Working as a freelance writer has attractive benefits, including flexible working hours, location independence, and the ability to build a business doing something you love. Learn how to become a freelance writer in this guide featuring insights from 25 experts.
In his FinCon presentation, The Opportunities and Challenges of Full-Time Freelance Writing, freelance blogger Jason Steele describes freelance writing as “a simple, predictable, and diversified income stream.”
Sounds good, right?
But how do you become a freelance writer?
How do you avoid common pitfalls as you build your writing business?
And how do you distinguish yourself enough to generate a living while competing in a global marketplace already filled with writers — many of whom are willing to work at nominal rates?
These questions and fears can be overwhelming for many aspiring writers. That’s why I’ve reviewed lessons learned from 25 top freelance writing experts and put together a guide that will walk you through the process of how to become a freelance writer.
This guide will take you from frightened and confused about how to charge for your writing to feeling confident in your ability to find clients and then deliver great writing to them. You’ll have a simple 10-step process you can follow, bolstered by tips from people who have successfully done exactly what you want to do: made hundreds of thousands of dollars putting words on the page.
(I’ve also included dozens of links to additional resources where you can learn more about how to become a freelance writer.)
There are a variety of freelance writing opportunities out there. Step One to building your freelance writing business is deciding which of these opportunities you are going to pursue:
In her article, How to Define Your Job as a Freelance Writer, Lauren Tharp suggests you ask yourself the following four questions when trying to determine which type of professional writing is best for you:
If you’re just getting started and aren’t sure which type of writing is going to best suit you, Jon Nathanson recommends picking “a diverse mix of jobs and client types to get a feel for what sort of clients work best for you.”
Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen likewise recommends diversification: “Don’t focus solely on blogging, or solely on freelance writing for magazines. This way, if one source dries up then you always have a backup.”
That said, I would argue the sooner you can begin to develop expertise the better. Francesca Nicasio agrees: “You’re better off covering just a few topics instead of trying to write about anything and everything. Find your niche and own it.”
Building a successful freelance writing business that supports you full-time is absolutely possible, but it isn’t going to happen overnight. Building a business takes time and you need to go in understanding that fact.
Freelancer Lauren Hoffman learned a similar lesson:
“I freelanced in one capacity or another for over five years before I quit my day job. I had a respectable amount of money socked away when I finally resigned, but was unprepared for how long I’d have to wait between freelance checks sometimes. Even though I thought I’d responsibly prepared for whatever financial setbacks came my way, I wasn’t ready for how quickly my reserve would drain while I frantically re-invoiced clients.” ~ Lauren Hoffman
The theme of starting slow and not diving into full-time work right away is expressed by many veteran freelancers.
“If you’re wanting to break into freelance writing, make sure you have a safety net. Ideally, [you’ll have] income saved up to cover your first six months of expenses, or a part-time job to pick up the slack. Or, a fabulous partner who believes in you, if you get caught in a spot like I was.” ~ Jessie Kwak
Even well-known author and blogger Jeff Goins didn’t find instant success in the writing world. Instead, he built his career strategically and methodologically:
“I took my time, building a bridge between my day job and my dream job, finding ways for the two complement each other. This meant applying what I’d learned from my blog to our organization, while practicing my craft at work so I could do it better on the side.” ~ Jeff Goins
While it takes time to find clients and gain experience, it will also take time to reach your revenue goals. Copy Hackers founder Joanna Wiebe recommends keeping your revenue expectations low in the beginning:
“When I first started out, I was happy to take anything. If I’d wanted a $50k/year job when I first started copywriting, I probably wouldn’t have felt so lucky when I landed a $32k/year copywriting job.” ~ Joanna Wiebe
Jon Nathanson warns new freelance writers of something else to be wary of when setting their expectations: “It doesn’t matter how much you enjoy whatever it is you want to do as a freelancer. There will come a time when it starts to feel like work. And there will come another fifty times shortly after that. There will be walls, and you will slam into them.”
Similarly, Joe Bunting of The Write Practice suggests freelancers prepare for what he calls ‘writing induced misery’. He explains, “At some point, I’ve wanted to quit every major writing project I’ve ever worked on, and most writers I know have similar experiences.”
When it comes to establishing expectations for timelines and revenue for your business, Elna Cain puts it simply: “Freelance writing has a learning curve. When you begin your freelance writing journey, be prepared for multiple mistakes.”
“Freelancing isn’t a get rich quick method. I knew building a client base would take time, but I didn’t think it’d take as long as it did.”
If you’re building a business, you need a website. And if you are building a writing-based business, you absolutely must have a blog.
In her Problogger article, Have You Got What it Takes to Become a Highly Paid Freelance Blogger?, freelance writer Marya Jan notes, “You need to have a successful blog. This one seems like stating the obvious, doesn’t it? If you don’t have a blog, how do you even know if you’d enjoy blogging for pay?”
In addition to being a source of content marketing for your business, building a successful blog is also an excellent opportunity to practice your craft. “If you want to become a writer, you need to get used to writing for others. You need to practice taking feedback and dealing with rejection. You also need to start earning some fans. You do this by publishing, publishing small and regularly,” notes Joe Bunting. Your blog is the perfect place to do just that.
Need help starting your first blog or growing your existing blog’s readership? Fizzle has just re-launched the popular course, Start a Blog That Matters. In the course, you’ll discover the exact strategies used to start some of the biggest and most celebrated blogs on the web. Learn more here.
While your blog will serve as one sample of your writing and will help to grow your audience, you’ll also want to begin to build a portfolio of pieces written for larger websites, publication, and early clients.
Guest blogging for high authority websites can be an excellent way to get your foot in the door and build your portfolio of articles. Carol Tice, founder of the excellent freelance writer resource Make a Living Writing, suggests guest blogging also has marketing benefits:
“I was surprised to see how many clients came from the visibility I get from one of my big blogging gigs. Any time you get a chance to write for a high-traffic website where you think prospects visit, you want to do it.” ~ Carol Tice
Joanna Wiebe recommends the tool Carbonmade for building a good-looking, easy to navigate online portfolio for your freelance writing samples, but a page on your website listing links to your samples will also work.
You’ll likely start off taking any work you can get, but, like all freelancers, you’ll soon realize not all clients are created equal. You’re going to want to identify your ideal clients, and focus your marketing efforts on them.
Who is an ideal client for a freelance writer?
Still not sure who is the right client for you? Here’s author Paul Jarvis’ advice: “Make a list of people that have hired freelancers that use the same skills as you have and have recently hired for it. Send them a quick email to see if you can ask them for their advice. Can’t figure out who to ask? Look at successful freelancer’s websites and go to their client list. That’s a whole whack of folks that have hired someone to do what you do.”
As a blog reader you get access to our free guide on this very topic. Get Fizzle’s free Guide to Defining & Understanding Your Customers »
Wondering where to find your first few clients? Look no further than your existing network.
Joanna Wiebe’s first copywriting gig came from a guy her stepmom knew; she ended up working with him for a decade!
Jason Billows, instructor of Fizzle’s Essentials of Book Yourself Solid course, puts it like this: “Social media continues to become a more and more important marketing channel, but the most effective marketing strategies for service-based businesses, including freelance writers, will always be networking and referrals.”
Networking isn’t just about outreach. It’s also about follow-up. In her article, Three Years as a Freelancer — 12 Lessons Learned, Frankie Thompson advises, “Don't let people forget you. And don't you forget them. Make valuable connections, keep in touch, and stay accessible.”
Writer Jennifer Goforth Gregory also stresses the importance of strong follow-up work: “If you do not follow up on each Letter of Introduction you send out, then you are most likely leaving money on the table. Not following up is the absolute biggest mistake most writers make.”
The ability to write is one skill, but the ability to sell yourself as a writer is something else entirely. If you are going to make a living in the highly competitive world of freelance writing, you must learn the art of sales.
“In the new digital arena, the ability to sell is a premium skill,” notes freelancer Anthony Dejolde. “It is a skill you can’t do without to thrive. You should cultivate the ability to sell or you’ll not be able to acquire clients.”
Especially when first getting started, you’re likely going to need to do some cold pitching. Jesse Kwak writes:
“The second largest source of new gigs for me was cold pitching potential prospects. At the end of 12 full months of freelancing I’m to a point where people are coming to me, but I’m still sending out letters of introduction and phoning up prospects — because that’s how I’m going to keep moving up.” ~ Jesse Kwak
Tylor Moss, managing editor of Writers Digest, also believes query work and pitching is essential to a writer’s success:
“The quality of your query is so critical. An article pitch should capture the key points of your story, including what makes it so compelling and why this particular publication is the ideal venue, as well as your credentials as a writer—all in a succinct email.” ~ Tylor Moss
Part of selling yourself as a writer and pitching your story ideas involved learning how to highlight the benefits of what you have to offer to clients:
“If you take another look at my services page, you’ll see that I also include some of the overall benefits to customers of using professional writers. Everyone wants to look good to their customers. If you can help them to do that, you’re a valuable resource and worth the rates you charge. Whether you’re helping your clients create trusted information or improve their site’s search ranking, it has a value to them in terms of authority and sales.” ~ Sharon Hurley Hall
As a freelance writer, you will NOT want to charge an hourly rate.
As Ed Gandia, host of the High-Income Business Writing podcast, explains “When you price by the hour, you make LESS money the faster/better you get. When you price by project, you make MORE money the faster/better you get.”
In addition, as a business person, you always want to determine your rates based on the value you deliver, not the amount of time you spend working on a project. Instead of an hourly rate, you’ll want to charge by the project, or, better yet, bundle your services into a packaged offering or product.
Freelance writer Sophie Lizard explains:
“The first thing you might think is, “But I don’t have any products— just writing services.” Trust me, you sell products. You just don’t recognize them. Let’s fix that now. When you offer one or more services with a price, timeline and payment terms, you’ve created a product. In freelance blogging, it often feels like you create a whole new deal for each new client. But once you look a bit closer, you’ll probably see a pattern in which certain post types, post lengths, delivery speeds and add-on services are more popular than others.”
Deciding what to charge can be one of the most intimidating decisions for new freelancers, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with industry standards and then determine where you are going to position yourself within them.
In the 2015 edition of Writer’s Market, Aaron Belz compiled a chart listing recommended rates for virtually any freelance writing gig you can think of. With blogging, for example, the chart recommends $500/post on the high end and $6/post on the low end (this would be “content mill” work, something you’ll likely want to avoid).
Marya Jan notes that she makes, “around $120.00 per 600-word post. So I am smack bang in the middle, and considered to be making a decent rate.”
In On the Freelance Front Line: Waging War Against Non-Payment, Valerie Bordeau writes, “The average for print stories is around $350 per piece. Digital work can generate approximately $207 per assignment, while working for content mills averages around $25 per piece.”
On the topic of value based pricing, Jenn Stanton reminds freelancers that while everyone wants a deal, you don’t have to give it to them. “My time is valuable and I produce good work,” she writes, “so sticking with my pricing communicates confidence and reiterates my product and services are worth it. If all they want is cheap, they can find that elsewhere.”
Need more information on freelancing rates? Yuwanda Black of Inkwell Editorial, which bills itself as “the authority site on how to start a freelance writing career”, compiled the following articles:
We’ve already discussed benefits-based selling and value-based rates. Now it’s time for you to prove that you are worth the money you’re charging.
As Linda Formichelli puts it, “If you want to get master-level rates, you need to offer master-level value.”
Producing high-quality products for your clients isn’t just a goal you’ll strive for; it’s the entry level ticket into the game. If you can’t produce great work in a professional manner, all the marketing in the world won’t save you.
“Good isn’t good enough,” suggests Jon Nathanson. “People hire freelancers because they want experts. Simply put, they want people to do things they can’t do themselves.”
Frankie Thompson expounds further on this idea: “You are not a writer. You are a problem solver. People looking for freelancers are looking for that person to perform a service or create a product that solves a problem they can't fix on their own.”
One of the great things about being a freelancer is that you have a lot of control over the quality of the product you produce, as well as the customer experience you provide. As Lauren Hoffman puts it:
“You can’t decide which editors accept your pitches or ensure that a piece turns out the way you’d planned it to be, but you are in control of how and when you turn your work in, and editors see and remember that. Be the person who is literally never late.”
While reflecting on lessons learned in his article, 10 Years of Self-Employment: Here’s What I’ve Learned, Ed Gandia notes the importance of providing a premium quality service.
“Once you understand that the market is divided into categories, you stop worrying about the low-priced competition and the rise of low-cost overseas freelancers. That’s when you realize that the sweet spot is the ‘Trusted Expert’ sector. So you put forth the effort to establish yourself in this category and focus on value and other differentiators that are important to your target market.”
Providing value consistently is essential, but it takes a lot of effort. Honestly, The Fizzle Show is a weekly podcast that can give you a mindset reboot every week. Give it a listen if you haven’t.
As we’ve already discussed, you’re going to be charging per project instead of an hourly rate for your freelance writing services. What that means is the quicker you can complete projects, the more money your business is going to generate.
“Writing at a breakneck pace is my number one secret when it comes to earning more. The faster you write, the more you earn,” explains Linda Formichelli.
In her excellent ebook, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, author Rachel Aaron explains how a productivity analysis allowed her to determine where, when, and what length of writing session produced her quickest writing. Aaron is a fiction author, but the process she explains will work for any writer looking to get more work done at a faster pace.
As a freelancer balancing client management, marketing, and invoicing along with the actual writing of articles, time management becomes key:
“Starting out is rough when you have too much time and not enough clients to fill it. This makes planning your time super important. Too much time on your hands is detrimental.” ~ Jenn Stanton.
Productivity is, of course, an entire niche unto itself, and I encourage you to explore it further. Just remember, the MORE you write, the better and quicker you are going to get.
PS. one of the simplest, most effective productivity systems is taught in Fizzle’s excellent Productivity Essentials Course. That’s in the Fizzle library and you can take it (in its entirety) in the free two week trial of Fizzle indie business membership.
Learning how to become a freelance writer and building a successful freelance writing business is challenging, but do-able. I’ve done it, the 25 experts quoted in this guide have done it, and you can do it too.
Stick the 10-step path outlined here, heed the advice and tips shared by the experts, and you’ll be well on your way to a successful career as a paid writer.
Here’s those 10 steps for you again. Which one’s next for you?
Thanks for reading! I’ve been Kevin T. Johns, a writer and ghost writer who helps writers from around the world get ideas out of their heads, onto the page, and into readers’ hands.
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