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Three questions people ask me daily

  • Are you getting taller?
  • How can I become a freelance writer?
  • Why are you so damn amaaaazing?

Okay, only one of those is a real question people ask me — how to become a freelance writer. And since I’ve been doing this for more than a decade now, I feel like I’m probably somewhat of a pro or at least someone who is qualified (enough) to be helpful. And, I mean useful-helpful for real, not like how I gave relationship advice for 10 years while being single the entire time.

How to Become a Bonified Freelance Writer

So, first, you might be wondering what exactly a freelance writer is. You’ve probably heard lots of definitions. In fact, in the past, I think people believed it had something to do with writing for free, which is everything freelance writing is not. To me, freelance writers are just writers who are paid to write but aren’t actually anyone’s employee. That means, as a freelance writer, you probably won’t get any health benefits, vacation time, or paid holidays. Most of that, you’ll need to take care of on your own (which is a whole different topic).

And, although freelance writing has nothing to do with working for free, you’ll likely come across lots of offers to write for “exposure” or painfully low rates. I am typically anti-working for free, but I do understand why some people do it. I also get how writing for free might could maybe possibly lead to something bigger. However, please be aware that you can usually get there eventually while getting paid for your work. Utility companies don’t accept exposure for payment. Nor do grocery stores, mortgage companies, or any other type of business that provides a service.

Now that you have a very basic idea of what freelance writing means, onward to the actual tips for getting started.

Figure Out Your Why As In WhyTF Would You Choose This Life

Yeah, I know. “Figure out your why” might seem overly zen-like and whatever. But it’s actually important. Why do you want to become a freelance writer? And, are you hoping this route leads to becoming rich and famous? Or, do you just need to make some extra cash? Do you feel like freelance writing is your way to impart something meaningful to the world? Or are you looking for alternatives to your current full-time job?

These are questions you’ll need to ask yourself before you go running off and quitting your office job. But let’s be clear— no one’s getting rich and famous as a freelance writer, and you’ll likely not end up doing anything life-changing or meaningful.

Choose a Niche: What Do You Know?

While I don’t generally recommend limiting yourself to a single niche, you’ll get started faster if you take a look at your life and find specific areas where you already have experience. One of my very first freelance writing gigs was writing about bankruptcy topics simply because I worked on bankruptcies at a law office. Did I see myself or plan on writing bankruptcy content for the rest of my writing career? No. But that job led to numerous other opportunities to write about law-related content, personal finance, business, and many others.

A good knowledge base is a great way to build your foundation as a writer. I promise— you won’t have to dedicate the rest of your life to these niche topics. I don’t even remember the last time I had to cover bankruptcies. But you’ll learn and grow as a writer. It isn’t nearly as overwhelming to get started when you have a fixed jumping point.

Create and Build a Portfolio

A lot of people get stuck at this part of the process, but it doesn’t have to be as complicated as you might think. You don’t have any clips yet? That’s okay. You can definitely get started as a freelance writer without published samples. You do need to build a portfolio, though.

Start by putting together samples that cover the styles of writing you’d like to create—all relating to the areas you want to work in and feel qualified to write about. Some of the samples you might want to put together include:

  • Blog posts
  • On-site copy for a website/business
  • Long-form (or longer length) articles
  • Sales copy
  • White papers
  • Email campaigns

Whatever you do, try to adapt your samples to the positions and publications you want to write for. As an example, don’t use your fiction children’s dragon story if you’re going after a business copywriting client; don’t send technical science papers if you want to write for a dog blog.

These are just some ideas of the types of samples you’ll want to work on if you either don’t have published work with a byline or if you are trying to branch out into other areas—which you will probably want to do someday. It’s a good idea to have several topic-appropriate samples available to include with your pitches. Save each piece of writing separately, preferably as a Google document set to “view only” mode or as a PDF file. You can also publish and share them online with sites like Medium, which allows you to not only showcase your skills but also gives the publisher an idea of the readership and potential following you might bring with you.

While you can certainly put some of your portfolio pieces on a page of your website, it might not be the best path for samples. Send potential clients examples of what you feel is closest to their project specifications, or create a new sample. Sometimes clients will find your portfolio page, not quite see what they’re hoping for, and move on without ever contacting you, thinking their topic is not in your wheelhouse.

Prepare to Evolve as a Writer or Prepare to Be Broke(r)

Even writers need to practice. One of the best ways to keep your freelance writing career moving is to practice as often as possible, even if it means just writing daily for yourself. You should also read daily, whether fiction, non-fiction, educational, or otherwise. It’s not something you can get around—readers have more robust vocabularies, and as such, have a leg up as writers. Writers say this all of the time. I have never heard any successful writer say they don’t read or write daily.

Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself, either. Find copywriting courses or experts willing to coach you. These days, there’s lots of information online, not just on writing, but on running a successful online business as well. Remember, as a freelance writer; you’re also a business owner, so you’ll need to understand the nuances of how to run one. You’ll find lots of helpful courses online for free.

Start Networking With New People

This is my favorite network.

This piece of advice may sting a little, especially if you’re like me and don’t care much for networking or even people, but it’s essential. Network with people you feel you may be able to help someday. Other writers are not your target market. Don’t just build a giant network of “like-minded writers” for inspiration or any other reason. You should definitely connect with those who inspire you, but don’t do it for the sake of boosting your numbers. I suggest new people because if you’re just starting out as a freelance writer, you probably don’t already have the connections you need to learn and grow.

Make a list of businesses or websites that do meet your niche demographics. Do you want to work with local businesses in your area? Or do you want to work with anyone in your niche, no matter where they’re located? Make a list of places you’d love to write for — and don’t limit yourself. Add any person or business to the list you’d like, whether you think it’s realistic or not. You may be surprised when you start prospecting or pitching at the responses you get.

Once you’ve made a list of companies, find out who the CEOs or owners are. Start connecting with those people on LinkedIn. Don’t pitch them or sell your services right away but show your interest in your shared space/industry. As an important note: Make sure you are updating your LinkedIn profile regularly, and publishing and sharing articles. At the very least, make sure your experience and skills sections are filled in.

Pitching and Prospecting: Finding Freelance Writing Gigs

Finding work might be the hardest part, especially if you aren’t a natural salesperson or marketer. There are a few ways to go about it. You can explore your warm market, start cold pitching, or search job boards.

Searching your warm market doesn’t mean asking your friends and family to make purchases for their own endeavors as much as it means letting them know what you’re up to. While your friends and family members may give you a gig or two, what you really want to ask is for them to introduce you to people in their networks. Your warm market will help you to cast your net far and wide, giving you opportunities to meet new people.

Cold pitching involves simply sitting down and writing emails to companies you’d like to work with — these need to be highly individualized, inspired messages. Company owners likely get dozens of pitches every day, and they often hate getting canned emails. Dig deep into the company’s website and social media to look for areas where you feel writing any copy could help them improve. Focus your email on them more than on yourself — end by asking for a phone call to talk more.

Job boards can be very helpful as well. In fact, that’s where I’ve gotten most of my work in the last decade. The bankruptcy content gig I mentioned earlier? I found it on the Problogger job board and applied. The pitch for a job isn’t quite as “cold” when you are replying to someone who has already put their need out into the world. While I have not used these sites personally, I do know freelance writers who have found writing gigs on sites like Upwork and Copyblogger. Some of the job boards I frequently check out and have found jobs on include:

I also add jobs I come across that I think people might be interested in here. Make it a habit to check sites like these regularly, as they receive a lot of traffic, and you’ll need to act quickly to stand out. I will follow up in another post with some tips on applying for jobs and landing them, but if you’re looking for writing gigs, these are some of the sites to get started.

So, as you can probably guess, it isn’t easy. While a lot of people think you can just jump online and start pounding away on your keyboard, that doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to make a living as a freelance writer. Like most things, it just takes some planning and a little work, but unlike a lot of other stuff out there, the pay off is worth it.

Have you struggled as a freelance writer? Let me know, and I may be able to help.

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