The Internet has brought us many gifts, as writers. But it also brings with it a lot of misinformation and confused notions as to how to go about building a successful freelance writing career.
If you make assumptions off the bat about how freelance writing works — instead of asking successful freelancers and finding out what’s really working today — you can waste a lot of time and energy.
So let’s iron it out right now, with a look at my top seven wrong-headed notions that leave new freelance writers floundering in their quest to get paid:
1. I’m not in business.
Writers think of themselves as creative people. But if you want to earn a regular living at writing, you’ll need to be more than just creative — you need to run a business. One that turns a profit and brings in enough cash to pay your bills.
In my experience, only a tiny percentage of freelance writers truly grasp this reality. Most don’t want anything to do with business — isn’t that why we quit our day jobs?
It’s so much more pleasant to live in a world of magical thinking, where great clients who value your talents will somehow materialize without any effort on your part!
When you think you’re not in business, then you don’t think you need to invest in your business, either — with a better website, mentoring, or training to sharpen their skills or learn new ones. Then, writers wonder why they can’t seem to get any good gigs.
This also plays out in how writers think about their services. Many writers comment to me:
“I’m a good writer, but I just don’t have any ideas. I need to find a situation where I can just be given topics.”
Bulletin: There is no well-paid writing gig like that. One of the big reasons writers get hired is for their ideas — whether it’s article ideas, or topic ideas for a business blog, or ideas on the best angle for a case study or white paper.
Instead of sitting passively, hoping a pre-packaged assignment that doesn’t require thinking will fall in your lap, treat your writing like a business. Service providers — which is what we are — need to bring ideas to the table.
Then, it’ll pay you like a business. Treat it like a creative lark, and you’ll soon be stocking shelves on the grocery night shift to make ends meet.
2. I’ll learn until I feel ready.
Do you think you’ll feel ready to jump into freelance writing after you read one more book, take one more course, or get a master’s degree in journalism? Bad news — you’re probably still not going to feel ready. I know, because I’ve mentored writers with more than one advanced degree, who still feel they need one more class.
Learning is a bottomless pit. There’s always more to know. Accept that and realize you’ll need to be taking action while you learn.
You’ll never feel confident and “ready” to do this by studying freelance writing in an ivory tower, or at home by your lonesome.
There’s only one thing that builds confidence in writing for clients. You guessed it: writing for clients! You need to get out and start doing it, as fast as possible. The more you take action, the more you’ll realize you already know enough to get started. The longer you study and do nothing, the more disempowered and afraid you’ll feel.
Your list of degrees or certificates earned does not impress prospects. Only your published writing samples (ideally, accompanied by a testimonial) will get you hired. Do a few assignments pro bono at first if you have to, but get out there and start writing for clients!
3. I can get work from other writers.
A lot of writers seem to think the person they should hit up for writing work is another writer. I get an email like this, from a total stranger, nearly every week:
“I’m a big fan of your writing and you seem very successful. I am looking for a regular subcontracting situation, and was hoping you could send me a steady stream of your work. I’m very fast and reliable!”
Let’s set the record straight on this: The vast majority of writers do not have any overflow work. And those few who have more work than they can handle refer out projects to writers in their network, whose work they know well. Not total strangers.
Well-paid writers tend to get hired because of their body of work — we can’t just sub out that work to a new writer off the street and expect our clients won’t notice we’re no longer writing their assignments!
To sum up, writers are not your client. Your client is usually a publications editor or a marketing manager at a business. Don’t waste time daydreaming that you’ll be able to ride on another writer’s coattails. Instead, review points 1 and 2 above for a sense of how to get your career moving.
4. I can find clients…from Google.
If you do a search for “Freelance writing,” and don’t know any better, it’d be easy to assume the top results must be the best places to freelance. This is why so many writers sign up on Elance (now UpWork). Months later, they wonder why they’re living in their car.
Realize that as long as you answer mass job ads on popular sites, or bid against thousands of other writers, your success odds will be long and your paycheck is apt to be tiny.
You’ll need to actively market your business to prospects you identify yourself — where you’re not one of hundreds of writers going after the gig — to find professional pay rates. Most good-paying freelance writing jobs are never advertised. They’re not waiting around for you on a website thousands of other writers also read.
There are lots of ways to market your writing — through social media, in-person networking, writing killer query letters. Take your pick. But understand that you are in the driver’s seat of your career, and you will need to make things happen (or they won’t).
You’ll need to do more than responding to online job ads. Because that’s super-easy, right? And if it was easy to be a freelance writer, then everyone would be doing it, and no one would have a job anymore. Since freelance writer = awesome.
5. I’ll earn writing what I love.
I hear regularly from poets, memoirists, playwrights, novelists, and screenwriters who’d like tips on how they can pay the bills with their craft. While they might hit a moonshot success and be rich one day, these are not types of writing that reliably pay this month’s mortgage, especially when you start out.
What can you get regular paid writing gigs doing? Mainly, writing for businesses (both informational and sales-focused materials), and writing reported nonfiction articles for publications. That’s the bulk of it.
The same thing goes for topics. I’ve met new freelance writers who’re hoping to earn a living writing entirely about missing persons, a specific disease or mental illness, or by just writing executive bios. If this is you, you’ll probably need to broaden your focus to make it a living.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from pursuing their long-term writing dreams — but realize that if you want a reliable living as a writer, you’ll need to add some other writing types or topics to your skills.
6. I won’t ask — I’d look dumb.
If I created a catalog of all the different problems new writers run into because they don’t ask basic questions of their clients, it would be the size of the phone book. A few of the most popular errors:
- Pre-writing and sending in article drafts instead of writing a query to ask for the gig first.
- Not getting paid because you didn’t ask about a contract.
- Getting an article killed because you didn’t inquire about the required specs.
- Not asking your writer friends if a gig sounds like a scam.
- Writing with only a vague notion of what a copywriting client wants — and getting fired.
In fact, pro freelance writers ask tons of questions up-front. That’s how we turn in first drafts that our editors love.
7. I’ll start when I find the right way.
New writers approach me hoping there is a proven, single formula for freelance writing success. I know writers would like me to say: “Do these three things, and then you’ll be earning thousands a month as a writer.”
Doesn’t work that way.
I can tell you what worked for me, but it won’t necessarily work for you. Because you’re not me. I might find clients at in-person networking events, and maybe you wouldn’t be caught dead at one.
This is a career where who you are, where you’ve worked, what you’ve lived, and who you know are all key components of what you offer. Prospective freelance writing clients respond to each of us differently.
So, for the record: There is more than one way to do this. Instead of starting when you find the one, true way, realize it really works in reverse — you’re only going to find the right way for you by starting.
I recently interviewed a six-figure freelancer who makes most of her money cranking out dozens of low-paying, short keyword-focused posts for online publication. I wouldn’t do that on a bet, and I’d probably last a week if I tried it, but it works for her. See what I mean?
Does this last point mean you should disregard some of the advice I just gave you, in points 1-6 of this post? Possibly, if it doesn’t ring true for you.
The best way to find out what works in freelance writing is trial and error. Begin conducting experiments and asking questions, and you won’t be a noob without a clue for long.
What assumptions did you have when you started writing? Share in the comments.