How to Become a Freelance Writer
So, you want to be a freelance writer…
Having worked as a freelancer in some form for decades, and written for some of the world’s leading publications including The Wall Street Journal, I can tell you that A), this can be a challenging, frustrating career; and B), it can be the doorway to a fabulous lifestyle of freedom and independence.
If you want to spend your days writing from coffee shops or parks or beaches or on airplanes as you move about the world to wherever we want to be, freelance writing can help you achieve this.
Because of the internet and its insatiable demand for content, demand for words is equally insatiable. Which means good writers are a highly coveted commodity. We’re the ones who make readers drool over a new vacation destination…or convince them to try a new product…or ghostwrite blogs and books for others who can’t write…or provide readers with guidance on parenting or investing or cooking or, well, becoming a freelance writer.
Sometimes we’re paid quite well for the words we string together. Sometimes we’re offered fees that are laughably small.
Whatever the case, it’s all part of learning to earn as a freelance writer. And, to that end, here are seven points you need to know to begin pursuing a career stringing words together for money:
1. Determine Your Niche
Of course, you can be a jack-of-all-trades writer, and there are plenty of those in the world. But your greatest success will likely come in focusing on a specialty, on a niche, even as you’re just starting out.
We’ll get to this in a moment, but the largest number of opportunities will come to you through freelancing websites. And there it helps to specialize.
Most online content providers these days have a specialty. Maybe it’s a blog geared specifically to reviews of credit cards and accumulating points and miles for free travel. Maybe it’s a company that focuses on providing online clients with real estate information, or how to obtain second passports and long-term visas overseas, or interior decorating. Such sites want writers who specifically understand the kind of content they provide. After all, it makes little sense to hire a generalist who knows nothing about interior decorating if you run a website offering readers design ideas.
So, what do you like to write about? What do you like to do? What are your hobbies and interests? What is your background? All of those will help you define your niche and help you find the outlets for which you might write.
For instance, you might be a boating enthusiast. You can use that to your advantage in pitching boating stories to local newspapers and regional boating magazines, and you can highlight your boating expertise in your online profile.
Also, think beyond writing. As a writer, you are naturally a copyeditor and a proofreader, since you’re doing that with your own writing. There’s big demand online for those services.
Just as there’s big demand for ghostwriting. Here, you don’t necessarily need to carve out a niche since many times those who need ghostwriters want to tell the story of their life or have already amassed the research they want to turn into a book or whatever.
2. Register on Freelancing Sites
Used to be that freelance writers pitching story ideas had to figure out the right person to contact at a magazine or newspaper, then type a proposal and mail it off (stamps and envelopes) and then wait weeks or months to hear back—assuming they heard back at all. That’s still a viable option. And though the age of email speeds up delivery, you still might have to wait weeks for a reply.
Many magazine, blogs, and other websites will include a “write for us” link on their site. That’s a quick, direct way of connecting with the right person (though you still might never hear back). This is a good way to approach the sites that specifically cater to readers in your niche.
Pitching large, national newspapers and magazines will be more challenging. While many will work with freelancers, it tends to be well-established freelancers only.
At these sites, you open an account and post a profile of the writing services you offer, and the fees you charge. Depending on how the site is set up, you either wait for clients to approach you, or you can pitch clients who have posted their writing needs online.
An even wiser strategy is to set up online profiles on multiple freelance sites. That way you’re pitching your services to as broad a selection of potential buyers as possible. As well, look at sites that exist outside the U.S. PeoplePerHour, for instance, is based in the U.K. and attracts a different set of clients.
Building your freelance business on these sites might take a bit of time, but once you start to accumulate reviews and ratings, you can see your career flourish. Even a cursory glance at Fiverr and other such sites will reveal writers who are earning six-figure incomes annually. That’s not all writers, certainly, but it does show you the kind of income opportunities that are available for good writers who put in the effort.
What’s truly great about these sites is that you effectively become your own multinational company. Because these sites attract global buyers who want native-English writers, your reach truly covers the planet. I’ve written for buyers in Austria, Ukraine, Australia, the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere.
The challenge is that the quality of online buyers isn’t always high. Too many don’t value writing skills and are only willing to pay minimal amounts, often a cent a word, meaning a 1,000-word story that can take a few hours to write generates all of $10, not even minimum wage.
This is particularly problematic with so-called content mills—sites that crank out what are essentially online “clickbait” stories optimized for Google searches. While those mills collect money on the clicks and the ads placed next to the stories, the writer earns but a minimal amount. By and large, content mills are not worth your effort. Plus, if reputable organizations research you online and find your name all over the clickbait sites, they’re more likely to disregard you as a serious writer.
3. Build a Winning Profile Online
Success generating freelance writing gigs online starts with the profile you post on the freelance websites.
These profiles are not resumes. Potential buyers aren’t going to care about a chronology of the jobs you’ve held. This is a sales document, and the product you are selling is your set of writing skills. Your background is important only to the degree that it fits the skill set you’re marketing. Fifteen years as a forensic accountant, for example, is only relevant if you’re pitching yourself as an expert in writing about accounting matters for a buyer specifically needing that. If your goal is to write children’s books, forensic accounting is likely pointless.
In short, you want to highlight your authority and expertise in a certain niche. That helps build trust with buyers who have never met you and can only judge you by your profile and the reviews left by previous clients.
Beyond that, here’s what you need to build a winning profile, based on my interviews with the executives who run freelance websites:
- Be honest. Don’t pad your profile with skills just to make yourself seem more well-rounded. If a buyer hires you specifically for that skill and you don’t deliver the expected quality, your failure will reflect in your rating, which then impacts how future buyers judge you. Worse, if a buyer complains to the freelance site about the quality of work you submitted, you could find your account blocked or closed permanently.
- Use your real name and a real photo of yourself. Buyers want to know who they’re dealing with. If you use, say, a picture of your cat and the profile name DonutKing373, buyers won’t even stop to consider your skills. There are too many other writers who take the job more seriously.
- Sell yourself. Don’t be modest. If you’re good at something, note your expertise. Instead of lifeless verbs, use active, impactful verbs that define what you bring to your buyer. Instead of saying “I’m good at travel writing,” say “My travel stories will fill your readers with wanderlust.”
- Set your price based on what others with similar skills are charging, but account for your experience, expertise, and qualifications. It’s one price for a buyer to hire a bilingual writer to convert a sales document into Spanish. It’s an entirely different price to hire a former doctor with Spanish-language skills to translate a how-to manual for a medical device.
- Ask for a review. These can go a long way toward helping you build your career. Potential buyers pay attention to reviews and ratings. It’s all they have to go by. If they see former buyers raving about your work, they’re more inclined to give you a shot.
4. To Blog or Not to Blog?
This is a debatable topic.
Some writers insist that freelancers need a blog to showcase their work. There’s a valid argument there. Others say it’s largely a waste of time and energy because a blog isn’t generating any income, unless you’re focused on it constantly and using it for affiliate marketing opportunities.
There’s no right answer.
A basic, well-designed, easily navigable blog can be a good place to post your best work—an electronic business card, so to speak. That can be useful when you’re pitching stories and you want to direct potential clients to your blog so that they see the quality of your writing and where your work has appeared.
The issue, however, is that a blog is a tree falling in the forest with no one around. Buyers don’t know you even exist, so they’re not going to magically find your blog and reach out to you. Blogs thrive on search volume, which means you have to feed the beast regularly (and understand search engine optimization) and you generally aren’t getting paid for that, meaning you could use that time to write for a buyer who is paying you, or to pitch your skills to buyers on freelance sites that are actively looking for writers for specific projects.
So, basically, this is a personal decision: Do you want your own blog or not?
If so, go for it. If you don’t want that added hassle, no worries.
5. Accept Low Pay—But Not Too Low—to Build Your Reviews and Ratings
How much to charge is all art, no science.
This depends entirely upon the freelance tasks you’re marketing and the price at which others with similar skills are willing to do the same work. You don’t want to price your services too low, nor do you want to price them too high just because you’re accustomed to earning a higher income in a previous career. I know doctors, for instance, who think they should earn $100 an hour or more for writing because they earned that at a hospital. For the most part, it just doesn’t work that way unless you’re writing technical documents that demand highly specific knowledge and experience.
As a freelancer just launching a writing career, you want to set your prices to attract buyers which, in turn, helps you build reviews and ratings quickly. After you’ve established yourself, then you can raise your prices—though, you still want to remain competitive with other writers with your skill set.
In general, set your price based on a few factors:
- Experience: A writer who covered the White House for The New York Times is worth more than someone who just graduated college.
- Expertise: Specialized skills in a specialized niche are always more valuable.
- Qualifications: A writer with bilingual fluency should earn more for translating or writing foreign-language documents.
- Geography: Freelancers in Western economies simply earn more than those in India, Southeast Asia, and Latin America (there are exceptions, of course).
- Project complexity: Writing a blog post on an eating tour of Rome is one thing. Copyediting and proofreading an academic research paper is something entirely different. A more complex project commands a higher fee.
And force yourself to be polite when you want to be offended. The fact is that lots of potential buyers want professional work at amateur prices. Don’t argue with them and explain why you’re worth more. You’re just trying to teach a pig to sing. Either counter the offer—politely—or decline the proposal and move one.
6. Meet Deadlines and Communicate Effectively
Working for yourself means that it’s really easy to put off an assignment because you feel like going to the beach or you want to binge a new Netflix series. And you might be able to get away with that sometimes. But you still have to treat a freelance career no different than a traditional career.
In effect, you have many bosses to serve—your clients—rather than just one. Each of those clients has their own deadlines they must meet, so you have to meet your deadlines for each of them.
And that means clear, prompt communication.
If a buyer reaches out to you and needs a 100-page white paper proofed and edited, be upfront and set expectations. If you promise to do this in two days because that’s what the buyer wants, then you have to live up that guarantee. But if you really need four days because of other obligations you have, be forthright about it. Clients are generally understanding.
Along similar lines, communicate clearly about the services you will provide.
If you’re only charging for writing a story with no revisions, then make sure that’s spelled out clearly so that a client doesn’t complain that you didn’t live up to expectations. The points you want clearly spelled out are:
- Services included.
- A solid understanding of what the project is and the expected word count.
- Extra costs for any extra services you’re offering. For instance, I edit scripts for screenwriters, but if they want analysis of plot and story structure, I charge more and I make sure they understand that going into the project.
- The “kill fee,” assuming there is one, if the client cancels the project after you’ve begun.
- How quickly you will receive payment after the client accepts your work. With freelance websites this isn’t such a big deal, since they’re managing that process. But if you’re freelancing for a newspaper or magazine, this becomes an issue.
7. Edit and Fact Check
Great stories are never written. They’re edited into greatness.
Before you deliver a project to your client, reread the entire document and look for misspellings, grammatical errors, garbled sentences, dull and passive writing, and factual issues.
The last thing a client wants to read is messy, lazy writing in which words are misspelled, sentences make no sense, and facts are inaccurate. It makes you look like an amateur, or it tells the client that you’re sloppy and cannot be trusted to deliver high-quality writing.
Worse than that is having a client post a story you wrote under that client’s name, only to have readers write in and pinpoint the factual errors. In that case, you’ve likely lost that client permanently.
So double check everything.
Use software such as Grammarly to help you catch spelling errors and grammatical blunders, but recognize that Grammarly is not always right. So don’t blindly accept every Grammarly suggestion.
Meanwhile, with every fact you assert, make sure that fact is accurate and save the resource you’re relying on so that you can prove the accuracy, if your client requests it.
The Wrap Up
Master those seven steps and you’re ready to earn a living as a freelance writer.
Just know this—what might be the eighth and most important step—be patient. Success as a freelance writer takes time. You have to build a reputation and a stable of clients who come to you over and over for the high-quality work you provide. That won’t happen overnight.
But once you reach that level, the much-coveted lifestyle of the freelance writer—earning a nice living from anywhere on the planet—is yours.
By Jeff D. Opdyke