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6 Skills You Need to Have if You Want to Make it as a Full-Time Freelance Writer

If you land a job writing for a company, say in content management or public relations, you’ll be earning a living as a writer. However, if you want to make it as a full-time freelance writer, you have to be able to rustle up your own clients and projects.

Good news: There are clients out there. Bad news: They might not all want to hire you. That’s why it can be so frustrating if you want to make it as a self-employed writer.

Well, here’s a best-kept secret: To maintain a steady flow of (happy) clients, you need six skills. And no, one of them isn’t “writing” (since we’re going assume that you already have that down pat).

1. You Need to Understand What Quick Turnaround Means

The quality of your work is very important. However, if you spend several days on relatively small copy orders and blog posts, you could lose out on returning clients—or even the gig in question.

Fact: You need to be able to turn out strong writing quickly if you plan on working online—especially if you’re looking at any kind of site that operates on the news cycle (from current events to politics to pop culture).

Even if you’re given a two-week deadline, strive to write a 500 to 600-word copy order or blog article in a matter of hours. That way, you can knock smaller projects off your calendar and get a satisfied client who’s likely to refer a friend or co-worker your way in the future.

Pro Tip: Many freelancers end up editing their own work, and you can learn how to spot obvious errors in less than 10 minutes—keeping you on track with that tight timeline. Run spell check, Google any names to make sure they’re written correctly, check to make sure all links work, and read through your article out loud to check for flow.

2. You Need to Know How to Write Longform Articles

Longform articles and copy are exactly what they sound like—long and then some.

Specifically, longform writing tends to consist of about 1,200 to 2,000 words per piece. Even more important than the word count of the piece is the quality of the information longform articles present.

You’ll need to maintain a consistent voice throughout a lengthy piece of work, using top-notch research methods to structure your piece, as well as have a strong narrative framework to keep your readers, well, reading. Take, for example, this amazing piece by John Branch of The New York Times. While this is an exceptionally long article—even for this kind of writing—it showcases the level of research and storytelling skills these kinds of articles require.

Often, these projects have deadlines weeks or even months in advance, depending on the topic and level of research required. Therefore, being able to plan ahead and structure your time accordingly is crucial.

Pro Tip: Do all (or at least the majority) of your research first and create a detailed outline of the piece for your client to review. This way, if there was any kind of miscommunication about the angle of the story or topic, you can make adjustments early on in the writing process.

3. You Need to Develop Different Writing Styles

In addition to adapting the length of your writing, you should also be able to adapt the style. In general, there are two different ones you should master: casual, lifestyle writing and formal copywriting.

Lifestyle writing is conversational: Your goal is to be engaging. Look to the site or publication you’re writing for and try to gauge its standard tone: Do articles read like personal essays? Are they funny? Are they moving?

Formal copywriting jobs are often dependent upon a strict set of rules that you must follow in order to complete the project. You may be asked to write about a specific product, use a group of keywords a certain number of times, or include an appropriate number of links to other pages on your client’s website. Because copywriting today is often sales-based, you must know how to quickly understand your clients’ industries and be able to accurately write about their products and services.

While copywriting often offers less creative freedoms than lifestyle writing, it appeals to freelancers who prefer to have their writing topics determined for them, rather than brainstorming article or blog post ideas independently.

Pro Tip: In addition to being able to write formally and casually, it’s also beneficial if you can write for international audiences. Many common products must meet Conformité Européenne requirements in order to be sold in the European Union, and copywriters who can write these documents and product manuals will likely have an easier time finding work to fill their slow seasons.

4. You Need to Be Able to Edit

Aside from the obvious benefits this can have on your own work, a meticulous grasp of spelling and grammar can open up all kinds of project opportunities for you. Freelance editors can find jobs proofreading and cleaning up everything from novels to ebooks to retail product descriptions.

By having the skills necessary to get work as a freelance editor, you can vary your workload. This is especially nice on those days when you just aren’t feeling inspired to write. Rather than sacrificing a day of pay, you can keep projects in your queue.

Pro Tip: Fact-checking is a part of an editor’s job. While grammar, spelling, and misplaced modifiers are important, being able to verify all of the information in written work is even more so. When you return an edited project, let your client know if all the factual information checks out. If it doesn’t, alert him so he can contact the writer.

5. You Need to Stay Organized

Just because you get to be your own boss doesn’t mean that you leave management of your transaction records to your PayPal account. You need to keep track of how much money you make throughout the year—as well as earnings, clients, project details, and hire dates. This way, you’ll have an accurate and up-to-date account of how much money you earn each quarter (hello, estimated taxes) and who it’s coming from. Plus, you will quickly know if you need to take any additional from one month to the next.

Pro Tip: One of the highest recommendations you can receive from a client is that you’ve never missed a deadline. People want to hire writers with a track record for turning things in on time. So, set up your calendar and reminders to stay on track of all due dates.

6. You Need to Learn How to Pitch

Want to write for a cool site you’ve been eyeing? Well, as fabulous it would be if you could just say you’re interested and get an assignment, the surest way to land a new client is to come prepared with relevant pitches.

First, look at the site’s recommendations and requirement for pitches—follow those. Second, keep up-to-date on news surrounding the industries you’re most likely to write about. This will make sending relevant ideas easier, boosting your chances of getting hired regularly. Third, maintain a current and professional portfolio of your work.

Pro Tip: You can save your prospective clients some time by including a link to your portfolio, along with a simple call to action, below your email signature.

What other skills have you found to be exceptionally helpful in getting consistent freelance work? Tell me your thoughts on Twitter.

Photo of freelancer courtesy of Shutterstock.

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