What IS Freelance Writing? Answers to the Awkward Newbie Questions

What is freelance writing? Makealivingwriting.comI post a lot of tips here on Make a Living Writing for writers looking to earn more. But recently, a look at my Google Analytics revealed a surprising phrase writers commonly search on:

“What is freelance writing?”

This makes me feel I should back up and start at the very beginning. Clearly, I shouldn’t assume every reader knows what this career is about.

Apparently, some folks know that term well enough to search to find out more about it…but they don’t yet know how freelance writing works, exactly.

So let me fill in the blanks today with answers to some of the most basic questions about the world of freelance writing:

Freelance writing defined

Let’s begin with a definition: Freelance writing is any sort of writing assignment that you do for pay, outside of a staff position.ย Simple as that.

You are not an employee receiving company benefits such as sick leave or vacation pay, or 401(k) matching. And you are not required to appear at your client’s office and do your work there. You work in a place of your choosing, with your own tools, setting your own hours.

That last part is important, because if you work on-site for freelance clients that require you to keep regular hours at their office, the IRS may reject the idea that you’re really a freelancer. If they do that, IRS will disallow all your expense deductions associated with running your freelance business (ouch!), and potentially sue your client to reclassify you as an employee.

It’s worth taking a moment to read up on the legal difference between staffers and freelancers, so that you don’t get into a tax mess later.

Common types of freelance writing

What sorts of writing can be done as a freelance gig? Just about anything you can think of that staff writers, communications specialists, or marketers do, freelance writers also may get assigned. Here’s a starter list:

  • Web pages (informational or sales pages)
  • Blog posts
  • Magazine articles (for consumer, custom, or trade publications)
  • Newspaper articles
  • Direct mail sales letters
  • Newsletters (physical or email-delivered)
  • Annual reports (corporate or nonprofit)
  • Business plans
  • Media kits
  • White papers
  • Case studies
  • Press releases
  • Research reports
  • Speeches
  • Radio scripts
  • Video scripts
  • Video sales letters
  • Marketing emails
  • Internal/intranet company communications
  • Ghostwriting of anything above that takes a byline

As you can see, the world of freelance writing offers a wide variety of writing types to suit every taste. There’s also freelance writing for businesses in every type of industry, from aerospace to washing machines. And publications covering every imaginable topic.

Yes, it can be overwhelming! The trick is to narrow it down so you can focus, and find clients.

What’s the opportunity in freelance writing?

Are you wondering if freelancing is a fad? Just the opposite.

Companies increasingly love working with freelance creatives, and all studies indicate the percentage of people who freelance will only grow in the future. In fact, there are 53 million freelancers of all types now (out of a 322 million population). Which really puts the lie to the frequently-circulated myth that it’s impossible to make a living as a freelancer. It’s expected that 50 percent of Americans will freelance by 2020.

Learning how to operate a freelance writing business now is the best way you can create career stability for yourself.

How to get started in freelance writing

I get emails every day like this:

“I just recently stumbled upon the world of freelance writing! I’m out of work and think this would be a great thing to do, I loved writing in college.

“How do I get started?”

There are several common ways writers break into freelancing and begin creating a portfolio of work, including:

  • Volunteering to write for a nonprofit
  • Writing for friends’ businesses
  • Writing for local businesses you patronize
  • Leveraging writing experience and connections from a day job to get freelance gigs

For more, I wrote an e-book that takes you step-by-step through exactly how to get those first clips and start finding paying gigs.

How to waste time trying to get started

You may have noticed that list of break-into-freelancing ideas doesn’t include “Get on UpWork and start bidding for gigs against 1,000 other writers” or “sign up for a content mill.”

Sadly, while that’s a super-easy step to take, most writers don’t find these productive places to spend time. On intermediary platforms such as UpWork or Textbroker, you may not know who the end client is and are often ghostwriting. Also, many of these listings seem to turn out to be scams.

That means you don’t get clips, referrals or testimonials. Those are the three things you urgently need to get your business launched, so hanging out in these places is generally a colossal waste of time.

Did I mention pay rates on these places are usually painfully low? That’s another reason this doesn’t help you build a freelance writing business — it’s more for hobbyists.

How to figure out pay rates

One of the most complex questions in freelancing is, “What do I charge?” and its corollary is “How do I physically get paid?”

There are resources on going rates, and I recommend you study them to get a sense of professional pay (hint: not $20 a blog post). But freelance rates are highly variable.

There are two simple methods for arriving at appropriate freelance writing pay rates:

The slow method:

Set a rate.

Next time you get a client, ask for more.

Repeat with each new client until you can’t get any clients — then, you know you’re too high (or that you need to find bigger, better clients).

The fast method:

Join a writer community where you can benchmark your rates and get feedback from other working writers on bids you’re planning to submit. Trust me, it’ll be a serious eye-opener about how much to charge. Namely, lots more than you’re probably thinking if you’re comparing your freelance hourly rate to what you used to make in a day job. That’s a mistake.

As far as how to get paid? Check, electronic bank transfer, and Paypal are the most common methods. You can use all three with clients in another country, too.

Big pay tip: Ask for an up-front deposit of 30-50%. That tends to weed out the scammers who’re planning to stiff you.

2 Answers that cover most newbie questions

When you’re a new freelance writer, you’ll have many questions — about deadlines, deliverables, contracts, and more. The vast majority of them can be answered one of two ways:

  1. Ask your client
  2. It depends

New writers think there is one secret, mystical set of rules aboutย ‘how it’s done’ in freelance writing that they aren’t privy to. And they’re afraid to ask.

But really, nearly every freelance gig is different. Asking your prospect or client is the only way to find out. Pros ask loads of questions, so go for it.

No one else but your client can tell you how they want the writing delivered (Word doc? WordPress?), who you should report to, how long this contract is for, and so on.

What is freelance writing? An opportunity

I’m hoping the information I’ve shared above provides a comprehensive answer to the “What is freelance writing?” question. This is a career you create by taking action to find clients — and the income can range from a little monthly mad money to six figures and more, depending on your drive and your talent.

If you know anyone who’s intrigued by the concept of freelance writing, please pass this post along to them.

What is freelance writing, to you? Leave a comment and let’s discuss.

Get a free e-book (100+ Freelance Writing Questions Answered by Carol Tice) and free updates! Sign me up!

 

 

 

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47 comments on “What IS Freelance Writing? Answers to the Awkward Newbie Questions
  1. Tammy Spearnock says:

    Another newbie question for you: What’s a clip? Is it an excerpt from an article/blog?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Tammy, it IS the article, blog post, case study, white paper, or whatever it is.

      We call them clips because they used to all be in print, and we would ‘clip’ them out and put them in our physical portfolios. Still have my early one, with all my alternative paper clips. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. David Throop says:

    A great summary of the role, requirements, and benefits of being a freelance writer!

    It’s a great reminder for those who’ve been at the game for a while, and an awesome resource for those just starting out.

    I would have liked to see an expansion on the starting out section – maybe a quick inclusion on how to pitch a client – (even though I know there’s tons of material you’ve posted elsewhere)

    Thanks again for being a phenomenal example of success through freelancing!
    David Throop recently posted…4 Simple Keys To Creating A Successful Marketing CampaignMy Profile

    • Sean Carey says:

      Hello, Carol.

      I hope this question is not off-topic, here. I’ve been reading quite a few of your articles (not blog posts. I read your article explaining how we should write articles on our blogs, not blog posts. ๐Ÿ™‚

      What I’m wondering is this, and I have not been able to find a solid answer as of yet. I believe I would like to start a blog on my freelance writing website; I mean the site where I advertise my services, etc. I’ve blogged before, but that was for a niche website where I knew the topic, and it was very straight-forward to figure out what content to write about.

      I don’t want to spin my wheels and write for the wrong target audience. What the heck should my blog be about? Should I write articles on the topics that I want to write for other people? You know, in order to advertise what I can offer, etc. My main writing skills are in the health and fitness, weight loss, personal development, and online marketing and social media areas. There’s more, too, and that makes me feel that covering all of those topics might be strange. Especially on my own personal site that advertises my services.

      Then again, I don’t really know. I’m new to having a website for this kind of thing. I hope my question was clear, there. I kind of went all over the place.

      Basically, I’m wondering what kind of blog would I want to have that will be more focused on getting me clients?

      Thank you so much, Carol, for this website and blog! I’ll look for your response. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Carol Tice says:

        Sean, I’m glad you asked this, because I think it’s a question MANY new freelance writers have.

        They’ve heard they’ve just GOT to have a blog. But it’s not true.

        The first question to ask yourself is — how much time would it take to do this blog, and would that time be better spent on other forms of marketing?

        The answer partly depends on whether you want to do paid blogging, or are going after other types of writing work. I think blogs work best for writers seeking paid blogging.

        The next question is — do you have a topic you LOVE and could see yourself writing dozens of posts about? Blogging is an ongoing gig (800+ posts and counting around here!). You up for that?

        Third — here’s the big thing about blogs. They’re only worth it if they get engagement. If you have a blog with zero comments or shares on a tab of your writer site, that’s not going to help you much. Yes, you could use the posts for samples, but BETTER is to get samples from first pro bono clients, where you show you pleased an editor and got a testimonial.

        My experience is that the win is writing your passion, for the most part, rather than writing a marketing blog or something, that’s aimed directly at clients. Most of the blogs I’ve seen in this second category are a complete failure. The sweet spot would be if those two lined up — say you have a passionate fitness niche blog idea, and that blog helps you get paid fitness blogging work.

        All that said…I started THIS blog on a tab of my writer site! If you have a concept you really love, it can be a place to test it out and start it. You can always spin it off to its own site, like I did, if it starts to catch on.

        More on all this in two ebooks I did — How to Be a Well-Paid Freelance Blogger, and Small Blog, Big Income — you can see both here: http://www.makealivingwriting.com/ebooks

        • Sean Carey says:

          Thank you, Carol. After reading your reply, I think I know the direction I’m going to take. I’ve done a blog, for years actually, and I know how much work that takes. I feel like I’m ready to try something new, and I think for my specific goals the best course of action might be to get my work featured on respectable sites.

          You really made me think about weighing out the amount of work both would take, and I now realize that the blog would take at least as much work (or more) than doing pro bono work and getting those testimonials.

          I need to spend my energy as efficiently as possible and stop wasting time on things that are dubious to begin with. Thank you, again! ๐Ÿ™‚

          • Carol Tice says:

            You know, I know some writers who don’t have a blog, and get ALL their clients off their guest posts on big sites. That’s a strategy that can really work.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I was afraid there was too much review in this post already! But we checked it against some past posts I’ve done along these lines, and felt like this was a fresh angle on getting started.

      For pitching, there’s always my Pitch Clinic class with Linda Formichelli. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. vinayak says:

    hi,
    thanks for putting up this post.
    Really defines everything about freelance writing.

    And the point where you described its various forms, it was like extra topping on this post.

  4. Tammy Spearnock says:

    Fabulous info! I had almost decided this might be over my head (not be being an expert in a particular field) but I’m re-energized to explore your Boot Camp and other resources mentioned above. This really does fit me! Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for the feedback Tammy — I think I forget that every week, more people come to the conclusion that they NEED to be a freelance writer, because writing is their superpower. Glad I took the time to get back to basics on this post.

  5. Amar kumar says:

    Hey Carol,

    I believe entrepreneurs, freelancers, and self-employed individuals have to work even harder than salaried employees, especially when we keep in mind that all the benefits i.e. health and dental, vacation, paid sick leave, etc. we used to take for granted, no longer exist. In order to be great in what we do, it is important that we know the amount of time we can dedicate to freelance writing. If we canโ€™t do it full-time immediately, then we need to make the transition slowly.

    I carefully drafted and redrafted a personal business plan, including my financial requirements, goals, and how I thought that would actually translate into work. I realized that if I landed the equivalent of two short projects a month, I could survive. Well barely, but itโ€™s good to know where we survival limit is, because when push comes to shove, itโ€™s accomplish that goal or be stuck eating dry toast for a month. Eventually, thanks for sharing your informative thought with us.

    With best wishes,

    Amar kumar
    Amar kumar recently posted…11 Things You Must Know About Web Design in 2016My Profile

  6. Paula says:

    Thanks for writing this post, Carol. I’m building the foundation (website, business name, etc.) to my freelance writing business right now with a plan to launch (start querying/pitching) in January.

    I’ve done a lot of research on the business of freelancing, but I’m curious if you can suggest any articles specifically about setting up a business name as a writer?

    I’ve already set up a website using my name, thinking it would be no problem doing business as myself. At the moment, I’m in a holding pattern because I recently read advice from another writer about not using your real name – “just in case.”

    Do you have any resources that offer a solution? Do you have any advice on choosing a name for my freelance writing business?

    Thank you,
    Paula

    • Carol Tice says:

      Paula, we go into this in depth in my Freelance Business Bootcamp e-book — just click on the ebooks tab up top here on the blog to check that out.

      There are plenty of reasons to have a business name that’s not your own, besides ‘just in case’ you get sued (which hopefully doesn’t happen, as long as you don’t lie or make stuff up)…and choosing another name would NOT provide any legal protection. You’d have to form an LLC for that…the sort of details we go into in depth in that ebook.

  7. Desiree Dow says:

    Love this post because although I am already following you, a member of Den, Bootcamp, etc., there are those times when I need to go back for a refresher so that I can get a better understanding…AGAIN!

    Thanks for another great post!

  8. Great post as usual Carol.

  9. Thanks for this post, Carol. This is the sort of information that I hunted all over the internet for a few years ago when I started freelancing. It’s a good resource for new freelancers, as well as those (like me) who need to remember where they came from to work out where they’re going. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. Tamatha says:

    Hi, Susie.

    Why not choose a topic you _are_ an expert in, and avoid the problem?

    Or specialize in the forms of writing that are tedious or difficult for your client to do in-house, but for which they supply most or all of the data, such as white papers, case studies, and annual reports?

    Cheers.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’d say because lots of writers aren’t an expert, particularly, in much of anything. Luckily, that’s not super important — see my other comment. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Our job is to be expert at WRITING. That’s our expertise. Telling a great story — often, about some pretty arcane stuff.

      • Evan Jensen says:

        That’s it. You don’t need to be an expert. You need to know how to find the experts, interview, and ask good questions.

        Here’s an example: I once landed an assignment to write about stem cell research being studied to grow bones. Did I have a degree in chemistry, biology, or molecular engineering? Hardly. It sounded more like something out of a science fiction novel to me.

        With a deadline looming, I called the researcher. I actually told him I knew next to nothing about stem cell research, but needed to explain his study in a way the average person could understand. (Today, I’d do a little more homework on the topic and come to the interview better prepared to ask good questions). Fortunately, Dr. Vassilios Sikavitsas walked me through the process, answered all my questions, and gave me just about everything I needed to write the story.

        Not all experts are going to be this helpful. But most are. Before making calls to set up an interview, I’m nervous. What if the “expert” tells me I’m a fool and won’t grant an interview. Almost never happens. And on the rare occasion it does, or the expert doesn’t get back to you, you just find another expert.

    • Susie Rosse says:

      Those could be good ideas…It’s just that I think they could take a long time. Like I’ve read case studies can take 20-40hrs to finish and that’s when you’ve done them before…so if I had a case study job, for say 1K and it took me 50hrs to finish, let alone revisions or interviews or other things…I’d only be making 20/hr for a really complicated job.

      • Susie Rosse says:

        Oh…actually the link I found for the amount of hours it takes is for white papers! Well, I’ve heard case studies can be complex too.

        I also really like these ideas about interviewing experts.

        • Carol Tice says:

          Not sure where you’re ‘hearing’ things…you may want to read a little less widely to avoid mass confusion. Case studies are super-straightforward.

          Here’s a customer who used a product, and the story of how and why they chose it, what other solutions they considered and how this one stacked up, and how it worked to use it, what problems they encountered and how they were solved, why they love it, whether they would buy from the company again, or would add more features or services, is the relationship with the brand growing. The end. A really sophisticated case study might have another interview or two, from a vendor, or someone at the company, or the customer’s wife, or something. That’s it.

        • Angie Mansfield says:

          I specialize in case studies and white papers, and case studies are my favorite type of project. They’re easy, the research and interviews for them are fun, and they pay well for a relatively low time commitment.

          White papers *might* take 50-60 hours, if you’re doing a really long one or one that requires a lot of research – but then you charge accordingly.

          Susie, you might want to check out some of Carol’s ebooks if you’re unable to join the Den in the near future. The Step by Step ebook is a great start and will help you think about quality clients. http://www.makealivingwriting.com/step-step-guide-freelance-writing-success/

          • Susie Rosse says:

            @Angie I read that it can take a long time for case studies to be approved, like the final product/draft so that you can get paid. How much has it varied for you? I’ve read stories where people said the company approved it within days, and others said it took months…if you can really do them quickly and easily, then that does sound like a good option.

            I’ve also read that from start to finish, like just the work I would do, could take a few weeks because of all of the back and forth communication. Has that been true for you?

            • Carol Tice says:

              If you know how to structure a contract, how long it takes for them to approve isn’t a problem, Susie. You might want to check out my Freelance Business Bootcamp ebook up on the books tab here on the blog — it goes into a lot of detail on that.

            • Angie Mansfield says:

              ^^What Carol said.

              Plus, I require a deposit before I start work. That tends to cut down on the “we want a case study but haven’t even gotten our customer to agree to it yet” syndrome – plus, it gives you some cash flow while you complete the work.

      • Carol Tice says:

        Not sure where you read THAT, Susie, but case studies are mostly 1 long interview and usually maybe 2 pages long! If I spend 8 hours on one, that would be a lot. And…case studies aren’t really complicated. Maybe you’re thinking of white papers?

        There’s plenty of misinformation floating around the Internet — hope you can join us in the Den soon, where you can baseline reality with a community of 1,000+ working freelance writers!

        • Susie Rosse says:

          Yes, the link I found was for white papers! It sounds awesome that case studies could take such a short amount of time. Although, I’ve read that if you factor in communication with clients and interviewees then it can take up to a few weeks?

          • Carol Tice says:

            Susie…I want you to stop reading. Instead, go out and find some first clients. Try to do some paid writing. See how it works, and what you think of it. I think the more you read, the more uncertain you feel, here.

            Reading more will not actually help you pull out of this, as I explain here: http://www.makealivingwriting.com/avoid-overwhelm-quickly-launch-freelance-writing-career/

            Yes, sometimes things will go quickly in freelance writing, sometimes slowly. Some clients are good, some bad. Continuing to speculate about how it will be, and ask others what happened for them, will not move YOUR career forward. Every writer’s journey is unique. You’ll only really know the answers for YOU through being out in the marketplace and doing some writing gigs.

            When you do it, come back and tell us about how it’s going!

  11. Susie Rosse says:

    I have a question: How do you get clients to pay you high rates, if you aren’t an expert on the topic? I was wondering about this, since I love your advice on how even beginners should charge higher rates, but how would you justify the high rates if you aren’t an expert on the topic? Like even if you pick a specific niche, if you don’t have a background in it, why would a client pay you a lot?

    • Susie Rosse says:

      Like for an example, say I have excellent writing skills and clips, in a financial niche. Well, even if they love my writing, how would a client guarantee my research was a 100% on point? If I’m just googling, I could make a mistake and not find out the correct or updated information about finances or the laws…How could they guarantee that wouldn’t happen, if I’m not an expert?

      Or for another example: Like if you research about SEO (which is for ranking webpages in Google so you can get lots of traffic, and the guidelines change frequently), you can find old articles very easily on how to do it. So, if I had never heard of it before, and found an article from 2012 and thought it was OK to reference…I would be giving them the wrong information!

      Just curious about what you think.

      • Carol Tice says:

        Good pay doesn’t come from…’just Googling.’ People who come out of the content-mill world often don’t understand that better paying gigs usually involve interviewing and finding new information that isn’t already floating around the Internet. Often, a lot of interviewing.

        For instance, I’m currently doing a $3,000 corporate research project. I have made over 100 interview requests on it so far, looking to find hopefully at least a half-dozen people willing to share their insights on an executive’s management style. Good pay comes from harder projects, that not every writer could execute on.

        Hope that sheds some light!

        • Susie Rosse says:

          Yes it did, thanks! How long can interviews take, like from the first time contacting people (for things like magazine articles) to having the finished and ready to send to the editor version? Like how does that factor into your working hours?

          • Carol Tice says:

            Susie, these are what my friend Anne Wayman likes to call “How long is a piece of string?” questions. The answer is: It depends.

            I could tell you how long it takes ME, but that would have nothing to do with how long it will take YOU. You’ll find out how long it takes you…but doing it, and tracking your time. There really isn’t another way. And every interview and assignment will vary. As I say in the post, you’re looking for ‘this is the way it works’ answers, but there is no ONE way things work, in freelancing.

            I’ve got some interviewing resources here:

            http://www.makealivingwriting.com/tag/interviews

            You can scan through that thread for all my interview tips. I spent 12 years as a staffer, interviewing just hundreds of people from CEOs to celebrities to ‘regular people.’

            • Susie Rosse says:

              Those articles look like they’d be really useful, thanks! yes…the times would vary definitely, I just thought you may have a general range/estimate, like for just magazine articles, like local ones a newbie freelancer would do.

              • Carol Tice says:

                To find out about what your local media pay…ask them. Or ask local writers. That’ll vary a lot, from zero pay to $1000 or more, depending on where you live and the health of your local/regional pubs.

                • Susie Rosse says:

                  I meant a range for the amount of time interviews and communication could take for local mags, but I agree with you. I can just contact the magazines and ask them that anyway.

                  • Carol Tice says:

                    When you’re a new writer, your concern isn’t ‘how long will this take?’

                    Just get clips. Get a gig. Any one you can get. Don’t worry about pay, or how long it’ll take them to pay. Just get a portfolio.

                    One of my first gigs was writing for the L.A. Times real estate section, and I can tell you each piece I did took FOREVER. Because I didn’t know anything yet. But it gave me a portfolio.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Susie, here’s the thing: As a freelance writer, your job is not to be an expert. Your job is to be interested in the topic, and to know how to FIND EXPERTS to interview.

      Among the topics I’ve earned large amounts writing about that I am NOT an expert in are surety bonds, insurance, lawsuits, franchising, home improvement topics like trends in shower-curtain styles, advanced washing machine technology, real estate…I could go on and on.

      Last week, I did robotics. First time ever. $500 for a single page document.

      Yes, as you write on a topic you gain some credibility as a writer in that topic, and it becomes easier to ask for and get good rates.

      But what really makes the difference in charging more is knowing how to identify and successfully market yourself to better-paying clients — generally, bigger and more successful magazines and businesses.

      Once you have a basic portfolio of first clips, you want to move in that direction as fast as you can — but few new writers have any idea what makes a good client. If you’re interested in how you identify those, check out my Get Great Clients e-book. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • Susie Rosse says:

        Oh…I thought interviewing was mostly for magazine articles, although I do remember now people do them for case studies too! I had thought interviews were for only certain things. I was thinking more like, what if I was writing for a company on their blog?

        Also, I heard you talk about copyrighting before, and you said it pays really well, but how do you show expertise there?

        • Carol Tice says:

          You mean…copywriting, yes? Copyrighting is protecting your rights to a work.

          Again, your expertise is WRITING. Writing in the tone and style they want. Weaving the information they want out there into a compelling story. That’s what you offer. You ask a lot of questions, and find out the info you need to put in their copy.

          That make sense?

          • Susie Rosse says:

            Yes it does make sense. LOL the spellcheck got the word wrong, of course I meant copywriting.

            One last question, what do you think about freelancers working for content agencies? Like the agencies hire freelancers to produce content for their clients. They say the work can be really steady, and that they pay more than content mills.

            • Carol Tice says:

              Who are this ‘they,’ Susie?

              Yes, agencies CAN be a source of steady work, usually at pretty low rates compared to what you can get prospecting and finding your own clients directly. There are good agencies, and there are sleazy ones. They’re not all the same, in how they operate, or pay. But yes, probably better than a content mill (unless that mill is ClearVoice or Contently, sometimes).

              But…agencies tend to hire experienced writers, particularly with agency staff experience. Is that you? I personally applied to agency gigs over and over and never got anywhere, despite 12 years as a staff journalist and many awards. I didn’t have the right type of experience for them, I believe.

              I’m confident that isn’t really your last question — I hope you join the Den! It’s a lot easier for us to provide support in there than here on blog comments. ๐Ÿ˜‰