If you’ve found this article through social media or a search engine, you probably want to know how to become a freelance writer. You’re not alone. A seismic event like this year’s lockdown is bound to make people question their life choices, especially since many employees will have discovered the productivity gains and stress reduction which come from working at home.
It’s entirely understandable that many working-age adults will currently be considering a career change, either through necessity or choice. And it’s equally logical that writing will figure highly on the list of alternative career paths. Writing is enjoyable, requires little in the way of specialist equipment or training, and dovetails with the modern need for flexibility. If you’ve always wanted to become a freelance writer, what better time could there be than now?
The write intentions
The sad truth is that copywriting and content production is a ruthlessly cut-throat industry. It always has been, and the recent influx of new entrants (bringing varying degrees of experience and professionalism) has made it even harder for genuinely talented writers to elevate themselves above the hordes. With this in mind, I’ve taken an in-depth look at the practicalities and challenges you’ll face if you want to become a freelance writer. I’ve added ten important tips to take away, alongside a few case studies from my own career.
Let me be clear at the outset – I’m not trying to scare anyone off a potentially transformative career change. There’s a lot to love about writing, but work won’t fall into your lap. You might think you’ve got the enthusiasm to carve a niche talking about parenting, but you’d be competing with my wife and our next-door neighbour, who both have very unusual stories to tell. Maybe you’d like to be the next Jeremy Clarkson, but you’d be staggered by how many people apply for any job involving four wheels. A recent LinkedIn advert for a freelance writing gig received 268 applications after 48 hours, and that’s not exceptional these days. A freelance content writing job on a popular recruitment site attracted 439 applications within a fortnight, meaning 438 people were ultimately left to look elsewhere.
A positive spin
Let’s begin with some good news. What are the main upsides if you decide to become a freelance writer?
- Getting paid for doing something you enjoy. Imagine booting up your computer every morning with enthusiasm, rather than despondency. And imagine seeing money arriving in your bank account in exchange for doing work you enjoy, rather than something you resent or dislike. Work to live, or live to work?
- Make your career work around you. If you’re a night owl, you can work through the small hours and sleep in the next day. If you love being sociable, you can seek the company of fellow creatives in coffee shops and shared workspaces whenever they’re allowed to reopen. Writing about topics you’re interested in or passionate about also plays to your strengths.
- Freedom. Freedom comes in many forms – the freedom to move outside a city and live in a farmhouse, or the freedom to use a MacBook where an employer might insist on Windows. You’re also free from office politics, the frustrations of commuting on public transport, and having to watch junior colleagues get promoted ahead of you.
This final point leads into the first main challenge anyone who wants to become a freelance writer faces – the high standards of your competitors. You’re not just up against me. You’re up against companies with entire teams of creatives in their employ. You’re up against media agencies, who can write dazzling copy but also construct websites and record radio ads. And you’re up against hardened journalists, who are increasingly being cast aside as print media continues its dispiriting death spiral. If you think you can wing your way to success just because you own a bookshelf full of paperbacks and love drinking coffee, please stop reading.
When I started freelancing in 2005, I was using a Yahoo email address and working from a dressing table in my living room. That was fine back then, but today, higher standards are required to stand out from the crowd. I’ve since launched a mobile-optimised WordPress website with a proprietary email account, but I also have a backup Gmail address for clients who prefer to communicate through G Suite (some do, most don’t). I’ve cultivated social media profiles, which are often necessary simply to get past the first stage of many application processes. And I have a portfolio of work available to view online. My website is updated regularly for SEO purposes, and if you don’t know what SEO means, it really is time to stop reading.
Play to your strengths
Once you’ve established a respectable online presence, the next challenge awaiting anyone who wants to become a freelance writer is finding specialisms which play to your strengths. If you’ve never written in American English or taken a Transatlantic flight, don’t even try to bluff your way through blogging for Stateside audiences, where every tenth UK English noun has an American variant. Similarly, if your knowledge of football doesn’t allow you to demonstrate second phase offside laws using sauce bottles on a café table, you won’t be published by When Saturday Comes any time soon.
(If you’d like to see the standard of journalism required to write for WSC, there’s an example on the Portfolio page of this website. If you haven’t already checked it out, take a look when you finish this article.)
In every niche you can think of, there will be retired journalists, redundant marketing executives and former industry insiders competing for work. And while that doesn’t mean your hopes of freelance work stand at zero, it means you’ll need to be passionate and knowledgeable about any industry or niche you’re hoping to write about. Experts recognise a bluffer when they see one.
Pro tip #1: Build a portfolio
Developing a portfolio is essential for being taken seriously by recruiters, with most job ads asking for weblinks to three published examples in the specific sector/s you’re applying to work for. However, this is a chicken-and-egg situation – how do you build a portfolio without one?
The best way is to either reference work you’ve had published earlier in your career, or – and bear with me here – do some unpaid writing to build a catalogue of online content. I’m not suggesting you apply for one of those loathsome unpaid internships which callous employers use to get free labour from desperate graduates. However, you could do worse than reach out to websites in regular need of content and offer them a freebie. Once your name is in print, it becomes much easier to secure more work, especially if your output impresses the editorial team.
Pro tip #2: Never do unpaid work as part of a recruitment process
While unpaid work offers some merit in terms of getting your name out there, it’s ruthlessly exploited. Some uncharitable recruiters are now demanding unpaid trial articles as part of their application process. I recently saw a job advert which required applicants to write three bespoke articles, three Facebook posts and six tweets, just to be considered for an unremarkable-sounding freelance copywriting vacancy. This is known in industry parlance as taking the piss, and should not be indulged in any way – especially since there’s nothing to stop the recruiter uploading a pretend job vacancy simply to harvest a stockpile of free content.
A high percentage of G75 Media’s workload comes from clients I’ve dealt with in a previous capacity, such as account managers who’ve taken new jobs, or third parties who’ve reached out to me because they’ve seen my work in passing and liked it enough to remember me later. I make a point of being a single point of contact, from brief allocation to proofreading and accounting. That dependability (allied to being available at least 48 weeks of the year) sticks in the minds of stressed commissioning editors, who are sick of less diligent creatives letting them down and leaving holes all over their page plans.
Pro tip #3: Write in your natural voice
Was that last sentence too long? Nobody wants you to become a freelance writer obsessed by achieving perfect scores in Grammarly, or someone who sneers at the use of the Oxford comma. I’m not representing a specific client in this article, where a predetermined house writing style might need to be followed. Many recruiters like to hear a natural tone of voice in a candidate’s work, even though successful applicants would obviously have to adjust their writing style to meet that client’s requirements. A former boss of mine hated the use of the % symbol, while another was pathological about sentences starting with words like ‘and’. A good writer can easily work around these idiosyncrasies, and nobody will expect you to replicate their preferred TOV before you’ve even started working with them.
Having said that…
Pro tip #4: Spell-check and proofread everything you write
A contributor to a national newspaper recently tweeted a request for article suggestions. Unfortunately, she didn’t bother to re-read the tweet before posting it. The result? A request that people “make is a succinct pith”. Any self-respecting employer or editor who found two typos in a five-word sentence from a potential employee would dismiss them immediately. It’s easy to overlook amateurishness, whereas professionalism tends to linger in the memory.
Back in the late Noughties, I freelanced for one of the many content production agencies in London. Because my work was always delivered ahead of schedule and to a high standard, one of the commissioning editors remembered me years later, when she’d moved up in the world. I’m now a regular contributor to one of the UK’s leading engineering publications, even though the articles I send her today are worlds apart from the mass-produced content I used to supply in our agency days.
Pro tip #5: Record all your victories
Whenever you get something published, add a hyperlink to a Word or Google Docs file, with a one-sentence summary of what the article’s about. If you’re covering multiple industries, it’s also beneficial to note the sectors each link relates to. When you’re looking for work, you can instantly find examples of published online content to cite and include in your application.
If you don’t have any demonstrable experience in the specific areas the employer is asking for, don’t waste your time (or theirs) by applying anyway. They’ll have dozens of high-quality writers getting in touch, and they’ll have no interest in someone with no expertise “but a lot of enthusiasm” or someone who’s “keen to learn”. Such clichéd platitudes cut little ice in today’s ferociously competitive freelance marketplace.
Pro tip #6: Establish yourself in directories
A better way to showcase your availability is to create profiles on media directories and bulletin boards. Many of these are still free, though an increasing number charge either a monthly or annual membership fee. In the style of service provider platforms like Rated People, some are free to sign up to but charge you for every position you apply for. It can cost up to £10 just to make a proposal to a client looking for copywriting work.
While most free listings give you a chance to create an external link back to your website (with attendant SEO benefits), I would strongly advise against spending money through pay-to-bid platforms. They’re fine for tradespeople, where only three professionals in the client’s local area are allowed to respond. On an international copywriting site with no limit on how many people can bid on the same job, they’re basically exploiting people’s desperation. Some don’t even indicate whether you’re the first or the tenth person to get in touch, while I was once quoted a fee of £10.20 to bid on a vaguely-worded editorial project of “up to £120” in value. You’d make more profit buying scratchcards.
Penny wise, pound foolish
The thorny topic of paying for the chance to become a freelance writer brings us onto the main reason you’ve probably read this far. If you’re planning a career change, you’re not going to be writing for philanthropy or out of sheer passion. You want to earn enough to enjoy a comfortable standard of living. And yes, there are clients out there willing to pay generously. But they’re usually looking for many years of industry-specific expertise, and writing a 1,000-word article at ten pence per word once every two months is not going to pay your mortgage. It’d barely cover your broadband bill.
Pro tip #7: Be flexible about income
When I first started freelancing, I put a very ambitious per-word fee on my website. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get any work. It took a while to realise I couldn’t apply the same expectations to a 500-word listicle about interior design trends as I could to an in-depth review of CNC machines. Today, some of my clients pay three times more than others, but that’s fine because the lower-paid content is far easier to produce. You’ll naturally evolve a sliding scale of costs (per word, per hour, per project) based on how long assignments take and how straightforward you find them.
There’s a spectrum of payment rates across copywriting and journalism, but most entry-level work tends to be at the disappointing end. Two or three cents per word will regularly be quoted by clients and agencies whose desire for quantity outweighs their desire for quality. Negotiating with a client you’ve never worked with before is unlikely to endear you to them, though you might be able to up your per-word price once you’ve proven yourself to be dependable and original. Originality is critically important in the age of Copyscape plagiarism checkers, and any attempt to repurpose existing content will be spotted and censured.
Pro tip #8 Build a blog
If you’re unable to get work because you’re unable to get work published, a personal blog gives you a way to become a freelance writer under your own steam. More importantly, it gives you something to post in the Portfolio section of a job advert.
I had a fairly lean year in 2013, and I spent the year blogging about whatever took my fancy. I then referenced specific blog articles in relevant job applications, until I was able to replace them with more heavyweight content. Although these blogs were personal rather than corporate in nature, they accurately represented my tone of voice and writing style.
Pro tip #9 Set yourself up with all the hardware you’ll need
My blog was rather over-engineered – written on a custom-built PC using the latest versions of Office and Windows. I didn’t need an HD webcam or a combined printer and scanner to produce foresighted articles about poor grammar, working from home and self-repairing lampposts. However, when I started attending Zoom meetings with clients (long before Boris tried to make it fashionable), having high-speed broadband and Bose speakers made the process much easier.
It’s very embarrassing to have to tell a prospective client you can’t sign and scan the Non-Disclosure Agreement they’ve just emailed you because you don’t have a scanner. Similarly, being unable to provide a landline number becomes an issue if your mobile phone is faulty or needs replacing, your network experiences issues, or your signal strength fluctuates.
Decisions about whether or not to invest in dedicated workstations and full spectrum lighting speak volumes about whether you really do want to become a freelance writer. Professionalism is easy to identify, just as amateurishness tends to betray itself in the unmodified ‘Sent from my mobile’ signatures on webmail accounts, and the typos which slip through the net without a proper spell-check. I’m not suggesting you need to invest in thousands of pounds worth of technology to make it in this industry, but at the minimum, you’ll need:
- A laptop you can take to meetings, events and presentations, once they resume (as they inevitably will)
- A large monitor and full-size keyboard at home, connected to a docking station
- A printer and scanner – it’s surprising how often you need to sign things, even in 2020
- High-speed wired internet connectivity, which is crucial for uploading media files and accessing cloud-sharing platforms like Dropbox.
So can I become a freelance writer?
The short answer is yes. But you’ll need to commit to it for many years to really get anywhere. I started freelancing in 2005, went full-time freelance in 2010 and won a national freelancing award shortly afterwards (for a client I still work with today), but it was 2012 before my career as a freelancer really took off. Copywriting and journalism are industries where – and I hate typing these words as much as you’ll hate reading them – the cream really does rise to the top.
You won’t get anywhere if you approach freelance writing as either:
(a) A short-term fix, while you plan for bigger and better things
(b) An evenings-and-weekends way of supplementing your day job
Or, worst of all:
(c) Something you try for a few months until the rejections get too much.
It’s no exaggeration to say I have had thousands of rejections over the last fifteen years. I once sent 300 personalised letters to marketing and PR agencies, offering my services for holiday cover and overflow work. It cost well over £100, back in the days when that would get you a night in a five-star hotel, and took countless hours of letter editing, mail merging and envelope stuffing.
Acknowledgements: 0. Work: 0.
It turned out that the world didn’t want or need yet another writer. And this was a decade ago. If you tried a similar exercise today, the postman would probably return your envelopes out of pity.
So if you’ve read this far and you still want to become a freelance writer, you know where to start. Set up a dedicated working environment, build a portfolio, register on directories, quality-check everything you put your name to, and…
Pro tip #10 Remember it’ll be years before your labours bear fruit
As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you will be. You’re welcome to join me in this uniquely exciting industry, and the very best of luck to you.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t finish this article with what marketing professionals refer to as the CTA – the call to arms. If you’re looking to recruit rather than be recruited, and you like what you’ve just read, I am available for copywriting jobs, freelance journalism and all forms of print and online content production. Get in touch if you’d like to receive a competitive quote for copywriting services. A typo-free reply will arrive in your inbox shortly.