The New Freelance Writer’s Quick-and-Simple Guide to Getting Started

Checklist

Are you hoping to jump into the world of freelance writing? If so, welcome aboard.

Prepared for life without a boss? I hope so.

Spoiler alert: It rocks.

I’ve gotten a lot of email recently along the lines of, “I’m just getting started, where’s the guide for that?”

Freelancing is a complicated business, no? There are so many types of writing work you could do.

How do you know where to start?

Below is my guide to figuring out your easiest entry point. It’s in the form of a series of questions you need to ask yourself:

What topics interest me?

Some writers have a passion for ecological justice, while others love to write about celebrities, fly-fishing, or politics. Start by identifying your interest areas.

Don’t limit yourself to one — try to list at least a half-dozen.

What do I know about?

In addition to topics you like, what do you know something about, even if just from life experience?

For instance, did you nurse a relative through cancer and learn about healthcare, rehab, and hospitals?

Or maybe you used to work in a bank, so you know a bit about financial services.

If you’re a new college grad, you’re familiar with college life — loans, housing, first jobs, saving money.

The old adage “write about what you know” is never more true than when you first start out. It’s the easiest way to convince a client that you’re the writer for the job.

What types of writing do I like to do?

There are many types of paid writing, including articles, blog posts, web pages, brochures, case studies, and a host of other business marketing materials.

It’ll help your search to narrow it down to a specific writing type or two to start. When you get direct mail marketing in your mailbox, if you find yourself thinking, “Heck, I could write this better,” marketing work could be a great area for you to investigate.

What sort of writing pays well?

Now that you know what sort of thing you want to write and what you like to write about, it’s time to discover who would pay you for this type and topic of writing.

Do a little research and you’ll quickly learn writing poetry and personal essays are tough to earn in. Novels are a moonshot, not something that will pay your bills — at least not reliably or soon.

Articles, blog posts, newsletters, web pages, case studies, white papers, annual reports, business plans, government contract bids, marketing materials of all kinds…these things pay.

Smaller publications and companies usually have less pay to offer, larger ones have more. Expect that you’ll start with a few small ones, and then be able to start trying to move up.

Where am I?

While freelance is a global business in the 21st Century, it will often be easiest to find your first clients close to home. If you live in even a moderate-sized city, this will work.

If you’re in a tiny town, you may need to do more aggressive marketing to look for clients outside your area. I personally got on a ferry and went into downtown Seattle to find better prospects. If you need to travel a little — do it.

In any decent-sized town, you can find businesses by checking out your local chamber of commerce, search on Manta for local companies, or grab a Book of Lists — your library may have a copy.

How can I find entry markets?

The easiest way to find good first clients is in the network of people and organizations you already know:

  • Your friends and family
  • The publications you read
  • The nonprofits where you donate or volunteer
  • The locally owned businesses you patronize
  • The government agencies that oversee issues of interest to you

By using your network, you should be able to find legitimate clients — established publications or businesses that sell a real product or service. Remember, the Internet is full of scams, so research websites carefully before signing up to write for online sites.

Learn about how to market your writing, and choose a few methods that appeal to you.

Save yourself a lot of heartache and starvation and avoid the content mills. If you use bid sites online, be very selective about what you bid on and what gigs you take. Know that many Craigslist ads are flat-out scams. Beware.

What should I charge?

This is a tricky one. If you have no experience, your easiest road is to offer to do several small projects free to get a few samples and create a starter portfolio. Keep those projects small and make sure you get a testimonial if the client liked your work.

Once you’ve got those, you should be asking for money. To find out how much, try asking the client what their budget is, or their regular article fee, if it’s a magazine. Try to get them to tell you the rate.

If that doesn’t work, reach out to your network of fellow writers (you are joining at least one writer networking and support group, right?) and ask around. Consult The Writer’s Market‘s What to Charge guide, or Chris Marlow’s survey of copywriting rates.

Bottom line: Pick a price. Next time, bid more. Lather, rinse, repeat until you’re earning a decent wage — shoot for at least $50 an hour.

What if I’m scared?

Buck up. Everybody started somewhere. If you want to do this, you’ll need to overcome your fears and put yourself out there. Practicing pitching a friend if you have to.

Do I need a contract?

Yes, you do. Don’t ever start writing without one. Otherwise, the client has no obligation to pay you. Ever.

What’s your best advice?

Persist.

Also…when you’re first starting out, keep it simple and don’t get overwhelmed. There are a lot of options in the freelance world…don’t try to explore them all at once.

Use the question list above to pick out a few likely first moves. Then try them out.

If you don’t get a response, move on to your next best bet.

Writers want to hear that there’s one easy, simple, magical, best way to quickly launch their careers, but in fact every writer is different. It’s trial and error. So get out there and start trying.

Are you just starting out, or have you already started freelancing? Leave a comment and tell us how you got started, or your plan to get going.

 

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54 comments on “The New Freelance Writer’s Quick-and-Simple Guide to Getting Started
  1. Jenny says:

    I worked as the Director of Communication for a non-profit for eight years, and realized I enjoyed the writing more than any other portion of my job. When I attended a writers conference two years ago the concept of writing for magazines and businesses dazzled me. I began the hard work of pitching ideas and sending out letters of introduction. And got a few bites. I’m slowly gaining momentum, and six months ago started freelancing full time. Now I’m trying to build my client base.
    Jenny recently posted..SBFI Website Content

  2. Craig says:

    Informative post, Carol.

    The only place I’m stuck in all these is the “WHERE AM I?” part.

    How about for freelance writers who don’t live in locations where market for writing is worth it?

    For a non-native writer, who lives far away from the a place, for example,like Seattle, what works? Is it realistic to shoot for $50 and above?

    Thanks.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Craig —

      I’m definitely talking about First World rates there…but the good news is your costs are lower as well.

      You might benefit from this past post: How to Earn Well as a Freelance Writer — When English is Your Second Language.

    • Rob says:

      I live in Cambodia, so taking a ferry to downtown Seattle was never really going to work for me. While I absolutely agree that starting with job bidding sites isn’t a great idea for people who live in the U.S. or another developed country where you need to make 1st world wages, it worked for me when I was starting out. I got around the need for contracts because Elance has an escrow system. The downside was that for a long time, I thought $10/500 words was a decent rate. Carol’s blog and a month in the Writers Den helped convince me it wasn’t.

      One advantage to living in a foreign country is that you can make money writing about it. I started off with my Sihanoukville Journal (http://www.sihanoukville-cambodiajournal.com) and then got a regular gig writing for a popular travel blog. A week ago, I got a dinner invitation out of the blue from the executive editor of a print/online magazine. They want to expand their coverage of potential OS retirement locations and are coming here to check out SE Asia.

      The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the past couple of years is that just because I live in a 3rd world country, I don’t have to settle for 3rd world rates. If I’m working for Australian or US websites, I can ask for Australian or US rates. If English is your second language or you don’t have a portfolio, you may have to settle for less, but like Carol says, your expenses are less, too.

      The moral: living overseas is a great platform for launching a freelance writing career.
      Rob recently posted..How to Mess Up a WordPress Blog

  3. Donna says:

    Do you know where I can find a decent contract that I can use when contracting w/ clients for writing services?

  4. Ian says:

    Hey Carol,

    Thank you for these useful tips. I am a freelance writer, blogger and screenwriter who started my online writing business earlier this year. I recently got my first paid assignment writing blog posts for a music website.

    Thanks again for your professional advice.

    Cheers,
    -Ian
    Ian recently posted..MOVIE REVIEW #5 – The Dark Knight Rises

  5. Heather says:

    Thanks for this great advice. I needed to read this today. I am am in the beginning stages of trying to set up a freelance business after being a SAHM for 18 years. Before I had kids I was an in-house training tech writer for a software company. The only other position I’ve held since then was as a part-time teacher for the gifted and talented program at a local elementary. My degree is a BA in English. I feel so out of touch with the industry, and that I have nothing to offer. I am scared that I have nothing to offer and posses mediocre/outdated skills. So, your insight really helped me get perspective on what I need to do–keep it simple, start small, and don’t give up. Thanks!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Heather —

      I think you might be surprised how useful your past tech-writing experience could be, if you present it properly on a strong writer website.

      I routinely send out 10-year-old clips if it shows relevant expertise to a prospect. I’ve found no one cares how old your clips are, only that you know how to write well, and know their topic.

      With tech you might need to start reading news and just knowing what’s going on now…but don’t count yourself out or think you have to start over from scratch. You definitely have more than “nothing” to offer!

      • Heather says:

        Thanks Carol,

        Unfortunately, I no longer have my writing samples from my tech writing days. I kept them for 10 years, and then threw them away because I never thought I would go back to that industry (I know, stupid!). So I am officially kicking myself. That is my biggest dilemma at the moment–how to piece together a portfolio.

        p.s. I just re-read my first comment, and I’m horrified that I didn’t proofread it before hitting “submit.” Nothing like a wanna-be writer repeating herself in back-to-back sentences. Sheesh.

        • Carol Tice says:

          Perhaps you haven’t seen my Universal Typo Forgiveness manifesto that covers ALL comments made on my blog…it’s cool! It’s just blog comments and there will be no grading. Or quizzes given later. I find writers worry a lot about this! But please relax.

          As far as your clips…go back to the companies if they still exist, and see if copies can be found. Also search the Internet..never know what’s bouncing around out there. I once found a copy of an article I’d done for a magazine that had folded suddenly… a website of a CFO association had reprinted it, and I was able to get the clip back. ;-)

      • Donna F says:

        Oh my goodness I know just how Heather feels! When we stay home to raise our families it really makes us feel out of the loop and a bit lost when trying to re-enter the “traditional working” world. Like Heather, I was a SAHM and homeschooling mother, and that was the greatest job! But I am so grateful for all the information on your website to start towards my dream of being a self sufficient freelance writer within the next few years!!

        • Carol Tice says:

          I remember after my first son, I felt like my brain had melted and I’d never write anything again.

          But all you have to do is start learning and writing, and you’ll be surprised how it comes back to you.

          I was just reading the NY Times today about Art Spiegelman’s retrospective exhibit. It includes a diary entry from the 1970s where, after completing one of his cartoon series, he wrote something to the effect of: “Ugh! I’ve written all I can.” This was before Maus and the Pulitzer.

          We always have more in us than we know… ;-)

  6. Lisa Gilbert says:

    This is a good post for the new year. It is a way to re-assess and re-commit. Thanks for this post.
    Lisa Gilbert recently posted..Why I Need To Win Freelance Writers Den

  7. Julie says:

    I started making money freelancing in June but I am looking for more jobs. I am working on a “hire me” page for my blog as well. I feel like I have a lot I can write about.
    Julie recently posted..The Downside of working for yourself

    • Carol Tice says:

      That’s terrific, Julie — having a writer website or a ‘hire me’ tab on a nice niche blog is a great way to start marketing yourself and getting found by better clients.

  8. Diane says:

    I’m stuck on the “how can I find entry markets” because I have done much of what you have listed. Going for the packaging supply industry seemed like something I would be able to find help getting into but so far hardly any of my friends/family know anyone in that industry and the contacts I’ve made don’t know me well enough for me to ask about work. Still not giving up though.

  9. Sine says:

    OK, enough lurking. I’ve lurked here long enough. It’s time to jump in and do some work.
    I’ve been writing since sixth grade but never published. Did the content mill run for a couple of years: you’re right about that!
    Homework for the day: fill out the checklist. I’ll go from there.

  10. Pauline says:

    Great check list. I started five years ago until I was able to quit my day job three years ago. Travel writing mainly, until last year, when I started a personal finance blog. the first contacts were friends and old customers, those online sites are great but the competition is stiff and the winning bids usually pretty low
    Pauline recently posted..Your Debt Expert’s Tips For Saving

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for sharing your story of how you built up your freelance writing biz and then quit, Pauline!

      And you’re so right about bid sites — I could never understand why writers are so anxious to participate in a race to the bottom on price. So much better to go out and find your own clients.

  11. Corinna says:

    I pitched an idea to a client, a PR company for one of their clients, for a series of articles related to their clients’ business. Following up on the pitch I was told that it was an interesting idea, they would get back to me. Following up on that I got no reply. But guess what. Low and behold my idea pitch was so interesting that they obviously sold the idea to their client and ran with it themselves getting ‘freebies’, people who were using the clients’ service, written up as blogs. I was really ticked off, but there was nothing I could do about it. I have done no writing for them since – I mean, why would they pay me when they can get it free.

    So, my question is – has this happened to you, and what are your comments. I would be interested to know how you feel about this sort of thing.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Corinna, it’s possible they had something similar already in the works. But in any case, ideas are not copyrightable.

      There’s really nothing to do but move on…and know that you have good ideas! Present them professionally and keep marketing, and next time hopefully you’ll find yourself getting the assignment.

  12. Johanna says:

    I’m just starting out, as in I haven’t even gotten a freelance writing job yet! This article is really helpful, and I enjoy your other posts. Thank you for putting up all of this information for free! :)
    Johanna recently posted..How to Promote Your Freelance Writing

  13. Pinar Tarhan says:

    This post is also a great inspiration fix for freelance writers who might be feeling blocked and/or in search of new ideas. Sometimes you need to get back to your roots and re-ask those questions to come with more and exciting ideas.

    (I did a quick brainstorming after reading your post :) )
    Pinar Tarhan recently posted..19 Signs You’re Addicted to Writing

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Pinar — glad you found this useful!

      I do think if you’re a writer banging your head against the wall, feeling like you’re not making progress or finding good clients, these points might help you see why you’re not progressing.

      I often hear from writers who’re trying to be generalists and writing a bit of this and that, while ignoring some fantastic expertise they’ve got. I’m teaching the Blast Off Class right now, and we can’t believe how many students we have with amazing backgrounds in healthcare and other lucrative niches who’re sitting around going, “I don’t know what I should write about.”

      If you want to earn well, the thing you already know about — especially if it’s in a lucrative industry — will be a great starting point!

  14. Amanda says:

    Hey guys! This post is really beneficial for me and has helped me write with rhythm a lot better! I just finished writing my first novel and got it published. I was stuck in trying to publish it for a very long time but after a while I stumbled into a website (www.lithasa.com) and it helped me with everything. My book is now published and i am also earning revenue from it.

  15. Melissa says:

    I’m getting into one niche – e-learning and educational writing – due to a combination of experience, serendipity, and contacts. However, I’m also very interested in working my way into B2C copywriting, with which I have a little experience but nothing major or high-paying.

    I’m thinking of contacting companies that sell the kind of products I’m into – namely natural, organic, and all that good earthy stuff.

    I’ve also created a whole listed of ad, web design, and marketing agencies in my geographic area that look like they hire out for copywriters. Any thoughts on this?

    Also, any tips on breaking into one niche when your experience is in another?

    p.s. Most of my B2C material was produced for a non-profit Indian spiritual site. Although the site is a major international resource and receives upwards of 1500 visitors per day, its subject matter is not what I want to show to prospective American clients. Not sure how to handle this one.
    Melissa recently posted..Thank You.

  16. I am just starting out. I do not know where to start though. This is a great article; it forced me to take certain things into consideration that I hadn’t even thought of. I’m extremely scared as well. I love to write; its always been my passion. I’m not the best writer, I still have a long way to go before I master my craft, but I know that it is the first thing that I do when I wake up and the last thing I do before I go to bed. I’m in college right now pursing a degree in Journalism. I’m only a freshman so I don’t have much education under my belt. However, since I’ve been in school I’ve made straight A’s. I’m in my second semester right now. I’m 26 and I hope to have my Bachelors by the time I’m 30. It’s because of my age that I want to start putting myself out there now. Will someone look at my limited education as a problem?

  17. Amirah Cook says:

    Thank you so much for this article and everyone for your comments! I love this website! I set out to travel the world with my husband as we attempt to master our crafts, mine writing, his painting. To fund the trip I started building websites for companies and found that creating all the content is another way to generate revenue. I went from building a restaurant a website to translating and creating new menus for them as well, while my husband adds a mural or canvas painting to their dining area. I really want to step up my online presence to enjoy working from anywhere more often. I’ve just been stuck with how to get my foot in the door. I am going to add a hire me to our blog which I am determined to update regularly after a long hiatus. Hopefully I’ll have another comment soon to tell how I broke into my freelance writing career! Thanks again!

  18. Heyy carol,
    Very informative post. I have read many articles of yours and all were awesome and effective. You actually write so good. I always wanted to be a freelance writer only after establishing a good reputation of my blog. And after reading this ultimate guide I think I can make my journey to freelance writing. Thanks a lot for sharing this useful guide.

    Stay blessed, Happy Blogging :)

  19. Brooklyn says:

    Im a high school student looking into the field of journalism but i want to start as a freelance writer. It’d be much appreciated if i had information what to do at my age and is it possible to work as a freelancer at my age and if so can i make profit?
    Thanks

    • Carol Tice says:

      Brooklyn, you’re free to follow the steps in this guide and tap local organizations and businesses, as well as your local paper, just like older writers. You have the advantage of not having much in the way of expenses, so you’re free to build your portfolio working for free or cheap.

      Go for it! I think you’ll be surprised how many people will admire your enthusiasm and initiative in wanting to build your career early and will welcome a chance to have you write for them.

  20. Steve Szubert says:

    I think the ground rules of where to focus, set out so clearly in this article, has just saved me from many months – maybe years – of trial and error and heartaches. Thank you Carol.

  21. Thank you for such a clear way of laying it out for a beginner. I’ve been thinking about taking the plunge and was going to do so in what you mentioned as the content mills. I’ll try a different approach now :)

  22. Hi Carol!

    I’m a new reader, but I have been reading many of your articles and advice. Thank you for all these great tips, and thank you especially for your kind encouragement to new writers!

    Sincerely,

    Loura

5 Pings/Trackbacks for "The New Freelance Writer’s Quick-and-Simple Guide to Getting Started"
  1. [...] This is getting to be a habit. Every week, it seems, I can’t resist sharing one of Carol Tice’s posts with you. This week’s offering: “The New Freelance Writer’s Quick-and-Simple Guide to Getting Started.” [...]

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