How to Kickstart Your Freelance Writing Career

freelance writing career

As the internet continues to grow exponentially, we are now creating more content each calendar year, than existed in all of the years B.I. (Before Internet) combined. This has created a huge market for people who enjoy writing. In fact, tens of thousands of us go to work every day, without ever leaving home. It’s great, on the good days. But launching your freelance writing career in today’s saturated market can be a tricky landscape to navigate. The good news: it’s 100% doable. 

This business is hard, and there’s a truck ton of competition for the good jobs. That doesn’t mean you can’t get them, but it will help a lot if you can avoid many of the mistakes I -and a lot of other freelancers- made while getting started. So, in addition to showing you what to do, I’m going to point out some potholes I hit on the road to writing success.

What you need before you apply for your first writing gig:

There are three things I recommend every freelancer have before they apply for their first gig, and one of them is almost essential.

  1. At least one online writing sample.
  2. A resume.
  3. A PayPal account.

Most people have numbers 2 and 3, or understand how to get them. Number 1, however, is non-negotiable. To get even a halfway decent writing gig online, you must have at least one sample. So, how do you do it? There are a number of ways to get your first sample published.

3 common routes for launching a freelance writing career:

Route #1: Start Your Own Blog

The simplest route is to start your own blog and contribute to it regularly. Over time, this can provide you with a lot of credibility and mine has gotten me gigs worth thousands. It’s not as hard as it sounds, and you don’t even have to spend any money to get it started.

Here are three places you can go to set up your first writing blog today:

  • The Blogger platform is owned by Google and indexes quickly. Plus, you can add a custom domain name and run your website from here indefinitely if you want. Guys like Seth Godin use it.
  • WordPress is the single most flexible content management system online today, and one of the fastest growing website platforms in the world. Their free version can get you started, but it is best to use the paid version with external hosting with a service such as Bluehost. If you use the free version, you will be stuck with a domain name like myblog.wordpress.com, which doesn’t sound nearly as professional as myblog.com.
  • Steem is one is a little off the beaten path, but what you want is URLs of writing you actually created and Steem, if you do it right, could also turn into a good source of side income.

What do I write about?

One sure fire way to get instantly credentialed as a writer is to write about writing. You probably know more than you think, but if not, sites like this one, or Listiller are filled with great ideas for writing articles, that were probably borrowed from another writing blog already. Put your own spin on it, never plagiarize another writer, and before you know it, you’ll have established a little authority and expertise for yourself.

Route #2: Become a Guest Blogger

If you know any writers, one or two of them probably post guest posts to their own blogs from time to time. If not, you can use Listiller, to submit your blog articles, for free, to their blog. You need to find a site that will give you authorship credit for your post, so make sure you ask.

Sites like the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed get most of their content from guest bloggers. The competition is stiff, and you’ll need a good article idea to pitch to them, but it’s not unheard of for beginners to publish on these widely-read sites.

Pro tip: if you’re really ambitious, and have expertise on a subject you can write about, you may be able to land a paying guest post gig right off the bat. Writing job board sites will post these from time to time. That way you make a little money, and get a good quality sample link to share.

Route #3: Write an E-Book

This one sounds ambitious if you’ve never done any writing for hire, but it’s actually pretty simple. A short report on almost any topic, neatly typeset and carefully proofread, can be uploaded to Amazon for free, for a sample link that can be quite impressive to potential writing clients.

I didn’t start with this one, but I use my author page and my book listings regularly now, as examples of my writing ability. If you’d like to explore more, here are some ideas about finding your first gig.

No matter which route you take, so long as you persevere and keep at it, you will eventually start to build up a portfolio of sample articles that show off your abilities and begin earning yourself gigs. That said, it’s easy to undersell yourself or wind up getting taken advantage of when you are just starting out in your freelance writing career.

So, here’s what not to do:

Do not trade writing services for “exposure.” Unless you are publishing in one of the places I just mentioned, the likelihood of anyone seeing your writing on a brand-new website and wanting to hire you as a writer is non-existent. In general, unless you can link back to your own blog, sell something, or at least get author credit, get paid.

The problem with ads on Craigslist and writing job boards that promise “exposure” is this: if the site in question had exposure to be handing out, they would also have the money to hire writers, instead of dumpster diving for free writers who don’t know any better.

If the site is a business that intends to make money off of your writing, you deserve to be compensated. It’s not a crime to write for free, and a lot of coaches recommend it, but I find that you set the value of your work, and if the value you set is $0, that is how you will think of yourself when approaching clients.

Now that that’s out of the way, you’re ready to find your first paying gig:

When you start out, you may have to write for less than you would like to. Sometimes I still do. Being self-employed is a tricky game, and the wise writer takes work where they find it. Here are three great sources for finding writing gigs.

  1. Writer’s Job Board. Of course, we plug ourselves, but we do have a great, regularly updated list of legit writing gigs, and it’s free.
  2. Other writing job lists. Julia Austin contributed this great article with 25 other sources for job listings. 
  3. Content agencies. These are sites that contract with webmasters in need of content, then assign those jobs to a team of writers. They don’t often pay well, but at least they will keep you busy writing while you search for higher paying gigs. In most cases, you apply to be on their writing team, take an assessment, submit samples, and if they like your work they will add you to their roster. Other sites that offer legit work, include Blogmutt and Fiverr.

Note: While it is fine to start on the lower end of the scale, set your minimum and stick to it. There are many sites that aim at foreign writers, and other markets where less than a penny per word is still a living wage. Don’t be tempted to think that you’ll work your way up in such a place. You won’t. Work harder for the better-paying gigs. You’ll get them, and even with the extra time spent, you’ll come out ahead.

If you can follow these instructions, you are well on your way to making a full-time living as a writer. Understand, it may mean hustling a hundred hours a week to start. You can relax once you get a few clients, build up some good samples and start to get referral business.

5 Quick Tips For Nourishing Your New Freelance Writing Career:

1. Save a copy of everything you ever write

Even if you signed an NDA and can’t share the work as a sample, keep it for your own records. Besides, not all gigs end up paying. I’ve sold work from jobs that didn’t pay to other clients further down the line. Once you have a half dozen good writing samples, especially if you have a “byline” (your name is published on the site with your work) you need to build an online portfolio you can point potential clients too.

Contently is the best free writing portfolio I know of. It allows you to add links to writing samples, or add documents to the site for viewing. Each link creates a preview image and the more “stories” you add, the more impressive your visual resume becomes.

2. Build up your blog

If you didn’t start a blog in the beginning, you should. It’s a good idea to have at least one website online that belongs to you. You control the content, the look, and the feel. Any of your other work can get changed, or deleted, without notice (trust me). Contribute to your blog regularly. Not only does it help to build credibility, but recent dates on a blog let potential clients know you are engaged.

3. Create social media

Put yourself out there. When someone googles Mark R Morris Jr, they find me. For better or worse, I can’t hide. Profiles on writing sites, social media and your own website are a good way to legitimize yourself as a writer. Use your professional writing name across all platforms to avoid confusion. Unless you need to conceal your identity, using your real name is simplest.

4. Set your rates and expectations and stick to them

Once you have established that you can get good paying writing gigs, keep it up. I regularly get gigs that pay $150 an hour and more. That is not standard (I generally get $35-60) but I know I’m worth that in certain cases. I also require new clients to pay up front for small gigs (under $250) and half down for larger ones, such as ghostwriting books. Be prepared to walk away from jobs that don’t meet your standards.

5. Keep up to date on the job postings

I spend at least a few hours every week, pitching, and applying for writing gigs. Even when I don’t need the work right now. You never know when a client may run out of money, change their focus, or simply disappear without a word. By keeping your resume fresh and out there, you’ll always have as much good paying work as you need. Once you get established, go after the best paying work. Here’s a breakdown of which kind of writing jobs pay the best.

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