You love writing, and lately a tempting idea has been winding through your brain: Could you actually make a sustainable living with a freelance writing career?
Freelance writing is like a lot of other freelance gigs. It takes time, dedicated effort and you can expect some financial and emotional ups and downs. But it’s wonderfully unique in many ways. As with any business enterprise, getting started is perhaps the greatest hurdle. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you on your way.
Find Your Niche
You can probably tackle just about any topic if you have strong writing skills, but knowing your niche and the type of writing you enjoy and writing within those can provide a solid career boost by focusing your search for potential clients.
Think of your niche as your own unique skill set. Maybe it’s personal finance or perhaps, pet care because you've spent years working in a veterinarian’s office. You’ll probably realize that there’s at least one topic out there that you feel pretty well-versed in if you think about it. Finding freelance writing work in your niche will require a lot less time, as will the writing because the time to identify your first client and research the topic should be minimal. Your expertise is almost guaranteed to be reflected in your handle on the topic.
This isn’t to say that you can’t write on topics in other areas, particularly as you become more established and hone your writing skills, but it will take longer, involve more work and you run the risk that your words won’t flow in quite the same way.
Find Clients and Buyers
Your would-be writing clients typically aren’t just looking for a writer. They’re looking for someone in a particular area of expertise like an economics writer or a plant care writer. Start by zeroing in on content writing sites and publishers that would want the expertise you offer. Start by looking for freelance writing jobs that fit squarely into your wheelhouse.
You can take the good, old-fashioned approach and “cold call” websites and publications. Introduce yourself and suggest a piece or ask if they publish guest posts. Ideally, you’ve done your homework here and you know that they haven’t yet covered your topic, at least not in the past year or so. Be prepared to send writing samples. This might involve going ahead and writing that piece with no guarantee of payment yet. It’s okay to send it to multiple sites or publishers. You can accept the offer from the first to respond, or the one who is willing to pay you the most.
And, of course, the internet is your friend when it comes to writing opportunities. Make sure everyone you contact can find you online to learn more about you if they're interested. Sites like LinkedIn work well for this because you can mention your experience in your niche. Post your profile and your availability on sites like Upwork or Guru. They don’t pay top dollar and you won’t win a Pulitzer, but you’ll get your foot in the door with some writing gigs. The same goes for responding to job boards and content mills.
Blogging might not be your best option unless you already have a highly popular site. As you start as a freelance writer, you might want to start your own blog to get your name out there, however. Check out ProBlogger for some helpful tips on what it takes to be a blogger and bring traffic to your work.
Know What Your Clients Want
Always research the publisher or website you're pitching to. Check them out on social media. Pin down their typical audience so you can adjust your tone to meet that demographic. A senior citizen might not read past a first paragraph that a millennial would love. Losing readers before they even begin reading is a freelancing kiss of death.
Ask for a copy of the site's guidelines or look for them online. Almost all publishing and content marketing websites provide summaries of what they’re looking for in their articles. They’ll want you to have a handle on their SEO (search engine optimization) goals – getting their priority keywords in there so readers find their copy when they search for a topic on the internet. They'll also likely have word count and style requirements that you'll need to know - especially if you work as a copywriter or editor.
Read More: How to Make Money on the Internet
When It’s Time to Write
Writing is a cerebral career option. You must be able to think without distraction, and that’s not as easy as it might sound. A good portion of your friends and family won’t really get that you're working. They’ll only know that you’re at home. You’re going to receive random phone calls along the lines of, “Hey, guess what Joey did yesterday?” or, even worse, “Watcha doing?” You need to be firm from the start that this is now your day job.
Turn your phone off. At least turn the volume off and turn it upside down if you’re not comfortable going totally dark. You can always check it when your words aren’t zooming from your brain to your fingertips to your keyboard. Make sure your loved ones have a landline number so they can reach you in case of emergency – but only in an emergency during your normal writing hours.
Some writers use outdoor signals as well. Leave your porch or door light on in broad daylight, a sign that you are not to be disturbed until you turn it off again. Write at naptime, after bedtime or enlist the help of your spouse or partner to run interference if you're a parent.
Read More: Set Your Freelance Rate
Make Sure You Get Paid
You’re not a paid freelance writer until you actually see the money in your bank account. You’re going to encounter a fair number of “the check is in the mail” comments. You might get finally get paid months down the road, or you might not be paid at all. Needless to say, you don’t want to work for these folks a second time around. Freelance writing isn't your hobby; you have a freelance writing business.
Being a successful freelance writer takes more than being a good writer. It means maintaining multiple relationships with various clients on an ongoing basis. You can balance new, potentially slow-pay and no-pay publishers with those that are as good as their word and remit exactly what they owe you on time. They’re your “anchor” clients, and your goal should be to always have at least one of them for your small business to fall back on. You can take on new clients if you have any wiggle room left in your schedule after meeting your commitment to your anchor or anchors.
Read More: Going Freelance – 7 Things You Need to Know
The Tax Man Cometh
It’s always a good idea to set yourself up with a separate business checking account, even if your writing is more of a part-time side hustle than a full-time job. Have all payments transmitted to the same account so you can keep track of who’s paid you and who has not. You can make transfers to your personal accounts from there as needed. You might also want to maintain some type of spreadsheet, listing the work you’ve submitted, the date you submitted it and the date you were paid. Both can be particularly valuable for budgeting and tax purposes.
Most companies will send you 1099-NEC forms detailing what they paid you over the course of the year, but they don’t have to unless they’ve paid you $600 or more. You’ll inevitably write a single piece for this guy or that company, never to write for them again for one reason or another. They won’t send you a 1099, but you still have to know how much they paid you so you can include the income when you prepare your tax return. It's up to business owners like you to keep track of this.
Read More: How Does a 1099 Form Work?
And you’ll get to claim deductions for those must-spend costs you incur to earn a living as a professional writier. Paying for these things from a dedicated bank account – or entering them on their own spreadsheet – will give you ready information that you can turn over to the professional who’s preparing your tax return. And yes, as a new freelance writer you’ll probably need one.
- Make a Living Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Freelance Writer
- The Author’s Guild: 6 Things You Must Do to Build a Successful Freelance Writing Career
- Elna Cain: 20 Ways to Find Freelance Writing Jobs (As a Beginner)
- Poynter Institute: 6 Tips for Getting Gigs as a Freelance Journalist
- Mvorganizing.org: Do You Need Qualifications to Be a Freelance Writer?
- IRS: Reporting Payments to Independent Contractors
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.