So you want to be a freelance writer, huh? That’s cool. As someone who’s been making a full-time living from freelance writing over the past year, I can say that it’s a pretty fun job… most of the time.
But here’s the thing about freelance writing:
It can be confusing as all get out at the beginning when you’re sitting there clientless and unsure what to do next.
Trust me – I’ve been there, which is why I’m aiming to make it a little bit less complicated in the following paragraphs.
The Governing Principles of Freelance Writing
Before I tell you how to break into freelance writing, I want to set you up with some solid fundamentals. These are the things that will put you on the right path to making real money from freelance writing. By real… I mean “enough to survive and save.”
There’s No Such Thing as “Paying Your Dues”
This is one of the hardest principles to convey because there actually is such a thing as “paying your dues”… for regular jobs.
But when you’re freelancing, this concept makes no sense because you’re a business, not an employee.
Your clients aren’t hiring you on the assumption that you’re going to stick around for 30 years, move up through the ranks, and retire when you’re ready. Nor are they hiring you to work 9-5 on whatever needs to be done.
No – they’re hiring you to do a specific job.
Can you do that specific bit of work? Congrats – you got the gig! Your dues are paid.
Do you know how many times my clients have asked me how long I’ve been freelancing as a prerequisite for getting the job?
A big fat zero.
Why Does This Matter for Freelance Writing?
This mindset is fundamental to your success because so many freelance writers think they need to “pay their dues at the writing mills” before they finally evolve to higher paid work.
I get where the idea comes from, but it’s just not how this works. Instead, you burn yourself out on cheap work… which can actually make your writing worse as you become more focused on pushing “something” out than actually creating good portfolio pieces.
Look – I know that sometimes you just need to put food on the table RIGHT NOW. If that’s you… do what you have to do.
But if you’re coming from a full-time job or just graduating from college – “fake it ‘til you make it.” Don’t go for cheap work – just focus on setting yourself up for higher paying work. Speaking of…
Don’t Be a Generalist – Be an Expert
Rather than “paying your dues,” one of the best ways to set yourself up for success is to become an expert in “something.”
There’s a ton of thin content out there nowadays, which is causing businesses to turn towards subject matter experts.
That means businesses don’t seek out any writer with an English degree – they want someone who’s an expert in their specific niche.
Be that expert. For me, I focus on WordPress and digital marketing. Potential clients can figure that out pretty much as soon as they land on my portfolio site:
You don’t have to choose my niche – you might prefer to write about fitness and wellbeing, or personal finance, or… anything there’s a market for.
The important thing is that you have a “niche” so that potential clients know not only that you’re a writer, but that you’re a writer who knows about their industry.
You Need a Portfolio Site and a Rockin’ Byline
Pitching for work sucks for a couple reasons:
- You don’t get paid for it. Enough said, right?
- You’re competing against heaps of other people. Even if you write the best pitch in the world, it might just disappear into the black hole that is an overstuffed inbox.
At the beginning, it’s pretty much unavoidable (I guess there is still a tiny bit of paying your dues!). But once you establish yourself, you shouldn’t need to pitch that much, if it all.
I haven’t pitched in at least half a year now, and I’m still fully booked and turning down potential work.
So how do you get new clients if you’re not directly pitching them?
With your website and byline.
Guess what – there are actually tons of businesses eager to hire writers out there – you just need to make it easy for them to find you.
That’s what your website and byline do.
Let’s start with your byline – it’s what most potential clients will see first. For example, here’s what you’ll see at the bottom of this post:
It briefly tells potential clients:
- What I do
- Who I help
- Most importantly – that I’m available for hire.
Then, when they click through to my portfolio site, I give them more information about my services as well as a portfolio of my work.
Nothing complicated… but my byline and website have ensured that I have a steady stream of new work on autopilot. Put some thought into them and they’ll do the same for you.
If you need help setting up a freelance writer portfolio site, it probably won’t surprise you that I recommend using WordPress to do it!
You’re a Marketer, Not Just a Writer
If there’s one principle that many new freelance writers struggle with, it’s this one:
You need to adopt the attitude of a marketer. As a freelancer, you’re not just a writer – you’re a business owner.
The main reason I see freelance writers fail is because they don’t think like a marketer. They just want to “write,” not to convince clients to hire them.
Look – I’m not saying you need to start running Facebook ads or anything. But at least learn the basics of copywriting and sales so that you can actually convince your potential clients to hire you.
If you can’t do that fluidly – you’re going to feel like you’re pulling teeth just trying to get work.
How to Land Your First Job Freelance Writing
This is a tough section to write because all I have to draw on is my own personal experience. That is, I know the method that worked best for me. But I can’t definitively tell you that it’s the best method (simply because I haven’t tried the other methods).
That being said, this method did help me become a full-time freelance writer…so I do feel 100% confident telling you that it does at least work. That’s going to have to be good enough for our purposes!
Step 1: Use the ProBlogger Job Board and Set Up Alerts
Don’t go to iWriter. Don’t go to Upwork… don’t go anywhere where your primary job options pay a couple of pennies per word.
How to avoid most of those cheap job postings? Head to the ProBlogger job board. Yes, you’ll still encounter some low paid work. But most of it is at least reasonably priced.
Ok… now remember how I told you to pick a niche? Here’s where you’re going to use that niche to automate your job search.
Find the Create a Job Alert tab, enter your keyword and email, and click Create Email Alert:
Repeat the process for additional keywords, if needed.
Now, instead of needing to wade through all the niches that don’t fit your skillset, you’ll get an email alert as soon as a relevant job is posted. That means you can get a head start and make sure your email is one of the first ones to land in the job poster’s inbox.
That’s important because your next step is to…
Step 2: Instantly Stand Out By Writing a Better Proposal
Every employer who posts on the ProBlogger job board is going to get bombarded with what is likely hundreds of applications.
But here’s the thing:
Most of those applications are total… well, crap. There’s not really a more polite way to put it.
So if you actually put some time into writing a good pitch and following instructions, you’re pretty much going to instantly put yourself in the top tier of applicants.
Here’s how to do it:
First – always read the instructions. It’s common for employers to do something like this to weed out low-effort applications:
Even if you write the best pitch in the world, you might not get the job just because you forgot to mention a gibberish phrase in your email subject. Don’t make that mistake.
The first rule of freelance writing is to always get the simple stuff right (yes – you are still allowed to talk about freelance writing).
Once you cover all of the low effort steps, you need to turn your focus to writing a pitch that actually makes someone want to hire you.
Here are some things NOT to put in your pitch:
- “I think I have the knowledge to write articles in this niche”. Be confident – cut the wishy-washy “I think.”
- “I’m new, but I think if you give me a chance you’ll be impressed.” No one cares that you’re new – fake it ‘til you make it.
- “I’d be willing to write a test article for free to prove my skill.” Don’t work for free – it sets a bad precedent.
So what should you put in your pitch? A few suggestions:
- Whenever available, address them by their real name.
- Keep it short. Remember the hundreds of applications? They can’t read a novel.
- Tell them why you have the knowledge to do a good job, in just a few sentences.
- Give a few of your most relevant samples.
As a fun example, I thought I’d share the pitch email that got me my first steady gig. If I did it again today… I might change things. But still, it was good enough to get the job done!
Step 3: Do a Great Job and Ask for Testimonials
Once you inevitably get your first gig :), it’s time to actually do the work. I’m hoping you can handle this part on your own.
Beyond just plain writing an awesome piece, the key points here are:
- Meet every deadline. Like writing a quality proposal, the mere fact that you meet deadlines will already put you in the upper tier of freelancers.
- Do the little things. Ask your client if they have a preference regarding image size, compression, format, etc.
- For bylined work, make sure to get your byline posted. Remember, this is how you’ll find new clients.
Once you submit your work and get the inevitable “Wow, great job!” from your client, be sure to ask them for a testimonial.
Then, slap that testimonial up on your portfolio site and begin the positive feedback loop of new client work:
Freelance Writing is Hard… But It Gets Easier
While I outlined it as a neat three-step process, you and I both know that the real world is always a bit messier. You’re going to face plenty of rejection before getting your break.
But I promise you that it does get easier once you’ve built a name for yourself. Instead of convincing clients to hire you, you’ll be asking clients to do the convincing. And when that happens, you’ve truly arrived as a freelance writer!