If you're ready for the freedom and flexibility that comes with a freelance writing career, now is the time to get that ball rolling. Here's my guide on how to start freelance writing.
I love my freelance lifestyle. There's a lot of freedom and flexibility here. As a result, people routinely ask me how to start freelancing writing, and how to make money doing it.
While I think freelance writing can be viable for many people, it's not for everyone. And it's important that I acknowledge a few things before we get started:
- I have a journalism degree. You don't need a degree related to writing (like English or journalism) to be a successful freelance writer. However, the journalism training and degree has made it a little easier for me to land gigs.
- I was able to devote time to building my business. When I started freelancing, my then-husband was in school and we were able to use his student loans to live on while I got my freelance business up and running. It can be more difficult, although doable, if you're trying to do this as a side hustle.
- I had childcare for my son. We lived in a low cost of living area where it was affordable for me to put my son in preschool two days a week when I started. It's easier to freelance when you have some level of help.
- I started when online content marketing was new. While I work hard and am reasonably talented, part of my success is due to timing. I was lucky in that I started when online content marketing was new, so I was able to get in on the ground floor and build a reputation.
You can succeed today, but just know that I had some advantages.
How to start freelancing: 7 steps to take
If you're ready to do the thing, here are my favorite seven steps you can do to get the ball rolling on your freelance writing career.
1. Know what you want out of freelancing
Begin by figuring out what you want out of this whole freelancing thing and set a few goals. When I first started freelancing, it was because I wanted a way to earn money from home while my then-husband completed his Ph.D. I wanted to spend time with my son and be available for my family.
However, over time, I've come to value the freedom and flexibility associated with my freelance schedule. I don't have to work during “regular” hours. There's no worry about getting a time off request approved. I can turn down work, or ramp up, as needed.
Understand what you're going for with freelancing. If you're looking for extra income immediately, and you want to get paid, you might have to do some selling out and write boring shit. If you want to build over time, on the other hand, and you're more interested in being fulfilled as a writer and eventually making money, write what you love and want to write about.
But knowing what you want — and understanding that what you want could change over time — is the first step. A little clarity can go a long way toward helping you formulate your freelance writing strategy.
2. Choose a niche
While a generalist can get a lot of work, that work is often low-paying. You can start freelancing as a generalist, writing anything to get paid, but eventually, you want a niche — preferably one that can make you money.
When I started freelancing, I did all sorts of weird and random stuff. Online catalog descriptions for bamboo flooring and window treatments. How to put together different themed weddings. I wrote for peanuts, but the pay was regular and I had a ton of work. I got what I needed and paid the rent.
Eventually, though, a niche found me. (I say found me because some rando asked me to do my first money pieces. It hadn't even crossed my mind.)
Once I started specializing, I realized that I could make more money as a niche writer. When you have a specialty — and you know it well — you can charge higher rates to provide that content. A niche allows you to develop contacts that can be called on for sources. Plus, when you know about something, you can finish your assignments faster, because you don't end up researching topics.
Take a look at different industries and figure out what you might do well in. You can even specialize within a broad category. For example, I write about money on the internet, but my main specialties within the personal finance niche are investing, student loans, retirement, and behavioral economics. I can write about insurance and credit cards (and do), but I have some specialties in there that make me more valuable to certain publications.
Niche your content type
It's not just about topics, either. You can be a niche writer when it comes to types of content. If you have an analytical mind you can write case studies and white papers. Email marketing and landing page copy are also in high demand. Specialize in a certain type of writing, and you might be surprised at how much more you can get paid than if you're a generalist.
Some of the niches that are likely to pay a little bit more right now include:
- Anything money
- Pets and pet care
- SaaS content
- Email marketing copy
- Landing page copy
- Ghostwriting books
Consider developing a secondary and tertiary niche. For example, when it comes to content types, my primary niche is consumer-facing blog content. However, I've also developed the ability to create email marketing copy and I ghostwrite books for others.
In addition to writing about money, I can also cover politics and I originally started out writing about science, in particular physics.
Think about where you could excel, and start there as a niche.
3. Set up your website — and start writing
As you learn how to start freelancing, you need a home on the web. You just do. Set up a website. You can use something inexpensive to host your website, like Bluehost, to get started. However, if you think that you'll grow later, Bluehost might not be the best choice. I use Siteground right now, although I did my time on Bluehost.
It's relatively inexpensive to register a domain name as well. I use both Namecheap and Google Domains for my domain registrations. (Keep track of these business expenses because you can deduct them on your taxes later.)
You can use website builders like Wix and Squarespace to help you out. But, as you might have noticed, this is a WordPress site. I like WordPress, but the others get the job done as well. Make sure that, whatever site and configuration you use, you have the ability to blog.
Finally, make sure it's easy for people to contact you. Create a “Hire Me” page that's prominent and easy to find. Your contact info, whether it's a form or your email address, should be easy to find. You want clients to be able to reach out quickly and easily.
Set up a blog — it's your first portfolio
Even though I had a website when I started freelancing, I didn't have a blog. I wish I'd started a blog. With a blog, you can showcase your writing. If you've chosen a niche or two, gear your content toward those topics. That way, when someone asks for examples of your writing, you have a place to send them until you have a wider body of work.
You can also use a site like Medium or other self-publishing platforms to make the most of your writing. In the end, you need a place to send people to see your work. These days, most clients and editors want a link to what you've done. They don't want to open a PDF of whatever you had published that one time.
To this day, I still have clients tell me they found me through my blog.
4. Start looking for gigs
With your website set up and your contact info prominent, it's time to look for gigs. There are different approaches you can take to get going, depending on your freelancing goals and why you're doing the thing.
- Start with low-hanging fruit. If you want to make money and start getting paid fast, go for that low-hanging fruit. Do a few things, get paid, and move on. This is acting more like a generalist, but it's the fastest way to get paid. Just don't get too bogged down with these assignments. They don't pay as much, and you want to make sure you have time for better gigs.
- Visit job boards. Some of my favorite job boards are Problogger, Media Bistro, Remote Bliss, and Contently. You can apply for various gigs and potentially get something ongoing. I've tried to build my freelance business around clients who have me write a set number of blog posts each month.
- Get the word out. Make sure your network knows you're freelancing. That way, they can send potential clients your way.
- Send pitches. Sending pitches is grueling work. However, if you don't need money immediately and if you want more interesting stories based on what you like to write about, pitching can be the way to go. You need thick skin, though. It's common not to hear back or get rejections more than you're accepted at first.
Consider a daily checklist of duties
When I first started freelancing, I had a pretty basic approach to building the business each day:
- Finish client work that day (some days it was only an hour because I didn't have many clients)
- Spend two hours looking for gigs and applying
- Craft two or three pitches and send them out
- Review my portfolio links and tweak my resume
Even if you don't do these daily, find time to do them each week.
5. Fine-tune your LinkedIn profile
Believe it or not, your LinkedIn profile can be a great freelancing tool. Think about the words you want to use in your bio so you come up in searches. For example, my bio identifies me as a “freelance financial writer and money expert.” These keywords have allowed some of my best clients to find me when searching for a freelance or financial writer.
My summary focuses on my preferred niches, using keywords that potential clients might search for if they want a freelancer. I've added featured links that allow others to see the types of writing I do, and I try to post some of the articles I've written for others on LinkedIn two or three times a week just to be seen as active.
Don't forget that you can follow potential clients as well. LinkedIn is a good way to find and follow editors that work at your target publications. Don't get stalkery, though. Follow them, and consider connecting if you have connections in common. My friend and business partner Kat Tretina looks for writing job postings on LinkedIn and contacts the person to offer interim freelance services. Often, she ends up with an ongoing gig.
What about other social media?
Other social media outlets can also help in your quest to learn how to start freelancing. Of course, you don't want to spend a ton of time on social, of course, but I've gotten jobs due to my presence on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. People message me through my business page on Facebook (not my personal page) and DM me on Twitter. I've even had a couple of offers off Instagram.
Think about what social media your clients are likely to use, and consider how you might make relevant posts and showcase your ability. I also post links to recent articles I've written on social, which can also be a good way to showcase my work.
Basically, it's about cultivating an image of someone who covers the topics or types of content you want to focus on. Try to be consistent in the words you use to describe yourself in bios and focus on keywords that make sense for what you're trying to accomplish.
6. Build your network
A good network can work wonders for your freelance writing career.
Who should you network with? Other writers!
It seems counterintuitive that other freelance writers would be some of your best leads, but it's true. I love my network of freelancer friends. We share ideas, are transparent about what we're getting paid by different outlets, and we throw each other work.
I recommend some of my fellow writers when I have too much work and don't want to take on a new client. I share entry-level work with others. Your freelance rates will improve over time, but at the beginning, you might end up with a little less, and if you can get a gig that will pay and give you a portfolio piece, that's extremely valuable at the beginning. Finally, if a client approaches me to write about something I'm not interested in or knowledgeable about, I can recommend one of my writer friends who does cover it. I was recently asked to help write a grant. This isn't my area of expertise. So I connected the client with someone who has a grant-writing track record.
Your network can help you find gigs and provide moral support. Build a network of other writers, and include editors, business owners, and others who can be references and keep their ears to the ground.
7. Keep at it
It can take time to build up your freelance writing business. So, keep at it. Persist through the rejected pitches and keep moving forward. Continue writing and applying for gigs.
When I started, I barely made enough to cover our groceries. However, I kept it up. I kept practicing, refining, and applying. Eventually, I got to the point where clients started coming to me. Today, I make six figures as a freelancer and live a flexible lifestyle that I enjoy.
Tips for aspiring freelancers
As you figure out how to start freelance writing, here are a few tips that can help. Including some learned by hard experience.
- Write every day. Seriously. Write every day. Practice is the best way to improve. Whether it's related to your niche or not, write every day.
- Apply for a gig each day. Just one. Send at least one pitch or apply for at least one gig daily.
- Have a home on the web. Create a place to keep your portfolio. I have links to my author bios on different websites. Plus, my blog showcases my writing.
- Get to know other freelance writers. These folks will help you find gigs and they can also answer your questions and provide support.
- Choose a niche. A specialty comes with higher pay. If you have a credential or practical knowledge in a certain area, so much the better.
- Set up an account for taxes. Yes, this is a business tip for freelance writers. Set aside money each time you get paid to cover taxes. At the end of my first year of freelancing, I hadn't set aside money for taxes, and covering that tax bill was rough. One rule of thumb is to set aside 30% of your earnings for taxes.
- Keep a record of expenses. Deduct your business expenses related to setting up your freelance writing business. Did you join the Freelance Writers Den to help you find gigs and connect with others? Keep track of that monthly expense. Deduct that laptop and office chair — as long as you use them for your writing business.
- Start a list of potential sources. Get their contact info when you run into someone who could be a source in your niche. This is also true of websites. I have a list of go-to links on the IRS website for various retirement accounts and other information. Additionally, I have a list of links for student loan repayment loans from the Department of Education. You'll need these for fact-checking in many cases, and it's easier if you just have a list.
- Be prepared to sell out. We all want to write high-minded treatises and get paid for them. Most of us aren't getting that — at least not for years. Be ready to sell out and just write SEO-based content for blogs if you want to make money fast.
- Proofread. The cleaner your copy, the more editors love you. And that means more work.
- Meet deadlines. Lately, I've been a little lax with deadlines, but if you can build a reputation for turning work in on time, you can go much further.
- Read a lot. Like, a lot. Read writers in your niche. See how they do the thing.
- Learn basic SEO best practices. You don't have to be a strategist (they pay other people for that), but you should know best SEO practices. Many outlets now make briefs that include keywords, so know how to incorporate that.
- Get it in writing. Your terms should be in writing — even if only in an email. And have expectations agreed to before you start work.
- Be realistic about what you can do. Understand what you can do and where your strengths lie. Don't oversell yourself and don't overpromise.
- Ask for testimonials. Get satisfied clients to provide you with testimonials so you can publish them on your website.
- Craft a bio that includes keywords. Put together a bio that includes keywords related to what you do. This way, you have a consistent bio for all your author profiles on different websites. Create a short bio and a long bio that can be used in various places, depending on requirements.
- Increase your rates over time. As you become better and get more clients, increase your rates gradually. Over time, as you quote subsequent clients the higher rate, you'll find yourself making more while working less. Note: This is also why you shouldn't publish a rate sheet on your website. You want to be able to quote higher prices to different clients.
Start your freelance writing career today
Don't wait until it's perfect. Even if you make a couple of hundred bucks a month at first, that's progress.
Get out there, and get paid.