Becoming a freelance writer involves ditching the secure day job to write for multiple clients, pitch for work, manage your own hours, control your income, and meet some pretty hectic deadlines.
Sound scary? It is, but it’s also completely achievable.
In this article, I cover how to start a freelance writing career, from choosing your niche and building a portfolio to setting your prices and pitching to your first client.
It’s going to be fun, exhilarating, frightening, and exhausting, all at the same time. And it could be the best thing you ever do.
What is freelance writing?
Freelance writing is writing for businesses, charities, or individuals on a self-employed basis. Typically, a freelance writer works with multiple clients and is paid per project or assignment, working on either ad hoc or regularly occurring pieces.
Freelance writers go by many names, including content creator, copywriter, blogger, SEO writer, ghostwriter, social media planner, and content strategist. This is because a freelance writer can work on or specialize in many types of writing, including:
- Blogs and ebooks
- Social media posts and ads
- Magazine and newspaper articles
- Bids and award applications
- Web copy
Being self-employed, you have complete control over what copy you produce, who you work for, and where and how you work. If that’s writing blogs while sitting by a pool in Thailand sipping coconut water, that’s absolutely fine (as long as you have a reliable internet connection and sunscreen!).
How to start a freelance writing career
However, before you pack your suitcase for the ultimate freelancer dream, you need to establish your writing career first. This requires a little investment, a lot of decision-making, and some groundwork.
1. Invest in the right tools
A carpenter is only as good as their tools, and a writer is only as good as their pen… or, in this case, keyboard.
To start freelance writing, you need the proper tools, which include:
- A reliable computer and internet connection
- Back-up internet connection, such as a local shared office space or a 4G Wi-Fi dongle
- Writing software, such as Microsoft Office or Google Docs
- Proofreading software, such as Grammarly or ProWritingAid
Other optional freelance writing accessories include a desk, chair, mouse, keyboard, computer monitor, printer, business phone, webcam, SEO research tool, and website.
Additionally, you might need to register a business, open a business bank account, and take out business insurance, among other legal requirements. Check your local laws and regulations.
2. Get organized
When you work for yourself, you become responsible for meeting deadlines, keeping track of projects, progressing leads, paying bills, and invoicing. You must be organized.
There are various tools and processes for structuring your time. The methods that work best for you depend on your personality type and working style.
The key areas to consider are:
Self-employment comes with plenty of admin, from invoicing clients and managing emails to renewing business insurance and paying your tax bill.
Tools to help include:
- Accounting software such as Xero or QuickBooks
- Invoicing tools such as PayPal or Wise
- Self-employment planners and diaries
- A virtual PA or office assistant
Keeping on top of your writing projects and deadlines is crucial for delivering outstanding service to your clients.
Efficient (and free) project management tools include:
When freelancing, you can write when you want, which can quickly turn into all the time. Time management is essential for freelancers because it’s easy to take on too much and overwhelm yourself.
Popular time management and planning tools include:
- Google calendar
- A traditional day-to-view paper diary
Depending on how many clients you have, you might need a client management tool for organization, communication, and collaboration.
- Zoom or Google Hangouts for video calls
- A CRM such as HubSpot for managing leads
- Google Chat or Skype for instant messaging
- Google Docs or Office 365 for collaboration
Tip: Establish your feedback process with clients, and how they can send in requests. For example, will they add comments, make edits themselves, or discuss changes over a phone call?
3. Find your niche
To specialize or not to specialize is a huge question when beginning a freelance writing career. While being a general freelance writer brings projects of all shapes and sizes, it’s harder to win work, write pieces, and advertise your services.
When you specialize in a niche, you become a subject matter expert, and that gives you huge credibility to win work. It also makes it much easier and quicker to write copy, as you don’t have to spend as much time researching topics or learning new information. Plus, you can always branch out of your niche once you become more established.
Sometimes your niche is your calling; other times, you need to figure it out by:
- Leveraging your experience — Proven experience in a particular industry is a major selling point for clients. For example, if you have ten years of experience in eCommerce marketing, you’re far more likely to obtain eCommerce clients than, say, a law firm.
- Exploring your passions — A personal interest, hobby, or passion gives you real-life experience from a consumer perspective. You can use this to write engaging content that’s perfectly pitched, which is highly attractive to clients.
- Researching current trends (or gaps) — A surge in demand for copywriters in a particular industry, or a gap in the market for a specific niche can help you quickly pick up work at attractive rates.
Ultimately, it’s a balance between the topics you want to write about and the areas you have experience in.
Tip: Your niche doesn’t have to be an industry or topic. It could be broader, such as possessing a sharp and witty tone, or writing for an older, more experienced audience.
4. Build a portfolio
A CV tells potential clients what you’ve done; a portfolio shows them.
Build a portfolio that showcases your best writing, ideally encompassing various tones, topics, lengths, and styles. If you can incorporate testimonials, too, that’s even better.
If you don’t have work to showcase (or you’re not allowed to share the pieces you’ve created), don’t worry. You’re a writer, so you should have no problem crafting content specifically for your portfolio. Try starting your own blog, writing about the latest industry updates, or guest posting on sites such as Medium or LinkedIn.
It’s essential to present your portfolio professionally. No one wants to receive an email full of Word documents and hyperlinks. Instead:
- Add a portfolio section to your freelancing website
- Create a PDF portfolio using a tool such as Canva
- Employ a portfolio builder like Carbonmade
5. Create an online presence
Creating an online presence is imperative for freelance writers because it helps clients find you, learn more about you, and engage with you.
You probably won’t meet most of your clients face to face (especially if you’re sitting on a beach in Thailand), so you need to meet them virtually.
Developing an online presence entails:
- Building a professional website
- Utilizing social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn
- Buying a professional email address (e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org)
Tip: Be active. Post regular blogs on your website and share content consistently on social media — it shows prospective clients you’re busy, and reminds previous clients you exist.
6. Set your rates
One of the hardest things about beginning a freelance writing business is deciding how much to charge. If you charge too little, you’re doing yourself a disservice; if you charge too much, you’ll struggle to find work.
First, decide how to charge. There are a few different types of freelance writing rates:
- Hourly (time-based)
- Retainer (for ongoing work)
- Value-based, or by project
- Based on wordcount
Next, decide how much to charge. The best way to do this is to calculate how much money you want to earn each month and how many hours you want to write each week (not including any admin time); this gives you a goal hourly rate.
For example, if you want to earn $120,000 gross per year, working 30 hours a week 50 weeks of the year gives you an hourly goal rate of $75 to $80. Use this to guide your article or project rates by estimating how long each will take.
Cross-reference this figure against industry standards (The Balanced Small Business has a great guide) and “going rates” on freelancer platforms and job sites such as LinkedIn.
Tip: When discussing prices with clients, ask what their budget is. This gives you a general idea of which price bracket your quote should fit. Don’t be afraid to turn down clients who don’t fit your budget.
7. Find your first clients
Now, for the exciting part: finding your first clients. Securing work can feel incredibly daunting, especially if you’re not used to sales prospecting, lead progression, or closing deals. But it’s not as scary as it sounds.
There are many ways to locate freelance clients and writing jobs, including:
Freelancing platforms such as PeoplePerHour and Upwork allow you to advertise your freelance writing services, and clients their freelance jobs. Simply create a professional profile on the platform, upload your portfolio, and start pitching for work.
Note: Freelance platforms take a cut from your final fee and are known to attract clients with low budgets. They’re great for starting out and establishing yourself, but can be challenging to scale your business with.
Many companies advertise their need for freelance writers on job boards or LinkedIn. Conduct a search on Google or directly on the company jobs board (remember the variety of names freelance writers are called). Apply for work by submitting a pitch, your portfolio, and any other required information.
Tip: Search LinkedIn posts for “recommendations for a freelance writer” using the search box and filtering the results to posts only.
Some freelance writing agencies maintain a pool of freelance writers to outsource work to. Naturally, you receive a lower rate for your work than what the end client pays, but freelance agencies have more experience winning high-value work, so you might not notice a difference.
Beware: Never pay a freelance agency to join — they pay for your services, not the other way around.
Networking (both in-person and online) is a great way to land freelance writing work. Most businesses need a writer but haven’t gotten around to hiring one. Meeting you at a networking event can prompt managers to get the ball rolling, and you’ll be the first person they think of for the position.
Remember: Bring business cards!
If you’re confident enough, you can approach marketing directors and content managers to offer your services. Do a quick LinkedIn search for people in the correct position, and make a short introduction to enquire about work (be sure to include your portfolio). Or, if you want to write for specific magazines or publications, you can often find the editor’s contact information on their website.
Tip: Do your research! A website content manager publishing a blog a day, with a visible team of writers on LinkedIn, probably doesn’t need help. But a single marketing manager for a website that posts inconsistently might be more open to (or desperate for) a writer.
SEO and ads
If you have a website, use it to draw in clients. Plan and execute a content strategy that targets long-tail keywords relevant to your chosen niche or specialty. You can also run Google Ads to target relevant searches and bring your website to the top of the search results, while you build organic SEO.
Tactic: Use Google My Business to enhance your local SEO and attract local businesses.
Asking for recommendations
Finally, ask your existing network for recommendations. You only stand to gain from telling people about your freelance career and asking them to recommend your services to their network.
8. Pitch your work
A pitch is an email proposing work to a potential client. It’s your opportunity to dazzle, intrigue, and show them you have great content ideas, writing skills, and engaging copy for their business and audience. It’s your sell.
Successful pitches are short, sweet, and interesting. And, since you’re advertising writing services, they must be perfect.
The key ingredients of a successful writing pitch are:
A polite, professional introduction that explains why you’re getting in touch.
The headline or suggested title of your content.
What’s the sell for the end reader? Why will they drop what they’re doing to read this content?
A one-paragraph summary of the proposed article.
Any additional information
Extra information about why this article is perfect for the intended business. Why now? What’s the sharable element? What impact will it have?
Why are you the perfect person to write this article? What experience do you have, what can you offer, and what similar work have you done (link to your portfolio)?
Thank the person for their time and leave your contact information.
At the beginning of your freelance writing career, you will experience plenty of rejected (and unanswered) pitches. However, persistence is key. Keep trying, tweaking, and learning; once you get your foot in the door, the way becomes smoother.
Challenge: Write a pretend pitch and send it to members of your network for their feedback. Practice makes perfect.
9. Build relationships with editors and clients
Relationships are crucial to long-term freelancing success and often lead to more opportunities and clients.
Carve time out of your week for relationship building and management, including:
- Asking for feedback on your pitches and work.
- Staying in touch through occasional check-ins.
- Being helpful (for example, sending over relevant news or articles about their industry).
- Showing genuine interest in them as a person and aiding their business life.
10. Continually improve
Last, but by no means least, continually improve yourself, your business, and your work.
It’s easy to invest all of your working time and energy into writing, leaving no room for development. However, it’s essential to set aside time for your mental well-being, improve your business management, and learn more about the latest content trends and tactics (for example, Google algorithm updates).
Do this by working with a business coach, seeking a business mentor, signing up for online courses, reading books, and plenty more. Whatever you do, do it for you.
Wrapping it all up
Beginning a freelance writing career is a huge and exciting step. I work with many freelance writers who say it’s the best decision they’ve ever made, even if it means they work harder.
Running your own business is rewarding, and gives you total freedom over where and how you work, and who you work with.
However, starting a business is challenging and requires time, energy, and patience. I hope these tips put you on the path to success and bring you many freelance writing projects and publications.