A few times a month, I have friends asking me how I became a freelance writer, since they want to do the same. So I thought I’d put my response into a blog. Here’s how to become a freelance writer.
First, answer 5 questions
Here are 5 questions I ask people before giving them advice:
1.) Have you been published before? This could be your school paper, a community newsletter, on a company’s website, etc. Even a popular blog could do. You’ll likely need to demonstrate your writing skills to employers, via these writing clips.
2.) Do you have writing on your resume at all? Either one task of a job, a writing-related degree, as a skill in the ‘skills’ section, etc. Customize the resume. Make yourself sound awesome (be truthful, though). Writing clips trump all but your resume may be all you have right now.
3.) How much money do you want to make? If you’re a beginning writer, you will probably be left with free or low-paid gigs (by low, I mean seriously under $20 for an article). The average respectable magazine pays anywhere from 10 cents/word to $2/word. Don’t expect to make this as a beginner, though.
4.) Do you have skills that go well with writing? Such as video, photography, social media, etc. This could work in your favor if a company wants more than just a freelance writer. But some people argue to just pick one.
5.) What kind of writing do you want to do? Magazine articles? Web copy? Press releases for a company? Technical writing (manuals, etc.)? Technical writing pays the most. If you can market a niche, you may be better off. Meaning, experts on a subject or type of writing can sometimes market themselves better than general writers.
3 paths to writing gigs
If you have no writing experience at all and you want to start a writing career, you may want to start with an unpaid internship, at a school paper (how I started) or by earning a writing degree. Otherwise, there are three common paths you can take to find writing gigs:
1.) Personal networking: This is almost the only way I go about it anymore. I attend networking events, strike up conversations with people on airplanes, go to parties, etc. All but one gig I’ve landed since 2010 has been through networking, whether that be meeting an editor while ringing her up at Whole Foods or meeting someone at a networking event. These gigs, in my experiences, pay higher and are more trustworthy.
2.) Pitch directly: Sometimes I pitch articles to magazines or propose writing projects directly to companies via email. While I almost always get a response, that response is almost always a no. It’s tough going about it this way. They might not even need anyone. If you do pitch to a magazine, please read their freelance guidelines and research how to write a query letter.
3.) Job boards: I almost never apply for writing gigs on job boards. Rarely will you find good paying gigs this way. If you’re a beginner, you may need to take this route, though. Just make sure the company is legitimate. But keep in mind: You may be one of thousands of applicants.
2 hard truths about freelancing
It’s not all perfect.
1.) Freelancing is inconsistent: You might suddenly lose 20 articles a month, which happened to me last year. Or you may have way more writing than usual one week. Some weeks I work 10 hours, others 50. There was seriously over a $2,000 difference between my best and worst paycheck last year. You need to plan and budget for these inconsistencies.
2.) Taxes and insurance are no longer done for you: You have to put aside a certain chunk of your checks (15-35%, depending on location and income) for taxes. You have to buy your own insurance. You’re running a business now and have to cover all the leg work your employer used to cover (including marketing for gigs).
Why freelancing is awesome, despite it all
For the most part, I work when and where I want. I can take on or turn down gigs. I can take off however much time I want, theoretically (if I’m able to manage it). My job is always changing, never stagnant. I am, in many ways, my own boss (though, technically, I work with more editors than ever). I’m in control.
If you want to just freelance part-time, then some of this doesn’t apply. But full-time freelance writers enjoy many perks, while still facing the difficulties and risks of running a business. Don’t dive into full-time lightly. Make sure you have money saved up and understand what you have to offer. Treat it like any other business. Take it seriously and it can be the most flexible, fun career ever. Otherwise, it might just fall apart.
One last thing: If you can, get a degree in journalism or English. You’ll gain skills, network and it will make your resume that much better. I’ll write more on writing in coming blogs. In the meantime, feel free to ask me any other questions.