How Do I Become a Freelance Writer?

Heather Long
Freelance Writer

Wanting to make a living as a freelance writer and getting started are two different things. Success in the freelance writing market place relies on three factors: perseverance, professionalism, and publishing credits. When you're just getting started you have to rely on the first two to achieve the third.

Find Your Niche

Identifying a niche you are comfortable writing about is the first step in any freelance writing career. You do not want to apply for jobs writing about economics if you know nothing about economics. Stay-at-home moms, for example, may have a lot of personal experience in areas of child care, home product purchases, couponing and much more. Take that knowledge and start a blog.

Find Your Voice

Blogging is a time investment, but requires little (or nothing) in the way of financial investment. Blogging serves two purposes for you:

  • It gives you time to develop your voice.
  • It provides you with clips to submit when applying for other writing jobs.

By targeting a niche, you develop your expertise in a certain area. This also helps you sell ideas, network with other writers or interested parties, and create an audience for your work. Your blog may also serve as your platform for the services you offer including copywriting, copyediting, SEO writing, and more.

Develop Your Portfolio

You have to show potential clients your ability. Freelance writing means you will likely have to submit an idea or bid for a project. No matter which route you travel, you need a portfolio to show potential employers the type of work they can expect you to deliver. No one wants to hire an untested writer for a job.

You can submit researched articles to your local newspaper and to magazine calls without clips. If they are published, you can add those clips to your portfolio.

Always keep your portfolio up to date whether it's a blog, a white paper or an article sold to an online or print magazine. When posting to your website, display your pieces by topic and type of writing.

Find Jobs

You have a number of different avenues to begin your job hunting search online and off. Freelance writing is a continuous search of areas accepting articles, getting them written, submitting your work, collecting a check and repeating the process.

Prepare Before You Submit

Doing your homework cannot be emphasized enough. You cannot submit queries or articles if you don't know what the publication accepts and expects. Several print and online magazines will accept query letters if you do a good job of explaining what your article will be about, the target audience, the research you're willing to do and your adherence to their submission guidelines.

Clips, query letters, or submission inquiries need to be written well, checked for grammar and spelling, and always include the hook - the key sentence that tells the reader exactly what the article is about and why they need to read it. Your query letter is the first exposure the editor will have to your writing and you absolutely need to make it worth their time to read.

Prepare Your Query Letter

A query letter is your pitch. You need to give the editor a concise idea of your story, keep it direct and pithy. A smart query should grab the editor's attention, so be sure you open with a strong hook, include specific details about the research you will do, how this article benefits the publication's readers and why you are the best person to write it.

The standard elements you must include:

  • Story hook to get the editor's attention
  • Story pitch tailored to the specific publication
  • Details on why the publication's readers will care about the story
  • Your credentials

Write the query letter as if your story depended on it, because this is the way you get the editor's attention.

Newspapers and Magazines

Your chances of submitting and being accepted to a local newspaper when you're just starting are much higher than your chances of getting a byline in a national paper like the Washington Post or the New York Times. For your local paper, you want to target an article that focuses within your community.

  • What's relevant to your area?
  • Is a new store opening?
  • Is there a new subdivision being built?
  • Have there been issues with test scores in the local school system?
  • What seasonal events are happening? (Seasonal articles should be submitted well before the season)

Send a query letter to the section editor you think your piece best fits in (i.e. sports, lifestyle, city, education) to find out if they are interested in the potential article. Include the first paragraph and an outline of the article. Let them know the timeliness or relevance of the article. Indicate the time it will take you to complete it or if the article is ready to go. You can also submit the full article, but having the article complete does not guarantee a byline or a sale.

Be ready for rejection, you may get several before the paper picks up one of your ideas.

Online Writing Jobs

Visit most online job boards and do a search on "writing" or "writers" and you will find jobs available for everything from columnists to blogging to web content creation. You can use the same query approach to these jobs as you would a print publication. Be sure to include links to your website as well as a concise description of what you can offer them.

  • Pro Blogger Job Board - The site updates with new writing jobs every week. Do not be fooled by the name; writing assignments include articles, design, and more.
  • Craigslist - The community boards offer a number of credible job offers and potential assignments, but it may take time to find the right match for you. The varying sites are broken down by geography, allowing you to search for local writing jobs.
  • Helium - If you're just starting out, this freelance platform will let you build a portfolio and earn money. The income is not a set fee and is based on article reads and votes from the community.
  • iFreelance - This is a pay community service with a relatively low monthly fee, but it offers a high number of freelance writing assignments and you do not have to pay a commission on any earnings.

When researching online job sites, vet the potential employer. It's okay to provide them a sample, but don't leap at jobs that require you to do a lot of writing and research without compensation to see if you are a right fit for the job.

Be very clear on the contract terms. Some sites will require you to sign non-compete clauses and this can actually limit who you can write for. You need to know what you are agreeing to before you contract with them.

Corporate Communications

Freelance writers can find a host of opportunities in public relations and communication departments as temporary or permanent employees. Diversifying your portfolio can increase your income and provide you with a steady paycheck and benefits.

  • Creative Circle - With offices in sixteen cities, this company helps corporations find the right creative professional including copywriters, copyeditors, proofreaders, web design, social media and more.
  • Freeman Leonard - This consulting agency matches creative professionals to corporate needs on temporary, short-term, long-term, and permanent assignments.
  • Kelly Services - In addition to helping place administrative staff, Kelly Services has a creative department that can help you find writing assignments.

Whether you enjoy consulting or are you are searching for a longer-term permanent position, these and other creative agencies can help provide you with a starting point in a corporate communications career.

Competitive Marketplace

The freelance writing market is highly competitive with a large number of highly qualified and skilled writers seeking the same jobs you are. You may have one acceptance per twenty-five or more queries. Remember to update your portfolio regularly. Pay attention to editorial comments you receive and apply them forward in your work.

Develop your relationships with editors and clients by doing the best possible job so they remember you when they have future work. Be honest with yourself and your clients about your limitations and expertise. You always want a client to feel that you were the best writer for the job. Cultivate that reputation and you will grow your business.

How Do I Become a Freelance Writer?