This post is part of Hubstaff’s freelancing month 2017, where we feature insights by experienced freelancers about how they get clients, manage their workload, and more. Be sure to check out the rest of our freelancing month posts when you’re done with this one!
Freelance writing can feel like an impossible field to break into. You don’t have writing samples or bylines, but everyone expects you to. You don’t have client testimonials to back up your skills. Clients want to see proof of your ability to craft high-quality copy, but you just don’t have it yet. No one seems to be posting freelance writing jobs for beginners.
What are you supposed to do?
Grim as it may seem, it is possible to find freelance writing jobs for beginners, build your portfolio, and grow those early jobs into a full-time career.
I know because I’ve done it—twice.
Back in 2005, I was in college studying English, and I wanted to do something related to my major. I did some research and found that there was a decent market for people to write content for websites. It took a while to get started; I had no idea what I needed to do. I just started sending applications off, and eventually I got some replies.
Within six months, I was making a decent living as a freelance writer.
I worked as a freelance writer for five years, and in that time, I learned a lot about digital marketing. Eventually, I ended up using that knowledge to work my way into several full-time jobs. For seven years, I worked as an SEO specialist, digital project manager, marketing manager, and agile product owner.
But I missed freelancing. As a freelance writer, you learn something new every day. The work is hard, but it’s also creative and rewarding.
So in the middle of last year, I left my full-time job to start freelance writing once again. This time around, it was much easier to get started. I had the benefit of having done it before—I had already learned the hard lessons. So I was able to pick up where I left off very quickly.
Launching a career as a freelance writer requires dedication—there will be times when it feels like you’re chasing a pipe dream. But if you stick with it and follow a few best practices, that dream may become your reality.
Table of contents
- Before you start freelance writing
- Step 1: Decide on a freelance writing niche
- Step 2: Create some writing samples
- Step 3: Determine what you’ll charge for your services
- Step 4: Find freelance writing jobs for beginners
- Step 5: Apply for jobs you’re interested in
- Step 6: Respond to interested clients
- Kick off your freelance writing career
Before you start freelance writing
There’s the dream of freelance writing—work from beaches in exotic locations, do what you love, become an authority, and make money doing it—and then there’s the reality of freelance writing.
While all of these luxuries are certainly possible as a freelance writer, there’s a lot more to it.
As a freelance writer, you’re also a business owner. And as the sole employee of your business, you’re responsible for much more than just writing: you’re responsible for everything.
Before taking the plunge into freelance writing, seriously consider the following questions:
- Do you love writing? As a freelance writer, you’ll write every day—even when you don’t feel like writing. While you’ll have some other tasks, like marketing, invoicing, and looking for clients, you will spend 90% of your time writing. That commitment demands loving what you do.
- Are you a talented researcher? No matter how much subject-matter expertise you have, there will be times when you have to conduct research, and it often takes more time than writing. To make the most money for your time, you need to know how to navigate Google like a pro.
- Can you handle rejection? There will be times when you don’t get a job you were really excited about. In fact, you’ll probably get more rejections than jobs. If you allow rejections to discourage you, you’ll never succeed. You have to take rejections like a pro, understanding that if you didn’t get the job, it probably wasn’t a good fit anyway.
- Do you have self-discipline? When freelance writing from home, it can be tempting to just spend the day watching TV. But if you miss deadlines, you’ll lose clients. If you don’t write, you don’t make any money. Dedicating yourself to freelancing as a full-time job requires serious self-discipline.
- Are you organized and detail-oriented? As a freelance writer, you’re also an accountant. You have to keep detailed records of the work you complete for clients, send accurate invoices, and track business expenses for tax deductions. Otherwise, your income will suffer.
- Can you take constructive criticism? In most roles, you will work with an editor. The editor will request revisions and provide advice. If you can take the advice, you can use it to become a better writer. If you despise anyone who thinks your writing isn’t perfect, you won’t make it far.
If anything on this list sounds like something you’re unprepared to handle, freelance writing may not be right for you. But if you can answer all the questions with a resounding “Yes,” you’re ready to move forward.
And here’s what you need to do.
Step 1: Decide on a freelance writing niche
There are online writing jobs for every topic you can dream of. If you’re an effective researcher, you can likely write about anything you’re assigned.
But you probably don’t want to.
When I first started out, I took any paying job I could get. I wrote about mortgages, spas, mesothelioma, health insurance, hormones, online degrees, and my hometown. When I finally started writing about my hometown, I came to an important realization: it’s much easier to write about things I know.
Researching a topic you know nothing about is incredibly time-consuming. You have to take the time to understand it thoroughly in order to present concepts accurately and form unique insights.
Writing about things you already understand requires less research. As a result, you complete assignments faster, and you make more money.
As a bonus, the more you write on a single topic, the more you’ll learn. Over time, you build knowledge, gather a list of reputable sources, and form original topic ideas that you can pitch to potential clients.
By specializing in a specific topic, you can ultimately make more money, produce more content, and become a subject-matter expert. There are some very lucrative freelance writing niches out there, too—you just have to find them and develop your expertise.
If you don’t have a current area of expertise, choose things you’re interested in. The more you write about those things, the more knowledge you’ll gather.
Specializing in topics you’re interested in is crucial. Remember that you’ll spend 90% of your time writing about those topics. If you choose to specialize in writing about mortgages, but you hate writing about mortgages, you’ll burn out quickly.
Step 2: Create some writing samples
All potential clients will want to see writing samples. Because you’re looking for freelance writing jobs for beginners, you probably don’t have samples to share. The easiest solution is to create your own writing samples.
Start a blog, and write some posts about the topic(s) you chose. You can share your blog posts as writing samples until you get professional samples that you can share with potential clients.
(You can start a blog just about anywhere, but I recommend WordPress. This step-by-step guide will walk you through getting started.)
It’s important to understand that not all clients will accept writing samples from your personal blog for paid writing jobs. If the job description says something like “bonus if you’ve been published on sites like Forbes, Entrepreneur, or Huffington Post,” that client is probably looking for someone with more experience. Some will even specify that they don’t want personal blog samples.
However, many clients only look at writing samples as an example of your ability as a writer, and a way to determine if your writing style is a good fit. These clients won’t care where your samples are published.
In my experience, the clients that cared more about my style and ability than my publishing credentials have almost always become my best clients. And those are the clients that are more willing to hire beginning freelance writers.
Step 3: Determine what you’ll charge for your services
Setting rates is one of the most difficult tasks you’ll do as a beginning freelance writer. If you set rates too low, you’ll struggle to pay your bills. If you set them too high, you’ll struggle to find clients.
While there are a number of sites that publish average rates for freelance writers, there really is no across-the-board standard or average. What freelancers make depends on many different factors:
- freelancer’s location
- client’s location
- type of writing
- freelancer’s experience
- byline vs. ghostwriting
- how specialized the topic is
- writing speed
I can’t tell you what you should charge, but I can offer one piece of advice: charge an amount that allows you to make a comfortable living. If you can get by charging $0.05 per word—and if you’re happy with your clients paying that rate—don’t be discouraged by the sites that say you should be charging $0.50 per word.
When you’re just starting out, you may need to charge lower amounts, but you can increase your rates as you gain additional samples and experience.
(Hubstaff’s 2017 Global Freelancing Trends study showed that marketers and developers start earning higher rates once they’ve accrued about five years of experience. You can expect a similar trend as a freelance writer.)
Before setting rates, it’s important to understand the different payment models that freelancers use:
- Hourly: clients pay you a flat rate for each hour you work (in which case you’ll probably need a good time tracking app).
- Per word: clients pay you a specific amount for each word you write.
- Per piece: clients pay a flat rate for each piece of writing you produce.
- Per project: clients request an overall quote for a large amount of work.
- Retainer: clients pay a flat rate per month to reserve an agreed-upon amount of your time.
Personally, I base my rates for different payment models on an hourly rate. If you’re not sure what your hourly rate should be, you can use HubSpot’s freelance hourly rate calculator as a starting point. Figure out what you want your freelance writing salary to be, and go from there.
With an hourly rate in mind, you can calculate your rate in different payment models. For example, if your hourly rate is $30.00—but the client wants a per-word rate—estimate how many hours it will take to complete the work. Then, set the per-word rate accordingly:
1,500 words = ~4 hours of work
4 hours X $30.00 = $120.00
$120.00 / 1,500 words = $0.08 per word
Initially, your estimates for how long projects will take may be way off. But the more experience you gain, the better you’ll get at estimating.
For that reason, short-term and one-off projects are often good for new freelance writers—they give you a chance to estimate duration and learn from bad estimations without having to live with them over a long-term client relationship.
However, if you find a great client and learn too late that your rates are too low, you can always ask for a rate increase.
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Step 4: Find freelance writing jobs for beginners
After you’ve decided on what topics you want to write about, created some writing samples, and determined what you need to charge, it’s time for the good stuff: finding freelance writing jobs for beginners.
There are an incredible number of freelance marketplaces and other sites where you can find freelance writing jobs, and it would be impossible to list them all. Instead, I’ll recommend the places where I’ve had success finding jobs:
- Craigslist. There are definitely scams on Craigslist, but there are also plenty of legitimate freelance writing jobs. Most jobs are on the Craigslist sites for major cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. Head to the Craigslist page for your own city—or any other major city—and choose the “writing / editing” category under “jobs.”
- ProBlogger. ProBlogger’s job board gets new postings every day. The jobs are usually high-quality and from companies that are willing to pay reasonable rates. Occasionally you’ll run into a posting from a content mill, but most of the time the opportunities are excellent.
- BloggingPro. While BloggingPro has fewer new postings per day than ProBlogger, it’s still a decent source for finding freelance writing jobs across different industries.
- Freelance Writing Gigs. Five days a week, Noemi Tasarra-Twigg posts a compilation of remote writing jobs from many different sites across the internet. If you don’t have time to scour multiple sites each day, this is a good source for a quick view of some of the best recent job postings for freelance writers.
- LinkedIn ProFinder. The majority of jobs posted to LinkedIn’s main site are full-time roles, but ProFinder is a service offered specifically to connect employers with freelancers. Sign up using your existing LinkedIn profile, and the system will email you relevant job postings as they’re published. Note that it only sends posting for clients in the same geographic region as you.
- Hubstaff Talent. Hubstaff Talent is a job directory for all types of freelancers, including writers. There are jobs from many different clients at a variety of pay rates, and writers aren’t charged any fees for using the service—unlike some similar services that charge fees as high as 20%.
My approach to looking for new freelance writing jobs is to bookmark all of the job posting boards I’m interested in and review new postings on each site once a day for opportunities.
So, as a beginner, which jobs should you apply for? The best jobs for beginning freelance writers are often small projects that don’t require the client to commit to a long-term relationship. Some clients will say that writers need to submit a certain number of samples published in high-profile publications; these generally aren’t freelance writing jobs for beginners.
My best advice is to find a few paid online writing jobs that you’re qualified for (don’t waste your time on unpaid posts) and just apply! It’s not easy to start freelance writing with no experience. But by judiciously choosing the jobs you apply for, it can certainly be done.
One other piece of advice: it’s important to apply early. Sometimes clients receive hundreds of responses from freelance writers. If you reply five days after the job is posted and come in as application number 439, you’re probably not going to be considered.
Try to stay on top of the job boards and freelance writing sites and get your application in as soon as possible for the best chance of having your application reviewed.
Step 5: Apply for jobs you’re interested in
In general, you’ll apply for jobs you’re interested in by email. The email you send is critical. Potential clients may receive hundreds of responses to their job postings. To stand out, you need to send the perfect pitch.
Before you craft your pitch, there are a few things you need to do:
- Read the job description thoroughly. Make note of any instructions the client has provided—many will request that you use a specific subject line, include a certain number of writing samples, or answer a series of questions. If you fail to follow the instructions, your response will likely be sent straight to the trash.
- Visit the client’s website. If the job post includes the name of the employer or publisher, take time to review the website you’re applying to write for. This can be an early indicator of whether or not your style matches the client’s preferences, and it also provides opportunities to personalize your pitch.
- Try to find the name of the person who will receive your response. Do a little digging and see if you can determine the poster’s first name. Sometimes, the name is in the email address, and sometimes you can find it by pairing that email address with a name on the company website. If you’re not 100% confident in the name, don’t include it.
With this information, you’ll be prepared to craft your pitch. There are some best practices to follow when writing a response to a job posting:
- Keep it brief. Briefly list your major qualifications and credentials, and link to your website or LinkedIn profile where prospects can learn more if they want. No one has time to read a manifesto. If the client is interested, they can reach out to learn more about you.
- Capture attention with an enticing subject line. If the job posting lists a specific subject line to use, use that subject line. Otherwise, use the subject line to capture attention. A subject line that says “Data-driven marketing writer with 10+ years of experience” is much more powerful than “Freelance Writer Application.”
- Talk about how you can benefit the client. Frame your experience in a way that it highlights how that experience benefits the client. You could say “I have 10 years of experience in digital marketing.” But it’s more appealing if you say, “I’ll utilize the insights from my 10 years of experience in marketing to create in-depth, actionable blog content for your site.”
- Include writing samples. If the number of writing samples to include is noted, provide links to that number of writing samples. Otherwise, include your three most relevant samples. If possible, review the client’s blog first, and send samples that reflect the style, length, tone, and formatting of what the client has already published.
- Offer to complete a trial. At the end of your email, express a willingness to complete a trial assignment. A trial is important for both you and the client. It gives you both an opportunity to determine if the working relationship will be pleasant.
- Include your email address. This is especially important when applying via Craigslist, because the system often masks your email address. It may seem redundant, but it ensures that the client has the information needed to get in touch with you.
- Personalize the email. Don’t copy and paste—send a personalized email every time. You’re applying to become a writer, so you should treat your application email as your first writing sample. Form letters are easily recognized and come across as lazy.
- Format your email so it’s easy to read. Instead of writing several long paragraphs, utilize bullet points and headers so clients can easily find the information they’re most interested in.
Finally, make sure to proofread your email before you send it. I usually like to write the email, save it as a draft, and return to it an hour later for a fresh perspective.
After I’ve applied for a job, I copy and paste the posting into OneNote. With OneNote, I can paste each posting into its own page and search for keywords (company name, subject line, job title, and so on) when a client replies. This is critical when applying for multiple jobs, because you won’t remember every single one.
Also, sometimes clients will take their time replying, so it’s good to have a way to refresh your memory. I’ve had people respond six months after I originally applied asking if I’m still interested. You never want to tell a potential client that you have no idea what job they’re talking about, so keep detailed records of everything you apply for.
Step 6: Respond to interested clients
It’s easy to get excited when a potential client replies to your application, but it’s important to remember that your initial conversations set the stage for all the work you’ll do for that client.
Make sure to agree on the work you’ll be doing up front. One of the first things clients want to know is how much you charge, but how much you charge should consider what the job entails: writing, promotion, search optimization, image sourcing, posting to a CMS, revisions, or anything else.
Ask questions to determine exactly what the client expects, and provide detailed rates that list out exactly what is included. This can be used later if a client consistently asks for more than what was originally agreed upon.
If you’re asked to complete a trial, this conversation can wait until the client has decided to hire you. But it’s very important to align on what each party expects so that the client is happy with what is provided and you aren’t surprised later with time-consuming additional requests.
Kick off your freelance writing career
As an aspiring freelance writer, there are a lot of upfront tasks to complete before you start accepting jobs and earning an income. If you’re currently working full-time, it can be to your advantage to either
- have several months of savings to cover your bills while you get started, or
- start freelancing part-time until you’re making a consistent income.
When I decided to return to freelancing last year, I used to get up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to get a few hours of writing done before I went to my full-time job. Then I would come home in the evening and work on my website for a few hours after work.
It was hard working two jobs, but when I finally left my full-time role, I had enough freelance clients to feel confident that my decision wasn’t going to send me spiraling into bankruptcy.
Freelance writing should be considered with as much care as starting a new business. It’s a lot of work to get started. But if you’re willing to do the upfront work, you’ll be more likely to enjoy a long career writing about what you love, working from wherever you want in the world, and using your skills to educate and help others.
What other questions do you have about launching your career as a freelance writer? Ask your questions in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to answer them.