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How To Be a Great Freelance Writer (The Right Way)

Going all in as a freelance writer can feel overwhelming. But it’s possible.

The funny thing is that I started freelance writing over ten years ago—before it was a “thing”. Back then, when I told people I was a freelance writer, they thought I lost my mind. They didn’t know what that meant. In fact, if I wasn’t an author, being a writer wasn’t legit.

Slowly and surely freelancing became mainstream. Still, it was a volatile gig. Only the most successful “made it”. And likely their business accompanied an in-your-face ad soliciting you (their audience) to buy their low-risk affordable course—but only after you signed up for a free webinar that was a long-winded sales pitch.

Then the pandemic happened. Suddenly, I found myself in an industry that exploded. Everyone was becoming a freelancer. That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the idea that businesses of all sizes were finally adopting (and allotting) a budget for freelance writing.

What’s even more surprising (or maybe not) is that writing was (or is) no longer as acceptable to do-it-yourself (DIY) if you're a business owner or manager.

Long-story short, freelance writing is a viable business and has an easy barrier to entry. I’ve been asked more times than not, “How do I become a freelance writer?” So as a result, I wanted to formally answer the question, which may be unconventional as I don’t promise a six-figure income in your first year. I’m sure it’s possible, but to be quite honest, freelance writing is just like any other business. You must hone your skillset, identify your target audience, and of course, build your client list (and reputation).

So, let’s dig in. Here’s how to become a freelance writer, the right way.

Step One: Educate Yourself

I earned my education in writing through boots-on-the-ground and a pricey master’s degree. The thing that taught me the most was “doing it” versus my schooling. I never discount an education, but it’s not a requirement for freelance writing.

If you're not going to school to study writing, my best advice is to first have a deep understanding of general grammar and mechanics. Then, dive into the kind of content you hope to write. If you want to write marketing content, start there. Pay attention to the marketing copy you read.

  • What type of language do they use?

  • How do they speak to their audience?

  • How long are the sentences?

  • What is the goal of the content?

I’ve consistently told aspiring writers this piece of advice—studying writing is far different than getting paid to write. The copy is more conversational. Sentence structure is simple. Words are not complex. And I can always spot a novice writer-for-hire by those simple things.

Takeaway: You don’t need a formal education to be a freelance writer, but you do need to educate yourself.

Step Two: Get Experience

If you have zero experience writing professionally, don’t worry—you can still dive in. But you will absolutely need to acquire experience to some degree. When I was first starting out, I took a lot of unpaid work. Even as the years went on, if there was a type of content I wanted to learn, I signed up for a volunteer role or an internship.

It’s true. I applied as a communications intern for a nonprofit after graduating, simply because I wasn’t confident in that skillset. Nonprofits are often eager to take new-to-their-field writers of any kind if they’re willing to do the work. That internship taught me a ton about blog writing and the nonprofit world. That gig eventually led me to full time work at a nonprofit, which subsequently gave me the confidence to go 100 percent as a freelance writer.

It doesn’t seem appealing, but I can assure you that almost every paying gig for a freelance writer is going to require a portfolio of some type. They most likely won’t mind if that work is produced through an unpaid internship or volunteer role—if it’s legitimate.

Takeaway: Don’t allow your ego to get in the way when you’re building your portfolio. Volunteer your services to expand your skillset.

Step Three: Develop an Understanding of Your Targeted Audience

Most writing pros may suggest getting out there and start pitching. I concur, however, if you aren’t sure of who you’re trying to target, pitching is a waste of your time. This is something no one taught me early on, and I found myself in subpar projects or pitching people that didn’t want to pay me.

Knowing your target audience is marketing 101. If you aren’t quite sure of how to pinpoint your audience, I encourage you to research it.

(Better yet, you can buy a copy of my marketing guidebook, Market Your A$$ Off.)

To summarize, your target audience is the ideal person who would pay for your services. For me, that looked like small businesses at first. I quickly realized that was too vague—not to mention, many small businesses don’t have a budget to hire a writer. So, I had to adjust.

Just as you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) pitch a magazine you know nothing about, don’t waste your time by pitching without really knowing their specific wants, desires, and needs and how you can help them.

Takeaway: Know who exactly it is you’re trying to pitch before you start pitching.

Step Four: Formalize Your Business

If you’re going to go into the business of freelance writing, my suggestion is to treat it as such—a formal business. For me, that looked like applying for my limited liability corporation as a sole proprietor. It also looked like registering a formal business name or doing-business-as (DBA) identifier and opening a business checking account.

I also recommend subscribing to an accounting service (like QuickBooks Self-Employed) to keep track of expenses, invoices, and more.

While it’s not necessary, I’d also recommend purchasing some liability insurance to protect your business. Copyright infringement is a real thing, and you wouldn’t want to be held personally liable if the situation arises.

You’ll also need to make sure you have the adequate tools and office supplies to get up-and-running as a freelance writer. If you don’t already have one, you’ll need a working computer (laptop or desktop is fine, maybe both depending on where you like to work).

Software to Consider

Software and other programs I use that aren’t necessary, but I’ve found to be helpful include:

  • Microsoft Office: Word, Excel, PowerPoint

  • Grammarly

  • Canva

  • Adobe Reader

  • Anti-virus software

  • Zoom

Most subscriptions are a tax-deductible expense—but check with a licensed accountant to be sure.

Also consider subscribing to news outlets or services to read updated information. The outlet may vary depending on the type of freelance writing you plan to do, but having a basic understanding of the latest trends will support you as a freelance writer. You wouldn’t want to pitch an out-of-touch idea or something that’s already been covered.

Hourly Rates

Another aspect of business formalization is developing your hourly or project rates. This was one of the most challenging aspects of my business when starting out. You’re most likely afraid if you charge too much, you won’t have any clients. And worse, if you charge too little, you’ll be working for free.

I have charged a wide range of rates, anywhere from $25 per hour to $125 per hour. An easy way to think about it, is if you’ve left (or are leaving) a full-time role, multiply your hourly rate times three—that’s a good place to start. Then, depending on your experience, adjust either up or down.

For example, if you’re leaving a job that pays $25 per hour, your hourly rate may be $75 per hour. However, if you’re brand new to freelance writing (or writing entirely), then you may want to deduct 10–20 percent. Remember, this is only advice—this is your business and ultimately you can charge whatever you want! But its important to remember, the market only warrants certain rates and businesses may question exorbitant fees without the experience to back it.

Takeaway: Like starting any type of business, formalize your freelance writing business with the necessary documents and tools.

Step Five: Develop a Sales and Marketing Plan

This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. You must decide what it is you want to include in your marketing and sales strategy. My advice, start with a website—either DIY it or hire a pro—but your website is the catalyst of your foundation.

Then, from there, choose to market yourself through networking, social media, partnerships, and more. The options are limitless and will vary depending on your availability, budget, and personality.

When I first started out, I was all for networking. I quickly realized the folks I was able to network with, weren’t really the ones with the budget or ability to hire me. So, I shifted my focus to responding to job openings. This proved successful sometimes, but it was also time consuming. The thing I found the most success with was a combination.

Sometimes I was referred clients. Other times I found a client from doing a presentation. On the rare occasion, a potential client would click through my social media post and engage with the contact form on my website.

Takeaway: There is no linear path to marketing yourself as a freelance writer, you must decide what you’re comfortable with and find out what sticks.

(Again, you can avoid a few mishaps by buying my book, Market Your A$$ Off: Simple Strategy for Smart Business Marketing.)

Step Six: Assess and Revise

First, I want to clarify, that as a freelance writer you are subject to trash clients who may not pay you. I’ve been fortunate, and in my 13+ years as a freelance writer, this has only happened once.

And that one time taught me a lot. It also made me assess and revise not only my business, but how I approached clients and secured them.

I was newish to freelance writing when this incident occurred. I had responded to an inquiry about a writer for hire. This potential client was ecstatic about hiring me. He instructed me to send a proposal with my hourly rate. So, I did. He didn’t even question it (or ask about my experience). We then started working together, without a contract of course. Not thinking anything of it (I thought I vetted him), I engaged in creating content.

A red flag that I didn’t realize at the time was that he was working on an unrealistic deadline. He informed me that the work had to be done in two weeks—the work should’ve taken nearly four weeks or more. Excited that I got a client that didn’t even question my rate, I obliged.

It didn’t end well. He suckered me into over $2,000 worth of work. But sadly enough, I wasn’t the first or last freelancer he scammed—in the same time frame, over a dozen people were in the same situation waiting on much more money than me!

Takeaway: Never stop assessing all aspects of your business (clients, rates, marketing, and more).

Finally, remember that freelance writing is not coined with easy. It is challenging—requiring you to shift from client to client, learning all the intricacies of their business in little time. But freelance writing can also be a rewarding career—you can do it on your own time and make as much money as you desire.

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