3 Tips to Kick Off Your Freelance Writing Career
Updated: May 10, 2021
For the last eight years, I’ve been a content creator and editor. And if I’m being honest, it took about that long to gather my wits about me and take that proverbial jump off the deep end. By year five I had quit my day-job, and already I was treading water in the freelance market. And what did I find?
A bounty of open ocean, with plenty of room for everyone to swim!
That’s why I wanted to come up with some tips to help you dive into today’s world of freelance writing, editing, and content creation, but also to show you that it’s possible to make money doing what we love most: creating content related to our passions and interests.
“Huh?” you may be asking. “Writers don’t make money doing what they love.”
I was told the same thing. And, believe what you want, but right now I want to tell you that I’ve been challenging those odds and making money writing exactly what I want to be writing—no regrets.
Not that it’s all fun and games, of course.
Freelancing—and more specifically, freelance writing, editing, proofreading, transcription…whatever—is hard work. It takes flexibility and a good sense for business. It means being safe and taking care of yourself out there, but also staying optimistic knowing your clients will take care of you, too.
I’ve summed it all up under three freelance tips to help pump up your writing career: I want to make it easier for you to swallow the unnaturally big apple of “freelancing” so that you can make the whole process work for YOU, no matter your future prospects or aims.
So, whether you’re a freelancer just starting out, or an already-employed professional looking for new ways to work from home, be ready to get your client, do the work, and get paid using some tricks of the trade I’ve learned along the way.
1. Get the Client
Getting the client starts long before your proposal ever ends up in their inbox. In fact, it starts with yourself: with confidence, self-awareness, and a good market sense. How else are you going to succeed if you can’t work up the courage to ask for what you’re worth? In other words, how can you serve your future if you aren’t ready to call yourself a writing professional?
Before you hit the streets and start looking for clients, here are a few sure-fire steps you’ll need to take to get your clients, especially when you’re just starting out.
Here are 4 simple steps to getting the client:
1. Let Your Interests Drive Your Brand
Next, you just have to let those interests drive you to build out your brand and beat the competition. At this stage, you’re looking to tasks such as creating a website or building a social media following, and need a theme, motif, or driving factor behind your brand design and product offerings.
Ask yourself: What is it about your passions and talents that set you apart from everyone else? Again, as an example I found that my marked skills as a client-service professional—seamlessly communicating with personnel from all walks of life—soon became my own personal niche.
That is where I began finding my own unique brand, and this is where you’re going to do the same for your own. Remember, this is the tool you’re going to use to focus and navigate the sometimes strange and overwhelming world of marketing and social media. If you have a strong brand that stands out, you’ll have more of an idea of what to post, how your website should look, and who your audience is.
From there, you’ll start building a platform that draws the attention of people from many different industries, even building products and services around those differing disciplines and skills.
(PS: If you’re looking for a more wholesome approach to setting up your own content business for success, then I would look to The Money-Making Content Machine, a comprehensive guide I helped write that helps newbies like us learn to profit from content without the burnout).
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Still, getting the client doesn’t stop at knowing what you can or will do. It’s also about knowing your limits: where are you vulnerable, and what skills do you need to begin taking on newer and more complex assignments.
Remember, this is a journey that is all about growth. You want to perfect what you know, and then scale to incorporate new skills and product offerings later down the line.
Even moreso, you want to let your client know if there is a task they’ve assigned that you aren’t experienced enough to take on. At its essence, getting the client is as much about being honest when you aren’t able to take on an extra task, as it is about selling what you can do to give your client a top-tier experience.
A NOTE ON PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT:
Here, I feel the need to emphasize what a huge factor professional development plays in helping you attract future clients. The sheer number of free online training tools (hello coursera!) you can take in any area of interest makes it inexcusable for freelancers today to let their trade skills fall stagnant. Further, it is integral for any freelancer to find and integrate themselves into some kind of writing or business community—local or otherwise—to elevate their networking skills, and to battle that often-heard bane of freelance existence: freelancer loneliness.
For me, this meant taking Helsinki University’s FREE certificate on Artificial Intelligence Technologies, continuing to read academic publications on scientific research development, and joining a local connector/ incubator community that featured different business people doing great work in my local start-up scene. For you, it could mean something entirely different—but whatever it looks like, try your best to make these types of engagements a routine part of your working schedule.
PS: This is also a great time for you to look into the definition of imposter syndrome, knowing that you are not alone in any difficulty you may be facing in seeing yourself as an expert.
Alright! You are confident that you know what you can offer. You even have the skills to back up your claims. Now, it’s a matter of letting your client know that you’re ready to take on their project.
2. Take Ownership of your Skill
Actually, the first step to getting the client is one you can take right now: Take ownership. You’re a writer! You are analytical, can turn a phrase like a demon, and are ready to show off your skills and apply them to challenges that drive you. And if not, you are at least willing to go the extra mile to please the clients of your dreams.
Seriously, whatever your education, you can always improve. And if you are lucky enough to have a few credentials under your belt, you’re already halfway there: you know how to make a thesis, you know how to organize small project assignments, and have been exposed to the criticisms of mentors and professors who basically make their living as editors, researchers and writers in their own right.
Wherever you’re at, it’s time to admit that you are a writer. Already. Right now.
Better yet, there are clients out there who are willing to pay for your skill, even if you’re at the entry level. So buck up, find some confidence, and dive right in to figuring out who you are and what type of freelancing writing or editing you want to pursue.
3. Figure Out Who You Are, and What You Like Doing
The next step? Figuring out who you are, and what you like doing. That way, you’ll know where your boundaries are for work you won’t take on, as well as what clients may best benefit from your current expertise.
Most of all though, figuring out what you like doing will save you a lot of heartache in the end. Believe me, you don’t want to be taking on projects that don’t motivate you, especially if you plan on working from home.
For example, I love creative and academic writing, but I also love helping other people make their own writing better, as well as tutoring English second-language speakers. As for my personal interests, I have always loved literature, science, and business.
For that reason, my own expertise has evolved into a blend of content writing and editing services for academic audiences. I started creating simple resumes and cover letters for people, and have since extended that into a huge offering of content creation work and content management services.
These days, following what motivates me, I’ve found myself helping clients write entire business eBooks, and even building brands from the ground up.
More recently I've been assisting with the development of highly-technical scientific research reporting–and I believe that's all thanks to my diligence in figuring out who I am and what kinds of projects would keep my interests in writing alive.
Better yet, by finessing the skills I already have and seeking out projects which motivate me, I have been able to find clients who are willing to pay me to learn and complete other tasks such as formatting, image design, or website content management, all due to that initial enthusiasm and skill.
In short, freelancing can give you the time and freedom to build your skills while making money.
4. Make Your First Connection and Get That Client!
Personally, I get clients in 4 main ways. By:
Actively pursuing client postings;
Passively pursuing communications jobs no matter where I am;
Taking client referrals; and
Doing such good work that clients have no choice but to come back for more.
For the purposes of this article however, I will concentrate most on the active pursuit of clients through direct sales. This is because the other three options are more to do with inserting mentions of your business whenever natural, and more commonly occur when you already have a good network of clients in your repertoire.
How to Actively Pursue Client Postings to Get the Client
This heading accommodates any activity where we find ourselves pursuing our interest in a role or project posted online (or through local connections). This can mean addressing an ad, pitching someone for a specific idea or competency, and even persuading project managers that you are fit for the work involved–and then driving them back to your website or LinkedIn profile.
And since you’ve built up so much confidence and awareness in this section, you’re already in a great position to sell your potential client on why you’re the best fit for them, pointing to specific experiences you’ve had that relate to the skills needed to complete their job.
HOT INDUSTRY TIP: Remember, you are pitching to a person on the other side of that email, not a project. It’s a human that is going to hire you, and it is that human to which you should cater your pitch.
Basically, most of our active pursuits of clients will result in a similar opening “pitch”. Think of Upwork or Indeed.ca, where you can scan job postings and apply to those which suit your skillset—you’ll want to get into the habit of reaching out to clients, and testing which pitches or cover letters get the most attention or positive response.
As an example, here is just one of the many pitches I created early on in applying to a position I wanted. You’ll notice it’s personable, relatively informal, and genuine, and it got me an interview, and from there, a job! Feel free to copy and paste, and to insert your own information, or to reach out here, and I can always whip up a great template for you!
Upwork Proposal Example
What an interesting project! As a research aficionado with a proven track record in collecting great research points and translating them to formulate new and unique ideas as they pertain to a given subject, I am confident that my accumulated skills match those required by your project description.
During my undergraduate degree in English literature (where I also minored in Psychology) I worked diligently in my last year to complete an honour’s thesis project that met the high research standards of my department (and of my supervisory professors). In that sense, I have extensive experience utilizing online databases, and even have University access to most! (I work casually as a researcher/ editor for the University of Alberta in Canada). I have taken research methods courses, and have continued to demonstrate my ability to make connections where others might miss them. Indeed, my honours advisor commended my creative problem-solving abilities in a recent reference letter he provided.
That said, I am also an expert editor and proofreader who has managed her own freelancing effort in this area over the last six years. I have dual experience, then, as both a researcher and content creator, and could therefore provide a wide range ofassistances throughout your research project. I also have a specific interest in your subject matter of “Change”—I myself have experienced profound transitional changes (being 27 and having moved 25 times)—and would enjoy devoting my time in helping you achieve your research aims in this area. I am also a friendly and honest freelancer who provides prompt and integrity-driven service to all clients.
Should you care to discuss this project further, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I am available anytime, and usually respond within 24 hours. Feel free to review my Upwork profile to see how other clients have fared, as well as samples of my work. For your convenience, I have also attached a snippet from a research proposal I recently created. Thank you for your consideration, I hope to hear from you soon.”
–Sample Proposal for Research Assistant Posting in the U.S.
(For more information on how to write a great proposal or pitch, I recommend doing a little research and figuring out what to do and what not to do when you start responding to project postings and proposals. This also goes for those of you looking to be freelance journalists: learn how to pitch to the publications—the humans—you want to write for, otherwise your ideas will always get thrown to the bottom of the slush pile).
Where can I find potential client leads?
The truth is, finding clients will be a little different for everyone, but for me I like to use Upwork, LinkedIn, Job Posting Boards, Facebook, and University Career Centre postings to find positions that suit my interests. I also make great use of my social circle, who know to send me clients in need.
In my experience, there are THOUSANDS of jobs posted everyday looking for people like us. The key is to let them know you’re ready to take on the work, and that you can be trusted to do so.
WORRIED ABOUT BAD CLIENTS? Knowing the signs of a “bad client” before I’ve even made first contact has proven to be extremely useful in my business goings. It’s what has saved me from taking on jobs that bleed my financial well (and my patience) dry. This article has some great tips on how to recognize the warning signs of a ‘bad client’, and I suggest anyone looking to make a name for themselves as a freelancer read it like its their own personal manifesto!
So, to summarize: You get the client by taking ownership of who you are and by being confident in your abilities to deliver, and then by selling that expertise with every pitch or proposal. It’s about managing yourself and your skillset to meet the needs of whatever types of projects you want to be working on in the near future.
Most of all, it’s about being an expert in your chosen field, thereby building trust in your customer audience. Show them your success, and they’ll always come around.
2. Do the Work
Okay! So you’ve written a great proposal, surpassed the initial communication stage, have signed a contract, and the client is ready to take you on. I’m so proud!
No, I’m serious, that’s the big hurdle. Not that the rest is a piece of cake or anything, but you’ve done all the legwork you can to get you here, and that is no small feat. Make sure to take a moment and congratulate yourself. You are a writer. You are an editor. You are a successful freelancer who is going to blow your client away on the very first try!
Well, not always the very first try. That’s just the thing. You have to do the work before you can fully congratulate yourself on your greatness. And when I say do the work, I’m not just talking about the project at hand. That may be central to your goals, but there is a whole atmosphere of particles that must fuse together before you can be truly successful in your project delivery.
And of course, the biggest part of doing the work is…ta da! Time management!
Really though: things can get pretty chaotic on any given day. In the beginning, you’ll likely be coordinating a number of alternating contracts and communications on your own, from making more proposals to finalizing work you’ve already taken on. You’ll also be learning how to ‘turn off’ your impulse to work in favour of creating those all-important work-life boundaries that’ll keep you stable.
Still, that’s what makes this trade so special: you can build your days around what you want to accomplish, and then, what your clients need you to accomplish. To be sure, it takes a lot of work and a lot of constant communication. This job is a game of consistently reorganizing the chaos to make sure things get done, breaking jobs down into smaller, manageable pieces so as to not get overwhelmed, and most importantly, finding full days where I can shut everything off and schedule a “weekend” for myself.
Basically, freelancing and doing the work successfully is about balancing your wok-life time management, and then adding to your everyday interactions the added benefit of excellent customer service and skills-based prowess.
For those freelancers who are just starting out its good to begin with fewer projects, ensuring that you are not overwhelmed. That way, you can devote a large amount of focus to these initial clients. You’ll never know how long they’ll end up sticking around for other projects, so it’s important to pave the way to future engagements through a combination of outstanding service, communication, and skill.
Hot Tip: Know when to turn off your phone, but always try to get back to clients within 24 hours. And feel free to warn long-term clients about upcoming vacations or “time off” where they will be unable to reach you. You’ll both be thankful for it!
You’ll also notice from the above that I have scheduled a few non-work activities throughout the day that I genuinely enjoy, which ultimately gives me more energy to serve my clients. Though, let’s be real, it’s also because content creation work is draining.
Some may be able to work at a desk non-stop for eight hours, but my eight-hour work days are spread out to make sure I have time for myself to re-coup during the in-between.
For me, that means breaking up my day by going for walks or changing my environment. For you, it might mean giving a full eight hours to one project one day, and only four billed the next so you can hang out with friends. As long as the work gets done, you can organize your time however you want.
That’s the beauty of this whole trade: if you’ve taken on a job that you love, you’ll be passionate about the work, and will thrive from the full control you have of your schedule. You’ll make time for yourself, and will finish each project relaxed and stress-free.
BUT REMEMBER: just because you can vary any of these items as you please, doesn’t mean that you stop being your own boss; you are the one who is going to have to answer for your own laziness if you choose to not do the work.
Now, insofar as you may worry about the physical act of doing the work—or, about your skills as an editor or writer or whatever you’re marketing yourself as—it’s up to you to use your analytical, research, and communications skills to complete the project to their expectations. If you’re unsure about how to proceed, DON’T ASSUME. You’re better off asking for a strict set of deliverables and expectations, or doing some supplemental research on your own time to improve your ability to deliver the project or task at hand.
Finally, when talking about doing the work, we must address project or product delivery and deliverables. Ideally, you and your client have a set deliverable (set parameters for what you must hand in for payment) and a delivery date.
Basically, this means making sure that before you send the project, you and your client have made clear payment plans, and that you’ve prepared any relevant invoices or receipts as per your agreement or practices.
Your client may realistically take a few days to get back to you, and in fact may get back to you with further requests or updates, but don’t worry: your contract will protect your eventual payment, and often payment terms have been outlined before-hand.
Just make sure to charge for any added asks, and to provide a close-out interview for possible feedback. We’ll talk about payment in the next step, but first, it’s important to understand what to do if you find yourself in the middle of contract that’s just not going as planned.
WHAT IF I ENTER INTO A CONTRACT WITH A ‘BAD CLIENT’?
On the front lines, you are bound to enter into a contract (PS: ALWAYS have a contract) with someone that doesn’t pan out like you had hoped. Don’t be discouraged!
Sometimes, you realize their expectations far differed from those you’d anticipated. Or perhaps you agreed to do something for a set price, only to find that the work is in much worse shape than the client had made it out to be. Then again, maybe your client wants too much for too little, or is being uncommunicative or flat out rude: either way, these are some red flags that indicate you need to end the contract ASAP.
Listen, It’s going to happen—don’t kid yourself. The best thing you can do is be prepared for it, to learn from it, and take some of that hard-earned confidence to set further expectations, reorient your price point, create new milestones, and try to anticipate any other drawbacks or delays that might affect future projects.
And like I said: DON’T hesitate to drop a client or to issue a full refund if need be. Whether to protect yourself, your mental well-being, or your reputation, it’s always a good idea to let those clients go quickly, before you get in too deep.
Now onto the fun part!
3. Get Paid
Time to get that money! (Haha).
Seriously though, under this heading, I want to talk about industry rates, fixed and hourly price points, and some tips on dealing with price increases or clients who refuse to pay (not that there are many of those).
I figured these would create a solid foundation for your own research on getting paid. Indeed, I encourage you to explore a bit further after this article to see how else you can turn your deliverables into profit!
Freelance Industry Rates
Industry rates are a great point of reference for your own rate prices on the freelance writing market, but more importantly, they will tell you which rates are too low a value for your expertise. Very quickly I realized that charging $20/ hour for my content creation capabilities was much too low given my years of skill, and was told straight up by clients that they thought I should charge more.
What I want to impress here is that a huge part of building a client’s trust in your ability has to do with charging what you’re worth, and then mediating that against your profit goals and their budget. Good clients already know what it costs to create good work, and are almost always willing to pay a higher price for comprehensive service: i.e. not just doing the work, but involving a multi-faceted approach where you incorporate great customer service, great communication, and excellent tradespersonship into each project.
HOW TO INCREASE YOUR FREELANCE RATES WITH EXISTING CLIENTS: One thing about industry rates: they’re always changing. There will come a time when you’ll be ready to give yourself a raise (yeah, you can do that!), and when that happens, I recommend keeping that confidence we talked about in mind.
Take ownership of your worth, and don’t fear losing clients who aren’t willing to pay for your accumulated skill. That’s all a part of growing. Though of course, if you want to surprise and delight some loyal clients, you can mention that rates are increasing by ‘x’ amount for everyone else, but they’ll be receiving a discount. It’s just another small way to add some extra value for your best clients, and to get them sending along their friends for more!
Fixed and Hourly Pricing
Across the board, my clients haven’t always come to me with a ‘fixed’ idea of how they want to charge, and usually, it is up to us as freelancers to make that decision for them.
How? Well, the first step is to understand how long it takes you to complete any given project to the best of your ability. Challenge yourself with sample projects, and time yourself during each one. Knowing how long it takes you to complete a project will help you build an estimate that will be true to the final cost you charge.
Then, you can translate those times into rates per service. For instance, if you’ve settled on a rate of $30/ hour, and writing 1000 words takes you four hours, then you would charge clients around $120 – $150 for a 1000-word article. (Reminder: It’s up to you to decide whether that writing time includes research).
In my own experience, clients usually want fixed-price work; they want to set a budget and keep it there regardless of how long it actually takes to complete. This can be really great, but can also prove risky.
For instance, say you are given $200 to create an impressive and eye-catching application package for a top CEO position. At $30.00/ hour that’s just over six hours of dedicated work, yet if you know you can do it in that time, you’re flying.
NOTE: For projects that have a less defined deliverable, and require long-term work with multiple iterations, consider working for an hourly rate to get the best possible value from your clients.
Alternatively, when issuing proposals to job requests online, you can make sure that you only apply to those jobs (or bid at the amount) that match your price point requirements. You don’t want to be halfway through a project working for free–you’ll get angry, and you won’t be as motivated to follow through to the end, no matter how wonderful your clients are.
And as always, be realistic. Even if you end up taking eight hours to complete a given assignment where you bid for six hours of work, you’re still doing alright, and can charge a little more for the next contract with confidence. Remember: they’re paying for your convenience, your skill, and your hard work, but it’s always up to you to challenge yourself to get your times down, and value yourself above your competition.
WHAT TO DO IF A CLIENT ASKS FOR WORK OUTSIDE OF YOUR CONTRACT. Honesty is again the best policy when being upfront with your client about enforcing the limits of your contract. If you’ve agreed to do one thing, and they’re asking you to do another, remind them that you’ll be adding an additional fee to your invoice. Don’t go overboard in explaining the why’s of the increase either: every deliverable required of you has a price on its head. Just add a quick note during an instructional phone call or email, and demand a confirmation of increase before moving forward.
Last but not least, the part where you actually see the results in your chequing account: getting paid!
Getting paid as a freelancer can be an especially stress-inducing part of the process, unless you make sure you’re prepared. You’ll want to make sure you’ve outlined payment deadlines and deposit or transfer information/ method prior to taking on your project.
In some cases, you’ll be working through sites like Upwork who already provide great protections, but otherwise, you may want to consider opening a PayPal account, or an Escrow account of your own (especially if you’re delving into contracts with really big payouts).
Then, you can practice some basic accounting principles to help you create a systemized process for invoicing clients through any medium of your choice, including QuickBooks Online or QuickBooks Self-Employed.
My own process, for instance, starts with a quote for service, and then once the contract has been signed and the project delivered, I invoice clients using a breakdown format which fully explains where their dollars went for each project. (If you need examples, you can find tons of free templates and examples online!).
If my client and I have discussed payment deadlines in advance, then it can go without saying, but often I will give my clients about 15 days from delivery of invoice to make payment. That rarely happens though, and most clients pay within 48 hours.
WHAT DO I DO IF A CLIENT WON’T PAY?
That’s right. Every freelancer is going to have that one client who refuses to pay for the service they’ve been given, for whatever reason: it could be that they don’t believe you’ve done a great enough job, or they’re plain horrible and trying to scam you for free work.
Now, depending on your contract, how you approach this is going to be different, but if I can offer any advice here, it is to try your hardest to get the funds (email, phone, lawyer–up to you how far you want to go) while trying not to burn any bridges, and–sometimes–swallowing the cost of a sour business deal just so you can let it’s baggage fall away.
(Also, when the time is right, burn the bridges. You are valuable, and don’t deserve disrespect. Set your boundaries, and take care of yourself on the market).
Hopefully, as you become more confident, experienced, and knowledgeable, there will be less opportunity for clients like this to get your business, meaning more money for you, and more happiness too!
Time To Get Started!
SO: You’ve gotten your client, you did the work, and now you’ve been paid for your first project of many to come! You’re really doing this, and you had the guts to venture out and become your own boss, whether it’s on the side or full-time.
Equally important now is to make sure that you reward yourself in a way that makes you proud. For me, it’s treating myself and a friend to a nice meal, or buying the fancy latte instead of the old drip coffee at home. It’s allowing myself to take that vacation because I did all of the work I needed to do. Moreso, it allows me the time for family and friends that I never seemed to get enough of working 9 to 5.
In closing, I hope I’ve translated to you just how possible this journey is for everyone to start, and depending on your skill, commitment, and fearlessness with the written word, how you’ll be making MONEY doing what you love: writing.
Still, if you’re struggling and have more questions, please reach out or comment below. I am always happy to explore the freelancing landscape with self-starters like you, because I am invested in the future success of our trade overall–and believe me, that success is already here.
And if you are having trouble building your first website, need some marketing materials, or want help developing your brand, feel free to reach out here anytime, Manifest Content Solutions would be happy to help!