Freelance Writing Questions? 101 Must-Read Answers for Newbs
Carol Tice | 13 Comments
Freelance Writing. Answers: 101 Must-Read Tips for Newbs + Content Mill Advice

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 12 years of blogging and over 1,200 posts on this blog, it’s this: Freelance writers have a lot of questions. Freelance writing is a complex gig!

Five years ago, I asked readers their top questions about getting started, content mills, freelance rates, and much more. The result was a post with 100 questions answered. We later turned it into an e-book, too.

But with isolation, recession, and COVID-19, I feel like it’s time for a whole new set of Q&A.

I’m going to get this party started with 101 of the most common questions I’ve been asked recently — and invite you to add your questions in the comments.

Whether you’re a newly unemployed remote worker exploring freelancing, or an established freelance-writing pro scrambling to find new writing jobs, this post has answers for you.

I’ve divided this into sections, so you can easily grab the answers you need most. Note there are NO affiliate links in this post — solutions mentioned are simply ones I’ve either used myself or have heard good things about.

Ready? Let’s go:

101 answers to freelance writing questions

Acquire a freelance writing mindset

1Q: What are the secrets of freelance writing success?

A: That there are no secrets. Like any other business launch, becoming a freelance writer calls for a can-do attitude, discipline to meet deadlines, and a willingness to market your services. There are no magical content mills, dark-web secrets to successful freelancing, or one-size-fits-all solution.

If you’re looking for a shortcut, hire a mentor or join a writing community. You don’t have to reinvent this wheel — others have gone before.

2Q: I feel unmotivated to write. Can you help?

A: Honestly, I can’t. If you don’t have a burning drive inside you to write, you won’t. Professional writers write, usually daily, whether they ‘feel like it’ or not.

3Q: I’m scared that if I pitch, I’ll be rejected.

A: No need to be scared — because it definitely will happen! Even the most seasoned pros get rejections.

Instead, be prepared for rejection. Accept it as a normal part of building a freelance biz. Think like the sales people do, and remember that every ‘no’ gets you closer to a ‘yes.’

Learn from rejection if you can — if you’re able to get an editor or marketing manager to say why they’re passing, it’ll help you improve for future pitches.

4Q: What if no one takes me seriously?

A: That only happens if you don’t take yourself seriously. Present yourself professionally, and people will respond.

Remember, ‘no one’ would mean every person on Earth rejects the premise that you’re a freelance writer. Not gonna happen!

Get started in freelance writing

5Q: I’m interested in freelance writing. Where should I start?

A: The short answer is: Somewhere, and doesn’t have to be content mills. Stop reading around and around, and just find someone who’ll let you write something for their publication, organization, or business.

The usual suspects for first clips are places you know: Publications you read, businesses you shop with, nonprofits you support.

The key is to dive in and get some experience writing for a client — not writing whatever your muse longs to say this morning, but writing to please someone else’s specs. See if you enjoy the challenge, and if you can happily rewrite your precious words to suit another. If not, this isn’t for you.

Some people just wanna write what they wanna write, and that’s totally cool. The faster you find out if you’re cut out for freelance writing, the better.

6Q: Is freelance writing really something you can make a living at?

A: Yes it is. I first hit $100,000 a year in freelance income (not counting anything earned through this blog) in 2011.

7Q: What about now, with COVID and shutdowns? Is there really freelance writing work?

A: Absolutely — in fact, some established freelance writers are busier than ever. Some industries, such as tech, are still going full bore, and others are busy planning reopenings, explaining business-model pivots to customers, and more.

Remote work is in style, and freelance writing jobs can easily be done from home, if you’ve got a computer. There are plenty of remote-work tools now that enable you to handle freelance writing jobs for clients based anywhere in the world.

8Q: What do I need to get started, as a freelance writer? I’ve heard there are rules to know, and tools I’ll need…

A: It’s all lies. Every client situation is different, so don’t let anyone put the scare on you that there is a secret playbook you need to find. Or that if you make one mistake, you’re doomed. #nonsense

If you’ve got a computer and internet access, and you write well, you can pretty much fake it from there to get initial gigs. As you build your portfolio and learn from client feedback, you’ll be able to get better-paid gigs.

9Q: What about credentials? I feel unqualified, because I don’t have a degree in writing or journalism.

A: Me, neither! I’m a proud college dropout, and I’ve written for Forbes and Costco, among other big names. Nobody cares where you learned to write, as a freelancer. They want to read your clips and decide whether to hire you. That’s it.

Take a class if it improves your skills, if you want to learn a specific writing type, or how to market your services. But do it for your own knowledge. It doesn’t impress clients.

10Q: Where is the big opportunity for freelance writing jobs?

A: The two main sources of well-paid freelance writing jobs are writing for businesses (both salesy and informational pieces), and writing reported stories for publications (journalism).

11Q: What is SEO, and what do I need to know about it?

A: SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It’s the art of selecting and using keyword phrases in anything you write online (among other elements), in order to show up in search results on Google and other big search engines.

SEO has gotten increasingly sophisticated over the years, as Google keeps changing what it values for search results. So there’s always more to know.

There are lots of great resources for learning about and keeping up with best practices in SEO — I like the Content Marketing Institute, but feel free to Google ‘learn SEO in 2020‘ for some great, free ultimate guides.

12Q: What’s the going rate for [type of freelance writing assignment]?

A: There are no ‘going rates’ in freelance writing. Even well-researched pricing guides you find online will state a big range for each task.

I know writers getting $10 for 1000-word blog posts, while others get $500 for 750 words. Writers who ghostwrite a novel for $300, and others who ghostwrite a business book for $50,000.

Pay depends on many factors, including the size, reputation, funding sources, industry, complexity, and profitability of the organization you’re writing for, as well as your own track record.

In general, the more exactly your clips match what’s asked for, the easier it is to command higher pay. Industries where fewer writers understand the lingo and trends — say, biotech — tend to pay more than industries where every writer feels qualified (think: parenting or pets).

13Q: Should a writer ever work for free?

A: When you’re first starting out, doing a few pro bono samples is often the quickest way to create a portfolio and have testimonials. But free freelance writing jobs should always be done in a very intentional, targeted way.

Choose prospects you’d like to write for for pay, ideally. Strictly limit the scope of free work and writing jobs you’re willing to do. Make sure your client is sworn to secrecy that you were unpaid, and is willing to recommend and refer you if pleased.

Guest posting on a popular blog is another great way to gain exposure and good clips. Experienced writers use this tactic to move into new niches, too.

Most of all, don’t do too many freelance writing jobs for free! Move on quickly to writing for pay.

14Q: How can I start, when I don’t have a portfolio yet?

A: You can do a few pro bono pieces to create your portfolio quickly, as I stated above. Another approach is to simply get out and pitch!

Remember, your pitch letter is a writing sample, as is the copy you write on your LinkedIn profile and elsewhere online. So you can quickly create some types of samples online.

If you’ve got the gift of gab, or a lot of strong article ideas, and you’re convincing about why you could do freelance writing jobs for a potential client, you may be surprised how many people are willing to take a flier on you.

15Q: I want to write for a living, but haven’t started because I’m not an expert in anything. How can I overcome this?

A: Good news — in freelance writing, you are not the topic expert! You are an expert in writing. If you have an interest or familiarity with your topic, it’s a plus, because you know who to interview or where to research. But paid writing doesn’t require topic expertise.

16Q: Can I earn a good living as an ESL writer, writing in English?

A: It’s a real long shot. Most ESL writers I talk to (many, each week) don’t seem literate enough to earn a living writing in English. More on your options here.

17Q: How can I feel confident enough to start?

A: Let you in on a secret — every day you aren’t writing and pitching, you tend to grow less confident. You won’t magically wake up tomorrow and feel more confident.

Taking action makes you feel confident and in control. Try to write something, nearly every day. Try out ways to connect with clients.

Freelance writing isn’t a tightrope act, where one false move sends you plummeting to your death. It’s more of a science experiment.

The more actions you take to try out writing for clients, the more data you have on what works for you — and the easier it is to land the freelance writing jobs you want.

What freelance writing isn’t

18Q: I write poems, short stories, novels or essays — can I earn a full-time living as a freelance writer?

A: It’s not likely. Pay for fiction and personal essays is generally rare, and low when you find it. It’s more of a moonshot.

You’re rich if you become the next J.K. Rowling. Otherwise, you’re starving. It’s hard to pay regular, monthly bills with it.

19Q: What about just starting a blog and earning from it?

A: If you have a passion topic you’re dying to help people with, you totally should. Go for it!

But monetizing a blog you write for yourself (usually through ads, affiliate sales, or selling your own stuff) isn’t part of freelance writing. And most who try it will never earn a dime.

Freelance writing is writing for other people or organizations, who pay us an agreed-upon fee.

20Q: Can I just write about what I want? I enjoy writing about [sociology, metaphysics, spirituality, quilting, etc.]

A:  You can, and should — but for many writers, this won’t be a source of regular freelance income. Any site that says ‘write about any topic you want’ pays very little. For steady, bill-paying income, we write the specific topics our clients need.

For instance, I’ve written about surety bonds and advanced washing machine technology, for businesses. And about home improvement retailing, for a trade publication.

Not something that makes my heart sing, but both paid well, and I enjoyed the challenge of learning about these industries. #businessdork

Find a freelance writing niche

21Q: I’ve heard you should have a niche. Does it matter? What IS a niche for freelance writing, anyway?

A: Niches matter because they make it easy both to market your business and to move up to pro rates, as you build expertise. Big picture: There are two ways to niche your business.

One is by industry — you’re a healthcare writer, a fintech writer. The other is by type of writing — you’re a freelance blogger, or a white paper writer.

Studies have shown that writers who niche by industry earn more. So I strongly recommend choosing 2-3 industry niches. Then, be willing to write whatever clients need in that niche. That’s your easiest break-in position.

Writing only one kind of assignment limits your prospects, especially as a newbie. Established writers sometimes niche down to one kind of writing because they have too many freelance writing jobs and want to narrow the field.

22Q: What are the best niches?

A: Traditionally, the answer is healthcare, finance, and technology. Those are the three big buckets. But there are many others, too — legal cannabis and insurance are examples that spring to mind.

The big thing is, the niche has to be good for you. It needs to be a topic you’re interested in and/or know something about. And is an industry that has big money in it, and uses a lot of written marketing materials. Don’t just pick a niche by throwing a dart at a board.

23Q: What if I can’t figure out my niche?

A: Take your best guess and go for it. Niches aren’t written in stone, and evolve as you go.

You just need a catchphrase you can tell people, and a tagline to put on your sites, so you get found. Something concise your network can quickly understand and remember. Defining your niche makes it a lot easier to get writing jobs.

Ultimately, the marketplace will show you what your best niche is, through where you get accepted and find better pay. It’s sort of an armchair discussion until you get out and start writing for clients. Don’t overthink it at this point.

24Q: What if I’d rather be a generalist? I get bored writing the same topics…

A: You’re certainly free to try that. Go for it.

Try to get found on a search for ‘freelance writer.’ (If you’re going to do this, at least get your city into your tagline — you’ll have a better shot at ‘Atlanta freelance writer.’)

Just know that high-earning generalists are rare as hen’s teeth. It’s difficult to show expertise and move up to command higher rates when your portfolio is a smattering of this ‘n’ that.

Freelance writing jobs also take longer to do when you’re a generalist. You’re constantly reinventing the wheel, learning new industries. But every once in a while, I meet a writer who loves it and manages to earn enough.

Transition from employment

25Q: How do I know I’m ready for full-time freelancing?

A: Some writers end up laid-off or fired, and it’s into the pool. Most freelance some on the side first, to get started.

If you’re lucky enough to still have a full-time job, a breaking point will come.

You’ll hit a point where you won’t be able to write all your freelance writing jobs and work your 9-5. Or, your day -job performance starts to suffer, and managers want you to get focused on the job. But you don’t want to.

Everyone has their own comfort zone for making the leap. Some have a target dollar figure they want to save up (often 3-6 months of expenses), or want to see they have their job income replaced with well-paying freelance writing jobs, to quit.

26Q: How do I transition to freelancing, if I’m under a non-compete agreement at work?

A: You’ll need to choose a different industry for your freelance writing. If you write for work, you may not be able to freelance until after you quit.

Big tip: Read your non-compete carefully. Then, consider asking permission to do specific writing clients. I successfully freelanced on the side of a staff-writing job, by simply running assignments by my editor first.

Get freelance writing clients

27Q: Should I sign up for Upwork? Or which is the best platform?

A: All sites that aggregate thousands of writers together, to bid against each other in a race to the bottom on price, are bad places for freelance writers. By definition.

There is no ‘best mass platform for bidding on freelance writing jobs.’ They all suck.

Understand that these sites are set up to benefit the site founders and the businesses that exploit them to get work cheap. Not to help us get well-paid.

In fact, recently, I had one Upwork member aggregate some data — and he found that of nearly 10,000 registered Upwork writers, over 90% reported they’d never earned a dime on Upwork.

That said, every once in a while, an outlier lands a great client or two on Upwork. I gather the secret is to set your rates high, and don’t bid on anything (it costs you money) — just wait to be ‘invited’ to a gig. See what happens.

If you want to try these places out, use these tips. Or take a look at fixed-rate platforms, which I call ‘move-up content mills.’

28Q: I’ve been applying to freelance writing jobs online, with no luck. What am I doing wrong?

A: It’s not you, it’s online ads for freelance writing jobs. Like mass platforms, they suck by definition.

No functional company or magazine editor places ads on a public board where they will get 500-1,000 responses, when they have freelance writing jobs they need to assign. That’s insane.

Good organizations ask their network for referrals to a writer. Or they go on LinkedIn, search for the type of writer they need, and send inquiries. Your statistical odds of getting a job through an ad are low.

If you’re going to use job ads, look for freelance writing jobs where your clips or past experience make you a perfect fit for the gig. Otherwise, ignore and move on.

29Q: What about content mills or digital agencies — are they good to write for?

A: It depends. Too many content mills and agencies offer appallingly low rates. Remember, they’re essentially a middleman, keeping a big cut of your pay in exchange for handing you a gift-wrapped client.

These might be a place to get a few first clips and a little cash, but in the main, you’ll want to move onward and upward soon.

30Q: If Upwork, ads for freelance writing jobs, and content mills aren’t where writers earn well, how do you find clients?

A: Great question! Professional writers mostly get clients through networking and their own marketing. More on these approaches below…

Networking

31Q: I don’t have any connections. How can I get hired?

A: You can build a large network, and quickly! My favorite place to do that is on LinkedIn. Keep sending connection invites to people who might know prospects in the niches you’re pursuing. Ask them to refer you, if they hear of someone who needs a writer.

In these days of isolating, online networking is where it’s at.

32Q: How can I find more connections?

A: There are lots of ways! My favorite strategies include:

  • ‘Friendsurf’ through the connections of your existing connections, and inviting them
  • Be magnanimous and providing free help or info that attracts your prospect
  • Target LinkedIn LIONS (open networkers who connect to all comers)
  • Comment in relevant LinkedIn groups to build authority and visibility.

33Q: How can I ask total strangers to refer me business? Feels awkward…

A: Here’s the magic: People love to give referrals. It makes them feel smart and well-connected.

The secret is to also offer to refer them customers or contractors they need. Make it a two-way street.

34Q: How can I get my network to remember and refer me?

A: Keep them in mind. Share useful content or articles you find that would interest them. Comment on their posts or LinkedIn updates.

During the last recession, I sent former editors of mine editorial job leads I saw. They remembered it, when they got their next job.

Inbound marketing

35Q: How can I attract my own clients and avoid content mills?

A: By building a strong online presence that attracts clients. This is called ‘inbound marketing.’

If you don’t have much budget for this right now, set up a free LinkedIn profile. Now that Google+ has died, LinkedIn is the place for business networking online.

Here are some tips for creating a strong LinkedIn profile.

To appear even more serious and professional online, create a writer website — here are some examples to inspire you.

36Q: What’s the easiest way to get a portfolio online?

A: There are many portfolio sites you could use, such as Clippings.me or journoportfolios.com. These are free or cheap.

But they have serious drawbacks, because your portfolio is easily compared with many others. To really come off pro, you’ll want your own writer website.

37Q: What should I name my writer website?

A: There are three basic directions to go in:

  1. Your name with an SEO tagline (see caroltice.com),
  2. A keyword phrase (digitalmarketingwriter.com, say, or altantahealthwriter.com)
  3. Snappy, memorable branding.

For instance, I recently reviewed this Den member’s website: yeswords.com. Memorable, yes?

38Q: Should I have a blog on my writer website?

A: Only if you have the energy to keep it updated, and a passion topic you can iterate many topics on. Plus the energy to promote and build an audience for it.

To be a good writing sample, the blog would need to be successful. That means lots of engagement, subscribers, comments and social shares. A dusty, abandoned blog under a tab on your writer site is a negative.

39Q: How can I get a writer website up affordably? I’m nontechnical…

A: I wish I had a pat answer here, but I’ve yet to find an ideal solution. What you should definitely not do is pay several thousand for a writer website. WordPress is by far the most popular platform for writer websites, but I’ve also seen good sites done on SquareSpace, and even a few on Wix.

Whatever platform you choose, you’ll need a host such as Bluehost or HostGator. You’ll want to pay to get any ads or URL additions such as “.wordpress.com” for your platform or host off — looks amateurish.

If you need to bootstrap it, ask your local high school or community college’s digital design instructor for a referral to a good student. They need projects! I got the very first version of caroltice.com done by a high school student, for a few hundred dollars.

I know — it’s a lot of decisions. But once you’ve got prospects on your writer website, you’ve got them all to yourself. The vast majority of freelance writers don’t have a site. It’s a big a chance to stand out.

Social-media marketing

40Q: Is it possible to get clients through social media?

A: Since I once got a $14,000 contract from a tweet, and have had three Fortune 500 clients that came through LinkedIn, my answer is yes.

41Q: What’s the best social-media platform for finding clients?

A:  The answer may depend on the industry you’re targeting. Lifestyle topics such as food, travel, and fashion are all over Instagram, for instance.

But in general, LinkedIn seems to have emerged as a broadly powerful platform — it’s the only place where everyone’s there to do business.

42Q: Are there any LinkedIn etiquette rules I need to know?

A: As with all social media, LinkedIn isn’t a good place to publicly beg for work, or to hard-sell prospects in InMails. Take that to email.

Instead, be helpful on social media. Show you know the industries you write about. Ask and answer questions in relevant LI Groups.

And — keep building connections! The more you have, the easier it is to get found on a search inside LinkedIn.

43Q: What do I need to put in my LinkedIn profile?

A: A strong tagline with a keyword phrase your ideal client would search for to find a writer. Also your contacts, somewhere public (only contacts can open your ‘contacts’ tab).

A good head shot of yourself is key, and a custom header helps — not that default blue-constellation graphic. More profile tips here.

Outbound marketing

44Q: How do I find clients that can pay well for writing?

A: It’s simple: follow the money. You’re looking for publications with a big circulation or pricey ads, businesses with a lot of employees or that recently received investor money.

Bigger is always better, when it comes to freelance clients. If you can’t find revenue figures — often hard with private companies — go to LinkedIn and see how many employees are linked to their company page. Over 100 and you’re probably good (or over 10, if you’re brand new).

Once you’re launched, don’t waste time with solopreneurs. They just don’t have the money to give us regular work.

45Q: I assumed the big companies would have their own marketing teams, so I never pitch them. Am I wrong?

A: Yes, you are! I’ve written for American Express, Alaska Airlines… many large companies may have a marketing team on staff. But it doesn’t mean that team has all the skills they need for every marketing job. Increasingly, they supplement by hiring freelance talent.

46Q: What’s the one best, fastest, low-cost way to market my writing services?

A: If you snickered at that, let me tell you, I get that question all the time.

Over the years, I’ve found the answer is highly individual. The best type of marketing is the kind you’re willing to do, on a regular basis. And that is a fit for the type of client you’re pitching.

For instance, for consumer publications, you need to write a query letter, or connect with an editor through networking and referral.

For businesses, options include cold calling, direct mail, letters of introduction, InMailing on LinkedIn, creating a bait piece and building a list, virtual live networking events (all the rage, right now!), and more.

They all have their uses and effectiveness with different audiences. And different writers are better at one type than another.

47Q: Once I’ve pitched someone, how long should I wait before I follow up?

A: To back up, the real question is if you plan to follow up. Personally, I usually don’t — I prefer to just do more marketing instead.

But now that email deliverability is a big problem, consider one followup email that’s devoid of all links, even to your writer site. Just to make sure you get through the spam filters.

When to follow up? Totally depends on your comfort level. I’ve seen writers do the next day, 3 days later, a week later, 2 weeks. Up to you. Just make a rule and follow it.

48Q: I hate the awkwardness around when to follow up. Is there a solution?

A: Actually, there is. When you pitch the client, build the next step into your pitch. Make your call to action something like, “I’ll call you on Monday to gauge your interest.”

Boom — now everybody knows what happens next.

49Q: I work in IT, and want to switch to writing about tech. How can I get start finding clients?

A: I’d start with the company you work for — see if they’ll let you write on the side. From there, think about former colleagues who’ve gone elsewhere. They might be able to refer you.

Next, search online for lists of top-ranked companies in your type of IT. Trade magazines and top blogs regularly put out ranking lists — and they’re ready-made pitching lists for us.

50Q: I’m a jack-of-all trades. I do writing, editing, photography, proofreading, and website development. How do I market this?

A: As a one-stop solution for small businesses that need websites done, from design and images to content! Package your services as a one-stop solution. There’s definitely a segment of clients this appeals to.

Marketing for newbies

51Q: How can I market with minimal experience?

A: If you’re still building your portfolio, you’ve basically got two choices: Pitch for pro bono work (easier to get hired when it’s unpaid), or convince paying clients to hire you with what you’ve got.

I’d try some of each, and see what pays off. Pro bono clips will build your portfolio.

There are plenty of small-businesses and solopreneurs / solo professionals (think doctors, dentists, chiropractors, accountants). They can’t afford a seasoned pro — and they’re great targets for you, as a newbie.

It’ll mostly be one-off freelance writing jobs, and pay won’t be great, but you can get testimonials, referrals, and clips. Then, you’re on your way.

52Q: I want to avoid content mills — but how do I find clients to pitch?

A: Google is your friend here. Do a search for “Best (or biggest, or fastest-growing) law firms in [your town][current year],” or whatever type of business you want to target. You’ll see that many free ranking lists for every type of industry are available.

Looking for publications? The same types of Google searches work. Blogs and trades put out lists of pubs all the time.

53Q: How do I know which companies need a writer?

A: I don’t have a crystal ball… but when you look at their website, you’ll often spot problems that suggest the organization could use help. That decade-old copyright notice that reveals they haven’t updated their website in ages, for instance.

Hint: Many business blogs that have no free product for subscribers, to get more opt-ins. Boom! Sell them an e-book or free report.

54Q: How do I get skeptical clients to hire me, as a newbie? I take meetings and they’re interested, but then turn me down.

A: When you start out, you’ll want to pitch a type of client where you can make the case why you’re their writer, due to your high interest and/or personal experience with their topic.

For instance, did you nurse a friend through cancer and get interested in oncology? Maybe there’s an oncologist’s website you could give an upgrade.

55Q: Are my low-paid clips enough? I wrote a lot of content for very little money, before I got wise.

A: Exciting news — your prospects have no idea what you were paid for your past freelance writing jobs. Pick out your strongest half-dozen existing clips and use them.

Freelance writing for publications

56Q: I’ve always fantasized about seeing my byline in a magazine. How can I break in?

A: Start small, with your local newspaper or local, small magazines. All are hard up for help these days and cash-strapped, so pay will be small to none. But editorial bylines make great portfolio samples that can help you move up to better-paying pubs.

57Q: How can a writer find publications? Is there a single place that lists them?

A: Sadly, no — but Google is your friend. Do a search for:

‘best [type][industry/topic] magazine,’ or ‘consumer health magazines.’

You’ll usually find many lists of magazines.

You can also buy The Writer’s Market. But bear in mind it doesn’t list all the magazines in the universe, and is weak in online mags, in particular.

58Q: Will I need to do interviews, to write articles? If so, how can I get started with that?

A: Likely, you will, for any reputable publication. Don’t be nervous! Interviewing is just… talking to people with preparation.

Research and bring questions you thought up ahead of time. Practice on a friend, if you’re shy.

59Q: How can I get people to talk to me for publications, especially when I don’t have an assignment yet?

A: Ask many. Some will say no. But you’ll be surprised how many experts are desperate for publicity and willing to talk to anyone.

60Q: What are all the types of publications I might write for?

A: Many writers only know consumer magazines — the Vogue or Oprah magazine type. There are two other important categories to explore: trade magazines and company magazines, a/k/a ‘custom publications.’

Trade magazines are written for an audience in one type of business — pharmacists, lawyers, hardware-store owners. Custom pubs are magazines companies create, either for their customers or employees. University alumni magazines are another type of custom pub. You can find leads on custom pubs at the Custom Content Council site, and trade pubs at tradepub.com.

61Q: I want to write for magazines, but I don’t have a lot of article ideas. How can I develop more?

A: Start by understanding that idea generation is an important part of your job. As editorial staffs have been cut back, more editors depend on freelance writers for ideas.

Set up Google Alerts, and read widely, especially the publication you’re targeting and their competitors. More idea-generating tips here.

62Q: What if an editor steals my idea?

A: This is a common newbie-writer fear — but in reality, this rarely happens. If you find an unethical editor, don’t write for them again.

When you pitch, be sure to make a strong case for why you are the writer to do this assignment. Play up any exclusive source access you have, or your topic knowledge. You don’t want the editor to feel they could easily reassign it.

63Q: I’ve asked many editors to hire me to write, and nothing. What am I doing wrong?

A: Editors like to see a query letter. In a query, you pitch a specific idea (or perhaps 2-3 ideas), share the proposed headline for that article, and describe how you’d execute this idea.

Ideally, do a little pre-interview or research, so that you can show the editor you can execute the idea. Include info on why their readers need this information now.

64Q: How can I build editor relationships?

A: Bring editors ideas. Many writers either send in pre-written posts, or sit around hoping editors will assign them. But these methods rarely pay off.

65Q: How do I know which editor to pitch? Some magazines list many editors on the masthead…

A: Anyone above ‘managing editor’ is too high up the chain (editor in chief, for instance). M.E. is your default if there isn’t something that looks more promising — say, an articles or features editor, or an editor for your specific department (health editor, recipes editor, digital content manager).

66Q: What legal issues do I need to worry about, as a nonfiction article writer?

A: First off, don’t lie or make stuff up.

You may need permissions for any photos or images you want to include in your story, or releases from sources. If a source wants to check their quotes with you prior to publication, that’s OK — but generally, they can’t review or make suggestions to change the article.

Finally, avoid conflicts of interest or hiding anything from an editor. Keep them in the loop!

Don’t pretend you’ve found an interesting story, as a reporter, when really that company slipped you $100 to say so. More on that here.

Freelance writing for businesses

67Q: How do you get started in business writing? I’ve never run a business and feel like I don’t know enough…

A: Business ownership is not required! Remember, you interact with businesses every day, buying goods and services.

You may also have worked for businesses, which gives you a chance to learn a lot about their customer and their marketing. If you’ve worked in a bank, a retail store, a janitorial supply company, a dentist’s office… you know something about their business.

Too often, lack of confidence is the reason writers decide to start with content mills. But you probably have a lot more relevant experience than you think.

68Q: What are the types of business writing I might do?

A: Business writing is highly varied. Common types include sales pages, marketing or informational emails, white papers, case studies, press releases, blog posts, brochures, annual reports, print and digital ads, infographics, social posts, and more.

Study a company’s website to see the types of writing they use in their business.

69Q: Is it intrusive to pitch marketing managers? I feel like I’m bothering them…

A: If you are, you’ve got lots of company! You can bet they get many marketing reach-outs each week. Why should you be the only one who doesn’t inquire?

Remember that you offer a valuable service they may need. If you reach out in a professional way, it’s legit.

70Q: If I want to email marketing managers, what’s a good pitch angle?

A: What you want to send is called a letter of introduction. Quick crash course in these: You’ll want to quickly look at their site, so you can talk about something you saw. That proves you’re not a mass-spam emailer.

Then, propose something you could help them with, that you see them either doing, or that they may have stopped doing (old press releases, abandoned blog). If you pitch blogging, include a couple of super-strong, fascinating headlines that impress.

Briefly explain your experience and why you’re the right writer. Conclude with a call to action (CTA). Strong ones include: “May I send you some clips?” (shout-out to Linda Formichelli for that one!) or “I’ll call you Monday to gauge your interest.”

71Q: Who do I pitch at a business?

A: If it’s very small, likely the owner or CEO. If it’s big enough to have one marketing person, that’s the one. If it’s bigger and there are many titles, VP is too high up the chain.

Look for the closest fit — digital content manager, maybe? Blog editor? Communications lead? If you’re stumped, use the contact name on their press releases as a starting point.

Writing for content mills

72Q: I’ve heard that content mills can be a good place to get started, as a freelance writer. What do you think?

A: I don’t think content mills are a good place to start for two big reasons:

  1. The types of writing you do for content mills often bears little resemblance to what you do for better-paying gigs.
  2. The extremely low pay content mills offers is demoralizing. I know many writers who struggled to understand their value, for years after slogging away for content mills. This greatly depressed their earnings.

73Q: Can I be a full-time freelance writer, working for content mills?

A: It’s possible, but it depends on how much you need to earn.

Many writers jump into content mills thinking, “OK, it’s $20 a post, I’ll write three of these puppies an hour and it’ll be fine!”

Soon, they’re completely burned out with content mills. Churning out thousands of words daily is non-sustainable. But if your expenses are very low and you’re a fast writer, maybe you’ll make content mills work.

74Q: Is there anything I need to unlearn after writing for content mills?

A: Actually, yes. Any time you spend in content mills breeds passivity — all you do for marketing is check their dashboard and apply for gigs.

When you move up to better clients, you’ll need to do proactive marketing. You may also need to learn a different approach to writing, since writing for content mills is essentially just an SEO keyword-stuffing project, rather than writing for people to read.

75Q: Many US content mills only take native-born writers. How can I get them to accept me?

A: You can’t. You’ll probably have more luck independently pitching prospects you identify. That will give you more chance to demonstrate your fluency.

76Q: Can you tell me how to get a raise from content mills?

A: Usually, you can’t. For content mills, their whole model is built around the idea of charging very low rates to clients — then, paying you half that. It’s a terrible working environment. Basically the reason they’re called “content mills.”

Manage clients

77Q: Got any tips on creating a good proposal that gets me hired?

A: You bet — what you want is called a value proposal. We have several examples in Freelance Writers Den‘s Resource Library.

Short story: You don’t just say what you’ll do and how much you want to be paid. You talk about how this writing will achieve their goals. Also include testimonials, examples of your work, and promote your relevant experience.

78Q: How can I avoid loser clients?

A: By carefully qualifying your prospects. Bigger is better — less likely to stiff you or be PITA (pain in the A) clients. You want clients that have worked with freelancers before.

Asking for a 50% up-front deposit on a first project with business clients is a great screener for getting rid of flakes.

79Q: I have a client who’s a nightmare — pay is low, they want to chat 24/7, I don’t even like the work. What can I do?

A: Your choices are:

  1. Ask for a big, fat raise that makes it worth your while
  2. Create healthier boundaries with this client
  3. Quit

Get paid

80Q: When should I bring up the subject of payment?

A: Before you start writing. Don’t write without knowing what (or if) you’ll be paid! Ideally, you’ll negotiate your rate, then memorialize it in a contract.

81Q: Should I charge by the word, hour, page, or what?

A: The best way to charge is flat fee by the project. Those other methods tend to pay less and treat us like clerks.

Ultimately, your hourly rate is what matters, but it’s better if you keep private what you earn on that basis.

You can earn more charging by the project.

You’d never be able to ask for $150-$200 an hour as an hourly rate… but if you become more efficient over time with clients you serve on a project basis, your rate could quietly end up there. And you never even had to ask for a raise!

82Q: How will I be paid by clients?

A: Each client situation is different. Try to accept whatever method of payment the client prefers. Common types including Paypal, physical check, and direct bank deposit, also known as ACH.

83Q: Do I need to accept credit cards?

Not necessarily. If there’s a payment method you don’t want to do, just work it out with your client.

That said, if you have a client that really needs it, accepting cards is fairly easy these days, since there digital solutions such as Stripe and Square.

84Q: I need money fast! How can I find freelance writing jobs with immediate pay?

A: Freelance writing has been called the worst way to earn money quickly. It takes time to build a portfolio, your reputation. Like any business launch, you tend to build your income over time.

Few well-paid gigs pay instantly. Instead, there’s usually a 7-30 day wait for your payment. Freelance writing jobs that promise regular weekly pay tend to be for peanuts.

It’s very difficult to quickly address urgent bill-paying needs with freelance writing. Best bet is to get a side job to stabilize your income, while you build your writing biz on the side. Here are some types of part-time jobs that work (some of which are still going during COVID), while you’re trying to land more freelance writing jobs.

85Q: How will I know what to charge?

A: Mostly, by asking around and learning about professional rates. Having a big network is important.

If you’re stumped, use the method I did, when I got back into freelancing in 2005: Pick a figure. Next time, ask for more. Lather, rinse, repeat, until you’re earning what you want.

86Q: My client’s payment is overdue — how can I get them to send my check?

A: Start with a contract that includes a 3% monthly late fee, compounding. That tends to keep your bill from sliding off the ‘pay now’ stack.

Barring that, call the day after payment is due. If your contact isn’t responsive, go over their head to accounts payable.

Still getting nowhere? Social media is the last resort, as in a tweet like:

“.@company, my $2,000 payment was due last week. Can you tell me when I can expect it?”

No company wants that sitting out there, for all the world to see.

Avoid freelance writing scams

87Q: How can I tell which freelance writing jobs are legitimate and which offers might be scams?

A: There are some basic red flags to watch out for. These include prospects who:

  • Seem eager to hire you for what seems like great pay, without talking to you or describing the assignment
  • State no company name, URL, or company email
  • Unwilling to sign a contract
  • Business clients unwilling to send an advance
  • Have an assignment that seems fishy — for instance, one widespread scam currently circulating purports to assign a piece to be handed out at an in-person workshop (!?)

With the recession, scams have skyrocketed and more shady content mills are on the rise, so be careful out there. More tips and descriptions of common scams here.

88Q: Where can I ask, if I have a bad feeling about a gig?

A: You need a writing community you can reality-check things with! Don’t do this alone.

The business of freelancing

89Q: Do I need to get an up-front deposit before I start writing?

With business or nonprofit clients, yes, you definitely should.

Publications will tend to pay on acceptance or publication (hint: you want on acceptance).

90Q: Do I need to register my business?

A: While you don’t have to register your business, it’s a good idea. Having a registered business helps convince tax authorities you’re seriously in business, and deserve your expense write-offs.

Yes, you could evade some taxes if you operate under-the-radar. Be a good citizen and pay up. Remember to charge more to cover these expenses.

91Q: Do I need a separate checking account for my business?

A: Also strongly recommended. You’ll want to keep business and personal expenses separate — makes tax time easier, and again, helps convince IRS you’re doing business.

92Q: Should I become an LLC, or is OK to be a sole proprietor?

A: This is a conversation to have with a tax expert, as the best answer depends on your income level, tax bracket, and other factors. U.S. writers should note LLCs are more favorable under new Trump-enacted tax laws.

An LLC also provides a layer of legal protection between your personal assets and any business-related lawsuit that might come down the pike. Don’t have two coins to rub together? You probably don’t need an LLC. They cost money, both to create and to renew annually.

If you don’t lie and do business ethically, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be sued. Personally, I became an LLC after many years as a sole prop. I was doing my first print book, and discovered the publisher didn’t plan to fact-check anything. Eek!

93Q: Do I need to sign a contract?

A: Only if you want to be sure you get paid. Without a contract, your client has no legal obligation to pay you, ever. A short email they respond to with ‘I agree’ can suffice.

At the least, your contract should confirm the deadline, word count, and payments owed, as well as the payment terms. There may be many other aspects covered including nondisclosure, noncompete, mediation/jurisdiction for any lawsuit, copyright ownership, authorship rights, and more. And if you’re hanging out in content mills, read the fine print about how much of a cut they take on every project you complete.

Payment terms are one of the most overlooked areas in freelance contracts — try to define your final payment as due shortly after you turn in the first draft. That way, clients can’t dodge the last payment if they delay finalizing the project.

94Q: I’ve heard about retainers — how do they work?

A: In a retainer agreement, your client guarantees you an agreed-upon fee, in return for reserving a certain amount of your time or a set of defined monthly deliverables. If they fail to give you the work, you still get the retainer fee.

Retainers are highly desirable, because you have reliable income. Retainers usually require 30-60 days’ notice if the client wants to cancel. If you have a client who uses you now and then, think about renegotiating for a retainer.

95Q: How long will it take to earn a full-time living as a writer?

A: The answer is entirely up to you. Factors that affect your ramp time include previous writing experience, the types of writing you want to do freelance, your available hours, and willingness to do active marketing. FYI…you may never be able to make a living writing, if you’re counting on content mills.

Displaced journalists, academics & career re-starters

96Q: How can I rebuild my portfolio? I took a break to raise kids and now my clips are old…

A: Great news: There’s no such thing as too-old clips! Nobody seems to care about the dates on clips. If you’ve written it, it shows you can write it.

97Q: I’ve been laid off from the magazine/daily paper I was on staff with. How can I earn as a freelancer?

A: More great news: Your journalism skills are highly transferable to many types of business writing. I know, because that’s the journey I took in 2005, when I left a business journal and started freelancing. If you already have a portfolio of clips, there’s absolutely no reason to write for content mills.

We’re in the age of informational content (people hate being sold!). Your storytelling and interview skills are great for blog posts, case studies, white papers, e-books, and ghostwriting for CEOs and thought leaders, to name just a few project types.

There are also company-owned publications (think Costco Connection) and trade magazines where your skills are in demand. As a bonus, they also often pay better than newspapers or smaller consumer mags.

98Q: My main experience is with writing academic papers. How can I transition into freelance writing?

A: I’d begin by studying the types of writing that freelancers do — note the far more casual, conversational style and lack of footnotes.

Then, look for clients who’d be impressed by your degree and research knowledge. (FYI…content mills don’t care about you, your education level or experience, so skip those.) Universities themselves can be a good place to start, beginning with your alma mater.

Colleges create tons of content. For first clips (pro bono or at a discount to break in), try pricey private high schools.

If you’ve been ghostwriting academic papers for students, understand that this is unethical. You’ll be better off not mentioning those writing jobs and experiences when you pitch other types of freelance work.

Productivity

99Q: How do you make yourself efficiently work from home?

A: It can take a little practice! Start by creating business hours, during which you won’t run errands, do house chores, or chat with friends either live or on social media. (You’re working on landing more writing jobs!) If need be, use apps that shut off social media for set hours, such as Freedom.

100Q: How can I get faster at writing query or pitch letters?

A: Challenge yourself to send a large number of pitches each month — 100 is a good starting point. You’ll naturally start to economize your writing process.

Remember not to over-research. Grab a quick fact on your business prospect’s site, or do one quick pre-interview for a query, write and send.

101Q: How can I get faster at writing my assignments? It seems to take forever to get an article or blog post done…

A: I find most writers have a complex and believe everyone else is faster than they are. Probably not true. But do track your time, and challenge yourself to keep improving.

If you’d like efficiency hacks to get your writing jobs done faster from Linda Formichelli (on how she cranked out hundreds of articles), and from me (on how I wrote 3-4 stories on deadline every week for 12 years, including while nursing an adopted baby all hours), they’re here.

What’s your freelance writing question?

Whew! Well, that gets you started. But I know there are more questions, still.

What’s your question? Leave it in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.

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13 comments on “Freelance Writing Questions? 101 Must-Read Answers for Newbs

  1. Cain Smith on

    Amazing, comprehensive post Carol – probably the single best blog post I’ve ever read about freelance writing! I love your concise style.

    With regards to pro bono work building up a portfolio – I’ve recently had an experience with a client where I wrote a pro bono blog post in exchange for a testimonial. The post was initially published with my byline, but a day later after supplying my testimonial, my client removed my byline on her website and replaced it with hers

    Is this even worth displaying in my portfolio now? Ghostwriting was never discussed in our emails, so I haven’t agreed to this and wouldn’t be breaking any agreement by laying claim to the article.

    But displaying a clip in my portfolio with someone else’s byline may look to future clients like I’m breaching a ghostwriting agreement. Is it worth the hassle this early in my freelance writing career to argue, or should I just move on?

    Reply
    • Carol Tice on

      Gah! Great question, and I hate when editors do that. This is why I’m a fan of doing a CONTRACT for pro bono work — it would have outlined authorship credit.

      I would begin by asking her to restore your byline (or by going back in Wayback machine and taking a picture when it WAS your byline, and using that PDF as your clip, possibly, if they won’t).

      But bottom line is — you have a testimonial? Pair it with your clip, and you’re good to go.

      Glad you noticed this was about the most epic blog post I’ve ever written! And I’ve been at this since 2008.

      I’m so excited to have a handy compendium of pretty much ALL the BIG questions I get asked a lot, in one place, so I can send people over to check it out. 😉

      Reply
      • Cain Smith on

        Thanks Carol – great advice!
        I’ve bookmarked this post by the way. I think it will be my ‘one-stop shop’ for a good while ☺
        Really appreciate you taking the time to put together a resource like this for your readers!

        In a twist of fortune, my client’s MD has been in touch asking me to do more (paid) work, so I’ve decided not to quibble over the byline! I’ll take your advice about pairing the PDF with the testimonial, so it’s a double win for me ☺

        Reply
        • Carol Tice on

          That’s awesome! If you’re wondering, your second comment went into moderation again because you used a different email address — we moderate in first-time commenters. Use the same one next time and your comment will go live immediately. 😉

          Reply
  2. Jakob Sauppe on

    I actually have a couple of questions, if you don’t mind.

    For starters, are there any templates you might recommend for creating a stable contract to use that checks all the legal boxes? Or is contract creation done on a per-client basis? I’m thinking it’s a mix of both, but as someone who has a lot to learn in the world of business, the legal lingo to ensure fair payment is what gives me the most hesitance!

    Secondly: I have about 8 published clips in my alma mater’s newspaper from a few years ago (volunteer). Would that be a sufficient portfolio to ask for payment with potential clients right-off, or would pro-bono work be best?

    Thanks for such a great site. Your posts have seriously inspired me to pursue my dream of writing for a living. I am in the process of transitioning from full-time to part-time in my day job to give myself the time I need to take serious steps toward freelancing! I’ve never done this sort of thing before, but boy do I want it.

    Reply
    • Carol Tice on

      Sounds exciting, Jakob!

      We have many contract examples inside my Freelance Writers Den community — click the ‘community’ tab up top to learn more. There isn’t really one, ‘stable contract’ (or is that ‘staple,’ maybe?), as circumstances differ for a magazine article, an ongoing blog post retainer, and so on.

      But we have quite a few examples, and one of our courses, Freelance Business Bootcamp, goes clause by clause and talks about what to look for, what to push back on or refuse, and more. Often, your client WILL supply a contract — doesn’t mean you want to sign it as is.

      To your second question: The answer is: Maybe.

      You’ll only know if your current clips are adequate to get you hired by using them to try to get hired. I’ve certainly seen people get hired with NO clips. If you find you’re struggling, seek a pro-bono sample of the type of writing you’re looking to do. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  3. Katherine Swarts on

    Q. I’ve had a recent major life change and now am in the spot of having six months of living expenses set aside, but no immediate side income. Do I dedicate all my available work hours to marketing myself as a freelance writer (counting on building an adequate income stream before the resources give out), or do I take an easy-to-find side job to guarantee an ongoing income stream right now (at the tradeoff of having fewer hours for freelance marketing and thus taking longer to grow it to the sustainable-income level)?
    Katherine Swarts recently posted…Context Is EverythingMy Profile

    Reply
    • Carol Tice on

      Katherine, do you have the sense you can GET a part-time job, right now, with record unemployment? As hard as it is, I’d probably pursue both tracks, if possible. But a quick check of your local employment scene may tell you there aren’t many jobs available.

      Reply
      • Drashti on

        I am an ESL writer (was schooled in English from nursery though) currently living in Italy. I noticed from your book and from your previous posts that there is a distinct benefit from starting locally. Approaching local publications and businesses etc. Since I can’t do that here (Most of them prefer writers who know at least basic Italian), I was wondering if approaching the digital agencies you mentioned in a previous post would help.

        Also, while I am looking for industries and people over on this side of the world that I can send LOIs to, most of my resources + the leads I learn about from job boards (I know they’re not that great but am at a loss here) are always in the US and many of them say they offer remote work but only if you are a US citizen. Nothing to do with being a native or a non-native english speaker. They just don’t have a location option outside the US. I was wondering if you could point me towards someone or something who can help me out with becoming a successful freelance writer while living in Europe.

        Reply
        • Carol Tice on

          Drashti — I think your best bet honestly is to join my Freelance Writers Den community! We have a LOT of international members, and a ‘non-US writers’ forum, where they share best practices about making it as an ESL or non-American writer.

          Obviously, I AM a US-based and native American writer, so this is not my area of expertise. I can tell you there’s no magic list or site you join that hands you work. The tip I CAN give you is that trolling job boards is a loser’s game, anyway. I’ve no idea how receptive digital agencies would be, because I’ve tried to avoid working for middlemen most of my career.

          In the Den, you can tap a 1400-member group of working writers, and probably get better answers. (See the ‘community’ tab on this site for more details.)

          Reply
          • DRASHTI SHAH on

            Thanks, Carol. Both, for your response, and for this amazingly detailed blog post. I also followed through on the links that you mentioned in the posts and I am happy to say I have a fairly comprehensive plan of action for now. I know about the Den (am a huge fan of your newsletters). While I know it’s definitely worth investing in because of the high ROI, I was hesitant about signing up as I was unsure about making it as a writer due to the location issue and was keeping my options open(I also work as a website designer and a VA). Ended up investing in the wrong stuff. Its’ time to buckle up though. I will look into more details and add my name to the waitlist next month. I will be definitely be needing some eyes on my LOIs and samples. Plus all the advice I can get. Thanks a ton!

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