Writing is one of the professions most commonly associated with freelancing. From journalists to copywriters to novelists (not to mention people who dabble in all three) most writers work on their own and for themselves. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, two-thirds of writers and authors were self-employed in 2016. That’s a big percentage.
At the same time, freelance writing can be a challenge. Writing is a highly competitive and underpaid profession where it can be tough to get by, much less succeed. A 2017 survey from FreelanceWriting.com found that the average freelance writer earns less than $10,000 a year, works less than 20 hours a week, and has no other job. Certainly, some of those writers choose to work part-time, but the average wage breaks down to around $15 an hour, which isn’t much.
For writers looking to make a good living out of freelance writing, it’s important to think strategically about your career path. Here are 5 ways you can set yourself up for success.
1. Create a professional portfolio
Clients will not hire writers without first reading their work. Writing isn’t like nursing or accounting where you need a certificate, license, or even explicit educational background. Because “anyone” can be a writer, it’s essential to demonstrate your skill and expertise. Invest in a professional portfolio site that showcases your previous work and outlines your specific skills. Can you also work as an editor? Do you have a particular area of focus? Can you help come up with content ideas? Be clear about what you are offering. It may seem like a chicken-or-egg situation when you are just starting out, but thanks to the internet, there are tons of opportunities to publish as a newcomer. Try posting on sites like LinkedIn or Medium, or through publications’ contributor networks, for clips to get initial momentum. In addition to public facing portfolios be sure to methodically document every project and job you work on and if possible gather feedback and referenceable quotes so you can easily verify it later on. Unlike full-time jobs where you can leverage professional networks like LinkedIn to verify work history, as a freelancer the responsiblity is on you. Be sure to build a living database with the details of your work as well as who you worked with.
2. Mine your personal network
Yes, writing may not pay as well as, say, software engineering or web design, but it’s actually a great time to be a writer. The emergence of content marketing as a standard part of business marketing strategy means the demand for good writers is high. From tech startups to Fortune 500 companies to small crafts shops, businesses understand how a compelling blog, social media presence, and contributed bylines to media outlets can raise their profile and build their brand. However, internal marketing and PR teams and agencies already have a lot on their plate and writing may not be their strong suit. However, their writing demands may not be significant enough to require a full-time writer on staff, which is why so many companies outsource writing to freelancers. For freelancers, this means you never know who might have writing needs, so cast a large net. Ask around your personal and professional networks to see who’s interested.
3. Carve out a niche
For writers who are just starting out, carving out a topical niche may seem like it would be limiting. The worry is that if you say you focus on “health,” you may miss out on clients in other spaces. In fact, specializing is a highly effective way to build your portfolio and expand your client list. Companies generally prefer to hire writers who can quickly grasp the subject matter at hand and bring some of their own knowledge to the job. If you have a background in health or education or finance or technology, make that very clear. That’s not to say that you can’t take jobs on other topics, but specializing can help you stand out from the pack.
4. Build long-term relationships
The key to success as a freelance writer is consistency. Steady, ongoing gigs are the best use of your time and ensure reliable income. It takes a lot of time and effort to rustle up new clients, onboard, and get acquainted with their product, needs, and voice. Establishing strong relationships with a few clients is a better use of your time than a constantly revolving door. It also leaves more mental space to focus on writing, as you will have to spend less time on pipeline development and admin. You can also execute assignments faster once you are familiar with a client. This is just as true for full-time copywriters as it is for freelance journalists, who often use steady copywriting gigs to stay afloat. Moreover, if a client loves your work, there’s a good chance they will pass your name on to other potential clients.
Be rigorous and organized about how you approach the non-writing aspects of your work. Track payments and expenses and pay quarterly taxes. Invoice on-time.
5. Treat your work like what it is—a career
Working as a freelance writer involves so much more than the act of writing. It’s finding new clients, developing leads, promoting your work, brainstorming ideas, signing contracts, filing invoices, paying taxes and more. Yes, writing is the core of what you do, but you will never succeed as a writer if you let the other things slide. Be rigorous and organized about how you approach the non-writing aspects of your work. Track payments and expenses and pay quarterly taxes. Invoice on-time. Notify clients if you are going to be away or unavailable for a period of time. Keep contracts and tax forms stored someplace that is easily accessible. In addition, develop a system to ensure that you always submit assignments on time and satisfy all the parameters around things like word count. Clients care about the experience of working with you as much as the quality of the writing. If you can prove yourself to be dependable, responsive, and diligent, you will have no shortage of work coming in.
Moreover, give feedback when you feel it’s appropriate. If a proposed blog topic seems lame, tactfully express that to the client, along with a suggestion for how it could be improved. You can make yourself valuable by providing more than just words on a page. And finally, don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve. If you’ve been working for a client for a while, open negotiations to raise your rate. If you need access to a certain software program to be more productive, let them know. Your client should be just as invested in your success as you are.
For many freelancers, the writing is the easy part—it’s all the business and admin around it that can feel difficult. With the right skills, drive, and foresight, anyone with writing chops can make it as a freelance writer.