How I Find Freelance Writing Work
Referrals, job boards, and cold pitches are still the best ways to get new gigs
When I talk about my job as a freelance writer, the most common question people ask is about finding work. They want to know how I get assignments, how I connect with clients, and where all the money comes from.
There are three routes through which I find most of my gigs:
After I was laid off last March, I sent out emails to nearly everyone I’d ever worked with to let them know that I was available for freelance work. In my email, I outlined the specific kinds of work I was willing to take on (primarily writing and editing assignments related to health, wellness, and travel), and I asked my contacts to forward my information to others who might be able to help if they couldn’t. I also posted across all of my social media accounts, announcing that I was starting a freelance career. I linked to my personal website and asked my network to help me out!
As a result, I ended up with two big assignments right away: one to write SEO-based meditation guides (for a company where a former coworker worked), and another to start a product review section on a local outdoor retailer’s blog (which came from a friend passing my name along). These two projects gave me the confidence (and the money) to build out my freelance business.
These days, I still get a lot of my work from my former coworkers, most of whom are spread out at publications all over the United States. I also get work from friends of the people I’ve worked with in the past or from editors who I’ve worked with in previous jobs. For example, one editor at a university publication ran out of money to hire a freelancer last month, but she passed my name along to the same university’s alumni magazine editor, who reached out for help several weeks later. It’s all about those referrals; I get a lot of assignments this way.
Because journalism is volatile, people change jobs often. That’s beneficial to me as a freelancer because it means I now know people who work in lots of different places. If I see on LinkedIn that someone I know has switched jobs or is now working for a publication where I could be helpful, I send them a congrats email and ask if they need any writing or editing help. I also still email my network every so often, especially if I find that I have a gap of time to fill. My emails are short and sweet: “Hey, I hope all is well. I have a chunk of time coming up at the end of August during which I could take on three articles. If you need writing help, let me know!”
2. Job Boards
I’m part of lots of industry and niche Facebook groups, some of which are local to the Pacific Northwest and others of which are topic-specific. Editors and companies frequently post in these groups asking for writing or editing help. For example, the lead health editor at Medium posted in a Facebook group to let everyone know that she was taking pitches. I don’t use Facebook for personal reasons anymore, other than to share an article here or there, and I’ve muted all of my friends except for the people I see in person. Thus, my Facebook feed is nearly 100% filled with job opportunities and media industry news. I save the posts that look like they might be a good fit, then I go back through about once per week and reach out to editors or content managers at those publications.
This outreach has gotten me lots of good gigs in the past, including my Medium column, the Health Diaries, and my work writing news stories for mindbodygreen. But I will say that I only get responses about 50% of the time, so I’m careful not to dump too much time into reaching out. (I also only send one check-in if I haven’t heard back from anyone, about a week after sending the first inquiry.)
My emails typically look like this:
Hi [name],My name is Jenni Gritters and I'm reaching out because I saw that you posted in [name] Facebook group about needing help with [task]. I'd love to be considered.A bit about me: [Insert short bio here - similar to my LinkedIn bio - with a link to my personal website and direct links to three clips]Please let me know if you have any questions about my background or experience. I'd love to talk more about working together!All the best,
3. Cold Pitches
People assume that I get a lot of assignments this way, but the reality is that it’s fairly hard to land an assignment if you don’t have a previous relationship with an editor. I was an editor at Upworthy for several years, and it was my job to read through pitches and make assignments to freelancers. The pile was always huge, and people had a much better chance of landing a pitch if I’d worked with them before because I could trust that they’d deliver good copy on deadline.
I send probably ten pitches per month, mostly to editors I’ve worked with before. Occasionally I’ll see a call for pitches that matches an idea I’ve been thinking about, so I’ll send a pitch at random. (For example, Contently recently asked for pitches about managing schedule infrequencies as a freelancer, so I pitched a piece about how to plan a maternity leave.) I signed up for a weekly email newsletter that rounds up all the places that need stories, based on editors’ Twitter posts, and I also keep a running list in my phone of story ideas I’m interested in.
The truth is that cold pitches are a tough sell because the person on the other end doesn’t know if they can trust you, and their budget is probably small; you can dump hours (and hours and hours) into building a pitch, but that’s unpaid time. Even sending proposals to businesses through cold pitch emails can be a tough sell. For that reason, I rely on my connections to help me sync up with editors or companies, and then I build relationships with those editors so I have an easy place to send story ideas when I think of them.
The Bottom Line
There’s a lot of work out there for writers—many companies don’t have the budgets to pay for a staff writer!—but getting those good assignments (that pay well, with no drama in the editing process) is tied to trust and networking.
For me, referrals are where it’s at. I get about 75% of my assignments through people I’ve worked with in the past and 20% from postings on job boards. The other 5% come from cold pitches, especially when I have a story idea that seems like it just has to go to a certain publication because it’s a perfect fit.
If you’re trying to build a freelance writing business, start with who you know. Does your friend work at a start-up that might need help starting a blog? Does your former coworker work at a badass magazine where she could connect you with the assignments editor? Does your childhood best friend work in the marketing department of a university? All of these people are links to possible work opportunities! Go get ’em.