Five years ago I changed my LinkedIn title to “Freelance Writer.” That one small step landed me my first client and sent me on my way to an enjoyable, and increasingly profitable, side hustle.
Today, I have a full-time-with-benefits job at a company that first hired me as a freelancer in 2016. And I still freelance on the side – both because I love what I do and because the extra money is helping my family get out of debt faster.
I consider myself successful now, but I remember what it felt like to get started. I had no idea how to “break into” freelance writing after that first client from my personal network. And while I had plenty of writing ability, I also had a lot to learn about SEO and how writing for a digital audience differed from the academic and creative writing I was used to.
This is the article I wish I’d had when I was brand new to freelance writing, sitting on my couch with a laptop and the 11-month-old baby I was still breastfeeding.
Unlike many other freelance writing how-to’s, I’m gonna be as specific as I can in sharing my experience. So, get yourself a cup of coffee or tea, and I’ll tell you everything as if we’re two friends sitting in a cafe.
How I earned money by writing
After earning an undergraduate in English and a graduate degree in Creative Writing, I never expected my skills to command a lot of money in the marketplace. Before I went to grad school I worked admin jobs; afterward, I was an adjunct professor who never cracked $30,000 a year in taxable income.
But by the fall of 2014, as the disorientation of new motherhood was starting to wear off, I saw that people were, in fact, making money with their writing online. So I created a basic website for myself and threw my name in the pot, hoping to become one of them.
I started small
To begin with, I wrote landing pages and blog posts for the small business website of that first client. I only charged $15 or $20 each, but I learned a lot, like how landing pages are supposed to identify and offer solutions for the reader’s problem, whereas blog posts should be more generally informative and less “salesly.” I also learned how good it feels to get a check in the mail for your writing services.
I built my skills
Meanwhile, I joined a small group coaching session for aspiring writers led by a blogger I admired. It was inexpensive – between $100 and $200, I think. It helped me with the practical side of freelancing, such as how to pitch to an editor. When one of my first pitches was accepted, and then the draft I turned in (after hours of work) was rejected, the group was there to support me and encourage me to keep going.
That’s when I realized that, although writing is a solitary activity, you need to make friends with other writers to keep yourself going through the harder times. The two other students and I kept in touch after the group session ended. We checked in with our goals and offered accountability to one another. We cheered each other on (which is the best help for any writer about 90% of the time) and shared paid guest blogging opportunities.
I knew that things were moving in the right direction when one woman started a podcast, and she interviewed me on an early episode. That’s the kind of opportunity that arises when you make friends with your peers.
I chose a niche
I went into freelance writing thinking, I’ll write about anything anyone wants to pay me to write about. The problem with being a generalist, though, is distinguishing yourself in pitches and cover letters.
When pressed during my training to identify a few areas of expertise, I went with topics I had either personal or academic experience in: psychology, education, and parenting.
As time went on, I didn’t find many opportunities, or at least well-paid ones, to write about the first two. I wrote about parenting for Romper but found I enjoyed personal finance most of all. So that’s how I started out with a few niches and narrowed it down to one.
To choose your own potential areas of expertise, here is a sampling of currently in-demand writing topics. Feel free to add some from your background as well, like I did.
- Personal finance.
- B2B (business to business) products.
- Mental and physical health.
I wrote and wrote…and wrote some more
If you want to make money writing from home, you have to play the long game. Don’t expect overnight success, either in terms of portfolio clips or income.
Sure, there are incredible stories out there of people who were in dire situations and managed to build their freelance writing income in a month or so. But that wasn’t my experience.
You learn something from every gig, even the crappy ones
In March 2015, I was hired as a freelancer for a digital marketing agency. I’d found the job posting through the “Morning Coffee” newsletter, my primary source of freelance writing opportunities at the time. This gig was also low-paying, between $15-$30 per piece, but I was able to churn them out quickly, often in the hour or two after my daughter went to bed.
While the low pay was my eventual reason for leaving this job, in retrospect, I’d call this place a “content mill” that engaged in ethically questionable SEO practices, but I also credit it with helping me build a foundation of SEO skills and copywriting know-how. Plus, I received a lot of positive feedback on my writing.
When it makes sense to spend money on training
By the end of 2015, I was starting to feel burnt out on this first writing job. I was also pregnant with my second child and wanted to get some momentum going before the baby arrived.
So, I signed up for a training course that included personal coaching and a money-back guarantee. It seemed safe, and I knew I needed personalized advice and pushing. The total cost was about $1,000, paid in monthly installments. My husband and I didn’t have a lot of extra money then, so it was a sacrifice.
But it ended up working out well for me. Here’s why:
The Internet is full of online courses and coaching services for would-be writers. If you’re thinking about signing up for one, the first thing to ask yourself is whether you have the kind of personality that would really benefit from help.
As I’ve said, I’m not the world’s most self-driven, type-A sort of person. I knew that in school, I’d always done better when I had teachers who were willing to spend extra time with me and cheer me on. That’s why I signed up for a hybrid package of courses and personalized coaching. I didn’t think a course alone would be enough.
By the end of my training session, I’d successfully applied to be a freelance writer at Money Under 30 and I was in touch with a local digital marketing agency that had filled out the “contact me” form on my website.
Have a website, but it doesn’t have to be perfect
My freelance writer site was just a template from WordPress.com and a few basic pages, including a portfolio that my coach had helped me create.
It was nothing fancy, yet it still generated the one big lead that changed the course of my freelance writing career. If you’re no HTML genius (I’m looking at myself), this article has a lot of great tips and examples.
The bottom line with your website is that it should make the reader want to hire you. So, keep it clean and professional-looking, and make sure there are no typos or grammatical errors.
If you don’t have any portfolio clips yet, create a Medium account and write a few articles in your chosen niche(s). You can link to those to give editors and potential clients a sense of your writing talent and style.
Where to find freelance writing work
Here is a list of sites I’ve personally had luck with. In my experience, it’s easy to find lists of “paid writing opportunities” through a Google search, but many of the listings are outdated or not very useful.
- FreelanceWriting.com: As mentioned earlier, the Morning Coffee newsletter of writing jobs helped me land more than one gig in the beginning.
- ProBlogger Job Board: Employers pay to post here, so the listings are usually of better quality. You can often see the pay rate as well.
- Beyond Your Blog: While this site is no longer updated regularly, the Editor Interviews still provide a wealth of knowledge on what editors are looking for and how to pitch them.
- Compose.ly: Apply to be a writer for this content writing platform. Their pay rates are above-average and you’ll receive opportunities via email.
How to pitch to editors
First, you need to find them. If you’re responding to a job posting, you can use the contact info provided. If you’re sending a cold pitch, you may need to dig around to find the right person. Don’t send your message to a general contact email, as it’s likely to get lost there.
Once you have an email address, keep your subject line simple. “Freelance writing query,” “Article pitch,” and the like are perfectly fine.
In the body of your email, lead with who you are and why you’re pitching them. Then, sum up the article you want to write, either in a short paragraph or bullet points. End with any related experience you have and a closing line that prompts a response.
Here is an example of a real pitch email I sent early on. I was subsequently invited to write an article for them and it became one of my earliest guest posts.
Dear [Editor’s Name],
I’m a freelance blogger specialising in psychology, mental health and recovery and I have a personal connection to [Name of the facility]: my brother went through rehab in the [state name] location during the winter of 2009-10.
Two years ago [my brother’s name] died from melanoma, cutting short a life full of promise. He was in recovery when he was diagnosed, and planning to apply to graduate business schools. I’d love to contribute an article for the blog about my brother’s life and the gifts that his experience at [facility name] gave him, as well as the rest of our family. In the family education program I learned the profound truth that addiction is an illness, not a character flaw. That insight helped me to empathize with my brother and start healing from the pain that his addiction caused.
My bylines include posts on mental health for Mainline Counseling Partners and I’ve also ghostwritten articles about various aspects of addiction and recovery.
May I write this post for Caron’s blog?
What to do when editors (finally) start coming to you
All writers are sensitive to rejection, and the beginning of your freelance writing career is bound to have its share of unanswered pitch emails. However, once you get over that initial hump, whether it takes you a few months or a year-plus, you’ll find it easier to get new and higher-paying work.
In addition to the articles I’ve written for Money Under 30 since 2016, I was a part-time lifestyle writer for Romper from 2017-2018, which raised my profile among PR folks and editors.
That was another job I found through the FreelanceWriting.com “Morning Coffee” newsletter, but now I find that opportunities are starting to come to me, based on the work I already have out there in the world. It feels like a magical discovery, a circumstance I didn’t even imagine in the beginning.
I hope you feel encouraged after reading this article. I’ve given you the basic first steps to take action on, without overwhelming you with more information than you need at this point.
In the five years that I’ve been a freelance writer, the demand for content has continued to grow. There are plenty of opportunities for talented writers, and you don’t need a degree in English, Journalism, or Writing. Some of the most successful freelancers I know of didn’t even finish college.