Essential Tips for Beginner Freelance Writers

CAREER

 

 

Figure out how to stand out in the freelance writing industry.

 

I started my career as a freelance writer because I lost my job. After interviewing with a copywriting agency for a position that paid $10 an hour, I thought, “Why would I accept that pay when I could just hang out a shingle for myself?

Back then, though, there were few resources that provided tips for beginner freelance writers.

A few months ago, I accepted a full-time job that remains in the realm of content marketing. But I still have a soft spot for freelance writers.

As much as this job can suck on occasion, it’s also one of the most rewarding careers in the world. Especially if, you know, you enjoy writing.

But how do you get your foot in the door? How do you find success sooner rather than later? How can you generate a full-time income from freelancing?

Those are the types of questions that I’m going to address in my tips for beginner freelance writers. The sooner you know, the easier it will become to make good choices.

And good choices matter. I can’t stress that enough.

I made a lot of bad choices early in my freelance writing career. They hurt me professionally, financially, and emotionally. I don’t want that to happen to you.

How to Apply These Tips for Beginner Freelance Writers

I recommend printing this article out. Read through it in hard copy form. Highlight the parts you want to remember.

Reading these tips for beginner freelance writers just once won’t do it. You need to ingrain these strategies in your mind so you don’t forget them.

It’s easy to forget — especially when you’re drowning in debt, wondering how you’ll keep the lights on, and wondering why clients won’t return your emails.

Yes, those things can happen.

But they don’t have to. If you follow these tips, you’ll get your freelance writing career off to a hell of a start. I wish I’d known them when I dipped my toes in the freelance writing whirlpool.

Without further ado, let’s get to the good stuff.

1. Hunt for Work Every Single Day

It’s a bitch, I know. But if you get lazy about applying for jobs, sending pitches, and filling out applications, work will dry up quickly.

Many times during my freelance writing career, I got complacent. “I have plenty of work,” I thought. “Why should I hustle?”

Big mistake.

Jobs can disappear with no more warning than an email that starts with, “I’m sorry to inform you that…” Then what will you do?

No, you shouldn’t take on more work than you can handle. But you should constantly look for new opportunities.

Maybe you’ll find a gig that pays better. Perhaps you’ll discover a niche you never considered before.

2. Get to Know Your Peers

I often felt isolated as a freelance writer. Even as a self-professed (and die-hard) introvert, I still sometimes craved human connection.

Back when I started, Twitter didn’t exist and Facebook was still only open to college students. There were a few forums dedicated to freelance writers, but I didn’t join any of them.

Consequently, when I faced a problem or felt hopeless about my career, I had no one to whom to turn.

I could unload on my friends and family members, but none of them worked as freelance writers. They commiserated, but they couldn’t really understand.

That’s why you need a community. People who get what you do, why you do it, and why you sometimes want to quit.

3. Find a Specialty

For the first six years of my freelance writing career, I wrote about everything.

Septic systems? Check.

Cross-stitch patterns? Check.

The best hotels in Carthage, Indiana? Check.

That’s no way to build a career. While I got steady work, I didn’t feel as though I was building toward anything.

Finding a specialty might feel like you’re limiting your options. And you are (more on that later).

However, it’s essential if you want to build a career that involves writing content about which you’re passionate. I’m not just talking about financial health here. I’m also talking emotional health.

When I write about something I care about, the words come easier. They flow better. My clients offer more praise.

There’s a reason for that.

4. Feed on Optimism

Here’s something you might not know about me: I’m a pessimist. More accurately, I’m a worrier, and worry breeds pessimism.

I figure that, if something could go wrong, it will. That’s not a terribly productive mindset.

Among my most important tips for beginner freelance writers is this: Embrace and nurture optimism. Don’t let negativity rule your mental landscape.

This isn’t some self-help psychobabble. I’m not talking about turning yourself into a regular Pollyanna.

I’m just suggesting that optimism can help you through the tough times and allow you to appreciate the good times.

Money will flow. Money will ebb. Clients will rave about your unsurpassed talent. Clients will complain that you’ve gotten it wrong again.

Through all that, an optimistic outlook — one of hope — will save you from despair.

5. Spend Wisely

Here’s what I got right. I was raised by a mother who could stretch a dollar around the block 10 times and still have 50 cents left over. Frugality is part of my basic makeup.

Use coupons. Buy off-brand merchandise. Don’t replace something unless it’s broken beyond repair. Live in the cheapest accommodations that still offer safety.

People who tell you that you’ll roll in hundred-dollar bills after a few months of freelance work are lying to you. Go ahead, write that down. They’re liars.

Even if you nail a few high-dollar clients up front, you’ll still experience periods of economic instability. It helps if you have a safety net.

Build your savings. Take joy in activities and pursuits that don’t drain your bank account. View frugality as a challenge — one you’re determined to meet.

It pays off. When I bought my first brand new car, I put down $11,000. It felt like the most luxurious, spendthrifty thing I could imagine.

But I could afford it, and it’s always more satisfying to buy things you can afford than to put them on plastic and hope you can meet the monthly minimum payment.

6. Realize That Art Doesn’t Matter

Freelance writing isn’t art. It’s science. You’re given an assignment and you must fulfill it — just like solving an equation or conducting an experiment.

If a client tells you that the work doesn’t meet his or her expectations, don’t argue. Fix it. You’re not paid for your artistic license. You’re paid to satisfy the client.

That sounds harsh, I know, but if you want to write poetry or novels or Manga in your spare time, go for it. That’s art. Freelance writing is about delivering a product.

7. Embrace Urgency

I call it The Rush. It’s that feeling inside your soul when you know you need to finish an assignment and you’re worried you won’t get it done on time.

You’ve probably felt it upon realizing that you only have three hours to finish an assignment. But my advice is to create that feeling without the threat of a looming deadline.

I learned to create my own deadline in my head — preferably one at least 24 hours before the actual deadline. That way, I finished my assignments early and still felt The Rush.

Believe it or not, The Rush isn’t entirely uncomfortable. It’s pressure and anxiety and anticipation all rolled up into one intense emotion.

8. Start With What You Dread

Do you procrastinate? You don’t know what procrastination is unless you saw me during my first few years of freelance writing.

Something’s due tomorrow? A 3,000-word article on some obscure technology that I still haven’t researched?

Law & Order reruns it is!

Discomfort and frustration taught me to get those painful assignments out of the way as quickly as possible. It goes against every bone in a procrastinator’s body, but it actually helps.

This can work for administrative tasks that make you feel like your brain might actually go numb. It could be taking your dog for a walk in the freezing rain or cleaning up last night’s dishes.

Get the things you dread over with now. Then you’ll have time for the good stuff.

9. Don’t Take it Personally

I once had a client ask me if I was actually stupid. Seriously.

That client and I never worked together again.

However, I’ve also received some critical feedback over the years that was neither condescending nor insulting. Some of it hurt.

You need a thick skin in this business. If someone criticizes your work, you need the inner strength to take a deep breath, consider the feedback carefully, and apply the criticism appropriately.

Even if you disagree with it.

Because in the end, you’re not writing for yourself. You’re writing for the client. It’s the client’s opinion that matters.

10. Work Outside the Home

Okay, so, here’s a piece of advice that I’ve never really taken, but I’m like the queen of all introverts. Cabin fever? Doesn’t happen to me.

But for most people, interacting with (or at least seeing) other human beings is important. If you’re one of those people, take your work on the road.

You don’t have to travel to Liberia or rent an expensive co-op. Take your laptop to the nearest coffee shop and set up your own impromptu office.

There are lots of other options. Work outside in your backyard. Work at a friend’s house. Just get outside your familiar surroundings.

11. Ask Lots of Questions

When you don’t ask questions, you can’t expect to please your clients. It’s that simple.

Will you look like an idiot for asking? Absolutely not. In fact, you’ll cast yourself in a bright light because of your eagerness to get all of the details right.

You can also ask questions of other freelance writers. They might be able to help you with a question your client can’t answer.

That’s why I invite other freelancers to email me. I want them to feel like they can shoot over a quick question and get a thoughtful, considered response.

We’re not in this alone.

12. Pay Attention to Client Subtext

Believe it or not, clients don’t always know how to communicate their desires. They might sound like they’re speaking in riddles.

You have to learn how to peel the onion, so to speak, and figure out what they’re really saying. It gets easier with practice.

The client might not know how to say, “I’m interested in ranking for [keyword] in the SERPs.” Instead, he or she might say, “I want to make this post as visible as possible.”

13. Stop Thinking About Reasons You’ll Fail

Imposter syndrome is real, ya’ll. And it’s not just a new buzzword; it’s existed for decades under various other names.

Still today, I sometimes wake up in the morning and think, “I’m not qualified to do my job. I’m going to screw up horribly. I should probably quit and apply for the first minimum-wage gig I find on Monster.”

You’ll probably feel like that, too. So you need a defense mechanism to combat negative self-talk.

Instead of thinking about reasons you’ll fail, ask yourself if you have the experience and talent necessary to complete your current assignment. If the answer is “yes,” get on with it.

Think about how good you’ll feel when you succeed. Call someone you trust and ask for a quick pep talk. Read your last client’s glowing review of your work.

14. Read Religiously

Sometimes, I meet writers who say, “I don’t have any time to read.” What they really mean is, “I don’t make the time to read.”

I’m a busy girl. I have a full-time job, a family, and my own creative work. Still, I find time every day to read: novels, articles, the backs of cereal boxes.

Reading serves four invaluable purposes:

  1. Exposing you to new things and opening your eyes to new ideas
  2. Helping you find new ways to phrase old ideas
  3. Honing your understanding of voice, style, and syntax
  4. Giving you an excuse not to work

Ok, so the last was a joke (sort of), but you get my point. If you’re not reading, you’re neither learning nor honing your craft.

15. Avoid Jobs That Don’t Fit

It’s painful to turn down a paying gig. Actually painful. But you can do it if you’re confident enough in your own instincts.

Several times, I’ve turned down work because it:

  • Didn’t align with my personal values or beliefs
  • Failed to interest me on a creative level
  • Would require too much research for the compensation offered
  • Came from a client with whom I had no desire to work
  • Made me feel as though I would be compromising my personal or professional integrity

You might have other reasons for turning down work. When you avoid jobs that don’t, you know, fit, you clear your schedule for jobs that do.

16. Trust Your Gut

This has become something of a recurring theme in this article, but it’s worth singling out in its own section. You have to trust your gut.

If your gut says to turn down a job, do it. If your gut says that you should take a unique approach to a topic in an article, go with it. If your gut says you need pizza, order a pie.

Tomorrow, you can have a salad.

What I’m saying is that freelance writers need finely-tuned instincts. It’s dangerous to allow our emotions or logical impulses to override our gut feelings.

17. Understand That Qualifications Mean Squat

I’m not certified in anything. I don’t have a college degree. Hell, I only graduated high school because I test well.

Does that mean I’m stupid? Does it limit my career opportunities? Absolutely not.

Never let a lack of qualifications slow you down. The fact that degrees and certifications don’t hang from my office walls has never cost me a job.

What you need is real-world experience and the ability to teach yourself how to become a freelance writer. Reading this article is an excellent start.

18. Find Someone to Follow

Not in a stalker-y way. In a mentor-y way.

This person doesn’t have to know your phone number or meet you over coffee. He or she might be a successful freelance writer, a teacher, or someone who publishes fascinating content online.

You just need someone to inspire and educate you, even if it’s through a screen.

Over the years, I’ve adopted many mentors who don’t know my name. They help me through problems, though, and help me gain perspective.

Of course, if you have a mentor in real life — or someone you can email back and forth — that’s even better.

19. Blog Your Way to Success

This is something that I never did. I started a few blogs, but none of them really caught on.

Now I’m actually blogging on a semi-regular basis, though not to score freelance writing clients. It’s just for myself — and for anyone who might benefit from my experience.

I can, however, see the benefits of blogging as a beginner freelance writer. It’s a great way to demonstrate your skills and attract customers.

After all, my 12-year career in freelance writing centered mostly around content marketing. It was a little hypocritical of me to never do so for myself.

If you have the time to blog, do it. Pick any subject under the sun. Preferably, though, pick something related to your niche.

20. Get Comfortable With Promotion

Here we go again…I never caught the social media bug. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with it.

Over time, I’ve seen the value of social media — particularly LinkedIn — for freelance writers. You just have to know how to do it right.

Don’t talk about what you ate for dinner last night. Don’t get involved with chats with friends about the wild party last weekend.

Focus exclusively on building an audience around your brand. Share useful, valuable information.

Participate in conversations, offer advice when you can, and make friends with other freelance writers.

21. Exude Professionalism

I’ve met a lot of unprofessional freelance writers. They argue with editors, talk back to clients, share bad experiences with clients on social media, and so on.

Don’t do those things.

If you need to vent, pull up a blank Word document on your computer and go to town. Write down all the mean, hateful things that come to your mind.

Then delete the document. Or, at the very least, save it to a folder you never use for anything else. Password-protect it if you can.

Of course, there’s more to professionalism than keeping yourself from losing it on colleagues and clients.

  • Answer emails promptly.
  • Deliver a professionally designed invoice (templates are fine).
  • Let a client know if you have to deliver an assignment late.
  • Avoid talking about personal issues with clients and colleagues.
  • Record a professional voicemail greeting.
  • Add a professional signature to your emails.
  • Don’t under- or overstate your qualifications.

I could go on, but you get the point. If you’re not sure whether you’re being professional, ask someone else.

22. Don’t Undersell or Oversell Yourself

Promotion is a tricky business. You want to seem confident, educated, and competent, but if you’re too zealous in promoting yourself, you’ll come across as one of those infomercial personalities.

In my experience, less is more when it comes to promotion. I like to let my work speak for itself.

Plus, if I want to take on a new freelance writing client, I can give him or her references and let past clients speak for me.

However, that doesn’t mean that I sell myself short. If someone asks me how many articles I’ve written, for instance, I can confidently answer, “Well over 20,000.”

23. Figure Out How to Edit Your Own Content

Whether you’re working with a client or a content mill, you might have an editor to review your work. That’s great.

But that doesn’t mean you should turn in sloppy copy. Editors exist to catch obscure grammatical errors and the occasional typo. They’re not your cleanup crew.

Yes, it takes extra time to proofread your work, but you’ll become known for your diligence.

In fact, when I got my current job, my boss told me, “I remembered you because you always turned in clean copy. That was such a relief.”

That’s what you want the people you work for to say about you. Clean, well-written copy. If you can master that, all of the other details will hold much less weight.

My proofreading process looks something like this:

  1. Let the copy sit for at least an hour. Do something else.
  2. Read the copy thoroughly for any sentences or paragraphs that seem stilted or disorganized.
  3. Go back through the copy to check grammar, spelling, and typos.
  4. Make sure all images, tags, and other elements are formatted correctly.
  5. Double-check facts and sources.

That’s it! By the time I’ve reached that last stage, the copy can go to the client.

If you struggle to proofread your own copy, here are a few tips:

  • Read the copy aloud. You’ll hear mistakes more readily than you’ll catch them when reading silently.
  • Double-check questionable grammar. If you aren’t sure whether a comma goes there, find out.
  • Read backward. Start at the last paragraph and work your way up to the first.

Each of these tips is a workaround for the monkey brain. We’re hardwired to correct our own mistakes when we see them.

After all, we knew what we meant, right? So sometimes you have to give your brain a little help to find those errors.

24. Learn Your Way Around a Style Guide

Style guides can get tricky, whether we’re talking AP, Chicago, or internal style guides.

For a long time, I hated them. I still have a love-hate relationship with AP — I refused to write the word “Internet” in lowercase.

But when you’re writing for someone else, your personal standards no longer matter. You need to know how to follow a style guide.

When I’m introduced to a new style guide, I’m particularly looking for these sections:

  1. Spelling, capitalization, and punctuation preferences
  2. Words or phrases to use or avoid
  3. Keyword preferences
  4. Requests for images or other collateral
  5. Brand image guidelines
  6. Information about competitors
  7. Guidelines for citing sources
  8. Font, color, and tagging preferences

25. Make Health and Sleep Priorities

I can remember going to bed at midnight only to wake up at 4 a.m. just so I could get my work done on time. And my work suffered because of it.

You might need less sleep than me — I can’t function unless I’ve had at least seven hours — but don’t get less than you need.

Reserve time for mental health, exercise, meals, and social activities. Don’t let your freelance writing career take over your life.

Because it will if you let it.

26. Organize Your Day, Week, Month, and Year

I’m one of those people who likes the idea of organization. Office supplies are more attractive to me than any piece of chocolate and I love a well-organized filing system.

In practice, though, I suck at it. My brain says, “Yeah, you’ll get to that later.”

I wish I could tell you how much I would have benefited from a good organizational system. I don’t just mean a day planner and a payer of sticky notes on my computer, either.

Trello, which didn’t exist when I started freelance writing, would have been a Godsend. I could have created a card for each of my assignments, then moved them through stages until I sent each piece off to the client.

Other organizational tools, such as Google Calendar, would have been helpful, too. I always decided to wing it. Don’t follow in my footsteps.

27. Educate Yourself on Your Clients’ Industries

Do you know anything about nuclear reactors? If not, how can you expect to write about it?

You don’t need a Ph.D. in whatever topic you’re writing about. However, you need a good working knowledge if you hope to impress your client.

Whenever possible, I like to have two or three days to research a topic before I write about it. Sometimes, that’s not possible.

In those cases, I cheat. Wikipedia might not provide an acceptable source for most purposes, but it’ll give you a basic understanding of just about any topic.

28. Ask People to Vouch for You

After you work for someone, the most you’ll likely get is a, “Thanks, this looks great!” And that’s in the best-case scenario.

If you want more, you have to ask for it. Here’s what I used to send to clients:

Dear Client X,

I want to thank you again for trusting me with [name of project]. If you enjoyed my work, would you mind sending me a review of my services? It might help me get more work in the future. Just a few sentences to describe your experience would be wonderful. Thank you for your time.

Best,

Laura College

That’s it. Some clients won’t bother to respond, but most will. Then you can publish those reviews on your website. It creates social proof.

29. Ask for What You’re Worth

From my experience, freelance writers either over- or undervalue their work. There’s no middle ground.

Don’t make this mistake. Research other freelance writers who have experience similar to your own. What do they charge? Can you find an average?

Check out GlassDoor. In Houston, Texas, where I live, freelance copywriters make an average of just under $49,000 per year.

Knowing this can help you decide what to charge. Just don’t forget to take into account your experience level, talents, and skills.

30. Immerse Yourself in Content Marketing

Read everything you can get your hands on. Blogs written by luminaries like Neil Patel, Rand Fishkin, Seth Godin, Brian Dean, and others provide a good place to start.

Follow Social Media Examiner, Quick Sprout, Moz, Search Engine Land, and more.

Most importantly, try out new strategies yourself. Figure out what works best for you.

Conclusion

These tips for beginner freelance writers should give you a head start in this business. At the very least, they’ll help you decide the direction in which to take your career.

This is just part one, though, so keep an eye out for 30 more tips for beginner freelance writers. I want to provide as much information as I can for professionals in this industry.

It’s not an easy one when you’re just getting started. You’ll find success, though, if you learn from others’ mistakes and devote yourself to the craft.

If you’re a struggling freelance writer, feel free to get in touch. You can reach me at [email protected] I enjoy helping other freelance writers find their way.

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