re more concerned with the bigger picture, care deeply about local policy issues, and enjoy broadcasting the opinions of others, perhaps political journalism is your niche of choice.
(To learn more, check out our Finding Your Writing Niche Article)
Step 2: Build A Portfolio
Think of your writing portfolio as an evidence box. No self-respecting client will hire someone based on hearsay; they need proof of your writing acumen, and your writing portfolio better hold up in court.
But how can you build a portfolio if you haven’t done any work?
Simple. You do work. You just won’t get paid for it.
The sad truth is that writing skills are not as valued as they once were, and landing a paying gig with no experience and no writing samples is a highly unlikely prospect. Therefore, your portfolio will largely be made up of unpublished and/or unpaid work.
Here are a few portfolio-building ideas:
- If you’re still in school, write for your school newspaper.
- Find non-profits who need writers and volunteer your services. VolunteerMatch is a good place to start.
- Already know your niche? Find a blog that specializes in that niche and offer to write a guest post.
- Target small businesses and offer your writing services for free. Be honest about your reason for contacting them, and explain that you’re trying to build a portfolio. As for the work, don’t limit yourself. Be open to writing flyers, editing menus, and drafting press releases. At this stage, anything is better than nothing.
- Offer your writing services to friends or family. If you know a musician, write them a bio. If you know a teacher, write something in the school newsletter.
- Apply for unpaid writing jobs. Plenty of startups are looking for writers, and can’t afford to be as picky as their paying counterparts.
Step 3: Land Your First Paid Writing Gig
Nothing beats the thrill of receiving money for delivering words, and with a solid portfolio in tow, it’s time to go thrill seeking. While there are oh so many strategies one can take to find work, when it’s this early in the game, my advice is to focus on the big two.
Applying For Jobs
Applying for jobs is not a long-term solution (ideally, you want jobs to come to you), but when you’re first starting out, it’s important to keep an open mind.
However, before responding to every job posting with the words “writing” and “paid” in it, you need to set some ground rules.
What are you willing to do? What are you not willing to do? What is worth your time? What isn’t?
Again, this is a personal decision, but when first starting out, you’re going to encounter countless offers that pay next to nothing for an inordinate amount of work. For example, take a gander at this job posting.
Offers like these are in great supply, and while they may initially look tempting, take a moment to think it through. In the above example, you’ll be paid .01 cents a word, the absolute lowest end of the spectrum. Is that worth your time? Is it worth your integrity? Sure, you will gain experience and add to your portfolio, but you’re devaluing yourself in the process.
Now here is an example of a more reasonable offer.
While jobs like this one won’t make you rich, the pay is miles better than the previous offer’s, and for someone just starting out, it’s a worthwhile opportunity.
Here are some curated job boards to find paid writing work:
Rather than responding to job postings, you can take a more active role by targeting specific clients.
Your first move should be to leverage your existing network. For example, my aunt is a graphic designer, and much to her chagrin, clients are always asking her to write copy in addition to her designs. After I decided to pursue freelance writing, my aunt began outsourcing some of her copywriting assignments to me. Through that opportunity I was introduced to her clients, leading to further opportunities down the road.
Next, think about the websites and publications you read on a daily basis. Do they hire freelancers? If so, contact them. If not, contact them anyway. Just because they don’t advertise it doesn’t mean they never need help.
(Curious about how much the bigger publications pay? Check out this database.)
In a similar vein, think about the local businesses you frequently patronize. Perhaps they could use a hand with their website copy, marketing materials, email newsletters, or press releases. Do they have a blog? If so, do they post infrequently? Contact them and make the case for frequent blog posts. Use statistics to bolster your argument. For example, you can mention that companies relying on blogging and other inbound marketing efforts save over $14 for every new customer acquired. Then offer them your unparalleled services.
You might have to send out 100 emails, but if all that work nets you just one client, it was worth it.
Step 4. Price Your Services
The internet is 30% cats, 50% phony statistics, and 20% articles on how to price your freelance writing services. It’s a topic of much discussion, and although opinions vary wildly, most freelancers can agree on one thing: don’t undervalue yourself.
Novice freelancers may be tempted to undercut the competition in order to get work, but as you saw above, there is virtually no amount of money that the competition won’t give up for a job. Are you really going to undercut someone who writes for .01 cents a word?
Rather than picking a number you think the client wants to hear, calculate your hourly rate with a rate calculator like MotiveApp, and price yourself accordingly. This calculation involves a number of factors such as desired salary, the number of hours you anticipate working, and personal expenses.
When you’ve established your hourly rate, it becomes much easier to price your services. Start by estimating the time commitment for the project in question, then plug in your hourly rate.
Step 5: Get Referrals By Being Awesome
Spending hours responding to job postings and cold emailing clients will soon get tiresome. Ideally, you want clients knocking on your door, and that all begins with referrals. What kinds of freelancers see referrals? Awesome ones.
Many clients are weary of freelancers, and see them as unreliable and inconsistent. Unfortunately, their reservations are sometimes justified. I’ve had clients complain to me about freelancers who miss deadlines, don’t communicate well, and are inconsistent in terms of quality.
To win over clients, strive to be the antithesis of a client’s worst nightmare. Respond to emails promptly and accurately. Delivery quality work on time, every time. Don’t communicate in Comic Sans. If you make your clients happy they will sing your praises to anyone who will listen.
I’ll give you an example. When I first started out freelancing, I applied to a job I found on a job board. It was a one-time assignment, and I made sure to give it my absolute all, maintain open communication lines with the client, and deliver it by deadline.
The client liked the piece so much that a couple months after I’d turned it in, I was offered a long-term job as a staff writer for their company. Their reasoning was that I had turned in good work, and proved myself to be reliable.
(Find out more about Maximizing Social Media Referrals)