Freelance writing can be rewarding, fun, and freeing, but it can also be challenging, difficult, and constraining. Freelancing is not for everyone, but if you are determined to give it a shot, let’s explore some of the aspects of this career.
What is freelancing?
The word “freelance” has some unfortunate associations. It dates to medieval times, and refers to the mercenaries who sold their military skills (their “lances”) to the highest bidder, whether a nation or a nobleman. In modern terms, freelancers are hired guns. But freelance work is extremely popular, particularly as more people have discovered the advantages of working from home. One source shows that the number of freelancers in the United States has been growing steadily, from 57.3 million in 2017 to 73.3 million in 2023, to an estimated 90.1 million in 2028. Another source estimates that 38% of the U.S. workforce freelances. Obviously, not all freelancers are writers, but the fact that this segment is growing indicates there will be a demand for this type of worker in the foreseeable future.
One basic fact
If you’re going to work as a freelance writer, you must be able to write, and write well. You are going to be communicating with others about your chosen subject, using words as your tools. If you are uncertain of your skills, there are dozens of tutorials available on YouTube that will help you learn correct grammar, punctuation, paragraphing, and other basic grammar skills. Websites are also helpful if you need to look up something like “How to use quotation marks in a sentence.” Make sure you have solid writing techniques at your fingertips before you begin your journey as a freelance writer.
There is no right way to get started, because everyone does it differently, and what works for one person might not be successful for you. Writers are often told “Write what you know,” but that is poor advice in this scenario, since one of your best options is to write as much as you can, on any subject, to create enough material to assemble a portfolio. Since you are starting out without experience, you probably have few or no articles, but you may have papers you’ve written for school. You can use them as part of your portfolio, but you also want to have something more professional. Consider what type of publication you’d like to pitch, and write pieces they would accept. At this point, your goal is to have a decent number of pieces available to use as samples. A potential client who sees that you have an entire body of work at hand understands that you can complete an assignment.
You could also use your family and friends as “guinea pigs” for your efforts. The idea is for you to practice writing as much as possible, and nothing is off limits. If you know a small business owner, you could write about their business and pitch the profile to a small neighborhood publication. At this stage, you should also save everything you write. As you grow and learn, you will discard some of these earlier pieces.
However, you cannot take work directly from the printer and place it in your portfolio, or simply save it in your online folder. You must edit it, and that is a skill in itself. There is a saying that “Writing is rewriting,” because it is the proofreading, modifying, adding, and deleting that craft the piece into a sellable product.
Start by rereading the piece just for the feel of it. Once you’ve done that, then go line by line, looking for misspellings, awkward usage, areas where the action or ideas are unclear, and check to see that the piece develops logically and flows well. Once you have finished your in-depth edit, set the piece aside for several days, then look at it again. You will see mistakes you missed the first time.
There are two tricks you can use to help edit when you begin this second edit. The first is to read it back to front, going sentence by sentence. That is, read the last sentence first, then the one before that, and so on, until you reach the beginning of the article. Reading the material out of order forces you to look at it in a new way.
You can also use a screenwriter’s trick, and that is to read it aloud while you walk. You will find yourself speeding up and slowing down automatically as you unconsciously respond to the rhythm of the words. If you find yourself coming to a complete stop, you’ll know you’ve found a spot where a reader will stop as well, which is not something you want.
One of the best tools available to you is a beta reader. This is another person who will go over your article and give you honest feedback. You need to take care in choosing this person, because you want a valuable opinion, not lavish praise from your mom or a bashing from a friend who prides themselves on being “brutally honest.” Choose someone who knows both how to write and how to critique.
Finally, learn when to disregard advice. If you try to respond to every piece of criticism to satisfy the wildly varying opinions of your critics, you will end up with a mess of an article that doesn’t reflect you, and which will not be sellable. Put some thought into your choice of beta readers. If they love science fiction and anime, they are not a good fit for your historical novel. This principle applies to your short, non-fiction pieces as well. If you’re narrowing down your interests and want to write for “Farm Journal,” for instance, giving your work to someone who is a self-proclaimed city lover who knows nothing about the country is going to be frustrating for everyone, and you won’t get the feedback you need.
Dealing with SEO
Although there are many publications that are still printed on paper, and you will want to pitch to them, you will undoubtedly do a lot of your work online. That means you must be familiar with the concept of search engine optimization (SEO). Simply put, using SEO means your page will rank high in the results returned by the web crawlers. Studies have shown that most people look only at the first few results at the top of the first page; few bother to go to the second page. You want your results to appear in those critical first few slots.
To understand SEO and its importance, let’s take a (very very brief—this subject could fill volumes) look at how search engines rank their findings.
Search engines like Bing and Google use crawlers (also called bots or spiders) to gather information from throughout the internet to place in their indexes, which are mammoth databases. To collect data, the crawlers start by going to a known web page, and then following links to other pages.
For example, visiting Nordstrom.com will bring up the main website for the retailer, but a quick scan of the main page reveals dozens of links. Many go directly to products, but others go to subjects, rather than individual items. Under the heading “About Us,” for instance, you’ll find a list of links that include titles like “Careers,” “Corporate Social Responsibility,” and “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Belonging.”
Let’s click on the “Diversity” link. That brings up Nordstrom’s statement of its commitment to social justice, but it also includes more links. A crawler searching the web will bring back not only the information on the main page, but all it has gathered by following the links. This is a vast amount of data that will be placed on the search engine’s index. Once there, Google or whatever engine is searching will use that content to understand what the latest page is about and how it relates to the rest of the information it has indexed relative to Nordstrom.
How does this relate to you? If you’re writing about Nordstrom, you are diving into a complex web of terms that go far beyond the basic “Who is Nordstrom” query. When you are aware of this, you can ensure that you include terms that will be relevant to all the pages. That is, when you write about this high-end retailer, don’t limit yourself to the latest sale. Add in information about its inclusivity, its work with disadvantaged communities, social issues, and its stand on employment. When you demonstrate an understanding of SEO and use it in your writing, you save your client the effort of having to go back through your piece to put in the terms the crawlers look for.
Which, of course, begs the question: How do you know what terms catch the bots’ attention? Luckily, there’s a whole bunch of websites that will tell you who’s looking for what and which keywords are searched for most frequently. Moz.com and Ahrefs are two of the most popular.
You’ve now finished a reasonable number of pieces, made sure you have inserted SEO terms to help with the ranking, and are ready to start looking for work. What now?
That elusive first job
Freelancing is tough, and it’s likely you’ll have to work to land that first assignment. Few writers are lucky enough to take off immediately, although some do. Don’t get discouraged, and remember that you will never find work if you give up.
Once you have a portfolio you can start pitching publications directly, or try finding work through one of the many websites that hires freelancers. These include UpWork, Fiverr, CraigsList, and FlexJobs. Freelancers can create an account on most of these sites for free. Once you have signed up, you can bid on jobs, but once hired, you sometimes must pay a fee for certain projects.
You will also be competing with hundreds, if not thousands, of other freelancers. Trying to break in this way really is a numbers game, and you have to be willing to stick to it and keep applying for projects. The uncomfortable reality is that once a writer has proven they can do an excellent job on time, the site is likely to turn to them repeatedly, rather than taking a chance on a “newbie.” However, many people do get their start this way, but as noted, be prepared for disappointment.
In addition, most of these sites will ask for a writing sample which is then “read” by a computer. You may be rejected without a human ever seeing your work. You will need to remain undeterred by this possibility.
Pitch directly to editors
All publications, both traditional and online, have editors. These are the people who will make or break you, and they are also the people you need to contact to present your work. In addition, publications have guidelines you must follow if you want to be considered, and they are not secret—they’re readily available on the magazine’s website. Editors are busy and will toss your article in the circular file if you deviate from their rules.
The first thing you should think about is whether this publication is one you genuinely enjoy. Yes, you need to be writing as much as possible, but you should also think about narrowing your focus, because you will be reading as many volumes of this magazine/newspaper/publication as possible before you pitch to them. If they are vegan lifestyle magazine, please do not send them your article on how to grill the perfect hamburger. Read, and if you find their products or services uninteresting, cross them off your list. Writing about subjects you find boring or annoying is a special torture of its own.
However, if you love the publication, think you can bring a fresh slant to the material, and would be happy writing about this organization in depth, check the guidelines carefully and find out how you can submit your work. Many editors will accept work via email, but almost all will want a query letter first.
There’s another subject that deserves its own chapter—how to write a compelling query letter. You must show them in a few words why they should look at your article and eventually pay you for it. That means it has to be engaging, well-written and relevant to their readers. Do your homework before you pitch. Oh, and spell the editor’s name correctly, please.
One way many writers start building their portfolio and gaining exposure is to start their own blog. The only things you need to launch your blog are a computer, an internet connection, and the desire to write about something you enjoy. This is the one area in which you can concentrate on something you love, explore it in depth, and write for the sheer enjoyment of sharing your passion with others. The subject of your blog can be anything from chronicles of your travels to cats to steam locomotives.
However, if you are thinking of blogging, you first need a website to host the blog. There are options such as GoDaddy, WIX, WordPress, and other platforms that allow you to create your own website in a few steps. Building your site is not as easy as they would like you to believe, but it is not impossible, and help is available from the sites themselves. At the most basic level, you can build a site for free, but if you want additional functionality, you will have to pay a small fee.
Once you have your site up and running, use it to host your blog. However, before you launch, you should write several blog posts so that you have material available and can set a schedule and meet it. You want to have as many available as possible, depending on how often you plan to make a post. If you are aiming at a daily blog post—which is a huge commitment of time and effort—you may want to have 30 pieces finished before you start. It is probably more realistic to update weekly, but whatever schedule you decide, you must commit to it and publish on time.
Writing a blog will give you a great deal of writing practice, and if you develop a substantial following, you may have a chance to monetize your efforts by running ads.
Once you have some blogging experience, you can continue your career by posting some of your material on other blogs, with the owners’ permission, of course. You should only post about subjects that will be meaningful to the readers of the other blog.
One of the best things you can do is network with other freelancers. Reach out to other writers, to people you know who run a business—anyone and everyone. You might find another busy freelancer who has an article they will give to you because they’re too overloaded to finish the project. They could introduce you to others who will help you develop your network. Using others to help you is not silly or selfish, but a time-honored, effective way to find business opportunities.
That sounds like a lot of work
Yep, it is. But freelancing also gives you something most people lack—complete control over your work schedule and your product. If you can create an arrangement that allows you to meet your deadlines and stick to it, you may find freelancing is for you.
If you’re thinking about giving this madness a try, our editors at Words of Worth would be delighted to hear from you, so contact us today.