The Ultimate Guide to Freelance Writing
“So, why is an accounting software company putting out freelancer guides?”
Well, it’s because we’ve been looking at our community of Billy customers and have been seeing that so many of them are freelance workers. In fact, about 35% of the American workforce is part of the so-called “gig economy” and growing. More so than ever before, people are finding great freedom in making their side-hustle into full-blown careers, and thriving in this new paradigm.
Honestly, we’re big fans of going out on your own. Many of us here at Billy have done so, and the more we talk to our clients, the more we realize that “going freelance” is a dream career path of individuals both young and old. According to statistics from an UpWork survey, nearly half (47%) of workers 18-24 are engaged in some freelance work, as well as 28% of Baby Boomers. That’s a big chunk of our workforce, and it’s no surprise why. Going freelance comes with a host of benefits that we’ll get into later in this guide.
And finally, since we here at Billy help so many of these freelancers manage their money, we’ve learned how to make freelancing a viable money-making business for a solo entrepreneur. As you might imagine, a big fear holding people back is whether they can actually make a living as a freelance worker. Well, we see it happen all the time, and we want to share the nitty-gritty of how to make it work with those thinking about making the leap.
So with the why answered, let’s dive in. Welcome to Billy’s Ultimate Guide to Freelance Writing.
Table of Contents
- What is Freelance Writing? What is a Freelance Writer?
- Can you make money Freelance Writing?
- The pros and cons of Freelance Writing
- How to get started in Freelance Writing
- How to keep motivated as a Freelance Writer
- Mistakes to avoid as a Freelance Writer
- Additional skills to make you a more competitive Freelance Writer
- Resources for Freelance Writers
- What’s next for the established Freelance Writer?
Defining freelance writing is sort of like defining a dog: it’s easy to describe the basics (four legs, a tail, likes walks) but each iteration can look vastly different. There are freelance journalists who contribute to newspapers and blogs. There are freelance tech writers who can review new gadgets or write the manuals for the latest pressure cooker on the market. There are humorist who write for magazines and websites. Some freelance writers write for a single publication on a regular basis. Others hustle to write pieces for many different publications whenever they can. They are as varied as the amount of content out there in the world.
So while the jobs can be incredibly different, we can still describe the basics of a professional freelance writer. While not all of the following will be accurate to every single writer out there, you will typically find these to be true:
- They write content for money.
- They have deadlines, but choose their own hours.
- They write from a home office (or their favorite coffee shop).
- They have a basic knowledge of marketing and SEO (more on this later).
- They are creatives and artists.
- They are knowledgeable on certain subjects, or quick studies, and can convey that knowledge to an audience.
- They drink way too much coffee or tea.
But most of all, freelance writers can write. If you’ve ever even contemplated becoming a freelance writer, you probably enjoy writing to a certain extent. Like any job, there will be aspect you don’t like, but you have to like the writing part since that’s what you’ll be doing. This isn’t a no-brainer statement either: plenty of people think they would enjoy writing for a living only to learn that when a paycheck is on the line, they quickly learn that they are not cut out for this work. The bottom line: freelance writers write whether or not they feel like it or not that day. If you can only write when you feel inspired, we recommend you start a diary.
So how do you know if you would enjoy being a freelance writer? Try the 500 Test, which is to write 500 words on a topic you enjoy. Maybe it’s a review of the last movie you saw. Or a piece about your current profession. Or an advice letter to someone. Or even an email to your parents. 500 words is a good barometer of whether you might enjoy writing because it’s just long enough to take effort and can’t be easily pounded out without at least putting some thought behind it. If 500 words isn’t daunting and you get there without too much stress, that’s a great sign that you could be a freelance writer.
Today, a typical blog post is between 1000 to 2500 words. How long did it take you to write 500? Can you imagine doubling it? Writing five times that much? If you can’t at the moment, keep sticking to the 500 test. Like anything else, the more you write, the better and faster you’ll become.
“I write blogs for a living.”
“Oh cool… So do you do Uber too, or…?”
Maybe you won’t have that exact conversation, but there is definitely a general sentiment out there in the public that thinks people can’t really make a living being a freelance writer. This is not true, but also is sort of true. Let’s dive into some statistics!
According to a 2015 study by Freelance Writing Jobs, 52% of freelance writers made less than $10,000 per year. That’s not really a livable salary unless you’re a real-life breatharian who can survive off sunlight and air. Here’s the full breakdown:
< $10k ———52%
$10 – $20k — 13%
$21 – $30k —- 6%
$31 – $40k —- 4%
> $40k ———– 7%
Disappointed? Hold on, here’s the rub: the average amount that the surveyed writers worked were just three to five hours a day. This means that the majority of freelance writers surveyed had yet to turn it into a full-time job. The majority were doing it on the side (aka “moonlighting”) or doing it part-time.
So can you make a living as a freelance writer? The answer is “absolutely! But it’s not easy.” If it were easy, we would see many more people making over $30k, instead of just the 11% we see in the above breakdown. In other words, only 1 in 10 make over $30k a year (though the survey doesn’t reveal how many are content with just making side income), which might be considered a livable salary.
But if the question is “can you make money in general as a freelance writer?” The answer is yes without any qualifiers. Anyone can make supplemental income through writing. And whether the amount earned is some extra cash to supplement your 9-to-5, or your main source of income, at the end of the day it’s all about how much you’re willing to work for it. And this guide is here to help. But what else should you know about this lifestyle before diving in with both feet?
Every job comes with its own set of pros and cons. Even ice cream tasters have to contend with all those calories, right? Here’s the typical list of the pros and cons that you’d quickly come up with for freelance writers:
|You get to make your own hours.||You have deadlines to hit no matter what.|
|You are your own boss.||You are responsible for every single thing.|
|You get to choose your clients.||You have to find your clients.|
|You can work from anywhere with an internet connection.||You have no office perks.|
|You can work in your pajamas.||Your bedroom may become your office.|
|You have unlimited earning potential.||You have less financial stability.|
|You can take a nap, long weekend, or vacation
whenever you want.
|You don’t have paid vacations or holidays.|
|You can choose industries that truly interest you.||You often have to take bad gigs.|
|You get to write for money.||You have to write for money.|
You see this type of pros and cons list everywhere, and you probably already thought of all of these in about a minute. But let’s really get to the crux of the issue with becoming a freelance writer. The real pros and cons boil down to just one thing:
Pro & Con: It’s risky.
The truth of the matter is that freelancing can be (and almost always is) a risky career choice. Being your own boss is stressful. Keeping a work-life balance isn’t easy. Finding new clients is hard. From taxes to insurance to expenses, the freelancer life certainly comes with a host of worries that a typical 9-to-5 employee doesn’t have.
But if you ask most freelancers who have been doing it for a while, they’ll all probably say the same thing: yes, it’s stressful, but it’s worth it. It’s the old adage of “no risk, no reward.” The Freelancing in America survey by Freelancers Union and Elance showed that 68% started freelancing to earn extra money, and 42% cited more flexibility in their schedule as another main reason. What this means is that many freelancers feel that the time and money they are saving/earning from their choice outweighs the cases of anxiety, stress, and even depression.
This isn’t a contradiction. After all, people can still be happy even with clinical depression. All freelancers have days, even weeks where they want to throw their laptops out of the window in frustration. They’re humans, after all. But the benefits always seem to win over in the end. Our freelancers here at Billy have this conversation plenty of times:
“I $%!$# hate this right now.”
“You’re going back to 9 to 5?
“Oh hell no.”
So, are you cut out to be a freelance writer?
An Intuit and Emergent Research study shows that there’s no sign of stopping the “gig economy” which will be over 9 million freelancers by 2021. The question is whether these people have the right temperament to live that freelancer life from the start, or whether that temperament can be developed.
The freelancers that seem to thrive are the ones who are OK with uncertainty and deeply desire autonomy, control, and flexibility. Perhaps if you’re the type that needs job (and paycheck) security, then freelancing is not for you. And this seems to be the conventional way of looking at it: that some people are just cut out to live that lifestyle, and some are not.
But the truth is a little murkier than you’d think.
On one hand, many experts point to the rise of the freelancing Millennial as evidence that if a group is conditioned to be more transient and unwilling to settle, they are more likely to have that right personality to freelance. On the other hand, many think that Millennials aren’t that into freelancing at all, and would prefer more stable careers but they face a changing economy and are being forced to adapt. Again, we’ve run into a seeming contradiction. How do we resolve this?
Per usual, Baby Boomers have all the answers.
We all want to be free
It might come as a surprise, but Baby Boomers are more into freelancing than Millennials are. Why? Because at the end of the day, almost everyone (anxious or not) desires to be his/her own boss. Given the option, who wouldn’t choose this life? That’s why Baby Boomers, who have more professional connections, savings, experience, and desire to be free are more into finding ways to freelance: they just have more of the means to do so.
Again, that’s not to say they’re any more equipped to deal with stress, anxiety, and depression; only that Baby Boomers are best poised to give it a shot.
So, are you cut out to be a freelancer? Is anyone? The answer is that you probably want it, but it’s “risky” to do it. That’s ultimately both the pro and the con. All these surveys and studies seem to indicate that if people can find ways to mitigate that risk, the natural human desire to fly free will always try to assert itself. It’s up to you whether you’re ready to take on that risk.
Honestly? We think you are! So now that you’ve made the decision to risk becoming a freelance writer, let’s get you started.
Welcome to the meat of this guide. Now that you’ve made the all-important mental decision to wade into the freelance waters, let’s get practical:
No, this isn’t like declaring a major during your undergrad years that you’ll be stuck with forever; your expertise will probably evolve as your career develops. But focusing on the area you have some knowledge about is a good way to start writing.
Many start in the niche that their day-job is already in as a natural extension. For example, if you work in the travel industry, you probably have some knowledge that others could benefit from. As long as you’re not giving away your company’s secrets (might be a good idea to peruse your day job’s non-compete clause), you can start creating writing samples by blogging about your insights.
Don’t have a niche that comes to mind? Pick a topic that interests you and start researching. For example, many tech bloggers started writing because they simply enjoyed reviewing gadgets on their own time and this hobby led to a developed expertise over many hundreds of thousands of words.
And even if you want to eventually write for many different outlets on many different topics, writing about what you already know will help you get your first published pieces to kickstart your career. On that note…
No one’s going to hire you at the pay rate you eventually want unless they see some solid writing samples. And on the other side of the coin, you probably don’t want to get hired for a paid writing project without getting a few thousand words under your belt first so you don’t stumble on your first real opportunity.
If you’re even considering becoming a freelance writer, you must already know that you can write. (If you can’t, this isn’t the guide for you.) So the ability isn’t the issue here; it’s the proof.
The quickest and easiest way to publish is to just start writing and post it online, preferably to your own professional website (more on this later), but you can also publish somewhere that’s associated with you and your persona as a writer. Our recommendation to get started? LinkedIn. When you think professional social platform, LinkedIn is the top choice. Not only are you probably already on it, it also has a number of key ingredients to make your first few publications feel legit.
First, it has a built-in platform to write articles that’s simple to use. Second, because the content lives on LinkedIn, it’s already searchable by the millions of professionals who are on the social network. Don’t worry if you think your topic or article isn’t “serious” enough; perform a quick search for any topic imaginable from Pokémon to avocado toast, and you’ll see there’s probably already someone who wrote about it. And third, your article is now instantly shareable and “like”-able. If you write a solid piece, don’t be surprised if it starts to accrue virtual thumbs-ups, and get shared around the webs.
While we feel that publishing on LinkedIn is a great first option, there are plenty of other ways to get your material online and in front of people. Medium is a dead-simple blogging platform that is gaining popularity, and they make searching & finding interesting articles an important part of their offering. Be it these options, WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger, or any other platform, just start publishing so your material has a chance of finding an audience.
Note the word “professional.” You may already have a website dedicated to GIFs and angry rants about Stranger Things 2 (Episode 7, am I right??) but you’ll want a separate one dedicated to creating your brand as a professional writer.
We are big fans of the mobile-first movement, so make sure your website is designed well both for desktops and mobile devices. Mobile internet traffic finally surpassed desktop traffic in 2016, so it’s very possible that those who visit your site (and written content) will be reading it from their iPhones.
This guide isn’t about how to create your website, of course. But whether you pay someone to do it, or create one on your own, here are a few elements to keep in mind specific to freelance writing:
- Make it easy to discover your content. A newest-first blog format isn’t ideal if potential clients come looking. Categorize your writing (ie. reviews, guides, emails, whitepapers, case studies, etc) to facilitate them finding what they want to see from you.
- Have a page with links to your work on external sites. As you work more, your articles will appear in various places. Be sure to aggregate them on your site. These will be your best examples to show potential clients. In other words, this is your portfolio.
- Link your active social media accounts. We’ll touch more on this later, but in today’s writing climate, clients will want to know that you have social media chops. At the very least, link to your Twitter account (it’s a text-based platform after all!) and keep it active.
Though there are many challengers to the throne, WordPress is still king when it comes to a simple way to create a website. There are plenty of beautiful themes you can use to dress up your site, and the platform is especially well-suited for articles and blogging. Even if you have no idea what a URL is, WordPress will hold your hand and get you going.
And getting going is the key here. Don’t worry about having an empty website if you’re just starting out. A) you’re a writer. You can quickly fill it up with content, even if you haven’t been hired yet. B) simply having a website gives you credibility as a professional and will facilitate your networking. It’s all about marketing yourself! And on that note…
You’ve chosen a niche (for the moment). You’ve got a few writing samples ready to show. Let’s get you that first client. Of course, note that “a client” doesn’t mean a paying client. You’ll get there, but the surest way to get started as a freelance writer is offering free work.
Let’s talk about free work: no one likes doing it. You ask your plumber if he/she would be willing to fix your sink for free and you’ll get laughed at. But then again, that very plumber might have fixed their very first sink for free, as a novice. While you want to get away from doing free work as quickly as possible, it’s usually a necessary evil. Don’t shy away from free work because while you may not build up your checking account, you’ll build up other attributes that will eventually pay off, including experience, legitimacy, networking, published pieces, and more.
And while we are talking about free work, it’s a good place to remind you that you have a skill and are offering a service that people want and need. It’s easy to forget that writing isn’t something everyone can do well, so finding groups and companies that need you isn’t rare. Millions of writers are employed right now! So here are a few ideas to get started writing for other people:
- Friends and family. Never underestimate just how powerful your immediate network can be when it comes to job hunting. Overcome your aversion to putting yourself out there (you’ll need to do that a lot as a freelancer) and tell people that you’re looking to write. Someone knows someone who knows someone who needs a thing written. After all, there’s a reason why 90% of freelancers cited “word-of-mouth” as their top marketing tool in a 2016 survey by The Mighty Marketer.
- Local non-profits. These organizations are (sadly, due to being constantly underfunded) always in need of free or cheap work in all areas. Email or visit your local non-profits and see if they need help writing content for their website, newsletter, or general marketing material. It’s a great way to gain exposure to various types of writing and increase your range.
- Volunteer to guest write a post. If you’re looking to get experience (and some published credits) in a certain niche, you can reach out to the blogs and websites you follow in that space and see if they accept guest posts. Not all websites look for outside authors, but many will accept pitches from solicitors and even pay for finished articles.
As you begin to offer your writing services to established publications, you’ll want to have a short bio ready as well as a decent picture of yourself. Don’t worry if you don’t have too many credits to your name yet. A beginner’s bio can be very simple:
[Name] is a freelance writer based in [city] with a focus on [this topic]. For more of [his/her] writing, visit [your website].
Jane Doe is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles with a focus on finance. For more of her writing, visit www.janedoeisafreelancewriterforhiresohireher.com.
To be clear, finding where the freelance writing jobs are is relatively easy. If you’ve got Google and know your niche, you can easily build a long list of sites to pitch your services. Likewise, job boards for freelancers are also easy to find (and we’ll have more on that later as well). Finding the jobs is one thing; getting the jobs is the real trick. In order to become an established writer and grow your client base from one to many, you’ll need to develop a few skills.
Come up with good article ideas, quickly.
It depends on the type of freelance writing you fall into, but usually the burden is on you to come up with the ideas to write about. Sure, you can whip up a killer blog post about your favorite hobby; but can you write two 2500+ word articles each week on, say, pressure cookers? This is a challenging part of the job, but there are a few tricks to coming up with quality topics.
- Set up a Google Alert so you’re notified when new items are published about “pressure cookers.” Is there a recall? Did someone find a brand new way to use it to make a full turkey? You’ll be one of the first to know and can write about it.
- See what Google thinks are popular searches that include “pressure cooker” via a trio of tools: Google Autocomplete, Google Trends, and Google AdWords’ Keyword Planner. Not only will you discover what’s trending about your topic, but you know it’s already popular which is good for SEO (more on this later).
- Search on social media, especially Twitter, to see what’s trending about “pressure cookers.”
- Use Buzzsumo to see what type of content performs best for certain topics and niches. This is a great way to workshop potential article headlines (which are incredibly important for getting your article discovered and read) as well as get insight on what sort of topics in your industry have performed well in the past.
- If a blog post that’s already on your client’s site is over a year old, it’s likely you could write an updated piece on the same topic with revised data and research.
Pro Tip: The best content is always the type your readers can’t get anywhere else. If your client can come up with internal research, surveys, polls, and customer responses; you know you’ll have a very unique piece that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the internet.
Pitch your ideas succinctly and clearly.
No matter how good your article ideas may be, if you can’t pitch it right to your client, you’ll never get to write them (and may never land that client). Knowing how to pitch, especially over a short email, is a key skill to develop as a freelance writer.
What makes a good pitch? 9 times out of 10, it all comes down to coming up with the perfect title. We all know we live in the era of click-bait, but even if your article isn’t that (and it shouldn’t be), you, your client, and their readers all know the power of a good title.
So be very familiar with not just the content of your clients’ previous posts, but how they craft their titles. If they’re a serious tech blog about the intricacies of pressure cookers, you wouldn’t pitch a Buzzfeed-esque article title like “15 Ways Pressure Cookers are the Millennial’s George Foreman Grill!” Is it a catchy title? You bet, and certain publications might eat it up. But you have to know your client’s sensibility.
If a potential client says “pitch us a few ideas,” and you provide five amazing titles that are catchy, in-line with their brand, and ripe with highly-searched keywords; it’s almost certain that you will get that gig. Include a sentence or two fleshing out the title (ie. summary of piece, why it’s trendy, some stats behind it if you did the research) and you can’t lose.
Finally, as you cold-pitch to shore up your client portfolio, make sure to scour their online pitch requirements if there are any. Many of the larger companies will have a set of guidelines for freelance pitches, and you don’t want to get it wrong from the get-go.
Send a quote/estimate.
Many, if not most, clients will want a general idea of how much time/money it’ll take to get a piece written. We go in-depth on how to set your freelancer’s rate in the next section, but you should be prepared to send an email if they ask for a quote in writing.
How long does it take you to write 500 words? 1000? How long does it take you to do research into a topic you have no idea about, compared to a topic you are an expert in? How many rewrites do you expect to do (or limit yourself to)?
These are the questions you should begin to figure out in order to provide accurate quotes. The best thing to do is to give an estimated range. “This project should take me between 2-4 hours, total.” This way, you and your client know the minimum and maximum expected payment. Agreeing on a range protects you both.
And if the project takes you longer than the maximum hours quoted? Don’t argue with the client for more money. Suck it up and chalk it up to a learned lesson in better estimations. It won’t happen very often once you have a few projects under your belt, and a good working relationship with the client is worth more than getting paid for an extra hour.
Once you gain more experience, you’ll have a better sense of what each component of your process is worth. As you take on more responsibility as a freelance writer for a client you can also itemize your quote by task. For example (rates are arbitrary):
Topic Research – $50/hour
Writing – $75/hour
Editing – $70/hour
SEO & Social Media Engagement – $100/hour
With an itemized quote, you can provide better insight into what your client is getting when they bring you onboard. It may even lead to additional work if, say, they want you to edit other authors’ pieces. It’s a way for seasoned freelancers to not only advertise their specific services, but charge higher prices for the more difficult tasks a client may want.
Do good work. Deliver on time.
This is important. We can’t help you with this. If you struggle with this, read the book The War of Art.
Follow up with your client.
When you’re looking for more work, this can be the difference between a one-off job and becoming a regular writer for a client. After you deliver your first article, be sure to send a separate follow-up thank you note (and don’t be surprised if you don’t get a response back. It happens). Get into the habit of checking in with clients a couple weeks later to see if your post worked well for them, and gently reminding them that you’re around if they have more content needs.
You’d be surprised how many clients will reply back “hey, thanks for checking in! We actually do need something else written…” And even if they respond with “not at the moment,” keep them on your radar and contact them a month or two later to see if their needs have changed. It’s much easier to retain a client than to find a new one, so make following up a part of your freelancing habit so you’ll always have work coming in.
Ask for referrals.
Word-of-mouth and referrals are the top ways most freelance writers expand their client base, bar none. Business owners talk to, and do business with, other business owners and if the topic of content comes up, you should be at the top of your client’s mind. And the way to be there is to ask.
Remember, it’s not anyone’s job to find your new work. That’s your job. So it behooves you to make it known that you are actively looking to add to your client base. A great way to do that is when you deliver the final revision of your article to a client, include at the end of the email something like this:
“It was great writing this piece for you! I hope you’ll keep me in mind for other freelance writing needs. On that topic, do you know of anyone else who might be in need of content? I’d very much appreciate it if you could either connect me or send me their contact info.”
By directly asking, it may inspire a client to help you get connected with another potential customer. Always remember to include this ask at the end of a project.
Do some cold emailing.
One day, companies will come looking for you to write for them. One day! But right now, another way to grow your client base is to send out cold emails, ie. emails to people/businesses you’ve never communicated with. Don’t worry, it’s nowhere near as bad as you think.
Cold emails aren’t like cold phone calls. There’s no awkwardness. You write one, you send it out, and you either get a response back or you don’t. And best of all, they’re monetarily free (though they are an investment of time). And even if you land just one new client, they’ve more than made up for the trouble, especially in this early stage of your freelance writing career.
For a great primer on cold emails that actually work, check out this post on copyhackers. It’s long but wonderful. Meanwhile, here are the quick hits:
- Research the heck out of the company & person you’re emailing. Your job is to find exactly where YOU would fit into their content strategy. Read their articles. Find their weak spot. Can you fill that void with your writing? You should know exactly what value you will be bringing to the table.
- “Hi Brian, I see your website covers every game console except the Nintendo 3DS. I’ve actually been writing about this console for a while now. I think I can help!”
- “Hi Brian, I see your website covers every game console except the Nintendo 3DS. I’ve actually been writing about this console for a while now. I think I can help!”
- Personalize the cold email. Put the person’s name in the subject line. Tell them you follow them on Twitter and also like Brie cheese as they do. Mention you went to college in the same town as they did. Whatever you can do to make a connection with the potential client, it’s worth doing.
- “Hi Shauna, your profile on your company page says you love dogs. I own a Scottish Terrier that would love to meet yours!”
- Make a template of successful emails. You’re going to send out a lot of cold emails and only a few will be successful. Make note of them! If they worked, they worked for a reason. Be sure to turn them into templates to use again in the future.
- Follow up in a couple weeks. Keep it short, but reach out a second time. People are busy and even if they planned to respond, things fall through the cracks. Be proactive, but not annoying. Wait another two weeks and reach out a third time, but after that, move on.
Pro Tip: The tool Billy uses for templating our emails is the Gmail Canned Response, which can be enabled under Gmail’s Settings > Labs. This is a more elegant solution than saving emails as Drafts as it neatly files away different email templates for later use:
Step 1: Enable Canned Responses
Search “canned” in the Labs search box and enable the feature.
Step 2: Create and Save a Response Template
After writing a cold email you’d like to save, click the button for more options as shown to selected Canned responses and save it under a descriptive name.
Step 3: Revise, Personalize, Resend
As you test out cold emails and responses to cold email responses, continually save what works and adjust your template. After a few iterations and successes, you’ll have a killer go-to email that will help you get more work!
Hit the online job boards.
Again, once you establish yourself as a freelance writer, you probably won’t need to visit any job boards. But getting started, it’s a fine way to find some paid work, and a good way to see what the general writing needs are out there.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of job boards online with freelance writing work listed. They all differ to some extent, but how you use it will always be the same: applying to jobs this way is a numbers game, so pitch well and pitch often. Some job boards to visit:
ProBlogger – a free and well-known board. The jobs usually don’t pay high rates, but this is a good place to hone your pitching and land that first, confidence-boosting project.
FreelanceWriting – Sort of an aggregate of many job boards including Craigslist and Indeed, this site has an easy to use interface to help you filter for the jobs you want.
FlexJobs – As the name implies, this job board is all about freelance gigs. There is a monthly fee to use, but it’s high quality. Worth it for serious job seekers.
LinkedIn Jobs – Did you even know LinkedIn had a job board? Everyone spends their professional networking time here anyway, so it’s a great place to search for a gig.
UpWork – Don’t just look for jobs, let the jobs find you too. By creating a profile and posting your rates on UpWork, you’ll be visible to thousands of companies in need of writing services.
Cult of Copy Job Board (Facebook Group) – If you love on social media anyway, this group on Facebook is a great place to see what jobs are available. Might get some early access to them if you’re quick enough!
Build “job hunting” into your weekly routine.
Finally, it’s a good idea to make a habit out of finding new work. Save an hour or two each week at a regular time (ie. noon on Wednesdays, 5pm on Fridays) to send out cold emails, follow up with past clients, and hit the online job boards. The more you do it, the more work you’ll get; and soliciting for work will get easier with repetition. And keep track of how long it takes you to bring on a new client from start to first paycheck. It’s a good statistic to know about your new business (more on this later).
Of course, as your body of work grows, be sure to keep your resume, website, and bio updated with your latest publications. The more clout you earn, the easier it will be to land bigger clients at a higher pay rate. Make this a part of your weekly routine as well. And speaking of your rate…
Every freelancer, at one point or another, stresses about one all-important question: “What should my rate be?” Besides figuring out what leaf silhouette you should use for your logo, it’s probably the biggest challenge to figure out as you start your freelance career.
A Google search will bring up scores of articles that offer a general formula to figure out your rate, and they all usually boil down to this:
(Living Expenses + Work Expenses + Profit) ÷ Billable Work Hours = Estimated Hourly Rate
Some sites might even have a handy rate calculator if you don’t want to do the arithmetic yourself.
But, in practice, these estimates will barely give you a ballpark figure, and that’s only if you’re very aware of the expenses your freelancing business will have and the hours you’ll actually want to work. Especially if you’re just starting out as a freelancer, these calculators won’t help you.
Since you’re just embarking on your freelance journey, working backwards from the annual salary you eventually want is fairly unrealistic. That’s like planning a path across the Pacific before you learn how to sail a boat. In reality, when people start freelancing, they are in a transition. They’re often coming out of school or from a 9-to-5 job or trying out a career change. Let’s take this in stages.
Stage 1: Beginner
A friend knows you’re good at writing and offers you a paid project. “What’s your rate?” he asks. You don’t know, but you’re a smart cookie, so you browse over to a site like Upwork and see what the general hourly rates are for other writers. It’s a pretty wide range: anywhere from $25 to $75 an hour. You guess $30 is fair, but you really don’t have any idea. Maybe $50 would be fine?
Here’s a better approach: ask for a project fee.
For a beginning freelancer, an hourly rate can be hazardous. If the project takes longer than expected, your first client may be upset at the increasing cost. If the project is too short, you haven’t made much money at all. Setting a project free up front instead is a safety net for both parties so they feel confident, and is especially good for the newbie freelancer still learning how long the actual work may take.
So, how do you set a project fee? Well, you still need to have an idea of how long you think the project will take and estimate an hourly rate. But we haven’t just gone in a circle; again, a project fee for your first few freelance assignments is the best way to get paid what you’re worth and protect the client if you’ve misjudged. At this stage in your freelance career, when this is probably not make-or-break money, it’s all about making your clients happy.
Stage 2: Intermediate
You’ve got two or three clients now. It’s not just beer money; you’re nearly paying rent off freelance work. You’re thinking about quitting your day job, quitting your other side jobs or making this your full-time career. You might even change your LinkedIn job title to “Freelance Writer.”
You’re also seasoned. You have a good idea of the time and effort a certain project will take. You’re getting repeat business. You’re even becoming the go-to person for a couple clients on their projects.
Now’s the time to transition to an hourly rate.
The benefit of going hourly is really apparent when you have ongoing relationships with your clients. Negotiating per-project fees quickly becomes a hassle, and as the projects grow in size and complexity, it’s harder to estimate their worth, anyway. Going hourly may also mean more regular paychecks instead of waiting until after a big project ends to invoice. And, perhaps most importantly, charging by the hour makes your clients respect your time. If they want to add in an extra tweak or put you on an hour-long call, they’ll have to pay for it.
Here is where that equation up top starts making sense. Now with some experience, you have a much better understanding of what expenses you’ll have on a monthly basis and how many hours you can realistically work. Factoring in health insurance, taxes, equipment, software and taxes, $40 an hour is now looking to be on the low end of the spectrum if this is going to be your sole source of income.
Stage 3: Advanced
At this point, you no longer need to be reading this guide at all. You’re juggling six to ten clients, and you’re actively turning down work. You’re living the dream! But I’ve got one last piece of advice for you.
Go back to a project fee or employ tiered package rates.
Why? Hourly is working great. However, as Lindsay Van Thoen from freelancersunion.org puts it: “You shouldn’t be penalized because your skill level enables you to provide high value quickly. The client is more likely to accept your proposal of $200 for a project (that you know will take you two hours) than they would be to accept a proposal for $100/hour. Hourly rates have a ceiling.”
It’s true. Once you’re an expert, going back to per-project contracts can maximize your income while freeing up time. It may be difficult to transition clients to this model if they’re used to your hourly rate (that’s a topic for another blog post), but it’s a good way to go for new clients at this stage in the game.
As for tiered package rates, this is a good way for you as a seasoned freelancer to work with a variety of clients with different needs and budgets and also spend more time on the aspects of your work you enjoy most. Maybe $500 is your fee for a lengthy writing project, but it’s $800 if they want multiple revisions as well as social media support. Being able to tier these projects is definitely a luxury of getting to this point, so take advantage of it.
While it’s something seasoned freelancers barely think about, creating an invoice always seems to be a daunting task for beginners. It’s understandable! Not only is it a document explicitly asking for money (which you’ll get used to), it’s also a formal way to present yourself as a business in a visibly professional way (which you may never get used to).
We’re here to help! Let’s break down what makes a great resume in 11 easy steps.
1. Your logo – This is the first place on the page (Western) readers’ eyes will naturally go, so it’s where you should put your logo. Not only does it immediately convey who this invoice is from, but it’s also your opportunity to put your personal brand in their mind. Keep it simple, keep it memorable. Don’t have a logo? Not to worry. You can just put your name there as well.
2. Your company information – A handy place to put all your contact information, and especially important if your clients are paying you by check. We’ve also seen this information in the footer of invoices, but this is the classic position and easy for your clients to see at a glance.
3. Invoice details – We can’t stress enough the importance of writing the word “INVOICE” in big, bold letters. This tells the client exactly what the document is, and why they’re looking at it. Don’t put any barriers to getting paid on time! Include the invoice number (001, 002, etc) and the date (month of, week of, specific time period) for your and their reference. This is an important detail so you can keep track of what’s incoming.
4. Client information – So you and your client can be sure you didn’t send the wrong invoice, write down at least the company name (address is optional). If you’re working for an individual, use his/her name. Also, make a mental note to check this region before you email it out. The last thing you want to do is send the wrong invoice to the wrong client.
5. Payment notice – “Payment Due Upon Receipt” lets the client know not to dilly-dally with your dough. If you want to get more descriptive, you can write “Payment Due within X Days Upon Receipt”. It’s where you can use natural language to describe your payment terms (as opposed to section 10 below) if you’d like.
6. Item descriptions – Spelling out what your projects were helps your client understand exactly what you’re invoicing for. Keep the item name itself short, maybe 2-3 words (eg. “Blog Post” or “White Paper”) and use the description line to expand on each item as necessary.
7. Numbers – Don’t give your client extra work to do. Itemize the cost of each job or your hourly rate under Unit Cost (eg. “$100/project” or “$30/hour”), and the quantity (number of projects, or hours), so you can do the math for yourself. Writing everything out ensures that there are no mistakes. Note: The sections under Subtotal (Tax and Discounts) are optional. If your rates are hourly and pretty basic, you can remove these sections from your invoice.
8. Remarks – Does anything need an extra explanation? Was this a shortened time period? Is there a late fee incurred? Anything that is out of the ordinary with your invoice should go into this text box. Bullet points are best for legibility and for brevity. Anything that needs more explaining than what fits in this small box is probably a conversation to have on the phone with your client.
9. Payment methods – While your accepted payment terms should have been previously set in either your conversations with your client before the project began or via a freelancer’s agreement/contract, it never hurts to remind them here. After all, your client’s accounts receivable may not have been privy to what you discussed.
10. Terms & Conditions – The technical explanation of #5 above. Here you spell out when your money is due (eg. Net30, Net60, etc) and if there will be late fees incurred if their payment doesn’t arrive on time.
11. Footer – It never hurts to be polite!
There you go: a crash-course into what an invoice should look like and contain. Like this template? You’re in luck! We’ve saved it as an editable Google Doc for you to use, completely free. Click here to access the Invoice Template
Obviously, managing your money could be an entire guide all on its own. It’s a big topic and this is sort of our niche so we have a lot to say about it. So let’s keep it simple and focus on the first three financial decisions you should be making as you embark on your freelance career.
1. Separate your business and personal accounts.
Even if you’re a full-time freelancer, you often won’t need or want to incorporate into an actual, legal business entity. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat your finances like you’re running a business. One big mistake freelancers make is to maintain just one checking account and one credit card for both personal and business income/expenses. Again, it’s a small upfront effort (and maybe cost depending on the checking account you want to open), but it’ll pay off in the long run
First off, a separate bank account will help you organize your income and expenses that are solely from and for your business. If you get audited, if you hire an accountant for taxes, if you need to budget for your business, if you need to calculate estimated quarterly taxes; all these get measurably easier (and faster) if your business financials are all in one place uncluttered by your personal transactions. This can even save you money. For example, keep in mind hiring a tax professional is often expensive; if you can save him/her even an hour’s worth of time by handing over access to just your business account, then you’ve already saved yourself between $25 to $250 in their hourly rate.
The same goes for having a business-only credit card. While new freelancers probably won’t need an actual business credit card (they’re only good for high expenses and often come with annual fees), you should still open another personal credit card to separate out your freelancing costs. Again, this will help you itemize your expenses and keep you organized, but there are other benefits too:
- Build up your credit score
- Separate credit limits for large purchases (ie. vacation vs desktop computer)
- Fraud protection (if one is stolen/hacked, the other is safe)
As long as you are good at paying off the balance each month, a separate credit card for business expenses is a smart move to make.
2. Get on top of your taxes.
Wait! Don’t fall asleep yet. We know that taxes are a complicated and boring topic, but for freelancers, poor management of taxes is by far the number one money mistake. The good news is that if you do it right, you’ll usually pay less in taxes come April since you’ll avoid penalties, fees, and can take proper deductions. The bad news is that for new freelancers, dealing with taxes is annoying and intimidating.
This is a big topic (you can check out our free ebook on the matter) but for now, let’s highlight some steps you can take today to manage your taxes:
Realize that taxes are a thing — Freelancers usually take home the full paycheck so it’s your responsibility to save a portion of it for taxes. More often than not, new freelancers just don’t realize that they have to do this, or just how much they’ll need to save. Start with broad strokes according to the current Tax Bracket. Say you fall into the 25% bracket. This means you’ll roughly owe $5200 + 25% of what you make over $37,950. For a $50,000 annual freelance income, that means you’ll owe about $8200 in taxes (before deductions). So plan to save around that much by April as a baseline of what you may have to pay.
Start paying Estimated Quarterly Taxes — This means the IRS wants you to pay what you think you owe every three months. Why? Because the tax code was written for full-time employees in traditional 9-5 jobs and they haven’t caught up to the times yet. But thems the rules. Use their handy form (1040-ES) to help you break down what you’re estimated to owe, and you can use the IRS’ Direct Pay system to fork over your American dues online.
Keep track of your expenses — You won’t know what you can write off if you don’t keep track of what you spend money on. Start tracking your expenses and hold on to your business receipts to make life easier when you’re itemizing your deductions. It’s best to use a dedicated platform to do this, but if you’re willing to put in the time, there are Excel templates you can use to help track your business costs.
3. Get into the Money Habit.
Maybe one day you’ll make enough to hire an account or a bookkeeper to manage your cash flow, but when you’re starting out, the onus is on you to keep track of your cash. At the very least, you should create and maintain a budget. As noted above, you can either do it in accounting software or in a spreadsheet, but the key is to make a habit out of keeping your budget updated.
Set aside just 15 minutes a week to dedicate to making sure your finances are in order. Did you issue all your invoices? Which are incoming? Which are late? Do you have all the receipts of your week’s expenses? Were there any unexpected expenses? Neglecting these questions will lead to immense headaches down the line, not to mention added costs if you need to hire an accountant to help you figure out all the gaps in your books come tax time.
We talk more about the Money Habit in this free ebook and how, like a certain car insurance company, just 15 minutes can save you thousands of dollars.
Pro Tip: Want to get even more savvy with your budget? Consider creating a cashflow forecast. We outline how to get started on this blog post.
You’ve done the work; now you need to get paid. Sounds logical, but keep in mind that your clients are humans too, and sometimes they won’t pay invoices on time. In fact, according to a report by the Freelancers Union, 71% of freelancers have had trouble collecting payments during their career, and 81% of these issues were late payments. 34% said they had instances of not being paid at all.
No freelancer enjoys trying to track down payments, but as the stats show it’ll probably happen to you at one point or another. In order to avoid this scenario as much as possible, there are a few steps you can take:
- Make your payment terms visible on your invoice. As shown in our invoice example above, you can specify how much time a client has to pay (Net 30 days, etc). Not only does this let your client know your terms, you have it in writing in case there is any pushback later.
- Make it easy for you to be paid. If you only accept checks, it’ll be a pain to work with you. Make yourself open to various payment options including direct deposit, PayPal, Venmo, or even credit cards. Yes, some of these avenues have fees associated. You could either just eat those fees, or adjust your hourly rate accordingly to compensate.
- Charge a late fee. Before starting a project with a client, you can let them know (in writing) that there will be a late fee added to any outstanding invoices past a certain length of time. Industry standard is about 1.5% to 5% added to every month past the initial Net 30.
- Send weekly reminders. Sometimes, payments just slip through the cracks. Instead of being quiet for a month, it’s a good idea to send a weekly reminder to your client about the outstanding invoice. Keep it short and friendly: “Hi ________, just a reminder that my October payment is due in XX days. Thank you!”
- Get paid upfront. For some projects (usually larger ones), it may make sense to negotiate being paid a portion before any work starts. It’s not uncommon for freelancers to ask for up to 50% of the fee to be paid before starting. This protects you somewhat in case your client ghosts after the project is delivered, and also protects the client in case you don’t deliver the agreed upon work on time.
If all else fails, there are two last resort options: 1) head to court. If the invoice is less than $10,000, you can take it to small claims court. There are fees, but if you expect to win, it’ll be worth it. And hey, if you’re a freelancer in New York, you’ve got some extra protection in the “Freelance Isn’t Free Act” (now we just need it in all 50 states!). Or 2) put a smelly fish in their mailbox. Just kidding. Instead of physical retaliation, you can always describe your negative experience on social media. No company enjoys a bad review, and posting about them not paying up for the public to see can often remedy your situation. Of course, you’ll probably never work with/for them again, so again, a last resort.
Your invoice mantra should be: be polite, but be firm. This is your reputation and your livelihood. Don’t let companies bully you around with late payments. Get that cash money!
One or two gigs does not a career make. Now that you’ve got some experience under your belt, it’s all about continuing on and growing both your skillset and your customer base. And it won’t be easy. After all, it still works! It may be way more fun and fulfilling to be your own boss, but with great power comes great responsibility.
There will be times of feast and times of famine. Every freelancer experiences the down-times where there is not enough work and/or money coming in. That’s where planning and budgeting come into play, but it’s also a matter of perseverance. In fact, most freelance writers will say that perseverance is the key trait you need to succeed. As Kris Emery (a freelance writer) writes on her blog:
“Other aspect of freelancing can be managed, learned, avoided or delegated, but perseverance is the one thing that separates successful freelancers from those who don’t make it and skulk back to a desk job.”
Remember, every company needs content. Thus, there is a lot of content that needs to be created every single day. And while robots are making cars and now even driving them for us, crafting a killer 2,500-word blog post on a particular topic is still solely in the purview of human writers. Freelance writers won’t be obsolete anytime soon.
Ok so, how do you keep motivated?
Let’s be honest: the real motivation has to come from inside you in order to be a freelance writer for the long haul. Remember the previous section of this guide that touched on whether this life is right for you? If you answered yes, you have that motivation. Sure it can dim and dip like anything else in life, but ultimately you chose to be a writer for a reason: you love doing it.
Keeping that initial motivation in mind is key to a successful career as a freelance writer, but there are many things you can do to help fan that flame. Here are a few actions that can keep you in the right, positive mindset to persevere even during the tough times.
Sleep. You probably already know that people are chronically underslept. The average American sleeps 6.8 hours a night, and that’s just not enough according to the experts. And you’re a writer; taking a wild guess, you probably either sleep less than that average or not as well (yeah, it’s hard to shut off the brain to sleep sometimes!).
Getting enough sleep is good for everyone, but especially for writers since the job is mostly thinking and that’s seriously tough to do on a tired brain. How do you get more sleep? Well, there’s all the obvious advice about cutting back on coffee and no screens in bed, but one of the best ways is to…
Keep a Schedule. One of the best things about being a freelance writer is making your own hours, but that doesn’t mean you need to make those hours be at 3am all the time. Rather, it’s beneficial to keep a general daily schedule where you block off a certain set time to do your writing.
First, it’s helpful for the rest of your life to have a schedule. It compartmentalizes your work and personal life (more on this later), and lets you enjoy your “off-hours” guilt-free. Second, it helps you focus and get into that “writing mode” (aka The Zone) when you know you’ll be sitting there with no distractions other than work. Remember, motivation is all about just getting started. And third, it gives you that all-important impetus to finally stop working and go to sleep (seriously, we can’t stress enough how important sleep is!).
Switch up Your Environment. You might have a kick-ass home office, but changing your scenery once in a while can help you keep motivated and creative. You know the usual locations to test out: a coffee shop, the park, the beach, the back porch. But one venue you might want to try is a shared workspace.
WeWork, ShareDesk, and many local shared workspace options in your city probably exist; many of them will even give you a free trial day if you ask. You’ll find that being surrounded by other freelancers, creatives, and startup groups can be a big boost to your motivation. It’s not like a coffee shop; there’s a different energy because everyone is there to work. And the networking opportunities alone might make it worth the price of admission.
Socialize with Writers. You should strive to be social in general because writing can be isolating, but socializing with other writers can also boost your motivation just by being in the company of those who understand your struggle.
A good place to start is seeing if there are established meetups for writers in your city. There are also freelance writing groups on Facebook and LinkedIn you can join. Often these virtual communities will hold their own physical meetups. And hey, you can always start your own! Just having a few other writers to relate to, and complain with, can be important to maintain motivation and to recharge your batteries.
Write Something New. Writing about the same subject over and over again can often lead to feeling burned out. If that starts to happen, there’s nothing stopping you from branching out to another niche. Even if you have to start from step one and write articles for free, you can develop another area of expertise and eventually pull in different clients.
Or alternately, if you’re starting to lose the pleasure in your freelance writing, consider writing something just for fun. While having a hobby that doesn’t involve writing is also important (and recommended!), it’s never a bad thing to rediscover your love for writing in general. Working on a short story, a humor article, or anything creative with no limits can alleviate keyboard-dread.
Take a Course. Ideally, not online either. Get out of the house, and get into an actual lecture or class that will a) expand your skillset, b) refine your current skillset, c) help you meet other writers. Again, being around like-minded people will keep things exciting and keep you motivated.
Plus, there are certification classes you can take to expand your writing horizons. Many of your local community colleges will have courses on Technical Writing, Journalism, and others that can eventually lead to more work in different niches.
Go for the NO. Writing isn’t the only part of being a freelance writer that requires motivation. Another area is searching for new work and pitching. This is where we really love the advice in a post on Freelancer FAQs:
“This is why you want to GO FOR THE NO. To get more “no” answers, you have to put yourself out there MORE. If you are not pitching at least 5 times per day, you should be. If you already are, see if you can get up to 10 pitches per day, or more.
Set a specific goal. For example, have it in mind that you want 100 rejections by the end of the month. If you are pitching at least 5 times per day, that is 150 submissions per month. Ten pitches per day is twice that. You are well on your way!”
Finding new work is a numbers game, and the more rejections you collect, the more you know you’re actively trying. Keep motivated by aiming to keep your NOs high!
Keep Healthy. Besides getting enough sleep, the healthier you are, the less lethargic you’ll feel when writing. We’re not going to spend much time on this, as this is general advice you already know. Eat right, move around, watch your posture, everything your parents told you to do.
Set Deadlines. Just like back in school, this is the greatest motivator of all. ‘Nuff said.
As you begin your career, there are definitely some common mistakes that a lot of freelance writers make. While we’ve addressed a bunch throughout this guide so far, there are a few pitfalls to highlight that can make your experience a whole lot smoother.
Writing Slowly – If you’re getting paid by the hour, your actual rate depends on how quickly you can get your work done, and you should always be striving to work faster. That’s not to say you should ever do a shoddy job, but many new writers agonize so much over their first few pieces that the low hourly rate that they’re already making hurts even more when they hit the clients’ hourly maximum. If you’ve quoted 2 hours, but end up taking 3, your hourly rate just got slashed.
Writing well, quickly, is a skill that you think would come with experience, but changing your writing habit can be harder than you think. After all, it’s not just the physical act of writing. To produce a completed piece faster, you have to learn to research, outline, edit, revise faster. It’s multi-faceted, and certain aspects may take you longer than others; so it’s important to be cognizant of your goal of getting faster at finishing your articles. By being mindful of improving your speed, you’ll develop this ability more quickly than just by repetition.
This post on copyblogger.com has great advice on writing and researching faster. We especially like this part:
“Do as much research and prep work as you need to get the job done well.
For example, interviews typically take me 20–30 minutes, and I research the subject online just enough that I don’t sound like a moron in those interviews.
Experiment with researching less to see how much you really need to do. The result will probably shock you.”
Not Networking – We’ve mentioned the importance of networking many times in this guide, but it bears highlighting here because it’s never done enough. After all, a lot of people who love writing initially find that love because they are introverts who enjoy (or have learned to enjoy) being lost in their own thoughts. So networking with people often doesn’t come easy for writers.
Yet, it’s obvious how important and beneficial networking is especially for freelance writers. Remember, word-of-mouth is one of the best ways to find new work. It also give you a reason to be outside, join a community of professionals, share work, get assistance on projects, and keep sane by having another person or two to complain with over a glass of Pinot.
More human interaction has been linked to better heart health, higher productivity, and a longer life. Not to mention all the psychological benefits of being around other people. With loneliness being close to an epidemic in American life these days, freelancers should be proactive about seeking out and maintaining relationships. And no, online social groups don’t count. Put on some pants and get out there!
Want some tips on networking with other writers? This post on aliventures.com has great advice, including:
#5: Find the Other Shy Writers
Whether it’s a conference, a one-off lecture, or a social meetup in the pub, look out for other people who are on the sidelines. I’ve had loads of great conversations with fellow introverts when I took the plunge and went over to say “hi”.
Even if someone looks like they don’t want to talk to anyone, chances are, they do (otherwise they wouldn’t be there).
Working Too Much – We previously mentioned the importance of sleep to staying motivated, but it’s also important to disengage from work at scheduled intervals as well, both short and long. You might be thinking “taking time off work will be easy when I’m a freelancer,” but that’s usually not how it works. After all, many companies that provide “unlimited vacation time” see their employees actually take less vacations! The option of freedom doesn’t necessarily equal freedom.
When disengaging from work for short periods, you probably already know that regular breaks throughout the day are important. That’s easier said than done, especially for writers who tend to get lost in their craft. How often have you sat at your computer writing without realizing that hours have gone by? Probably all the time. And that can lead to eye strain and the dreaded writer’s ailment: carpal tunnel syndrome.
As for all the warnings about sitting too long, the latest research seems to indicate that health is more a matter of overall physical activity. In other words, if you get regular exercise, sitting for long stretches is probably fine for you. Still, it doesn’t hurt to stand up and walk around every couple hours at the very least. Any excuse to get more coffee, right?
On the longer side, we have the matter of vacation time. Because freelancers don’t get paid time off, it’s common for these workers to rarely take any real vacations. And even when they do, it’s all too easy to do work anyway during this supposed time off. After all, laptops are portable and everywhere has WiFi.
But in reality, not taking vacation time leads to lower performance. A study by Project Time Off showed that workers who don’t take vacation are no more likely to have been promoted within the last year, and less likely to have received a raise or bonus in the last three years (78% to the average of 84% for those that took vacation). In short, you don’t do any better work by foregoing your vacation time.
So stop feeling guilty and take a mandatory vacation, as defined by a great post on copyediting.com:
For me, a mandatory vacation means spending at least one week away from my freelance business and:
- Not doing any client work.
- Not checking my business email account…at all.
- Keeping my cell phone turned off as much as possible.
- Not thinking about my business and how to improve it. (This sometimes happens on its own, but I don’t plan for it!)
When I come back from a good vacation, I make better business decisions, I enjoy my work again, and I’m able to see the big picture.
Not budgeting for the lean times – We touched on this earlier (see Step #8), but it bears repeating since the biggest mistake that can end a freelance writer’s career is not budgeting for those days, weeks, or months without steady income. This is important during the early stages since you’re still building your client portfolio (ie. regular paychecks), but having a solid budget in place can keep you from panicking during the unexpected throughout your hopefully long freelance career.
Clients can drop out for plenty of reasons. They might take on your work in-house, they may have cash-flow issues, or they just might find a better rate with another freelancer. All of a sudden, that paycheck you were counting on just isn’t coming in anymore.
Remember earlier when we suggested keeping track of how long it takes to bring a new client on board? This is why that’s important. If you know that it takes you, on average, 60 days to find, start with and earn the first paycheck with a new client, then you know roughly how much of an emergency fund to have saved up.
Your budget should show you how much your average monthly expenses are. So if it takes you 2 months to replace a client, then you should have at least 2 month’s worth saved. Common sense? You’d think, but according to a 2014 study by Bankrate, 26% of Americans had no emergency fund whatsoever. Now, that may be more of a commentary on the state of our nation’s economy, but it shows that financial security has to be a priority in order to “stay in the game” as a freelancer, a profession that is inherently more tenuous than a 9-to-5.
And as a rule, you should not be dipping into your emergency fund to pay off your taxes! As mentioned earlier as well, remember to budget for taxes, pay the estimated quarterly amounts, and work to reduce your tax liability with the right deductions.
Pro Tip: Having more savings gives you the option of walking away from a negotiation that’s not going your way, or from a freelance job you don’t particularly want to do. It gives you more leverage and will absolutely result in getting paid more for your work, since you won’t have to jump at the first offer. Yet another reason to have something saved for the lean times!
It’s hard enough to be a good writer, but we know you’re not one to rest on your laurels. It’s a competitive market out there, and the more skills and knowledge you can add to your toolbox, the more sellable you will be to a broader range of potential clients. In today’s freelance writing industry, there are other needs that companies will be looking for you to fulfill.
Social Media – Since the vast majority of the copy you’ll create will live online, it’s almost guaranteed that your client will want to make sure not only that the content you create is optimized for various social platforms, but will often look to you to socialize it for them.
Sure, larger companies will have a dedicated social media person, but many SMBs won’t. If you understand the best practices of posting to the big three for the written copy (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), it’ll make you that much more attractive. A few common social media areas to learn about:
- Educate yourself on the best times to post to social media, so you can speak with confidence when they ask your input.
- Some clients will want you to post for them. Knowing how to easily and quickly connect to their social media profiles will help you look professional. (Below, we’ll outline a couple social media tools that will help you tremendously)
- The ideal length for a blog post with high engagement on social media has grown to about 2100 words. Not a bad stat to know when you’re seeking more hours from a client.
- Know the hashtags commonly used in the client’s niche/industry.
You’ll have to decide how much or how little of a client’s social media you’ll ultimately want to take on. Tweeting out a new blog post each time you write one doesn’t take much time, but it adds up if they’re expecting you to tweet it multiple times and respond to any comments on the social platforms. Do you just want to write, or are you happy to take on additional marketing roles? It’s up to you. Just make sure you get paid either way!
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – We mentioned SEO a couple times in this guide, and it’s an important skill to have in your repertoire. Almost all your clients will expect you to know how to write so that the search engines (basically Google) can read it and promote it higher up on their SERPs (search engine results pages). Basically, you’ll want to be able to intelligently answer a common client question: “how can you get this article on the first page of Google?”
Luckily for you, SEO has come a long way since the early days of the internet. You usually won’t have to resort to blatant “keyword stuffing,” or hugely worry about the perfect type and length of meta tags to use. These days, writing great content with a few choice keywords in mind does most of the trick.
Again, SEO is a big, big topic worthy of a giant guide itself. In fact, there are plenty out there and worth a read for the sake of your career. While you’ll learn much of this through osmosis, it helps to read a primer from expert sources like Search Engine Land so you’re aware of the basics. But as a preamble, here are some quick SEO wins for your articles:
- Do keyword research for your title. The title of online articles are usually carried into the URL, and having the keyword(s) you want to show up on Google in the title is very important for SEO.
- Length matters. Aim for 1,000+ words, minimum. An indicator of “quality” for Google is the length of the article. Like we mentioned earlier, 1,000 – 2500 words is quickly becoming the industry standard length of a typical blog post, with 2100 being the sweet spot these days. Articles that are 800 words or below might not even register a blip, no matter how good the content.
- Freshness. Publish regularly. Google craves new, fresh content. Publishing once a week is a good start for any client’s blog. Knowing this fact, it’s also ammunition for you to get repeat and ongoing work.
One excellent free tool you should use is the MozBar, which gives you SEO insights right from your browser. It’ll help you get a handle on important SEO metrics in no time. And as an added bonus, you can use Moz’s “Domain Authority” metric to find new, relevant places to pitch your freelance services! Just Google “Guest post [your topic of choice]” or “Submit article [your topic of choice]” or anything similar and see what the DA rank for the sites that come up are. Find the ones with the highest DA and submit to them first, as these are the site that ranks highest on Google which means your articles will get the most exposure. It’s a quick way to make a list of sites you want to solicit that you may not have found otherwise.
SEO is an ever-evolving organism and one that busy small-business owners don’t want to worry about. By educating yourself in this topic, you’ll quickly become indispensable to your customers.
Pro Tip: Keeping up-to-date on SEO matters can quickly broaden your job options into the Marketing realm. While freelance writing is a large part of marketing anyway, becoming versed in SEO can land you jobs such as Marketing Consultant or SEO Consultant. Since this is a guide for writers, we won’t go into it, but these can be lucrative additional jobs to search for in your newly expanded talent universe. Who knew learning things could lead to more diverse work? Everyone? Oh ok.
Email Platforms – Many clients are looking for their writers to manage their monthly newsletters and marketing emails. Writing email copy is one thing, but having a general knowledge of email platforms and email best practices can give you a leg up on the competition.
MailChimp and Constant Contact are industry standards for sending business emails, so knowing how to use them will go a long way. Both have free trials so you can poke around and get acclimated to their system. And since the smaller email clients take cues from these two anyway, you’ll have a good general grasp on using all types of online email managers.
Like with social media, knowing when and how to send email can give your freelancer profile a boost. Read up on the best times to send emails, the best subject lines to improve CTR, and other email stats to look like an all-around knowledgeable writer.
Blogging Platforms – Basically, we’re talking WordPress. It’s the most popular one, and not knowing how to edit and post via WordPress will make you seem antiquated. Definitely familiarize yourself with the platform, especially going into a new client meeting who you know uses WordPress. Also, creating a profile through WordPress.org is a good way to consolidate your freelance presence across the internet. This way, you can use one profile for multiple clients, and have the same picture and bio appear for each post. Branding!
Other platforms are gaining popularity (Medium, Ghost, Wix, etc) and it’s fine to have a personal favorite that you can recommend to clients if they ask.
Stock Photography – Most clients will want you to find your own stock images to use with the articles you write. This doesn’t mean you have to pay for them yourself (usually they will provide you access to their stock photo account), but it means you should have a general idea of how to use common sites like istockphoto, pexels, and gettyimages (the latter more for journalism).
And more! As you grow as a freelance writer, you’ll be surprised at the breadth of knowledge you’ll gain to make yourself more useful, and integral, to your clients. You’ll design landing pages, run analytics, monitor traffic sources, edit photos, conduct interviews, and even give presentations. Honestly, that’s part of the fun and challenge of being a one-person shop. Freelance work can be interesting and varied, and you’ll learn a little bit of everything along the way.
For a few savants, all they need is a word processor and their brain. For the rest of us, we need a bunch of help along the way. Here are some great resources for freelance writers at any stage in their career.
While the guide you are reading is pretty (read: very) comprehensive, there are other places to visit on the internet with even more words on writing for a living. And these sites are frequently updated to boot.
thewritelife.com is exactly what it sounds like. You’ll find good tips on not just the craft of writing, but other resources on where to submit your writing to get noticed, marketing your business, and surviving the freelance writing lifestyle. All of the writers on this platform have solid freelance experience and write from their own history and research. They have a ton of resources, including detailed ebooks, to help you get started.
Millo.co is a site dedicated to the culture of freelancing in general (not just writing, though that is a big component of their material). Guides, articles, videos, podcasts, and more; it’s a great place to take a break with your coffee and learn about the latest happenings with freelance today.
copyhackers.com is an informational site geared toward copywriters and content creators. It’s a testament to how good writing itself can be a thriving business. Billy used their advice when writing our onboarding emails based on some very solid split testing information. These guys are also the brains behind Airstory.com. This site is an example of wonderful, deep, comprehensive content that is worthy of a bookmark.
goinswriter.com is Jeff Goins’ site. He is the author of five best-selling books including The Art of Work and Real Artists Don’t Starve. His blog and newsletter are great inspirations for writers and artists. Fun fact: our CEO, Joshua Waldman, has been following Jeff for years and considers him his #1 creative inspiration.
Bensettle.com is Ben Settle’s site. He’s a thought-leader in email copywriting with books under his belt too. His blog alone is a good resource for email tips that will help raise your conversion rates.
Every writer can get better. Here are some services that can teach you different skills that can supercharge your freelance business.
writebynight.net is a service to help you write better through a variety of ways including DIY exercises, consultations, and coaching from seasoned vets in the business. Sure, the website is kind of like the 1990s came back to life and kicked you in the visual cortex. But their newsletter is fantastic and incredibly active. They approach writing in a different way and many of their exercises have helped us out of a pinch or two.
thewritepractice.com has a ton of self-guided tutorials to help writers work faster (and better!). For more advanced writers looking to increase their potential, their paid courses in writing books or writing articles are solid choices.
productiveflourishing.com helps people finish stuff they start and be more productive in general. If you have a hard time meeting deadlines, this service might be just what you need. PF offers free creative planners designed specifically for creative professionals (like you!) where you can quickly capture your work commitments, and they really work. PF’s founder, Charlie Gilkey combines the organizational brain of an Army Logistics Officer with the creative heart of a maker.
penelopetrunk.com is the founder of four startups and has been a popular career coach for many years. Her blog is full of great information for creatives, but there’s always her 1-on-1 coaching if you want the help. Her newest startup, Quistic, offers writing courses as well.
These tools come in handy for most freelance writers. Check them out!
Airstory makes it easy to capture and organize huge amounts of reference materials into a single collaborative document. Think of it like Google Docs on steroids.
Grammarly is our go-to sanity checker to make sure we’re putting our apostrophes in the right places, and when we can’t figure out when to use “whom.”
Harvest is a time-tracking tool not just for your current writing project, but also helps you estimate how long it may take you to complete future projects as well.
Yoast is a popular WordPress plugin to help you get your SEO right. So instead of double checking your work, you can take Yoast’s advice and make the right changes, faster.
Stencil is an inexpensive stock images site. While your clients may have their own, you still may need images for your own projects. Stencil is easy to use and has an image editor built in.
Buffer lets you post to multiple social media sites at once, as well as schedule posts to send out at specific times. If you’re juggling multiple clients’ social media accounts, this tool comes in very handy.
Missinglettr helps you repost good content to social media over time, so you don’t have to worry about tweeting out that article over and over again. It auto-generates snippets and basically writes the posts for you too, then schedules them to post all year round.
SEMrush gives you insight into what keywords are popular, what terms other companies are optimizing for, and a thousand other SEO and SEM (search engine marketing) metrics.
Answer the Public mines the questions people are searching for on Google (and other search engines) to shed light on what you should be writing about. Helpful and fun to use!
CoSchedule Headline Analyzer will help you find the best headline to use for your articles. It’s all about getting someone to click on it, and this tool is a great sanity-check to use to make sure you’re not shooting yourself in the foot with a bad title.
Like anything else, the freelance lifestyle is easier if you have other people you can talk to and complain about. Here are some groups you can join for moral, and professional, support.
The Cult of Copy has two very active Facebook groups you should join. We mentioned the job board group earlier in this guide, but here’s one just for general discussion about copywriting. Now you can be on Facebook for “work” purposes, and not just procrastinating!
Andrea Emerson hosts Freelance B2B/B2C Writers group on Facebook, a place for professional freelance writers who really want to escape that 9-to-5 and go off on their own.
The Write Life mentioned previously has a thriving community on Facebook as well. This group is pretty informal, and is like a virtual hangout with other like-minded writers.
Freelancers Union is not only a great place for freelancer tips and resources, but their “hives” are also small communities you can join to meet and network with writers.
Of course, nothing compares to actually meeting other writers in person. You can search Meetup to see if there are groups and/or events in your city to attend or find one via Craigslist as well. If you’re particularly ambitious, start your own writers’ group. You’ll be surprised just how popular weekly or monthly in-person meetups can get!
To reiterate how we started this guide, 35% of the American workforce is a part of the gig economy. One of our predictions for the next five years is that this percentage will grow if (and this is a big if) the government (and society at large) can change some of the antiquated laws and attitudes toward freelance workers.
One incredibly recent example is a result of the GOP tax plan just passed at the end of 2017. Mic.com has a great write up on the ins-and-outs, but the gist is that these changes will make becoming an “independent contractor” (aka “sole proprietor”) more attractive with a 20% tax deduction for those who make under $157,500. But it’s not all roses. Depending on what the current administration does to health care coverage, any savings you might get by classifying yourself as a business-of-one may be lost to afford an insurance plan.
All this is to say that the landscape for freelance writers is ever-evolving. Right now, the future looks bright, and it’s easier than ever before to have the work lifestyle the previous generation only dreamt about. As more workers make the leap, the more demands will be made for protections and benefits.
Companies who hire freelance workers have access to more options as well that benefit both parties. One example is reducing their liability for 1099 workers; WorkMarket offers “1099 Workers’ Compensation Insurance” that does this. This is just for WorkMarket clients, but these types of plans will become more common throughout the industry as more of the workforce converts to contractors and freelancers.
For freelance writers specifically, the mantra “Content is King” is the truest it has ever been. Every company needs good, fresh content for visibility, and it all starts with someone like you sitting down in front of a laptop. So once you’re established, you’ll want to consider your long-term goals.
Freelance Writing for the long haul
While freelance writing work is as varied as there are companies and topics to write about, there are generally three categories you’ll fall into as your careers extend out. For the established freelance writer, you might want to keep these in mind to see which you might enjoy the most. This can help you shape and guide your experience to help you get there faster.
The General Practitioner
The term “Jack of All Trades” precedes “Master of None,” and that’s not what we’re talking about. It’s not that you’re simply passable in a few topics; rather, The General Practitioner is the skilled freelance writer that can write about anything. This person doesn’t focus on a niche, but can write effectively and intelligently for multiple industries without batting an eye.
You might enjoy being a General Practitioner in the long run if:
- You enjoy and are good at researching new topics.
- You love learning about new things.
- You want to cast a wide net for potential work.
- You want to remain unbiased as a writer.
- You want the most amount of work freedom possible.
- You enjoy having multiple clients.
If this is your long-term goal as a freelance writer, your best bet is to focus on honing the skills that will get you there: researching and writing quickly. Once you have the ability to take in a huge quantity of information from disparate sources, and distill them into prose that anyone can read and understand, you’ve got yourself a nice career for any number of different clients.
Simply being a good writer in general, you can truly work anywhere at any time, even abroad. You can probably even pick up a second language to double your odds at getting work. The General Practitioner has the ultimate freedom and can usually work as much or as little as he/she wants.
The Specialist is all about mastery over one niche/industry. Maybe a second, if it is closely associated to the first. You might feel this pull from the very beginning if you are passionate enough about a particular subject.
You might enjoy being a Specialist in the long run if:
- You want to become a thought-leader in a specific industry.
- You already have a deep expertise/enjoyment in a niche.
- You enjoy the community and business within that niche.
- You want companies coming to you to write for them.
- You want to create deeper, longer content.
- You enjoy working closely with just a few major clients.
The Specialist wants their career to go in the “guru” direction. When someone thinks about “Apple products,” you want your name to come up in conversation as “the expert to read.” You give up a bit of freedom by being neck-deep in a niche, but you don’t mind because to you that niche is the most interesting and fun thing in the world.
For this path, developing that expertise is key. And while putting in hundreds to thousands of hours on one niche will get you there no matter what, it definitely helps to have an interest in the industry in the first place.
The Specialist can, and probably will, write a book (or books) about their niche one day. While the client list is smaller due to the limits of the industry, the Specialist can usually command a higher pay rate. Not to mention, the Specialist can create a dense piece of content that will endure and bring in residual money and traffic. Webinars, speaking events, and roundtables are not far behind if you choose this path.
Finally, the third type of freelance writer evolves out of being one altogether. It’s a legit choice since many don’t want to be a freelance writer forever. It’s not freelance writing was simply a stepping stone, but rather a natural progression of being a good content creator for years. Many writers happily freelance for years and naturally find themselves starting a business out of their work. Think Penelope Trunk, for example, who turned to writing full-time and grew into a brand.
You might enjoy being an Entrepreneur in the long run if:
- You always think “what else can my writing do?”
- You enjoy the business aspects you’ve taken on as a freelancer.
- You want to contribute more to the industry than just words and articles.
- You have ideas in your niche that haven’t been implemented yet.
- You love writing, but don’t want to write forever.
- You want a brand of your own.
It’s fair to say that being a Specialist can lead into becoming an Entrepreneur easier than as a General Practitioner. But then again, being an excellent writer can lead to a business in of itself (how do you think all those tools and services for others writers began?). Still, it’s no surprise that becoming an expert on a topic can lead to business opportunities.
Many will be happy and fulfilled to stay as an expert freelance writer, but some will want to pursue creating a brand/business from their work. If you think this path may be for you, consider consolidating your freelancing into a government-recognized business sooner than later to acclimate yourself to the logistics of running one. There’s no better way to learn how to be an entrepreneur than to manage your current freelance work as a small business.
Success! You’ve read to the end of our guide (or you scrolled through in about ten seconds) and are well poised to start your career as a freelance writer. As you’ve read, this guide has advice for you all throughout your long career, so we hope you’ll bookmark it and refer back to it as your portfolio of work grows.
As mentioned in the introduction, this freelance writing guide has been a labor of love for us here at Billy because of the vast and growing number of freelancers we work with. Speaking with them and hearing their stories inspires us to provide excellent software for their small-business accounting needs, but also to inspire others to take the plunge into chasing a work lifestyle that they’ve always wanted.
If you found this guide helpful, please let us know in the comments! And if you are interested in another step-by-step guide to other freelancing work, let us know as well. Freelancers come in all shapes and sizes, and we are big fans of helping people get started on their journey.
“Coming from a freelance writing background myself before becoming CEO of Billy, having conversations with our clients in this space led directly to this project. I know that I would have appreciated a step-by-step guide like this when I was just starting out. I hope readers will get as much out of this long-form piece as we did researching and creating it! Keep writing, keep focused, and always keep your receipts.”
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