How to Become a Freelance Writer - My Tips & Advice
I've written previous posts on becoming a freelance writer, what I've learned freelancing over the last seven years, and the tips I would give to freelancing parents, but I've not really shared my story AND offered up some step-by-step tips for how to become a freelance writer in one single post. So that's what I'm doing today. No matter how idyllic it may look, freelance writing is not for everyone - it's unpredictable, it often feels like you're riding a rollercoaster, and it requires so many more skills than just writing words - but it can have many benefits. In the past, it's enabled me to travel for two years, move to a country we fell in love with, dabble in other creative interests (this blog, my books, WriteNOW Cards), easily switch to part-time hours when I had kids, and it means unlimited holidays... although not really because if that happened there would be money for the bikinis let alone the holidays.
The point is, freelance writing has enabled me to build a career I enjoy AND explore a number of different experiences, and while it's much more "the norm" to go freelance these days, even straight out of education, I get at least one email a week from someone who wants to know a) how did I get into freelance writing, and b) how can they get into it. So here I am answering those questions. (If you know a bit about my background, or don't care - which is completely understandable! - then jump ahead to the second and third sections as the first explains how I got to this stage).
(Please note this post will NOT discuss the specifics of setting up a company or registering as a self-employed professional as this will vary depending on situation and location. This is more about the nature of establishing oneself as a writer and starting to get work and growing a freelance business as a writer.)
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How I Became a Freelance Writer
I am a freelance writer. Once upon a time I would have called myself a copywriter but now I do a much broader range of tasks for clients, including a lot of content management and some editing and content strategy. Over the last seven years I've worked for a lot of travel companies, including Expedia, easyJet, Skyscanner, Eurail and numerous tourist boards, as I've come to specialise in writing travel-related content (more on that below) but I've also worked for companies not in the travel-sphere. I've had a number of articles published in magazines and online publications, but I generally do more corporate-content, i.e. text used by brands to grow their business or reach. So, how did I get to this point?
Once upon a time, I wasn't a writer...
Before I was a freelance writer I spent just over six years as a full-time employee of a number of companies. I also wasn't a writer. Living in London as a young graduate, I happened upon a research role in a company close to where I was living at the time. This started a very interesting and enjoyable career in corporate analysis and research. I won't go into the details of this as that's a long old story for another day, but in short, I worked at four different places in this time and it was during the last 18 months of my time in London that I started blogging and writing on the side because these were things I'd long been interested in doing (I wrote and published - as in made it out of paper - my first book at eight years old). At a similar time (but totally unrelated) I met my current partner who was then working as a freelance web developer. He was my first real exposure to freelance work, and my first reaction was "Wow, you wear jeans to work" and my second was "HOW MUCH DO YOU CHARGE A DAY?" (it was a lot). And then he started to want to go on holidays. A lot. He told me about all the places he'd been in the last few years, taking off for a few weeks at a time in between freelance contracts. Meanwhile I stared at my annual leave allowance willing it to multiply magically (but it never, ever did). Of course, these were all pretty petty and privileged problems, but I'd long wanted to travel more and I'd always wanted to write for a living, however, I'd just unquestioningly put both of these desires in the "Never Gonna Happen" drawer of my filing cabinet of dreams, and instead I was pursuing more sensible goals like saving for a house deposit and working my way up a corporate career ladder.
Long story short, my partner was the one who directly and indirectly planted the seed in my mind that I could write for a living AND do the travel I wanted to do. He even introduced me to a few of his friends who worked for companies that hired freelance writers and I started doing some of my own research and planning.
So, we went travelling and I got writing...
By the time my partner and I left to go travelling indefinitely at the end of 2011, thanks to networking through friends and friends of friends, I had a few freelance writing clients and also research jobs lined up, as my previous employer was keen to keep me in his contact list for work. It was also during this time that I started this blog (which focused predominantly on travel) and I also began writing down ideas for what was to become my first book, Shy Feet. It was a really exciting time. Also I had a great tan.
As great as this was, after six months the research work stopped and my writing clients weren't giving me enough work to really make enough money. After a few weeks of panicking and feeling sorry for myself, I joined a number of online job boards. I used some of the previous work I'd done, plus my blog and guest posts I'd written as examples of my work for a portfolio and I started applying for jobs that I knew I could do. Within a few weeks I had done a handful of jobs and received good ratings. One of the jobs turned into my first really regular client, and I went on to write content for them for nearly 18 months. Because I used examples of articles I'd written from my travel blog, I attracted a number of travel-related clients and that continues to be the case. However, when I would have a quiet month I would go to a job board and pick up work with clients in many other industries - interior design, environmental research, adventure sports, hospitality, health & lifestyle - and one of my longest-running clients is a software company.
A bit more about job boards...
The job boards that worked best for me were PeoplePerHour and Elance (now known as UpWork), however I stopped using them after a few years. I talk a lot more about finding work on these platforms in this presentation here, but please note that this is very dated (written in 2013) and these platforms have changed a lot since then. They are also much more popular and it can be VERY competitive going up for jobs on them. Depending on what you plan on or need to charge for work, these may be completely redundant options to you so don't spend too much time on them once you've determined that rates for work are too low. There are thankfully many other ways to get freelance writing work, some of which I will share below. In the last seven years of freelance writing, I have gotten work through friends, family, Internet searches (both doing them myself and being found at the end of one), LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, from networking events related to my blog, via my blog contact page, and mostly in the last three years thanks to personal recommendations from previous clients or contacts.
What kind of freelance writer am I now?
As I write this I'm actually on maternity leave after giving birth to my second son eight weeks ago, but prior to that I was working four days a week, and three of those days were taken up with client work for three or four regular clients and a handful of other companies that would give me projects ad-hoc. The majority of the work I was doing was internal and external communications, from training or marketing materials through to managing social media channels, blogs, and newsletters. A year ago I also did my first editing job for a coffee table style book, and I was also commissioned to write a few in-depth report-style pieces about some topics for a brand that is launching a magazine style blog. In short, I was beginning to again pivot into other kinds of writing, and this is definitely one of the things I like most about freelance writing; there is great potential to explore new skills on the job. I hope once I've finished my maternity leave - which at the moment is indefinite though I'm in touch with clients keeping them informed - I can get back to working with those I've previously worked for but I don't take that for granted, and I am prepared to have to re-build my client base (which yes, I'm lucky I can afford to take the time to do thanks to my partner's income).
This is of course, a very quick and dirty overview of my career as a freelance writer. What I haven't included are all the many (MANY) mistakes I've made, and the things I've learned as a result of those mistakes. So let's talk about these important things because not only is starting out as a freelance writer VERY different now, but if I can help someone avoid some of the pitfalls I fell into I will feel this article was well worth writing.
Tips for getting started as a freelance writer
Professional training not essential, but won't do any harm
As you may have gathered by now I don't have any professional training as a writer. I didn't study English language after the age of 16, and in fact I focused on learning new foreign languages. Following my undergraduate degree I did a Masters in European Law. Neither of these (expensive!) degrees are obvious steps to the career I have now but I think it's valid that they taught me a lot, not least what I didn't want to do (law and translation - no thank you!). Furthermore, what those five years of study did do for me was teach me a lot about language in general, and I also gained some excellent research and reporting skills. For my Masters I completed a 10,000 word dissertation and studied countless books and articles to write it. I believe this, as well as the following six years of research work I did, was excellent training for writing professionally. I'm also a prolific reader and thanks to my languages degree understand the constructs and flow of language. It's important you recognise what background knowledge or skills you have that will make you a good writer, and if you see room for improvement then find out what you can do to improve.
This doesn't mean going back to school or university, it simply means committing a bit of time and energy into improving your language and writing skills. There are a wealth of online courses available to you and so a good place to get an understanding of the basics of writing for clients would be searching some of Udemy's writing courses.
Know your strengths and your weakness
I am not good at product descriptions. I don't like technical writing (and I suck at it). I'm not the best at writing in plain English. I am very good at descriptive pieces, creative writing or first- or third-person narratives. I have over 10 years of research experience. I have published several books as a fiction author so I can also write and to a certain extent edit fiction. I have good knowledge of the travel publishing industry as well as travel and tourism trends. I have learned a lot about SEO after writing online for clients and for blogs for over a decade. I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses, so I make sure I work in line with them. I've learned the hard way not to promise to do something I will struggle to do, and I know that no matter what kind of a budget is possibly available, if you can't actually do the work, it's never going to be yours.
Find a few topics or industries to specialise in
As mentioned a number of times above, I specialise in travel-related content and that came about because I was blogging about travel, and I've done a lot of travel. It's also something I am really interested in. Think about what you are both interested in and knowledgeable about and then consider if these topics are something you can write about AND if there are companies who need content about these topics. The chances are there are, no matter how niche or specific this is, because we live in a world where online content is one of most business' best marketing weapons. If there isn't something that you are both experienced in and interested in, then I would focus on writing about the topics you know about, while also gaining experience writing about the topics you are passionate about but less knowledgeable in until you can eventually charge for such projects. You can do this by blogging, working for free (before you inhale too sharply, I'll discuss my reasons for suggesting this below!) or charging lower rates than if you were writing about something you are experienced in.
Stay open to learning new things, always
I think we would all benefit from staying open to learning new things in both work and life because what's life if you're not growing and trying new experiences? Anyway, now is not the time to get philosophical, now is the time to adopt an open mind and a sponge like brain. This is especially important when you are first starting out as you will need to learn a lot about both writing for clients, and running a freelance business. While I say above that I don't believe you need a degree or qualification in English language or journalism (though again, this doesn't hurt in the slightest), one thing that will always put you in a stronger position as a freelancer, especially a freelance writer is reading. Someone once said that being a writer who doesn't read, is like being a chef who doesn't eat. It's true. You have to read (a lot) in order to write, and understand how to improve your writing. Even reading bad writing is good for you - consider it a How Not To lesson! It was when I started freelancing that I began to read a lot more (approximately a book a week), and I made sure to read books from all genres - fiction and non-fiction - and while I enjoy reading advice about freelancing and running your own business etc, I think it's important to not take everything - including this article!! - as gospel.
Learn to edit
If you don't know where to start with reading, I recommend getting a book about self-editing. Writing isn't really just writing. Good writing is actually good editing. Writing is never as simple as writing a string of sentences, checking it for typos and then submitting it to your client. Writing is much more about re-writing and self-editing. This is when you make your work shine. It's also when you learn how to write better in the future. Yes, it's very possible clients will edit your work and change things, but the less they have to do this, the more likely you are going to see return work, good feedback and even a recommendation to another client. The more you can do for a client - saving them time - the better a job you are doing. Needless to say, you should also proofread your work thoroughly (ideally with fresh eyes, i.e. the next day after finishing it) and fact check when necessary. Books that have helped me learn to edit include The Artful Edit, What Editors Do, and The Copyeditor's Handbook. And there are also online courses on editing available like this one or this one.
You're not writing for you
Building on from the last point, it is important to remember that as a freelance, when you work on something for a client, you are writing for them (and their target audience). You're not writing for yourself, your own blog readers, your mum, or anybody else. The only person you have to impress is your client.
Always remember who you are writing for as you work - I often write a few notes about my target audience at the top of a page I'm working on - and keep in mind that it's very likely your client will know their target audience better than you so if you're ever in doubt ask them questions about who you really need to be reaching. That's why you also need to stay open and receptive to feedback and to making changes wherever necessary. So firstly, always allow time for making changes in your budget and secondly, don't take feedback personally. This does take practise and it's normal to feel a little sore when someone wants to slash a few hundred or thousand words from something you've spent a long time working on, but if there are genuine reasons for doing this, you are a better freelance writer if you can listen to them and use that new information and any other feedback to make the project you're working on stronger.
Editors/clients are (sometimes) your best friend
One of the biggest mistakes I made in the beginning was thinking that clients and editors are the enemy when I delivered work that they requested changes to. I took it all personally. I would then get defensive and would feel resistance to making any kind of amendment. It was only after working with an editor for my fiction work that I realised how much better my work is and how much more I grow as a writer when I listen to feedback and take it on board. This doesn't mean you have to do every single little thing that is suggested to you, but you should see feedback as an opportunity to learn... and you not only get this for free but you can actually get paid to do this.
Other freelance writers are not your enemy
Likewise, in the past I have made the mistake of seeing all other freelance writers as competition. They are not! In a round about kind of way they are our colleagues. I've had jobs come from other writers, and I've referred clients to other writers when I know their skills better suit a job than my own. I've learned about new apps, resources and tools from other freelance writers and I like moaning, I mean, discussing the highs and lows of freelance writing with others when we do get together. So, please, do be open and encouraging to other freelance writers. Especially as you start out, you should spend a little time to find Facebook groups, podcasts and blogs of others doing the same work as you so you can network and learn from your peers.
Advice for freelancing in general
To freelance is to set up a business
So, when you set out to start freelancing you are effectively starting a business. And starting a business is hard, really hard, so give yourself some time and grace to get your head around everything you need to do to get set up as a freelance business. There are those who will insist you need a website, but I believe to get started and get some jobs, clients and money in the bag, you only really need an email address (that isn't sexyhotmumma AT gmail!) and some kind of platform where people can find you be it a Facebook page, an Instagram account or a LinkedIn profile. If this platform then displays examples of your work, great! That will help you secure clients, for certain. Once you have a little money coming in then you can spend it on a website and setting up other platforms.
You should, however, get all the tax, accounting and legal side of your business set up as soon as possible because this will a) make you look more professional when invoicing, and b) will not be something you want to do when you are busy further down the road and you have to explain to an accountant why you weren't adding the right taxes on your first few invoices etc. I'm not going to go into detail about registering your freelance business etc, but I will say that it's important you are legally registered and you have systems in place for keeping on top of your invoices and expenses be it an app or a spreadsheet. I would also have a bank account or at least PayPal account for your business in- and out-goings and a TransferWise account set up for international payments.
Set reminders for everything
It follows once you have some kind of platform you will need to keep it updated. If you have social channels connected to your freelance writing business they will also need to be updated (as out of date content will look worse than no content). And there are certain times of the year when you have the perfect excuse to send marketing emails or newsletters - e.g. Christmas/end of the year - and so you will need to be mindful of these events before they happen. Also I recommend keeping on top of your accounts at the end of every month, and also schedule in a few days a month just for work on your business not just in the business. For this reason, I highly recommend setting reminders FOR EVERYTHING!
Have a plan for how and where you're going to get work
One mistake I think most freelancers of any trade do is think that there are only a certain number of ways or places to get work, i.e. you have to do X or Y. Actually, you can get new work and new clients in any number of creative ways. Remember that, otherwise you may end up focusing on only one or two ways and they could be the wrong ways for you. Personally, I think you need to think about what you can offer, and then who this will benefit. Businesses do market research before launching a product, so consider this the same process, and an important one. And don't over-complicate it. Think about who your ideal client is, and do what you can to find companies that mirror this. Talk to people you think may have contacts. Be curious about new companies you come across. Tell everyone you know what you do and how they can put you in touch with possible clients.
Working for free is up to you
I understand why people - fellow freelancers - get so riled about working for free, and how it shouldn't be done. And I agree. It shouldn't. No-one should ever work for free especially when it benefits a company that has the money to pay you, however, I know from personal experience it's not as black and white as that, and there will always be "offers" to do work for seemingly prestigious brands at low cost or for free. I hear arguments against working for free every day in freelancing groups and forums and I GET IT! I agree with it! We all have rent and bills to pay. You can't pay for food with exposure. However, if you are first starting out as a freelance writer and you want to get some examples of work with big-name clients or brands really well established in your niche, then this may be an opportunity that pays you in the long run, i.e. it will bring in more money than if you didn't do it. I know for certain that a few of the free or low paying jobs I did helped introduce my work to future paying clients.
However, and this is a very important point to remember, at the time I did the free work, I could afford to do it. I had savings, my outgoings were low and I had some income from other projects. I also had a partner who could cover our bills. I would never ever recommend only doing free work when you have no savings, a lot of outgoings and no paying projects lined up. I also strongly suggest only doing this in the first year of freelancing, and the best rule of thumb for knowing when to stop - or not do it at all - is if it feels a bit crappy or you feel used or undervalued, don't do it.
Learn to network (in a way that works for you)
As I've mentioned above, I've found freelance writing jobs in a myriad different ways. And then they have started to find me online - via my website, via my social channels, and via this blog that you're reading - and I've also got work the old fashioned way; by meeting and talking with people offline. While this all goes to show that you should be open to any approach for work - and rule #1 is to have your contact details easily accessible on all platforms you're active on - it's impossible for you to be actively networking and marketing on all platforms at all times, because then you won't have much time for the actual work. My best advice therefore is to network in ways that you enjoy. If that's meeting people, do that. If it's having a killer Instagram profile, rock it. If it's having a blog, awesome! Enjoy! However, do check in with yourself regularly and be objective about how well this networking is working for you. If your Instagram photos and Stories aren't converting, do something different. If your blog isn't reaching your target audience, focus on doing something about that. After seven years, I still don't have the answers about the best ways to market myself or network, because it's just not my forte, but I do know that if I focus on what I enjoy, I refer to my freelance services and skills occasionally, AND I make it easy for clients to contact me, then that does seem to have some success.
Know your worth (and how to sell it)
As well as knowing where your skills and strengths are, it's important that you know what that's worth. When I first started freelance writing I thought I'd just find out what others are charging and I'd do roughly the same or a bit less as I was just starting out. This worked well, for a while, but once I started taking on more complex and longer-running projects, I found that I had to adjust my cost estimates as it wasn't always possible to give an hourly rate and accurately calculate how many hours a project would be. When it comes to doing project estimates I have found it's important to do a rough estimate of the time (something that will get easier once you've done it a few times) AND to think about how much the project is worth to you, i.e. what will it stop you doing over the time it will take to complete and ALWAYS add a little bit on for contingency. If this feels icky, or the client queries your total estimate, then explain what amount is for contingency, and then you have some room to firstly negotiate with the client, and secondly, a buffer should the project overrun (and I found that in my early years because I was still getting used to doing proposals that projects did often overrun or eat into my profit).
Prepare for feast and famine
One of the best pieces of advice my partner gave me when I started freelancing was that you have to prepare for feast and famine. Unlike many full-time jobs, freelance work can vary from one extreme to the other. One month you can have barely enough work to pay your bills, or possibly even less than that, and then the following month you have so much you basically get logged out of your Netflix account because you do nothing but work. While this is not ideal from a health perspective, to a certain extent this is the reality of freelance life and you have to be able to adapt to this. Some months will always be busier than others (December and summer months are always quiet for me, while January - May are typically quite busy, and likewise in the autumn) and you may notice a pattern after a year or so of freelancing that you can plan for. But you can always prepare for feast and famine by having a decent buffer in your savings, not having big expenses all at one time of year, and doing what you can to find and book work in advance for times when you think you'll be quiet.
Pitch like a bitch (because no-one else will for you!)
Depending on what kind of freelance writing work you're going to be doing, pitching will be something you do A LOT of, or you may not really know what I mean by the word "pitch". Either way, all freelance writers will have to do some kind of marketing, and specifically you will have to sell yourself and the services you offer. Learn how to do this. Be comfortable (or as comfortable as you can be!) doing it. Because nobody else is going to do it for you. Sure, a friend or existing client may put in a good word for you, but only you can really seal the deal for a new job. If this makes you feel icky just thinking about it, look at it more objectively. Find examples of work you've done that can back up what skills and expertise you have. Collect references and testimonials (ideally on your website). Summarise previous jobs you've done that demonstrate certain skill-sets you used successfully. And remember, when you are pitching to a client for a specific job, keep their goals in focus (or ask about them if you don't know!). Clients don't want you to show off in your pitch, they want you to be a solution to a problem or skills gap they have, so as much as you can articulate how you can be a solution, and add value and benefit them. Because yup, money talks!
Unless you enjoy that feeling of cold sweat running down your back, just do it. Laptops break and things get lost. So set a reminder. Back up everything you need, and regularly.
That's it! Hope this was useful for you. And if you'd like to save or share this post, here are some images you can pin:
Frances M. Thompson
Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before putting down some roots with her Australian partner and having a baby boy in July 2015. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her son around Amsterdam.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.