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Thinking of pursuing a career as a freelance writer? Congratulations. It's a great lifestyle, where you control your own schedule, set your own rates, and work for a variety of clients.
That is, if you can figure out how to earn enough money from your writing to keep from starving.
Many new writers end up writing for content mills such as Demand Studios or Constant Content. In my experience mentoring hundreds of writers, this type of writing gig rarely works out to pay a living wage.
To earn a decent living as a freelance writer, you'll need to proactively go out and find good-paying clients, whether they be print or online publications, or businesses.
Here is a primer on how to get your freelance writing business up and going, and bringing in real money.
Presenting Yourself Professionally
To compete for good-paying freelance writing assignments, you'll need to have a simple writer website where prospects can get to know you. You don't have to hire a designer and spend a fortune, but you do need a basic site that shows your writing ability and has your contact information. As your career progresses, this will also be the place to put your finished work and testimonials from clients.
Without a writer website, you come off like an amateur, especially if you're trying to write for online markets.
Here are five simple ways to get a writer website up quickly, at low or no cost:
- Join NAIWE. The National Association of Independent Writers & Editors offers a $99 annual membership that comes with a hosted WordPress blog. You can use the Pages function to create a bio and portfolio, as well as blogging if you like. It's a bare-bones site you can style up as you like. The big plus here is you get all the resources of a professional writers' support organization thrown in with your site. Your blog posts also appear in the organization's blogroll, and you can often get them retweeted by NAIWE, so there's a bit of promotional help as well.
- Use ZoomInfo. ZoomInfo automatically compiles information about everyone on the Internet. You can claim your profile and then shape it to add your resume, bio, and other details. Bonus here: as you get writing assignments, your article links should post automatically, if they're published online. There are free and paid levels.
- Use your LinkedIn profile. Thanks to the Behance plugin, you can put your portfolio of clips right on LinkedIn, and just direct prospects to your LI page.
- Be visual with Labels.io. This free site currently in beta allows you to create a visual portfolio where each market you write for gets a box, with size determined by how much work you've done for them. Labels.io is a new, creative alternative to boring resumes and lists of clips that
could help you stand out.
- Use a free platform. Of course, you can always use Weebly, Yola or one of the other free platforms to throw up a quick site. You'll bump up against limitations in how you can style the site in most free-site situations, but it's a place to get started.
What to put on your writer website
If you'd like a quick crash course in how to lay out your writer site, you can watch this short video on how I upgraded my writer site.
If you pursue freelance writing in a vacuum, you're likely to waste a lot of time and make a lot of mistakes, particularly in undercharging because you're not familiar with prevailing rates. So it's smart to connect with other freelance writers, so you can ask questions and possibly get referred work by other writers who may have overflow.
There are many useful support groups for writers -- including NAIWE, which I've already mentioned. Support can range from a free chat forum to paid mentoring, ecourses, and more. Here are five places to find support, both free and paid:
- LinkedIn writer groups. There's a ton of writers chatting for free on LinkedIn. The biggest group is LinkedIn Editors & Writers, but there are many more.
- Media Bistro. This writers' group has a job board, live events, and more. Media Bistro has both free and paid levels.
- Freelance Success. This virtual networking group allows you to meet designers and other freelancers who might refer you business, as well as writers. Freelance Success is $99 a year.
- Freelance Writers Den. Full disclosure -- Freelance Writers Den is my own support and learning community for Freelance Writers. It includes forums, weekly live training events, e-courses, a Junk-Free Job Board, and more. It's $25 a month.
Getting Your First Clips
How can you get hired when you don't yet have any published work? In this scenario, the first task is to get a few clips. Don't worry about what you're getting paid at this point. Just get a few samples done, and then you'll be ready to get paid work. Here are my three favorite strategies:
- Try the alternative press. Many alt papers are very open about accepting new writers. If you're attending a new play, a demonstration, a city hall meeting, or eating at a new restaurant, call and see if they'd like a writeup of it. You can get information about alt papers from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN).
- Ask friends and family. If anyone you know has a business, ask if you could volunteer to write a few pages for their website, or create a brochure.
- Nonprofits. Small, local charities are always thrilled to get volunteer help. Start with causes you know and support, or you can research nonprofits at Guidestar. For instance, when I moved to a new town and wanted some local clips, I wrote several pieces for my regional library system's newspaper.
Here's a key point to bear in mind as you start writing: Work of one kind tends to lead to work of that same kind. So pick types of writing and topics you enjoy. This way you will build your writing business in the right direction from the start.
Where to Look for Jobs
Once you have a website, a support network, and a few samples, you're ready to start looking for paying work.
Depending on your interests, you may be pitching newspapers and magazines your article ideas, or pitching businesses that could use a copywriter -- or both.
Here are eight quality sources for identifying publications and connecting with editors:
- Query letters that rocked. Linda Formichelli, co-author of The Renegade Writer, offers a packet of ten successful magazine query letters to subscribers of her blog.
- The Writer's Market. The most comprehensive listing of writing markets of all types. The Writer's Market lists online and print magazines, trade publications (such as Daily Variety for the entertainment industry), contests, and book publishers. The online version allows you to easily search their vast database by pay level and key words.
- Wooden Horse Magazines Database. Wooden Horse offers low-cost access to its database, as well as a free newsletter with news on editor and publication changes.
- Journalism Jobs is a job board that lists many full-time as well as some freelance writing openings.
- Media Bistro publishes job listings, and also offers "How to Pitch" guides on many major magazines to its paid, AvantGuild-level members.
- Yahoo! Magazine Directory. This search engine has created a compendium of magazine markets.
- Trade publications. Tradepub.com offers information on hundreds of trade journals and magazines. Trades focus entirely on one industry, such as Ad Age for advertising and marketing executives. If you have past work experience in a particular field, you may find a trade publication that might be receptive to your pitches.
- Custom publications. Custom pubs are magazines and newspaper inserts created by businesses, charities and governments. These are often handled through a professional publisher, rather than created in-house. You can identify custom publications through the industry group the Custom Content Council.
Here are nine resources for learning about how to pitch and write for businesses and government agencies:
- The Book of Lists. These annual compendiums of largest and fastest-growing public and private companies in many different industry sectors are available for more than 60 U.S. markets. They're a treasure-trove of marketing leads.
- Your local business paper or the business section of your daily paper. Know that most of the businesses you see profiled in these publications did marketing to get that editor's attention, so they are good targets for your marketing efforts.
- The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman is one of the best known recent books on how to become a successful commercial freelance writer. It's especially good for learning how to cold-call companies and win their business.
- The Wealthy Freelancer by Steve Slaunwhite, Peter Savage, and Ed Gandia is full of tips for building a successful freelance business.
- Secrets of a Freelance Writer by Bob Bly remains one of the classic how-to guides for writers looking to build a six-figure business.
- How to become a government contractor: Governments can be a lucrative niche source of assignments. Here's a guide to becoming a federal contractor.
- Finding government gigs: You can search on available contract writing opportunities with federal agencies at FedBizOpps. For state, county, city, and other municipalities, Onvia is a paid service.
- AWAI copywriting courses - if you're interested in learning how to write sales copy, AWAI offers several courses, including Become a Six-Figure Freelance Copywriter.
- The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets lists more than 50 paying websites.
Putting it All Together
Once you've identified the types of writing you like and some likely markets for your work, it's time to start marketing your writing services. When you start, marketing will occupy most of your work time.
There are many marketing strategies to choose from, including sending query letters and letters of introduction, cold-calling, sending marketing emails, in-person networking, reaching out on social media, and many more. You'll need to experiment and try several methods to see what works for you. Be sure to consult your network for marketing ideas and leads on possible clients.