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How to Become a Freelance Writer (and Find Your First Client)

I first learned about freelance writing when I was 19. After stumbling across the blog you’re currently reading, I discovered people were getting paid to write articles while they traveled the world, built companies, or sat at home in their pajamas during the morning commute.

I wanted that lifestyle, that flexibility. I had lots of time and lots of drive, but I was missing one crucial piece of information: how to get started. I had no idea how to make money as a freelance writer, how the business of freelance writing worked, or even how to write an article for the web.

If you’re reading this article, then you’re likely in the same position. My goal over the next few thousand words is to take you from being unsure where to start to knowing the steps you need to start your freelance writing career.

Why I’m Qualified to Give Freelance Writing Advice

Because it’s such a popular topic, there are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of websites and articles claiming to help you become a freelance writer. So why should you trust my advice amid all of the other contenders?

I’ve been freelance writing professionally since 2015. While that doesn’t make me as seasoned as some of the other freelancers I know, I’ve gotten a lot of experience in that time.

I’ve worked for several agencies, plus many more individual clients. I’ve written hundreds of articles across topics as diverse as gardening, Uber driving, microscopy, study advice, and career development.

Plus, I’ve worked as an editor for other freelance writers, so I have insight into how to get editors and publications to read (and accept) your work.

And, I’ve been able to do all of this relatively quickly. In just a couple of years, I went from knowing nothing about this business to earning a respectable side income. By my third and fourth years, I was earning a full-time income and turning down work because I didn’t have enough space in my schedule.

I’m not promising that you’ll get the same results, or pretending that your goals are the same. However, I do have a lot of advice to share about freelance writing, particularly for serious beginners.

I hope that this advice will help you avoid many of my mistakes and start earning a living from your words ASAP.

What Is Freelance Writing?

Let’s take a step back. I’ve been talking about freelance writing for around a dozen paragraphs, but I’ve yet to explain what it is.

It may seem obvious: you write things, and people pay you for them. That’s true, but the details are a bit more nuanced.

It’s can be difficult to define freelance writing because it’s such a vast, diverse field. It can range from writing one article per month for a small blog to penning dozens of articles per week for an agency hired by a Fortune 500 company (and everything in between).

When I talk about freelance writing, however, I’m specifically talking about:

Online work

While you can still make good money writing for print magazines, I’m going to focus on online work. All of my freelance experience is in this area, and online writing tends to be easier to get into than freelance print work.

Nonfiction

There are publications that will pay you for your fiction submissions, but most of the money is still in writing nonfiction (such as this article).

Writing for business purposes

Companies pay freelance writers because they want writing that serves their business goals. This could be directly (such as writing sales copy for a product) or indirectly (writing an article that gets people to visit a website).

But regardless of the specific goals, we’re going to focus on writing for businesses. And don’t worry if you never took “Business Writing” or didn’t study business in college. That doesn’t matter.

How Much Does Freelance Writing Pay?

I assume that you’re interested in freelance writing because you want to make money. But how much money are we talking, exactly?

It depends.

On the very low end, there are content mills that will pay you a few bucks to churn out surface-level, bite-sized articles. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been paid $1,000 for a single (long, detailed) article. And some writers earn far more than that (mostly in the world of copywriting).

So what makes the difference between the freelance writers earning less than minimum wage and those who charge more per hour than a lawyer? It all comes down to the following:

  • Experience – If you’re brand new, then you’re not going to be able to charge as much as someone with more experience. However, experience matters much less than you would think, which is one thing that makes freelance writing such an appealing field.
  • Skill – More important than experience is skill. The best writers can (and should) charge more for their work. Luckily, it takes less time than you’d think to become a skilled freelance writer.
  • Positioning – This might be the most important factor in earning more. If you can position yourself as a skilled writer who does great work, then you can charge more.
  • Clients – One overlooked aspect of earning more as a freelancer is finding the right clients. If you can find clients who are willing to pay top dollar for the best work, then you’ll earn more.
  • Topics – Some topics are more profitable than others. This includes topics that are highly technical (car repair, for example) or require special expertise/credentials (medical topics, for instance).

No matter your starting knowledge/skills, you shouldn’t expect to make much in the beginning. In my first year of freelance writing, I made a few hundred dollars. I’m not saying you can’t do better, but expect your income to be pretty modest the first year or so.

Finally, note that your freelance writing earnings depend on how much time you can/want to commit.

If you just want to freelance write for a few hours per week, it can be a nice supplemental income (and far more pleasant than driving for Uber). But if you want to put in full-time hours, it’s possible to earn a full-time income.

Is Freelance Writing Right for You? (Pros and Cons)

If you want to get into freelance writing, then you should do it! I don’t want to discourage anyone. But I do want you to understand what this work is really like.

Lots of travel and lifestyle bloggers portray freelance writing (and freelance work in general) as sitting on the beach sipping tropical drinks.

While you can work in those conditions, the glitzy Instagram photos don’t convey the turmoil, b.s., and stress that can accompany a lot of this work.

So below, I want to present a balanced, realistic look at both the pros and the cons of being a freelance writer.

Freelance Writing Pros

Let’s start with the fun, sexy parts of the job. Here are some of the benefits of being a freelance writer:

Flexible schedule

No one cares when you do your work, as long as you get it done on time. So whether you want to work early in the morning, late at night, or any time in between, freelance writing will let you do it.

Flexible location

Just as no one cares when you do your work, few companies care about where you do it. While it’s helpful to be in the same general time zone as your clients, it’s far from necessary (as long as you’re a good communicator).

Flexible amount of work

If you want to make an extra $1,000 per month to help out with bills, there’s freelance writing work for that. On the other hand, there’s the option to work 50 hours per week and earn more than most of the people you know.

Get paid to learn new things

Freelance writing means constantly researching and learning about new subjects. If you enjoy this process of discovery, then you’ll likely enjoy this job.

Networking opportunities

Freelance writing can bring you into contact with everyone from startup founders to seasoned CEOs, especially as you gain more experience.

Creative and challenging work

Freelance writing often means figuring out how to make a boring topic interesting, or how to convey a huge amount of information in a few hundred words. This creative challenge keeps things varied.

Credentials (rarely) matter

Unless you’re writing about something very specialized or technical, no one cares about your credentials. All you need are writing skills. I have a B.A. in English, but none of my clients have ever asked or cared about my degree.

Freelance Writing Cons

Lest you think freelance writing is all tropical islands and charcuterie boards, let’s take a look at some of the cons:

Income can be inconsistent

While you can make very good money freelance writing, clients and projects come and go.

If you’re not careful, you can find yourself with a month where you make little to no money. Proper budgeting and planning can mitigate these fluctuations, but they’re still a reality of the job.

You have to manage yourself

All of the flexibility and freedom that come with freelance writing can be a double-edged sword.

There’s no boss breathing down your neck to make sure you do your work. You need to be able to manage your time and your business, or you’re not going to last.

You go from one boss to many

If you dislike having one boss, then beware. Freelance writing means having many bosses (clients). And each likely has different preferences for how you submit work, how they pay you, etc. Managing all of these relationships can be stressful.

Getting paid can be a pain

If you’re used to getting a paycheck direct-deposited every two weeks, then you’ll need to adjust your expectations.

Freelance writing usually means getting paid monthly, and there’s no guarantee that clients will pay on-time (or in extreme cases, at all). Plus, you’ll need to pay taxes on your earnings each quarter, as there’s no employer to take care of that for you.

It can get boring and repetitive

Freelance writing can be creative and exciting, but sometimes it means writing a dozen articles that say more or less the same thing in different ways.

Writing about succulent gardening might be fun the first time, but do you have the professionalism to still write about it well the 50th time?

Burnout can happen quickly

The flexible, open-ended nature of freelance writing means that it’s easy to take on more work than you can (healthily) manage. If you’re a compulsive workaholic, then this may not be the field for you.

It can get lonely

Freelance writing means sitting alone for long periods of time while you stare at a computer screen. As an introvert, this work suits me. But if you need a job where you’re constantly interacting with people, then this is not the work for you.

How to Get Hired as a Freelance Writer

Still interested in freelance writing? Then let’s take a look at how to find your first client and get hired.

Learn to Write for the Web

If freelance writing interests you, then I assume you’re (probably) already a good writer. That is, you know how to put words together into something that makes sense and is reasonably interesting to read.

While this is a good start, freelance writing is different from the kind of writing you learn in school. You won’t be writing academic essays meant to impress your professor, nor will you have to worry about formatting your bibliography correctly.

Instead, you’ll need to learn how to write for the web. This means unlearning many of the habits you picked up in school.

How to write for the web (and how it differs from academic writing) is a huge topic that I don’t have space to cover here in detail.

In general, however, these are some things to keep in mind when writing online articles:

  • Write short sentences and paragraphs – This makes your writing easier to read.
  • Use subheadings – If you skim this article, you’ll see that it uses many subheadings to break up the text and help the reader find the information they need.
  • Don’t try to be clever – You’re not trying to impress your professor with obscure words or complex metaphors. You’re trying to write things that the average person can understand.
  • Use links – The internet is built out of links, so try to link to both relevant external sources (other websites) and relevant articles/pages on the site you’re writing for.
  • Get to the point – If you can say it in one word instead of ten, do that. People are busy and don’t have time for you to ramble.
  • Cite your sources – Freelance writing often requires you to research an unfamiliar topic. Always cite any sources that you use. This boosts your credibility and prevents plagiarism.

Start a Blog

The most important tool for getting hired as a freelance writer is your portfolio. But when you’re getting started, you likely don’t have a portfolio since you haven’t published anything.

You can see the issue here: you need a portfolio to get hired, but you can’t make a portfolio until you have work to show. To bypass this issue, I recommend starting a blog and publishing your work there.

I know starting a blog seems like a lot of work, but it will benefit your freelance career in many ways:

  • A blog gives you writing samples to send to your first potential clients.
  • Starting a blog will teach you how to use WordPress, which will increase your work opportunities.
  • Despite how easy it is these days, starting a blog shows that you’re willing to put in more effort than most would-be freelance writers.

Not sure how to start a blog? Don’t worry — our Complete, Step-By-Step Guide to Creating a Successful Blog will take you through the process in great detail (no coding required).

Find Your First Client

So you’ve started a website and published a few articles. Now, it’s time to use these writing samples to get your first client.

“How do I find my first client?” is probably the most common question not just for new freelance writers, but for new freelancers in general. There’s no single answer to this question, but there are a few techniques that tend to work well.

Reach Out to Your Network

Odds are, you already know someone who can help you find your first client.

But no one can help you unless you let them know what you’re looking for. So my first tip is to reach out to people in your network and let them know that you’re looking for freelance writing work.

Here’s a short list of people you could talk to:

  • Family members
  • Friends
  • Family friends/your parents’ friends
  • Coworkers
  • Career planning (if you’re in college)
  • Professors/advisors (if in college)
  • Organizations you’re part of (alumni associations, honor societies, teams, etc.)
  • Any other professional connections

There’s almost certainly someone on this list who either has work you could do or knows someone looking to hire a freelance writer.

Meet Other Freelance Writers

Your existing network is a great place to start, but you’ll also benefit from meeting other freelance writers. Not only can they give you advice about the business, but they may be able to send you work that they don’t have time for.

But you have to reach out in the right way. Do not email a freelance writer asking if they can help you find work. That’s tacky. Your goal is to build a real relationship. If that eventually leads to work for you, great. But that shouldn’t be your main aim.

If you’re not sure what to say when reaching out, you can’t go wrong with something along the lines of, “I’m new to this industry, I admire your work, and I was wondering if you had any advice about [BLANK].”

Ideally, you should ask for advice about something more specific than “How do I get started?” That’s a vague question that doesn’t take much thought. Try to ask something that you can’t just google.

Use Job Boards

When you’re starting out, job boards can be a great place to find your first clients.

However, you need to use them correctly. Don’t view job boards as a place to find the best clients, as most of the job postings on them are mediocre. Instead, view them as a place to find your first client and get experience.

Make sure you only stick to reputable job boards. I’ve had the most success with the ProBlogger Job Board, which is reasonably well-maintained and free of scams.

Stay away from Craigslist, and always do your research on the company/person posting the job. The last thing you want is to associate yourself with anyone unethical, as that could kill your career before it even starts.

Finally, don’t join any job board that requires you to pay. I’ve tried a few myself, and they never led to anything. You’re much better off using that money to build your website or take a course to improve your freelancing skills (more on this below).

Reach Out Directly

It can be difficult to get a response from companies that post on job boards due to the number of people that contact them. To get around this, you should go directly to the websites that are hiring.

First, make a list of all of the websites you enjoy reading. Next, browse each site to see if they have a page called “Work With Us,” “Careers,” “Jobs,” “Contribute,” or something similar. Often, you’ll need to look at the very bottom of a website or even do a Google search to find these pages.

Be sure to read these pages carefully and follow any instructions they provide. For instance, if a site says, “We don’t accept unsolicited guest posts,” then they mean it. And even if a site does accept outside contributions, they likely have strict requirements to determine what they’ll consider.

Assuming you meet the qualifications, you can reach out via email and pitch some articles. Be sure to keep your email short and follow all the submission instructions. And don’t be offended if you never receive a response; site owners/editors get thousands of emails per day and may not have time to respond to yours.

Note: In the beginning, you’ll likely be unqualified to write for most of the websites you enjoy reading. Instead of letting this discourage you, view it as something to work towards.

Be Patient (But Persistent)

No matter how many techniques you apply, finding your first client will still take time. Believe me, I’ve been there, and I know how frustrating it can be. It can take a couple of months before you find anything, and even then it’s still possible for a client to ghost you.

If you want to last in this business, you need to be patient but persistent. If you follow the advice I outlined above, you will eventually get your first client. And from there, finding the next client gets much easier because now you have professional writing samples and someone who can provide a testimonial.

Learn the Business Side of Freelancing

It would be irresponsible to tell you how to get into freelance writing without also teaching you about the business side. I know this isn’t the most exciting part, but you’ll save yourself a lot of stress and confusion if you learn about this in the beginning.

Here are some key parts of the freelance business I wish I’d known about when I started:

Put Aside Money for Taxes

You don’t get to keep all of that sweet freelancing cash for yourself. You need to put aside some for taxes each quarter. Otherwise, you could be in for a nasty surprise come tax time. This article is a great introduction to freelance taxes.

Send Invoices

An invoice is a record of how much a client owes you for the work you did. If you don’t send an invoice, then a client can’t pay you.

To make invoices easy to manage and send, I recommend using a tool like FreshBooks.

Use Bookkeeping Software

In addition to tracking payments using invoices, you should also have a way to keep track of your freelance expenses (which may be tax-deductible).

While you could track all of this in a spreadsheet, it’s much easier to use bookkeeping software that imports transactions directly from your bank account.

If you’re just getting started, then I recommend FreshBooks. It’s affordable, intuitive, and has all the tracking features you need as a freelancer. If you’re looking for something with more advanced accounting features, then Xero is another good option.

When In Doubt, Talk to an Accountant

If all of the above sounds overwhelming, then consider setting up a call with an accountant to walk you through setting up your bookkeeping and tax systems.

I did this when I started freelancing, and it cleared up a lot of questions. There’s no need to do this until you’re actually making money, of course.

Next Steps

This was a long article, and you may be wondering where to go from here.

Here’s a summary of the steps I outlined above for quick reference:

  • Learn how to write for the web (and how it’s different from academic writing).
  • Make a website and start publishing articles there.
  • Use networking, job boards, and direct outreach to find your first client.
  • Once you have your first client, it’s all about building from there.
  • Learn the business side of freelancing (and talk with an accountant if you’re confused).

Finally, if you’re looking for further step-by-step guidance, then I recommend checking out this freelance writing course from my friends Kristin and Alex. It walks you through the entire process of becoming a freelance writer, from finding your first client to growing your freelance business.

No matter what route you take, remember to be patient and persistent. I wish you all the best with your freelance writing endeavors, and I believe in you!

Image Credits: featured