Image credit: aussiegall

The 7 Essential Steps to Becoming a Freelance Writer

One of the biggest questions I get when I tell people I’m a professional writer is, “How did you do it?” When I look back, there’s a few major steps that every freelance or pro writer I know has had to take to get where they are today.

The truth is, it’s not that hard to get paid for your writing, but does take a good amount of time and effort to change your writing from a hobby into a career. And it does take time to build up reputation and experience in the field. But if you follow this basic blueprint, you’ll be able to get started faster and land better paying gigs. (And creative writers, pay attention: most of these steps apply to your markets, too!)

So let’s jump right in. The first step is…

1. Start by specializing.

First decide what kind of writing you want to do. Copywriting? Content writing? Magazine writing? Newspaper columns? Investigative journalism? Technical writing? Writing poems for the inside of greeting cards? There are so many different types of freelance jobs out there and they can be very, very different in terms of the skills and experience needed.

Image credit: aussiegall

Image credit: aussiegall

You don’t have to stick with just one type of writing forever — in fact, if you have multiple skills you’re often able to charge more for your services. But when you’re just starting out, you need to focus on getting really good at just one area. Otherwise you’ll stretch yourself too thin.

2. Pick your subject.

Decide what kinds of topics and industries interest you. Do you want to write about gardening? Parenting? Marketing? Politics? Knitting? Usually this will be a topic you already know a lot about and could talk about for days without getting bored.

Image credit: rich701

Image credit: rich701

Again, you can definitely specialize in multiple topics and types of writing. But it’s better to establish yourself in one area first, before trying to expand to other niches.

3. Absorb knowledge like a sponge.

Once you’ve decided on a niche or specialty, learn everything you can about it. Read what other people are writing in that field. Connect with other freelancers who work in your niche through social media or forums, and ask them for guidance on how to get started.

Image credit: Gregory Moine

Image credit: Gregory Moine

There will be good books and online courses for beginners in the type of writing you’ve decided to specialize in. Ask for recommendations and go digging on Amazon. This approach should give you an idea of what the job entails and what to expect from clients.

4. Build your portfolio.

Start putting together as many samples in your niche as you can.

Unfortunately, this usually means working for free or very low rates for a little while…because you can’t prove you’re a good writer if you don’t have previous writing to show prospective clients.

Image credit: Brenda Starr

Image credit: Brenda Starr

Writing for your own blog is a good way to do this. But there’s also a lot of smaller publications who will take on inexperienced writers and help you get those first few clips. I don’t recommend writing more than 3-4 articles for free unless it would be a major boost to your portfolio or you’re writing them for your own blog. Having just a few samples should be enough to start getting jobs that pay.

 5. Research markets and potential clients.

Find out who buys the kind of writing that you do and what the usual rates are. Do a little digging to find job boards or market listings.

Image credit: John Martinez Pavliga

Image credit: John Martinez Pavliga

Writer’s Market is a great resource that will help you if you want to write for magazines. Freelance Writing Jobs is a site that aggregates writing job listings from across the web for all types of niches. BloggingPro has job listings specifically for freelance blog writers. A quick google search for your niche will usually pull up some good resources, too. (For example, search for “freelance magazine markets,” “book review markets,” or “science fiction markets.”)

6. Gather intelligence.

Get to know your chosen markets or clients before pitching ideas to them. See what other writing they’ve published in the past and make sure you’d be a good fit. Read them obsessively for a few days.

Image credit: Karen Eliot

Image credit: Karen Eliot

Then, and only then, should you approach them with your ideas. If there are publications you’re already in love with as a reader, try to find out if they accept submissions — those are the best place to start.

7. Keep a positive attitude.

Don’t give up! It can be really disheartening to get rejected by editors, and I won’t lie — it will happen to you. Frequently. But it does get easier, and as you gain more experience you’ll get a better idea of what different editors are looking for in their publications.

Image credit: Bryan Allison

Image credit: Bryan Allison

Tune in next week for a special guest post on how to promote your freelance business via Twitter. :)

What are your biggest questions about getting started as a freelance writer? Share them in the comments below and I’ll try to answer them in a future column!

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Julie is a professional freelance copywriter and blogger, as well as an editor for Curiosity Quills Press. She publishes her original art and flash fiction on her blog, Truth Is Weirder, and she loves helping others improve their poetry and prose as a creative writing coach. She lives in San Mateo, California, with her husband and two neurotic cats.
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