How to get started as a freelance writer

For many people, freelance writing is a dream gig. It gives you the ability to make money doing the thing you love. But figuring out how and where to get started can be a serious pain in the ass.

I’ve been dabbling in freelance writing for most of my career. In the beginning it was a service I offered as part of service packages for clients during my social media days. As my career progressed, I realized one of my favourite parts of working in communications is content writing. These days, I still freelance, but my services focus on writing blog posts, articles, and press releases.

Do what you love, right?

As I was drawing up an invoice the other day, I remembered what it was like the first time I had to send one to a client. Getting started in freelancing can be confusing and daunting, so I thought I’d share some best practices I’ve picked up along the way:

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Build a portfolio

One of the first things you should do when you start freelancing is curate a collection of your strongest writing samples. Prospective clients not only need to see that you can write, but what you can write (think: feature articles, blog posts, marketing copy, etc).

Don’t stress if you don’t have a lot of experience at first — I used school projects and my own personal blog when I was getting started. You can even write mock samples if you need to (though it’s a good idea to mention that somewhere in the fine print).

I recommend housing your portfolio on a website like WordPress, Squarespace, or Tumblr because it’ll be easier to find and share with others. Also, if any of your samples live on other sites (e.g. you wrote a guest post or sold an article to a news network) take screenshots so you don’t lose them if the host takes them down.

Figure out what you have to offer

There are so many different types of writing services you can offer as a freelancer. Advertising copy, essays, grant applications, cover letters, resumes, blog posts, social media copy, feature articles — if it’s in the written word, there’s someone out there looking to hire someone else to write it. While it’s nice to be a well-rounded writer, you don’t have to be everything to everyone. If you have a forte, don’t be afraid to make it your wheelhouse. On the flip side, don’t offer a service you don’t yet have a decent grasp on.

Decide on your rate

UGH. Honestly, there are few things I enjoyed less when I got started as a freelancer than trying to decide what to charge. Unfortunately, I’m not going to make it much easier on you; there’s no magic number. But here are a few things for you to consider when coming up with your own rates:

  • Decide if you’re going to charge by word, by hour, or by project (keeping in mind that the actual writing is rarely the only part of the project you’ll be spending time on. Be sure to factor in research, brainstorming, and editing time when coming up with quotes).
  • Research salary rates for similar in-office work in your area. Sites like Glassdoor, Payscale, and Salary.com (US only) can help you.
  • Factor in what exactly you’re offering. As I mentioned before, rarely is freelance writing just writing. How many revisions are you willing to give a client? Will you be doing all the research or will the client be supplying that information? How many keywords are you working in? How quickly can you provide a finished product?
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Make the money, don’t let the money make you.

Brush up on SEO

Given that a lot of freelance writing these days is web-focused, having a decent grasp on search engine optimization is good skill to have. It’s a big field of study and might take time, but having some 101-level knowledge will help both you and your client succeed. Need a crash course? Moz offers a great beginner’s guide here.

Market yourself to find clients

Whether you’re networking IRL or looking for work online, you’ve got to put yourself out there if you want to find clients. I personally love using social media as a way of sharing my work with others (the golden trio of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are still some of the most powerful free platforms at a freelancer’s disposal). There are also freelance websites like Fiverr and Upwork that can be good for getting you started. And never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth! Ask friends, family, and co-workers to spread the word, join online and in-person professional groups, and even consider sending pitch e-mails to digital agencies or businesses that may need content writers.

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Make sure prospective clients know how to reach you!

Get organized and keep track of everything

Being a freelancer means you’re your own boss, which is awesome. But it also means there’s no one else around to hold you accountable. Time management is crucial to freelance writers as is tracking how and where you spend your time. Keep your receipts and invoices and make sure you’re charging enough tax so you don’t get screwed come tax time. File your e-mails, create (digital) paper trails, and always cover your ass!

Have any additional tips for new freelancer writers? Tell me all about them in the comments!

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