How to become a freelance writer

As a newbie freelance writer, it can be overwhelming. Where to begin?! I’ve been there! So to help you to make a well-informed start, I’ll give you a step by step guide on how to become a freelance writer with the most valuable advice of established writers (including my own).

1. Set a goal

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How much money do you want to make in a year, in two years, in three years?
  2. What are you’re willing to do to make it a success?

Answer honestly and be realistic. Working 10 hours a week and expecting to earn $$$ in the first month is not realistic. Especially the first months will require hard work. If you’re into this full-time, expect to make at least 60 hours a week while earning only a few hundred in the first month. But after that, if you do it correctly, this investment will be worth it!

2. Choose a profitable niche

Many successful freelance writers mention the importance of choosing a profitable niche. As Jorden from Writing Revolt explains it: ‘High-paying potential clients don’t want a generalist who might be able to give them what they want. They want an expert who can use words to help them get traffic, new leads, or whatever other results they’re looking for.’

Don’t be afraid that you select a too narrow niche. Narrow is good! As Jennifer from All Indie Writers explains: ‘niches should neither be so broad that you can’t compete or so narrow that there’s no audience.’

How to choose a freelance writing niche?

It may seem like a challenge to find a profitable writing niche, but there are lots of tips out there.

Jorden from Writing Revolt has the following advice:

  • Choose something that you’re knowledgeable about or are willing to learn a lot about.
  • Investigate if clients are willing to pay for content.
  • If you have a list of several possible niches, choose the most profitable one. Focus your marketing strategy on this niche and use the other ones as secondary niches.

Carol agrees with having multiple niches. She writes on her blog: ‘You do not need or even want to specialize in one, single niche. If your one industry goes into the tank, then you’ve got nothing. It’s better to carve out several different specialized writing niches where you can claim expertise.

Carol from Make a Living Writing sums up how she successfully found a profitable niche:

  1. I wrote a lot on many different topics, which helped me improve my writing.
  2. As I wrote, I learned which topics I liked.
  3. Of the topics I liked, I observed which niches paid well, and wrote more on those.
  4. I kept developing more sophisticated expertise in my chosen fields.
  5. Good-paying clients became relatively easy to land.

Still no idea about which niche suits you? Jennifer of All Indie Writers wrote a list of 101 niches to write about. It gave me some real inspiration!

3. Create a freelance writer website

Creating a freelance writer website is crucial for newbies. Some smart advice:

  • Put your niche in the website headline. You need to market yourself as a niche writer on your website.
  • When you pick a niche, you also pick a target audience. You should always look at your website from the perspective of a client and think about whether or not the copy there would make them want to hire you.
  • Invest in yourself and build a website that converts visitors to clients. Include your best customer testimonials on your home page.
  • Keep your navigation bar simple.
  • Use only three fields (name, email address, and message) for your contact form and don’t use ‘submit’ for your button. Use something like ‘Send email.’

4. Pimp your LinkedIn profile

Using LinkedIn (or social media in general) for kick starting your freelance writing career might not be obvious, but Jorden from Writing Revolt wrote a piece about her successful LinkedIn-strategy.

  • Pimp your profile:
    • Don’t use words like motivated and skilled
    • State your niche and field of expertise in your headline
    • Think about what you can offer your clients and mention this in your headline and summary (e.g. more traffic, increase revenue)
    • Write your summary as an expert business owner so that clients will treat you like one.
  • Connect with potential clients, but only with real potential clients. Research companies in your niche and find the people in charge of content marketing, like Marketing managers, Content marketing managers, and Head copywriters.
  • Start adding articles on LinkedIn Publisher to show your expertise and authority in your niche. Jorden has a great extra tip: ‘Publish the original post to your blog on your freelance writer website first. Then, re-post it using LinkedIn publisher and include a link to your site at the top. That way, you can drive traffic back to your site and keep your blog updated with fresh content for your target clients.’ See also the next step about writing samples.
  • Reach out to your ideal client.
  • Become active in relevant LinkedIn Groups.

My opinion about LinkedIn is a bit different, though. I never landed a client via LinkedIn. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you wouldn’t either. Maybe if I have been more actively involved on LinkedIn, it would be different. My advice: try it for some time. Take it seriously and evaluate after a few months. Then decide if you should continue or switch to another strategy.

5. Write samples that will impress your ideal clients

If you already have had some writing jobs, you can use these as a sample. If not, or if it doesn’t give a good overview of your portfolio, you need to write samples that show off your expertise in your niche. As Annie explains on The Write Life: ‘Don’t have the experience yet? Think about taking on a few volunteer or lower-paying jobs to bulk up your portfolio and boost your network.’

Annie has some more good advice: ‘Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings and only pick your strongest pieces to use in your portfolio.’

Carol from Make a Living Writing wrote a guest post on Renegade Writers where she advocates that you should not make ‘fake’ samples. She explains that writing your own samples without having some feedback from an editor, doesn’t prove you’re a capable freelance writer. In her opinion, there are two ways to get legit samples:

  • Mine your past and use samples from your staff-writer days for example.
  • Do a pro bono project. Tell a potential client that you want to add a few clips to your portfolio on a particular topic. You don’t have to tell them you don’t have any samples yet.

6. Take yourself and your business serious

It is important to remember that you don’t have to be an expert yet on a certain topic. Jorden writes about this: ‘Stop holding yourself back because you think you aren’t good enough. You don’t need a Master’s degree in finance to write about finance.’

As a newbie, it is very hard to say out loud that you’re a freelance writer, especially when you haven’t landed any clients yet or when you’re not making decent money. I know I was ashamed of saying it out loud. I felt like a scam!

But if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will. So:

  • Treat yourself like a client
  • Pitch, pitch, pitch (see the next step)
  • Set goals (but you’ve already done that right?)
  • Put yourself out there
  • Invest in yourself

And I know from experience that it pays. The very first time I said out loud that I was a (new) freelance writer, that person told me about someone she knew who has a copywriting agency. Within a day I had my first real gig. After that, things got a hell of a lot easier 🙂

7. Pitch jobs

I would like to be honest with you: I hate cold pitching. Lucky me, I never had to use it (probably because the competition is less fierce in the Dutch SEO copywriting business). If you’re an American, you should listen to established American writers. And they are a huge fan of pitching.

A fair warning though: it is hard work. You probably have to send hundreds of emails to companies without getting a response. Don’t let yourself done because of this. You’ll get there!

These are the most valuable tips about cold pitching that I encountered online:

  • Jorden used TimeLeads for generating leads. In her blog about cold emailing, she explains in detail how she used this website.
  • Use Twitter to interact with the person you’re emailing, Jorden advises. ‘This is an excellent way to get on their radar before you ever even send your pitch.’
  • Also: Position yourself as a helpful expert — not as a desperate job-seeker.
  • And: Include a strong call to action. For example, end your emails by asking when would be a good time to talk about the company’s content marketing. Then, start scheduling phone calls so you can explain your services and talk about how you can help their business.
  • Search for startups in your niche through Google. Startups need to get their name out there, they most often have a marketing budget, and they know the value of content marketing.
  • Most of your cold emails will go unanswered. Gina from Horkey Handbook uses a tool to track who opens her pitch emails. She explains it on her blog.

8. Get active on writing job markets

I got this extensive list from The Write Life:

1. Craigslist (Avoid those who ask you to write pieces on a topic as part of the application. They are just gathering free material. Avoid those without real-people connections.)

2. Writers Market

3. Institute for Writers

5. Blogging Pro

6. Pro Blogger

7. Worldwide Freelance

8. Simply Hired

9. Morning Coffee Newsletter

10. Freelance Writing Gigs

11. LinkedIn (Paid upgrade has many more opportunities.)

13. Free Trade Publications

15. Magatopia

How about Upwork?

Good question! Many freelancers are a huge fan of Upwork. I partly agree because Upwork has its pros and cons. For example, it’s hard to compete with cheap rate freelancers from Asian countries. However, my niche is tiny since I’m a Dutch freelance writer. Therefore, I have fewer competitors, and I find clients very easy. My fee is also higher than average.

I used Upwork to get started. It had helped me greatly but I’ve ‘outgrown’ it since I have regular clients that pay higher fees ánd offer more interesting work.

Want to know more about Upwork and what you need to be successful there? Read this.

9. Become a fast writer

Becoming a fast writer can double your earning. When it takes four hours to finish a blog post for which you receive $100, you make $25 per hour. If you speed up your writing skills and finish the job in two hours, you earn $50 per hour. Sounds great right?

Related to this is the importance of ditching an hourly rate. Your client is only interested in a high-quality result and doesn’t care how much work you’ve put in.

Some tips on becoming a fast writer:

  1. Outline the blog post. Type all of the headers and then start thinking about what you want to include in each section.
  2. Bang out a rough first draft. It should be truly raw. Don’t hold back or stop to edit your work. Just focus on writing freely and getting as much on the page as possible.
  3. Edit the next day. Come back to it later with a fresh mind.

Re-use your finest ideas

The more you write about a certain topic, the easier the words will flow. You will become a faster writer without even noticing it! Also, if you have a couple of excellent items, re-use them. Make sure your pieces are different, of course, but re-using the same topic is an efficient way of earning money.

10. Don’t give up!

The first months of your (full-time) freelance writing career are hard. It’s frustrating! I know!

But please don’t give up. In a year, you will look back on your early days and smile because of how far you’ve come 🙂

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