So you want to learn how to start freelance writing. Maybe you want to do it on the side, maybe you’re hoping to switch careers and become a professional freelance writer full-time. Whatever your scenario, it can be daunting to get your freelance writing career started from scratch.
The truth is, a freelance writing career takes time to build, but there are some key steps to help you speed up the process or at least make it as smooth as possible. Below we’ve put together a massive guide for new writers who want to learn how to start freelance writing with no experience or intermediate writers who have found some success with freelance writing but are ready to take their career to the next level. Here’s our complete beginner’s guide on how to start freelance writing.
No, You Don’t Need To Quit Your Day Job
As tempting as it may be to give up your current job and jump into a writing career full-time, it’s not a decision you should make lightly. Plus, there’s a strong case to be made for having a day job to begin with, even if you’re an established freelance writer. Here are some ways a day job can be useful when you’re trying to figure out how to start freelance writing professionally.
You don’t have to worry about money. It can take a while to establish a steady income with your freelance writing. When you have a 9 to 5, you might have less time to write, but you also don’t have to deal with the pressure of paying the bills and making ends meet. That pressure makes it hard to be creative.
You have more opportunities for inspiration. Inspiration doesn’t happen when you’re locked away in a cabin in the woods tasked with the goal of writing the Great American Novel. Inspiration happens when you’re out in the world, navigating its obstacles, connecting with people, and often enough, working on something entirely different that’s not related to writing at all. In some ways, a day job and the people you work with can serve as a muse for your writing.
You preserve your creative energy. One problem professional writers contend with often is balancing paid work with passion work. It’s a question we get a lot: How can I make more time for my own writing? It’s considerably harder to find the energy to write your own stuff when writing is also what you do to pay the bills. It can be useful to have a job that utilizes a completely different skill set so that you can save your creative energy for projects that actually excite and inspire you.
There are plenty of more practical reasons for keeping your day job, too: Health benefits, income stability, retirement savings, structure. These are tools we all need, writers included.
We’re big fans of taking calculated risks at CWWU. So when the time comes that you do feel you want to switch careers completely, there are a few tips you should take to set yourself up for success.
- Look for side work while you’re employed and/or have a steady income stream.
- Save up money to support yourself when you do decide to quit.
- Set an end date in which you would like to leave and plan your switch. We go into those steps in more detail here.
The more prepared you are for a full-time freelance writing career, the easier it will be to deal with the inevitable obstacles of being a professional freelancer.
Practice Writing — & Reading — Every Day
Perhaps the most important investment you can make in your writing career is to simply practice writing as much as you can. You learn to be a better writer and improve your skills with experience. And here are some tips for building a regular writing routine.
Create a comfortable, ergonomic writing space
Even if it’s a little corner in a shared space, you need a spot that you can call your own when it’s time to get some writing done. Some writers like a messy desk, others can only work in a neat and tidy, well-organized environment. Whatever your preferences, we recommend a few items to optimize your writing space:
- A proper desk chair: Your feet should be planted flat on the floor with your knees at a 90-degree angle. The highest point of the seats should hit just below your knee cap. If you don’t have one already, you can find a decent adjustable desk chair for under $50 on Amazon.
- A portable computer stand: Sitting for long periods of time can be uncomfortable, so if you prefer a standing desk, there are affordable, portable stands that allow you to turn any surface into a standing desk.
- Task lighting: For those late-night writing sessions, a desk lamp or even just a small book light can help keep your eyes from straining too hard.
- A good pen and notebook: You don’t need fancy writing accessories to write, but the right set of tools can certainly help get the job done. We’re big fans of the Field Notes line and the Lamy pen.
Of course, you don’t need a fancy, professional setup to be a writer. You just need a space where you can put words on the page. But if possible, that space should be comfortable, well-lit, and intimate.
Bring a notebook with you wherever you go
Carry a notebook and pen with you at all times, and you’ll have everything you need to get your writing done. Whenever you have downtime — a lunch break at work, waiting in line at the grocery store, sitting in the waiting room of your dentist’s office — resist the urge to check Twitter for the zillionth time that day and get a little writing done instead.
And if you don’t want to lug around a bulky notebook all day, at least carry a small notepad to jot down quick ideas and observations. This might inspire you to come back and write more about it later.
Write a sh*tty first draft
We’ve all suffered from writer’s block, and it seems like the longer it lingers, the harder it is to beat. The next time you get a bout of the block, try this tip courtesy of author Anne Lamott. In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, Lamott suggests, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
In other words, start writing without the pressure to be good. Remind yourself that no one has to see this draft, so it’s okay if it’s terrible – even sh*tty. The important thing is to start writing. You can’t edit and improve your writing if there’s nothing on the page, after all.
Set a timer every morning
Make it a ritual to practice your writing every morning. Set a timer for 10, 15, or even just five minutes a day and simply start writing. Put your pen on the page and write whatever comes to mind. Don’t stop, no matter what you’re writing, even if it’s “I must not stop writing.” With this method, you’re literally forcing your hand, and the only rule is to keep writing.
In The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron calls this practice “Morning Pages.” Cameron explains:
“Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. *There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages*– they are not high art. They are not even ‘writing.’ They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.”
Many writers find it much easier to write in the morning, before the day’s obligations and emails and chores begin. If you find it’s easier to write during your lunch break or at night, that’s fine too — do what works for you, just make sure you’re practicing your writing regularly and on a schedule.
Try writing prompts
If you’re truly stuck on what to write about, prompts can help with that. One of our favorite resources for this is Reddit’s Writing Prompts community, where Reddit users come up with creative and imaginative topics for other members to write about. Here are some other resources for fun writing prompts:
- The Teacher’s Corner Daily Writing Prompts
- Over 1,000 Writing Prompts for Students — The New York Times
- Daily Prompt app (Apple)
- Writing Prompts (Android)
Whatever source you choose, prompts are a great way to start writing when you’re feeling stuck.
Start a micro-journal
If writing 500 words a day feels intimidating, practice in just a few paragraphs or a few short sentences. Each day, make an observation and write something interesting about your experience, opinion, or thoughts in a paragraph or less. There’s also microfiction, where writers complete a short story in as few words as possible. It’s a fun challenge and a good way to practice writing if hefty word counts feel a little too daunting.
Start a blog
A blog is a tried and true way to not just practice your writing but also put it out there for the world to see. If you’re curious how to start freelance writing, a big part of it is getting comfortable with the vulnerability that comes with sharing your work. Here are a few ways to go about it:
- Blog on a free shared platform like Medium or Tumblr or Blogger
- Start a free newsletter using a service like Substack or Mailchimp
- Pick a topic you want to write about, then start a website where you write regularly about that topic. Or, buy your actual name as a URL and start a general blog from there.
We’ll get to that last option in more detail later — there’s a lot that goes into starting a blog or a website — but chances are, it’s not as difficult as you think!
Build your reading habit, too
Reading and writing go hand in hand, and if you want to improve your writing skills, it will help to be a voracious reader. Read the kind of stuff you want to write, whether it’s blog posts, articles from journalists you admire, essays, novels, non-fiction, the list goes on. Goodreads is a fun platform that can help gamify your reading goals and keep track of books you’ve read. If you have a library card, your library might partner with Libby, a free app you can use to borrow and download e-books or audiobooks.
And here are a few writing-related books we recommend:
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
- On Writing by Stephen King
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
In addition to being inspirational and fun to read, these books are also chock-full of helpful, actionable writing tips and advice.
Search For Writing Jobs & Gigs
There are plenty of websites and forums for freelance writing jobs. You can search media outlets or blogs that are currently hiring or looking for regular contributors, and here are a few popular options:
- Study Hall: A Patreon-backed newsletter with weekly freelance, full-time, and part-time writing gigs.
- Contenta: This is a quality job board with a focus on helping writers work from anywhere.
- Freelancewriting.com: This site not only posts freelance writing jobs, it also provides tips and advice on making a living as a writer.
- FreelanceWritingGigs.com: This blog lists new freelance writing jobs daily. You’ll find decent options, trending more towards remote work and blogging.
- ProBlogger: The ProBlogger job board lists jobs in the blogging and freelance writing arena.
- We Work Remotely: mostly includes programming or tech jobs, however, there is a selection of marketing, technical writing, copywriting, and similar jobs for writers.
- LinkedIn Jobs: You should probably be on LinkedIn anyway, but an unprofessional LinkedIn profile is perhaps worse than no profile at all, so make sure your profile is professional and grammar-friendly.
- Remote OK is another tech-focused job board. As with We Work Remotely, most jobs are in the programming, coding, and general tech space, but the site also has a handy “non-tech” job search option for those of us who don’t know how to code.
- Mediabistro: Mediabistro is a journalism-focused job site with job listings at reputable companies like NBC, Vogue, or Rolling Stone Magazine. There are also remote, freelance opportunities available.
- Gotham Ghostwriters: Gotham Ghostwriters connects writers with companies and individuals looking to publish books. Since it’s ghostwriting, you probably won’t be credited, but you’ll be paid well and will gain valuable experience.
For CWWU students, we regularly post job listings in the CWWU Facebook group, too!
Utilize social media to find writing gigs
Don’t limit your search to dedicated job boards. When you’re trying to figure out how to start freelance writing, social media can be a big help. There are several social media accounts that Tweet out new writing jobs and gigs. For example:
- NYC Writing Jobs @tmj_nyc_writing
- Freelance Writing Jobs @FreelanceWJ
- Writers of Color @writersofcolor
Turn on alerts to get job notifications as soon as they’re shared. You can search for writing jobs on social media platforms, too! Try a Twitter search for phrases like “hiring writers” or “looking for a blogger” or “looking for freelancers,” and make sure to put quotes around your query so you’ll get precise results.
Try guest posting on popular blogs
We rarely suggest writing for free, but guest posting on popular blogs or websites can be a surprisingly effective way for new writers to get some experience — and a byline. If you reach out to someone for a guest post, make sure to have a few specific pitches ready for them, with a headline and 2-3 sentences of what the guest blog post would be about. For example, your email query might look something like this:
“Hi Jan, I’m a big fan of JanTravels.com. I’m also a new writer looking for experience, and I’d love the opportunity to write a guest post for you. Below are a few topics I think would be a great fit for your audience. If you like any of these ideas, I can have a completed draft ready for you by the end of the week. Would any of these work for you?”
Working for free is never ideal, but if you’re just starting out and can somewhat call the shots, guest posting can be a good way to get your foot in the door.
Build Your Portfolio
If you’re serious about being a freelance writer, you’ll almost always need some kind of professional writing portfolio. This acts as your professional writing resume and makes it easy for people to find you and read a sample of your work.
You don’t need a self-hosted WordPress blog or paid domain, although we recommend at least buying your name as a URL if it’s available (Bluehost is a solid and affordable option). The most important thing is that you have a platform to showcase your writing, even if it’s a free Blogger or Tumblr page. You can also use Squarespace to set up your writing site.
If you want to go the self-hosted route, you’d start with a domain (or URL). This might be your own name, a separate name of the blog you want to launch, or a custom name like DannyWrites.com. You can buy domains using a service like Bluehost, Google, or Godaddy, which also offer options for hosting that domain on the internet as well. From there, these services make it easy to set up WordPress to build your site, even if you’re unfamiliar with web design. You’ll likely spend a total of around a couple hundred bucks a year to own your own website, hosting and all. The domain itself will only run you around $15 a year, but hosting your own website costs a bit extra. It’s like paying rent for your little space on the Internet.
Again, if the idea of building your own self-hosted website seems daunting, start small with a free platform like Blogger, Tumblr, Contently, or Medium. Whichever route you choose, your online writing portfolio needs to convey five things:
- What you write about. This website is a great example. The writer very clearly communicates that she “specializes in writing about WordPress, Social Media, and Online Marketing.”
- Your basic writing skills. Editors want proof that you’re a writer – and preferably a good one. Make sure your website showcases your best writing clips. If you don’t have any bylines yet, take some time to write a few blog posts on topics that interest you. Get feedback from trusted friends and family members to make these writing samples really polished.
- Other places you’ve written. Like any good resume, your portfolio should include some experience, even if it’s a press release you wrote for free for a friend’s band.
- How to contact you. Make it easy for people to find your email address or contact form. It sounds obvious, but we’ve had to hunt down this basic info on so many websites.
- Who you are. Chances are, your About page will be the most visited page on your website. If someone is thinking about hiring you, they want to know who they’re dealing with. An About page can conveniently include all of the above information in one place. When you pitch editors and outlets, your About page (or Bio page) may be the first place they look, so make sure it’s professional and briefly includes the above bullet points.
When you pitch editors or companies your ideas or services, you need a solid platform to serve as your resumé. If you don’t have one already, build a basic online writing portfolio using the above as a guideline. If you already have a portfolio, do an audit and make sure it conveys those five points.
Network With Other Writers
It’s a stereotype that writers like to spend time alone, but the truth is, you won’t get very far without the support and encouragement of people around you. Networking is important in just about any career but especially writing, where many gigs and opportunities happen off the job boards.
For better or worse, many writers land gigs via word of mouth. Whether it’s a friend who knows someone looking for a content writer or a former colleague who landed a new editing gig, many writers find opportunities in networking. And while networking tends to have a sleazy reputation (do you hate the phrase “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” as much as we do?), in practice, it’s not sleazy at all. It’s simply about moving forward in your career collectively instead of trying to go at it alone. And here are some ways you can do just that.
Talk to friends
If you’re new to the world of freelance writing and have no idea how to get started, tell people you’re looking. You never know what opportunities may come your way simply because friends, peers, and colleagues know you’re looking for freelance writing work.
If you know a writer who’s already doing what you want to do, even better. Reach out and tell them you’re inspired by what they do and ask if they have any advice for someone who’s just starting out.
Look for events and writing groups
In a post-COVID world, meet-ups aren’t what they used to be, but there are still plenty of virtual events you can join to meet other writers. Here are some places to get started:
Also, join a regular writing group. This usually consists of a small group of around ten writers who meet once a week and share something they’ve written, then take turns giving feedback. Sharing your stuff with a group might seem intimidating, but the benefits — free advice, feedback, accountability — are incredibly worthwhile. Not sure where to join a group? Here are some options:
- Join an organization like NaNoWriMo, Critique Circle, or The Writing Cooperative and search for niche writing groups within those communities.
- Go on a virtual writing retreat. These retreats typically cost a bit more money, but you’ll get dedicated time to work on your writing projects and the undivided attention of other writers who want to help.
- Find a local group. Again, COVID makes this difficult, but check your local library, Meetup, or Facebook groups to see if there are any smaller writers groups in your community.
Of course, you could start your own writer’s group, too! If you can’t find the right community, build your own. Round up a few writer friends and see if they want to get together regularly for a writing accountability meetup on Google Hangouts or Zoom. Pick a time and day of the week that works best for everyone, and start hosting.
Reach out to writers you admire
Yep — the cold email. You’ve probably heard of this method in some form or another. When you have no idea how to start doing something, ask someone who does. Networking is ultimately about meeting the right people and learning from them, and if you approach a writer in the right way, there’s a good chance they’ll be willing to share a few quick tips with you.
Make sure you reach out to the right person. A high profile writer like Maureen Dowd or Malcolm Gladwell might be your writing idol, but you’re not very likely to get a response from them. After all, they’re hugely famous writers who likely receive hundreds of requests a day.
Start by finding a writer who is successfully doing what you want to do but also still somewhat accessible. You’ll have more luck getting a reply from someone who writes for a popular blog than someone who writes for a major news outlet like the New York Times or the New Yorker. Find someone who’s on their way up. You can reach out to them directly on Twitter, send them a message if their DMs are open, or just send them a cold email if their address is listed on their website. From there, just ask for some quick advice! A couple of rules of thumb to keep in mind when you’re writing this email:
Don’t waste the recipient’s time: Everyone is busy. Get to the point fast, don’t take too much of their time, and don’t ask if they want to chat on the phone with you, meet you for coffee, or have lunch. Be respectful of their time.
Don’t expect anything but advice: The worst cold emails we get are from writers who seem like they want advice but then ask really specific questions about the outlets we write for or worse, ask to introduce them to editors we know. This makes the recipient immediately feel used, and that’s the opposite of what networking is about.
Networking can be powerful, and it’s a skill that many freelance writers say they wish they would have learned sooner in their careers. When you’re just starting out, the above steps can be a useful guideline for figuring out how to start freelance writing, but never dismiss the power of community.
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