It can sound like a dream job: Writing about your thoughts and experiences for a living, all while working from home, for yourself, as a freelance writer. But breaking into the freelance writing business can be tough, and making enough money to sustain yourself can be even harder. Here’s how to get started:
Invest in skills training.
Before you decide to jump into freelance writing full-time, consider what skills you might want to develop and what services you intend to offer. Do you need a masters degree in journalism or an MFA to become a freelancer? Definitely not. Some folks find that these programs are helpful for making connections and understanding the industry, but getting a graduate degree can be expensive if you don’t receive a scholarship.
Rather than heading straight into graduate school applications, first, make a list of skills you think you might need to cultivate as a freelance writer. What do you need to improve on? What do you need to learn? This could include basic writing skills, learning how to write and sell personal essays, or leaning into advertising copywriting. Perhaps you want to learn how to fact check, or copy edit, or provide SEO consulting. There are online classes on all of these topics! Start there.
Prove that you can write well.
As a freelance writer, you’ll likely be working with many clients. But before those clients hire you, they’ll want to see proof of your writing skills. There are several ways to provide this kind of proof:
- Blogging: This is the DIY method for showing what you’re made of. Start a blog (either on your own URL, or on Medium.com) and write every week on the topic you’d like to cover eventually.
- Internships & fellowships: If you follow a publication closely and see that they’re hiring interns, apply! Internships can be a great way to build your clips (another term for writing samples).
- Pro-bono work: Consider 2 to 3 clients you want to work for, then offer your services for a beta-rate. This means making slightly less money than you might at market value, but it will give you the opportunity to put big-name clients on your resume, and prove that you can do the work.
(A word of caution: The advice to work for a lower rate only applies for those first 2 to 3 projects. After that, charge market rates! Working for free is all too common in freelance writing, and it’s something to avoid if you want to do this work long-term.)
Pick a niche.
It can be helpful to pick several topics to cover as a freelance writer. Perhaps you’re a parent, or you have a deep interest in mountain biking. Perhaps you’ve spent your entire career working in software development, or HR. These are great niches to focus on when it comes to building a freelance writing business.
When you brand yourself as a writer covering a certain topic, it makes it easier for clients to find you. Another way to pick a niche is to focus on a few key skills instead of a certain topic — say, SEO writing, or technical copywriting.
Build a portfolio website.
As we said before, most clients will want to see proof of your work and professionalism, online. The best way to sell yourself is to create a personal website that shows who you are, what kind of work you do, and gives people a way to get into contact with you. Squarespace, WordPress and Weebly are all popular websites where you can easily build a portfolio page. You’ll want to include:
- Your bio & a photo
- A blurb on the home page about what kind of work you do
- Testimonials from past clients
- Links to sample projects and pieces of writing
- A way to contact you
Join listservs with work opportunities.
Now that you have proof of your ability to write well and a website to show off those great clips, it’s time to find clients! Most editors post calls for pitches on Twitter, and Sonia Weiser produces a great newsletter each week that curates all those opportunities. You can also join Facebook groups that are pertinent to your intended niche, or your geographical region.
Pick a few publications you’d like to write for, and read their work. Take time to understand what kind of stories they’re publishing. Follow their editors on Twitter so you can understand how to send them story ideas.
Most publications offer pitch guides, which detail how to send them pitches properly. Pitching is difficult because most editors are completely overrun by emails; you’ll likely end up sending ideas and not hearing back. Know that it’s not just you — it’s how the industry works! If you’re pitching a reported story, you’ll want to send a 3 to 4 paragraph summary of your idea. Many publications that take personal essays will want to see a whole draft.
If you haven’t heard back, follow up at the one-week and two-week mark, then take your story idea elsewhere. You may need to shop it around a bit before it lands!
You can also reach out directly to your ideal clients, introducing yourself and asking what work they need. Regular writing work (versus one-off story assignments at big publications) can help keep your finances stable.
Keep best business practices in mind.
Freelance writing is a business. You’ll want to think through your financial goals, your budget, your rates, and beyond before you get started. (Signing up for a service like Lili Bank is a great place to begin with streamlining your finances.) Remember to charge your clients what you’re worth, and to read your contracts.