How to Become a Freelance Writer: Tips from the Trenches

I'll admit it, when I first dreamed of being a writer, I envisioned romantic bursts of inspiration, fancy parties, and, of course, major windfall for all my creative efforts. I was eight years-old at the time, so granted, my vision was idealised through the sugared-glaze of childhood. Even over a decade later, when I started writing professionally and could call myself a capital 'W' writer, I was not prepared for what it would entail to really make it in this profession over the long-haul.

And it is a long-haul. I've been a freelance writer for 15 years now, and this profession is not for the faint of heart. That's the bad news. The good news is that it is for the full of heart, so if words are your life and you have at least a smidgen of workable innate talent, then you stand a good chance of making it as a freelance writer. Of course, passion alone isn’t enough.

Keep reading. Here are my top tips how to become a freelance writer.

1. Don't Quit Your Day Job

Most of us don't have the luxury of living off savings (if we have any) while we wait for our freelance gig to pick up—and it will probably take some time to pick up. Even if you worked as a company writer for years, going freelance means you have to establish a reputation of your own: you can't rely on the reputation of a brand to back you up. So, while you're establishing yourself as a freelancer, it's always a good idea to have a reliable source of income as well. Even if it's just part-time, these funds will help support you through the dry-spells that are an inevitable part of freelancing at any stage in the game.

Quick word, though: if you already work as a writer for a company or organisation and plan to go freelance, be sure that your freelance work isn't gained through poaching any of your current employers clients. This is not only bad form, but likely, against company contract. You want clients? Go out and find your own.

2. Build a Social Presence

On the day I am writing this, our Instagram account is only a week old. Yep. It's a baby. (But, to our credit, we’ve been on Facebook a mite longer.) What took us so long to get on board the undeniable, seemingly unstoppable social media trend? Well, you know the old adage: the cobbler's children go barefoot. Our services include doing social copy and social media management for our clients, and we just never seemed to get around to doing it ourselves. Brutal, right? It is. With over three billion people using social media worldwide, social platforms are essential to building your brand as freelancer. A consistent social presence will help you gain an audience, increase awareness of your services, engage with current and prospective clients, build your authority and, the icing on the cake—it's free. All you need to do is invest a little time in creating engaging, like-worthy posts.


3. Don't Be Too Precious

I wrote a whole article being overly precious and it boils down to this simple fact: part of learning how to become a freelance writer involves learning how to cultivate your interests outside your established interests. You may live for travel writing, but National Geographic likely won't hire you off-the-hop. By all means, do as much travel writing as you can, but also, be willing to take on other projects in other fields. As a fledgling freelancer, you can't be too precious about what you will and will not write. As long as it isn't morally offensive or illegal, you should at least consider it. Besides, you never know what fascinating fields you can stumble into with an open-mind.

4. Don't Write for Free

Many, many online and print publications will tell you that "exposure" is your payment. Unless you work in the sex trade, exposure, unfortunately, does not pay the bills. What exactly you will be able to charge will depend on variable factors like your experience and the scope of the project in question, but if you want to become a successful freelance writer, you need to charge something. We sometimes do pro-bono work when the cause moves us, but this is the exception: certainly not the rule. Charge for your efforts.

Also, be sure to manage your money properly. Until you build a steady client-base—which can take years— your revenue will usually vary significantly from month-to-month. Feast and famine is part of #ThatFreelanceLife, so, when you get a cushy payment, after you pay your essentials, be sure to tuck some of it away for when times are tight.

How much should you charge as a freelance writer? Standard junior freelance rates can start as low as $20 per ~500 word article ($0.04 per word) while senior rates can go upwards of $150 for the same length ($0.30 per word). Rates also depend on what you're writing. For instance, $20 per 500 word article is decent for a piece you can knock-out in under an hour and requires little research, but if it takes more than that, you either have to increase your rate, or become more efficient. And speaking of which...


5. Get in the Grind

When you're writing for a living, the time-suck of writer's block is a luxury you cannot afford. Writing is a grind, and you simply need to write and write and revise and write and edit until the project is done. Don't sit there waiting for divine inspiration: just nail your butt to the chair, and start writing. Sure, the first paragraph or three may turn out to be a warm-up to get you to the real meat of the piece, but the time it took you to write those paragraphs (which will ultimately be scrapped) is far less than the time you would have spent staring at your blinking cursor doing nothing. Learning how to become a freelance writer largely involves the simple, unwavering commitment to just writing.

6. Keep Learning

Read. Voraciously. Anything you can get your hands on. Whether you're a creative writer or technical writer, reading is a wonderful way to keep refining your craft. Also, take courses to keep your qualifications tip-top. Enrol in an editing certification course, like the one at Simon Fraser. Read up on best practices for keyword optimisation. Take a Google business writing course. Some of these resources are free; others...not so much. But there is some truth to the saying, "It takes money to make money." Of course, you don't want to bankrupt yourself, so just do what you can, as you are able. Any advantage you give yourself is an advantage over your competition. Maintaining this edge is why our rag tag team of writers is constantly updating our certifications, learning, and honing our skills.

Read up on our top recommended resources for writers here.


7. Be Professional!

You’d think this would be self-explanatory, but sadly, it’s not. Just because you can work in your jammies doesn’t mean you can toss basic professionalism to the wind. Answer emails in a timely fashion. Manage your time so you can deliver on deadline. Correspond in complete sentences. If you have questions, ask. Be accountable. Don’t give excuses—no one’s interested. Do. Your. Job. Yes, life happens and sometimes the scat hits the fan, but if you’ve managed your time properly, there is usually no reason your clients have to know about your life’s mishaps. And, if you’ve cultivated a professional and dependable reputation, in the rare instances that you do need to adjust a deadline or step away from a project entirely, your clients will understand. They’ll still contact you when they need something done in the future. They’ll still recommend you to others.

Listen, freelance writing affords many freedoms, but freedom from accountability isn’t one of them. Unlike many other jobs, there is no one to stand in for you if you don’t show up. When you’re a freelance writer, your word really is your bond. Make it count.

Have questions or tips of your own? Share in the comments! Interested in our services? Contact us now.