Every week, I hear from people who ask me how to become a freelance writer.
You hate your job, or you can’t work outside the home, or you want to be home with your kids…the reasons vary.
But the glamorous reputation of freelancing has caught your eye. Being your own boss sure sounds great!
Everyone wants to know how this gig works — how to stay home and pay your bills with your writing.
Aspiring freelancers usually have strong writing skills. But there are other strengths you may lack that could doom your chances.
What does it take to be a successful freelance writer? Is this career for you?
Here’s my unvarnished, let’s-get-real list of key traits you’ll need:
1. Business attitude
Many freelance-writing careers begin like this: One day, a friend asks you to write their website, or your former boss wants you to ghost their blog. So you say yes. That leads to another low-paid writing job.
Soon, you’re broke and need to find a day job again.
What I had going for me when I started freelancing in 2005 was the dim sense that I was starting a business. I’d been a business reporter and covered startups, and I realized that I was a new business now.
That meant I would have to run this like a business — do proactive marketing, decide on my rates, send out contracts, set healthy boundaries, chase late payments, turn down crummy offers.
Having that attitude has made all the difference. I never would have earned a six-figure income from freelance writing just drifting along, taking whatever clients wandered over my way and accepting whatever pay they offered me.
It hits many writers like a thunderclap, after years of barely scraping by, that they’re starving because they haven’t taken their freelance goals seriously. Save yourself a lot of grief and put on your business hat on day one.
Ever met someone who’s been dreaming about launching their freelance writing career for oh, 20 years or so? I see writers like this all the time.
They’ve bought every book, taken every class, read every newsletter. But they never actually go out and find clients.
What’s up? Many writers are afflicted with deep-seated fears that keep them from going for their dreams. If this is you, find a good therapist and release these demons before you quit your job.
Seriously. Don’t wait 20 years — the world needs your creativity.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking if you sit in your room alone long enough, you will someday magically acquire the courage to write for clients. That doesn’t happen. You gain confidence by going out and doing client work. That’s how you see you can do this, and start to feel strong.
Successful freelance writers go out in the world confident that they have something valuable to offer the marketplace. Low self-esteem is a ticket straight to the land of crummy pay. If you can look in the mirror and see that you have skills and offer a valuable service, you’re well on the way to building a lucrative freelance business.
3. A can-do attitude
In freelance writing, no one is going to hand you great clients or terrific rates. You’re going to have to go out and make that happen. When you hit obstacles, you’ll need to figure out a way around them.
Commit to just keep going until you solve it. Defeat is not an option.
If you don’t know how to do something, ask around in a writer community, or research how it’s done. You’ll need to overcome the learned helplessness so many acquire in academia or in Corporate America, and become a crack problem-solver.
The secret? There is no ‘typical’ or ‘standard’ way things are done in freelancing. So rear up on your hind legs, whip out your machete, and carve your own road. You can do it.
Are you crushed and lie in bed moaning for a week if your query letter gets rejected? Consider writing a hobby.
Professional freelance writers don’t fear rejection — they prepare for it. Because it’s a normal part of freelance business (see #1).
Not every client will be happy. Articles will get killed (one of my first ones was). And you’ll live to write another day.
Your ability to bounce back and keep smiling, like a figure skater after a bad fall, is important.
Freelance writing is not a game for the passive or timid. We’re on the hustle all the time — finding clients, finding better ones, raising rates, negotiating deals.
I’ve believe that great freelance writers have a hustler gene. Fall in love with the thrill of the chase, the win of landing a client you went after, and you will thrive.
Yes, you won’t have to hustle as hard once you get established. But you don’t ever want to get complacent and stop prospecting, because no client is forever. Build those hustle muscles and keep them in shape to become a freelance writer who’s never hungry.
How to become a freelance writer? Begin by setting some regular business hours and showing up. Don’t fold laundry, chat with your neighbor, or bop to the drugstore for toothpaste during that time.
No one is going to stand over you and make you get your writing and marketing done. Remember, you wanted to be your own boss! So this is 100 percent on you.
If you just eat Fritos Scoops and binge-watch Netflix when left to your own devices, freelancing is probably not your game.
7. Love service
Paid freelance writing is not about ‘getting your story out there,’ or ‘advocating for a cause.’ This is a common confusion.
If that’s what you want to write, then scribble your novel or send off unpaid op-eds to the newspaper. There isn’t a reliable living in relating your personal travails, or writing about one topic that bugs you, over and over again.
If you really want to know how to become a freelance writer, it’s this: You write well, and love to serve others. You derive happiness from seeing your clients succeed — and you’re willing to write whatever they need.
Your goal is to use your writing to meet their goals.
I recently had a freelance writer tell me they feel really bothered when their work gets edited.
“Why?” I asked. “The only thing that matters is that the client is happy.”
If you’re crushed when your precious words are altered, write poems in your bedroom. Never share them with anyone.
Freelance writing is a service business. It’s about using your creative gifts to help others. The more you listen to their needs and meet them, the more you will earn.
If you can learn to love the challenge of meeting others’ writing needs, this will be a great career for you.
Freelance writing is a world that never stops turning. New trends are always emerging — from longform blog posts to Instagram Stories to…well, whatever’s next.
There’s always something new to learn. If you love learning, building a freelance writing career will be endlessly fun and never boring. Even if you’re writing about seemingly dull stuff like surety bonds or washing machine-technology or chemical ingredients (all subjects I’ve actually written about). Honestly, the years go by in a flash.
If you enjoy learning new tricks and tools, and new ways to use your writing skills, you’ll love being a freelance writer.