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Are you ready to become a freelance writer so you can make money online?
As someone who’s living the freelance writing hustle full-time, I can say that it’s a pretty sweet gig. 🙂
But what does it take to be a successful freelance writer these days?
When I first started freelancing, I didn’t have a clue. I just knew two things: I was decent at writing and I wanted to make some extra money from home.
Needless to say, there was a steep learning curve. But I’ve since built my online business to six figures, all while being home with my kids every day. (Homeschoolers here!)
You could take the slow route like I did. But who’s got time for that?
I want you to hit the ground running with your freelance writing business.
So I created this ultimate guide to give you everything you need to be a freelance writer, even when you’re completely starting from scratch.
How to Be a Freelance Writer in 2019
The best way to use this guide is to read it in order, checking off each step as you go. From start to finish, here’s what it covers:
- Deciding what type of writing services to offer
- Choosing your freelance niche
- Identifying your target client
- Putting together a portfolio
- Where to look for freelancing writing gigs
- Cold pitching and why it matters
- The art of the follow-up
- Building your freelance network
Ready to do this?
Then let’s get started!
1. Decide what type of writing services you want to offer.
If you want to be a freelance writer, the first thing you have to figure out is what kind of writing you’re actually going to do.
For example, I mainly write reported articles and blog posts. But other freelance writers might write:
- Website copy
- White papers
- Grant proposals
- Product reviews
- Product descriptions
- Magazine/newspaper articles
- How-to guides
- List articles
- Ghostwritten content
- Blog posts
- Business plans
- Press releases
- Legal briefs
- Research papers
- Annual reports
- Technical reports or manuals
Whew, that’s a lot, right?
The great thing if you want to be a freelance writer is that you can tailor the kind of work you do to your skills. As you pick up new skills, you can move into other types of writing.
But what if you don’t know the difference between web copy and white papers, or how to format a blog post?
This is where you have to dig in and do your homework.
The upside is that there are a ton of websites out there that can teach you the ins and outs of freelance writing. Here are some of the sites I studied as I was learning how to be a freelance writer:
These sites can offer a solid introduction to the different types of freelance writing.
My advice? Start with the kind of writing you’re already familiar with or that feels most comfortable.
It’s totally okay to go with what you know in the beginning. You can always branch out later as you learn what you like to write and what fits best with your writing style.
2. Choose your freelance writing niche.
Some freelance writers take the jack-of-all-trade route. They write about a little of everything, specializing in generalization.
That’s not my jam. I firmly believe that if you want to build a successful freelance writing business, you’ve got to have a niche.
Uh…a what, now?
A niche. A niche is a fancy way of saying your writing specialty.
My niche, for example, covers personal finance, investing and small business. It became my niche early on because money is a topic I’m really interested in.
Personal finance is a popular niche but there are dozens of other niches you can focus on. The key is to choose one that’s got money-making potential.
Profitable Freelance Writing Niches
Some of the most popular (and profitable) freelance niches include:
- Digital marketing and social media
- Health & wellness
- Productivity and goal-setting
- Minimalism and intentional living
- Faith and spirituality
- Dating and relationships
- Interior design
- Green/sustainable living
- Cooking and recipes
- Fashion and beauty
- Arts and crafts/DIY
- Home improvement
- Entertainment and media
- Real estate
If you’re not sure which one is right for you, there’s a helpful guide (along with some other goodies to get you started) that you can use in the Freelance Writer’s Toolkit to figure out your niche.
And if you haven’t downloaded the Toolkit yet, here’s the TL;DR version of how to find your niche:
What you know about + What you’re interested in + What has profit potential
= Your freelance writing niche
Sounds simple enough, right?
But you might be wondering why you even need a niche to begin with.
That’s a great question and the short answer is, niching down allows you to develop your skills in a specific area.
That’s important if you want to be a freelance writer who’s in-demand.
If you write in a specific niche long enough, you eventually become an expert. And that’s part of the secret to making real money from freelance writing.
I work with top financial brands and finance websites, consistently earning $20,000+ every month because I’ve established myself as an expert in my niche.
Bonus Tip: Learn Your Main Niche’s Sub-Niches
Finance is what I write about but that covers a lot of different topics. Today, for example, I wrote one story about personal guarantees for business loans and another on family wealth planning.
Two totally different topics with two totally different audiences, under the same finance umbrella.
Picking a main niche, then breaking that down into smaller niches, is super helpful for a few reasons.
- It can open you up to working with a wide range of clients.
- You can develop a specialty area of focus.
- You’re less likely to get bored writing about the same topics over and over.
- It’s a way to hone your knowledge on topics you’re familiar with, while learning about new ones.
Say your niche is parenting. That’s a huge niche, but you can focus on the sub-niches that appeal to you most, like gentle parenting or raising twins.
3. Identify your ideal freelance writing client.
Here’s a fact of life about being a freelance writer:
You’re going to have some clients you love…
…and some you hate.
But you can save yourself a lot of trouble by figuring out who your ideal client is early on.
What Is an Ideal Freelance Writing Client?
For me, an ideal client is one that:
- Gives me assignments that are both interesting and challenging
- Sets reasonable deadlines
- Is clear about what they want me to deliver
- Offers constructive editorial feedback
- Pays my asking rate (and pays on time)
Your definition might be different. For instance, your ideal client might be a specific brand or website.
Figuring out who your ideal client is can save you time and headaches as a freelancer. Knowing who you want to work with (or who you don’t) can help you filter out those gigs or opportunities that don’t align with your goals.
So How Do You Decide Who Your Ideal Client Is?
This is an important question. In fact, it’s so important that I created a cheat sheet for finding your ideal client in the Freelance Writer’s Toolkit.
You’ll definitely want to check that out but in the meantime, think about:
- How you define your ideal client.
- The kinds of problems your ideal client might have.
- How you can help solve those problems.
- What kind of clients you most want to avoid.
Those things can help you figure out who your ideal client is so you can start seeking them out — and start attracting them to you.
There are two basic things you need to attract your ideal client:
- Your niche or specialty
- A writing portfolio
By now, you hopefully have a niche. Now you can move on to the next step: putting together your portfolio.
4. Build your freelance writing portfolio.
Clients want to see proof of your writing chops. That’s what your portfolio is for.
It doesn’t have to be super fancy either. For example, here’s what my online portfolio looks like.
It’s got all the basics a freelance portfolio needs:
- My name
- A blurb describing my background and niche
- Clips of my published work
- My email address so clients can contact me directly
I created my portfolio for free through Contently but there are other platforms you can use. I break down some of the different options in this post on building a freelance portfolio as a new writer.
Technical aspects of setting up a portfolio aside, the real question is what to put in it.
Because how do you get writing samples unless you get hired to write something? It’s a catch-22.
The good news is, you can create a portfolio of writing samples even if you’ve never done any freelance writing before.
Here are four ways I recommend doing it:
1. Start a blog.
One of the best and easiest ways to create your portfolio is to start a blog and fill it up with some epic content. Having a blog of your own also helps you develop and establish your freelance writing brand. Your brand, along with your awesome writing skills, are what’s going to help you find clients when you start looking for work.
(If you’re ready to start a blog but you’re clueless about how to do it, check out my in-depth post for total newbies on how to get your blog up and running.)
But what do you blog about? You can blog about anything really but think about what’s going to grab a prospective client’s attention. If you’re hoping to break into the parenting niche, for example, you might fill your blogs up with posts like27 Ways to Keep Kids Busy During the Lazy Days of Summer or How to Stop Your Toddler’s Meltdown Before It Starts.
If you’re interested in writing for personal finance sites, you might write a list of 10 Tips to Travel the World When You’re Flat Broke or share your personal story about getting out debt. The rules are, there are no rules except one: make sure that anything you publish on your blog is the absolute best content you can create.
Pro tip: Don’t forget to add a “Hire Me” page to your blog that spells out what kind of writing services you offer and how clients can get in touch with you.
2. Be a guest blogger.
Guest blogging is another way to add to your portfolio. This just means writing a post and publishing it on someone else’s blog. (For example, right now I’m super excited to be working on a guest post for Imperfectly Perfect Mama!)
If you have a blog, you may be able to link back to it in your bio to start getting your name out there. If you’re not ready to start a blog just yet, you can always link guests posts to your Twitter account or your LinkedIn profile instead. (P.S. You can also post articles directly on LinkedIn for even more samples.)
3. Publish on Medium.
A third way to build a portfolio if you want to be a freelance writer is publishing on Medium. This is a free site that anyone can sign up for and create content on. The benefit of using Medium to create samples for your portfolio is that it’s already got a huge audience built in and you can publish alongside other big-name influencers who are already using the platform.
Medium covers a broad range of topics, including entrepreneurship, design, science and politics so there’s a lot you can write about here. Neil Patel (who’s a serious guru in the online marketing space) has a great post on how to leverage the power of Medium and grow your blog.
4. Publish on LinkedIn.
5. Start your search for freelance writing jobs.
So you’ve started your blog and narrowed down your niche. Now all you need to be a freelance writer for reals is a paid writing gig.
This is where a lot of people bail out on trying to be a freelance writer because getting that first job isn’t always easy. It’s really a process and it starts with knowing where to even look for work.
Before I dive into that, let me tell you where you DO NOT want to look for work as a beginning freelance writer.
There are a handful of websites out there that offer writing gigs to virtually anyone. They’re called content mills and they’re about the worst place you can start out to be a freelance writer. (At least I think so.)
I should know because that’s exactly where I got my start, writing 700-word stories about solar panels and golf for $15 a pop. That’s a loooong way where from where I’m at now and while I learned how to be a better writer from those early gigs, I definitely wouldn’t go that route if I was doing it all over again.
1. Freelance Writing Job Boards
Here’s what I would do instead. First, I’d head straight for high-quality job boards where companies and individuals post freelance writing gigs. Some of the boards I recommend for newbies are:
- ProBlogger Jobs
- Freelance Writing Jobs
I’ve used all of these boards at one time or another to find freelance writing gigs. The great thing about job boards is that there’s always a steady flow of new gigs being added. The challenge is sorting through them to find ones that fit your skills, expertise and desired pay range.
2. Regular Job Boards
That’s a great question and it’s absolutely possible to find freelance writing gigs listed on bigger job boards. Indeed and LinkedIn’s job search feature have turned up more than a few opportunities for me. Monster and CareerBuilder are also worth a look.
3. Freelance Platforms
I used both early on and I actually still work with one client that I met on Upwork three and a half years ago. The pros of these sites are that work is pretty much readily available all the time and you can find some clients that pay freelance writers well.
The con is that there are just as many clients who want to pay you peanuts to create their content. And both Upwork and Guru take a cut of everything you earn. Bottom line, it’s okay to give Upwork or Guru a try in the beginning to build up your clips and reputation but I wouldn’t bank on it for the long term.
4. Social Media
Can’t I just ask websites if they want to hire me?
Yep, you sure can. When you reach out to a site to see if they’re interested in using your services or you share an idea for a story you’d like to write for them, that’s called cold pitching and it’s a fantastic way to find freelance writing gigs.
Like anything else though, cold pitching takes some skill. You have to know:
- Which companies, websites or brands to target
- Exactly how you can deliver what it is they need/want
- What to charge
- How to craft a pitch that sells them on your services
Finding companies to pitch
Google can be your best friend when you’re trying to be a freelance writing cold-pitching machine. It’s how you find companies in your niche to pitch.
There are a couple of different approaches you can try, starting with Googling startups in your niche. Why startups?
Startups are new companies with new websites and those websites may need content. Or, a startup may be trying to establish itself as an influencer and one of the ways they do that is by having a freelance writer (like you) ghost write thought leadership pieces for their CEO. (I’ve had several gigs like this.)
Another approach is to simply spend some time stalking the companies you want to write for online. Go to their websites, check out their social media accounts, read their blogs. Look for an area that’s lacking that you can help with.
The key is to hone in on where you can add value. If you can point out a problem or an opportunity that the company has overlooked and offer a specific solution, you can grab their attention in a big way.
6. Perfect your cold freelance pitch.
Okay, so you’re ready to pitch your first potential client. But what do you say?
First, let’s cover how NOT to pitch. These are some of the most common mistakes that can blow your pitch and get your email sent straight to the Trash folder:
- Including spelling & grammar errors
- Rambling and taking forever to get to the point of your email
- Talking only about yourself
- Writing out one long paragraph of text
- Using jargon or stiff language
- Not personalizing your message
- Bringing zero personality to your email
- Acting desperate
- Using a crappy subject line
- Lacking confidence
I mean think about it, if someone sent you an email like that would you want to read it? Nope.
The Perfect Cold Pitch Recipe
Now, what does it take to write a killer pitch that not only gets you noticed but gets you the job? The perfect pitch:
- Starts with an epic subject line
- Is short, simple and straight to the point
- Quickly sums up who you are and what you do
- Mentions a mutual connection you share (if there is one)
- Has a friendly tone
- Offers a specific solution
- Is personalized
Way back when, I used to write cold pitches like this:
Dear Hiring Manager,
I am writing to express interest in becoming a contributing writer for XYZ, Inc. I have experience as a freelance writer and over 15 years of total writing experience. My experience as both an undergraduate and graduate student have enabled me to hone my research and writing skills and produce quality essays and academic papers. I have attached my resume and a short sample essay to demonstrate my writing skill and style. I would be interested in discussing current freelance writing, editing or proofreading opportunities with XYZ, Inc. if merited. Thank you for taking the time to consider my application.
Rebecca L. Lake
Oh. My. God. Reading that kinda makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little. This kind of pitch screams I’m a total newbie and I don’t know what I’m doing but please, please give me a job!
Not surprisingly, I never heard back from that company and if I was the guy I sent that email to I would have hit delete faster than a Cyberman. (And if you don’t know what a Cyberman is go look that up right.now.)
How to Cold Pitch Freelance Writing Clients: Sample Pitch #1
These days, I don’t do as much cold pitching because clients usually come looking for me but if I was going to send a pitch, here’s what I’d say:
My name’s Rebecca and I’m a freelancer specializing in personal finance. Bob Smith at ABC Co. mentioned that you might be looking to add a writer to your team so I wanted to put myself on your radar.
About me: I’ve been freelancing for four years and I’ve been published online at sites like U.S. News & World Report, CreditCards.com and Credit Sesame. I’ve also worked with major banking brands, like Citibank and Discover.
I’d love to chat with you about what your content goals are and what I can do to help you achieve them. I’ve included a few links to my work below to give you a better idea of what I’ve done for other clients.
Do you have time for a quick call this week? If so, let me know when we can set up a time to chat!
How to Cold Pitch Freelance Writing Clients: Sample Pitch #2
Now, if I was actually pitching a story idea this would look a little different. I’d cut out that middle paragraph and plug in some short, sweet and specific story ideas that I think would appeal to the website’s audience. Like this:
Hi Elna & Team!
My name’s Rebecca and I’m an established freelance writer and brand-new blogger. I wanted to share a few guest post ideas for Imperfectly Perfect Mama with you that your audience might be interested in:
How to Homeschool and Grow a Business From Home
I’ve been homeschooling my kids for six years and running my freelance writing business full-time for the last four as a single mom. I’ve managed to double my income year over year three years running and it just keeps growing! If there’s one thing I’ve learned, though, it’s that you need a plan if you’re going to do ALL the things, and do them well. For this post, I’d like to break down specific time management and productivity tips that I’ve used to keep our homeschooling life (and my business) running smoothly.
TK Things I Love About Being a Single Mom
I’ve been a single mom for four years and while some days are crazy, I wouldn’t change it at all! I’d like to write a personal post breaking down all the things I love, including: having complete freedom and control over my money; having a much deeper relationship with my kids; being able to make our schedule exactly how we want.
TK Ways to Simplify Family Finances and Stop Worrying About Money
So, money can be a huge stressor, especially if you’re in charge of the household budget. For this post, I’d like to dive into some of the super simple things you can do to streamline your finances so you can stop stressing about money. For example, some of the things I’ve done include: paying off all my credit card debt and just using one card that I pay in full each month; cancelling paper statements for all my bills and getting them online instead; automating everything money-related; using banking alerts.
Hope to hear from you, and thanks for taking a look at my pitches!
This is the exact email I recently used to land a guest post spot on Imperfectly Perfect Mama. (And by the way if you’re wondering, TK is just journalistic shorthand for “to come”.)
And guess what? The day after I sent this, I got a response from Elna saying she loved my pitches and I was approved to guest post.
Bottom line? Cold-pitching does work and if you want to be a freelance writer who’s landing jobs left and right, it’s something you need to start doing right from the jump.
7. Commit to the follow-up.
Your pitches are like your babies and once you send them out into the world, you can’t just forget about them. You have to follow up.
Following up is your chance to remind a potential client that you’re still ready and waiting to jump in and help them. It also shows that you’re serious and if done correctly, it can turn into a gig.
How to follow up and land a job
In the summer of 2015, I applied for a job with a financial publication that was on my dream list. I did an interview with the editor and about a month later, he emailed me to let me know that he wanted to add me to the team, but it would be a few weeks before I could start the onboarding process.
A month went by and I emailed him again and once again, he said it would be a few weeks because they were changing up some things with their content strategy. Fine, no problem.
Another month goes by and I email him again, with the same result. At this point, I just assume that he’s not interested and I forget all about it.
Fast forward to July 2016. I decide I’m going to reach out one last time, so I send the editor this message:
I hope you’re doing well. I’m not sure if you’ll remember or not but I spoke with you last fall about possibly contributing some articles to the Investing section. I didn’t hear anything for awhile and got busy with other projects but I just wanted to check back and see if you still needed a writer. I’ve included a few links below so you can see the kinds of stories I’ve been working on lately. Thanks for your time and I hope to hear from you soon!
Less than 10 minutes later, I had a message from him and a contract to write one story a week. All because I followed up.
I still follow up religiously and guess what? It’s still helping me lock down clients and grow my business.
8. Network, network, network.
To be a freelance writer means spending a lot of time at home, not talking to anybody besides your spouse or your kids or your pets. Sure, you might have to jump on a call to interview a source or set up a Zoom chat with your editor every so often, but that’s usually not what your daily schedule is like (at least not for me).
The problem is that if you’re not talking to anybody other than the people you live with regularly, you’re not forging relationships with other writers and editors or making professional contacts that could introduce you to your next client.
How to Build Freelance Writing Relationships
Social media is probably the easiest way to connect with fellow freelancers and editors but you could also get to known people by commenting on freelance writing blogs, hanging out on Reddit, joining Facebook groups for freelancers, sending invites on LinkedIn or spending time in freelance writing forums.
As a freelance writer, you need a tribe, even if you’re super-introverted like me. Making those first few connections can be a little intimidating but once you get over the hump, you might be surprised at how quickly your network grows.
Are you ready to be a freelance writer?
Whew, this post got long! But I hope you stuck with me all the way to the end because if you seriously want to be a freelance writer, I know these tips can help you get there.
Now, tell me what steps you’re taking to be a freelance writer right now. And if you’re already working your hustle, drop me a comment and let me know what your biggest struggles and successes are.
Don’t forget to pass this post on to someone who’s ready to be a freelance writer and step up their online money-making game!