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Five tips to establish yourself as a freelance writer

Justin Reynolds
Aug 7, 2017 · 5 min read

You’ve decided to try your hand at a freelancer writing career.

That’s great news!

Succeeding in the freelance game starts with knowing what to expect when you’re self-employed and having the right approach to the work itself.

I’ve been freelancing in various capacities since 2007. In January 2015, I made the decision to freelance full-time. I haven’t looked back.

You too can turn your side hustle into a full-time gig by putting these five tips into practice.

1. Start with a full-time job

You can’t just declare yourself a freelance writer and expect to generate enough revenue to pay your bills.

Success never happens overnight.

The first step to a freelancing career is locking down a full-time job.

A 40-hour-a-week job covers your living expenses (or at least it should). And you’ll probably have health insurance and other benefits and perks (e.g., paid time off and free food/coffee). There’s also the networking component.

And, importantly, you will learn a ton of things there.

You need to have a solid foundation in place before you can build on top of it, after all.

Freelancers — just like everyone else who works for themselves — are used to working long hours. So get ready.

Build you own client list on top of your full-time workload— making sure, of course, that nothing you end up doing violates any contracts you’ve signed. Take care of your newly acquired freelance clients’ needs on your own time and move forward from there.

Once you’re comfortable with the relationships you have established with several clients — and your finances allow it — it’s time to sever the cord with your full-time employer.

When exactly should you say goodbye? A good rule of thumb is to stay on board until it absolutely makes no sense to stick around.

You’ll know when that moment comes.

2. Never say no to an opportunity

When you’re just starting out as a freelancer — and you don’t have that many (or even any) examples of your work to show hiring managers — you might find yourself being asked to complete test assignments to see if you have what it takes to thrive in a role.

Sometimes these tests are paid, sometimes they’re not.

If you’re serious about being a freelance writer, I’d recommend saying yes to every opportunity that comes you way when you’re just starting out— even if that means spending an hour or two putting something together for free every now and again.

Once of my first steady freelance gigs was writing for a marketing agency that had clients in all imaginable spaces.

I was recommended for the gig. The pay was abysmal. My freelancer friends were mortified I took it.

But I had a full-time job. And the work from this client was reliable. It was also challenging in the sense that I was asked to write for all kinds of clients: I’d write website copy for companies that sold industrial cleaning equipment and small businesses that sold ice hockey equipment; I’d ghostwrite political posts for pundits from both parties; I’d blog for tech companies and write sales copy for theme parks.

I didn’t view this opportunity as something that would help me meet my financial goals. And I didn’t view it as something would help me meet my career goals immediately.

It was an opportunity to get paid to learn how to write compelling content for an array of clients — skills that I needed to propel my freelance career forward.

I took advantage of that opportunity for almost three years — until it didn’t make any sense to continue.

It wasn’t the most glamorous experience. But I learned a lot. And the collective coin added up, too.

If you want to succeed as a freelance writer, pursue every opportunity that comes your way until you have an actual excuse or reason to say no. You’ll make money, form new connections and learn how to write the way future clients will expect you to.

(Not sure how you can get freelance opportunities in the first place? Learn how to land freelance writing gigs.)

3. Have the right mindset

Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

That’s a quote often attributed to Confucius. But it sounds more like something you’d hear in a Williamsburg coffee shop.

Still, the words carry weight.

You need to right mindset to move from being interested in freelancing to becoming a bona fide, self-sustaining freelance writer.

It bears repeating: Every opportunity is a learning experience. The right mix of clients will introduce you to countless new ideas, technologies and platforms. And you get paid to become familiar with all of it.

It’s all about how you frame it. Even the lowest-paying gigs pay you to create assets you can include in your own portfolio. Use the best examples of low-paid work to land even more lucrative opportunities.

Embrace a growth mindset and stuff your brain with more and more knowledge. It’ll make you even more marketable in the future. And you’ll become a more formidable Jeopardy! contestant.

Image via StockSnap

4. Listen to feedback

Each client’s needs are different.

Even if you’re the best writer in the world — spoiler: you’re not — every company you work with will have different expectations, different style guides and different content standards.

While you might knock it out of the part with Client A, Client B might think the same approach is terrible.

We all know writers who are extremely self-conscious. Whenever we’re asked to critique these folks’ works, we step on eggshells. We don’t want constructive criticism to be perceived as personal insult.

Don’t be that writer.

You’re not writing a novel. You’re not writing poems.

You’re creating collateral for clients and their audiences.

Embrace all the feedback you receive — no matter how “unsettling” it may be.

It’ll make you a more versatile writer. And it’ll prove to your clients that you’re someone who listens and is capable of adaptation.

5. Don’t make excuses

Some people have the misconception that freelancers, in general, are unreliable. This is due to the fact that so-called “stringers” don’t always turn things in on time and occasionally disappear.

It’s easy to differentiate yourself: Never agree to a deadline you don’t think you’ll be able to hit. And be as responsive and “present” as you can be.

Most of the freelance work you’ll get — at least after you move past the “content farm” phase of your career — won’t be particularly timely. In some cases, you might have to turn something over within two weeks. In other cases, it might be two months.

But from time to time some clients will ask you if you’re able to take care of something within 48 hours, 24 hours — or maybe even sooner.

The more you are able to deliver, the more work you’ll get — it’s that simple.

Exceed expectations. Work quickly. Never take the easy way out.

Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Justin Reynolds

Written by

Freelance writer. Likes: tech, productivity, words, live music, Yankees. Dislikes: American cheese and jeans.

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