There's a lot of advice online about how to become a freelance writer, but how much of it actually helps writers when they're starting out?
Writers figuring out how to start freelance writing with no experience should keep a tight focus on two things.
If you made it here, it means you've decided to take your first steps toward becoming a freelance writer.
Maybe you're in school looking to build up some experience. Or you're a stay-at-home parent ready to get back to work now that the kids are a little older. Maybe you have a job and are looking for some extra cash.
Whatever your story, your first step was probably Googling something like "how to become a freelance writer" or "how to start freelance writing with no experience" and we're one of a dozen or so tabs you have open in your browser.
It's okay, we're friends here.
Maybe you've already read some of those articles before you clicked on ours. Did they leave you with questions like:
"What the heck does this mean?"
"How does this help me when I'm just starting out?"
It's understandable. We've read most or all of the other tabs you have open, too. We work with freelance writers for a living, so we're always looking to test new pieces of advice and turn them over to our community if they're awesome.
But I'll be honest — I wonder if a lot of the advice out there is actually helpful for writers just starting out.
Most of the resources out there for writers range from generic common sense (i.e., "just sit down and write!") to too good to be true (i.e., "I make $10,000 a month working from my porch in Costa Rica and so can you!").
The point is, most advice is not very goals-focused.
And if you want to be a freelance writer, your first goals are pretty simple:
- Find out what it takes to be successful.
- Find jobs and start making money.
Sounds like you?
Learn to spot and avoid bad writing advice
I want to offer a bit of free dad logic that applies to everything in life, including learning how to become a freelance writer:
Just because you read it on the internet doesn't make it true.
Like I said above, most advice for becoming a freelance writer seems to fall into two camps.
- "Write every day."
- "Read constantly."
- "It's not a sprint, it's a marathon."
Does this sound familiar?
Creating a discipline of writing even when you don't feel like it is important. And reading is key to developing communication skills that you transition over into your craft. It's also true that a successful freelance writing career is like Rome — not built in a day.
But how does this advice help you land your first paying job? What if you want to make money sooner, not later?
Then you've probably run into the other camp.
- "Start a blog and monetize it!"
- "Learn a niche!"
- "Grow your social media presence!"
Again, not bad advice on its face.
Starting a blog and monetizing it is a strategy for long-term recurring revenue that freelance writers should explore. Learning a niche can arguably help you stand out if you want more specialized jobs with less competition. Growing your social media presence certainly can't hurt.
But if these all sound like long-term commitments, that's because they are.
What about right now?
"I want to know how to start freelance writing. What are the first steps?"
Again, none of the above is bad advice. But it's light on detail, isn't it? It doesn't help with your immediate goals, does it?
Maybe a more specific version of that free dad logic is this:
Just because you read it on the internet doesn't mean it will help you.
What do you need to know that will actually help you when you're just starting out?
Here's the rub.
You're not going to find all of the answers in a single blog post.
I know. But before you rage-quit the window, hear me out.
There are tons of successful freelance writers out there. Many of them do make really good money (six figures-good), and some of them really might write from the breezy porch of their Costa Rican estate.
But almost all of them learned their craft through hard work, resourcefulness, time, and networking.
They're also a shrewd group. Now that they've made it to the Captain's Lounge, they're not likely to share their secrets freely.
So be skeptical of promises that sound too good to be true:
- Unlimited income potential!
- Get paid to write what you're passionate about!
- Take off as much time as you want!
BS, BS, BS.
Freelance writing is a craft. It's tough to learn it, because most of what you need to know is learned on the job. Trial and error.
This means that a lot of new freelancers spend a long time doing bad jobs and not getting paid or not getting paid what they think they're worth.
Sounds like a real drag, huh?
Still want to become a freelance writer? Keep reading.
Two main things a new freelance writer should focus on
It took a long time getting here, yes, but instead of trying to offer you an "ultimate guide" of some kind with every last detail you need to become a freelance writer, we're going to do something else.
Because, if you haven't figured it out by now, there is no complete, ultimate guide to becoming a freelance writer, and it takes some time to unpack a lot of the unhelpful advice out there.
But it was worth doing because it cleared the runway to focus on what really matters:
- What it takes to be successful
- Finding jobs and making money.
The theme of this article, and really ProWriter's entire blog, is first steps.
- What should you expect from your first 12-18 months as a freelance writer?
- How do you avoid getting trapped in low-pay Upwork jobs?
- What do you need to do right now to set yourself up for higher-quality, higher-paying jobs down the line?
The two things you need to focus on at the expense of almost everything else are simple.
- Become what employers are looking for.
- Broadcast it strategically.
"Uh oh, this sounds like more generic advice."
Don't worry, we won't leave you there. Stay with me.
How to BECOME what employers are looking for
No. 1 thing new freelance writers should focus on: learning the skills that show an employer you're right for their job.
One of the biggest hurdles to success in freelance writing is developing the skills that show an employer you can handle their job and then making it easy for the employer to pick you over other applicants.
Writing is not as simple as just sitting down and "using your voice" or waiting for inspiration to kick. It's a creative pursuit, but that doesn't mean employers want to pay for an unorganized stream of consciousness.
Whether you're writing press releases for tech startups, blog posts for brands, email copy for a marketing campaign, a technical manual, an opinion column, or listicles about TV shows from the 80s —
Every piece of copy needs to have a purpose and a goal.
In order to execute on that purpose, you need to learn what makes content tick.
- What's the format of a press release?
- What kind of email subject line makes people want to open the message?
- What makes prose easy and enjoyable to read?
Each piece of content has a purpose and a goal.
Executing on that goal means successfully guiding readers through the content.
Freelance writers need to have the skills to execute on that goal.
This might sound daunting, but honestly, you can do a pretty deep Google dive on most of the skills you need over the course of a week.
Of course, you'll get better over time when you actually put these skills into practice, but do some targeted research into the fundamentals.
Some topics to research to BECOME a well-rounded writer are:
- SEO and keyword use (stay away from freelance writer blogs; try marketing blogs)
- Readability (learn what the Flesh Kincaid test is and what it likes)
- Titles (CoSchedule and Buzzsumo have good resources)
Go down the rabbit hole on each of these and you'll be surprised how many resources you come out with.
Once you have those skills and start putting them to work in your first gigs, you need to figure out how to spread the word about what you can do and help employers find you faster.
That leads us to No. 2...
How to BROADCAST it
No. 2 thing new freelance writers should focus on: making it easy for an employer to pick you from a stack of 500 applications.
As someone who used to be a freelance writer and later became someone who has hired hundreds of them, I can say at least one thing with total confidence:
Both freelancers and employers have a hard time finding what they want.
As a freelancer, it's a grind pitching and applying for every job listing you can find. It's dispiriting to get so few emails back, especially when you're just starting out.
As an employer, it's utterly overwhelming to be bombarded with 500 applications from bright-eyed, bushy-tailed freelance writers. Many of which you will never read because you have deadlines of your own.
More than likely, you're going to settle on the first 2-3 writers that just seem like they can do the job and then take your chances.
Broadcasting is all about putting yourself into an employer's shoes, and making it easy for them to pick you.
This means being smart and strategic about how you present the information the employer needs, which includes:
- I have the skills you need for this job
- I can demonstrate it
Some of the ways you can BROADCAST you're right for the job:
- A brief, friendly cover letter that focuses on the skills you have. Tailor them to the job described to help the employer "connect the dots."
- Skip saying things like "I'm willing to learn" or "I'm deadline-driven." Employers don't have the time to teach you anything, and meeting a deadline is an expectation, not a skill.
- Include relevant writing samples. Quality over quantity, and organized neatly on a professional website or writer profile.
"Okay, good tips, but what if I literally don't have any experience yet?"
You're not going to like this, but it's true: You're going to need to spend some time creating some portfolio pieces.
These should not be Word Documents uploaded to a Google Drive, either. Your samples need to be organized on a professional website, or a professional writer portfolio (the easier route unless you have experience building websites).
If you don't have experience yet, you need to treat getting your first gig like an American Idol audition, and not the kind that makes Katy go —
Try to make your samples look as close to what would be published as possible. Include relevant fair use images from a site like Pixabay if they fit the topic. There are numerous self-publishing platforms out there, including:
- Medium, where you can write about anything.
- Thought Catalog, for more creative or lifestyle content.
- BoredPanda, really nice if you're also a photographer.
You can also try to pitch Huffington Post of Buzzfeed Community. You wouldn't be able to say you're a HuffPo or Buzzfeed staff writer, but it would give you a URL with your name on it that will get an employer's attention.
If you're looking for something more specialized, you can search for websites in the niches you're interested in and ask if you can guest post on their blog in exchange for a byline.
I would only pitch concepts here, not finished pieces. But if you go this route, you should have some self-published work on the topic as well that the editor can review.
The point is, you need to be able to broadcast your ability to do the job you're applying for, and the best way is to show them that you've already done it, even if it's just a portfolio piece.
Key takeaways and more resources for freelance writers
The TL;DR is this:
Instead of focusing on BS advice, focus on two things becoming the kind of writer employers want to hire (this means not skipping out on learning the hard skills), and broadcasting it strategically.
If you're new to this, there are only two tips for how to become a freelance writer that should guide your first 12-18 months:
- You need to have the skills to stand out from 500 applications and pitches the employer is looking at.
- You need an easy, all-in-one solution for showcasing your portfolio and experience.
Don't worry about the mansion in Costa Rica yet. Focus on these two points and give it 12-18 months. By then, you'll know whether you want to stick with this or not.
If you're looking for more resources to help you get started, ProWriter has a free SEO skills resource here, and if you want an attractive portfolio designed to emphasize your skills and experience over time, you can sign up for a free ProWriter writer portfolio at our homepage.
If you have any questions for me, or feedback about this blog post, I'd love to hear it! Find me on LinkedIn.