Want to dive into the world of freelance writing? Check out our complete guide to getting started.
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They say the hardest part is getting started—freelance writing is no exception.
I know because I’ve been there. My first freelance pieces were published in 2017, and in less than two years, I’ve been published by over a dozen different websites.
No, I’m not a full-time freelance writer, and I’m not aiming to become one anytime soon. (Kudos to those who have taken the plunge!) I continue to freelance write for fun as well as for the bonus of some extra income, a reason why many people choose to write as a side hustle.
It’s a fair reason, too. Unlike some other side hustles, you have the flexibility to work from anywhere with an internet connection and at a time that works best for you.
So, for anyone interested in getting their feet wet in freelance writing, here are 12 tips for getting started.
1. Find outlets that accept freelance contributions
If you don’t already have a target media outlet you’d like to write for in mind, now’s the time to identify a few.
Resources like Where to Pitch can help with this. Alternatively, you can look more broadly by using a targeted Google search string. Here’s how.
Identify a few topics that you’d like to write about, e.g., personal finance, technology, home decor.
Then Google that particular keyword or phrase with a search string like “write for us” or “contributors.” For instance, if you wanted to find outlets that accept freelance submissions about parenting, try searching:
- Parenting “write for us”
- Parenting “contributors”
- Parenting “writing guidelines”
- Mom blog “write for us”
Don’t forget to include the quotation marks—these tell Google that you’re looking for results with the same exact phrase inside them. And websites open to freelance contributions tend to have an entire page dedicated to their submission policy, often labeled as a “Write for Us” or “Contributors” page.
Should I focus on a niche?
Some expert bloggers and long-time freelancers are quick to advise choosing a niche topic to write about.
Here’s my take: if you’re just starting out, there’s no need to pick a niche just yet. Keep your options open and write about all of the different topics that interest you. Once you’ve built up some freelance momentum, then you can begin thinking about refining your writing focus.
For the time being, feel free to identify a variety of outlets rather than limit yourself to those that publish mostly about one subject.
2. Research the publications you’d like to write for
This one’s an absolute must if you want to increase your chances of getting your writing published: do your research.
Publications don’t like hiring ill-suited writers or paying for any article that clashes with their mission or tone. That’s why it’s crucial that you understand a company or website’s mission and brand voice.
Moreover, researching different media outlets will help you identify how exactly to go about getting your writing published by them.
You’ll find that websites often take one of two approaches to publishing freelance work:
- They require that you pitch one or a few topic ideas to an editor. If interested, the editor will correspond with you further on an outline or simply give you a green light for moving forward with writing. Note that outlets that ask for pitches generally tend to ask for writing samples or a brief author background to get an idea of why you’re qualified to write about what you’re pitching.
- They ask that you submit completed drafts that abide by their editorial guidelines either to an email address or through an online form. If they like your work and decide to publish it, they’ll notify you in advance.
There are pros and cons to both.
On the one hand, for publications that want initial writing pitches, you won’t feel like you’ve wasted time creating a whole piece if it ultimately gets rejected. But on the other hand, a complete draft can be sent to multiple outlets at once to see who bites—and who offers the greatest compensation.
If you’ve successfully pitched a topic to an editor, then it’s time to start writing. Or, if your target publication only wants complete drafts, well, then it’s also time to start writing.
Ironically, sometimes the actual writing portion is the hardest part of freelance writing. Here are some tips for getting the fire started.
- Set a deadline for yourself. Some people perform better under pressure. If you’re one of them, set a concrete deadline for your piece to be due by. (If you’ve pitched the idea already, you may already have a deadline.) Not good enough? Hold yourself accountable by setting up a reward for finishing on time—or a punishment for failing. For instance, if you meet your deadline, you can have an extra helping of dessert next week; if not, no alcohol for a week.
- Research what’s already been written about your topic. Knowing what kind of related content is out there will help you choose an angle that’s more unique. After all, outlets generally don’t want to publish something predictable or generic.
- Eliminate your distractions. Set your phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode or place it a good five feet away from your reach. For those easily distracted on their computers, try distraction-eliminating browser extensions like Writer or platforms like Calmly Writer. There are so many tools of this nature—find what works for you.
- Just write. Don’t worry about having perfect grammar or punctuation for now. Even if it’s not immediately coherent, writing in a stream-of-consciousness style gets some words on your page, which you can then edit and play around with later.
4. Carefully review and proofread your work
Once you’ve hammered out a first draft, it’s time to proofread and clean up your work.
They don’t call them first drafts (or rough drafts) for nothing, after all. The editing process is just as important as the writing process, if not more.
But before you dive in with a red pen, try to give yourself some time and distance from your work.
It’s best to look at your draft with fresh eyes, not as soon as you finish writing it. I personally like to wait a day or two, and work on another writing project in the interim.
As you edit and review your work, consider:
- What’s the final word count?
- Does your intro paragraph have a captivating “hook”?
- Are there any run-on sentences?
- Does the tone match your target publication’s?
- Are there any words, phrases, or sentences that take away from the overall piece?
If you want to go the extra mile, have someone else review your writing, and ask what kind of outlet they might expect to see it published on. See if there are any typos you’ve missed. (And then offer to do their laundry or treat them to coffee as a way of saying thank you.)
5. Submit your work
Got your final draft all set?
The next step is submitting it.
Double check your target publication’s writing guidelines to make sure you’ve followed them. Your target publication may even provide clear instructions about how exactly to submit your work, e.g., what email address to submit to, or even what to include in your subject line.
In fact, some websites include very specific instructions to filter submissions, looking only for those who are detail-oriented enough to read through all of their guidelines. For example, they might specify that writers interested in contributing need to use a code word like “bananas” in their submission email.
Be wary of this; if your target outlet has such instructions, well, follow them.
Other writing guidelines to watch out for before submitting:
- What file format to use—whether you should attach your work as a Word doc, include it directly in the email body itself, or as a link to a Google doc with the proper editing/viewing permissions. Make sure you’ve got the right format, and don’t forget to attach the file!
- How long the review process takes. Some websites warn that you should wait two weeks before sending a follow-up email, unless you want to sound like an impatient writer who can’t follow instructions.
- Whether or not you can expect an actual response. Well-established publications that receive hundreds of submissions a day lack the manpower to send rejection emails, only acceptance ones.
6. Create a writing portfolio
Like a job resume, a writing portfolio is a must for showing editors that you’re a competent writer. For publications that only accept pitches rather than completed drafts, portfolios are especially crucial—otherwise, an editor may be skeptical of taking a chance on you.
Fortunately, there are a variety of online portfolio websites (both free and paid) that are easy to use and set up, including:
What if I have nothing to put in my portfolio yet?
It almost sounds like a paradox, right? If you don’t have any published articles, then you can’t create a writing portfolio. And if you don’t have a writing portfolio, then you can’t get freelance writing jobs.
Actually, you can still create writing samples by publishing your work on platforms like Medium, which can even help you gauge whether your writing will resonate with anyone. Or, if you have a blog, you can list your more polished posts as writing samples.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that not all publications ask for writing samples.
When I was first starting out, I submitted a completed draft to a website that didn’t ask for pitches or samples—only completed drafts. The piece was accepted and thus became my first official writing sample, even though I’d had nothing to show beforehand.
Should I create a personal website?
Sure, if you’d like—but it’s not totally necessary. Although creating a personal website is fairly inexpensive, it requires a bit of know-how and finesse. If you’re just starting out in freelance writing, a free writing portfolio created on one of the websites listed above will do.
Later on, if you’ve stuck with freelancing and want to better brand yourself, you can invest in a personal website to better showcase your work.
7. Know that not all publications pay well—or at all
This isn’t an easy thing for all writers to stomach, but it’s the reality. Not all outlets pay their freelance contributors well, or even at all.
Sure, you can aim for submitting only to publications that offer compensation, but you’re also crossing a good number of names off your target list.
So why bother even writing for non-paying outlets?
There are benefits to getting published even when you’re not being paid. For starters:
- You’ll have a piece for your writing portfolio, which can help you land more writing jobs in the future.
- You can make connections through the editorial staff.
- You can begin to establish yourself as an authority in a specific niche, should you decide to focus on one.
Some freelance “experts” claim to have made an exorbitant amount of money freelance writing in their first month.
I advise you to take that with a grain of salt.
Regardless of whether it’s true or not, freelance writing isn’t a get-rich-quick kind of game. It requires perseverance and hard work, especially in the face of unresponsive editors and stubborn writing blocks.
Yes, it’s possible that supposed expert did indeed make that much in their first month of freelance writing—but they’re part of a lucky minority. If it were truly that easy, more people would be freelance writing on a full-time basis.
8. Don’t be afraid of rejection
Before freelance writing, I worked as a grant writer for an education nonprofit. That meant drafting proposals to companies, philanthropic foundations, and rich bigwigs to solicit donations.
As you can imagine, not everyone said yes—and I hold no ill will toward them for their rejection letters and emails. There are so many important and meaningful causes out there to donate to, after all.
But for someone interested in diving into freelance work, getting these no’s repeatedly had an unexpected personal benefit: they prepared me for rejection.
And to get started in freelance writing, you should also prepare to be rejected.
Not every site will accept your work, and that’s totally okay. Some will politely decline your pitch or submission; others may not reply at all.
Don’t be discouraged.
Keep submitting your work and pitching elsewhere. It’s also worth asking for feedback (but don’t expect it) and learning how to revise your writing to make it better.
9. Check out job boards
Searching for writing opportunities on Google isn’t the only way to find them.
You can also check out job boards.
Writing-specific job boards advertise a variety of paid writing positions: full-time, part-time, freelance, remote, etc. Here are a few of my favorite writing job boards:
Besides these, it’s also worth creating an account on freelancing platforms like Upwork to find writing jobs. Just beware that these services generally take a cut of your payment. That doesn’t mean you should blacklist them, though.
If luck is on your side, companies might actually contact you through these platforms and invite you to apply for their jobs. It’s happened to me more than once on Upwork, and has resulted in one of my best writing clients in terms of pay and regularity.
Of course, this scenario isn’t a guarantee, just a product of luck and having completed my Upwork profile—so don’t hold your breath for jobs to fall into your lap this way.
10. Bill your clients and track your payments
There’s more to freelance writing than just writing. You’ve also got to deal with the business-y and administrative parts of it—that is, creating invoices and tracking payments.
And there are two main options for handling these occasionally harrowing processes:
- Manually do it yourself. Either find or create your own invoice template, and track payments. Don’t underestimate the amount of work and attention to detail needed for this. You’ll need to keep a careful record of all of your invoices and be sure to number them and include all the critical information necessary on them.
- Use a tracking and billing software. Software like TimeSolv is built for freelancing professionals, meaning it’ll take care of just about every one of your administrative needs. For instance, it can help you track your work hours, create invoices, manage your expenses, and save any important documents for that dreaded tax season.
For anyone just starting out with freelance writing, your client volume probably isn’t so much that you need to invest in a billing software. However, you may find that you want to use billing software regardless in order to simplify the logistics of billing your clients and tracking your payments.
11. Read, read, read
At the expense of sounding like an English teacher, don’t stop reading.
Whether it’s literary classics, online news, print magazines, or niche blogs, keep reading. Pay attention to which articles you enjoy the most and what about them makes them enjoyable.
There are several benefits to reading, such as:
- It improves your writing abilities. Skeptical of how this works? Frequently reading well-written content means regular exposure to the rules of punctuation, syntax, and grammar. Depending on what you read, you may even expand your vocabulary and learn a new idiom or two.
- It can inspire new thoughts and ideas. Reading does this beautiful thing of stimulating brain function and actually creating new connections in your mind. As you read, you process new information that may connect to old information—and voila! You’ll have new thoughts and ideas generated by the topics you read about.
- It helps you understand what kind of writing is effective. Consider what kind of content really draws you in and what bores you. How are they written? You can learn better writing practices simply by reading articles that perform well, which are often marked as such by the amount of traffic they receive or how often they’re shared on social media.
Just because you’re focused on freelance writing doesn’t mean you should forgo reading.
To maximize its benefits, read a variety of content—publications and websites about subjects that interest you as well as those you might be interested in writing about.
Most of the strategies outlined above aren’t meant to be done only once. You’ll need to keep at it—researching prospective publications, pitching, writing, editing, updating your portfolio, visiting job boards, and so on.
Of course, you’ll pick up regular clients that won’t ask to see your writing samples every time you submit something for review—in which case, congratulations.
In that sense, freelance writing tends to get easier over time. The more you get published and build up your writing portfolio, the more proof you’ll have of your work and writing qualifications. Editors who see that you’ve got a robust portfolio can rest assured that you know how to write and even have experience writing about certain topics.
In the end, freelance writing is ultimately a learning and growing process—one that requires a significant investment of both time and effort. If you’re willing to put in both, you’ll more likely be rewarded with a lasting freelance writing career.
And who knows?
You may even find that you want to do it full-time.