Freelancing 101: A Guide to Getting Started
With the shape of the workforce changing over the last few years, more and more jobs are moving into the gig economy and away from the corporate-backed 9-to-5. Remote work has become the norm for a lot of industries, and jobs are no longer limiting themselves to hiring only local candidates.
One positive aspect of this change is the opportunity it creates for aspiring freelance writers. There is a nearly limitless demand for content now — if you know where to look. Whether you’ve recently lost your job in traditional journalism or are just looking for a way to shift into full-time freelancing, here’s a quick-start guide to becoming a freelance writer.
What is Freelancing?
Before we get started, a quick definition: Freelancing means working independently and drawing your income from multiple sources rather than being tied to a single employer. When you freelance, you may work as a contractor for businesses for individual projects, but you won’t be employed by them. For tax purposes, you will be considered an independent contractor or small business owner.
The biggest perk to freelancing is flexibility: You choose what projects to work on, set your own hours, and develop your own career path. You get to be your own boss and have the freedom to walk away from anything you don’t want to work on.
The biggest downside to freelancing is lack of stability: Work ebbs and flows, and you’ll need to plan for dry spells. There’s no paid time off, no employer-paid health insurance, and no pension plan. You’ll need to be willing to constantly look for new opportunities and have a schedule that’s sometimes dictated by the whims of the market rather than your own plans.
When you’re a freelancer, you’re a small business owner. This means wearing multiple hats – doing your own marketing, handling your finances, securing contracts – and taking risks. For a lot of freelance writers, this is a perk of the job!
If the idea of being your own boss and running your own business sounds exciting, then freelance writing might be for you. It’s certainly one of the fastest and easiest businesses to start. You don’t need much overhead because there’s no office space to rent, no payroll to manage, and no inventory to order. You can get started pretty much immediately with just a computer, an internet connection, and a passion for words.
Finding writing gigs may be the hardest part of freelance writing. Assuming you have some skills and experience with stringing words together, finding someone who will pay you for that talent is your primary concern. Fortunately, there are a lot of different ways to get paid as a freelancer, each with its own perks and drawbacks. Let’s look at a few of those options:
Original Web Content
For a lot of people, blogging is the first thing that comes to mind when they think of freelance writing. Creating your own original content and posting it on the web is certainly a way to get your name out there, but it’s one of the harder things to get paid for because there’s so much competition.
If you do want to work as an independent journalist or blogger, you have options:
- Host your own blog on a website and use ad revenue and affiliate marketing
- Post your content to a revenue-sharing platform like Medium or Substack, which charge users to access or subscribe to content
- Crowdfund your endeavors with Patreon or Ko-Fi, allowing you to get paid directly by your audience
- Write and self-publish books, whether fiction or non-fiction, on platforms like Amazon or Gumroad
Writing your own original content and getting paid to post it online is the dream for many, but it is hard to break into. You need a large audience in order to turn a reasonable profit. You’ll always want to diversify your income streams by using multiple platforms and mixing your own original writing endeavors with paid write-for-hire jobs.
Newspapers and Magazines
There’s something truly magical about seeing your name in print. Newspapers, blogs, magazines, trade journals, and other publications are a great way to get your writing in front of a larger audience while also getting paid. There are also way more publications than you might initially realize! Every industry you can think of has its own trade journals. Small towns have their own newspapers and visitor’s guide.
Find these opportunities by searching market listings websites such as All Freelance Writing and Writers Write. There are many more such listings online – just search “paid writers markets” or “magazine markets for writers.” You can also check the website of any magazine for submission guidelines. Your local newspaper may also accept articles from freelance journalists!
In order to get a story published in one of these markets, you’ll need to query the editor. This means that you’ll need to read the submission guidelines and draft an email to the editor in charge of those submissions. In this email, you’ll want to briefly detail your project, including how long it will be and what you hope to cover. You’ll also want to include your professional experience or any other details that make you qualified to write this piece. If you’ll be interviewing professional sources and know who they are, you can mention them as well.
If you need help writing your pitch email, try searching online for templates. Just be sure to personalize them to fit the project.
Publications can be slow to respond, may never get back to you about your pitch, or may reject the pitch. But don’t get discouraged. You can always pitch the story to a different market or post the article on your own platform instead. If they do accept your piece, you’ll generally write the story, submit it, complete any edits the editor asks for, and then wait to receive payment by way of a printed check or online deposit.
Beware that some magazines can be slow to pay because they send out checks on a quarterly basis or other schedules. There’s also the risk that the publication will go out of business before your story runs. This is why it’s a good idea to pitch well-known and established markets.
If writing original content sounds intimidating, or if you want an opportunity to make much better money right out of the gate, copywriting may be for you. There are many businesses out there that need people to write their blog posts, web content, direct mailers, email campaigns, and more. You can easily find jobs like this on job boards. Some popular ones include Textbroker, Constant Content, and Upwork. Sites like Problogger and Writers Weekly sometimes post job ads as well. You might even find writing gigs posted on Craigslist!
With these jobs, you’ll be competing against other applicants to land an assignment. In some cases, like Textbroker, work is first-come, first-served – as long as you claim the article before anyone else, you can write it and be paid for it. Other sites, like Upwork, are more like traditional job applications; you’ll need to write a proposal and apply, and the client will approve your application if they like what they see.
Finding work this way can be extremely lucrative, and some people develop full-time relationships with clients found on job boards and postings. However, be aware that some jobs are more competitive than others, and the pay can be quite low due to aggressive under-bidding from people eager to land the position. Don’t sell yourself short; stick with jobs with reasonable budgets and work on developing relationships with clients rather than trying to land fresh assignments with new people all the time.
Aside from job boards, you can also market your services as a copywriter or ghostwriter directly. One option for this is Fiverr, a site used by many types of freelancers to sell services to interested buyers. Fiverr works a lot like job boards except in reverse: Rather than clients posting assignments for writers to bid on, writers can post their services and be found by individuals searching for that expertise.
If you’re willing to do some cold-calling, some of the best and most lucrative writing opportunities come from within your own community. If you approach businesses directly and offer your services as a freelance writer, you don’t have to compete against a ton of other writers and will be able to bargain for a higher rate. You might need to call dozens of businesses before finding one that is interested in your services, but it’s well worth the effort. For a detailed guide on how cold-calling works, try the book The Well-Fed Writer.
Also be sure to tell your friends, family, and colleagues about your new business. You never know when someone will need web copy written for their own new company or who might be looking for marketing collateral for their day job. Word of mouth and recommendations can go a long way toward securing you future work!
Building Your Portfolio
When you’re pitching yourself as a professional writer, it helps to have a collection of samples you can point to so that people can see the quality of your work. But if you don’t come from a journalist background or don’t have samples already available, how do you build a portfolio?
Start by writing your own marketing materials: Create a website, social media pages, newsletter, etc. in order to market your writing business. Next, start working on getting “clips,” or writing samples, in publications. Local newspapers are sometimes the easiest thing to break into. Writing the web copy for local businesses is a great opportunity, too – you can even start with the businesses owned by friends and family.
Some writers find it’s easiest to start by claiming a niche and writing extensively in that area, which allows you to market yourself as more of an expert. Find something you’re knowledgeable and passionate about and approach companies and clients in that sphere first. If you have day job experience in a particular field, you might have great success breaking in by writing for trade journals related to that industry. You already have the know-how – and now you can prove your writing chops, too.
You can house all of your writing credits or clips in a physical portfolio (helpful for in-person meetings!) but you’ll want to save them online as well. You can create a space for them on your writing website or utilize sites like clippings.me or Authory to keep them all organized.
Find even more tools to help with every step of the writing process
A Final Word on Taxes and Finances
Before you jump head-first into the freelance writing pool, be sure to take a moment to understand what taxes apply to you and how to best manage your finances.
By default, any work you do as a freelancer will be taxed as an independent contractor. This means that you’ll be on the hook for your own income taxes as well as self-employment taxes. It’s a good idea to speak with an accountant to ensure you understand your tax liability and are prepared for it.
We’ve talked about this before on our blog. Read our tax tips for freelancers.
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Tiana Gibbs is an Associate Customer Content Specialist with PR Newswire moonlighting as a freelance copywriter. When not writing for the web, she can be found trying (and sometimes failing) to build an urban homestead in the Land of Enchantment.