I’m very fortunate to have made money writing online and specifically for businesses.
I’m not a Medium thousand-aire or a personal blogging genius. My own sites have faltered and fallen apart (though I’m working on putting them back together).
Yet, I’ve made a decent salary as a content marketer and online writer for businesses. I also have worked with writing teams and dozens of writers over the years. I have had several posts reach number one for their target keywords. I have worked with high-profile startups to boost their writing and SEO.
So what I’m about to share with you won’t necessarily make you a millionaire or have you quit your day job, but it’s an applicable strategy that you can use. I’ll also link out to several guides and gurus who have had more success than me, so you can learn from them.
How do you start freelance writing?
1. Find a niche to write about
This sounds ridiculous when you’re starting out, but it’s a more essential step than you realize.
If you’re writing for yourself on a site like Medium or your personal blog, this is still important so people know what to expect from you. This has been the hardest thing for me as a blogger and writer creating my own stuff — I‘ve written fiction, personal essays, and creativity advice. This lack of consistency has probably held me back, to be quite honest.
You probably feel like you’re open to everything, but your audience is trying to understand what to expect from you. As you expand and you grow, you can expand your niche.
Let’s talk about editors and content directors. Editors don’t necessarily want to search through every submission or cold pitch to see if you’re a good fit.
They want you to tell them that you’re a good fit.
That sounds crazy, but here’s how it works: If I’m looking for a piece about how the Paris dining scene has changed over the years, I’m not going to choose a writer that has been recapping Keeping Up with The Kardashians for the last 7 years.
Maybe if you’re a French writer that has been recapping KUTK, but please show me at least one piece of writing you’ve done on the Paris restaurant scene.
Editors want the easy solution, it’s very rare for an editor or marketer to cultivate the talent out of you and let you write anything. Very few editors have the time to be Max Perkins, especially when they need a few articles.
Let’s say someone has a very, small affiliate site around hoodies (hmmmm….). And they need a writer. They (or I) will need writers who have at least a passing interest in fashion, and are willing to dive into a few hoodie brands. Anyone who has already written about hoodies will get an extra glance from me (or whatever editor is looking at it).
In other words, make it easy on the editor. Your writing samples should reflect your niche. This brings us to our next point…
2. Create writing samples for that niche (even if you aren’t paid)
No one likes to hear this part, but it’s accurate. You will need samples in your portfolio to make editors hire you. And you may need to write these articles on spec without getting paid to show what you can do. That’s not fun, but it’s true.
If you’ve chosen French food as your niche, you’ll need to visit restaurants, talk to chefs, and may even need to connect with other journalists and interview them as well. Then write an article or blog post with your findings.
Let’s go back to that very-quite-possibly-real hoodie site. If you have any understanding in clothing textures, threads, or the fashion business, it would be easy to write an article or blog post with authority and expertise on those topics.
Because that’s why you’re really writing these for free*: eventually you want to get paid more.
*Note: Marketers and writing internships are notoriously bad for demanding lots of stuff for free without getting anything in return. It is okay to do a piece for free, but don’t make a regular habit of it. Create a sample that’s related, and then do the specific piece for free. If you created a sample and a site wants to publish it, ask for payment. I know this can be hard sometimes, but you want to create clear expectations for long-term success.
3. Create a portfolio site
Next, you’ll need a portfolio site to show off your work. This will be important to link to from your social media profiles and with your pitches.
Your portfolio site could be:
- Your own personal website
- A blogging site, like Medium
- A writing portfolio site like Clippings.me, Contently, or Writerfolio
- A design portfolio site like Dribbl, Cargo, or Carbonmade
- Even a Google Drive folder could work
Point is, you need a public, accessible selection of your writing that shows off your writing skills.
But here’s the thing: Don’t just send your portfolio link unless it only has 3 to 5 things in it. Otherwise, the editor will get lost.
Instead, send direct links to your 3 to 5 best articles — remember, you need to make it as easy as possible for the people hiring you to hire you.
4. Sign up for online writing sites
If you’re just beginning as a freelance writer, you will need to go to where the people are looking for freelance writing. You could do cold pitching, and those can sometimes be effective, but you’ll have a better success rate by going to where people are already seeking out talent.
Two top places for this right now are Fiverr and Upwork.
These sites get a bad rep for not paying writers well, and that can be the case. But if you build up your portfolio and writing experience, you’ll start to form relationships and then have recurring gigs.
Explore Content & Freelance Writing Services
This next one is fairly new and it sits between being a full-time freelance writer with your own clients, and seeking out work on Upwork/Fiverr. It’s actually my favorite way for writers or those with niche experience who want to write.
These content writing services (content writing mills?) contract with businesses who then hire them to create the right type of content for certain topics.
I’ve used these services myself to receive writing on several niche topics. Many of them hire writers who then receive regular, routine assignments. If you’re looking to join up with one these firms, check out:
There are probably lots more, but they usually have regular work and are great, especially if you’ve nailed down your writing niche.
You can also explore writing job boards, like Problogger and Freelancewriting.com. Here, you’ll be competing with writers of all skill levels, so I suggest working your way up through Upwork and then a content writing service before applying for a full-time or even part-time writing job.
By that stage, you’ll discover if you like freelance writing, which niches (and sub-niches) you really want to go after, and if regular writing with deadlines(!) and edits(!!) is for you as a potential freelance writing career.
Do you need qualifications to be a successful freelance writer?
Technically, no. But you need to be more than proficient at writing. If your work is littered with mistakes, factual errors, and poor grammar then you will not get many freelance writing jobs, if any at all.
Many writers have some college degree or some years in college. Honestly, college can help you with your style, but in regards to being a writer it really helps you to think critically, form arguments, and to write a lot.
If you didn’t study writing in college, that’s probably better. Now you have a freelance writing niche that you can go after. If you studied economics and can explain complex terms in easy-to-understand ways, there are tons of finance sites that are looking for writers like you.
Study science or was pre-med? Now it’s on. The life sciences are one of the hardest technical writing niches. Capable writers are hard to find. You can go deep into these niches, use your research skills, and create great content for lots of businesses.
Can anyone be a freelance writer?
Yes and no. Many take writing for granted, but if you didn’t enjoy writing papers in high school or college, I don’t see how you would enjoy being a freelance writer or have a passion for writing. But, this is where the writing samples come in.
Try your hand at writing and exploring topics and see how well you do. If the process is too tedious, then you probably shouldn’t be a freelance writer. You need to be comfortable writing for long periods of time.
Can I be a writer without a degree?
Most definitely, but it doesn’t hurt. No one has to give you permission to be a writer. You can write about whatever you’d like. But if you want to get paid for it, and be a freelance writer, you’ll have to often write what someone else wants you to write about. A degree isn’t required for that, but editors and marketing directors are probably looking for a degree. But if your writing is excellent — no matter how you got there — then you will not need a degree.