How to become a freelance writer
Freelance writing is one of the many jobs that, if successful, can allow you to become location independent. So what does it take to become a boss freelance writer?
Freelance writing is any sort of writing assignment that you do for pay, outside of a staff position. You're self-employed, and you can work for 1 or 100 companies; it's completely up to you.
Historically, freelance writing meant journalism, but today it covers any type of content creation — scribe, blogger, journalist, scriptwriter, recipe writer, legal transcriptionist, novelist... the list is endless.
Freelance writing is one of the many jobs that, if successful, can allow you to become location independent.
Many digital nomads choose this option as all you need to fulfill the role is a computer and internet access.
That being said, it's also very hard! The writing part? Simple. The other 7/8 different roles you need to master in the background? Not so simple.
If done successfully you can make crazy amounts of money from freelance writing. As you're self-employed it's up to you to decide your salary. It's entirely possible to make a few thousand dollars for a single post. Does everyone make that? Not even close! But it's possible.
The road to success is littered with freelance writers who started out on their journey, bright-eyed and eager to share their stories. They proudly declared themselves freelance writers but, without a plan, their enthusiasm and bank accounts soon dried up and they moved on to something 'easier.'
Knowing who to pitch, how to pitch, and how to negotiate a reasonable payment are essential... and it can all seem overwhelming.
Pitching 20 people and being rejected 19 times can be hard to take. That one person who does agree to your idea may ask to make 100 little changes, delay paying your invoice or be a nightmare to communicate with. These are all issues you'll face if you choose to become a freelance writer.
Being a self-employed writer is not easy. You need thick skin, determination, patience, persistence, a constant desire to improve and a little more patience. It's also not the hardest job in the world, but you need a plan!
I am a walking example of exactly what not to do. My journey was long and, if I was so inclined, I'd kick myself at all the missed opportunities along the way. Thankfully I'm not, and I consider them all lessons learned which have led me to my current situation... a guy from a working-class housing estate in Manchester, UK, now typing this post from the beach in Rio de Janeiro.
That wasn't in any way meant as a brag. It's taken me many years to get here, and I hope I can share some knowledge to shave off a decade or two from your own personal journey.
I loved creative writing at school, and as soon as the travel bug hit me I transitioned to writing letters and then emails. Social Media wasn't so big for sharing stories back in 2005, and it wasn't until 2012 when I launched my first blog.
I had no plan, no direction, no training or vision but, in my mind, I was a writer! Apparently I was pretty good at it too, as my viewing stats were through the roof at times. I believe my record was 2000 readers per hour, but that meant nothing to my untrained brain.
Being nominated for an award in 2013 was pretty cool too. It was the first of two times I'd make the final 10 in the UK Blog Awards Travel Writing section.
All I wanted to do was write, and now I was being nominated for awards. I was a little disappointed when I didn't win, but just assumed the accolades would keep rolling in and soon I'd be offered a lucrative writing deal.
This was a long, hard lesson for me to learn.
People are not just queuing up to throw money at you. You have to earn a reputation, and then maintain it. In hindsight, I should have used these mini-victories to boost my portfolio, approach people, pitch ideas, network.
I did none of the above. I just carried on writing the same kind of stories about my travels, waiting for the next award. It never came.
Slowly I started to research my chosen profession. I decided no matter how long it took me, I was going to make it. I decided to form a plan.
That plan has now taken me around the world a few times, an Amazon #1 Best Seller and talking about my experiences at schools, radio and newspapers.
And the funny thing? After almost 10 years I'm still only at the start of my freelance writing journey.
So what makes a great freelance writer?
What it takes
1. Love what you do!
A love of writing is fairly essential.
You'll be spending a majority of your time behind a keyboard, so a desire to type and the ability to stay self-motivated is key.
2. Be comfortable marketing yourself
Marketing is probably even more important. It's an ugly word and something that most introvert writers hate, but it's a necessary evil. You have to learn how to sell yourself.
You need to convince people that you're the ideal candidate for the job. Over time your ever-increasing portfolio will speak for itself, but you'll always need to market yourself, negotiate rates of pay, etc.
3. Be an all-star about meeting deadlines on time
If you don't like deadlines, walk away now.
4. Network regularly
Networking is something that comes naturally to some, not so easy for others, but it's vital to success. Word of mouth recommendations can open up doors you never even imagined.
I ended up on the judging panel for a fairly major Travel Awards ceremony purely from a word of mouth recommendation (yet again something I failed to capitalize on).
5. Understand SEO
SEO. Learn these 3 letters as they will be your best friend on this coming journey. It stands for Search Engine Optimization, and it will teach you how to write to ensure the major search engines can find your work.
If you're writing any kind of content to help people gain more exposure online, you'll absolutely need to study the latest SEO techniques.
6. Keep your organization skills on point
Organizational skills, timekeeping, budgeting, tax returns, keeping up to date with technology and trends... they're all skills you'll need to maintain to ensure the backend of your business runs as smoothly as your typing skills.
These are mostly skills you'll pick up along the way. For me, it was mostly trial and error, but nowadays most of the information is online.
So you know what makes a good freelance writer, now how do you go about getting your first freelance writing job?
How to become a successful freelance writer
The more you read, the better a writer you'll become. The two are eternally linked. While some people have a natural flair for writing, everyone can improve by simply reading more.
Not all types of reading are created equally. Read aggressively, annotate and analyze.
Start with your favorite book or blogger. Read once for pleasure, then go through and pull it apart. Analyze your own emotions. Did you glaze over when reading a certain section? Were you crying or filled with questions? How did the writer do that? Was it with their word choice, a particular way of phrasing something or another technique? Scribble notes all over the text with your thoughts and ideas.
Keep a note of these techniques and tricks and implement them into your writing. You may not use them all, but they're all useful tools to keep in your utility belt.
2. Write every single day
The more you write, the better you'll become. Don't be afraid to try something new as opportunities come in all unusual shapes and sizes.
Even if it's just an email to a family member, produce something.
3. Ditch online writing courses
Don't sign up for every single online writing course available!
While you can still get some useful information from certain courses, the majority just rehash the same information you can find for free all over the internet.
I estimate that I've spent around $5,000 on various courses over the years, and I've walked away from most with only more questions and less money.
4. Create a portfolio of your work
Whatever style of writing you want to do, you'll need a portfolio. Nobody will offer you a job if you have no published work. This can be a personal blog, a portfolio site like Contently or on a publishing site like Medium. You don't necessarily need much but 3 or 4 well-written, well-researched pieces will be a good foundation.
What makes a well-written, well-researched piece? It will completely depend on your area/niche, but you'll want to showcase a range of talents.
Clear, concise writing is always important, but people are also crying out for material that connects with their audience and keeps them engaged. Don't be afraid to write with emotion.
5. Guest-post often and get your name on job boards
Guest posting on authoritative sites can open up plenty of opportunities. It's probably a much more direct route to success than grinding away on your own tiny blog, hoping someone will stumble across you.
The main problem with this is your ego. Who doesn't love creating something and receiving praise for their hard work? That's fine, but it can also slow down the process of becoming a successful freelance writer. Leave your ego at the door, guest post on other sites and get your name known in the right circles.
Finding the sites to approach, networking with them and eventually pitching your idea is a post all by itself, so for now we'll focus on other routes.
There are plenty of freelance job websites, but some are more worthy of your time than others. The big sites like Upwork, Freelancer and Fiverr are jam-packed with people willing to sell their services for pennies, so competing with them is futile.
I recommend signing up with specific freelance writing jobs boards. There are plenty, but some of the better ones are:
Some of them you'll need to subscribe to, others are free. Check them out yourself and see which have the most relevant jobs for your niche. Some are updated daily, weekly or monthly, so you'll want to keep an eye on them all regularly.
This is also now where the patience and thick skin come in handy. You'll want to pitch as many relevant job offers as possible, and maybe even some unusual ones.
6. Don't take rejection personally
Nobody likes being rejected, but you must realize it's part of the experience. You won't always receive feedback to as why, so it's important to always be studying and improving regardless.
So you know what makes a good freelance writer, you know where to apply and you have some daily advice to keep you busy.
What else could you possibly need to know?
7. Seek out interesting experiences
This one is obvious.
Seek out interesting, unique experiences to broaden your horizons and have more to write about!
Travel is one of the best ways to be inspired. For a one-of-a-kind travel experience, check out work exchange and volunteer opportunities with Worldpackers!
8. Write your book!
I procrastinated and put off writing my first book until I was nearly 40. When I did, it was like a mountain being lifted off my back.
As well as being a good source of passive income, it's also a fantastic addition to any portfolio, and nowadays you don't need a publishing deal or any literary contacts. You can self-publish and become just as successful.
Mine took a month of solid writing, day and night, but it was worth every second. If you have the time and inclination, I would totally recommend writing one.
Words of wisdom
If I could sit down with my 20-year-old self, what would I tell him? Nothing groundbreaking. As complicated as the world may seem, if you master the basics then you'll be alright.
Here's the top three things I wish I'd known a couple decades back:
1. Businesses are crying out for content
Business to Business (B2B) blogs are huge now and companies are seeing massive rises in their engagement, and this is where you come in. If you have knowledge of a certain job sector, understand the terminology and can write engaging material then you could be a goldmine for them.
2. You don't have to go through a job board
Pitch the companies directly. Find their website, read their blog posts, identify strengths and weaknesses and then pitch them your ideas. All businesses want more exposure, and you can give it to them with some well-written SEO-friendly copy.
3. Diversify your portfolio
My final piece of advice would be to diversify your portfolio. By that I mean don't bet everything on just one company. You may get a few well-paying clients, but they may not be around forever. Make sure you have a few separate income streams, just in case one dries up.
To sum things up...
Ask yourself if it's right for you. Unreliable pay, long hours at the keyboard, stressful deadlines. Does this sound like fun?
Once you've decided that you were born to write, you'll need to study SEO and marketing. You don't need to become an expert overnight, but you'll need a good understanding.
Write! Every single day, even on those bad days where it feels like you're dragging each sentence out of your mind, one word at a time.
Writer's block will hit you hard, and the best defense is the daily habit of writing.
Once you've written a few solid pieces, get them out there on your blog or Medium. Find Facebook groups for writers or bloggers. Ask them to critique your work. Use this criticism to improve your work, but don't take it personally.
Pitch pitch pitch!
Use the pitch to create dialogue and network. Show your passion and how it may benefit them. The more you practice this, the easier it will become.
I wish you the best of luck on your journey.
If you have any questions about anything discussed above, please don't hesitate to drop a comment below or message me.