Whether you’re looking to make a tidy income on the side of your regular 9-to-5 or you’re interested in transitioning away from your full-time gig, freelance writing is one field you should consider. If you can communicate clearly, abide by grammar and usage rules, and meet deadlines, becoming a freelance writer is an ideal option for creative and analytical thinkers who like to work independently.
The road to making freelance work a viable way to earn money isn’t straight and narrow, though. Grab your favorite ballpoint pen and get ready to take notes. Here’s your guide to getting started as a freelance writer.
Step 1. Get a bird’s-eye view.
Magazines and news outlets aren’t the only ones that rely on freelance writers. In fact, nearly every type of organization you can imagine has hired a writer at one point or another. Freelancers find work everywhere, from non-profits to governmental organizations, churches to universities, banks to manufacturers, SaaS startups to publishing houses.
Finding your freelance writing niche requires you to think outside the box. You’ll need to consider everything, including:
- Your professional experience. Many industries prefer years of experience in the field, even if it wasn’t spent writing. Some certifications, licensures, and even a security clearance can create unexpected freelance writing opportunities.
- Your personal interests. What sorts of things do you want to write about? Think: pop culture, politics, investment banking, heart health, aeronautics. What types of writing do you want to do? Think: news articles, op-eds, fiction, manuals, advertising copy, white papers.
- Your bottom line. Rates vary wildly, depending on industry and the type of writing you’re doing. Creative fields tend to pay less, trading instead on the “fun” nature of the work, the brand name recognition, and the competitive market. More buttoned-up (and stereotypically boring) industries are more lucrative and, often, more consistent in their workloads and contracts.
Step 2. Read up on your target markets.
Don’t quit your day job just yet. You still need to lay the groundwork, and that includes researching the organizations you want to write for.
This is more straightforward with an online outlet or print publication. If those are your targets, you can get a good start by reading old issues (or online articles, as the case may be). Get a feel for the type of work they publish and any areas or perspectives they seem to be lagging behind in lately.
For an organization, you’ll want to peruse their company website, instead. Look for blogs, email newsletters, white papers, user manuals, and any other content they feature regularly. Explore their competitors, too, and keep your eyes open for missed communications opportunities.
Keep a fresh ballpoint pen handy so that you can take notes on what you find as well as who the editors or communication department contacts seem to be. If you have ideas for how you could fit in to the outlet or organization, scribble that down, too.
Step 3. Take a peek at your competition.
You can learn a lot about how to prepare yourself for the job you want by investigating the people who already do that kind of work. Some of these freelancers’ names will be easy to find; publications regularly list bylines alongside their articles. If you’re interested in working for organizations, though, you’ll have to brush up on your search engine skills. Often, that sort of work is ghostwritten, which means the writer isn’t credited.
LinkedIn is a handy resource for digging into your competition’s backgrounds. You can use its search function to look up bylines or to look for people who hold certain job titles at a particular company or in a certain industry.
Take note of:
- Educational background
- Work experience
- Listed skills like knowledge of certain industry-standard style guides or databases
Step 4. Build a portfolio.
When you begin making contacts as a freelance writer, hiring managers will almost always want to see some sort of proof that you can, in fact, write well. It’s smart to have a portfolio of work to show them, even if it’s small. Gather together your pieces—or clips—digitally. You’ll want to be able to email them as PDFs.
No published work to show? See if there are any opportunities for you to branch out into some sort of communications work in your current job. Present it to your boss as an opportunity to stretch your wings, develop your communications skills, or fill a need you’ve recognized.
If there’s no way for you to write at work, try starting a blog that focuses on the industry you’re looking to break into. You could also create a professionally focused social media profile or an email newsletter, or begin writing for a small local outlet that doesn’t pay much (or at all). After all, when it comes to a freelance writing portfolio, some writing is better than no writing!
Step 5. Make connections.
Thanks to the internet, networking has never been easier. You can do it in person—and, if you want to get freelance writing work locally, you should—or you can do it all online over email and social media.
Reach out to fellow freelance writers. Many are gracious and happy to share advice or troubleshoot difficult situations. Veteran writers also make great teachers, and many provide paid membership communities, have published how-to books, and offer pitch letter critiques.
Follow decision-makers at the companies you want to work with. Get to know their work. Strike up conversations so that they begin to recognize your name and remember who you are. This will pay off later when you’re ready to pitch.
Step 6. Finesse your pitch.
The pitch is where it all starts. A freelance writing pitch is like a cover letter. It introduces you, the prospective freelancer; it details your qualifications; and, most importantly, it sells your ideas.
Your freelance pitch should be brief and focused. It should illustrate that you’ve done all the homework in the steps above. Here, in a few short paragraphs, you need to be able to show that you and your writing can fit into the organization’s already-established voice and point-of-view.
As you work your way through this step-by-step guide to becoming a freelance writer, remember this: Slow and steady wins the day. Just like any job hunt, freelance writing requires lots of knocking on doors and learning the ropes. Once you find your niche—and a company, agency, or outlet you enjoy working with on a regular basis—you’ll be well on your way to living and loving the freelance life. Good luck!
Last modified: March 18, 2019