Learning how to become a freelance writer is like learning a foreign language; it happens in stages, like a cumulative process. When I decided writing was what I wanted to do, the first thing I did was search for resources online that could help me bring my freelance writing career to fruition. The tips I found were very superficial, one-dimensional, even a little condescending, offering clichéd anecdotes like “Just go for it!” and “Believe in yourself, work hard, and you’ll go far!”
Those of us who are just starting in this business, wanting so badly to become a writer yet are unsure of how to go about making that happen, don’t need clichés. We need real advice that will tell us how to become a writer, the steps that we need to take to build our skills and portfolios, land the high-paying clients, develop a platform and readership, expand our web presence, and so on. Not just what’s involved in beginning a freelance writing career.
I’m going to be totally upfront: This isn’t a simple to-do list that will launch your successful freelance writing career. This is what you do after you’ve decided you want to become a freelance writer, but before you start seeking out clients and pitching to web magazines. This is the guide to preparing for success as a freelance writer, the things you’ll need to do and the habits you should get into that will maximize your potential as a writer and make your future writing career as fruitful as it can be.
What I’ve learned in my own experience is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution that’s guaranteed to start a person’s freelance writing career. The process is different for everyone because we all are at a different point in the spectrum of writing skill, from being a beginner to a modern Hemingway, and everyone will have different levels of experience with things like self-marketing, time management, editing, developing pitches, pitching pitches to existing and prospective clients, and so on.
There are so, so many parts to this puzzle, and all of the blogs and writers’ sites that offer these so-called guides to becoming a super-successful freelance writer are incredibly misleading. The fact of the matter is that, yes, it could be that easy for someone who already has the skills and tools to tackle the steps on these guides like their checking things off their daily to-do list. However, most people aren’t going to be able to take one of those guides and, using just that, forge a successful writing career. At least not until they prepare themselves to become a freelance writer with all the habits and skills that entails.
Based on my own experiences starting as a freelance writer, these are the most essential building blocks that prepare you for success as you begin a freelance writing career.
Get Into a Writing Routine
This is incredibly important, perhaps even the most important precursor to a writing career. If you’re going to be a full-time freelance writer, you’ll probably be working from home. Working from home can be dangerous for some people, especially those who have never done it before, because it’s incredibly easy to get distracted by other happenings in your home or by YouTube videos you find while researching your writing projects, getting stuck on your Facebook feed or sifting through tweets, and before you know it half your day is gone.
No matter what your freelancing job is, working from home requires a lot of discipline, motivation, and focus. When it comes to writing, the best thing you can do is get yourself into a writing routine.
Having a home office is an ideal situation because you can simply retreat to your office when it’s time to work similar to how you’d get ready to leave for work if you had a traditional job. A home office is a workspace that’s intended to separate you from your living space, which isn’t conducive to focus and productivity. However, if you don’t have a home office, any area with a desk will suffice so long as it’s not a high-trafficked area of your home where you’ll have disturbances breaking your concentration.
Once you’ve nailed down a writing retreat, the next step is to create yourself a work schedule. Again, this is similar to a schedule you’d have at a traditional job with shifts scheduled throughout the week, so you should look at your writing schedule in much the same way. If you’ll be writing full-time, schedule yourself about 40 solid hours of writing time each week. The great thing about freelancing is that you know the times when you’ll have the least amount of distractions competing with your work and those times of day when you feel most energetic and productive.
For me, my writing “shifts” tend to be Monday through Friday from about 9 or 10 AM to about 3 or 4 PM, then usually a few hours later in the evening as well as every other weekend. I also give myself one day off during the week, usually Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. This schedule work for me because I tend to be most productive earlier in the day. As it gets to be later into the day, it becomes harder for me to focus and I get burnt-out a lot easier.
Based on my own experience, here are some additional tips: Although any writing time is better than none, I recommend trying to make each of your writing shifts no less than four or five hours. Why? Because it’s your way of expecting the unexpected, to plan for things that you can’t really plan for and make sure you still have time to get the things finished that need to get finished.
The fact of the matter is that you will get distracted sometimes. Occasionally you’ll be researching a piece that you find particularly interesting and you’ll end up reading for far longer than you needed to read, or you’ll think, “I’ll just read one more article, then get back to work,” but there seems to be an endless supply of “one more” articles. By giving yourself a several hours of writing time, you won’t be totally screwed if you waste the occasionally half an hour on superfluous reading that you didn’t need to do.
Another reason why scheduling somewhat longer shifts is a good idea is because it accounts for all the other parts of the writing process in addition to actual writing. Most times when you sit down to write, you’ll either have to find a writing project to work on or you’ll have several to choose from and need to figure out which get priority. There’s also the research process and editing that can take a lot of time too. When your writing shifts are longer, it gives you enough time to get through all these stages, and probably for more than one writing project.
I tend to feel better about my progress, perhaps more accomplished you could say, if I’m able to get more than one project completed in a single sitting. Of course, if your life doesn’t really allow for longer writing shifts, then it’s still acceptable to schedule shorter shifts where you finish maybe just one assignment. Progress is progress is progress. Any is still better than none.
Be Diligent About Organization
When you work for yourself, you’ll develop an appreciation for how businesses — in particular human resources and accounting personnel — keep track of so much work data for each person, and sometimes for huge numbers of people. As a freelancer, you’ll have to keep track of all this stuff on your own by becoming your own HR department and accountant (unless you hire an accountant at some point, which is definitely not a bad idea).
What types of things do you need to keep track of? When you start accruing your clientele and getting paid for your work, you’ll need to keep track of every article, blog post, press release, and any other type of content you’ve written that you exchange for money.
I do this with spreadsheets. I have a separate spreadsheet for every client for whom I write, containing a list of every assignment I’ve completed for them. I include the assignment’s title, the link to the site where it was published (or the client’s site if I don’t know for sure exactly where my content is published), the assignment’s word count, the date I wrote it, the date I sent it to the client, an estimate of the time I spent working on the piece (in hours), and the amount I was paid for the assignment. Then I have what I call my “master spreadsheet,” which is essentially all those separate client spreadsheets consolidated into a single chronological list.
There are several reasons to keep such thorough records. For one thing, it makes it much easier to calculate the amount of money that you make as a freelancer, which is important for tax purposes. And although I also backup every assignment I’ve written in cloud storage — which I’ll come back to in a moment — it’s also convenient to have a list I can skim through if I stumble across an article on the internet that looks like something I’ve written that’s been plagiarized from me or a client.
It’s also useful to be able to calculate things like your average per-work or per-assignment rate, your average hourly rate, the average time spent on each assignment, and so on. There’s no such thing as recording too much information; once you’ve been writing for a while, it’ll take you forever to go back through hundreds of files to record data that you might not even have access to anymore. Being diligent about recording and organizing your data is going to be an incredibly valuable, useful habit in both the short and long run.
As for your actual files, it’s important that you never, ever delete any of them. Never. This is incredibly important because if you delete a file you are also deleting your proof that you wrote that assignment, which is bad for many obvious reasons. However, it’s not a good idea to just leave them scattered throughout your computer’s hard drive because that’s how files come up missing or get accidentally deleted from your computer.
I have a folder for every one of my clients in which I put every assignment I write for them. All my clients’ files are in my “Clients” folder, which I keep in my “Freelance Work” folder, which I always know is in “My Documents.” I never have to wonder where a particular file will be because as long as I know who it was for or even just what the article was called, I can navigate right to it in just seconds, every time.
Additionally, I backup my “Clients” folder to my Google Drive. There are a multitude of services that provide cloud storage, but I use Google Drive because I carry an Android phone and use a Chromebook as my primary computer for writing. The great thing about having all my files in Google Drive is that I can easily access from anywhere if I ever have the need. I can easily send them, just for sake of an example, to prospective clients if they ask for a writing sample.
Find Opportunities to Practice
Deciding to become a freelance writer is only the beginning. In fact, the beginning hasn’t even started yet. The purpose of this post is to help you prepare for a freelance writing career, and an important part of that is to write.
There are plenty of opportunities to write, but they’re not going to just fall into your lap. Many writers, myself included, start out by blogging. Creating and maintaining a blog will give you tons of writing practice — honing your craft and developing your skill as a writer is an ongoing process, not something you ever really finish — but will also serve as a résumé of sorts, giving prospective clients the opportunity to read some of your work and decide if they want to hire you to write for them.
As such, it’s important that you blog high-quality, well-researched content that makes you sound professional and shows that you’re a capable, versatile writer. Nothing personal, but nobody is going to be interested in your personal life at this point so don’t make your blog a journal where you whine about everything that’s going wrong in your life. Even if your laments are well-written, that’s going to be a major turn-off to prospective clients.
Another reason why blogging quality content is a great idea is because it gets your name out there and will help you to start a platform. In essence, your writer’s platform is what you accumulate by marketing yourself, your content, and the activities or causes in which you engage, that leads to a broad readership base.
Think of it like establishing yourself as a brand. If you’re unpublished or just starting out as a writer, having existing readership looks great to publishers of all types. Even if you’re considering a guest post for another blog or website, your platform will be attractive because the site you guest post for knows your readers will likely follow you to their site to read your post. In other words, they benefit from your platform by getting additional traffic and exposure via your readers. Publishers prefer to work with writers who know how to market themselves because it’s an important part of the writing and publishing business.
Practice Writing with Content Mills
In addition to blogging, there are other opportunities of which you could take advantage too. One such opportunities, and one that can make you a little bit of cash in the meantime, is to write for content mills. Content mills have a pretty bad reputation, and for the most part it’s warranted. They tend to pay writers pennies on the dollar that could be made by getting clients on your own, which is unacceptable yet many new writers’ only available option.Content mills provide a service, being a place for writers to go when they don’t have or can’t find clients of their own, but want to make money writing content. The pay is incredibly low — making between $5 and $10 for a 500-word blog post is about average with the rare high-paying order that might get you $20 or $30 — so writing for content mills shouldn’t be your end goal or anything you do more than just temporarily.
However, what I personally like about content mills is that, like blogging, they give a freelance writer who’s just starting out the chance to practice writing. And not just writing practice, but other important experience as well. Writing for a content mill will give you experience working with deadlines and managing your time, experience with taking vague and obscure directions and fleshing them out, turning those instructions into an engaging article. What’s more, even though the pay is low it’s still something for your efforts.
If you’re going to give the content mills a try, the best advice I can give you is to try to make the experience as learning one. Take orders that are outside your current area of expertise so you can research and learn to write about new topics. Write different types of content such as landing page content, press releases and white pages, product and services descriptions, how-to guides, and so on. And although you shouldn’t half-ass orders for content mills, try not to spend too much time on any single article. If an order pays $10, try to get it finished in an hour; making $10 for an hour’s writing is higher than minimum wage and will sort of balance the low pay that content mills offer.
Check out my review of some content mills if you’d like to learn more about how they work, what the signup process is like, and how much you can make writing for them. My experience is that the higher they pay, the fewer orders there are available. The higher-paying mills also tend to be more exclusive and harder to write for. I recommend Textbroker as a first-timer’s content mill because there are usually plenty of orders available even though Textbroker is one of the lowest-paying mills around. WriterAccess is another I would recommend to gain freelance experience while making a bit of pocket cash.
There are some other opportunities to practice out there, but they will require a little legwork in tracking them down. Sites like Freelance Writing Jobs compile Craigslist ads looking for writers, some of which require you to be in a specific city while others will allow you to write for them remotely from anywhere. There are other similar sites out there, but you’ll find that most of these ads ask for writers with some level of experience, which means this might be something you start to do later in your preparations as a way to make some money while further boosting your writer’s résumé.
Take Initiative to Learn and Develop
As I said, honing your craft isn’t something that you’re ever finished doing. Like any other industry, freelance writing will evolve with time. If you want proof, think about this: If you were developing your freelance writing skills and knowledge even just ten years ago, concepts like search engine optimization (SEO) and social media marketing (SMM) didn’t even exist.
It’s important to know what clients are looking for and what they want in a freelance writer. Today’s buzzwords and essential skills are concepts that pertain to web marketing like optimization for search engines and social media, knowing how to use social media for marketing and promotion, knowing how to incorporate keywords in a way that is effective and sounds natural, knowing how to use meta tags, and so on.
The clients you’ll be writing for will likely hire you on the basis of how much additional exposure and visibility they think the custom content you write will get them. High ranking in Google search results is like web currency these days since Google and other search engines are one of the primary drivers of web traffic to almost any site.
While you’re in the process of preparing for your freelance writing career, use this time to learn about things like search engine optimization and social media marketing, meta tags and all of the things that clients are going to be expecting from the contact they pay you for. If you want to be a successful writer that’s competitive with the countless other freelancers out there who are going to be waiting for the opportunity to take your clients from you, it’s crucial that you anticipate your future clients’ needs by learning the key components of web content right now and continue to do so as the industry evolves over time.
In my experience, a Google search is great to get a basic definition of a term or concept, but it’s not the greatest if you want to learn a skill. This is why school, college, and classes will never become obsolete; it’s more than just getting an explanation. I would recommend getting some books on the subject and reading about new skills in depth. Many books on search engine optimization, for example, will offer you tips and tricks that you can practice. To really learn a skill, you have to practice it. You need to execute these new, foreign tasks with your own hands. Repeatedly. Get to the point where performing a skill doesn’t take much thought.
The easier it is to optimize your web content for search engine and social media visibility, the more effective your optimization is going to be and, likewise, the happier your clients will be with your work. And happier clients means more work, perhaps even referrals. The homework you do now is only going to reinforce your career as a freelance writer in the future.
Now it’s time for a quick review. I discussed that, before you’re ready to start hunting clients and dive into full-time freelancing, you should prepare for your career in freelance writing. Here’s what you need to do:
- Get into a writing routine. This starts with creating a designated workspace for you to do your writing separate from your living space. Then create a weekly schedule like you’d have at a traditional job, but with writing “shifts.” Try to account for distractions and tangents by making your shifts at least a few hours long, which will also let you get more than one project finished during each shift.
- Be diligent about organization. Use spreadsheets to document every project that you write by its title and word count. Also note where each piece was published (if published at all), who it was written for, the rate you were paid, the date it was written and submitted, and the time spent working on it. It’s also important to save each and every file, keeping them backed up with your preferred cloud storage provider.
- Find opportunities to practice. Whether you start a blog, write for content mills, or track down a couple clients that will give inexperienced freelancers a shot is up to you. As they say, practice makes perfect. To be a writer, you must actually write.
- Take the initiative to learn and develop. Be aware of industry trends and how clients’ expectations are evolving. Get familiar with essential industry skills and concepts, then learn about them and how you can offer them. To remain competitive, you must be able to provide many of the basic marketing and optimization skills that other writers are offering, and that’s going to require knowledge and practice.
And ladies and gentlemen, that’s what’s required of you before you start your freelance writing career. Get these building-blocks into place and hopefully I’ll be reading some of your work on web magazines and blogs soon.
What do you feel is an essential precursor to writing success? Comment below.
And if you liked this post, here are some others you might find helpful:
Key Components of an Effective Blog Post
Finding Paid Work as a Freelance Writer
Dane’s Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Synopsis