As someone who has been freelancing professionally since 2009, I receive a lot of questions from friends who want to know how to become a freelance writer.
What do you really need to begin your career as a freelance writer? Read on to find out.
How to Become a Freelance Writer – Ashley’s Story
I became a freelancer organically. I heard about freelancing opportunities here and there when I began working as a journalist. Considering my modest salary as a newspaper reporter, I needed all the work I could get. I started by writing for magazines in my free time.
When I lost my magazine editor job in 2009 during the Great Recession due to budget cuts, I started to look for freelance opportunities in a more serious way.
I had recently finished grad school and purchased a condo. I had student loans to pay back and a big girl mortgage. Horrible timing, right?
I needed a new job and FAST. But everywhere I looked, journalists were getting laid off. Soon, many other industries seemed to be laying off employees in droves. I needed to make ends meet and spent hours and hours applying for full-time jobs and freelance gigs.
I learned about this website called MediaBistro.com which connects professionals in the media and publishing industries. Editors can search for writers for assignments, and writers and look for writing opportunities. I set up a profile to market my writing services. I uploaded relevant clips and included my specialties.
One day, on a six-hour drive to a 9-5 job interview, I got a call from an editor at a custom publishing company in New York. He told me he found my info on MediaBistro.com and needed someone to write some lawyer marketing advertorials. This opportunity turned out to be one of my most lucrative clients.
Over several months, I accepted employee roles as a technical writer, marketing manager, and public relations practitioner. All the while, I kept working for the New York client during my free time. This client enabled me to quit my full-time job in 2010 and jump into freelance as a small business owner.
Entrepreneurship Aint For Everybody
Becoming a freelance writer was an exciting time, but it was also incredibly grueling initially. Entrepreneurship is glorified and glamorized on social media. Who wouldn’t want to be a “boss babe” and fire their boss? (Side note, please don’t call me a Boss Babe!)
Entrepreneurship can be exhilarating, but it can also be gritty, gray, boring, and scary. Though I have worked for myself full-time since 2010, I will be the first to say that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having the stability and predictability of a W-2 job.
Having the peace of mind of knowing that you will receive a paycheck every two weeks and being able to clock out at the end of the day is simply a beautiful thing. Not having to be in charge of everything under the sun because you own the place is freeing.
Health care coverage, a 401(k), paid vacation and sick time, tuition assistance, and even a meager maternity leave are all benefits you simply don’t receive when you become an entrepreneur. Although I love entrepreneurship, I acknowledge these truths.
Wonder if you have what it takes to become a freelance writer?
In my humble opinion, YES! You probably have what it takes to become a profitable freelance writer, even if you are not a best-selling author or an expert on various subjects. Think you have to have perfect grammar or be the next Ernest Hemingway to make money freelance writing?
You need discipline, a business mindset, and consistent workflows and habits. Your ambition, willingness to stretch beyond your comfort zone and laser focus on listening to your clients and solving their problems will make all the difference.
Do you need formal education or an advanced degree to become a freelance writer?
One of the questions I get a lot is, “Do I need to go back to school?” There are a ton of higher education programs focused on writing.
I earned a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and a Master of Science in Entrepreneurship at my university. I loved my time in college and believe higher education is an enriching and valuable experience.
Do you need a degree in English, Creative Writing, Journalism, or Communications to succeed as a freelance writer? While I think there’s certainly a place for academics, I don’t think you need to go back to school in order to become a well-paid freelance writer.
I have met highly successful freelance writers who have no formal education at all. Some of them have degrees in programs that are entirely unrelated to writing. You don’t necessarily need a college degree to be a successful freelance writer.
Do you need experience working for a media outlet in order to be great at freelance writing?
My coursework gave me a leg up, but what really made the difference was my work experience.
Out of university, my first job was working as a newspaper reporter for a small community newspaper. Later, I worked as an editor at a business magazine and as associate director of custom publishing.
Since then, I have worked as a technical writer, marketing manager, and public relations practitioner. I have worked as a full-time freelancer. In 2012, I even launched my own digital marketing agency offering content marketing, social media marketing, and a host of other services.
Does my personal experience mean that every freelance writer also needs career experience working in communications to succeed?
Not at all.
Even though I benefited from my experiences working for a newspaper and magazine, I quickly learned that there are no requirements or rules when it comes to freelance writing.
I have met writers from all walks of life who have been successful in freelance writing. Some leverage their experience in other industries. Some have polished their natural writing skills and learned the freelance business by doing.
As you can see, there are no rules to freelance.
I know writers who cover a little of everything and others who swear by niching down to specific topics or industries.
Some choose to specialize in business writing, content marketing, copywriting, and feature writing. Others pick copywriting, ghostwriting, email marketing, landing pages, social media, thought leadership, and more.
Do I need freelance writing training to become a freelance writer?
There are many different certification programs and freelance writing courses available on the Internet, but there’s no one-size-fits-all standard for writing training.
If you’re having problems with something specific about writing, I would check the library for books to help. I would also read freelance writing blogs like this one.
You can watch YouTube videos to get some background knowledge in freelance and join Facebook groups to learn from other freelance writers.
There are also many digital courses that can help you with your writing technique or business management that are a fraction of the price of a college course. Plus, you won’t waste time on subjects that aren’t helpful to you. You can simply jump ahead to the precise area of help you need.
Working with a coach or mentor can help you progress even faster.
If you are still a student, I would take advantage of writing classes and workshops. Student newspapers and internships are great opportunities to get the experience you can leverage in getting freelance clients.
Know that even if you don’t have formal education in writing, job experience as a writer, or expensive training and certifications, you can still make a great living working as a freelance writer.
What do you really need to become a freelance writer?
The truth is not much. This is one of the reasons I love recommending freelance writing as a side hustle or full business. You don’t have a lot of upfront costs. There are very few barriers to entry.
You may not yet have your own computer when you’re just getting started. But if you want to pursue writing professionally, I recommend having your own laptop for work and a backup system to make sure you never lose your files.
In addition to my laptop, I have a laser printer because I like to proofread the old-school way. I tend to spot typos and other errors easier that way. My printer also has scanner and fax capabilities, but you don’t need this, considering all the scanning and fax apps that are now available.
One trick an old copy editor pal shared with me was reading your document backward – so reading each sentence by itself from the last to the first.
Some writers enjoy having a subscription to Grammarly or other writing apps. When I first started freelance writing, I invested in a subscription to a database of writers’ markets. There are many similar paid newsletters and Patreon subscriptions you can buy today.
I suggest waiting and investing in these services until you decide that you really want to pursue freelance for the long term.
A Writing Schedule
Having a specific plan for when and where you will do your freelance writing will help you get organized, whether you are doing freelance on the side or jumping in full-time.
Writing while continuing to hold a full-time job may look like getting up and writing a bit before work or in the evenings. It could mean getting in a few hours on the weekend.
A Designated Writing Space
A designated workspace for writing will also help you stay productive. This doesn’t necessarily mean having a full office. Not everyone has a home office or spare bedroom to use for writing. It can just be a desk in the corner of your bedroom or a counter in your kitchen. Don’t forget that bestselling author Glennon Doyle started by setting up shop in her closet.
Things to Read
I recommend reading everything you can and reading a wide variety of writing. Try magazines, newspapers, blogs, fiction, and biographies. Listen to podcasts and soak in storytelling methods.
A Few Freelance Friends
Expanding and nurturing your network is one of the best things you can do for your freelance career.
As you get started in your freelance journey, look for community groups to meet other freelance writers.
Often these groups are great places to find a mentor or coach if you need one.
Freelance Questions to Ask Yourself
There’s a difference between writing as a hobby and working as a full-time paid writer. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you consider freelance.
- Can you write five days a week or more without prompting?
- Can you write for hours at a time? Writing is a muscle. The more that you do it, the easier it becomes, and the faster you’ll be. If you haven’t written in a while, it may take a bit to get the writing engine going again.
- Do you have the discipline, stamina, and thick skin to write something meaty daily? This could be an article, a blog, a well-research query, or a chapter for your book. Since you are writing for money, pay attention to your productivity. Can you write compelling content quickly and effectively?
- Have you looked at your acceptance rate? Out of the number of pitches you send out, how many rejections are you getting?
- Are there editors, marketing directors, and clients who regularly assign you work? If you find that you continually have to pitch yourself, what needs to change for your work to come to you?
- Considering the last 12 months, how much of your total income came from freelance? Can you earn at least a third of your present salary from writing?
- In addition to actually writing, have you thought about the work related to managing your business? Are you willing to create a business framework for your writing business, including an invoicing plan, an accounting system, and a tax filing system?
- Do you have a CPA and attorney in mind who you can reach out to for guidance? If not, do you know where to get referrals for these professionals?
- Do you have at least 6-12 months of living expenses saved up to give you runway as you ramp up your business? Is it readily available to you? Meaning, that it’s not tied up in an investment or retirement account.
- Do you have a simple business plan – even a one-pager – that considers your projected revenue, expenses, and contingency plans if these projections don’t work out?
- Is your significant other and/or family on board to support your writing goals or respect your freelance time and boundaries? Not having their support won’t break your freelance plans, but having their support can help.
Your answers to these questions will help you decide if you are thinking of writing as a hobby or a full-time profession.
What would you add? What things do you think are needed to become a freelance writer?
Photo by brookecagle on Unsplash