Have you ever wished you could land a really big freelance writing client? Well, as it happens, there is a truly enormous user of freelancers out there.
It’s a client most freelance writers never even think about pitching.
This client generates reams of written materials every year, on dozens of different topics.
Who is this giant client? It’s government. The U.S. federal government most of all, but state, county, city, and other local governments, too.
Wherever you live, there is government, unless it’s on the moon or Antarctica or something. This is a global opportunity — and the topics range including the environment, agriculture, physical and mental health, technology, weaponry, and computer security.
To many freelancers, the idea of trying to bid on government contracts is intimidating. But the size of this market makes it worth learning how it’s done.
Forget the Fortune 500 — think of the U.S.A. as the Fortune 1.
A recent New York Times analysis of federal contracting found the value of federal contracts offered in the last fiscal year fell to only $460 billion. Boo hoo! Still the most ginormous client for freelancers on the planet.
Government contracts have many advantages. They tend to be big and often cover many months. A fat government contract can be your ticket to months or even years of financial security as a freelancer.
Yet most writers don’t go near this niche. There are three reasons why most freelancers don’t consider government work:
1. The mystery of getting gigs
Baffled as to how to freelance for the Feds? Here’s how it works: When governments want to hire non-employees to do work for them, they define a project and create a contract for it. The agency then announces the contract and a timeframe in which freelancers or business owners can bid, describing the project and its deadline.
Laws require that contracts be competitively bid to save the taxpayers money and avoid corruption. As a result, often the winner will be offering the lowest price, but qualifications also figure into decisions. The government reviews the bids, selects a winner, and awards the contract work to that applicant.
There! Now you know.
2. Red tape phobia
As with all things government, getting hired as a freelancer requires you to go through a process. I won’t lie — it’s a fairly involved process in which you fill out a bunch of forms so you can become a registered government contractor. That makes you qualified to bid on government contracts.
You can learn to do this process — it is not rocket science, folks. About.com freelance writing expert Allena Tapia created a handy guide to becoming a federal contractor that walks you through the steps. She wrote it after she went through the process herself.
When it comes to state and local government, call their department of business development, enterprise services, or similar office, and ask how you register to bid. The process will be similar to registering for federal contracts. If you’ve ever worked in local government, your best starting point is to ask around in departments where you previously worked.
Access to information is usually easy — I see my state puts out a biweekly bulletin with info on their contracts.
Now we’ve solved this one as well.
3. Sheer terror
You may feel out of your league here — after all, it’s just little old you vs the Department of Defense or Ecology or National Institutes of Health!
But here’s the thing: These federal agencies hire writers. If you have an interest and experience in a topic that an agency focuses on, it might as well be you.
If you are a former government worker, you have a natural “in” with your knowledge of how bureaucracy works.
Are you a former military member, or soon to be transitioning out? Atten-hut!
DOD is one of the biggest contractors of all the agencies, and that goes for all the other military-related agencies, too. You know the lingo, so you’d be a natural for these gigs. Prior public service is a strong factor in your favor applying for government gigs.
At one point I got on a list to see local opportunities at military bases in my region, and I can tell you there was a steady stream of communications work going up for bid.
Improving your odds
If your knees are knocking, consider an approach that will allow you to skip the qualifying process: Find out who in your area is getting government work, and hook up with them. They will have already qualified to bid on contracts. Be their subcontractor, and you can let them take care of the paperwork and worrying about how much to bid.
Think it would be hard to suss out who’s getting the contracts? Actually, the Internets have solved this with sites such as FedBizOpps.gov, which show upcoming and completed contracts.
You can check out winners of recent contracts online to get a list of prospects. Likely, there are advertising/marketing agencies snapping up some of that work near you.
I know more than one writer who’s made buttloads subbing for a marketing firm that does work for one of the federal agencies.
You might also consider becoming a virtual agency for bidding purposes, by banding together with a few other writers you know to bid as a group for a large contract.
My contracting story
As it happens, I have had one government client. It was a great experience and I’d happily do it again.
If you think all government contracts get tons of bids and you’d never get the contract, let me disabuse you.
Same if you think you need a lot of knowledge of their particular topic, or previous government experience.
I had none of the above when I was approached by a regional transit agency that hadn’t been able to interest anyone in rewriting their annual reports. They wanted outside eyes and a more conversational writing style, which their in-house team couldn’t seem to deliver.
They begged me to find a few more writers to bid against me, so they would have a competitive process and fulfill their requirements.
Why did they want me? They were familiar with my experience writing for the local business journal, and just wanted a clear communicator who understood how an organization operates. That’s it.
Their main focus: They needed two 200-page annual reports translated into English from the transit-ese jargon they usually speak.
(Many states have mandates now that everything they issue must be written in plain English, not inscrutable government-speak. Can you say “golden opportunity for freelancers”?)
The transit agency held my hand and walked me through every page of their application. I think the other writers I sent them mostly declined to bid — too busy.
I ran my bid amount by several writer friends, who thought I was too low. I came up to $13,000, which they quickly accepted.
Due to their short deadline, I subbed out half the work to another business writer. We did one day on site at the agency’s headquarters in our century-old, beautifully restored downtown train station, and then went home to do followup phone interviews and writing. Did one round of revisions, the end. We worked maybe six weeks on the whole project.
To sum up, if checking the usual online job ads hasn’t paid off for you, consider hitting the government opportunity websites. They could open the door to a whole different arena of good-paying writing gigs.
Ever worked on a government contract? Leave a comment and tell us how you got in the door.