Your 5-Step Plan to Becoming a Freelance Writer and Still Paying Your Rent on Time
Anyone with solid writing skills, a healthy work ethic, a laptop, and a plan can become a freelance writer.
Which is pretty awesome news, right? Freelance writing is a great side project or full-time career: It’s fun, it’s flexible, and it can even be lucrative.
Since you’ve still reading, I’ll assume you’ve already got the skills, worth ethic, and computer. So now you just have to check out your five-step plan.
Step 1: Make a Website
An online portfolio is crucial if you want to make it as a freelancer. First, it gives you an instant credibility boost—distinguishing you from everyone out there without sites.
Second, it allows you to form a personal connection with potential clients through your About page, pictures, and miscellaneous copy. People are more likely to hire you if they feel like they know you.
Third, and most importantly, a site gives your visitors a feel for your writing ability and range. Most applications for writing jobs call for (at most) three writing samples. However, on your site, you can link to as many pieces as you’d like.
Since you’re just starting out, you may not have very many (or any) published articles. That’s OK! I suggest publishing on a free platform like Medium or LinkedIn Pulse (if appropriate) and linking to that. Once you’ve gotten more established, you can replace these pieces with ones you’ve been paid for.
Psst: Check out our guide to building a personal site in 60 minutes!
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Step 2: Come Up With Your Targets
Grab a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle.
On one side, write the names of the publications or clients that you think you could score right now. Hint: They’re probably not super well-known or high-paying gigs.
On the other side, write down outlets you want to write or work for someday. That could include The New York Times, Vox, “someone who pays me a dollar per word”—anyone you want! Don’t feel like you need to be realistic.
This exercise may feel a little silly, but it’s played a bigger role in my success than anything else. I constantly pitch the publications on the right (more on that in the next step) and scheme about how I could write for the publications on the left.
And as time goes on, I update the “right now” publications to reflect my greater experience and qualifications. Eventually, I want to have one column: a dream list of publications that I can realistically pitch.
Step 3: Pitch, Pitch, Pitch
But back to the present. Now that you have a list of people you believe would hire you, it’s time to pitch them. Make sure to check for a “pitch” policy on the publication or company site, since everyone likes to do things a little differently.
This may sound obvious, but follow every pitch rule to the letter. Does the editor want your resume and a two-paragraph overview of the piece, including approximate word count, sources, and how long it’ll take you to complete? Make sure you’ve got all that. Take time to read through the small print and see if you should follow up with specific editors, and if and when you can shop around the same idea to other places.
It’s okay if you’re rejected; in fact, it’s totally normal! Out of every five pitches I sent in my early days, one would be accepted.
And don’t be afraid to continue pitching a publication that’s rejecting you. Ask the editor if he or she has any feedback, try to refine your pitches to make them more relevant, and keep up with the site so you learn its tone and style.
Step 4: Contact Other Writers
Freelancing may be considered solitary work, but other writers are your secret weapon. Imagine you’ve always wanted to write for The Daily Muse, but you haven’t had any luck sending in pitches. (True story: I pitched The Muse twice to no avail before being hired as an editorial intern!)
If I were you, I’d find my favorite Muse writer, hunt him or her down on social media, and send a quick message.
To give you an idea:
I absolutely love your social media and app articles on The Muse! And since you’re such a great writer, I was wondering if you had any insight on what The Muse editors are looking for. I’ve pitched them a couple times and haven’t had any luck. Any feedback on style, topic, length, etc. would be much appreciated!
This technique has allowed me to get very specific info on what the publication wants. It’s also gotten me editor email addresses (and even some introductions!).
Step 5: Specialize
The fantastic thing about specializing is that the process will reverse itself: Instead of you asking other people to hire you, other people will seek you out.
(Note: This generally doesn’t apply to magazines and newspapers. I’m referring to online publications, marketers who want you to write for their blog, and people looking for website copy.)
Over time, you’ll probably notice yourself gravitating toward certain topics. Invest time and research into these topics—before you know it, they’ll be your specialties.
Some writers worry they’ll “limit themselves” if they specialize. Not true! You can apply your expertise to so many fields.
For example, one of my specialties is podcasts. Here’s a curated list of podcast-themed articles I’ve written for four difference audiences: freelancers, inbound marketers, entrepreneurs, and professionals.
- 6 Podcasts Every Freelancer Should Listen To
- 19+ Free Tools to Start Your Podcast From Scratch
- The Definitive Guide to Podcasts
- 3 Career Lessons From the StartUp Podcast
As you can see, even though this initially seem like a pretty niche topic, I’ve found ways to make it work for a few different verticals.
I’m always happy to help freelance writers—whether you’ve been writing for 10 months or 10 years. Tweet at me for advice, feedback, or even if you want to share a published piece you’re proud of!