Have you been thinking about taking steps to become a freelance writer, but aren’t so sure how to get started?
How about here? With this post.
Because today I’m going to share with you the seven steps to become a freelance writer and what you need to know to start a new freelance writing business from scratch.
Ready? Great, let’s dive in!
Step 1: Decide on Your Niche
I know, that’s not exactly what you want to hear. But choosing a niche or “niching down” is pretty commonplace advice for a reason.
Because it works.
If you have no idea what topics (or niches) you’re going to hone in on, it makes it really hard to prospect for clients or even secure samples in the beginning. Having unlimited possibilities often leads to analysis paralysis. And that often leads to not taking any action at all.
But what’s the best way to pick a freelance writing niche?
In the beginning, the easiest (and fastest) thing you could do is to narrow in on your niches by exploring your previous career experience, hobbies and interests. That’s why I chose personal finance as my primary niche – I had almost a decade of experience in the financial services industry and could claim “expert status” in the subject based on my licensing.
If you’re short on inspiration, we’ve got your back. We researched and brainstormed freelance writing niches and came up with over 200. You’ll find them nicely packaged in this free download.
A lot of the people who want to become a freelance writer are tempted to skip this step because they’re afraid they might pick the wrong niche.
But guess what?
There are no wrong answers. Nope, not a single one. Your niches won’t be set in stone, and you can always pivot along the way towards something you find more enjoyable or more lucrative.
Another VERY important reason for picking a niche is so that you can command higher rates. And who doesn’t want to get paid more?
Plus, it’s way easier to market yourself as a “<insert niche> writer” than just a “freelance writer.” And contrary to popular belief, your being able to “write about anything” isn’t appealing to potential clients. It might be true (and it really is to your advantage to be flexible), but it’s not what they want to hear, or what will usually land you the job.
Start by answering these questions … honestly.
- What do you want to write about?
- What do you like to write about?
- What’s natural/familiar for you based on your background, experience or education?
Then let the answers brew a bit, and write down a list of up to five niche areas. Prioritize them based on what you feel you would enjoy writing about the most. Keep these in mind as you start a blog/website, and as you start pitching writing jobs in the future.
Step 2: Get Freelance Writing Samples
Securing quality writing samples is step you can’t skip if you want to become a freelance writer.
Think about it – you can talk about how great of a writer you are until you’re blue in the face, but the easiest (and best) way for prospects and clients to see your writing skills is to read your work firsthand. There’s not really another way to go about it!
But here’s the thing, if you’re a brand new freelance writer, you probably don’t have any samples though. It’s a catch-22, right?
So how do you get samples? There are actually quite a few ways to go about it. Here are four that you can get started with today:
1. Search for writing samples that you already have on hand.
Odds are if you enjoy writing, you already have numerous writing samples at your disposal.
Maybe you’ve written fiction in the past (published or not), maybe you’ve won a writing contest or two, or maybe you’re just the go-to writer in your workplace. How about past college papers, local newsletters or your kids’ fundraising campaigns? I bet you have something sitting around that you could re-purpose into one of your first writing samples.
2. Create a freelance writing sample from scratch.
If you weren’t able to find any (or any relevant) writing samples that you already have on hand, creating some from scratch should be your next step. It’s by far the easiest and most cost-effective way of securing your first few samples.
Pick a topic related to one of the niches you picked after you read Step 1. (You haven’t skipped that, have you?) Then write a blog post about it. Or a news release. Or a sales page.
Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be done at this point.
You can draft the sample in a Google document, then save it as a .pdf (under File > Download as > PDF document) and upload it to your portfolio (more about that in the next step).
And you can always post them to a website in the future, but there’s no need to worry if you don’t have a website now.
Remember, the goal here is to showcase your sweet writing skills and provide a potential client with proof that you can write, and write well.
That’s it. No need to over complicate things!
3. Start your own blog/website.
If you’re ready to take this step, we’ve put together a free tutorial to get you started with a new website in a week. Starting your own freelance writing website is a proactive step because you don’t need anyone’s permission. And you can write about what you want, when you want.
Starting your own blog and website can be an extension of what we talked about above. You can add existing samples to your new site, post your newly-created samples as blog posts.
Keep in mind, even though you’re not getting paid for your writing (in this or previous examples), you still want to make sure that you put a lot of effort into it. If you’re going to advertise it as an example of your writing skills, your work needs to be excellent!
Don’t know what to blog about? How about one of the niches you’ve selected in Step 1?
4. Guest post on someone else’s site.
Guest posting on someone else’s website is a bit more impressive to a potential client than writing posts on your own blog. Someone else gave you a vote of confidence, and that often goes a long way when you want to become a freelance writer.
Great, but how does one go about finding guest posting opportunities. Does anyone you know have a blog that they’d like content for? Can you ask on Facebook if any one of your friends needs anything written? How about the blogs and websites you follow for your own personal interest? You’re already familiar with their from being a reader, so that should make it a bit easier to match their writing voice.
You can also turn to Google. It’s as simple as opening a new browser and typing in “[Your Niche] + Write for Us.”
This search should bring up a bunch of websites in your niche that have open submissions for contributions. (And better yet, some of the opportunities might be paying gigs too!)
At a bare minimum, write up 2-3 samples in Google Docs. Don’t get stuck in this phase though. Set a timer for yourself for 30 minutes and start researching the topic of your sample. Stop the research after 30 minutes and see how fast you can crank out your first draft.
Step 3: Create a Portfolio
So far we’ve covered the steps of selecting your niches and gathering writing samples on your journey to learn how to become a freelance writer.
The next step is to create your online portfolio. And just like sourcing samples, there’s more than one way to go about it. In fact, there are several.
Which means that you get to choose how you want to display yours and use as much or as little creativity as you’d like to help yourself stand out from the pack. Or maybe you’ll try more than one – do you!
Here are two that I’d recommend you get started with:
1. A One-Pager
Basically, if you’re not ready to start a website, go with the one (or two) pager. Build out a portfolio via a Google doc and then download it as a pdf. It can house links to your samples, your bio, headshot and more. Get creative and have some fun with it.
2. A Hire Me Page
If you are ready to start a website, go with the Hire Me page. This free tutorial will show you how to setup pages, including how to add them to your menu bar. And if you want to see an example, feel free to check out mine.
3. Set up a Contently profile
I highly recommend setting up a portfolio on Contently. It’s really easy to create an account and paste links to your samples, or upload a .pdf if you went that route. I simply set up my profile, added my published work and subsequently forgot about it. Then one day, out of the blue, I got an email from the Contently team asking if I was interested in working for one of their clients.
It was a great opportunity and it paid extremely well.
Zina Kumok is another Contently success story. In fact, she landed two $1,000 gigs the same way! I’m telling you, there’s no easier way out there to (potentially) land well-paying writing assignments!
Pick one of the methods above, and make your portfolio visible to potential clients. Please don’t think you have to wait until you have a robust portfolio before you put it out there. Three samples will do, to begin with. You will add more later.
Step 4: Source Jobs to Apply for
Now that you’ve decided on your niche, started acquiring a few samples and established your online portfolio, it’s time to put your research skills to work and source writing jobs to apply for.
And just like the above steps, there are multiple ways to go about it. Here are two of my faves:
1. Job Boards
If you’re afraid to put yourself out there, job boards might be your thing (you’re just answering an ad for someone who’s looking for a writer).
There are two types of job boards: free and paid.
There’s nothing wrong with starting out with the free options! Two of the most popular free job boards are ProBlogger and Journalism Jobs.
But leads you’ll find here will require you to do some extra research. Be sure that the opening you’re submitting for is legitimate and that the prospect is also legitimate.
You’ll pay a monthly subscription fee to gain access to paid job boards. If you can afford it, consider choosing reputable paid job boards over free ones.
2. Cold Pitching
I’m not gonna lie, there are many freelance writing experts who think job boards are not the best use of time for someone who wants to become a freelance writer. And for good reason — boards don’t always offer the best rates, there are hundreds of other freelancers submitting pitches and once in a while you’ll encounter a scam (I haven’t, but others I know have).
If you’re comfortable with putting yourself out there and want to limit your competition, cold pitching is a your best bet.
Cold pitching is basically reaching out to companies directly, finding out if they have any current (or future) writing needs and pitching yourself as the go-to writer when the opportunity arises. Some may think it’s a bit ballsy, but I prefer to think of it as smart.
I wrote a whole post about how I would find clients to pitch if I had to do it all over again.
Remember those reservations other freelance writing experts had about job boards? Well, cold pitching alleviates all of them. Since there is no job listing online, odds are that you’re one of the only (if not the only) person approaching a company at any given time for freelance writing work. Now, you take the risk that they’re not in need of a writer, but by starting the conversation and building a relationship, you’re increasing your odds of being remembered when and if they do have a need in the future.
Start perusing job boards for writing gigs in the niches you defined in Step 1. See something you’re the perfect fit for? Stop, drop and send them a pitch!
Step 5: If You Want to Become a Freelance Writer, You Have to Start Pitching
Now that you know where to look for work, it’s time to construct and send your first pitch! You absolutely cannot skip this step, as it is one of the most, if not THE most important step to become a freelance writer.
Because having a great pitch is what will separate you from the crowd. And don’t worry, it’s bound to get better with time (and experience).
My pitch has come a long way since I began sending it out in May, 2014. I bet it has gone through dozens of revisions.
Why? Because as I learned what was working (or more accurately what wasn’t), I modified it accordingly. I kept track of my “batting average” and wanted to get it as close to 1,000 as possible!
Note: Pitches will look different depending on who you’re pitching, so make sure to modify your template based on the intended audience.
I’ve talked a lot about pitching on the blog (it’s kinda my favorite topic when it comes to freelancing), so I’ll let you peruse some of the archives to learn more:
- How to Pitch Job Board Ads
- How to Cold Pitch Like a Pro
- How to Pitch Without the Right Samples
- 5 Ways to Up Your Pitching Game
One of my favorite cold pitching strategies is what I refer to as 10-by-10.
Okay, I can’t exactly take credit for this one because I didn’t make it up, but I love the strategy!
The basic premise is that you send out 10 pitches by 10 o’clock in the morning. Feel free to modify it to meet your exact needs.
Set a goal for your first month. How many pitches will you send daily? Then start out each workday by pitching to meet your commitment.
Step 6: Land Your First Client
So now that we’ve covered what niche(s) you’re planning on writing in, how to gather samples, where to display them, where to look for clients and how to craft your pitch, it’s time to talk about what happens once you have a prospect interested in hiring you.
One of the first things a prospect is likely to ask you is, “What do you charge?” Imagine yourself sending out tons of pitches, samples at the ready and getting a one sentence reply like this. What do you say?
You don’t want to bid too high for fear you might scare them off. And you don’t want to bid too low and resent the work if it doesn’t pay well.
So, how do you know what to charge? There are a couple of ways to go about it.
- Shoot to replace your current income.
- Set your rates based on your writing efficiency.
- Do some research based on your niche.
When I first started freelance writing, I based my rates first on what was offered to me (my first few clients knew what they could/wanted to pay) and then later based off replacing my salary.
Later, I moved to setting rates based on how long I projected it would take me to complete the work. And I also took into consideration what “made it worth my time.”
Another way you can go about it is to research what clients are paying in your niche. The rule of thumb is the more specialized your niche, the higher rates you can command. I.e. medical writing is likely to pay much more than lifestyle topics will.
It may take a bit of trial and error, but over time you’ll be able to determine your own rates based on your needs and the your client’s budgets.
You need a bit of price anchoring still? Here is a list of how much these 14 websites pay writers. (Hint: all of them pay $100+)
Do some rate research based on your niche. Glassdoor or the job boards mentioned in step 4 would be a good place to start.
Step 7: Get Paid!
If you’re wondering how freelance writers get paid, you’re not alone. It’s one of the most common questions I get.
But the process of invoicing a client isn’t complicated.
The hardest part, I think, is making it as easy as possible for your client to pay you. Because the easier you make it for them, the faster you’re going to get paid!
Here are my favorite two methods to send invoices/collect payment:
PayPal is known worldwide and it’s a great go-to place to start invoicing and collecting payments in the beginning. Clients trust it, they can pay via PayPal, credit card or their checking account and you can create customized invoices with your photo and logo.
When you’re ready, you might want to move to a more robust accounting tool like FreshBooks. I’ve been using them since the beginning and because of a little payment hack I know, it actually saves me money!
See which one of the two options above works best for you. Then create an account and set up a mock invoice. You can always tweak it later.
You just learned the seven essential steps to starting a freelance writing business from scratch.
You could totally get started with them. I encourage you to!
But for those of you that aren’t ready to go at it alone, I want to share with you a learning path that can help. In fact, the newest version of 30 Days or Less to Freelance Writing Success is available TODAY!
There are nine modules, ~50 individual lessons, templates, quizzes and more. I go DEEP on all seven of these steps and then some. It includes everything you need to get a new freelance writing business off of the ground.
I encourage you to check it out!
Talk to me – which of the above seven steps seems the most complicated or scary?