How to Find a Freelance Writing Gig: Here are the Options - Make a Living Writing

How to Find a Freelance Writing Gig: Here are the Options

Carol Tice | 33 Comments

Road sign with many arrowsFinding freelance writing jobs (AKA clients) — especially good ones — seems to be the mysterious part of the freelance writing life.

People don’t write me asking, “How can I learn to write competently, so I can be a freelance writer?”

Instead, they ask questions like this one I got yesterday:

Right now the writing business is extremely slow. I’m finding the work isn’t there. Where are the new avenues or techniques to get writing work?

I usually reply by asking what the writer is doing to market their business.

The answer is nearly always, “I’m not doing any marketing right now.”

Why am I not shocked?

It’s a rare day when I meet a freelance writer who’s marketing their fanny off and doesn’t have clients.

If you want to earn well at freelance writing, you need to market continuously to insure a steady stream of client leads. It’s just a basic fact of business — and that’s what you’ve got. A business.

15 Ways to market your freelance writing

You want more leads because that allows you to pick and choose the types of projects you want to do. It makes you feel more confident asking for higher rates, too.

As it happens, there are a fairly limited number of ways most writers find paid freelance work. Here are the basic options, with a look at the pros and cons for each type:

  1. Friends and family. That’s right — let the people in your life know you are looking for freelance writing clients. You never know who they might know. You could earn a little, or a lot.
  2. Content mills. The pay is rock-bottom, but once you’re accepted, it’s so easy to grab assignments off that content mill dashboard.
  3. Bidding sites. It’s a race to the bottom against every writer on the globe on oDesk/Elance/Guru and all their imitators, but if you’re selective and choose quality gigs few are bidding, you might do fairly well.
  4. Revshare platforms. The effort you put in writing for Examiner and similar platforms will determine whether you earn pennies or thousands. I’m told you should post 1,000 articles in a short time to earn well.
  5. Craigslist ads. These are so easy to find…and so full of scams and lowballers. Every once in a while a real client wanders on here because they don’t know its reputation, which keeps scads of writers checking Craigslist compulsively in hopes of finding that one gold nugget.
  6. Place your own ads. Whether you get in the resource guide of your local professional association or place Facebook or Craigslist ads, you can spend a bit in hopes of attracting some new clients. This one’s real hit-or-miss, though with Facebook you’ll at least know how many people viewed it.
  7. Inbound marketing. If you take the time to create a strong LinkedIn profile, blog and writer website, they could send you quality clients while you sleep. I’ve gotten several Fortune 500 clients this way that paid $.50-$2 a word.
  8. Query letters. You don’t need connections if you know how to develop a stellar story idea and pitch it to the right publication. Pay at publications is all over the place, from $.10 a word to $2.
  9. Letters of introduction. For custom publications (that hospital magazine, for instance) and trade publications (think Ad Age), emailing off a strong letter of introduction can open the door to a steady string of assignments. Most pay $.30-$1 a word.
  10. Social media marketing. If you know how to do it, you can use LinkedIn and Twitter to connect with prospects of all sorts, from magazine editors to corporate publications managers.
  11. In-person marketing. Grab some business cards and show up at a business event. Shop around until you find the meeting your prospects visit. You never know who you could bump into — I met the editors of Costco Connection and Microsoft Office Live at in-person events.
  12. Cold calling. Reach out and touch marketing managers. Find out if they need freelance writers. Repeat as needed. Cold calling allows you to hit a lot of prospects in a short time.
  13. Direct mail. Sure, you’ll spend to put together a slick postcard or marketing package. But it allows you to impress the heck out of big-money clients.
  14. Referrals. If you have happy editors or business clients, either current or former, from either paid or pro bono work, they may tell their friends and send more gigs your way…especially if you tell them you need more clients.
  15. Contests. I got my start winning two of these. The prize isn’t the money — it’s the connections you make with the editors who read your entries. I ended up writing long-term for both the publications where I won contests.

My free Marketing 101 for Freelance Writers series has a ton more detail on the best ways to do the types of marketing that get better results, but that’s a quick overview.

How do you market your freelance business? Leave a comment and tell us your approach.

33 comments on “How to Find a Freelance Writing Gig: Here are the Options

  1. Willi Morris on

    I love my Contently profile to send with queries (linked it to my name) but it does have some big limitations. But I’m using it as my portfolio until I get self-hosted.

    • Carol Tice on

      Willi, I’d be interested to hear about your Contently experience. They recently pitched me that their rates are much better than mills…are they? I’m looking for a guest post from someone about their experience there…assuming rates really ARE at a more professional level on the platform.

  2. Darnell Jackson on

    Bookmarked this one thanks Carol.

    I hope people spend time getting prepared before they approach these freelance opportunities just remember you only get one chance to make a first impression.

    • Katherine Swarts on

      I agree. I think I made far too many bad first impressions in the beginning by jumping in too fast and not taking time in advance to evaluate my best fit and approach. I offer the quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln (and elaborated by Stephen Covey as the “sharpen your saw” principle): “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

  3. Damien on

    I got my first paid writing gig on Elance, so still have a soft spot for it – and pick up the occasional well-paying job on there now. If you’re selective you can still do quite well through those sites despite the race to the bottom mentality, as not every client on there is looking for the cheapest deal.

    Carol, I think dabbling in as many of the methods you recommended as possible and seeing what works (some will be long-term pay-offs, so the sooner one starts the better) is a pretty good strategy. Things that are really worth having are never easy, so it’s worth trying some of the harder ones (like direct mail or cold calling) as this is stuff that not many people are doing and can really set you apart.

  4. Jean Marie Bauhaus on

    Flavors.me is another way to set up an attractive website quickly and on the cheap. It’s similar to about.me in that it aggregates feeds from your various profiles and apps, but unlike about.me it also lets you create content pages (I just added my writing resume to mine — and I linked it to my comment so you can see an example). They have free and premium options (premium lets you use your own domain and gives you more design options).

    I’m not affiliated with them in any way — I just thought this might be useful info. Anyway, thanks for this article, Carol. I suspect I’m far from being the only introvert trying to make their way as a freelancer, and marketing is definitely something that doesn’t come easily to most introverts. It can be overwhelming and really difficult to know how to get started.

    • Carol Tice on

      Much like Weebly, I’ve never seen a site on these freebie platforms that looks professional. You bump up against a lot of limitations. They’re a great place to post your family photos for your friends or whatever, but I think less great as a business platform.

      • Jean Marie Bauhaus on

        I agree, they’re definitely not a final solution or a replacement for a professional website. But if you’re just starting out on a shoestring budget and/or you need something fast to be able to point people to, I think they can work in a pinch. Mine is just another inbound marketing avenue to (hopefully) direct people to my actual websites.

  5. Kristen on

    My problem is keeping up with the marketing when I’m busy with billable hours – then when a temporary project I’m working on that’s been eating up my hours ends, I’m stuck scrambling to find new clients.

    • Carol Tice on

      That’s where inbound marketing becomes such a valuable tool — it keeps going when you don’t have time to do proactive marketing. So few writers take the time to build a really strong writer site…I think because they don’t understand what a powerful source of leads a good site can be.

  6. Anita on

    How timely. I need to do some marketing TODAY. And my goal is to start doing some each week so I don’t suffer from so many periods of “drought.”

  7. Erica on

    Most of my marketing efforts center around in-person networking, social media (LinkedIn rocks, am still building my Twitter presence) and I just got my first referral last week.

    Another key player are specialized creative agencies.

    Pros: They’re an automatic network that does marketing and gig-finding for you. They also pay your taxes, pay you on time (no need to worry about following up with a deadbeat client) and can throw you juicy gigs that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
    Cons: Lower pay than your freelance rates, many will treat you like a job seeker, you have to train them to a certain extent and there are some crummy agencies out there who will throw crummier gigs at you because it’s in their own best interest if you take the bait.

    I don’t depend on them as my only or primary source of freelance work, but building relationships with the right ones has resulted in a wide range of interesting work.

    • Kevin Carlton on

      Erica, you and I are a classic example of how different marketing methods work for different people.

      I absolutely stink at in-person networking (although I’m sure I’d do better if I progressively learnt how to do it properly).

      LinkedIn also hasn’t so far brought any success. However, with so few connections, my profile is hardly what you call ‘highly findable’ at the moment.

      Good to see that you’re getting the results from it, as I’m now beginning to see the potential.

    • Carol Tice on

      I’ve only done one or two agency situations, Erica. I was too frustrated by the lack of direct client access, and of course the lower pay.

      But there are some big companies you can only write for through an agency…so sometimes it’s worth it. And if you get in one of those situations it can be a lot of good, steady work.

  8. Sarah L. Webb on

    I want/need to do all of these except 2-4.

    But it is a lot to do, so I’d have to find a method to organize my efforts. Maybe each week focus on one marketing strategy, at least to start with. Then again, some of these can be automated.

    I guess next on my to-do list is to develop some kind of marketing strategy that takes advantage of the best of these options. I’ll get overwhelmed without some kind of organization.

    • Carol Tice on

      Sarah, I’m definitely not suggesting anyone do all these methods at once!

      The key is to pick maybe 3-4 approaches that appeal to you and that fit the types of clients you’re going after, and use them. When I was marketing most actively, in 2009-10, after I lost a big client and needed a LOT more income fast, I used LinkedIn, worked on my writer website and blog, did in-person networking, and query letters/LOIs to find clients.

      I was also looking at Craigslist ads but after an analysis of the quality of client I got there, I dropped that.

      So that’s it! I didn’t cold call or send direct mail or hang around Elance. You can only do so many things at once.

  9. Kevin Carlton on

    For me, Carol, the marketing I’ve relied on the most is ‘repeat business marketing’, i.e. doing the best possible job each time.

    It doesn’t half save on time and effort when clients keep on coming back for more.

    However, I’ve now come to realise that relying only on repeat business isn’t so great after all. This is because:
    (i) You’re prone to scope creep (as you recently mentioned)
    (ii) You’re stuck with the same low price expectations that those clients have always had from day one
    (ii) You limit your choices and cannot pick and choose the best-paid jobs
    (iv) You still end up working your butt off for peanuts

    So I’m now focusing on more active marketing methods.

    For me, direct mail has worked a charm. However, all the recent SEO I’ve been doing on my own site is already starting to get enquiries coming in. And because SEO and other inbound marketing can have a much more lasting impact than many of the other marketing forms above, it’s now my marketing method of choice.

    • Sarah L. Webb on

      Kevin, great point about the long term marketing benefits of SEO.

      I also feel like you hit the nail on the head with repeat clients! I recently had to renegotiate my rates for a client because of scope creep and low price expectations. I started to feel like I was an employer too, which is not what I want in my writing career. It’s good to have the dependable pay check, but It’s better to have options and choose.

      • Kevin Carlton on

        Sarah

        As Carol says below, repeat clients of course are a dream if they pay a fair rate for the job.

        Sometimes I wonder whether certain low-paying repeat clients only give you repeat business because they know they’re getting you on the cheap.

        Second thoughts, I don’t wonder. I’m 100% sure of it.

        • Carol Tice on

          Definitely — I love the ones that say in ads, “We urgently need writers to start right away!” And six months later, you can still see the ad running, because they pay crap and can’t get anyone to do it for that rate.

          I always think, “Yeah, I just bet you DO need writers. It’s so hard to get them when you don’t pay even minimum wage!”

          Or I’m coaching a writer in the Den who says, “But they have all this work for me and keep giving me more…” Yeah, it’s because they’ve found someone they can screw over who doesn’t seem to get that it’s happening! Yeah, they’re going to send you ALL their assignments.

          • Randy on

            Are you saying the mills are, or are not a good place to begin?

            Thinking as a person with no confidence, unsure if she, or he can write, or has never written an article for pay, it would be a place to begin.

            Is it easy to break into that cheap market?

            Well, isn’t that person thinking some money is better than no money? Or maybe it’s a way to get paid to practice until the day they wake up, and stop doing the cheap work.

            Hard to control the markets, there’s always the physical laws working against any forces. The laws of stupidity and low wage… and the cream always rises to the top ya know? Beginners work for cheap wages and drive my wages in the ground… those dang dummies!

            I used to think that when I owned and operated a construction company. Damd low bidders. Ultimately they flunked out, or couldn’t compete, and we were there to clean up.

            It takes 10,000 to become an expert in a persons’ field of study and work. A person with 1000 hours experience doesn’t stand a chance when competing for work.

            Maybe the writing mills are a good thing, in certain ways, like a school of hard knocks.

            Thanks for allowing me to speak here.

          • Carol Tice on

            My point of view is there are better starter markets than mills, that will build your portfolio and your confidence at the same time.

            When I started mills didn’t exist. There are legions of us who’ve managed to build viable freelance careers without them. I’ve said it before, but writing for your local paper or alternative paper usually pays a bit, and will give you a much better grounding in the sort of writing that pays well. The problem with mill work is there is no better-paying market for that type of writing, and demand for quickie SEO keyword content is shrinking fast, thanks to Google. It’s a dead end.

            I find there are some very real problems with using the mills as a starting point. They seem to give many writers low self-esteem issues, when they see how little their writing is worth and what a grind mill writing is. I’d prefer to see writers work a day job and do great pro bono samples from legit clients who will recommend and refer them than from anonymous content mills where often, you can’t even claim a byline. Just my point of view on it.

            If you think writing for mills will give you confidence, by all means try it…but the problem is too many get trapped on that gerbil-wheel and can’t escape, because they’re always broke. And it takes time to market and ramp a new business, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you as a contractor.

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Kevin –

      Well, if you have good clients, repeat business is the bomb. Obviously, if you have low-paying ones then you should focus on finding better ones rather than getting more low-paying work from existing clients!

      But I agree with you – inbound marketing is where it’s at. Virtually all my leads — and I usually see at least 1-2 a week — are inbound, either referrals from existing or past customers, or people reading the paid blogs I do now for clients, or Googling up my writer site or LinkedIn profile. I LOVE inbound marketing! Beats having to actually DO something. 😉

      • Kevin Carlton on

        Yep. Why would anyone in their right mind want to go out and look for clients when they can come to you?

        And thanks to the web this is now all fully possible.

        I also notice, Carol, that content mills are a real bugbear of yours.

        Can’t say I’ve ever had the displeasure of working for one. And, quite frankly, I’d rather have a job sweeping up in an asbestos factory than work for a content mill.

        • Carol Tice on

          Well, mills work for some writers. They seem to be especially helpful for writers who’re petrified to put it out there and need a place to just build a little confidence.

          The trick is not getting stuck there if it’s not earning for you. The problem is mills teach a lot of passivity — you don’t learn much marketing, so then they’ve got you where they want you, taking assignments off their dash and earning the peanuts.

          • Katherine Swarts on

            I never thought I’d see you say anything positive–however qualified–about content mills. Personally, I think the post should have divided the “ways” a little more clearly into categories of “works great for practically everyone,” “only under extreme circumstances,” and in-betweens. A first-time reader of this blog might get the idea that you rank content mills and bid sites as near equals with queries and referrals.

          • Carol Tice on

            That would be a good idea — but in general, I listed them from lowest-paying to highest. Should have made that clearer.

            Everything’s listed here because these are all ways to earn. I think I’ve been clear in the descriptions about the pay outlook for many of these.

          • Angela on

            I agree with your comment, Carol. That’s how it was for me starting out. Writing for content sites isn’t all that bad, but they aren’t a permanent place to stay. I learnt to be more confident in my ability, refined the quality of my work, established a daily writing routine and developed the discipline of deadlines. Now I’m moving onto bigger things and learning what it takes to market myself successfully as a happy and talented freelance writer, succeeding in my own way.

    • Rob S on

      I have to disagree, Kevin. Repeat business is my bread & butter. I’ve steadily raised my rates with repeat customers, avoided scope creep by asking for more when more was asked from me and have used the steady, reliable income to explore other avenues. The best part, though, is that I’ve gotten to know a couple of my editors and they’ve given me great inside advice and even referrals.

  10. Neil Heater on

    Carol, I guess I get to start the ball rolling on the comments.

    It is amazing how much help your writer site has been to me. I have done many of the items you listed and paid the price for doing the low-quality route (content mills, Craigslist) in the early days.
    I tis not to say I am in the high-mark of top pay gigs yet; but I do know that only through consistancy on my part will that change. My biggest pitfall still is not having up a writer’s site an that seems to be from lack of knowing where to begin. The work is there to be found; I see that through the responses sent by folks all the time at the Den.

    Bascially, if we don’t market in some fashion the work won’t come. Whoever heard of someone coming to my door to knock when they don’t see a shingle outside?

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Neil — check out my Products I Love page for two fairly easy solutions for getting up your writer website that I like – joining NAIWE and using OutstandingSETUP.

      But any way you do it…get it solved!

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