A career as a freelance writer begins with a proposal. Most likely, you’ll be the one to make contact with a potential client. Before you get to that point, though – before you even start searching for jobs – there are some things you need to be aware of. I’m not talking general, “It takes a lot of time and you’re not always going to have fun” kind of warnings here. I’m talking about writing samples, money and statements of purpose.
Here are a few things you should know before you start your search.
Don’t have writing samples? Don’t bother (yet)
Every single prospective client I have ever sent a proposal to has asked for writing samples, even on Upwork. Social media profiles are great for showcasing you’re active online and are (hopefully) good at communicating with others. But no one – especially someone looking for a writer to help them produce content, often because they’re trying to grow their business and can no longer do it themselves – is going to dig through your online profiles to find your work.
Occasionally, potential clients will ask for two or three samples sent as Word documents. I’m not sure why people still think this is a convenient way to showcase documents online, but you just have to do what they tell you; it’s not that big of a deal. Most of the time, in my proposal (what I like to call a cover letter someone will actually read), I include a link to my online portfolio. It’s literally just a free WordPress site with my name at the top and links to every viewable online article I’ve published under my name. Someone looking at it can click on any of the links and get immediate access to my work at their own convenience. It’s more convenient for everyone. Of course, if you’re going to do something like that, you need writing samples first. That’s where a lot of people, unfortunately, struggle. Usually, simply linking to your blog isn’t specific enough.
How do you get more, or better online samples to put into a portfolio of some kind? Great question: more on that later. Honestly, building up a solid foundation of samples is what takes the longest. The reason I wasn’t able to jump right from a full-time job into freelancing was because I just didn’t have a good enough variety of samples to show off. It took me six months to build my portfolio. I’m looking forward to sharing my insights and suggestions on this topic very soon.
Never agree to work with clients who can’t pay what you’re worth
A month into freelancing, I agreed to write 40 articles for less than $100 total. I hadn’t really earned that much money writing professionally yet, so I was just eager to work with a new client and fill my Upwork profile with more work experience. I had done my research – I knew it was not a rate I should have agreed to even that early on in my career. I figured I could write the articles within a few weeks and move on to something else.
It quickly turned into hours upon hours – several months – of research, submissions and rewrites. Basically, I did a ton of extra work for free. The second that 40th article was approved, I peacefully and respectfully ended the contract. I now reject every job offer that will not pay me a reasonable amount for my time. It’s nothing personal – I spoke back-and-forth with a potential client several times about a project he needed done. He couldn’t afford my rate, and we went our separate ways. Business is business.
There are some jobs out there suited for more inexperienced writers who need to charge lower rates. And there are some clients who, for some reason, just refuse to pay writers an acceptable amount for their work. Those jobs and clients aren’t worth your time. Trust me. In the beginning, you’ll want to jump at any opportunity that comes your way. Be careful, and don’t be afraid to bid for a higher rate (I started out at $0.03/word because I had very little freelancing experience). Especially if you are trying to make a large percentage of your monthly income from writing.
Know your “why”
My freelancing experience might be a little different than yours. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know of at least a few people who started freelance writing as college students to make extra money and get experience. I was too busy in undergrad to do this, plus I was interning for an online magazine, which at the time seemed like a much more valuable opportunity (there are pros and cons to both routes). I didn’t even start freelancing right out of college. I was a year past finishing both of my degrees, and halfway through graduate school, when I signed with my first client.
Many people start out freelancing because they want to make money writing; not everyone knows their preferred niche. Because I had experience with health writing and was halfway through an MS in health communication, I already knew I wanted to write only in the health space. I didn’t find clients that fit my mission right away, because I honestly didn’t really know how to look or find the right clients. All but one of my clients have me write and edit for health-focused websites. I no longer search aimlessly for new jobs: I know exactly what I’m looking for. It took me awhile to get there, but it was worth struggling a little bit before I settled in.
The more confident you are in your preferred genre or niche, the better of an experience you’re going to have, especially in the beginning. Saying you’re a professional writer really doesn’t say much about what you can offer clients. It might take you awhile to figure out what you want to write about, and it’s OK to work with different clients in different niches to help narrow down your focus. When you have a purpose for doing what you do, though, it seems a lot less like work. Sometimes I don’t want to write about dieting. But if an article about dieting is going to help someone change their life, I’m happy to be an indirect motivator.
I don’t need to drag out the obvious – that freelance writing is hard, and going full-time takes months if not years, and it’s certainly not for everyone. If you’re thinking about freelancing, don’t just do it for the money, because, especially at first, it’s not very good money. Build up your collection of writing samples in any way you can. Be smart about the rates you agree to. And have a good reason for doing what you’re doing. At first I did it because I couldn’t get another job, but I’ve found that the experience, and pretty much making a living doing something I’m good at, is definitely worth the 10-hour days.
If you have any other questions about freelance writing, leave them down in the comments. I’ll either link you to a previous post that has the info you’re looking for or chat with you personally (in comments).
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.