The first step in getting started as a freelance writer is understanding that you are starting a business. Your goal needs to be to become profitable. Things like exposure, writing a bestseller, being booked as a guest on a podcast or TV show, or anything else that’s not making a profit will need to take a back seat. If you’re wise and you work hard, you can turn a profit in your first month or two. It might be a meager profit, but you will be earning money online as a writer.
When I first started, I had no money. The good news is that you can make money in this business without investing any money in the beginning. The bad news is that it will take you longer to make decent money. Having a little money, $100 or less, gives you a head start. Money buys you time. If you don’t have money, you will need to invest more time. This post is divided into two sections. The first will go through the steps of getting started when you are completely broke and don’t have any money to invest in your new business. The second section will go through the steps of starting a freelance writing business when you have at least $100 to invest.
Even if you are going to invest some income into your business, you should at least skim the first section because some of the tips will help you. If you are broke, you will want to read both sections because soon you will have some money to invest in your business.
There is no reason to invest more than $250 in your new freelance writing business. You can invest more money once you start making money. Right now, you need to focus on making a profit as fast as possible. This post is designed to help you score a few quick wins.
Getting Started When You’re Broke
My business had just imploded. My anxiety and depression were out of control — and we were broke. I had to do something. I was desperate. Desperation is a horrible place to launch a business. You are more likely to make poor decisions. You risk everything for short term gain, and predators can smell your desperation. You are an easy mark. If you can avoid starting a business when you are desperate, do it. Don’t quit your job to freelance until you’ve built up enough savings and have landed a few clients.
But sometimes, life doesn’t cooperate. If you are already desperate, the only way out is to slog through it. The best thing to do is to jump in and start moving forward any way you can.
You will need a way to get paid. You should have a PayPal account and a bank account. I didn’t actually have a bank account when I started. Instead, I used a prepaid card that also had a routing number and account number I could use for sites that didn’t pay through PayPal. This means I paid a small fee each month. I had no choice. Eventually, I started making enough that I was able to open a proper bank account, and I closed the prepaid card. Most of my clients currently pay me through PayPal.
You will need to start working on freelance websites. Most of these are free to join. There is a lot of work available. Most of the work will suck. The pay won’t be great. But, when you have nothing, every dollar is a big deal. While you are working on these freelance websites, you need to remind yourself that this is just a temporary situation. You are using these platforms to launch your own business. You don’t want to keep working on them — they will suck the life out of you.
The major freelance platforms for writers are:
In addition to these sites, there are hundreds of other content mills. The content mills are even worse than the freelancer websites in terms of pay and work experience. However, we all have to start somewhere.
Your ultimate goal should be to build your own platform because you will make more money, and your business will be more secure when you aren’t subject to someone else’s rules and algorithms.
I have used all of these platforms, and probably still have profiles on most of them. The only I am still active on is Fiverr. I’ve been on Fiverr since 2014. I’m a Pro Seller and a Top-Rated Seller on the platform. These mean I have a reputation for quality and that Fiverr promotes my gigs for me, without any cost to me, on their platform, and through their social media marketing efforts.
I like Fiverr because I get to set my own prices, and clients come to me. Fiverr is only one of my income streams. One of the downsides is that I pay a 20% commission to Fiverr for every sale.
New Fiverr sellers may face more obstacles to getting started. The lower levels are very competitive. It takes a lot of work to get orders, reviews, and to level up. As you level up, you get access to more features that help you sell more on the platform.
I don’t like UpWork, Guru, and Freelancer because you have to bid against other sellers, and you have to pay if you want to bid on more jobs than your monthly allotment. You waste a lot of time bidding on jobs you never had any hope of landing.
When I was on UpWork’s predecessor, Elance, I started by taking any job I could. I over-delivered and earned an excellent reputation through my reviews. This allowed me to raise my prices. I left the site after a few months because it was clear it was a race to the bottom. I took my samples and looked for work that paid better.
I never got any traction on Guru. I quit Freelancer because they started taking their fees out of my pocket before I received money from the client. I’m unsure if they still follow this practice.
On Fiverr, I started out offering a deal that clients would be crazy to ignore. Fiverr uses a level system to rank sellers. As I made more sales, got more reviews, and leveled up, I raised my prices. In the beginning, I raised my prices at least every month, sometimes every week.
I prefer Fiverr over other freelancer sites because it lets you set your prices, and there is no bidding dynamic. But, starting out the competition is stiff, and it can take a few weeks to land your first sale.
You can make your first $100 online through freelance platforms in as little as a week. If you have the time, and you want to make freelancing your primary business, at least for now, I would create profiles on two or three different platforms.
Another way you can try to make money freelancing without putting out the money for a website is to apply to gigs on job boards. There are hundreds of job boards. The best ones are always changing.
Each freelance specialty has its own job boards. You apply to the jobs and provide samples through email or their online application.
Some of the best free job boards for writers are:
Companies that post jobs on job boards tend to get overloaded with applications. You should apply for jobs first thing in the morning. You also need to make sure you follow the directions in the job post with exactness. When I’ve hired writers from job boards, the first thing I do is delete any applications that didn’t follow my directions in the job post.
You can also scan Craigslist for work. I would recommend looking at postings for remote work in big cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Be careful because Craigslist is filled with scammers.
If something is too good to be true, run away.
The best way to get work as a new freelancer is through cold emails. But you usually need your own website for this tactic.
When you are getting started, many people will offer you horrible advice. One of the worst things someone will say to you is that you don’t have a real business if you don’t have your own website. Many people don’t think any online business is legitimate.
Ignore them. If you are making real money that pays your real bills, you have a real business — even if you don’t have a website yet.
During this early stage of your career, you have three goals:
1. Create high-quality samples that you can use to land better gigs
2. Save enough money to afford web hosting and launch your own site
3. Increase your confidence in completing freelance projects and dealing with clients
The biggest mistake I made starting out was keeping my rates too low for too long. I stayed on freelance websites for way too long. You want to get your own website within the first month or two of your new business. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just needs to be a place where you can start sending prospects to see your portfolio.
Getting Started With $100 or Less
If you have $100 to invest, you will be able to skip the most miserable parts of starting out. You won’t need to spend a ton of time on freelance websites. You may want to create a profile on one or two sites if you are having a hard time getting any traction after the first two weeks.
The first thing you need to do is to make sure you have a way to get paid. At a minimum, you will need a PayPal account and a bank account. You may also want to open a Stripe account, as more and more platforms and clients are using Stripe. I would not invest in any special accounting software. If you already have something, go ahead and use it. I still balance my books in Excel. As a freelancer, your business finances aren’t that complicated.
The next thing you need is a website. Your website will be the hub of your business. Think of it as your headquarters. When you are just starting out, you want to keep your expense low. Your goal is to turn a profit as quickly as possible. You don’t need a fancy website. Many freelancers set up a simple one-page website. If you have the capability, I would recommend creating a three-page site. You should have a home page, an about page, and a portfolio page. You don’t need a blog right away.
Your $100 will go towards the cost of setting up web hosting, getting a security certificate, and paying for a little technical help if you need it.
There are a lot of web hosting companies. Most of them will charge you between $9 and $15 for a new domain name, and $9 to $15 a month for a basic web hosting package. I currently have websites hosted on GoDaddy, BlueHost, and DreamHost. I like DreamHost the best. You can get a free email address and a free security certificate for the first year.
The domain name you choose doesn’t matter much. You can use your name, or you can create some clever name related to a niche you want to write for. I would not waste money paying for a premium domain name when you are just starting out. I used to advise people to use dot com domain names. I think that matters less now than it used to.
I use WordPress for my websites because it’s free, there is a ton of functionality, there are thousands of free resources to help you troubleshoot issues, it is flexible, and there are lots of skilled freelancers who can help you fix anything you need help with. I like the ability to delve into some of the technical stuff. I still use free templates on my sites. If you are worried about your technical ability, you can also use SquareSpace or Weebly. These platforms are easier to use and maintain, but they increase your monthly costs.
You need to choose whatever path makes the most sense for you. The key is getting some kind of website up so that you can start getting clients and making money. You can upgrade your website later. Perfect is the enemy of done.
When you are new, nobody is visiting your website. That’s why a blog isn’t your priority. Your priority is getting clients.
As a new freelancer with your own website, you will get most of your clients through job boards and cold emails.
Spend as much time as possible prospecting for clients. The more effort you put into finding clients, the faster you will build the momentum you need. Apply to all of the jobs you think you qualify for on job boards. Send out at least 150 cold emails a week.
Until you have clients to serve, your job is finding clients.
In most parts of the world, you will not need a business license or a formal corporation. You may want or need those things later. But, right now, just focus on building your business. Secure a handful of paying clients. This will increase your confidence, and the money will give you access to more options.
Don’t waste money on business cards or a fancy logo either. Keep it simple and stay focused on doing the bare minimum so you can get a few paying clients.
How to Get Samples and Build a Portfolio
One of the most frustrating things about being a new freelancer is that everyone wants to see examples of your work. There are several ways you can get samples before you’ve been hired for your first gig.
Lots of gurus suggest doing free work for friends and family. This is a terrible idea. First, you are now a professional writer — you don’t work for free. Second, it is best to keep your personal and professional relationships separate. Third, if you do work for friends and family, they may expect more free work in the future, and they may have a hard time viewing you as an expert. In their minds, you will always be a beginner.
I think a better approach is to find a couple of gigs that sound like they would be a good fit for you. Then write some content or copy for an imaginary company. Write it just like you would for a client. Then use those as your first samples. You don’t have to tell anyone that you wrote them for a pretend client. Clients just want to see proof that you can write. Most clients are fine with seeing Word documents or Google docs as samples. They don’t need a live link. If a client wants a live link, forget about working for them until you have something to show.
After you have worked for a few clients, you can replace your imaginary company samples with work from paying clients. The problem of needing samples is only a temporary issue. Once you’re a month into your career, it will never be an issue because you will have a body of work.
You can make a lot of money as a freelance writer. But, before you worry about making six or seven figures, you need to figure out how to get six or seven clients. As a new freelancer, you have to be willing to keep putting yourself out there. Finding your first few clients is a numbers game. If you apply for enough jobs or send out enough cold emails, someone will hire you. Over time you will get better at every facet of freelancing, including finding new clients.