What You Absolutely Need for Freelance Writing Success: My 5 Essential Tips

There’s a whole lot of freelance writing advice floating around the Internet. There’s a lot of it just on this blog.

Sometimes, writers tell me it’s overwhelming. Couldn’t I just boil it down?

One recent email from a reader brought this home to me. She wrote that she is an experienced writer but had never freelanced and needed to start making money fast.

Also, she couldn’t afford to spend anything on her career right now, not even $25 for a month in Freelance Writers Den.

She wasn’t sure where to begin, and was hoping I could give her a snap answer that would make it happen:

“Please help me!  I know that I have the talent and skill – from past REALLY successful copywriting projects and jobs. I’ve done assignments for Fortune 500 companies and have even won awards. 

Could you at least give me the basic secrets for freelance writing success, to get me going?”

I don’t know how secret they are, but yes, I think there are a few basic things you must have, if you’re going to start earning as a freelance writer.

Here’s what they are:

1. A can-do attitude

Are you fired up and burning with a passion to make your living from writing and be your own boss? Are you confident about your skills and willing to put yourself out there?

Most of the writers I meet who aren’t earning are trapped by fears and low self-confidence. They think up excuses about why they can’t move forward — they need a journalism degree, for instance, or the economy’s too crummy to possibly make it as a freelancer today.

Trust me, you will not encounter any bigger challenge out in the marketplace than the negative tape you’re playing in your head.

When writers tell me they’re dead in the water because they can’t find an editor’s email address, or simply can’t manage to hit “send” on that query letter, I know they’re kidding themselves. They’re not doing it because they’re scared.

Pledge to be an unstoppable force until you have the clients you need to feed your family.

Be willing to get creative to solve the obstacles you encounter. Don’t take “no” for an answer. If the rules aren’t working for you, bend or break them or make up your own.

2. A writing habit

If you’re sitting home, waiting to get an assignment in order to write something, this isn’t going to work. Writing is a muscle that needs to be built up, like any other in your body. You need to be working it all the time.

Also, you ought to be writing because you love it. If you don’t love it, this probably isn’t the career for you.

So keep a journal, start a blog, write long letters to your grandma. Have a habit of writing. There is no substitute for writing in quantity and on a regular basis for growing your skills.

If you used to be a reporter like my reader above and now you want to get back into it, begin by writing again. Find pro bono clients who’ll let you do sample work — anything to get the words flowing again. If you’re brand new to writing, same thing — start writing. Then, keep writing.

I was a staff writer for 12 years, required to write at least three stories every single week, often more. If you looked at my writing the year I got that first job and my writing at the end of that time, it is like night and day. Huge amounts of writing will build your skills — and your confidence.

3. A willingness to market

This is the one that divides the women from the girls, as far as earning a living as a freelancer.

Every one-on-one mentee I have ever worked with, I start by asking them one key question. The conversation always goes like this:

Me: So, to begin why don’t you tell me what you are currently doing to market your freelance writing business, so we can talk about what else you might do.

Mentee: You know, I actually haven’t been doing any marketing.

Writers who understand they are running a business know they will need to make marketing a regular activity in their schedule. So understand. This is a business.

Put up a writer website. Get business cards and go to networking events. Get on LinkedIn and start working it there.

Expect to be marketing aggressively for 6-18 months to get your business afloat and build up your client base to where you have a steady flow of good-paying work. It’ll get a bit easier after that, but marketing never goes away.

If you don’t know how to market your business, subscribe here on the blog and get Marketing 101 for Freelance Writers. That ought to get you started.

4. Mentors

If you’d like this process to take ages, try to figure it all out yourself. If you’d like to move along faster, try to lasso an editor or two into critiquing your work on a regular basis.

This is actually how I learned all the basics. Two wonderful editors at two print publications thought my writing showed promise and were willing to be peppered with questions by me on why they changed my lede and cut the quote I loved, and all that. I’d probably still be getting $50 an article if it weren’t for these incredibly giving men.

When I started my blog, same thing. I connected with mentors through Twitter, and through networking groups I joined, who saved me a ton of time and aggravation. You probably wouldn’t be reading this now without them.

5. Writer friends

Finally, no writer is an island. This is lonely work, and your family and friends won’t understand the particular challenges you are grappling with. You need to meet other writers and hang out with them, both online and in person.

Personally, I’ve benefited greatly from going to Media Bistro’s live events…but check around in your town. Do a Google search for the key words you’re trying to rank on and see who tops that search. Then, ask them what writers’ groups are hot locally.

One of those local listservs brought me a lead that turned into a $60,000 client that ran for more than two years. It’s really worth asking around and knowing other writers, especially in your niche. Trust me.

Those to me are the nuts and bolts you need to get your freelance business rolling. If you’ve got questions about getting started in freelance writing, you should know I have vowed to answer 100 freelance writing questions on a recent blog post. Last time I checked, I hadn’t hit my limit yet, so feel free to add yours on there.

What other basic things should new freelance writers do to get started? I’d love it if some of my more experienced readers would add their tips in the comments here.

  1. Aasma says:

    Agreed, Mentors really help you to reduce your headaches and save your essential time. When you’re writing on any topic first time and not sure how to start and end then you can ask for the suggestion of your mentor, such advice actually helps you a lot to create an useful article.
    Aasma recently posted..Paying Guest in Delhi

  2. Mandy Harris says:

    Carol, thank you!!!

    I am printing this post and putting it in my planner so I can read it whenever I am working. Your blog is great, but this is the most fabulous post!

    You are spot on. Thanks for this great post!

  3. While I believe this is all true, the poor woman who emailed you was probably hoping for more “solid” advice, not necessarily about mentality but about approaching prospects, fees, negotiating, etc. The nuts and bolts, so to speak. In my opinion, the truth is you can have awards and impressive clients under your belt, and it may give you a leg up in the beginning in terms of winning job bids; however, it’s hard work and patience and a willingness to work over 8 hours per day in the beginning that is going to get it done. It’s working the small time gigs and then spending those evening hours reading the books and blogs of mentors, sitting in writer chatrooms or downloading a PDF on SEO best practices to set up your own website.

    If you don’t know “the first thing” you’ve got to put in the time and do the research. OR just start pitching blindly and hope you get lucky — which does happen to some.

    • Carol Tice says:

      What she was hoping was that I’d give her $400 worth of one-on-one mentoring for free, if you want all the details, Marisa.

      Without knowing more about her background — the types of writing she did, industries she knows, life experience she has, what market she’s in, the resources she has at her disposal, and her goals — it’s hard to customize a plan for exactly how she should move forward. Which is why mentoring programs are expensive — it takes time to understand a writer’s story and their strengths so you know what sort of marketing plan to devise and what areas they need to learn more on.

      But maybe that’s an idea for another post — maybe I could create a template like Mad Libs that people could fill in that might guide them in how to research and market themselves!

      She couldn’t even formulate a specific question…and I wanted to address the popular myth she raises, that there are magical shortcuts that will make freelancing success happen instantly. “Success secrets.” I don’t know if she wanted to know about fees or negotiating or what she didn’t get, really.

      The fact is, there is a lot to know — even just within the marketing point, there’s SO much…which is why I have a 20-week ecourse on that side, to introduce writers to all the possible ways they could market their business. My hope here was to sum up the basics. There’s a reason we’ve got 80+ HOURS of trainings in the Den and dozens of courses and training posts…there is a lot to know, depending on what area of freelancing writing you want to pursue.

      I think ultimately, it IS mostly your mentality, which is why I wrote the post this way.

      If you have the attitude of “I understand marketing is going to be important and I’m willing to learn all about it and I’m confident enough to put myself out there,” then you’re probably going to succeed at this. If you’re missing any of those, it may well not go anywhere.

      • Carol, I agree. When I was in my MFA program, some of my classmates said they had no idea how to get published. I found this absurd, because I’d read books, magazines, and websites on how to get published BEFORE I even got to grad school.

        I see these questions as really saying: “I don’t know where to begin, and I’m not willing to do the research to find out. Can you just tell, so I don’t have to do the work on my own?”

        I mean it really only takes a couple of hours on your blog or in the pages of a book, to find a reasonable starting point.

        So it goes back to what you say, it’s the mentality, because it you just needed a starting point, there’s TONS of info already available for free.
        Sarah L. Webb recently posted..Colorism’s Roots & Routes

        • Carol Tice says:

          Yeah, that’s exactly it, Sarah. I’m always being asked, “But where do I start?”

          And my answer is, “Somewhere.” Stop sitting with your hands in the air going “Oh my gosh, this is all so confusing!” and try something. Send a few queries. Ask your network to send you referrals. See how it works.

          The thing about being a paid freelance writer is you do have to get out there and figure out how to get published, how to find clients. It isn’t that hard, as you say, if you’ve got the right attitude.

  4. anne grant says:

    That sounds like the “secrets” to weight loss: eat less and exercise more.
    Not nearly as sexy as say, “South Beach diet” or Dr. Oz’s latest magical discovery — but unfortunately for most folks, that’s all there is to it.
    There are other ways we can excel at getting NO results (and I’ve done them all). I can’t wait to write about it!

  5. J. Delancy says:

    The first two are where I’m falling down at present but I’ve recently joined the Writer’s Den, so I know I’ll be getting better and making money real soon.
    J. Delancy recently posted..The 15 Minute Female Orgasm & The Path To Self-Improvement

  6. I’d qualify the 4th point by saying having a ‘good’ mentor is what you need.

    I once had a so-called mentor who told me nothing but a load of old tosh. Then I started to ignore his advice and follow my own convictions. As a result, things are now beginning to happen for me.

    I’ve never signed up to any mentoring from this site. However, the fact is that I’ve so much more from this blog than I ever did from my so-called mentor.

    That tells me that, for people who want to get to my position more quickly, there’s clearly good advice available and much better mentoring schemes around.
    Kevin Carlton recently posted..5 world-class blogs that every content writer should read

    • Carol Tice says:

      Wow — well glad you find this place so useful!

      And yeah, I guess you have to watch out for so-called mentors who don’t really know what they’re talking about. That’s why getting mentors who’re actively DOING the thing is key. I had active editors, and I’m still working as a freelance writer, so what I’m talking about is current and how it works NOW. I think that’s important. Lot of ‘mentors’ out there who haven’t done the thing they’re teaching in decades.

      • Yes, Carol, my mentor clearly wasn’t doing the same thing. The advice I was getting was far too generic and that’s why I started to ignore him. What I needed was guidance that was relevant to what I was doing (writing and editing).

        What may help someone selling fire extinguishers, handcrafted tea cosies or secretarial services certainly didn’t help me.
        Kevin Carlton recently posted..5 world-class blogs that every content writer should read

        • Carol Tice says:

          I’m glad you bring that up — I do hear now and then from writers who’re thinking about hiring a general “business coach,” and as you point out, I’m not sure they really get what we do if their expertise is in retail business.

          Even within writing mentoring that I do, it’s not stock information. We take your goals and your life experience and knowledge, compare that with what pays well in the marketplace, and then hand-craft a custom marketing plan for who you are and what you want to do.

          That’s why we’ve got the rudiments here. I can’t know what kind of marketing this writer should do and what she’d do well at IN marketing without knowing a lot more than this about her.

  7. Sandra says:

    “What other basic things should new freelance writers do to get started?”

    Learn the difference between legit writing gigs and scammers. Blog posts, articles, text links, Linkedin offers asking for free writing samples and paying $5, $10 or $25 for a 400 to 500-word article are just plain wrong. Resist the urge to pursue these and instead, focus on polishing your portfolio samples, putting up your site and networking.
    Sandra recently posted..Book Review: Please Understand Me II – by David Keirsey

  8. Susie Klein says:

    Carol, you have been and continue to be such a great inspiration to so many of us. Thank you! This was very helpful and truthfully, a very practical post for every writer! You have made a difference for me in many ways over the past several months. Thanks again!
    Susie
    http://susieklein.wordpress.com/
    Susie Klein recently posted..The Grindstone and my Nose

  9. Jovell says:

    Hi Carol,

    It’s true, if we keep on sabotaging ourselves, even if we have great writing talent, then we would never move up the freelance career ladder. One solution I found to help me get rid of the constant mind chatter that I’m not good enough is to read on top blogs like yours, copyblogger and other copywriting sites of top copywriters and take advantage of all the free ebooks, etc, they provide. So even if I didn’t initially spend on any top notch copywriting course, I was able to level up my skills and be confident enough to demand higher rates.
    Jovell recently posted..These 3 Places Will Make Your Business Blog Posts Attractive

  10. Dorothy says:

    Write and write and write some more..get all the crap out first..then you will begin writing something substantial…..

  11. Anita says:

    Thanks for posting this, Carol. It can be read as a checklist for writers as they’re taking stock of the past year – and considering where to focus in the coming one.
    Anita recently posted..school choice, safety and a love for truth

  12. Since the first day I started blogging, I’m craving to meet other writers and bloggers in person. But it’s nearly impossible in my country as these careers are considered “silly” by most. Maybe I’ve to wait a bit more…
    Ali | Writers Blog recently posted..How To Get Your Guest Post Accepted By An A-List Blogger

    • Carol Tice says:

      Take Skype calls with people you want to connect with, Ali — I try to do at least one every week. Last week I chatted with James Clear at Passive Panda, who I’d been out of touch with for a while. Other recent Skype “lunches” I’ve taken have been with Jon Morrow, Tom Ewer, and Bamidele Onibalusi.

      When you strike up a friendship in social media with people, take it further and “see” each other, even if it can’t be in person. It really helps develop a stronger relationship beyond just tweets.

  13. Erica says:

    I’d like to add one more thing…a thick skin to shake off disappointments, rejections and naysayers.

    Without a thick skin, your self confidence dwindles, your work habits go in the pooper and your dream of making it becomes as realistic as hitchhiking on the moon this Christmas.

    Another great post Carol. Thanks!
    Erica recently posted..How to Weed Out Low-paying Freelance Clients

  14. art williams says:

    Hi Carol: I think I’ve pretty much read all your free content and I’m really loving it. I’m only worried about one thing…..that I might miss it when your Writers Den opens up again. I hope I can get in when it does. I’ve got the money sitting in a little jar right here by the window.

    Regards,
    Art Williams

    • Carol Tice says:

      Just make sure you’re on the waiting list, Art — always the first to hear when there’s an opening (and sometimes I let the waitlist in when we’re not officially open).

      Also…you know if you sign up for the Social Media bootcamp coming Jan. 10, it gets you in the Den — 1 month of membership access is included. Only way to get in the Den in the next coupla months, maybe longer.

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