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Freelance Writing: A Beginners Guide

How to Survive Your First Year as a Freelancer

By S. A. CrawfordPublished about a month ago 7 min read
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Photo by Tranmautritam via Pexels

So, you're certifiably crazy and you want to throw caution, and financial stability to the wind in pursuit of a career as a freelance writer... if this sounds negative, don't be put off. It's just my way; it's possible to make a good living as a freelance writer. I should know, I did it for nearly ten years, first as a part-time 'side hustle' then full-time as a travelling copywriter.

It's a good life, I certainly enjoyed it, but I'm not going to bullshit you; it's hard work. It's uncertain. It requires stamina, flexibility, and the ability to take shit from people who are often demanding, at best, or downright unreasonable at worst. I've decided to make a change, but as I slip out of this life and into another I've decided to consolidate what I know about the business and send it out into the world.

So, lets start from ground zero. You know how to write, you're confident enough in your skills to seek out employment in the field. I'm here to help you side step the major pitfalls and increase your chance of getting work.

Before You Start Freelancing

Want to know how to start freelance copywriting? Planning is underrated!

If I could go back and do it all again, I would have taken more care in preparation. I came to freelancing organically; I fell into it while looking for extra money and realized 'hey, I can do this' and so the first few years were chaos. I had no pattern to the jobs I took, no idea of what my base rates should be, and I figured out what to do about taxes when the season rolled around. It was manageable, but unnecessarily stressful. If I was starting fresh, here's what I'd do:

  • Research tax implications
  • Find out the industry standard rates
  • Choose a niche (e.g. B2B, Technical Writing, Copywriting)
  • Build a basic website
  • Create sample content

The truth is that as a new freelancer you will have to pitch for work, but having a good website with sample content means that you have a portfolio anyone can access. This is also a portfolio that you can update as and when needed.

I'd also get a basic understanding of how SEO works and the impact that it will have upon a websites chance of attracting organic traffic an set up a linked social media account. If this is all starting to sound like a lot of work, don't worry. You can find work without doing all this, but if you want work to come to you there are two main paths; build a reputation through reviews and word of mouth, or make your presence known. As you take on more jobs, a mix of the two will put you in the best position to attract reliable clients.

Money Matters: How to Keep Your Head Above Water

Freelancers need a financial plan

Freelancing is notoriously unstable when it comes to money; you will have highs and rocky lows. If I was to start over, I'd have a safety net in a savings account. When I started freelancing full-time it was out of necessity. I lost my job, my life was in shambles and this was a job I could do no matter how low my physical and mental health levels were.

It was tough and I survived only because my overheads were low and I had family to rely on; they appreciated that I was trying to work rather than signing on unemployment, but not everyone has that privilege. If you can, keep your day job while you prepare and consider working a traditional job at least part time until you have two months worth of expenses in your account.

More than that, don't undersell yourself when you first start. While it's perfectly understandable to charge less as an inexperienced writer, don't get into a cycle of working for content mills or clients who pay peanuts. Not only will you struggle to make ends meet, you will find it hard to start growing your business; if you spend all your time working for one client who pays little you will have no time to take on new work.

Here are my top money tips for freelancers:

  • Diversify your income stream - never work for just one clients
  • Keep your overheads low - don't take on debt if you can avoid it
  • When you have extra money, put it to the side

These are basic, I know, but you'd be surprised how many freelancers have a good patch and get into the dangerous mindset that there will always be more money. Have a high interest savings account and try to keep it as full as you can, save for your retirement when you can, and don't overextend your finances. You have to stay agile, you need to be able to turn on a dime.

Finding Work

    As I said before there are two main ways to get work as a freelancer; seeking it out and having someone approach you. While I always worked in B2B and copywriting roles, I hear this is largely the same in journalistic freelance (but don't ask me about that). Once you have a good reputation and a solid portfolio, the chance of people approaching you increases but you should expect to be knocking on doors and chasing down leads at first.

    The first step is finding work. In my time as a freelancer I used marketplace style sites such as:

    • PeoplePerHour
    • Upwork
    • iWriter
    • Fiverr
    • Guru

    Each site has its own vibe, features, and attracts different kinds of clients but I recommend having a presence on more than one. Remember that all such sites will take some kind of fee from whatever you earn; factor this into your pricing.

    In an ideal world there would be a wealth of options within your niche, but the world is rarely ideal. Technical writers with industry-specific expertise are highly sought after, however, so if you have education or experience in STEM, engineering, law, or medicine, for example, capitalize on this. Likewise, if you speak a second or third language, consider translation work.

    If writing is, in fact, your main skill you need to have a can do attitude, and by that I mean look at jobs and ask "can I do this?" not "do I have experience in this?". Blog writing, ghost writing, B2B content creation, copywriting; if you can adapt your style and research well, you can do these things. Beyond this, don't be afraid to reach out to blogs, websites, and publications for one-off pieces, guest blogs, and other opportunities that will help you build a presence.

    You just have to convince the potential clients you can and this is where writing the perfect pitch comes in.

    Landing Your First Project

    If at first you don't succeed - find out why

    Writing the perfect pitch is an artform in its own and there's not enough space to cover that here, so we'll start with the basics. I won't lie to you; there's a chance you will pitch dozens of projects before you have success, but don't let it get you down. Firstly, if the problem is with your pitch, you can fix that. Secondly, if you were just beaten out for the role by someone better, there's no shame in that. With all that said, you need to pay your bills so lets talk about how you can increase your chances of landing your first freelance writing project.

    • Do Your Research

    Too many people rush into pitching, I know I used to. Do not underestimate how powerful a little research can be; who posted the job? A company? An individual?

    Read the brief carefully and if the client mentions anything particular, for example a story that inspired them in the case of ghostwriting roles, dig into that. If the project is for a company, research their history and get a feel for their brand and identity. Your pitch should reflect the client and what they state they want.

    • Identify Who You're Pitching To

    When pitching to a company or publication, find out who exactly you will be speaking to. This is easier on freelancing sites where the person posting the job will generally be the person you are dealing with, but from time to time you may have to do a little leg work. Never underestimate the power of a personal approach.

    • Be Clear, Concise, and Specific

    A pitch is not the place to showcase your technique; that's what your portfolio is for. This is a piece of business correspondence. Tell the client what you want them to know in clear, concise terms. Explain why you feel you are the best person to take on the project and how you will undertake it, as well as offering a quote for the work. Expect to haggle with many clients; I would recommend starting a little higher than you intend to give yourself wriggle room.

    • Reply Promptly

    Pitching to individual clients can often be a conversation; don't leave people hanging. The truth is that a pitch is not often a single action - you may go back and forth for some time. Where you can, endeavour to meet clients in the middle but always be honest. Don't promise what you can't deliver, and don't accept what you can't live on.

    Of course, a successful pitch is just the beginning. You have to follow through and deliver the work on time and in good shape. I know you can do this; if I can, anyone can. Go out there and take the market by the balls.

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    About the Creator

    S. A. Crawford

    Writer, reader, life-long student - being brave and finally taking the plunge by publishing some articles and fiction pieces.

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    • Donna Reneeabout a month ago

      This sounds scary but awesome!

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