I used to think that everyone was a born writer. It was always something I loved to do since I was a kid. I would write 100-page stories over the weekend at age 7, started writing lyrics way too mature for my age when I was 11, and then started writing for other people and as a part of my small business at age 19. Now I have a crazy habit of writing 10,000 words a day (yep).
I just figured that everyone was a natural writer, and that anyone could string words together.
It took me a while to figure out that not everyone enjoys writing like I do, and not everyone has the time of energy for it. When I realized that, I saw an opportunity to help others do what they couldn’t or didn’t feel like doing.
If you’re like me and love to write, know you’ve got some talent, and a unique voice, you might be thinking about starting up a freelance career as a writer.
This epic guide will take you through getting set up as a freelance writer, finding paying customers, getting testimonials, and creating recurring revenue. This guide is for people who want to make real money with their words - not sell their souls on freelancer meat markets (you know what I mean).
The great thing about becoming a freelance writer is the low startup costs. There are virtually zero barriers to entry, besides having some motivation and hustle. All you need is your writing tool of choice (probably a laptop), a website and blog, and the skills.
Step 1: Have Your Own Blog
If you want people to read and enjoy your writing, it is essential that you have a blog. You should have one anyway (I think everyone should!), but especially if you’re starting a freelance writing micro-business. Your blog is how many potential clients will find you, and it gives you a voice online. Having your own blog is great because it forces you to practice writing regularly and for an audience (I promise you your writing will improve if you blog every other day).
When I was approached by a large magazine (millions of subscribers) to write an article, they asked for me to submit a sample first just to make sure it was a good fit. Because I had been blogging for a few years, I had an armory of writing samples to choose from and polish up, instead of scrambling to get something new written up before even getting the job.
Eventually your blog will become your website where clients will find you, see your packages, and hire you from, but for now it’s a place to practice, show potential clients/employers that you have a writing style people like (once you get some followers), and that you can produce consistently good work.
Having a blog is like having a collection of writing samples (a portfolio) that can attract potential gigs and clients.
For example, I was once approached by a magazine because the editor had come across my blog and loved one specific blog post.
She asked me if I could expand on and revise the blog post to be a full-length article for her magazine with millions of readers. So treat your blog like a stepping stone for business and make sure you’ve got your best work on display. You never know who is reading and who might spur your writing career to the next level. When I got that offer I wasn’t even actively looking for freelance writing work, but it motivated and inspired me to seek out more work as a writer at that time.
Step 2: Become a Regular Contributor
If you want to get used to the deadlines, scheduling, and general flow of writing as a freelancer, you should become a contributor to a blog that is bigger than your own.
For a long time, on top of my own business(es), I was a regular contributor to the 3 largest blogs in my niche. I got these jobs by having my own blog full of great content and well-written work. Bigger blogs are run by busy people that need contributors, and the relationship is mutually beneficial.
Becoming a contributor is a great place to start for two reasons: you get paid to write, which might be your first paying job as a freelancer, and you get lots more exposure for your own blog with a byline.
As a regular contributor you’ll get experience working with others/clients, sticking to a schedule, and delivering the goods on time. It’s a great first step to launching your own freelance writing business.
Follow the next few steps when you’re ready to expand from your own blog and contributor status, into full-time freelance writer.
Step 3: Have your own business website
This website can still host your original blog, or you can re-brand to become more of a business with a blog than a blog with a business.
Your new website needs to have a commerce solution (so you can get paid), it needs to look professional, and it should explain your services in a clear and organized way. You can use this website as an example - yes it’s a blog with (awesome) articles for you to enjoy, but it’s also the face of my business. So you can either add your “hire me” or “services” or “work with me” page to your existing blog, or re-design as a business as the main course and your blog as a tasty side.
The alternative to having your own beautiful, representative website is selling yourself short on a site like Elance or Fiverr or something similar. Can you tell I’m not a fan of those?
In my view, sites like that make it a race to the bottom, because there are just too many people competing on nothing but price. Though I know many people will disagree with me and tons of people use those freelancer sites to find initial clients, I did not go that route and I think you’re better off marketing yourself through your own business website rather than being just another listing in a huge database. This is just my opinion based on my experience.
Step 4: Pick a Niche
As with any successful online business, you need to pick a niche for your writing. Even if you technically CAN do anything and everything, you shouldn’t try to.
You are not the corner store that sells a little bit of everything. You are a specialty shop with super knowledgeable staff that knows the ins and outs of each and every nuance of everything you sell.
Your niche might be related to what you have been blogging about, but it doesn’t have to be. It should be something unique, memorable, and probably something you’re good at/enjoy writing about and have some experience in.
First, you can pick a general category. Some examples are:
- copy (sales)
- research papers
- blog posts (ghostwriting)
- long form e-books (same as above)
Then, you can narrow it down even further so that you can stand out! People will not remember “that writer person...I think I saw her website?” but they will definitely remember “that girl that specializes in writing about 80s movies! She’d be perfect for this job.” Pick something that is part of your personality and it will help you establish your branding.
Some examples for your freelance writing niche:
- Copy writing for tech startups
- Articles about social/political issues
- Bios/About pages for women business owners
- Research papers about ancient cultures (maybe something you have a degree or training in?)
- Blog posts about fashion and trends
- eBooks, blog posts, and product descriptions about health and fitness
You can be as specific and special as you want. I have a friend that writes the written descriptions of artwork for the blind, so that everyone can enjoy the art museum. Pretty cool, and definitely unforgettable!
XO Sarah does a great job of explaining why it’s important to narrow it down even though you are capable of doing it all.
Picking a niche is a really important step, because it defines your business and will help you stand out in the sea of other freelance writers. embrace your story and unique skills, and play to your strength that way. If you need more help finding your perfectly profitable niche, check out my little workbook Find Your Niche.
Step 5: Offer Packages For Different Types Of Clients
Working by the hour or by the word is a little outdated. As more people realize that there is no one size fits all type of person, and everyone works at their own pace, it’s less important to charge by the hour and more important to charge by the deliverables, products, or solutions. If your writing helps the client make sales, you should charge accordingly.
So for example, instead of saying that you’ll write a client an eBook and bill them for the time after you’ve completed it, you need to come up with a package that covers your labor and costs and makes you a profit, regardless of time spent as far as they know. Price based on your VALUE, not an hourly rate.
Here are some examples of a packaged service:
One 30-page eBook about your topic with 5 cited sources = $1000
About Page/Bio Makeover - appx. 500 words = $175
4 Blog Posts per month (each 500-700 words) about your topic = $500
Those are just a few examples, of course your packages will depend completely on what you write and how you write it (your niche).
You’ll need to clearly lay out what the client should expect, what they will get, how long your turnaround is, and how many revisions they can have if applicable (2-3 edits is pretty reasonable).
You can always offer custom packages and services outside of the scope of your packages if clients request that, but having pre-made packages is a good starting point.
Step 6: Get Your Testimonials
Having glowing recommendations and testimonials is essential to your business being perceived as legitimate and trustworthy. You need real reviews from real people. It may sound old fashioned, but your business is going to gain traction by word of mouth (it’s true! the internet isn’t the only way to get the word out!). If you do great work for someone, they will tell their friend, and they will tell their friends, and it will create a network for you.
To get testimonials, you’ll need to put in a little bit of upfront work for free. It’s totally worth it!
Identify your dream client. Who are they? What do they do? What do they need you to write?
Now go out and find those dream clients, find their websites, blogs, businesses, online shops, etc. Find them and email them.
Let them know that you love their work and would like to offer them your services for free in exchange for a review/testimonial (honest, of course). I’ve never been turned down, and you’d be surprised how well just asking really works!
Associating with brands, people, and businesses that you love from the get go will define your brand by default and will somewhat shape where your business goes from there.
Choose carefully, but make sure you get the testimonials you need most importantly. If you end up working with 3 Etsy shop owners re-writing their shop About pages, you’re likely to land more gigs in that space.
Not that you can’t do other things, but that’s why it’s a good idea to identify and try to work with your dream clients that define your own brand as well. Maybe you want to be the girl that writes awesome bios for metal bands, or the girl that gets hired to do all the guest posts for the biggest DIY bloggers. Seek them out! Hunt them down!
I think having 3 great recommendations that you can show on your sales and services page is great when you’re just starting out.
Step 7: Putting It All Together
So now you’ve got your own website and blog, your niche, your packages nailed down, and a few fantastic testimonials. Time to put it all together into your business website.
Your website should reflect the kind of clients you want to attract. Like I said, if you work with a bunch of people in the same niche, you will become more well known in that network of people.
Your website should be professional and a little personal to you, but should also appeal to your ideal customer. If that’s an older woman who runs her own textiles shop, your website should be designed accordingly. If you want to attract young male tech founders, design for that. You want your target customer to respond to your site, and visuals are just as important as words in this case.
Thirteen Ways to Find Your First Paying Customers
Now you’re really in business. You’re ready to jump right in and start working for cash! You’ve got your website just the way you want it and some sparkling, rave reviews. What now?
It’s time to find your paying customers. This can happen in a few ways.
1. Referrals: One, you might start getting referrals directly from your original testimonials for services trades. Kindly and tactfully ask them to mention you to their network if they liked what you did for them. Word of mouth is really powerful, so don’t underestimate it!
2. Blog posts on your blog: At this point you’re ready to start seeking out your own clients too. Let your blog following know that you are now offering your unique services specifically catered towards ____. You never know who is reading! It could be your dream client.
3. Email list: You should have an email list at this point, people who have signed up to receive occasional emails from you. Hopefully you’ve been collecting these for a while. Now it’s time to let them know that you’ve launched your own little business and you would love their support, if they need your services offer them a discount because they are your loyal, lovely blog subscribers (and I truly believe your subscribers should always be treated like gold).
4. Social Media: Over a few days announce your new business to your social media networks and ask friends and family to do the same. “If anyone’s looking for a copywriter for their food blog, hit me up!” Just let people know in a natural way.
5. Blogger pal outreach: Get in touch with a few of your real good friends and best blog friends, and let them know what you're new business is all about. This shouldn’t be a blast email that you send to everyone at once. Write nice, personalized, unique emails to each person that you know that you think might be willing to help you spread the word.
Let them know what they could do to help you out - mention you on social media, tell their friends, post about it on their own blog? If you have an image, banner, or logo send it to them and let them know they are free to post it up if they’d like. Make it really easy and convenient for them, and say thank you! If you have anything you can offer them in return, do so! Favors are nice, everyone likes a favor.
6. Manual Dream Client Outreach (AKA "professional stalking"): If you come across more people, businesses, or websites/blogs that fit your profile/niche and seem like a good potential client, just email them! Worst case they say no or keep you on file for when they do need your services. Most people are flattered by this approach.
7. Forums: You should join the forums that your ideal clients hang out on, comment, and let people know you’re available. I frequently check out various forums and blogs for entrepreneurs, and whenever I notice someone asking for help in exactly the field I work in, I direct message them letting them know I offer that exact service and am happy to help, and link to my site. Don’t just show up and spam your website/business and leave. Become an actual member of the community you want to serve, and when appropriate, offer your services.
8. Webinars: Offer a free webinar or Q+A session for interested people, so that potential customers can become more acquainted with you and your services. Answer everyone’s questions for free for an hour, let them see how smart you are and easy you are to work with, and make sure you “plug” your packages when appropriate during the webinar.
9. Guest Posting: Guest post on a blog that is bigger than yours about your new business and what you do and why, and expose yourself to a new audience. You can also try sponsoring a blog that your ideal customer would read and trusts. If you have a bit of a budget for marketing, this can be the initial boost you need to get your first clients.
10. Teaming up: Joint ventures are a great way to get the word about about your services and business while helping out another creative business owner. If you can find someone with a complementary service or business, you can help each other out.
Do you know a web designer that doesn’t do copy or content writing, but is always getting asked by their clients how to fill in the content for their new site? Make an agreement that you will forward all of your clients looking for websites to them, and they will refer customers in need of writing services to you.
You can take it one step further by actually teaming up and offering a package together. Maybe it’s a fully functioning website package, where the designer provides the site, and you provide the content (about page, product descriptions, bio, blog posts) etc and you split the profits.
11. Be a Local Hero: Just as you shouldn’t underestimate word of mouth, don’t ignore regional magazines, as they can be a great step to getting writing gigs in national ones. It isn’t a bad thing to start small!
12. Regional Rags: Do a few articles for regional magazines in your niche, and then use that experience and byline to leverage when you pitch to your dream magazine, publication, blog, or other writing job.
13. Meetups and Small Business groups: Find people that need what you offer and hang out with them - in real life (gasp!). Check out Meetup.com and go to a meetup (there are plenty of names for these) where your ideal audience hangs out. Doesn’t have to be business owners either - it could be moms, gamers, food people - whoever your people are.