How I Got My First $10,000 Freelance Writing Gig

Happy woman with laptopLike most new freelancers, one of my first questions after deciding to take the plunge into freelance writing was, “How am I going to find gigs?”

I knew I wanted to write for businesses rather than publications, but which businesses should I target? I looked at my experience and selected an industry where I had work experience and that tended to have healthy cash flow. Education — particularly English as a Second Language — was my strongest potential market.

As I began marketing to companies in this niche, I narrowed my strategy to four simple steps that brought me something I’d never imagined I’d get in my first year in business: a $10,000 freelance writing gig.

1. Qualify potential clients

I knew that not all businesses would be able to pay me good rates. So I sussed out which of my prospects had potential by putting them through Manta.com and Hoovers.com, websites that track company revenue.

Once I got the results, I highlighted the prospects that made a minimum of $500,000 a year in revenue.

2. Develop a personalized LOI

The next step was writing a letter of introduction (LOI) that would stand out from the pack.

I wanted prospects to see that I not only had industry experience but also could identify ways to help them in their business.

As it turns out, a business’s own website is a great source of information. Once I culled my list of prospects, I headed over to their websites to identify any missing components that were featured prominently on competitors’ sites. (When it was particularly challenging to locate a missing piece, I Googled recent press releases for that company to see if there was a recent development they needed to promote more on their site.)

Using my notes, I developed a personalized LOI for each prospect.

3. Follow up

My LOIs returned a reasonable amount of interest, but nothing definite. Still, I followed through with my promise in the LOI to contact each prospect again within a month.

Soon enough, after my followup email, one prospect responded and offered me an editing gig. Could I edit a series of lesson plans and suggest new activities to include? Sure!

Although editing wasn’t where I was hoping to direct my freelance business, it was a foot in the door.

4. Surpass expectations

After my now-client mentioned they were working on several exciting upcoming projects, I knew I wanted to be considered as a writer.

To prove my worth and keep myself fresh in their minds, I made a conscious decision to ‘wow’ them on my current gig by exceeding expectations. I worked quickly and efficiently, carefully respected deadlines, and responded positively to all requests.

The project ended and my client paid, without more reference to future projects.

Be open to more

Luckily, the story didn’t end there. A month or so later, my client emailed to say he’d been impressed with my editing work. He wanted to know if I’d be open to developing the lessons myself.

I was told their previous writer had missed deadlines, which served to confirm that at least one component in my “go over and above” plan helped me stand out.

I compiled a quote. There was so much writing needed that it worked out to more than $10,000. To my ecstatic surprise, they accepted.

I’ve now gained writing experience in an area I’d never thought of working in, and that I enjoy.

Key takeaways? Qualify your clients for income. Identify how you can help them. If you decide to follow up on prospects, design and stick to a schedule. Finally, be a professional and exceed your client’s expectations.

How did you land your first big freelance writing gig? Tell us in the comments below.

Erin Walton is an Australian freelance education, culture, and travel copywriter and Spanish-to-English translator based in Chile.

 

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56 comments on “How I Got My First $10,000 Freelance Writing Gig
  1. Daryl George says:

    Short, useful and actionable. Great post Erin! I especially like how you identified HOW you found your clients. A lot of new (and intermediate) freelance writers are looking for ways outside of bid sites, job boards and content mills to find high paying clients, and you just gave us an excellent one!
    Daryl George recently posted…No Gigs, No Problem – How to Make Money From Your Freelance Blog Without Freelance Writing ClientsMy Profile

    • Erin Walton says:

      Thanks Daryl! You’re right, I tried to take an actionable step by step approach, so I could easily repeat/change it as needed. I think that helps reduce overwhelm while marketing.

      • I agree that your first gig with any publisher or corporation must establish your professionalism (meet every deadline), your preciseness (meet every requirement) and your personal pride in going beyond listed expectations. Those traits are often so lacking today that decision makers will keep your name in their files long after they move to another company or department.

  2. Joey Held says:

    Love this post, Erin! It really does help to go above and beyond. Even things that might seem obvious, like meeting deadlines, can really help you stand out from the pack. Thanks for sharing!

    • Erin Walton says:

      It’s incredible, but true. Meeting a deadline seems like it belongs in Freelance 101, but I guess that’s not always the case. On the flip side, that means more time to shine for those who submit (excellent work) on time!

      • One of MY strongest points, I’m proud to say. I just can’t fathom how anyone could regard a written deadline as optional!
        Katherine Swarts recently posted…Confused and MisusedMy Profile

      • Carol Tice says:

        Oh, you would be surprised. Once, back when I was Entrepreneur magazine’s tax columnist and they had dozens of regular columns, I got a mass email three weeks after our deadline, asking that all outstanding columns be turned in! I about had a heart attack and went to recheck, but I’d turned mine in on time.

        Apparently many of the writers just didn’t take that deadline seriously. And I believe they ended up axing many of those columnists. 😉

  3. Justine says:

    Hi Erin,

    This is great! Could you tell me more about the ESL market? I have a master’s in Education (TESOL), and I have about 8 years’ experience. I was wondering how I can leverage it in the writing field since I’m not in the classroom anymore. What types of businesses did you target?

    • Erin Walton says:

      Hey Justine,

      Ahh, we’re industry buddies! I started by contacting past employers (private academies) but didn’t have any luck there. It seems that even though some were quite large, they simply didn’t have “great client” potential. I then Googled (a lot!) and made myself a nice long list of academies to contact that made my target minimum in revenue. I didn’t particularly mind where they were based.

      Other potential prospects for our niche could be public institutions, universities running ESL or exam courses, publishers, ESL teachers’ associations and companies focused on inter-cultural training. I’ve found that the “language learning magazine” market doesn’t pay very well (at least those I’ve contacted) and I’ve so far had a bit of trouble pulling up more than a couple of trade mags in our niche. Good luck!

      • Erin Walton says:

        Sorry, Justine – I forgot to mention that in terms of leveraging the fact that you’re not currently in the classroom, I really don’t think it matters! Your advantage to them is that you have:
        * X amount years teaching experience
        * teaching X different levels
        * in X different cultural environments
        * in private academies/universities/businesses
        * …whatever your situation is!

        Focus on the types of courses the prospect runs (children’s, young learner, exam, business English, etc) and draw attention to your experience there. As they develop new courses, they’ll need their website updated with that material, etc…

        • Justine says:

          Erin, thanks so much for giving me this VALUABLE information. I will definitely look into this since I have experience in ESL that I don’t want to just toss aside. On the downside…I’m getting all confused as to where to focus my efforts as I don’t really have a focused niche yet! Haha! But seriously, totally inspiring. I’m in Spain, so I may have another advantage. My mind is spinning…THANKS AGAIN!

          • Erin Walton says:

            Another snap: I lived in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla) for several years. Loved it there. Miss it too! (I’ve actually just sent you an email – maybe we can throw ideas around in the future.)

  4. Adam Smith says:

    Dear Erin, I’m an aspiring writer. I write for as long as I can remember myself. However I’ve never landed anything like 10k it’s all a dream to me. I’m half scared half curious to ask, how? I wanna be as cool as you are. Thank you.
    Adam Smith recently posted…BirdMy Profile

    • Erin Walton says:

      Hi Adam,

      Really, I just did what was outlined in the post! However, I totally know what you mean. I’ve *also* read about all these writers who’d replaced their full time job’s salary in their first year, had 10 steady clients in six months or some other freelance writer fantasy – and their plans never worked that way for me. In the end, each of us has a different background (and therefore, prospects) to tap into that affects our progress. Added to the amount (and type) of marketing that we do, and it’s no wonder the results are so different. But I know it can be frustrating!

      For me, only one client turned out that way, even while following the exact same process. But I’m trying to remember that every new connection is an opportunity to talk and “plant seeds” that might sprout happy gigs in the future.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I just want to say that you want clients in this range and up. I just got a 1099 from one of my clients for $20K. Ongoing, regular work from good-paying clients is what enables you to make a real income as a freelance writer. I know one writer who just bid a contract that would be $32K in a year. This is how writers should be thinking, in terms of “what is the annual value of this client to me?”

      The reason is that it takes just as much admin work to do a $500-a-year client, so if you have to get dozens of those, you end up with way too many unbillable admin hours. Plus, you have to do so much more marketing to get all those clients.

  5. Just found saw a link to this post in my email and I had to leave a comment.

    What you wrote about is what I have been thinking about for the past few months. One day I realized that scavenging for work on freelance service websites isn’t going to cut it, and I decided to take Carol’s advice, and contact people directly. It worked out fine for awhile, I managed to tap into a niche where people need reviews for certain products, but unfortunately that didn’t work out, everyone seemed to switch gears at the same time, and I was out of work.

    I have bee polishing my writing pitches and trying to make a killer pitch before I even attempt to find companies to contact. You confirmed what I have been thinking about how to screen clients for income and the importance of writing a custom pitch. It sucks working for clients that don’t have cash, they demand so much, and offer so little.

    Anyways, this was a really powerful article, and it motivated me to get back on the horse, and start pitching clients again. Thanks a lot!
    Timothy Torrents recently posted…Checkpoint 2015: What We’ve Done With Our LivesMy Profile

    • Erin Walton says:

      Timothy, I’m so happy it helped you refocus! I feel lucky because (even though I still have a way to go), I didn’t start out in the content mill or bidding site end of things. Instead, I got stuck straight into directly contacting promising-sounding prospects. You’re right – it’s really soul-crushing to put time and energy into writing great content for clients who don’t appreciate it. Screening only takes a moment, but can really help sift through the “no-gos”. (I also use LinkedIn to find a company’s profile and check how many employees they have, which gives an idea of their revenue.)

    • Carol Tice says:

      I haven’t found that product reviews are a very good paying niche, Timothy — have you checked out our upcoming bootcamp on how to write case studies? Now, there’s a niche that can really be a gold mine, especially once you know how to qualify clients: http://freelancewritersden.com/landing/write-case-studies

  6. Rohi Shetty says:

    Hi Erin,
    Thanks for this wonderful step-by-step action plan.
    And kudos on implementing it with such spectacular success.
    I particularly liked the way you focused on your competitive advantage.

    Great headline, by the way!
    Truly irresistible.
    Rohi Shetty recently posted…How James Chartrand Helped Me Publish 6 Kindle Books in 5 MonthsMy Profile

  7. Kendall says:

    Good info. Thanks!

  8. Dorothy Evans says:

    Have a question about how you determined what to charge for the $10,000 gig. Also, are you paid in advance or partial payment and the rest at the end of the assignment?

    Thanks

    • Erin Walton says:

      Hi Dorothy,

      I was a bit freaked out at first about what to charge! However, as I’d already edited their content, I knew how they wanted it as well as how much time it had taken me to edit. That helped a lot. I then multiplied that by the amount of hours I imagined it would take to write the content from scratch. As there were *so many* individual pieces of content to create, it simply added up to around $10,000. I quoted by the piece i.e. “My quote is for $200 (or whatever) per piece.” In this case, we had a contract and they paid per small group of lessons submitted. I also kept track of the hours I worked and in the end I made the minimum hourly rate I want at this stage in my career (so that’s to be improved on as I work more efficiently).

  9. Elke Feuer says:

    Great post, Erin! I love the step-by-step action plan way handled it. Very helpful. I have only one client at the moment as writing is a part-time job, but I’m trying to make the shift to full-time writing, so your post will come in handy. Thanks!
    Elke Feuer recently posted…5 Lessons I Learned as a New EntrepreneurMy Profile

  10. Okay, this is great info but specifically what companies are looking for educational writers? I have a years worth of lesson plans that are themed and researched based that I have been perfecting for over 10 years. They not only cover what children need to learn but how to teach them in a way that is entertaining, thus making the experiences memorable. I hope to find a company that will either buy my work or hire me for an editing gig. I am also trying to translate the lesson plans in standard Arabic so that I might start an outreach program that will teach both English and Arabic for preschool children in Egypt. If anyone can please point me in the right direction of a company that will find my work useful let me know as soon as possible.
    Kristin Guldner recently posted…Preschool Lesson Plan Transportation Theme AvailableMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Kristin, my sense is that most courseware that pays well is developed to the client’s specs, rather than a company buying a curriculum you created off by yourself…but maybe Erin has more perspective on that?

      But you could always self-publish and promote it.

      I’d also send you to John Soares’ Productive Writers site — he writes a lot of textbook supplements and is well familiar with the high-end academic market.

      • Erin Walton says:

        Hi Kristin,

        Personally I don’t know anything about selling pre-written coursework. I think Carol’s tip on selling it yourself is a good one and I also wanted to mention John Soares. He came across my radar about the time I was first in contact with this client and his experience as a writer for the education sector was definitely a help.

    • Charlene Talcott says:

      If you teach science, early childhood, or environmental studies, check out Acorn Naturalists and Nature Watch. They have lots of books about teaching these subjects geared towards parents, teachers, and nature educators. Looking at the titles may give you some ideas. They are always looking for new titles.

  11. Natalie says:

    I really enjoyed this article, especially how much research went into you finding the 10k gig. This says to me that you didn’t want to just accept any old offer that came along (not that there is anything wrong with that!) and that you value your writing and ability to target certain clients. Thanks for these tips!

    • Erin Walton says:

      Thanks, Natalie. You’re right: the idea is definitely not to accept any old offer. About the same time I thought about freelancing, I came across Carol and Linda’s advice on *not working for bottom feeders*. I’d never even heard of content mills at the time, so didn’t have to crawl my way out of there, which has been good for the psyche!

  12. Steph Weber says:

    Erin,

    Love your quick tips here! And that you nailed a 5-figure contract…woohoo!

    I’m also one of the writers who is veering away from publications and more towards businesses, because of the steady pay. My most profitable niche has been healthcare. I’ve done little to no marketing in this area though (I know, I know), as most of these clients came to me through referrals.

    You’ve reminded why I need to get some more marketing out the door. How did you build your initial list – via Google mostly? Curious if you purchased a list first and then narrowed that down by the info on Manta, etc? I’ve heard good and bad things about purchasing mailing lists.

    • Erin Walton says:

      Steph,

      I didn’t purchase a list. It just never occurred to me to do that and I’m not sure the data would always be up to date, anyway? I just googled using key search terms and some “advanced search” options.

      I want to get into healthcare as well, for sure. Good on you for getting gigs inbound like that – that’s the idea!

      • Carol Tice says:

        I’ve never heard of any freelance writer buying a list for marketing and getting good results. Those lists are always way out of date! And not specialized to the client you want.

  13. Nicky says:

    Great post! I started out by sending essays to magazines and LOIs to newspapers. I got a job writing for a local newspaper and an essay published in a women’s magazine. I love LOIs!
    Nicky recently posted…Freelance Writing JobsMy Profile

  14. Thanks so much for this, Erin. A really great and actionable bite-size post. I’m definitely going to have to check out Manta and Hoovers when searching for clients. Still, I always feel nervous aiming so high. I’m working on branching up to higher-paying clients this year. Great post!

  15. Amel says:

    Hi Erin,
    Thanks for the inspiration. I, too, had never heard of content mills when I started writing, so I never went down that route. One thing I would caution people about is that $10,000 for a project is not always a good thing. In your case, it sounds like you set your own rates based on how much time you thought the project would take. You were already familiar with the material so you probably got the rate you wanted. Sometimes, however, a writer might miscalculate how much time a project is going to involve. Or it could happen that the client offers $10,000, and one’s first instinct is to accept the offer without analyzing everything that is involved. Jumping to accept an offer without making sure that the hourly rate is reasonable can be a very costly mistake. I once made a mistake like this at the beginning of my translation career. I was offered $7,000 to translate a book, but it turned out to be a very complicated job that would have probably taken me at least two years to complete. Fortunately, I was able to discuss the matter with the client, and he did not hold me to our contract. I now know how important it is to really analyze an offer before accepting. When translating, I like to translate part of the text before offering a quote so that I can gauge how long it might take.
    Amel recently posted…Oops…I Forgot a Market (and it pays up to 75 cents per word)!My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      You bring up an important point — some places will offer you $10,000 to do $100,000 worth of work that will take you all year. So don’t get stars in your eyes just because it’s a five-figure offer. Make sure it’s a *good* five-figure offer. 😉

    • Erin Walton says:

      Amel, you make a really good point there about translation. Sometimes, you just don’t know how complicated the text will be until getting stuck into it. I love your tip on doing a small “test translation” on a section of it…

  16. Hi Erin

    I really loved your article. I am in a similar niche though I taught online and one-to-one. I have a client in the study abroad market and love the cross-cultural training idea. It’s good to know that if you hit a wall you try a different approach and that there are good paying clients in this niche. Thanks for posting this easy to follow guide.

    Carol

    • Erin Walton says:

      Good to hear there are more of us in this niche! Good luck sussing out clients – I’m really keen to see what comes of marketing to intercultural training companies myself.

  17. I love it when posts go through a process step by step. Thanks for this, what an exciting gig to land!

  18. Hi Erin,

    Really helpful and simple. I love the way you decided what you wanted and then went for it, as a business, without wasting time on sites.

    Thanks for the explanation of how you approached your LOIs.

    Amy
    Amy Dunn Moscoso recently posted…How an Agency CEO Became a Media Darling: B2B Case StudyMy Profile

  19. Stacey says:

    I was so happy reading this! I’m so glad for the writer that their strategy worked for them – even if they did end up in a slightly different field than they first antisipated.
    Stacey recently posted…Ten Awesome and Free Things To Do in Melbourne, AustraliaMy Profile

  20. Elke says:

    Great article. This is a little off subject, and may have discussed before – I’ve only just discovered this site.

    I wondered if anyone out there has any thoughts on the role of video as being part of a package they can deliver to their clients, e.g. an online article with an embedded short film.

    And these days you can make a decent film on your phone. We’re already writers, and film is just putting a sequence of images to a script.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Video is a growing field for online marketing, Elke, but I’m unaware of any business that’s paying good money for down-and-dirty films you make on your smartphone — they’re hiring professional videographers and often shooting in a studio to create really slick, powerful video that builds their authority. I know because my husband IS a videographer. 😉

      Take a look at the video posts Derek Halpern does at Social Triggers, for an idea of what I mean.

      • Elke says:

        I’ll take a look – I didn’t know if this was happening yet.

        I recently did a film workshop with a national broadcaster, and they’re suggested using a smartphone as they have a national site where people can post stories via vimeo. I do think it can be a good idea to consider broadening your skills in this area – in conjunction with your writing ones as you never know where it might take you.

        I’m now making a film with the same broadcaster and they’ve already indicated that the subject and writing alone is good enough to qualify for it to be shown on TV. It will also be shown at a local film festival. This, I believe, will all serve me well, if, for instance, I decide one day to set up my own blog and combine films with articles.

  21. Hi Carol and Erin,

    Excellent article!

    I will defiantly be using point one and two more often. I just briefly looked at Hoovers.com and WOW…the value you find there is unbelievable.

    Now, in response to your question about landing my first big freelance writing gig, I did it all by networking and cultivating relationships potential clients that I wanted to work with.

    I took the time to get to know them better. That way I become the best writer for them. Because I would knew exactly what they wanted and what made them tick, then I would do exactly what you mentioned, “Finally, be a professional and exceed your client’s expectations.”
    William Ballard recently posted…How to Take Massive Action in Producing a Book That Readers Can’t Wait to Read This YearMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Is that a Freudian slip there, William — defiantly? I loved it!

      Thanks for sharing your story of landing a big client. So many writers tell me they’re designing a template letter of introduction they plan to send to dozens of prospects…and I just don’t think that works very well. Customizing your marketing so it’s clear you ‘get’ that company is what pays off.

      • Hi Carol,

        Oops!

        It is getting late here and I can see I made several editorial mistakes in that comment. Grrrr!

        Anyways, you are absolutely right! I agree, you got to personalize and customize any message that you send out. Having a generic or default letter of introduction just doesn’t seem appealing.

        I know that if someone sent me a generic letter of introduction, I wouldn’t really pay it no mind because it is not connecting with me or with my heart-strings.

        We as writers got to connect first before we try to be all pitchy and salesy.
        William Ballard recently posted…[Video] Dan Kennedy: Copywriting for EntrepreneursMy Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          I think it used to work better before the freelance marketplace exploded in size. Now it’s all about doing your homework and writing in your client’s style.

  22. Willi Morris says:

    WOWWWW How exciting is that?! Congratulations & good on you for putting in more effort. You reminded me that checking the revenue of companies is really important when targeting them as prospects.
    Willi Morris recently posted…How to Get Gutsy & Make the Big Ask to Influential PeopleMy Profile

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