What do you really need to get your freelance writing career off the ground? With the conflicting info and all-in-one “hacks” floating around online, it’s hard to know how to get your ducks in a row… or which ducks you even need.
After 10 years of freelancing and helping other freelancers get their careers moving, I’ve taken plenty of notes on the dos and don’ts of a solid start.
I created this freelance writing beginner’s checklist to help you set yourself up for success, without the paralyzing confusion.
Remember! The goal is not to saddle yourself with to-dos and prerequisites to the point where you don’t make a move—but we’re not looking for shortcuts, either. Plenty of “gurus” will tell you it’s possible to win over jobs with novelty tactics, and those tricks may even work occasionally.
But whyyy would you aim for sometimes when you can instead give yourself the best possible chance at succeeding?
Our goal is to build a long-term freelance writing career. We’re aiming to generate a sustainable full-time income, not just get random gigs here and there. That means we need to lay a solid foundation from the very beginning.
We need to stack the odds in your favor.
I recommend doing these steps in order. One will prepare you for the next, and so on.
Okay, let’s get you unstuck and on your way to the freelance writing career you’ve been dreaming of!
Part 1: The Prep
Starting from scratch? Start right here. These are the bare minimum foundations of freelance writing. They’ll help you decide what you’re writing and who you’re writing it for. By narrowing down from the beginning, you position yourself as an expert (even if you feel weird calling yourself an expert right now).
Step 1: Pick the Right Niche for You
Your writing niche defines the kind of writing you do, and for whom. Your niche is a combination of the industry you write for, as well as the specific services you deliver and the business or organization you’re delivering to.
The more specific the niche, the higher your chances are of making a living writing.
Many resist this idea and feel they’re sacrificing opportunity by narrowing down. In fact, it’s the opposite:
Generalist writers have a hard time attracting good clients. The “jack of all trades” approach isn’t valued by clients who pay big bucks for specific writing projects.
And yes, you want those high-quality clients.
Generalist writers have to deal with bottom feeders and content mills. That’s not what we want for you.
When you pick your niche, be sure it’s…
• Something you like writing about
• Something you’d good at OR willing to get good at
• An actual writing NEED that exists (ie: Poetry about your dog? Probably not the most lucrative niche.)
Here are a few examples of specific, narrow niches:
• Content writer for tech startups
• Wellness blogger for small businesses
• SEO copywriter for mass-market fashion brands
• About page writer for Chicago-based visual artists
• Social media writer for natural dog food companies
Yes, picking your niche is a big deal! I know that it’s stressful. If you need a little more help in this area, I put together this complete guide to working through all of the noise in your head and picking a niche, here (editor’s note: the guide isn’t live on the FWC site yet, but you can check out the old one I wrote for DJO right here).
Just remember that it can always change in the future. You’re not married to anything. As a freelance writer, you’re free to evolve as your career grows and you learn new things.
Step 2: Identify your Ideal Target Client
Who is this mysterious person you’re going to be working for? Well, it’s likely more than one person, but in order to ensure your marketing and outreach efforts are effective, we’re going to focus on one person or business/organization.
That one person is your “Ideal Target Client”. This ITC, as I’ll call them, defines the one person or business that would result in your ideal working relationship.
• They exist in the industry you want to write for. They pay the rates you want to charge.
• They do business in a way that aligns with your values.
• They create the kind of collaborative workflow you’re looking for, whether your style is daily video calls or email-only interaction.
If they don’t meet the qualifications above, they’re not your ITC.
In a perfect world, you’d only work with ITCs, but obviously, this isn’t the case. Especially when starting out, you may end up compromising to get those first few gigs.
But don’t stray too far from this ideal customer. If you take any job that comes down the pipe, you’ll eventually regret it.
Even if the pay is excellent, after a while the work won’t seem worth the money if you’re repeatedly betraying your instincts and values.
If this seems abstract to you, I’ll give you an example:
My own ITC is a client whose business is taking initiatives to make the world a better place, whether through supporting global artisans, cleaning up beaches, or investing bag in education.
They are in the women’s fashion/lifestyle space. They trust me to hit deadlines and deliver high-quality copy, so they don’t require constant check-ins.
However, they’re communicative and personable. They respond to emails quickly and don’t mind hopping on the phone if needed. They aren’t surprised if I show up to a video call wearing a beachy robe. Very often, I’m the customer their product is targeting, too.
Rest assured, I didn’t know all of this at the beginning. It took years to figure out what kind of client was my best fit—but I started off with a general idea and then honed it over time.
You can do the same.
Remember these 2 things about your ITC:
1. You may feel this is needlessly specific. In the beginning, it can feel audacious to specifically target clients. However, you’re trying to build a career, and a career isn’t a series of gigs that pay the bills. One of the best ways to build your reputation, grow relationships, and expand your career overtime is to target a specific kind of client.
Once you start freelancing, you’re in control. You’re no longer an employee at the mercy of who your boss decides to do business with.
2. Too many freelancers completely miss this incredible opportunity to build the career of their dreams from the start.
Forget about the overwhelm and the insecurity for a second, and ask yourself: What kind of client do I actually want to work with?
Step 3: Decide on your Core Writing Services
This one is refreshingly simple: What writing services will you offer?
Your niche should inform this, so go ahead and list those in an easy-to-digest format.
When you’re starting out, keep this list short. The less-is-more rule of niching down also applies to the number of services you offer. It’s a good idea to stick with 1-2 specialties in the beginning and keep your efforts focused.
This will also please clients who are—you guessed it!—specifically looking for writers who offer those services.
Step 4: Create A PROFESSIONAL Website
Don’t let this step trigger you, or the fact that I used the word “professional”. Your website doesn’t have to be complicated But yes, you’ll need one.
Your website will act as a 24/7 lead-generating machine, flagging down potential clients and pointing them in your direction. It will also be a home base for you to share crucial information about your writing services.
When someone inquires about your offerings, or you’re proposing a project yourself, this one-and-done website will provide instant internet credibility.
Get on Google or Youtube and find a tutorial that’s easy to follow. Put together a one-page website that’s clean and easy to read. There are drag-and-drop builders for beginners and more advanced theme editors for those who are comfortable with creating websites. You may also choose to hire someone.
As a sidebar, don’t get triggered at the thought of investing money into your career foundation. If you’re going to to blow $50-100 at the bar on the weekend, why not hold off and save up a budget for a website?
Think about how you can shift your resources around to prioritize your career growth. After all, the ROI on a cocktail might not be much. But the ROI on an awesome website that will generate client leads…?
I think you get the idea.
Just don’t use “I’m not techy” or “I don’t want to pay for a website” as an excuse to not get started. The essence of freelancing is figuring out ways to overcome the challenge at hand. This is one of them.
Something I like to remind myself? Professionals get things done without making a million excuses, and they understand it won’t be perfect the first time around.
Whether you choose WordPress or some other service provider, the platform doesn’t matter. Make a decision and go with it. You can always change it later. This website (and all of my other sites) are built with WordPress.
For hosting, I do recommend Siteground. They have user-friendly customer service and great hosting plans with virtually no server downtime.
Now, let’s talk content! Here are the things your website needs to have:
• Your full name
• Your niche (which becomes your title)
• A short, client-focused bio
• Your writing services
• Your writing samples (No samples yet? Leave them out for now.)
• Contact info
Here are some things you’ll add in the future (a.k.a. things you don’t need to stress over now):
• Your policies (for clarity & weeding out non-ideal clients — note that you’ll have these solidified before you begin freelancing, but you won’t need them on your website right away)
• Client testimonials (for social proof)
• SEO optimization (for organic leads)
• An on-brand photo (for building trust)
• A blog* (for building up SEO & credibility)
*In fact, go ahead and add the blog to your site, because we’re about to get into that in part 2.
Step 5: Establish Solid Rates & Policies
Don’t even think about hunting down clients until you’ve got this section sorted. Failing to define my rates and policies early on caused me an incredible amount of frustration during my early career.
One of the most common questions I see in freelance communities is how to set your rate.
You’ll need to figure this out based on the following:
• Your niche
• Your level of experience/expertise (one doesn’t always match the other)
• Your industry standards
• Your income goals
With this list above, you can see why some freelancers choose a ballpark hourly rate and just dive in. I think it’s okay to do that in the beginning.
BUT! You’ll be laughed at for charging $100 an hour if you’ve never had a job and don’t know what you’re doing.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t low ball yourself just because you’re new to freelancing.
We’re working on a full-blown post to help you calculate this, but in the beginning, I want you to imagine what a business (with multiple employees) would charge to deliver the same work.
As a freelancer, you’re taking on multiple roles to make things happen. If you don’t compensate yourself accordingly, you’ll be burnt out and underpaid.
Start by researching rates in your niche, talk to your fellow freelancers, and test out rates with clients.
Remember: Your ITC might try to negotiate, but they’ll never try to low ball you or suggest insulting rates. If you encounter someone who is trying to pay garbage rates, just thank them for their time and move on.
As for policies…
I know this can be another confusing step, so let’s make it easy:
You’ll figure this out over time. Much like your niche (and many other aspects of your writing business), your policies will evolve.
Below, I’ll list a few policies that will help you maintain structured relationships with clients—and make sure no one is screwing you over.
• Your requirements: What requirements must your client meet to work with you? For example, I don’t work with anyone who doesn’t know who their target customer is.
• Your rate: This can change per project but know your starting rate for the various services you offer—as well as how you bill, whether by hour, by project, or by week (etc). There are many ways to bill clients, so do some research on which approach works best for you.
• What your rate includes: Do you include revisions (how many)? An onboarding call? An in-office visit?
• Your availability: do you accept text messages, weekend calls? When do you return emails?
• Your contract: What’s included in your contract varies, but you can Google “freelance contract requirements” to get an idea. Don’t work without one, and definitely have a lawyer look over it to cover your bases.
Of course, there are more. But this will get you started.
Remember these 2 things about your policies:
1. They can be very subjective depending on your workflow, availability, and general preferences. Don’t copy another writer’s policies and expect them to work for you. Being thoughtful and thorough will benefit you in the long term. Even your clients will thank you for it!
2. Each action you take will train your client, so be sure you’re sticking to your own policies. You’ll look unprofessional if you fail to lead by example and then quote lines from your contract that don’t match what you’re actually doing. For example, don’t set a boundary of “no weekend correspondence” and then request a video call on Saturday morning.
Once you have these items in place, you’re ready to start finding clients to work with. We’ll cover finding clients and pitching your services in a future post. For now, you’ve got some work to do!
If you’re absolutely overwhelmed, don’t worry. It’s okay if this takes a little time. Work through each step and be patient with the process. Any/all of these items listed above will evolve over time. Plan on that, and don’t try to make anything “perfect” when you’re starting out.
Need some extra support as you get your freelance writing career off the ground? Join us in the Freelance Writing Cafe Facebook group!
Gabrielle Seunagal says
I’ve been freelancing for 2.5+ years and being a generalist has benefited me. I write about politics, mental health, etc. I write copy for websites, products, services, etc. I also do editing. I love your Facebook and Instagram page and love what you’re about as a brand, but I do think it’s a mistake to dismiss generalist writing as undesirable. If I tried to limit myself to a specific niche, I would have missed out on so many opportunities, opportunities which I’m still benefiting from to this day. Generalism in writing has immensely rewarded me.
Michelle Christina says
Thanks so much for this comment, Gabrielle! There will always be cases where exceptions to the rule prevail, and that’s definitely a good thing. Success in the face of odds is ALWAYS a good thing. The way I see it, your success means you likely shine in other ways beyond just being a good writer, which is awesome.
Here on FWC I teach what I’ve learned from a decade of active freelance writing. I personally didn’t start seeing real success until I stepped away from the generalist role and into a niche. The change was drastic, in fact! I went from barely earning anything to covering my rent (and then skyrocketing beyond that). This is why I am so passionate about helping writers find a niche.
Naturally, that doesn’t mean my way is the only way! I just teach what I personally know to be applicable and immediately helpful. Many writers I work with have tried the generalist route and have fallen flat, and since I’ve been there, I relay this tip. I’ve found that it creates almost immediate results.
If others are unsure which path to take, I hope they see your comment and recognize that there are many ways to figure the freelance game out. There’s no rule book. We’re making our own rules, and I completely respect your approach as well. In any case, FWC is here to support you all the way. 🙂
I have a friend who is so much interested in guest posting and this post will really go a long way for her so i will be sharing it with her…
Michelle Christina says
Awesome, thank you for reading! Let your friend know she can stop by for tips anytime.
This is a great article for the person like myself who wants to start my freelance writing. I am trying to keep focus and to start from the beginning so I have structure. Thank you for sharing Michelle. By the way, you have my sister’s name!
Michelle Christina says
Ah, my favorite name! Thank you so much for reading! I’m so excited that you’ve decided to pursue freelance writing. Don’t hesitate to reach out on any of our channels if you need extra support.