How to Become a Freelance Writer: 15 Principles for Success
It’s easy to say that freelance writing is easy, but it’s also easy to say that it’s hard.
In reality there is a middle ground in which one can succeed and prosper in the world of freelance blogging. The process of learning how to become a freelance writer hasn’t been easy for me, nor has it been especially hard. I believe that if you understand the basic principles of successful freelance writing and put them into action on a consistent basis, you will find success.
With that in mind, in this post I have collected what I consider the most important principles for successful freelance writers into fifteen actionable nuggets. If you absorb and apply the following principles then you will be giving yourself the best possible chance of succeeding as a freelance writer.
Phase 1: Prepare Yourself
Before you actually begin to look for freelance writing work you should make sure that you are set up for success; both in a psychological and technical sense. To put it simply, you need to be a good writer and you need to know that you are a good writer.
Believe in Yourself
The very first question you must ask yourself when learning how to become a freelance writer is simple yet vitally important: “Do I believe in myself?” I.e. do you believe that you are capable of becoming a successful freelance blogger?
If the answer is yes then you are ready to move on. If the answer is no then you need to consider what your lack of faith is based upon, because without belief you are likely to prevent yourself from succeeding.
The simple fact is this: if you want to succeed as a freelance blogger then you need to help yourself rather than hinder yourself. A lack of belief in your abilities will be all too obvious for prospective clients to see. If on the other hand you exude confidence, their perception of your abilities will be heightened.
Let me put it another way: I’d rather be an average writer with an unerring belief in the inevitability of my success than a great writer wracked with self-doubt. Believe that you can succeed and you are far more likely to.
Learn to Write
That’s right folks — if you want to be a successful freelance writer you should be a good writer. It should be blindingly obvious but I think there are lot of people out there who don’t fully appreciate the importance of honing their writing skills.
Becoming a better writer is just as important as learning to find prospective clients or negotiate rates effectively. It is perhaps the most powerful element in terms of influencing every area of your budding freelance writing business. If you’re a good writer, everything becomes simpler.
A lot of people will say that in order to become a good writer you should “just write.” I call bullshit on that. It’s like telling someone with a terrible golf swing to keep practicing that same golf swing — they’re just learning bad habits.
So I encourage you to study and learn the principles of effective writing, and more specifically, writing for the web. The good news is that effective online writing relies upon a set of straightforward rules underpinned by just one principle: keep it simple. If you put no more time into learning how to become a freelance writer then remember that.
If however you are of a mind to improve your craft and want to know where to start, I recommend that you start with the Yahoo! Style Guide. It is my bible and taught me most of what I know about online content writing.
Consider Your Expertise
One of the biggest perceived issues that faces freelance bloggers is their area of “expertise.” I get a lot of people emailing me with this problem — they desperately want to become a freelance writer but feel that they do not know enough about a specific topic to offer value.
The first thing I’d say is that everyone knows more about something than most. If I am stood in a room with all my friends I can point to each one and name at least one thing they know more about than me. Steve knows more about cars. Briony knows more about medicine. Kim knows more about teaching. Dan knows more about law. Vicky knows more about fund raising. Sarah knows more about horses. Tom knows more about marketing. I could go on but I’m sure you get the message.
My point is this — you do have value to offer on any number of topics if you take a moment to consider where your expertise lies. This becomes even more obvious when you consider that the vast majority of people interested in learning more about a certain topic are complete beginners. You only need to have an intermediate understanding of a topic to be well-placed to teach the majority of the market.
I personally experienced this when I landed my first job at WPMU.org — a blog dedicated to the world of WordPress and blogging. At the time I had been blogging for about five months but I’d already learned enough to provide value to many of the readers. I was “expert enough.” I am certain that you are expert enough in plenty of fields to offer value.
Keep an Open Mind
Following on from my previous point, I would advise you to be open minded concerning which topics you’re happy to write about — especially when you’re just getting started. I’d advise you to snatch up anything you can find that pays a decent rate and/or offers good prospects in terms of exposure, etc.
One thing you’ll quickly discover is that you learn a huge amount about something when you write about it. That should be an obvious realisation to you but many do not fully appreciate it. If you can get your foot in the door in a certain market and start building up a reputation, you’ll soon find that your perceived value grows and you can soon move onto bigger opportunities. That is precisely what I did in the WordPress market, despite having barely any prior experience.
Did I see myself as a WordPress writer when I started out on my freelance blogging journey? Absolutely not. Do I consider myself a WordPress writer now, capable of offering a great deal of value to the majority of the community? Definitely.
Stage 2: Find Work
When learning how to become a freelance writer, the idea of putting yourself out there and pitching prospective clients can be pretty terrifying. I remember it well myself — I submitted pitches to a number of prospects and felt utterly absurd in doing so. Who was I, a completely unqualified beginner blogger who nearly failed English at school, doing submitting pitches for freelance writing jobs?
Overcoming that psychological hurdle is one of the biggest steps you can take towards freelance writing success. Once you have the confidence to consistently submit pitches to prospective clients you can focus on the nuts and bolts of getting more work and building your business.
Go Looking for Jobs
Having said that, one common issues amongst startup freelance writers is that they simply don’t go looking for jobs. They somehow expect jobs to find them, or submit a handful of pitches and give up when they don’t get a response.
So let me make it clear — if you want to become a successful freelance writer then you’re going to have to hustle. To begin with, at least. You cannot expect people to come to you when you have no experience and no reputation. You’re going to have to get out there and demonstrate to people why you are worth their time and money.
To give you a sense of scale when I talk about finding jobs, consider my friend Ruth Zive’s “Ten Before Ten” approach in which she made sure to contact ten prospects before 10am. Ten prospects every working day soon adds up and makes success all but inevitable.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways in which you can find work in the freelancing world. Those first few jobs that get you on the ladder shouldn’t be too hard to come by if you’re going about the process in the correct manner. Make a start with the following posts:
- Freelance Writing: How To Find Your First Job
- How to Spot Viable Freelance Writing Opportunities on Job Boards
- Freelance Writing Jobs for Beginners (Without Using Job Boards)
Write Great Pitches
Once you’ve located a prospective client your likelihood of landing the job comes down to just a couple of things — one of which is the quality of your pitch.
Put simply, your pitch plays a huge role in determining in whether you land a job. It’s not always the best writer that gets the role — it can be the person who submits the best pitch. After all, clients aren’t just looking for writing skills — they’re looking for someone who demonstrates an aptitude and enthusiasm for the role. They’re looking for someone who makes a good impression — someone who sets themselves apart from the crowd. That’s what a good pitch can do.
For tips on creating good pitches, start with my post on finding your first freelancing job.
Get Some Great Samples
A lot of beginner freelance writers feel that they are hamstrung by a lack of quality samples, and they’re right. However, they don’t appreciate that it is possible to get your hands on good samples without getting paid work. The perceived catch-22 of getting quality samples when you can’t get work doesn’t actually exist.
The first thing I’ll say about samples is that you shouldn’t attach them as files to pitches. When it comes to online writing, prospective clients want to see that you’ve been publishing — if you’re sending them articles as Word docs then they’re going to wonder why no one has seen fit to publish you.
In terms of getting published you have three potential solutions:
- Publish content on your own blog
- Guest post on other blogs
- Land an unpaid ongoing blogging role
The first is obviously the least effective (as anyone can publish content on their own blog), but it was enough for me to land my first role. I recommend that you target all three if you are truly keen on succeeding. The third option is especially effective in my opinion, as that position likely emulates the type of role that a quality client is looking for.
Create a Quality Writer’s Website
Even if you choose not to create your own blog to help build your freelance writing business, I consider having a website to be absolutely mandatory. After all, if you’re touting yourself as a freelance blogger you need to demonstrate at least a modicum of technical ability!
Your writer’s website should be the hub to which all prospective clients refer. It should be linked to from within your email signature so that they can visit it and see that you are not just a fly-by-night hoper. The site should be cleanly designed (I recommend one of the default WordPress themes such as Twenty Eleven or Twenty Twelve). Please refrain from the temptation to try anything fancy with the design unless you know what you are doing.
The site should be professionally presented and convince any prospective client that you are a candidate worth of their consideration.
Get Good Testimonials
Aside from a short biography, contact information and example of work you’ve already had published, your website should feature a number of positive testimonials relating to your writing abilities and general professionalism. If you have not yet worked as a freelance writer then you may feel that getting hold of testimonials is impossible, but that is not the case.
The easiest way to get hold of testimonials when starting out is to ask your friends and any colleagues. Their testimonials do not necessarily need to relate directly to your writing ability but can refer to your professionalism, organization skills, reliability, etc. Throwing these in the mix can be an effective way of bulking out your testimonials and no prospective clients needs to know that the people that wrote them have a personal connection to you.
Another relatively easy way to get testimonials is from bloggers that you have guest posted for or are blogging for on an unpaid basis. Most will probably be happy to write something up for you and these can of course relate directly to your writing ability.
Create a Blog
This blog has been hugely influential in determining my success as a freelance blogger. Beyond my first two clients it has served as a consistent referral machine — it is the reason why I haven’t had to go looking for freelance writing work in about eighteen months. As such, I urge any beginner freelance blogger to start their own blog.
The topic(s) you choose to cover isn’t necessarily that important — for instance, the subject matter I cover here is rarely directly related to anything that I blog about for clients. Having said that, it certainly won’t do you any harm to blog within an area of interest that you would like to be paid to write about. The topic is up to you but the real benefit is in showcasing your technical writing ability and your ability to create a successful blog.
If you can show a client that you’re good enough to build a community around your blog from the ground up, it serves as a strong mark in your favor as to your ability to help them.
Stage 3: Build Your Business
Consistently seeking out prospective clients is of course extremely important when starting out — without doing so you are unlikely to find those few jobs that can get you on your way. However, you should also have one eye on how your business is going to develop – the sooner you hone and perfect your approach, the better it is for your growth.
Learn to Negotiate
In submitting pitches your hope is of course that a prospective client will bite and offer you a job. If they do so then you may be required to state your rate. This is enough to paralyse any enthusiastic beginner freelance writer into inaction — I say that from personal experience.
However, setting and negotiating rates does not need to be an imposing concept that looms over you like a storm cloud. In reality, the application of a few simple concepts can give you the confidence to state a rate that has been calculated in a reasonable and sensible manner.
To learn more about setting and negotiating rates, check out this article.
Learn to Write Fast
If I had to single out one thing that has had the most influential impact on me earning $100+ per hour from freelance writing, it is my ability to create content quickly.
I’m not just talking about my typing speed (although that is hugely important) — I am talking about the process of creating a blog post from that moment where you have a kernel of an idea through to when you have finished the post publishing promotion process.
If it is not clear then let me state it plainly: your ability to work quickly has a direct impact on your ability to make more money. A $100 articles make you $100 per hour if it takes you one hour or it makes you $50 per hour if it takes you two. That is the simple math.
If you want to know more about how to be a fast writer then check out my post on the topic: 9 Steps to Writing Blog Posts Quickly (and Making Much More Money).
Write to the Client’s Standard, Not Your Own
To follow on from my previous point, an error that many freelance writers make is to write to their own standards rather than their clients’. This is especially costly when starting out on jobs that pay modestly — nothing is more depressing than spending hours on a job that pays pennies.
The point to consider is this: if you’re being paid pennies then the client is probably expecting work of an equivalent value. Don’t give them your A game if they’re only paying you a bargain basement rate.
I must clarify something important: I am not saying that you should do shoddy work. But I am saying that you should work to a standard that reflects the value of your compensation. That will keep the client happy and will take you far less time. And most importantly, it was massively reduce the chances you feeling jaded by your over-exertion and giving up altogether.
Be a Solution, Not a Problem
One of the key things you must understand about the working relationship you have with your clients is that you are there as a solution, not a problem. You are there to save them time and provide a quality solution with minimal hassle. If you are not delivering on all fronts then you are making yourself a problem.
Your writing ability is only one consideration — in reality, a client will want you to deliver a quality product, as promised, on time, and consistently. If you produce brilliant work but you’re consistently late or difficult to communicate with, the client is going to have a conflicted opinion of your value to them.
So whenever you are working with a client, remember that you must always be a solution rather than a problem. Blow them away with quality of product and of service and your business will grow.
Be More than Just a Writer
I have noticed an increasing trend amongst prospective clients — they want more than just writers. In fact, very few of the people I have worked with have simply wanted me to write and submit articles. Clients are more often than not looking for a bigger solution than that — they want the articles to be written, published and promoted. They want to make sure that their online marketing strategy is sound. They want their website to look good and convert well.
If you can build your business around the basis of offering a well-rounded service that incorporates more than just writing, you’ll find that the scope for the development is huge. This is not something that you should worry too much about when just getting started but it definitely is something to bear in mind for the future. Although your time is finite (which in turn limits your earning potential), a content marketing business that caters to a client’s every need is scalable and could represent the next level for your business.
In the meantime, just focus on developing your skills around your writing ability. This is another reason why having your own blog can be so valuable — it will give you a well-rounded experience of what creating a successful blog is all about. Your potential value to a client will skyrocket if you can demonstrate that you have true aptitude in blogging and all that it incorporates: social media, SEO, and so on.
Follow the Process
Above I have outlined a broadly chronological approach to successful freelance writing. While there is plenty more to be said about each principle and many other things to take into consideration, this barebones process will certainly get you on the right path and will make you far better equipped than most of your competition to succeed.
If you have any questions regarding the above or in fact any questions about freelance writing at all, please do not hesitate to get in touch via the comments section below. I look forward to reading your thoughts!