Want to Start Freelance Writing? Here Are the First 5 Things You Need to Do

KaitlinWiebeStick-inspirationThis post originally ran in 2013. We revised and updated it to make it more relevant and helpful for you. Enjoy!

We at The Renegade Writer have worked with literally thousands of writers — whether through mentoring, classes, webinars, or plain old emails. So every challenge a new freelancer faces — we’ve heard it.

The most common one we hear is…

“I want to be a freelance writer but I’m not sure what to do first.”

It can be overwhelming. After all, there are so many possibilities: Do you start by taking classes, finding markets, building your social media presence, contacting editors, joining groups…? And wait, do you need a business license? An accountant? Fancy business cards?

Really, to get started there are just five things you need to do — and they don’t include incorporating your business, developing invoice templates, designing business cards, or choosing an accounting system. Those can all wait until you need them, and right now they just distract you from what you really need to do.

Which is:

1. Determine your niche.

Carol Tice of the Freelance Writers Den likes to say, “Work of one kind leads to more work of that kind.”

That means if you pitch a business magazine even though you don’t much like business, and you get the assignment, you’ll soon find yourself a resentful business writer.

Think about the kinds of writing you like to do — and your hobbies, education, and personal background — and where they may intersect with profitable niches. For example, if you’re a Registered Dietician, you could bill yourself as a nutrition writer — health writers are always in demand. Love decorating? Maybe you could write for the shelter (home and design) magazines and websites.

Don’t worry about choosing just one niche if you, like me, are a Jack/Jane-of-all-trades. A well-kept secret in the writing industry is that you can have multiple niches.

For example, my niches have been small business, marketing, pets, health and fitness, and nutrition. When I pitched business magazines, I would tell the editors I was a “business writer,” and list my business article credits. When I queried health topics, I would call myself a “health writer” and mention my health writing creds.

2. Figure out what value you offer (that no one else does!).

What can you offer that few other can? When benefits does an editor get by hiring you?

For example, it may be that you’re a super-fast writer. Or you have a knack for translating difficult topics for a lay audience. Or you’re amazing at writing blog headlines that make people click. Perhaps you’re an idea machine and can supply your copywriting clients with tons of ideas for new promotions (that YOU can write for them, of course!).

Every writer can write. That’s a given. So what separates you from the crowd? Think about this, because you’ll be using it when you…

3. Build a website.

Yes, you need a website. Like right now.

My editor at Writer’s Digest magazine told me that when he’s on the fence about whether a writer can pull off an article she’s pitched, he’ll take a look at her website as the deciding factor. No website = no sale.

Don’t worry if you don’t have clips to show off on your website yet. Your website is your clip. You can still include information about yourself, your services, and so on — and add your writing clips as you get them.

Taking a while to get your website up? At the very least, build your LinkedIn profile. You can change the URL to your profile so it says LinkedIn.com/yourname instead of a random string of letters and numbers, and use this in your pitches and your email sig line.


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4. Learn the ropes — but only as much as you need to.

For example, if your goal is to write for magazines, you do need to know the basics, such as how to develop a salable idea, find markets for it, and write a killer query letter or letter of introduction. And you’ll find tons of blogs, e-courses, and e-books (like The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock) that can help. Learn the minimum you need to get started, and GET STARTED.

If you want to blog for pay, you need to know how to come up with great post ideas for your clients, write headlines that will get people to click, and sell your services to prospects. Again, you can get this info by taking ONE class, reading a book, or spending a day or two browsing websites on how to get started as a paid blogger.

But too many writers feel they can’t get started until they know every last thing there is to know about freelancing — an impossible task.

Learn just as much as you need to get started, and rest assured that you’ll learn as you go along. As they say, experience is the best teacher. When I was starting out, I had a single book on pitching and a copy of Writer’s Market. That’s all. I experienced rejection (lots of it!) — but the more I pitched, the more success I had.

5. Start marketing (and marketing and marketing).

That’s it! Start churning out queries and letters of introduction to print or online publications. Or go to lots and lots of local networking events. Or send out snail-mail letters to copywriting prospects. But whatever form of marketing you choose, WORK IT. The more, the better.

Many new writers ask, “How much should I be marketing? How much did you market when you were starting out?”

The answer is: However much time you have, that’s how much you should spend marketing your writing to prospects.

As you start getting assignments, you’ll naturally have that much less time to pitch — but still, however much time you have where you’re not actually working on paying assignments, you should be using it to market.

There is no rule of thumb to how much you should be marketing. It depends on how much time you have, your success rate, and how many assignments you want and can handle. But freelancing is a numbers game, and the more you get out there, the more chances you have at making a sale.

Now…pull yourself out of analysis paralysis, get started — and start landing lucrative writing gigs!

Stick figure by Katilin Wiebe. Thanks, Kaitlin!

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  • Thanks for the awesome advice! I wonder if other magazine writers ever experience a “slow season.” It seems like I’m less busy with actual assignments during the summer months, so I’m discovering that I tend to turn my focus toward querying for the following year during that time. Before I started freelancing full time two years ago, I didn’t imagine my work calendar would be cyclical, but that’s how it’s shaping up. Do your readers experience this also?

    • Heck yeah — we ALL experience slow seasons! Summer tends to be really slow because everyone’s on vacation. And then some months are way busy — for some reason, for me, I always got a lot of assignments in December, when you’d THINK it would be slow.

    • I have been writing for some time now and have found two successful ways to get by, #1 I would take a look at some online competitions that offer cash prizes and publication. This gets you some cash in your pocket and possibly even more through publication. check out http://www.briskpublishing.com for a competition and for some recommendations for others.

  • Good tips, Linda. I think my LI profile needs updating, since I have been working on editing books for authors…

    Thanks for the reminder! 🙂

  • Great concise post on what to do, Linda! Thanks for the mention, and for citing one of my Newtonian Laws of Freelancing. 😉

  • Great post, Linda! And very timely – I’ve been suffering from overwhelm, and it’s been paralyzing. I spend my time worrying about whether my website is good enough, fretting over ideas for ebooks, wondering if I should change the focus of my blog … There’s so much information to think about and so much all the experts recommend newbies do that I don’t know where to start, and consequently I don’t get anywhere. This is a good reminder that getting started doesn’t have to be that complicated. Thank you!

    • Welcome, Colleen! This post was written with YOU in mind — well, I mean the many writers who are in your same situation! 🙂 The most important of all these tips is to just start pitching. The rest can fall into place after that. (Even if you don’t have a website yet — just slap up a good LinkedIn profile and get pitching!)

  • Thanks for this concise version of the first steps. It is difficult to know where to start at the beginning of this freelancing journey. I hadn’t thought of creating a writer’s website before I even have clips, so will make sure I have this before even attempting freelancing.

    • Welcome, Rachael! Glad the post was helpful. The website is important, but don’t let the lack of the perfect website stop you from pitching. The pitching is the most important thing, and if you need to you can get up a quick Wordpress site or a good LinkedIn profile.

  • Awesome list. I’m still a bit new (only a year in while trying to balance a full-time job…for now), but I really think #5 is key. You need your niche and your value, but it’s really a numbers game when you start. I say write as many pitches and LOIs as you possibly can (but don’t send anything you wouldn’t be proud of; don’t sacrifice quality in favor of quantity). Send, send, send, and when you’ve had it and just can’t go on, send some more.

    • Thanks, John! You wouldn’t BELIEVE how many queries I sent when starting out.

  • Ms. Linda,
    Your advice is very helpful and while I’m still just dipping a toe into the very large world of on-line writing, I couldn’t help but notice that you, like a very great many number of writers, seem to suffer from error blindness. Please do NOT be offended by this! Many, many writers tend to not see the errors in their writing, and believe me, I read newspapers, magazines, web articles, blogs, etc., etc. on a daily basis and find the read most jarring when I come across mistakes such as misspellings, incongruent ideas, grammar errors and the like. For example, “That means if you pitch a business magazine even though you don’t much like business, and you get the assignment, you’ll soon find yourself a resentful business writers.” How can a single person be a plurality? Or “My editor at Writer’s Digest magazine told a conference audience that when he’s on the fence about whether a writer can pull of an article she’s pitched, he—ll take a look at her website as the deciding factor.” How does one pull of an article?
    These are very small mistakes, but they make huge impressions! This the very first article of yours that I have read and I already have an image of you built in my mind. A harried, hair all over the place woman who rushes around to get her work done! Not very flattering, is it. I DO NOT think that of you, but I could and all because of two little mistakes in your writing! A person’s writing is a reflection of them, is it not? Given that you are teaching writers how to make a living from this wonderful craft, is it not prudent to be as perfect in your advise as possible?
    I’m sorry if this is offensive or sounds like I’m lecturing. All I’m trying to say is that I find a lot of writers don’t seem to care about how they write. There seems to be a laziness that has crept into today’s writing. Perhaps, it’s Society’s obsession with doing things fast. Get it done quick, quick, quick! But, Writing, Language and Communication should be clear, precise and succinct, no? Otherwise, we are no better than the amoeba from which we came from! Perhaps, I should just be a copy editor and make my fortune that way.

    • I think you mean “perfect in your ADVICE,” not your “ADVISE.” Also, the words “society,” “writing,” “language” and “communications” are typically capitalized.

      Typos happen. If you freak out over them, you’ll never get any writing done. Focus on getting your writing out there, not on perfection (which will never happen), if you want to make any sales.

      • “Otherwise, we are no better than the amoeba from which we came from!”

        Not to pile on, but we all make mistakes. I agree that, as writers, we should be most vigilant in proofreading our own work, but every once in a while, a mistake is going to slip through.

        That’s life.

    • Leila Bard

      First of all, small mistakes like these don’t make huge impressions on everyone, Alex … just because I get squirrelly when I see writers punctuate words like Writing, Language, and Communication for effect, it doesn’t mean everyone else does. What makes an impression on me is not an occasional typo/misspelling, but writing that uses phrases like, “I’m sorry if this is offensive or sounds like I’m lecturing.” It means you ARE being offensive and lecturing — why couch it any other way? Be direct. Moreover, a good communicator who has a handle on the nuance of language and how words can affect others could have privately sent Linda an e-mail pointing out these small errors. I’m guessing Linda would have been grateful for the kind service you offered.

      This post, though? I’m convinced you’re a judgmental, holier-than-thou nitpicker who’s tone deaf when it comes to the nuance of communcation. And if you have that attitude, you won’t be a great copy editor either because good copy editors understand EVERYONE makes mistakes and that’s why they’re in business.

      Not very flattering, is it?

      • SO true…a simple email saying, “Hey, I thought you’d like to know I found a couple of typos on your post” would have gone over great.

    • Since no one else pointed out Alex’s error of omission, I thought that I would. He wrote: “This the very first article of yours that I have read and I already have an image of you built in my mind.”
      Clearly, he meant to start this sentence with “This is…” which proves that he’s not perfect, either.

      I’m happy that Linda pointed out that “society”, “writing”, “language” and “communication” should not be capitalized. However, there should not be a comma after the word “But” in the sentence where most of these capitalizations occur.

      Alex also used “etc” twice. Isn’t once enough?

      Given that he has made several errors in this comment, I highly doubt that he’ll make “a fortune” being a copy editor!

      • Daz

        To be honest I was too busy contemplating Linda’s wonderful advice to notice any spelling mistakes.

        I tried to read Alex’s post all the way through but found it boring and couldn’t be arsed reading to the end.

      • Thanks! I just can’t wrap my head around writing 400 words about two typos when I could use that time to get paying work.

  • Thank you for this information! I am new to freelance writing in the grand scheme of things, and it’s quite overwhelming when you don’t know what to do. I’m so busy worrying about my website and perfect grammar that I don’t spend enough time pitching (though I do apply for jobs daily and send submissions once or twice a week as time allows). Would you happen to have any advice about writing a really good pitch? Any example letters you would recommend?

  • Great topic with fabulous advice as always, Linda. There are so many grateful writers who appreciate all you do!

  • Hi Linda, it’s my first time stopping by and I appreciated the advice here. Can you tell me where the best source(s) to find places to pitch to are? Does one use the big ole bible, Writer’s Market, or are there better sources/sites to turn to for information on where to pitch?

  • I’m just getting started and so I’m spending the next 7 days (yes I have a plan) to source as much information to get me on track with everything a freelance writer should know. So this post is now parked under my list of guides, ideas and rules to refer to. So thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

    I know there will be mistakes in my writing but I also know that it’s all a learning journey. If experienced writers make mistakes then I shouldn’t be wasting tears over my own typos; we’re all humans. I’ve seen billboards with letters all mixed up in the very names of the products they were advertising. So, breathe and improve the next.

    • Welcome, Rhonda, and good luck with your writing! Love the billboards story.

  • Hi Linda,

    “But too many writers feel they can’t get started until they know every last thing there is to know about freelancing ” an impossible task.”

    I too am overwhelmed. I have subscribed to your email newsletters, bookmarked numerous web links for freelancing, and started a blog and Twitter page (although not active quite yet as I need to add content). I have a full-time job (in an office full of stuffy cubicles) which I loathe and am trying to find the time to start up everything I need to do to launch my web presence.

    One question; Is a Facebook page a must? If it is, do you feel a lot of time also needs to be spent networking through there as you suggest with LinkedIn?

    p.s. Reading your tips and quips has made me feel less stressed.
    Thank you!
    Dawn

    • Hi! No…Facebook is seen more as a personal social media site, and most editors don’t want writers networking with them on there.

  • ummehani

    I am completely lost. I want to start working online as a freelance writer but I have never written anything except my literature assignments.I am not worried about money right now I just want to get started. What do I do? Any piece of advice would be highly appreciated.

    • Hi there! Take a look at the New to Freelance Writing? Start Here page at the top of this page. Lots of info on what you need to know!

  • David Haywood

    I am grateful, That I found you on the internet. Your news’ letters ,are very open and to the point, I can gleam a lot from your letters. I’m just starting out as a freelance writer.

  • Hi Linda,

    I stumbled across this blog and found it to be very informative. I have been a full-time freelance writer since early 2009 after spending 24 years in several different writer/editor jobs at major publishing companies. I’ve been very successful following some of the tips you’ve listed here and would like to add a tip of my own: Focus your efforts on COMMERCIAL freelance copywriting rather than on magazine and website article writing.

    As you note in tip #5, magazine article writing requires pitching and pitching and pitching some more. In my experience, it’s very difficult to generate ongoing, sustainable self-employment income just by landing one-off magazine and website article assignments. The best scenario here is to get a regular column or department in a magazine so you don’t have to try to land a new assignment for each issue.

    Commercial copywriting is newsletters, white papers, case studies, blogs, brochures and the many other types of marketing communications (or marcom) and B-to-B communications that businesses produce. Newsletters and blogs are especially lucrative for freelancers because they are produced on a regular basis — weekly blogs and monthly or quarterly newsletters, for example. These are the real pay dirt for full-time freelance writers. Plus, commercial copywriting tends to pay much better than most magazines and websites nowadays.

    I learned this lesson during my first couple of years of freelancing. I started out with the goal of getting into big-time magazines that pay $1-2 a word or more, but hit mostly dead ends trying to get replies from these editors. Meanwhile, I was getting more and more commercial copywriting work that paid better than any of my magazine articles. Now, I only have a few magazine clients — 80-90% of my work is commercial copywriting.

    Oh, and I have to comment on Alex’s comment above about errors and typos. While he didn’t do a very good job of communicating his point, given that his comment is full of typos itself, I do think his point is valid. Sure, mistakes happen, but I strive for 100% accuracy in everything I write for my clients and for my own blog/e-newsletter. If I send copy to my client with errors, I can’t just say, “Sorry, mistakes happen!” I do freak out over typos because it’s my job not to make them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get any writing done.

    Sorry, but I couldn’t sign off with throwing in my 2 cents on that!

    • Thanks for your insights! Yes, we ALL strive for 100% accuracy — or at least we should. But typos and mistakes slip into even the best writer’s work. But people who get upset and comment on others’ errors aren’t helping anyone, including themselves. I have a whole post on this on the Make a Living Writing blog called “Why Grammar Police Make Terrible Writers.” 🙂

  • Carly

    I’m wondering how to get started when I haven’t written for companies/people before? I love writing and can write well, but I don’t have ANY experience writing for companies or in certain categories (like having years experience for business, education, lifestyle, etc.). I am starting in a non-profit over in Chicago for a blog but I would like to write for an income. Help?

  • L. Harris

    Thanks Linda, I will keep this article at the top of my reference list. I have been thinking of entering the field of freelance writing for a sometimes now but I am now overwhelmed and wondering if this is worth still a try.

    I will definitely be taking a look at the links you have suggested.