For anyone who loves working with words, freelance writing sounds like a dream job. It’s a career that offers location freedom, schedule flexibility, and unlimited variety in your day-to-day work.
But, like any business, it’s hard to know exactly how to get started. And between creating portfolio samples, marketing yourself, and finding clients it can be downright overwhelming. So we’re here to walk you through launching your freelance writing business, step by step. Read on to learn exactly how to get started with freelance writing from the ground up.
Step One: Decide Between Full Time and Part Time
While it’s tempting to dive into figuring out what kind of freelance writing you’ll do, there’s a much more important question to ask first:
Will you go full time or part time?
This decision can have an enormous impact on the workload and marketing projects you can take on while freelancing. And neither way is right or wrong—they simply have certain advantages and disadvantages.
If you go full time, you can focus your full attention on your business, which means you can tackle more projects and more labor-intensive marketing tactics. However, if freelancing is your sole means of support, the high pressure can be draining and make it easier to burn out.
Part-time freelancing along with another part- or full-time role can definitely ease the pressure. If freelancing is an extra—not sole—income stream, you can also be more selective about the projects you take on. But going part time also limits your attention. You may not have the bandwidth for huge projects or marketing campaigns. Plus, staying motivated and keeping the procrastination imps at bay can be much more difficult.
In the end, the choice comes down to your personal situation and your risk tolerance. Like anyone starting a business, factor in what’s right for you. If you could use some extra help, skim these articles for an entrepreneur’s perspective on making the jump:
- Starting a Part-Time vs. Full-Time Business
- Should You Start Your Business Part Time or Full Time?
- Being a Part-Time Entrepreneur
Step Two: Find Your Freelance Writing Niche
If you’ve researched freelance writing at any point in the past, you’re probably sick of hearing this advice. But, it’s common because it’s true.
Think about it. The term “freelance writer” returns 232 million results on Google. There are millions of freelance writers around the world.
But what about freelance writers who write exclusively on new pharmaceutical drugs and medical therapies? Or writers who only work with early stage start-ups in accelerators? Or freelancers who teach authors how to market their books? How many writers are in each of those niches?
Maybe a few thousand.
Niches weed out competitors and narrow your target audience so you know exactly who your ideal clients are, which makes your marketing much simpler. After all, the better you know your ideal clients, the easier it is to put yourself in their shoes to target your pitches and copywriting.
Don’t forget that your niche will also involve what kind of freelance writing you do. White papers, blog posts, video scripts, email sequences, website copy, interviews—the content form types are endless and ever-changing.
So, how do you choose your niche?
First, write out a list of topics you’re fairly knowledgeable in. You don’t need a professional degree—simply decent working knowledge. You can always research more in-depth for specific projects.
Now, review your list and star the topics you’re passionate or curious about. Not every starred topic has to be one you could learn about for hours without getting bored. You just need to think: “Oh hey, this is neat!”
Research the profitability of those topics as potential niches. Your audience needs to be small enough to be specific, but not so small that you have a client pool of two. Plus, clients should have a need and budget available for your content (Ramit Sethi has an outstanding collection of advice on validating your target audience). If you’re lost on which niche might be the most profitable, guides like this one and this one can help steer you in the right direction.
Look at the bigger picture with your interests, too. Is there a way you can combine two of your interests to produce something different? This kind of skill stacking often leads to more creative prospects that can differentiate you even further from your competitors.
Next, consider the common content formats in the industries you’re interested in. Would you enjoy working with those formats? Do you need to learn any new skills to start writing in the format?
A word of warning: don’t force yourself to write in a niche or content form you dislike just because you think it’s profitable. Taking on a one-off project is fine to try out a new vertical or content format. But if you take on those types of projects consistently, you’ll start becoming known for that vertical or format. And soon, all your clients will want you to do that work for them. So if you hate writing email sequences, spending all of your time writing them for your clients is nothing more than a recipe for misery.
And don’t worry about narrowing your niche down to only one area. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with three to five niches in the beginning. And, if you find out you’re not interested in them, you can always switch to other niches later on.
So you have your starting niches. What’s next?
Step Three: Build Your Freelance Portfolio
Ah, the dreaded “P” word. No other word causes instant ripples of nausea in a creative field quite like it.
Usually, this is the point that most new freelance writers fly into a tailspin. They hear the term and say: “Oh, but I don’t have anything I can share!” or “I need at least fifty samples to show to clients!”
To quote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… don’t panic.
In the first place, you probably have more work to share than you think. You don’t stumble into an interest in freelance writing without… writing!
Think about the projects you’ve done over your working career or volunteer projects. At first, your samples don’t have to reflect your specific niche. You simply need to showcase your writing skills.
But, on the off-chance that you don’t have any samples you can show to potential clients, you still shouldn’t worry. You can build your portfolio.
There are two ways to run with the “Starting from nothing” route. You can offer free work or build your personal brand.
To take the free work route, reach out to friends, acquaintances—anyone in your personal network—who may need writing done and offer to do it for free. To run with the personal brand option, start your own blog or write on sites like Medium to establish your credibility within your niche.
There are pros and cons to both routes.
Free Work Pros
- You’ll start working with clients from day one
- You can receive client testimonials
- May get work faster as it uses your personal network
Free Work Cons*
- Since you’re working with personal connections, you may initially only work with local businesses (which can have different needs than the digital world)
- You’ll likely be writing outside of your intended niche
- May not have the “recognition boost” that comes with being accepted into online publications
Personal Brand Pros:
- You have complete control over who and where you submit to
- You can write about any niche you’d like
- The schedule is completely on your terms
Personal Brand Cons:
- Takes intense self-discipline to stay consistent with publishing (since the schedule is completely on your terms)
- No client testimonials
- May be harder to get noticed as there’s much higher competition for attention
Whichever route you choose, don’t get caught in a constant cycle of “portfolio building.” Set a goal, then start your outreach to paying clients once you hit that goal. A good benchmark for the free work route is 3 to 7 projects, depending on length and available client testimonials. For the personal branding route, between 10 and 25 self-published pieces (again, depending upon length, acceptance into online publications, etc.) is a smart goal.
And finally, don’t get caught up in thinking you need a fancy website to call it your “portfolio.” A LinkedIn profile tailored to your client base with links to your work is often enough for your first few paying clients. Worry about the website and other bells and whistles after you have a steady stream of work coming in.
Speaking of a steady steam of work…
Step Four: Find Your Clients
Clients—they’re the lifeblood of any business.
So the big question facing any new freelancer is: where exactly do I find them?
For freelance writers, there are four primary ways to find clients:
- Cold pitching
- Referrals from other clients
- Freelance writing networks
- Expertise, authority, and trust (EAT) method
Let’s dive into each one.
The tactic everyone loves to hate. But there’s a good reason you’ll see it on every “how to get clients” guide out there: it works… when it’s done right.
So how can you set your pitches apart from the dreaded sea of spam-pitches?
First, your first step is not pitching. Your first step is research.
Start by brainstorming types of clients who might need your brand of writing services. If your specialty is medical writing, potential clients might be clinics or medicine-adjacent start-ups. If you specialize in travel writing, hotels and restaurants in resort towns might be options. At this stage, cast your net wide—don’t limit yourself.
Next, visit LinkedIn and begin exploring companies in your selected industries or verticals. Narrow your search down to your most likely clients. You want clients who are small enough to be accessible (pitches to large corporations will likely be ignored), but large enough to have a content budget.
Now, research each potential client individually. Check company social media pages (especially LinkedIn) and read recent announcements, news, events, or press releases. If you’re a data geek, check sources like Buzzsumo for recent company mentions and their content’s social engagement. Look for anything that can help you find more information on what the company needs.
As you research, you’ll see places you can help. Is the company a huge content operation that needs long-form articles? Are they advertising for a new target market and need content that caters to the new audience? Or have they told you upfront they’re looking for specific content in a social media post?
If you have more time to dedicate to client research, this is a great time to engage with the company on social media, Medium, or on the company’s blog. If you know who manages the company’s content operations, interact with them too. But please connect authentically. Nothing’s quite as off-putting as canned/insincere commentary—or worse, sales pitches disguised as comments.
Once you’re confident that you understand what the company needs, then you can pitch. Craft a pitch that addresses to the company’s pain points. Don’t be shy about citing your research. Because the pitch is ultimately about:
- How well you understand the client
- How you can help
Finally, make a note of what company you pitched to, who you sent the pitch to, and when you sent the pitch. This can be helpful in preventing too-early follow-ups and accidental re-pitches.
From here, it’s a matter of rinse and repeat.
Learn more about pitching your writing in our upcoming webinar:
In this webinar, Professor of Business Communication A.J. Ogilvie will explain how to approach an organization or brand to pitch your writing, why “fit” is everything, and why when it comes to sending emails, quality is more important than quantity.
Referrals from Other Clients
This strategy can be a gold mine for getting new clients.
Sometimes, this will happen spontaneously, especially if clients loved working with you. But it never hurts to ask.
The referral strategy is easy to use. In an email or conversation with a client, tack on a comment like: “By the way, if you were happy with my work, I’d really appreciate any referrals.”
The key is to keep things casual and brief. Put too much pressure and you risk souring your relationship with the client. So make your ask and let the client decide to pass your name along.
If you want to use this strategy a bit more aggressively, offer a discount to the referring client and the individuals they refer. This makes it an easy win for everyone involved. And the extra incentive can quickly turn referrals into a flywheel to grow your client list.
Freelance Writing Networks
Imagine a world where you have a network of trusted friends who are also freelance writers. Occasionally, those friends have clients they can’t take on. So, they point the clients your way.
It might sound like a fantasy realm, but it’s quite real. Welcome to the world of freelance writing networks.
Freelance writing networks are any place freelance writers gather. Usually, they’re spaces to ask questions, find resources, or vent frustrations, but many also offer job postings or entire job boards.
Fortunately, there’s a network for almost every freelance writing niche you can think of. Try starting with networks on social media like Facebook Groups or forums. These are easy to get started in and a great way to grow your network. Some sites, like Darren Rowse’s ProBlogger, post jobs without requiring a membership. But user-only networks like Communo are also worth considering.
While free freelancer networks are a great way to get started, it can pay off to join paid communities. Paid networks may have more consistent opportunities and/or higher quality jobs available. Carol Tice’s Freelance Writers Den, Joanna Wiebe’s Copyhackers’ community and Copyblogger’s Pro community are all great examples of paid freelance communities.
Regardless of what network you choose, engage regularly. The opportunities that open up simply because you’re sharing your expertise may surprise you.
Expertise, Authority, and Trust Method
It’s every freelancer’s dream to have clients come to them, rather than the other way around. And it’s exactly what the expertise, authority, and trust (EAT) method can do for you.
In theory, EAT is straightforward: you focus on building your brand and creating stellar content that gets noticed. As you become a trusted authority in your niche, your name will crop up more and more when potential clients research that niche. And because you’re an expert, those clients will want to work with you.
In reality, however, it’s much more complicated. Depending on how competitive your niche is, it can take months if not years to achieve recognition as an authoritative voice. And like the brand-building method of portfolio creation, it requires relentless consistency and dedication.
But all the work pays off: you won’t need to search for clients, they’ll find you.
There are hundreds of ways to “hack” EAT and become a recognized expert faster. However, they have varying levels of success and can often depend on dumb luck (like having an article go “viral”).
So, what’s the most consistent way to attain EAT?
Extraordinary content out-researches your competitors. It’s longer, more detailed, and more complete than any other guide on the market. Coincidentally, this is also a great way to build links—so check out our favorite link-building techniques for more information on the specifics of writing extraordinary content.
Produce enough of this amazing content on a consistent basis, and you’ll be on your way to EAT in no time.
With these four steps complete, you’ll be well on your way to a successful freelance writing business. Though like any part of writing, freelance writing is a game of constant improvement. If you’d like to keep leveling up your business, check out these links:
- The Best Freelance Writing Courses
- The Different Types of Writing Contracts and How to Approach Them
- 12 Ways to Become a Subject Matter Expert
- The Introvert’s Guide to Promoting Your Freelance Writing Business
- How to Price Your Writing Services