10 ways to make yourself a more successful freelancer

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If you’ve ever thought of pursuing a freelance writing career, learn the steps you need to take to make yourself a more successful freelancer.

I was 25 years old when I sold my first article to a national magazine. It took me about three years to make that sale but, I didn’t care. I was thrilled! The sale convinced me I’d finally made it as a freelancer. (Although right after that, I landed a full-time job at a daily newspaper.)

Now that it’s 2020, and we’re in the midst of a pandemic, people often ask me if it’s still possible to make a living as a freelance writer. Here’s what I say:

It’s easier to get published, but it’s harder to get paid for it. 

People are reading more than ever before but they generally expect the words they consume to be free. There are more than 500 million blogs in the world and while some of them are poorly written, many are excellent and most don’t charge you a red cent for reading them. The big problem is that the main source of revenue for freelancers — advertising — is currently going mainly to social media, which means there isn’t enough revenue to sustain freelance journalists.  

I’m not saying it’s impossible to write for money, but don’t quit your day job too fast. If you want to become a freelance writer, approach the job as a side hustle and leave your day job only once you’ve been able to generate significant income as a freelancer.

So how do you take those first tentative steps? 

Understand that being a good writer is the least important qualification you need. Instead, you require: determination, persistence, good organizational skills and immunity to rejection. If you have all these attributes, here are the 10 steps you should take:

1-Choose the main type of writing you want to do. Don’t look at journalism, which doesn’t have enough money anymore. Instead, consider the following four basic categories:

  • Blogging: A percentage of blogs pay writers to create content for them. Look for submission guidelines on every site you visit to see if they’re paying for work.
  • Copywriting: This is where you write sales copy for businesses. It pays better than most other types of freelancing because it generates sales but it also requires more skill and a deeper understanding of how to do it. (Consider taking a copywriting course if you want to pursue this type of work.)
  • Technical writing: You know those instructions about how to put together your Ikea furniture? That is technical writing (although perhaps not an example of doing it well!) Technical writing is all about documenting processes. If you have any expertise in a particular area (software, engineering, marketing), you can likely parlay it into technical writing work.  
  • B2B writing: This type of writing relates to businesses talking to other businesses. The work could be writing white papers, marketing initiatives, sales copy, internal documents or even blog posts. The one stipulation is that it doesn’t involve consumers. The information direction goes from one company to the next (or within one company.)

2-Choose a niche that you want to specialize in. Why do you need a niche when you’ve already chosen a type? A couple of reasons: First, it will give you some economies of scale because you’ll build expertise in a specific area. (For example, if you research how to book affordable flights, you can likely use that info in dozens of stories if you’re a travel writer.) Second, this specialty will make you more valuable. For example, people who want a dentist specializing in root canals will pay more to see an endodontist than a general dentist. Specialize and you’ll generally get paid more. Here are some of the niches you might want to consider:

  • Travel
  • Food and cooking
  • Parenting and relationships
  • Personal finance
  • Fitness

3-Build your website: To be able to sell yourself, you need a website. It doesn’t have to be huge or super-fancy, but it needs to exist. A website is as basic as a business card used to be. If you’re short on cash, hire a smart high school student to build it for you. And get professional photos taken of yourself for it. Also, have an email address that sounds professional. You don’t want something like: bigbrowneyes33@gmail.com. And, while you’re at it, set up a LinkedIn profile as well. This is an excellent way of marketing yourself and freelance writing is 90% about the marketing. 

4-Create your portfolio: This is going to sound like a Catch-22 but to succeed as a freelancer you must already have succeeded as a freelancer. In other words, you need a portfolio displaying samples of your work. This is the ONLY way editors or employers will understand that you are capable of doing what you say you can do. If you can’t get paying jobs from friends, colleagues or family members, consider investing some time writing for no charge. Many non-profits are looking for free help (especially in these days of COVID) so you can build your portfolio quite easily writing for them. 

5-Develop an “elevator pitch:” An elevator pitch is a 30-second verbal summary of the writing work you want to do. It’s handy because it allows you to convey your message quickly and succinctly. Here’s an example: “I’m a freelancer specializing in parenting. I’m the mother of triplets and, with years of practice, I learned how to cope when I was seriously outnumbered. My writing has appeared in daily newspapers, magazines and blogs and I can produce a 500-word story in the time it takes to calm a shrieking toddler.”

6-Build a robust pitching schedule: The standard approach to an editor or a company you want to hire you is called a “pitch.” Here are my tips on how to make more successful pitches. A few other pieces of advice: Don’t send your pitches on a Friday; add a few personal touches to your letter or email so you stand out in the crowd; always have a number of pitches out in the world at the same time — it may take weeks before you hear back on any one of them. 

7-Manage your time effectively: The big secret to being a successful freelancer is to be an expert at managing your time. Treat your work like a job, not a hobby. Don’t spend too much time socializing when you should be working. Start on every assignment as soon as you receive it. Never miss a deadline. People don’t fail at freelancing because they’re bad writers; they fail because they don’t manage their own time. 

8-Read books about the business of freelance writing: Two I recommend are The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell, and The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman.

9-Find a mentor or coach: This person should help you improve the quality of your writing OR manage your business better. Or both. Invest in yourself and get help when you need it. I coach others but I’ve also had a passel of coaching myself, and it’s helped me a great deal. 

10-Always be marketing: If you want to survive the debilitating feast-or-famine nature of freelancing, be sure to follow my advice in a post on that topic. And remember, the hardest thing to manage is having too much work. When that happens, you’ll want to stop marketing. But that instinct is 100% misguided. Why? Because you will surely need more work three months from now. And if you don’t market today, you won’t have work then. 

Keep reminding yourself that the most successful freelance writers aren’t necessarily the best writers. They’re the ones who treat writing as a business. 

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Consider joining my three-month accountability program called Get It Done. If you already know you want to apply, go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week described how academics can find more time to write. Or, see the transcript,  and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Have you ever done any freelance writing? What are your secrets for success? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!