To Become a Successful Freelance Writer, Start Here

Freelance writer starts down the road to successFar and away the question I get most often on this blog is how to get started as a freelance writer.

There are so many things you could do first off. Which is the right one?

But here’s what troubles me: Often, a year or two later, I’ll get that very same writer popping up with the same question. “Gee, if only I could figure out the one best, fastest, low-cost way to get started.”

Or “As soon as I figure out my best niche, I’m going to get this freelance writing thing rolling!”

And I think…yike. You still haven’t started? That’s not good.

So today, I want everyone who’s trying to figure out where the starting gate is for their freelance writing career to get started.

Yes, today. This is it!

After today, I want you to say, “I’m working on my freelance writing career.”

No more ‘How-do-I-get-started….’ Because you will have started.

Two ways to start your freelance writing career

There are two basic things you can do to get off the launch pad as a freelance writer, right away.

The first is one anyone can do, right now.

1) Start Somewhere.

Stop trying to figure out the one, best, fastest, lowest-cost way to launch your freelance writing career.

Stop endlessly fretting over what your most ideal writing niche might be and how you will know which topics will be best for you.

Stop worrying that you’re not good enough or don’t know enough.

Instead, take action.

The best place to start is: somewhere.

Doesn’t it matter where? In a way, no.

That’s because taking action is powerful. Yes, you may make mistakes and it may take you a while to figure out your path.

Just putting yourself out there, in whatever way, begins your process of learning how freelance writing works. You’re one step further down the road of knowledge about the freelance marketplace.

You’ve begun the critical process of trial-and-error that will allow you to start learning about the freelance writing marketplace.

And that knowledge is what will ultimately result in your building a thriving business.

So that’s huge.

Possible starting points

What step you take will depend on your goals as a freelance writer, your experience, and your interests. Realize that there is no one-size-fits-all answer to where to begin.

But there are plenty of things you can do to start trying to find freelance writing gigs.

Do you have a business you patronize that has a crappy website? Maybe you’ll start by asking them if you could redo it pro bono to get a portfolio sample.

Maybe you’ll spend the day building your LinkedIn connections — and letting them know you’d appreciate referrals if they hear anyone is looking for a writer.

Or you’ll finally send that query letter to that magazine you always wanted to pitch.

Or you’ll go to an in-person networking meeting and starting telling people you’re a freelance writer.

Set up a Twitter account, maybe. Get business cards.

Whatever it is, you’ll be that first, single step down the road. And we all know how every long journey begins.

This is exactly how I built my freelance business. Totally trial and error. Eventually, I figured it out.

What’s that? You hate trial and error? Don’t want it to take forever for you to figure this out and start earning?

That brings us to the other big way to get your freelance business launched:

2) Get help.

Stop guessing, worrying, and wondering if you know enough to launch a freelance business.

Instead of being held back by fears that you don’t know the secret handshake, don’t ‘get’ online writing markets, or whatever else keeps you stuck, admit you need assistance. Then, get it.

Take a shortcut and get a big shot of expert advice that fills in the blanks. Find a mentor, or take a freelance business course so you understand how this game works, and how to win at it.

Understand that if you don’t want to be a starving artist, you need a different mentality: The one that says, “I’m running a business here.”

Then, make sure your business is set up right. Learn how freelance contracts work and how to negotiate a good one. Find out how to operate a home-based, freelance business and make sure it turns a profit.

Yes, this means investing in your fledgling business. But it’s an investment that’s bound to pay off, in saved time and effort.

What have you learned about running a freelance writing business? Share your get-started tips in the comments.

Freelance Business Bootcamp

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56 comments on “To Become a Successful Freelance Writer, Start Here
  1. dhiviya says:

    i’m a graduate engineer but my love for writing brought me here and i dont know how when and where to start , pls help me to work as a freelance writer ! i have a group in fb where i am writing a novel .

    • Carol Tice says:

      Dhiviya, there are 700+ posts full of help right here on the blog! You can also check out my 1 on 1 mentoring and my Freelance Writers Den community at the tabs up top.

      Initial tip: Writing a novel is generally not part of freelance writing, and doesn’t lead to reliable income for most. Nonfiction writing for businesses and publications is what most freelance writers focus on.

  2. Megan says:

    I worked as a freelance writer at writerslabs.com, but after reading your article I decided to try something new! Thank you for this!!!

  3. Stefanie says:

    Hi Carol,

    I’m a freelance writer, just starting up my business. I’m in the process of setting up a killer website and, thanks to a lot of your guidance on this blog, taking other crucial steps towards success. I’m feeling confident after reading a lot of your posts. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve read your posts and thought, “Wow! She knew exactly what I was going to ask!”

    I was wondering, though, if you have an updated link for the online freelance writing courses. I clicked on the one in this post, but it’s more than a year old. I definitely want to expand my freelance knowledge and best prepare myself for what lies ahead.

    Thanks for everything!
    —Stefanie

  4. Excellent post! Getting started is often the hardest thing to do, but in the big scheme of things it is also the most important…by far.
    Michael Levanduski recently posted…Why Aren’t You Using Craigslist to Find New Clients?My Profile

  5. Since my last post I managed to secure two small projects on Freelancer.com – I was ging to cancel my accoutn when they came through. Both projects were easy and took me in total about 30 minutes. My pay $123.00 so good hourly rate!
    I have kept my account on the lowest membership possible and bid on a couple of other projects. Once these lapse I will move on.
    Unfortunately, as yet, I have not found anything on PeoplePerHour that suits.
    I’ll keep looking for opportunites.
    Once again thank you for such excellent advice and views.
    Mandy Eve-Barnett recently posted…Ride Your Imagination…My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Mandy, PeoplePerHour has a reputation for really low rates! To earn more, instead of signing up for more and more bid-site platforms where you can be in a race to the bottom on prices, think about prospecting to find your own clients.

      There is always the small decent fluke project you might score on one of these, as you found with your Freelancer gig, but relying on these is generally not a great way to build a secure, lucrative freelance business.

  6. Hi Carol,

    I know I’m likely to get flamed when I admit this but my first ever real freelance writing gig came from Elance.

    Now allow me to explain…

    I’d been blogging for about 5 years and my connections weren’t always with people who could position me to get paid for my writing. But I knew I was a good blogger – engaging, provocative without being a jackwagon, conversational, etc. – so I wanted to just do that for a living. Here and there I’d get some guest blogging work or ad share (shiver) post opportunities but never a “paid” writing gig.

    Elance seemed accessible, it was free, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to try. Within my first 5 pitches I was hired as a ghostwriter for a holistic Acupuncturist. I knew nothing about her industry and the pay was small but the opportunity convinced me of 2 things:

    1. I CAN do this and get paid (rate increase to follow!) and
    2. Learning is fun even if I never would have imagined writing in that industry.

    Your point that ‘no one size fits all’ is what had me starting at Elance. My rising confidence in my ability to run my business has led me away from sites like that. My rates and skills have both improved tenfold and I’m happy I started how I did.

    Thanks for another great post!
    Jenn Flynn-Shon recently posted…Self-Publishing Tip #2 – Forget Your Book ExistsMy Profile

  7. The other day, I attended a marketing Lunch and Learn. I took the step to put myself out there as a freelance writer; several people expressed interest in having me work with them. Will they all pan out? Probably not. But at least the idea is now out there!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Good for you, Stephanie!

      Taking tiny steps forward reduces fear…and taking no steps means you just sit around getting more and more worried and anxious and thinking dark thoughts about whether you’ve really got what it takes, etc.

      Sounds like that was a good lunch & learn if you got several leads out of it! Be sure to follow up and keep it rolling.

  8. tobyo says:

    you are quite right. I don’t want to be that person you just wrote about, two years later still wondering how to get started. I have made teeny tiny steps at starting so I can say that I have started!! I got inspired by you when you wrote about winning an essay contest so I googled, actually found a contest to enter, wrote up my entry…..then realized the contest was for last year!! I giggled at myself for not noticing that detail 🙂 But I’m not giving up!! My issue has more to do with time. I have a full time job (that just pays the bills, it’s not my passion) and it’s fairly demanding as it is so I am doing this “wanna be a writer” part time. I know I will get there but I appreciate the prompt and I am so glad I found your website! I was chatting with a blogger friend about her free lance career then went googling and I found this website.

    all this to say….I have gotten started, albeit with teeny tiny baby steps 🙂
    tobyo recently posted…winter kabobs in the snowMy Profile

  9. Karen says:

    I will get that book! I do have the writer’s “bug” and have since I was a young child. But it’s not really a bug (which has me thinking of someone ill, vomiting, and then getting over it and moving on with life away from ). I’ve been writing a long time and have children’s stories waiting for me to give final approval for… and a teen novel with characters alive and well even though I don’t seem to have time for them. Time is the key piece. We are converting an office room (a cave like storage room with great possibilities). Our 7 year old wants to read and write in it as well. I need to find a way to write/freelance work for 2 hours per day (more in summers when I am home) around my day job. Easier said than done when my days feel like marathons. But I’m on now and it’s 11:30 PM. You do what you have to do. Contest to see who kicks my butt first… me or others. Hubby has sacrificed before and is ready to invite in retirement. He doesn’t exactly take lightly the idea of more sacrificing. So part time proving to him is the one way to I know I have to do this. I can’t put us at risk. Too many bills depend on my pay check. But the day job is incredibly stressful with no real chance for advancement. There is no ladder to climb. And there is a great lack of respect towards my career field (which is sad). To me, I’d be crazy to keep believe that this day job will get any better. It won’t. My heart pulls me towards something else.
    Thanks for the information on the book. I’m getting it tomorrow.

    • tobyo says:

      Karen, you and I have very similar issues! full time, very demanding and stressful job that pays the bills. you touched on something that I thought of: carving time out of your day to work on this writer’s thing. I am also trying to find a different job, a better environment. so that has taken much of my free time. anyway, just wanted to encourage you (and me) that we will get there!
      tobyo recently posted…Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, MinneapolisMy Profile

  10. Karen says:

    Oh boy… Yes… I’d like to get right to it. Maybe I’m the only one who can’t just jump? Is it really fear or is it reality? Anyone else have a full time job that also requires personal time… along with children/spouse/family obligations that require personal time? The things that keeps me from really starting is…. I can’t afford the different seminars or classes or whatever. I just don’t have that money to splurge. I can’t dedicate myself to tight deadlines when I still have those other things on my plate (day job and family). Yet I’d LOVE to dump the day job because it is a go-no-where…. never-climb-a-ladder job despite the masters degree required to have it… AND it eats up so much of my personal time (non-paid time) as well and is a fairly low paid job considering other careers that require a masters degree.. I’d toss all that in the bucket tomorrow if I knew I could still pay my bills/take care of my family as well tomorrow. I’d much rather be writing. But until I know I can actually be paid for it, I can’t justify leaving the paycheck I currently have coming in. If I was alone/on my own, I’d take the risk. But I can’t do that when others are depending on me to keep a roof over head. Suggestions? I read everything I can regarding freelance writing…and drool over it. I want to eat the steak and not just drool over it. I want to start…. but want to know I can finish as well.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Karen, I have been the main financial support of a family of five, through writing, for most of my career. And 2 of my 3 kids are special needs. I’ve been freelancing full-time since 2005. And I consider my situation now more secure than any job I ever held.

      Not being able to afford a class doesn’t keep you from writing — it just makes it harder for you to quickly learn how to turn that writing into a career. It’s not a splurge — it’s a shortcut to where you want to go, that saves you a fortune in mistakes and lost revenue.

      In my experience, writing is something writers can’t stop themselves from doing. We keep journals, jot poems, submit articles to magazines that we somehow eke out in our ‘free’ time.

      The thing is, if you’re a totally risk-averse person who needs assurances that you’ll replace every dime of your salary with freelance writing in month one, it’s probably not for you. Because freelancing isn’t like that. Some months you earn more and others less. It can take a few months to ramp your earnings, or more.

      Lots of us freelancers are pretty creative at stretching our budgets. I remember years when we never ate out once, and hauled our own garbage to the dump to save $50 a month, for instance. Was that uncertainty and scrimping worth it to make my own schedule and be able to make every kids’ play, medical appointment, therapist date, and soccer game? You bet.

      Yes, I’ve been a working mom — but I’m hanging out with my daughter right now, while I work. Beats having a boss.

      Maybe you could splurge just a few bucks for my friend Linda Formichelli’s book – Write Your Way Out of The Rat Race ? Highly recommended, and tailored for your exact situation.

      If you want a freelance lifestyle, figure out how to lay a course out of the trap you’re in, or trust me, the years will whirl round and round, and before you know it those kids will be gone, while you were stuck spending most of your time in a job you hate, that’s sucking up your free time as well.

  11. Relatively early on in my career I visited and looked for kindred spirits in writers groups. I joined several and attended religiously. Some were in my city, others were based elsewhere. In general, it was a massively disappointing experience. Not because I didn’t care for what the other members wrote, or because they were self-absorbed prima-donnas, or because they wore aftershave that made me sneeze uncontrollably. Each club I joined failed to provide me anything useful to work with for the simple reason that nobody else in the clubs wrote. Not a bit.

    Shocking, right?

    One meeting sticks in my mind as vividly as it did on the day it happened. With a dozen or so members at the table we went around the room introducing ourselves and explaining what we did for a living. There were teachers, and builders, and mechanics, and housewives. When they got to me I said, “My name is Jamie Beckett and I’m a writer.”

    That stopped everything. “Yes,” the moderator said, “But what do you do for a living?”

    “I write,” I answered as directly as I could. “I write for a couple magazines on a regular basis and a weekly newspaper column.” I have to admit it hurt my feelings a little bit that nobody in this room full of writers was familiar with my column, which ran weekly in the local paper. It had been running for years, too. With my picture beside it. Go figure. “I’m a freelancer,” I explained.

    It took me a few minutes, but the reality of the group began to dawn on me. Everybody at the table wanted to be a successful writer, and as soon as they were recognized as a successful writer they had every intention of actually writing something. However, to that point not one of them had actually written a story for a magazine. Nobody had rejection slips at home from publishers who didn’t think their work was quite up to par. None of them had the novel that was going to launch them to stardom hidden in a cabinet back at the house. Nope. They hadn’t written anything more ambitious than a postcard and they were totally confused by this new guy who claimed to be, of all things, a writer.

    To this day that experience guides the advice I give to people who tell me they want to be a writer. “Then write something,” I tell them. “Write a lot. Be bad at it. Completely suck. It’s okay if you do,because if you’ve got any talent at all you’re start to notice you suck and start to do something about writing with greater focus so you suck slightly less. If you keep doing that, one day you’ll be good. Good enough to send a story to a magazine, or a newspaper, or a publisher in New York who will almost certainly reject your submission. Almost certainly. Not entirely certainly. And that ought to be enough to get you writing, and editing, and submitting, and doing it again. Because if you write enough you’ll find that you actually have something to say. Something more than the plot of your latest story. Congratulations, on that day you can proudly tell everyone you meet that you are indeed a real, live writer.

    Go forth and struggle. If you can really commit to the trade, you’ll love it. I’m sure of it. But write, don’t pretend to write. That really does suck.
    Jamie Beckett recently posted…Swearing along with Holden Caulfield – and other juvenile concernsMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Man, those sounds like some baaad writer’s groups!

      I once read a great Writer’s Digest article by a writer who said old ladies were always going up to her and saying, “I so admire you! One day I’m going to write my novel, too,” and the writer said she’d smile and nod, and inside, she’d be thinking “Bull*#t.” You don’t realize that you’ll never have any more time to write than you do now.

      Once you write one book, you’ll be having to write the next while you answer fan mail, tour, promote, build a blog platform, and 80 other things! Your time only gets more tight once you start. If you can’t seem to get around to it, it’s because you don’t have the drive to tackle that scary blank page and do this.

      Many people love to hang around literary types and dream of having the gumption to write, but they don’t. Definitely not the ‘writers’ to hang out with!

  12. It’s amazing how far you can get when you take one step at a time. You can feel like you’re not getting anywhere, and then you look back and realize how far you have come.
    Peter D. Mallett recently posted…How to Create an Idea Stash in 30 Minutes a DayMy Profile

  13. I never really thought twice about just jumping in with both feet. I made mistakes and undercharged, but I learned from all of it and I’m now able to make a living. In fact, we looked at our budget again last night (a yearly thing) and realized we’re in a position that we’ve never been in, where we actually have some disposable income to put away for long term goals and not just an emergency fund.

    If I hadn’t just jumped in, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to get started. I don’t think I want to know either. I have a friend who was debating about whether to start up her own jewelry business on the side to see if it would work out, and ended up telling her to just try it. There’s no point being afraid that something won’t work out. She’s in a much better position than I was with having a full-time job so some income still coming in. When I was starting my freelance career, I was unemployed and couldn’t find any prospects anywhere.

  14. You’re so right, Carol. I used to perseverate, thinking I had to have absolutely everything exactly in place before I could ‘launch,’ but after taking your Freelance Writing bootcamp and doing some other educational work, I realized I just needed to jump in and go. And I’ve never looked back. Thanks for the continued encouragement!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Awesome – glad the bootcamp helped you! That’s why we create them — to help people get off the dime and get going. Sometimes a bit more knowledge is reassuring that you can do this, and then writers get moving.

  15. Raspal Seni says:

    Hi Carol,

    I too faced the problem selecting my niche, when I started blogging last year. I liked to write about many different niches.

    I had read some advice that if one niche doesn’t work, just move on to another one. That advice also said not to go into the Blogging or Money Making niches as these are already jam packed. But I did. I started with a multi-niche blog and moved on to blogging, this year. Seemed natural to me writing about blogging. At this time, I’m not worrying whether this is a success or a failure. I’ve also started guest posting regularly on a big blogging blog since January this year.

    I have other niches I can change to, in case this one doesn’t work. I already have two tech blogs too, so that’s another niche. I separated the tech blogs after reading an advice from you somewhere – one niche, one blog!

    Haven’t landed a gig from my blogs yet, but added something to my Linkedin profile last night and adding some of my known writers from Twitter, to my Linkedin. Will work on the Linkedin profile more in the coming days.

    Thanks for the post.

  16. Ankita Chandran-Dave says:

    I read this post earlier in the day and got working. I accomplished three things today
    1. I sent out two pitches.
    2. I got working on building my LinkedIn profile.
    3. I started working on an essay, for a competition, that is in a niche I haven’t written much about, but I enjoy reading about.
    And I realized none of it as scary as I was making it to be in my head.
    Thank you for helping me believe in me.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ding-ding-ding! We have a move-ahead and take action winner here! 😉

      And it’s amazing how doing it lessens the fear, right? Fear increases the longer we stay paralyzed, and lessens when we DO even a tiny step.

  17. Elke Feuer says:

    Great post! I have a tendency to over think things along with the need to plan things to perfection before taking action. I’m slowly learning that it’s okay to plan while you’re taking action. After all, this business is constantly changing.
    Elke Feuer recently posted…Self Publishing — EditingMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m a planner-person myself…but at some point we have to DO.

      Yes, this business is constantly changing….which means we have to be out taking action and learning about it, through doing the writing and marketing and finding out what works now.

  18. Great advise here for newbies – thanks. I am guilty of dithering late last year, asking many of the questions above and then not acting on any of them. I found a couple of bidding sites and put my name on them and actually started bidding. For nearly two months I got nothing at all. I began asking questions of experienced freelancers and bought a couple of books to research. Just as I was going to close my accounts on these bidding sites due to advice given, I received two jobs in quick succession. There may not be large financially but did give me the confidence boost I craved.
    I chose jobs carefully per advice given now and have sent query emails to several local businesses.
    It is a matter of taking that initial leap of faith and realising it is the first step of many.
    Mandy Eve-Barnett recently posted…Author Recognition and Some Fun…My Profile

  19. Mai Bantog says:

    Getting started is really the hardest part! I’ve been doing freelance writing for years but I’m not yet in the position where I want to be, so what I’ve been doing as a start towards the right direction is reading all these posts from your blog and learning as many lessons from the Den as possible. Participating in the Scavenger Hunt from Danny Iny’s Firepole Marketing blog is also a huge help for me–I’ve set up a Tumbler and Twitter account because of it.

    I think these little things are enough to keep the ball rolling, but let’s not forget to move on to the bigger things–like pitching query letters and actually doing some writing. I haven’t done those things yet but I promised myself that I’ll do them before this month ends, as I have to prioritize my final paper for grad school this weekend. For me, setting goals is a huge motivation. I can’t wait to jump to next week and really start writing again for my blog! 🙂

  20. I’ve learned that most of the time no one really has it all together. I’m still light years away from where I need to be, but I’m in a better place than I was last year!
    Williesha Morris recently posted…2 Ways Breakups Can Rock Your Business (For Good!)My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hey…I’m sucking so much this week, I didn’t get this post up in time for my regular Sunday RSS. We all just keep muddling through…but really, take a step. Do a thing. It’ll help.

  21. Daryl says:

    Follow the Nike slogan and Just DO It!

    Well, of course you’ll need a plan and timelines/deadlines in place, but after you’ve done a decent one follow it to the T and do what you said you would in the time you said you’d do it..

    That’s the best way to get started in my opinion.
    Daryl recently posted…January Freelance Writing Income ReportMy Profile

  22. Dan Stelter says:

    Nike says “Just Do It” and it’s so right. In my own freelance writing career, I’ve found just starting and doing it was the best thing to do. You’re going to make mistakes along the way, but that’s how you learn, so don’t worry about those too much.

    Have a plan for finding clients, and work at it just like you would a real job. And I do recommend joining Carol’s Freelance Writer’s Den for $25/month because that saves you years of frustration and trial and error, and it’s worth much more than $300 per year.
    Dan Stelter recently posted…10 Sales-Killing Blog Mistakes Your Company is Making Right NowMy Profile

  23. A great quote from the author Lee Childs is “Don’t get it right – get it WRITTEN!”

    Getting started is the hardest part… everything after that is simply a part of the learning process.
    Katherine James recently posted…7 Travel Writing Magazines That Want To Publish Your ArticlesMy Profile

    • I haven’t read that book, but the quote is spot on. If you don’t write, there’s nothing to offer the client. The best way to get started is just try to write a couple pieces to completion and submit them intelligently (by this, I mean you’ve done your research about the venues’ audiences and needs).

      Although I like the idea of approaching someone with a poorly-written website and asking if they need help. I got that idea on this site at one point and scored some work off it.
      Rebecca Klempner recently posted…Reading is for everyone, even those with no bookshelfMy Profile

  24. Hi Carol,

    Sorry, first off that comment of Andy’s about hair removal nightmares cracked me up. Thank you, sir.

    I’m actually not a freelance writer, but I really love some of your points. But especially about taking action.

    And what you do doesn’t have to be perfect. You’ll learn and grow through experience and things like the freelance business bootcamp.

    But even a bad start is 100 times more productive and beneficial than no start at all.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed the read. Thank you. And thank you again, Mr. Andy.

    Vince

  25. Andy Nathan says:

    Carol,

    I agree with you whole-heartedly! The reason I can tell people I am a freelance writer was because without knowing what the heck I was doing, accepted a freelance writing gig. People said, you are a blogger. Why not write for me?

    My first gig was way, way, way, way, way under charged. And also, the first gig I got was not in my niche at all. My first article client was a laser hair removal client. Then when they had enough articles about laser hair removal, they referred me to a lasik client.

    To this day, I still get nightmares thinking about all the stupid Brazilian laser hair removal articles I wrote.

    However, I learned. Then increased my rate.

    But, if people do not want to do that, then more business for you and me.

    Andy
    Andy Nathan recently posted…Discover How Jeff Bullas Drives 4 Million Vistors To His Blog Every YearMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Snort! Totally relating…I wrote all these articles about surety bonds. The glamor never ends in business blogging!

      Like you say, we undercharge, we have to write weird stuff…but out of that emerges experience, and we develop our business from there.