How to Become a Freelance Writer
12 tips that will help you start earning money with your writing
It can be a bit scary to go into business for yourself and support yourself with your own work. For writers, there’s also the widespread belief that it’s hard to make money as a writer, and impostor syndrome infects so many of us.
As someone who has worked as a professional writer since 2015, I wanted to share here on Story Cauldron some of the things I’ve learned over the years. In this piece, I demystify the process of becoming a freelance writer (or really, any kind of professional writer) and give you the basics so you can get started.
There comes a time in every writer’s life when she’s tired of sitting at a desk working for The Man and she wants to escape to the Land of Freelance, where she can work from home with her cats on her lap and take naps whenever she wants.
Admit it, you’ve had this vision. We all have.
But wait! Those are just foolish dreams, right? You can’t make money as a writer. Isn’t that what you’ve heard all your life? Writing is hard. Don’t quit your day job.
You CAN make a living as a writer
Lots of us do it. It’s not the easiest way to make a living, but it’s far more rewarding than many of the alternatives. So why not give it a try? Before you jump the corporate ship, make sure you have a life vest. If you don’t have a second income-earner in the household, build up savings that equal at least a few months of rent/mortgage payments + bills. And start collecting up all of the things you’ve written over the years: blogs, short stories, websites you built for friends, anything that shows you can write. If it’s not online, scan it and put it there.
Below are twelve tips based on my experience as a full-time professional freelance writer. They may not all apply to you, but they should be enough to get you started.
Create a business identity with a DBA and separate business banking account. Choose your invoicing software (e.g. QuickBooks, WaveApps, 17Hats, Freshbooks) and learn how to use it. Hire an accountant or CPA who can answer questions about deductions and business expenses.
Build an online portfolio that showcases your work. You can link to publications and your own blog, if you have one. If you don’t have a lot of examples of your work right now, write for yourself. Create a fake website with your own writing. Start a passion project blog. Document a process you know really well (baking, woodworking, building websites). Jump at the chance to do guest blogging. Create a Substack. In short, show what you can do.
Figure out your preferred niche and stick to it. Do you want to write web copy, documentation, ads/marketing copy, blog posts, product descriptions, long-form research articles, or white papers? Are there certain industries you prefer? (And are there subjects/industries you don’t like?) Do you also offer editing (and if so, what kinds of things do you edit)? Don’t be a jack of all trades here. The more narrow your focus, the more likely you’ll get gigs.
Choose a good hourly rate (and associated per piece/per hour rate since you’ll sometimes be asked for that) and stick to it. Don’t undersell yourself because you’re desperate for work, because then you’ll be too busy with BS work to get good jobs. For an inexperienced writer, $25-$30 an hour might be a good place to start. If you have experience, $50-$60 an hour is not unreasonable. Top writers can earn even more. Keep in mind you won’t be working 40 hours a week (most likely it will be half that) and you will have to pay for all of your office expenses, transportation, research, and health insurance. So choose a number that allows you to make a decent living.
Pitches should be brief and directly to the point. Show clients you can do exactly the kind of work they need with little to no digging around on their part (send them a portfolio link, but also include direct links to anything that is right up their alley). Make it easy for them to hire you.
ALWAYS turn work in on or before the deadline (unless you’re in the hospital, never ever turn in work late.) Make sure it’s formatted the way the client wants and has been proofread and spell-checked. Don’t use double spaces after a period. And take edits/suggestions gracefully. You’re writing for someone else, not yourself. Don’t be difficult to work with.
It can take a while to get established (hence the savings safety net). Expect to not earn full-time equivalent money for at least a year.
Be prepared for the dry months of November-February. And then get ready for the spring thaw.
Be wary of national freelance/writing websites. They can be sources for gigs, but they are very competitive, and often vastly underpaid. Try instead to find gigs through local freelance groups (such as the Texas Freelance Association), through industry organizations in your field of expertise, or try collaborating with web developers or graphic designers who always have clients needing copy.
Pitching articles for possible publication is a possible route. Be aware that blogs and magazines can be crapshoots, especially for new writers, so use your time wisely and don’t spend the majority of your time chasing big-name publications.
Be careful about working for free. If you’re producing content for a friend or a nonprofit, that’s one thing. Avoid clients who ask you to create publishable content for free as a ‘trial’ or businesses who offer ‘equity’ or worse, ‘exposure.’ (People die from exposure, you know).
Have a blast! After all, making money as a writer is AWESOME. Celebrate your wins. (I recall cheering when I realized I had paid for an entire grocery shopping run with my writing. It was an exciting moment!).
Are you a freelance writer? I’d love it if you’d leave a comment sharing your own experience and suggestions for the next generation!