Since the days that the internet really took off, becoming a freelance writer has been one of the best ways to make some extra cash. Or a little more than some extra cash.
As a student, I used to write reviews for several websites. When a visitor bought a product mentioned on that website, I would get a small commission. Since the work was easy and fun to do, and I didn’t have to leave my house for it, I really got into it. It paid better than working at a store and it was certainly easier to combine with my studies.
When I graduated from university, I thought I should find another way to make my money. I did some job interviews here and there, but nothing seemed as appealing as just being my own boss.
I started thinking more and more about starting my own business. What should I do? What could I do? Freelance writing seemed to be the most obvious choice. I love writing, and I’ve been doing it ever since I was a kid. And though I am no Hemingway, I am kind of good at writing commercial stuff. And let’s face it: the commercial stuff can pay really well.
It’s been over 10 years now, and my choice to become a Freelance Writer has netted me somewhere around 900.000 dollars so far. Not bad! And since I regularly get questions about freelance writing and how to get started, I thought I’d create a great guide to help you get started as a Freelance Writer as well!
This is how I started as a Freelance Writer
To be honest: I don’t have like a formal education on how to write. Some even say that that is not necessary at all. I don’t agree with that completely. Let me explain.
I don’t think you need to be schooled as a writer. However, I do think that you should train as a writer. You must read and write a lot, expand your vocabulary, have other people read your stuff. You must be able to write a structured, coherent story and you must master the language you write in, which is Dutch in my case.
Other than that: the main thing is to just do it.
When I decided that I wanted to become a professional freelance writer, I came up with a name for my business, I registered as a business at the chamber of commerce, created a website and just started.
Now, I run a succesful freelance writing (and translation) business, which has allowed me to work mostly on my own terms, but also to travel and create a diverse lifestyle. Furthermore, in the future I want to use this skill to create a lifestyle that suits me even better. But that is something for later, I’ll first tell you all about how I did it, and I hope that these steps will help you get there too!
✏ Do your research
This is both one of the easiest and one of the trickiest steps. It is important to know more about the field you will become active in. So it makes sense to check out websites of your future competitors, to dive into the subject of entrepreneurship (taxes, rates, acquisition, etc) and just get a feel for what is out there.
What is lacking in the current offer? What could you offer potential clients that they cannot get anywhere else? Where can you add value? Maybe there is a specific field you know a lot about.
People often recommend that you try to find a niche, which is a specific subject that you will specialize in. By becoming an expert in that field, you’ll be the go-to person for everything related, which will help you get customers.
To be honest: I did NOT find my niche. I actually like diving into different subjects, so I decided to be a generalist. That means that I know a little about a lot, instead of a lot about a little. My advice to you would be to find out if you would be at your best of you specialize, or if you are more of a generalist, like me.
Also: don’t feel that you have to be a super-perfect-specialist on any kind of subject. Just being you can also give you the edge you need. Maybe your superpower is that you are a fast writer, fast learner, that you are meticulous, etc. My strengths proved to be my flexibility, speed, and willingness to accommodate clients, even if that meant that I had to work late or during weekends. I’m dialing that down a bit now (or at least, the last part), but it really gave me a kick-start when I just started writing.
And if you’re doing your research, don’t forget to check out informative websites and networks for entrepreneurs, where you can ask questions and get feedback from other entrepreneurs. And don’t limit yourself to freelance writers; there is often a lot to learn from other entrepreneurs as well. This website could be a useful start: it offers a lot of articles, but also has a forum.
✏ Build your skills and confidence
As I said before: I don’t think you need formal training, but I do think that you need skills. And if you’re lacking those, you should get them before you start your career as a freelance writer. The main skills I would urge you to work on:
- Creating your own writing style – it is so much easier to write in a way that comes natural to you. And it doesn’t matter if that style isn’t for every client; you don’t have to work for everyone
- Knowing your grammar/spelling!!! – I cannot stretch the importance of this one enough. It’s bad enough that I even have to say this, but please: do not start your writing career if you cannot produce a piece that is free of grammatical and spelling errors. The clients who cannot do it themselves depend on you, and clients who can will probably regret hiring you, which is bad for business. If you’re not sure about words, do the research. You can use Wiktionary, for example.
- SEO. Especially if you want to do online gigs, it really helps if you have at least some basic SEO knowledge. I can recommend using the Hubspot Academy for this (and for other marketing related skills). You can even get certified for free here, which might help you attract new clients.
- Your writing. Practice. You can work on your own website, create your own blog, do guest posts; anything that will help you grow as a writer. If you’re not ready to charge people for your work yet, please do ask them for feedback.
You will notice that as you improve upon your skillset, you will feel more confident in marketing your services, which will help you land the best clients. Of course, it also helps if you put all your practice into one easily accessible portfolio, so you have something to present to prospects. You can use your own website or blog for this. Believe me: it really helps if people can get an idea of your style. They’ll know right away if you’re a good match or not.
✏ Find jobs as a freelance writer
For some this is the hardest part. In my experience, it doesn’t have to be. I’m not at all a sales person. I don’t like to sell things, let alone sell myself. Which is why I got into the online business in the first place. If I really have to sell myself, I prefer to do it in writing. That way, I can think about my responses, rates or anything else someone might ask me about.
But, if you are not really into calling or meeting with real people, how do you get the great jobs?
I found out that in Holland, there are a few websites that help people land freelance jobs, Freelance.nl being the most useful (to me, at least). I noticed that especially for the writing jobs, responding fast would help. That is why in a few months, I changed my account to a paid account. At the time, it was only €50 a year, and well worth the money. I landed a number of clients via Freelance, that I still serve today.
If you’re looking for more international market places, there are a many more options, such as:
- Upwork (previously Elance, I’ve used this as an outsourcer, the rates are a bit average, but in general not too low)
- Craigslist (there are special pages for almost any area, like the New York Writing Gigs page here – you have to skip through the spam, but
- BloggingPro (especially for blogs)
- ProBlogger (both freelance and contract)
If you’re just starting out, you might have the impression that there’s nothing to negotiate. You’re wrong. Trust me. Let me tell you what I learned the hard way: it is nearly impossible to increase your rates later on, so you should set them high from the beginning.
Especially in the beginning, I struggled with that. I just wanted the jobs, I didn’t care too much about the money. I was just too eager. However, there is this saying in Holland: ‘Voor een dubbeltje op de eerste rang zitten’. It means something like wanting to get the best, while you’re only prepared to pay a little for it.
In my experience, people that wanted to pay very little for my services, usually were the most demanding. They wanted top service, for bottom prices. If you get stuck with a few of these, you’ll be working your ass off and not getting anything in return. So don’t be like me, learn from my mistakes. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still not the most expensive freelance writer out there, but I learned a long time ago not to sell myself short.
The best thing to do is to decide your hourly rate and to set some rates for specific items. For general writing, rates of approximately $50/hour are fairly common. This can be a bit less if it’s general material, or more, if it is more specialized content. If I do blogposts, they are usually paid per piece. Rates can be anywhere from $30-50 per post. If you are a fast writer (which I happen to be), fixed rates are perfect, since you can increase your mean hourly rate a lot.
If you’re not sure what rates would work for you, you can check out this list by the Editorial Freelancers Association.
✏ Work like a boss
And then, there’s no sugarcoating this: you just have to work your ass off! Get out there, promote yourself and your services via social media, do guest posts, update your portfolio, work on your marketing skills. Remember: as a freelance writer, you have the perfect opportunity to turn everything you learn into something you can sell!
Following marketing courses did not only improve my business, it was also an additional selling point. That knowledge and experience helped me improve my client’s business as well!
Especially online, things are just moving very fast and you have to keep up. Find experts in your field, follow them, continue to challenge yourself and continue to learn and grow. You’ll notice that it will help you stand out to potential clients, which means that it will help you earn more money as a freelance writer.
If you work hard, you’ll notice that jobs will start finding you, instead of the other way around. While I put approximately 90% of my time in marketing my services when I started out, I now hardly do any marketing. I’m lucky enough to have a wide range of clients that know where to find me. This saves me a lot of time that I can spend on improving my skillset, exploring other stuff (such as this blog) and, of course: living life on my terms!
And I think it would be awesome if this guide could help you kick-start your career as a freelance writer as well.