Starting a Freelance Writing Career by Tom McSherry
Many talented writers dream of starting a freelance writing career. The freelance lifestyle is very appealing – the idea of being your own boss, choosing your own hours, and working from home all have their special allure. Despite all this, most people who dream of going freelance will never actually do it. They come up with all sorts of excuses why they can’, or they keep it as a vague promise to themselves at some indeterminate point in the future.
You Are the Only Thing in the Way
Starting a freelance writing career is not as hard as you think – that’s the first thing you need to understand. What prevents most people from setting out as a freelance writer is a measure of self-doubt, not real market conditions or anything else external. I launched my writing career mid-recession, after I quit a job I was fed up with, with hardly any money in the bank and no other work lined up. Within a month I was making more than I’d ever made, earning a full-time living as a writer.
The point is: to a large extent starting a freelance writing career is a sink or swim affair. I don’t recommend doing it the way I did, nor am I saying there weren’t plenty of times when I was nervous and unsure how I was going to pay the next week’s rent. But I always made it happen and kept afloat through the tough times because I had the resolve to dig deep and put the effort in when it was needed. So essentially, starting a freelance writing career has a lot more to do with your own inner resolve than it does with market conditions. The work is out there. Which brings me to the next point.
A Freelance Writer is Also a Marketer
Yes, it’s true. Freelance writing is a business, and running a business involves an element of sales and marketing – like it or not. This is where most creative people’s hearts sink. Well, there’s some good news for you, because marketing in this case is not what you think it is. I, too, once had a fear and hatred of selling things.
This is largely because most people conceive of marketing as forcing a useless product on people who don’t need it. The word “marketing" makes them think of cheesy late-night infomercials. Luckily, it’s just not like that. Marketing, in the realm of freelance writing, is about finding a gap where you can offer value and then filling that gap. You’re not tricking anyone or ripping them off – you’re helping people out by finding out who has a need for your particular skills and talents. Internalize this mindset – it’s important.
Knowing the Markets
It’s funny the responses I get sometimes when I tell people what I do, because it’s dumbfounding to most people – they’ve never even considered some folks make a living this way. The conversation often goes like this:
“What do you do?" “I’m a freelance writer." “Oh, really? Cool. Like… Stories?" “Commercial stuff. Websites mostly. Home pages, articles, sales promotions, that sort of thing." “Oh… and you get paid for that?"
Bottom line: the general public has no idea about the vast array of different ways to make money as a freelance writer. Embrace the world of business writing. If you consider yourself an artist, you might immediately have a puritan reaction to this notion: you don’t want to sully your art by spending your days writing ads. Well, best of luck to you as you starve your way to a Pulitzer. But isn’t it better to be at home, working flexible hours, working on your own artistic projects whenever you want, and making a good living (there are quite a number of freelance commercial writers who make six figures a year)?
The How To of Starting a Freelance Writing Career
Anyway, hopefully what has been said here so far is enough to inspire you and convince you that becoming a freelance writer is a realistic goal. That’s the “inner game" taken care of. Now, as for practical steps for actually becoming a freelancer:
1. Get some cash in the bank. As I said, I didn’t do this, but I wish I’d had that security buffer before I started. Put at least a couple of grand away, but remember, the less you have the more hungry you’ll be to find your feet once you let go of the apron strings at your day job.
2. Assess your skills and talents. Know what you’re good at. If you can sell, write sales copy. If you like researching, write for magazines or write web content. The possibilities are endless, so do some research. And no, you don’t need an advanced degree or the ability to do a double backflip. I have an English degree and I’ve shown it to approximately zero of my clients. Not necessary.
3. Do some work for cheap or free. If you don’t have a portfolio, this is the best way to build up a few samples. Samples lead to more work.
4. Start networking like crazy. Networking is absolutely key. Eventually you’ll hit a point where you have enough consistent clients that you don’t have to seek new ones, but when you’re starting up you need to actively meet and contact potential clients as much as possible (cold call if you have to).
5. Get a website. This is the key to long term stability. If you get a decent website up, with good traffic coming to it, you’ll never be short of work.