The Ridiculously Complete Guide to Freelance Writing

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I firmly believe that now is the best time to be a writer since the invention of the printing press.

Quite a bold statement, I know.

Think about it. Before the advent of the internet, the vast majority of writers were the living embodiment of the “starving artist” stereotype. Even just twenty years ago, the idea of writing as a viable career option was a much harder pill to swallow — and if you wanted to set your own hours, work from home in your underwear, and pick and choose clients from around the world… well, you had better have been damn good.

But what I just described is not only completely attainable now, it’s relatively easy to set yourself up for this kind of work and lifestyle.

Relatively.

By the time you’re finished reading this guide, you’ll know everything you need in order to:

  • Find and establish contracts with high-quality clients
  • Write a killer proposal with my detailed COLD pitching advice
  • Set yourself apart from 99% of so-called “freelance writers”
  • Know exactly what to charge for every job you land
  • Manage your budget & time like a pro
  • And more. Lots more.

As such, this post is long.

Like, really, really long.

This post is over 15,000 words long.

To make things easier, subscribers to my completely free, cancel-any-time mailing list will have exclusive access to a PDF, MOBI, or EPUB version of this post.

Actually, subscribers get a lot more than that. Take a look.


If you don’t want to enter your email address to get all that awesome stuff, it’s cool — this post is already packed with value all by itself.

Remember, if you have any comments or questions, I’m very easy to reach. Consider yourself encouraged to contact me for any reason.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Read This First. It’s Important.

I want to be really, really clear about something.

I write about freelancing and related topics on The Free Creative Society, but that’s actually not the main purpose of this site.

The real purpose of this site is to discuss how creative people like you can use your talents to generate an income and enjoy the lifestyle that you want. This might be something you achieve through freelancing.

But…

I believe that ideally you’ll accomplish your goals by developing your own projects and businesses that are not so directly dependent upon clients in the way that freelancing demands.

Write your book.

I know you have one in the back of your mind. All writers do.

Create your blog.

I know you’ve thought about it.

This guide is not an endorsement of freelance writing as a lifelong career. I believe that most writers — and indeed most freelancers laboring in other creative industries — have the capacity to generate income with bigger and better endeavors than freelancing.

If you can make it as a freelancer, odds are you have the talent to do even more.

If I can succeed in convincing people that freelancing is good, but developing your own projects is even better, then I’ll have done my job.

You can read more about these ideas in detail in my free report, Dear Freelancers, You Can Do Better: Why Freelancing Doesn’t Lead to Freedom. I know this makes certain “real freelance writers” curl up their lips and sneer, but I believe that freelancing can function as an effective stepping stone to funding your potentially more lucrative personal projects. It doesn’t mean you’re any less professional or treat your clients with anything less than excellence.

I wrote this guide because if you’re going to be freelancing, whether it’s for six months or ten years, you should provide the best possible service you can. Having this attitude will benefit both you and your clients.

What This Guide is Not

This guide is NOT designed to be a tutorial on how to write. I’m operating under the assumption that you’re already a good writer. If you need help with grammar, sentence structure, or how to write an interesting piece that your clients will love, there’s plenty of other resources for that.

Additionally, this guide contains occasional tips that come from a “do as I say, not as I do” perspective. I’m not a big social media guy. You won’t find me pitching clients on Twitter. But I know for a fact that social networks can help you with your freelance writing business (to some degree). Thus, I wrote about it. Don’t bother pointing out that I don’t run my own freelance writing business in precisely the exact manner that I suggest in this guide.

The advice in this guide is not intended to be taken as gospel. Everything here is what I personally believe to be effective — it doesn’t mean that you can’t tweak things to your liking.

As a matter of fact, don’t take anyone’s advice as gospel, not even mine. Figure out what works for you and run with it.

How Freelance Writing Works

This section is a (very) quick primer on how freelance writing works. If you’ve been involved in freelancing to some degree already, you probably know all of this. All of the steps discussed here will be expanded upon in detail later.

In a nutshell, here’s how most freelance writers find their clients:

  • Locate individual or organization that needs something written
  • Send them a pitch
  • Get the job

Or:

  • Offer your services publicly (e.g., on your website or a discussion forum)
  • Receive inquiries from potential clients
  • Get the job

It really is that simple.

You’ll almost certainly be doing a mixture of both. It’s possible to “set up shop” and have clients come to you, but in the vast majority of cases you’re still going to have to hustle a bit from time to time.

Later on we’ll be going to discuss how to locate clients, how to make a great pitch, where to advertise your services, and how to maximize your odds of getting hired.

But next, I’d like to discuss the “bare bones essentials” of what a successful freelance writer should do first and foremost.

Some Good News For Anyone Taking This Freelancing Thing Seriously

I have some very good news for you.

Most “freelance writers” are not professionals.

I could share countless horror stories with you that have been told to me by my clients regarding their experiences with other freelance writers. There are “writers” who disappear in the middle of a project (after being paid of course), “writers” who outsource everything to India and try to pass it off as their own work, “writers” who literally copy and paste articles from the internet (as if this isn’t incredibly easy to detect…), and, of course, “writers” who just can’t write.

This is all excellent news for you. It means that if you’re even halfway decent at this, you’ll absolutely blow away the vast majority of the competition. As a freelance writer, I don’t fear competition in the slightest. There’s more demand for high quality writing from competent people than ever before.

If you follow a few simple steps to establish what I consider to be the “bare bones essentials” for success as a freelance writer, you’ll be ahead of 90% of other writers.

So, how are you going to stand out from the already horrendously amateurish competition?

You’re going to have:

  • A website
  • A phone number
  • A portfolio of writing examples

I really can’t stress enough how important these three simple items are. Way more “freelance writers” than you’d expect don’t have them — so if you do, you immediately present yourself as a professional amid a sea of weekend warriors.

None of this is expensive or even particularly difficult to set up. Spend an afternoon or two or three putting it all together and you’ll thank me later.

Let’s discuss each point in detail.

Must Have Essentials: Portfolio

Of the three “must have essentials” we’re talking about in this guide, which are a website, a phone number, and a portfolio, the portfolio is by far the most important.

If you’re only going to do one of those three things, it must be the portfolio. Having all three is best of course (by a significant margin).

How to Choose Content for Your Portfolio

Sometimes called a “sample pack” or just “writing examples,” your portfolio is a collection of at least four or five of pieces of writing. I have mine set up as a PDF, which I believe allows you to have a little nicer of a presentation than just a Word document.

It’s a little counter intuitive, and I’m sure plenty of folks would disagree with this, but I actually don’t recommend using your “very very best” pieces of work for your portfolio. Use your standard, good but not-edited-a-million-times type of work. This is because when you send potential clients your portfolio, you want them to see the quality of work that they’ll most likely be actually receiving from you, not the stuff you’ve polished for hours and hours on end.

That doesn’t mean that the work you include shouldn’t be polished, I’m just saying don’t obsess over it and try to represent yourself realistically.

If possible, select pieces that you’ve written across a variety of topics and niches (unless you’re specializing in a specific niche only — more on this later). Mine has a financial article, a humorous article, a fiction excerpt, and a few other things. If you have permission to include anything that you’ve had published online or in print, that’s even better.

At the beginning of your portfolio document, I suggest writing a little intro. A brief description of yourself, any pertinent information related to your writing, and an expression of gratitude for the reader/potential client taking the time to look it over is perfect.

What to Do When You Don’t Have Content For Your Portfolio

If you don’t already have content that you can use for your portfolio, you’ll have to bite the bullet and write some.

Here’s what I believe to be the most efficient way to not only fill out your portfolio for immediate use, but also to get the work published online: write the content first and then start submitting it as guest posts.

Guest posts are submissions to other people’s websites or blogs. They’re generally written for free but with full credit given to you. If you get accepted to write a guest post, let the site owner know that you’re already using it in your portfolio but that’s the only other place it’s ever going to be. Finally, you should be given a byline with enough room for your name, a link to your website and/or social media accounts, and a brief bio or self-description.

If you aren’t getting all of the benefits I described above for writing a guest post, don’t do it.

Guest posts are especially nice to include in your portfolio because they show potential clients that you’ve been published online already. But if you write a piece that doesn’t get accepted as a guest post — or you simply haven’t heard back from anyone yet — it’s more than likely still perfectly serviceable as a piece in your portfolio.

The twist with my little “efficiency hack” is that you can fill out your portfolio immediately and then start “raising the value” of your portfolio by attempting to get your work published online.

Blog owners love two things:

1.) Free content.

2.) When people make their lives easier.

(Including me! Feel free to get in touch if you’d like to guest post on The Free Creative Society.)

A lot of the time, writers pitching a guest post approach the blog owner with an idea, not a final product. You’re contacting them with everything they need to get new content up on their site within minutes, and all they have to do is give you credit.

Here’s an example of an email you might send:

Hi [Name],

I’m a regular reader of your blog. The piece you wrote about [topic] is one of my favorites.

I’m emailing you today because I’m a new freelance writer in the process of filling out my portfolio.

I was hoping you might consider the attached document as a guest post. It would really be an honor for me to be a contributor to [name of site].

The content is already in my portfolio, but that’s the only other place I’ll ever publish it if you accept it as a guest post.

If you like it, everything should be ready to go for you — please feel free to publish it as long as my byline is included.

I would very much appreciate it if you’d let me know either way.

Thank you,

[Your name & Contact Info]

Don’t forget to include your byline and any other pertinent information in the document!

Things will probably be easier if you make a list of all the sites you’d like to guest post on before sitting down to write the content. This way you can craft the pieces according to whatever their requirements are — word length, topics, and so on.

If you get a rejection, no worries. Just submit the piece to another site or keep it as-is in your portfolio. However, you’d be very smart to ask the website owner why they rejected it and what you could do to improve the piece. That’s the kind of actionable information you can use to potentially improve your writing.

Here’s a neat little trick if you’re having trouble finding guest posting opportunities. Fire up Google and try some of the following searches:

  • “keyword” “guest blog”
  • “keyword” “guest post”
  • “keyword” “write for us”
  • “keyword” “become a contributor”
  • “keyword” “guest article”

Of course, replace “keyword” with your topic of choice.

Update Your Portfolio As Necessary

As your writing continues to evolve and you have new pieces published, don’t forget to update your portfolio. You can remove older pieces that you’re no longer as pleased with and add in newer, better content — just make sure if it’s work you did for a client that you have their permission.

Add a Splash of Color

As someone that’s had to hire freelancers before, including writers, let me tell you — it can get a little boring looking at the sometimes barely-legible documents that writers send.

If you want to have an even better chance of getting noticed, add a splash of color to your portfolio. Don’t overdo it, but a picture here or there (even if it’s not entirely relevant to the content) can break up the monotony of the text.

There’s plenty of places where you can snag great-looking stock images, free for commercial use:

While I’m a firm believer in substance over style, using a readable color scheme for parts of the document (i.e., not all of it) can also be a nice touch. Here’s a really great color scheme generator to help you choose a palette.

Finally, if you’ve had a guest post or paid piece published, ask the owner if you can include their logo in your portfolio. A nice stack of logos can add authority to your portfolio, but only do this once you have three or four. Just one lonely logo sitting there looks a little weird.

Different Portfolios for Different Clients

You may find it beneficial to have a handful of different portfolios:

  • A “one size fits all” portfolio — this is the one that has examples of your writing on several different topics or styles. This is the one that you’d make available on your website.
  • Specialized portfolios. For example, let’s say you’re pitching a real estate agent. If you have content about real estate, you could send them a portfolio document which exclusively showcases that style of content.
  • The introduction page(s) of your portfolio can be customized and better tailored to people in their line of work.
  • …But don’t overdo it. If you know that you’ll be pitching to individuals/businesses in two or three different niches, having different portfolios gives you a great opportunity to show them you know your stuff about the topics they’re interested in.
  • That doesn’t mean you need to make 50 different portfolios or a new portfolio every time you’re pitching a new client.
  • Seriously. Don’t.

Be Very Easy to Contact

Of course, your portfolio document must also have your contact information clearly listed. All of it! This means you’ll want to include your:

  • Name
  • Email address
  • Skype username
  • Phone Number
  • Website address

Place your contact information at the very beginning of your portfolio and again at the end. Don’t make the reader have to work for it to contact you.

If you’re going to be smart and follow my advice of having a website, make your portfolio available there too (obviously). However, don’t just publish your samples on a page of your site. “Force” potential clients to download your PDF.

Why?

Because it’s really easy to click away from a website. If you give your potential clients the opportunity to download your portfolio as a PDF, you’ve just managed to secure a spot on their computer. They’ll minimize their browser and open up your PDF separately, or at the very least have the opportunity to read it at their leisure. They’ll probably read longer and pay more attention to what you have to offer.

I believe the benefits of this outweigh the slight reduction in convenience.

Must Have Essentials: Website

If you’ve never owned or created a website before, and the whole process seems scary and intimidating to you, don’t worry.

Despite what you may have been lead to believe, creating your own website is easier than ever before.

And I do mean “creating your own website,” as in creating it on your own. Technology and services now exist so that anyone — even if they’ve never designed a website before — can develop a stylish, professional website, probably in just a few hours.

Avoid Free Subdomains

You’re probably familiar with “free” website services such as Blogger or WordPress.com. I do not recommend using these free services. When you sign up with one of these services, your site address looks something like this:

mycoolsite.wordpress.com

or

amateurhour.blogger.com

These kinds of site addresses look incredibly unprofessional. This isn’t your Battlestar Galactica fan blog, it’s the public face of your business.

As a side note to avoid pissing people off: yes, there are freelance writers and others who use these kinds of services and have done fine with them. Great. This is my opinion.

So, what you want is your own .com address. Even with the influx of new top level domains (ever heard of .space or .club? Me either), a dot com is the gold standard for professionals. Everyone knows it and everyone uses it.

What’s it Cost?

Domain registration fee: $10 or less per year
Hosting fee: $10 or less per month

See what I mean about it being affordable?

Domain registration is the fee you have to pay every year for a dot com. Once this is established you likely won’t have to look at it again for a year.

Hosting is the fee you have to pay so that your site can be available to the internet. This is the service you’ll likely be using to set up your site.

If you have some experience in web development, I encourage you to set up your site however you want. Grab a $10-per-year domain from Namecheap, some hosting from StableHost (starts at $5/month), and get to work. Most of my sites use the WordPress Content Management System (CMS), including this one.

Quick note for those who don’t know: there’s a difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. Same people, different purpose. WordPress.com is for those subdomain-type sites I recommend you avoid (e.g., whatever.wordpress.com). WordPress.org is for you to download the WordPress software (it’s free) and install it to your own site.

The Slightly More Complicated Do-It-Yourself Way

Like I said, if you’re relatively comfortable with technology and you want to have the most flexibility in how your site looks and functions, get your own domain and your own hosting service.

It really isn’t that difficult, especially if you use WordPress. Here’s a comprehensive guide on WordPress installation.

Most hosting companies (like StableHost mentioned above) have a “one click” installation as well, making it even easier.

This guide is about how to be successful as a freelance writer, not about how to design a basic website. Thus, in the interest if your time and mine, I won’t be going into all of the details of how to set up your website from start to finish. There’s plenty of other resources for that.

Yeah… Isn’t There an Easier Way?

Yes. If you’ve never designed a website before and don’t want to hire someone to do it, which I fully believe isn’t necessary for a basic portfolio site, go get yourself an account on Weebly.

Trust me, it’ll look more than fine. Browse through their available templates — plenty are great for portfolios.

Again, do not get a whatever.weebly.com site — get a real dot com of your very own. They make it easy.

The reason I suggest using Weebly or a similar “website builder” service is because if you really don’t know how to do any of this stuff, they have a “site builder” that’s super easy to use. They also handle everything else you need, including the domain registration and hosting.

While most of my “web development” is done with WordPress and private hosting, I have had the opportunity to fiddle around with Weebly’s backend and I liked it quite a lot compared to similar services. It’s very intuitive and, even better, Weebly has dirt cheap plans. You won’t need more than their basic $8/month package (which actually includes domain registration).

Is Weebly a robust, full-featured solution that offers everything a professional web developer would want access to?

No. Not even close.

Are they perfect for a freelance writer who doesn’t know the first thing about web development and wants to get a good looking website up quickly?

Yes. Absolutely.

If you’re having trouble getting your site set up, do not give up. A little Google searching can go a long way, and you’re more than welcome to contact me if you need a hand.

What Sections Should My Site Have?

There don’t have to be many. You should have a homepage that gives a brief overview of you and what you do, along with your contact information. Also have an “about me” or bio page, a contact page with your contact information listed again, and a page where readers can download your portfolio rather than having to read everything right there.

You may choose to have a blog on your site if you wish, but I’ve tried this before and in my experience it isn’t worth it. Yes, you can showcase your writing abilities with it, but you also have to update it at least semi-regularly or your site will look horribly out of date. I simply didn’t have the time or the inclination, nor did I experience any additional client acquisition as a result of having one, so I axed it.

There’s nothing wrong with it if you want one, but if you must blog, I’d encourage you to make one separately as part of your personal, non-freelancing projects. You can include a link on your writing site and within your portfolio and begin the process of developing something that could eventually become one of your main focuses outside of freelancing.

Quick Recap

  • A website is your online calling card. It’s important. Make one.
  • Websites are affordable.
  • You do not have to hire a web designer to make you a basic portfolio site.
  • Have the following pages: a homepage, a bio page, a page to download your samples/portfolio, and a contact page.

Must Have Essentials: Phone Number

It’s sort of sad that I even have to write this section, but here goes…

Would you ever hire a plumber that didn’t have a phone number?

How about an auto mechanic?

You wouldn’t. It’s ridiculous. And yet, at least in most online job markets or communities, it’s actually quite rare to encounter freelancers who offer a phone number. Typically you get an email address and a Skype username (overwhelmingly used for text chatting only), and that’s it.

I give all of my clients my personal cell phone number. It’s never been a problem for me, but I can understand why some of you might be uncomfortable with that. It’s still no excuse. You can get a VoiP number through Skype or dozens of other services for dirt cheap.

Furthermore, you can reroute a VoiP number to your actual phone — Skype makes this easy — so you can take business calls without anyone knowing it’s not your “actual” number. This offers the additional benefit of disabling call forwarding during nights and/or weekends.

A word on voicemail: you should absolutely have it set up. Make it sound professional.

Something clean and generic like this is absolutely fine: “You’ve reached so-and-so. I’m unavailable to take your call at the moment, but please leave your name, number, and a brief message, and I’ll return your call as soon as possible. Thank you.”

That’s all there is to it. Offer your clients a phone number like an actual professional.

And you know what? The phone number is mostly is about appearances. A huge chunk of your communications are likely to be conducted exclusively through email. I occasionally have clients who call me, but it’s more rare than you’d think. If you’re sweating the idea of having to take calls all the time, stop.

Whether or not you post your phone number on your website or other online advertisements is up to you. I’ve done it and had no problems, crank calls (heh, well, we’ll see what happens after I publish this guide), or more telemarketers than usual, but these things are of course risks.

If you’re using the “safety” blanket of a VoiP number anyway, I’d do it. Having a phone number prominently displayed in public is a way of saying “I take this seriously.” Most people will email you anyway.

Bottom line is that you need a phone number. There’s no excuse.

What to Write About

There’s a few ways to go about deciding what you should write about.

Write About Anything

This, I believe, is what most freelance writers do. It’s a bit of a mercenary approach — “I’ll write about anything as long as I’m being paid.”

The good part about it, obviously, is that it widens your potential job pool to include just about anything. One day you might be writing about energy efficient refrigerators and the next you might be writing a piece about dog training.

This is a good choice only if you thrive on variety and you’re very, very confident in your research skills.

Write About A Few Things

A bit like the “write about anything” approach but narrowed down a bit. Usually, you’ll try and get assignments within a handful of broad categories that you have some experience with.

For example, you might only try to get jobs about accounting, gardening, and technology — and, as I suggested above in the section about portfolios, you might have custom samples prepared about each of these niches.

At the very least, it’s a good idea to know what you’re not interested in writing about. For example, I’m not a car guy (what can I say, much like Ferris Bueller as a teenager, “I asked for a car, I got a computer. How’s that for being born under a bad sign?”). So I don’t write about cars or pretty much anything to do with the automobile industry.

Write About One Thing

If there’s something you’re an expert about, you might find a lot of benefit in establishing yourself as the go-to authority for anyone who needs to hire a writer about the topic.

While it limits your job prospects to a single category, generally you can demand higher rates and the assignments will be easier for you since you already know so much about the subject.

This, of course, assumes that you’re an expert in a topic that actually has demand for paid writers.

For example, if you’re an expert at, say, retail franchising, you’ll probably fine. Dwarf Fortress, not so much.

Drilling Down Helps You Pitch

We’ll dig into this a little more later, but it’s smart to start “drilling down” on the topics/niches you’re interested in writing about.

What do I mean by that?

Well, let’s take the gardening example from above and suppose that that’s a topic you have some experience with and thus want to write about.

Your first thoughts will probably be, “Ok, so I should try to get clients who have websites or other publications about gardening.”

That’s true, but like most topics, you can “drill down” and find many more potential opportunities or “sub-niches.”

What kind of sub-niches exist within the broader category of gardening? Which ones would present opportunities for a freelance writer?

Let’s take a look:

  • Floral gardening
  • Vegetable gardening
  • Herb gardens

Each of those three categories alone could be broken down into different subsections. Different kinds of flowers, vegetables, and herbs, seeds, how they’re grown, indoor or outdoor, urban vs. rural growing. There’s tons and tons of topics.

But how about:

  • Gardening tools
  • Gardening apparel (e.g., gloves or aprons)
  • Fertilizer
  • Watering systems
  • Bouquets
  • Greenhouses
  • Pesticides

Now, consider that each of these different sub-niches is home to plenty of different businesses, blogs, and marketers — drilling down like this is going to help you discover new potential clients to whom you can pitch your services.

We’ll get into the nitty-gritty of cold pitching later, but I just wanted to take a moment to help you realize this. Say your niche (or one of your niches) really was gardening — at the onset, you might not have considered bouquets as a possible topic, but think of the countless number of floral shops out there. Don’t you they’d benefit from your advice on their blog or in their customer newsletter?

If gardening isn’t your thing, repeat the process for whatever broad category it is that you’re interested in.

Don’t get too hung up on picking the perfect niche(s), but I hope I’ve illustrated a point here: one broad category can lead to hundreds of different opportunities. Think about what you know and/or love and start drilling down to find them.

Writing for Print vs. Digital Publications

I’m including this section because I think a lot of folks start exploring freelance writing and think to themselves, “I’m going to get published in Reader’s Digest!

Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t be published in Reader’s Digest or other physical print publications, but it is important to understand that for many freelance writers, the vast majority of their work is published online.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. As time passes, the distinction between print publications and digital publications (you know, websites) has blurred significantly.

There’s really no avoiding it either. The last time I bought a magazine I thought to myself, “Sheesh, I could have read about all this stuff online and saved myself the six bucks.”

If you can get a paid gig writing for a print publication, go for it! Pitching is usually more or less the same as for digital publications.

Assuming you’re given a byline, there’s no denying that there’s a little ego gratification when you’re published in print, and it looks great in your portfolio too.

But don’t waste your time exclusively pitching print publications, or in my opinion even lusting after them. Don’t worry about stroking your ego, worry about who’s paying you and how much — regardless of whether it’s on a piece of paper or a screen.

Ghostwriting, Non-Disclosure Agreements, & Bylines

I see a lot of talk on freelance writing blogs about “clips.”

Clips are samples of your work which have been published — it’s the same thing as we discussed before in the section about how to make your portfolio, so go read that if you need clips.

I’ve noticed a weird sort of fervor for getting clips in some writing circles.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great if you can be paid to write something and be attributed for it. But, I mean, geez. Not getting a byline isn’t a good enough reason to turn down a job if the pay is right.

In fact, you’re likely to find that quite a few if not most of your clients will simply expect that you’re ghostwriting for them (i.e., they can take full credit for what you write).

This is totally normal and not a reason to reject an assignment.

For example, let’s say you get hired to write a brochure for a travel agency. Do you really need to have your name on there? It’s nice if they credit you, but if they don’t, is that a good enough reason to turn down paying work?

Furthermore, it’s possible that you might take work that you don’t want your name on. I’ve written product reviews for certain, er, recreational items, and believe me, I was just fine being a ghostwriter

That’s a joke. I’m talking about Ski-Doos. I’ve actually never been hired to write about sex toys (which is a damn shame now that I think about it…), but if I did, I wouldn’t want my name attached to that kind of content. Get my point now?

With this whole ghostwriting thing in mind, it makes a lot more sense that on occasion a client might ask you to sign a non-disclosure agreement. This basically means that you’re not allowed to tell anyone that you wrote whatever content for them — it’s standard operating procedure for ghostwriters of fiction books, but it might crop up if you’re, say, writing about a product that hasn’t yet been released to the public.

If you ever get asked to sign an NDA, make sure you read over the agreement in detail, and if you’re confident you understand what it means and you’re comfortable with it, go ahead and take the job. No real reason not to in my opinion.

Determining Pricing — How Much Should You Charge?

The question I get asked the most about freelance writing is “how do I figure out how much to charge?”

It’s a little tricky to answer because there is no definitive answer. It really depends on you.

The reality is that some people are better writers than others. The quality of any piece of writing is subjective, but for the most part, how good you are at writing determines how much you’ll be able to charge… up to a point.

The other part that determines how much you can charge is how capable you are at marketing yourself. I firmly believe that quality of writing, at least as far as freelancing is concerned, hits a certain point of diminishing returns: the person earning $75 dollars per hour is probably just as good of a writer as the person earning $150 per hour, they just have different clients with different budgets. The person earning more is probably better at marketing themselves.

Further on in this guide there are many “client acquisition” sections which seek to show you how to get better at marketing yourself.

If you’re used to reading other freelancing blogs, you’ve probably been lead to believe that if you’re earning less than $100 per hour you’re some kind of loser.

While I believe that you should be marketing yourself in such a way as to secure only the most lucrative clients so that you can get that $100 an hour or more, I also understand that this is a time consuming process.

Some of the people reading this are probably looking for a way to earn money now in order to keep the lights on. If that’s you, why not be flexible? Make your goal to get assignments that pay you what you’re worth, but if you’re in a situation where money is tight, cranking out “low paying” gigs for $30-50 an hour is — especially in this economy — nothing to be ashamed of.

To be fair, I’ve mentioned multiple times on this site that I don’t view freelance writing as my lifelong career and that I have other sources of income. Ultimately, I’m interested in bigger and better things.

All I’m saying is that if your situation is dire enough, your ego shouldn’t be determining what’s right for your bank statement.

A Tale of Two Freelance Writers

Speaking of marketing yourself: your professionalism and general attitude will go a long way in overshadowing any shortcomings your writing abilities may have.

Let me put it to you this way: suppose you’re running a business and have to hire an employee.

You have two options.

Option one is a guy who’s extremely good at the job, but it’s clear that you aren’t really his first priority. While it’s true that when he does do his work it’s fantastic, he’s also late a lot and you’re never really sure if he’s going to show up.

Option two is a guy who’s just “pretty good” at the job, but who’s also incredibly responsive to your needs, always shows up on time, and has a positive attitude. Sure, he might screw up every now and then, but he’s loyal and you know you can count on him.

As someone that’s hired people before and has had to make decisions like these, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that I’ll take guy number two every single time.

It’s not the first time I’ve made this claim over the course of this guide: most freelance writers suck.

I get to know a lot of my clients pretty well, so I’m privy to what a lot of their past experiences with freelancers have been like.

“I got this person who was great at writing but never returned my emails and was constantly late on deadlines” is a very common story.

By not being that person, you’re going to be able to demand a higher price just because of the fact that your clients know that they can trust you.

Toward the end of this guide I’m going to talk more about the importance of communication, but for now all you need to know is that you should aspire to act like “guy number two” as often as possible and you’ll do fine.

Should I Charge Per Word?

Generally, freelance writers charge on a per-word basis. This is actually quite smart because it keeps everything honest. I’ve had clients who insisted on paying a “per-page” rate… until I explained that a “page” is incredibly vague. There would be little to stop me from cranking up the font size, using spaced out bullet lists, and doing other high-school-esque lengthening tactics.

By charging per-word, you know exactly what you’re going to earn, and the client knows exactly what they’re going to pay. At higher rates of pay, word counts might matter less and you can negotiate payments on a case by case basis.

For example, I’ve had clients agree to pay me per blog post, just because they knew I’d write something decent and they didn’t necessarily care about the precise word count.

However, generally speaking, most of your clients are likely to want to know the per-word cost of your work so this is something you should figure out.

Just Tell Me How Much to Charge Already!

Now you’re probably wondering, “Well, how much do I charge per-word then?”

Well, again, it depends on you. As I said at the beginning, I’m going to assume that you’re a “good” writer. This probably means that you:

  • Have English as a first language or can write well enough to appear as though it is
  • Understand the basics of how to structure a piece of writing
  • Have a firm grasp of grammar and spelling
  • Can do research when necessary

If this is the case, you should probably not be charging less than $50 per hour, but again, it depends on you.

You need to figure out what hourly rate is acceptable to you. Not the rate that I think you should be making, not the rate that some freelancing blog tells you is “standard,” but the rate that YOU know you need need in order to comfortably pay your bills and, as I would advise you to do, fund your other projects.

Exactly how you figure this out is highly dependent upon your unique situation. I can’t tell you how much to charge and neither can anyone else.

Here’s a tip though: it helps to know how many words per hour you can write on average — yes, different topics will take more time or less time depending on the complexity, but try and discover your average.

“How much should I charge” is a difficult question for anyone else to answer because YOU are the only person who can truly determine it.

The best piece of advice I can give you is this: when setting your prices, it’s always easier to lower your rates than to raise them.

Start higher than you think you can get — you might end up being pleasantly surprised. On more than one occasion I’ve been approached to work on some project, and since I was swamped, I returned their message with a semi-outrageous quote… and they ended up accepting it.

Whether Or Not to Publicly Display Your Rates

One last important consideration is whether or not you want to publish your rates publicly on your website, in your portfolio, or on your promotional threads or other advertisements.

A lot of freelancers post their rates for all to see.

However, some choose to say that their rates are “determined on a case by case basis.”

Both ways have merit, depending on how you look at it. By publishing your flat rate per word, you’ll avoid being contacted by looky-loos who aren’t ready to pay a respectable fee for high quality content. There are no surprises for your clients.

However, if you don’t publish your rates, you have the opportunity to gauge the client and how difficult the work will be before giving them a price quote.

This can give you the opportunity to take on easier jobs at lower rates and more difficult jobs at higher ones. You can also “feel out” the client to try and get as much as you think you can. (If any of my clients are reading this, no, I’ve never done that with you. Promise.)

If I had to choose for you, I’d say to not publish your rates. You’ll have much more flexibility.

Invoicing & Payment Processing

So, you’ve got your website, phone number, portfolio, and you’ve decided how much you’re going to to charge people.

Great!

But now you have to know how to actually bill them.

The Holy Trinity of Billing

Fortunately, there’s a few tools you can use which make it incredibly easy. In my opinion, the holy trinity looks a little something like this:

FreshBooks + PayPal + Stripe

FreshBooks is an excellent invoicing platform for freelancers of all kinds, and writers are no exception. It keeps track of everything, including invoices sent, what you’re owed, clients, and more. You can look at their site yourself for a full rundown.

But there’s one feature about it that makes it a must-have. Honestly, I’m very surprised more people don’t talk about this.

Saving (Potentially a LOT) of Money With FreshBooks + PayPal Business Payments

FreshBooks allows you to use PayPal Business Payments.

So, what does this mean?

Normally with PayPal you’d have to pay 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction.

Imagine that someone pays you $100 through PayPal. You’ve got to cough up $3.10 for the privilege.

This adds up very, very quickly. We’re talking about potentially hundreds and hundreds of dollars per year.

PayPal Business Payments allow you to receive money though PayPal for a flat $0.50 fee per transaction.

In the example above, that’s a $2.60 savings.

I’ll be blunt: you’re stupid if you don’t use it.

There are, of course, some caveats. PayPal Business Payments are $0.50 only for transactions between United States residents. If you live in the US, you’re still going to get clipped for the 2.9% + $0.30 fee if you invoice someone outside of the US.

Furthermore, your client will also actually have to have a PayPal account and be willing to pay through it rather than with a credit card (in my experience this is rarely an issue).

Note: US residents can still bill Canadian residents through PayPal Business Payments at a rate of $5.00 if the transaction is being made in USD. Thus if you’re charging a Canadian client more than $200 you can save quite a bit of money on the transaction.

If you plan on making $1,000 or more per month from clients inside the US (as you probably should be if you’re a US resident), this is a no-brainer. FreshBooks costs $19.95 per month. You’d be paying over $29 in PayPal fees without it.

It’s worth noting that PayPal’s built in invoicing system, for reasons I don’t quite understand, does not allow you to use PayPal Business Payments. So no, as far as I know there’s not a loophole there to get out of paying FreshBooks’ nominal fee. Please alert me if I’m wrong or this changes.

A Word About PayPal

I know some people can’t get a PayPal account. Either because you did something naughty and got banned or you’re from some country they don’t allow.

Find a way to get an account.

There’s really no nice way to put this. Without a PayPal account, you’re at a disadvantage.

Once you do have an account, be very careful with it. PayPal is the “industry standard” of online transactions for freelancers. If you start asking people to pay you through MoneyBookers, Skrill, or Western Union, you’re going to lose more than a bit of their trust (particularly if you want upfront payments).

While it’s perfectly fine to accept payments through these platforms, everything I’ve seen leads me to believe that a freelancer will be crippled without PayPal. If someone asked me to pay them upfront through Western Union, I’d quickly say “no thanks” and work with someone else.

What’s Stripe?

The name in the trinity that you might not have recognized is Stripe.

Stripe is a credit card processor. There’s tons to choose from, but in my opinion they’re the best for the following reasons:

  • No-frills, easy to use platform.
  • Free to establish an account.
  • Rapid deposits into your bank account.
  • Highly flexible API. Not necessarily something you have to worry about as a freelancer, but nice nonetheless.
  • 2.9% + $0.30 fee per transaction (The same as PayPal, not bad for a CC processor).
  • And, my favorite…
  • Super easy integration with FreshBooks.

Stripe has low fees, is easy to use, and doesn’t sit endlessly on your cash before making a transfer to your bank account. Best of all, it integrates seamlessly with your FreshBooks invoices.

For your clients who prefer to pay with a credit card rather than PayPal, Stripe + FreshBooks makes it about as easy as it can possibly be.

After you’re comfortable with these services, congratulations. You’re ready to start billing your clients.

Make Detailed Invoices

Just as a final tip regarding invoices, when you’re writing the description of the writing service you’re providing, be detailed. In the item line, include a brief but exact description of what you’re providing, including the deadline.

For example:

Writing service fee. Minimum 2,000 word blog post. Title: “Top 7 Ways to Get Peanut Butter Out of a Shag Carpet.” Deliverable on or before {deadline}. Two (2) revisions included, if desired. 

Add more if necessary. It’s better to have your invoice be too detailed than not detailed enough.

The reason being detailed like this is beneficial is because it helps to prevent confusion — both before and after you submit the piece. The client knows exactly what they’re paying for before doing so, and in the event they throw a tantrum have a reasonable complaint at some point down the road, you have a written document you can refer back to.

Just as a quick reminder, you can get a ton of free extra resources that really compliment this post. Download them now!

Pen Names, Pseudonyms, & Identities

Most freelance writers probably don’t use pen names, but for the privacy-conscious, I think it’s a perfectly fine choice. As someone who doesn’t even have a personal Facebook account, I completely get it. (No, I don’t use a pen name on this site).

If you want to do business under a name that isn’t your own, in the US you have to have what’s called a DBA (“Doing Business As”). Note that this is only necessary if you actually want to accept payments with your pen name. In my opinion, this is probably overkill.

I don’t use a pen name anymore, but the way I’ve handled it in the past is to use a pen name in public, and then let clients know about it before billing them. Obviously, once you send someone a bill, they’re going to have access to your real name.

Never once has anyone thought this was strange or unheard of. I would just say something like, “Here’s your invoice. By the way, I use a pen name to protect my privacy, my real name is Eli.”

Nobody Cares, But…

Fact of the matter is, zero people care about your name. It could be Harry McButthole. As long as you’re providing an excellent service they’ll keep coming back for more (though it might be a harder sell to get a byline).

Please don’t use “Harry McButthole” as your pen name. This should go without saying, but please pick something professional sounding and at least somewhat realistic. There’s nothing more cringe inducing to me than those pen names like “Raven Darkfire” (sorry dude).

Even if you’re using a pen name, be honest. Don’t screw people over. Protect your reputation, even the one you’re forming around a pen name.

Bottom line: it’s OK to use a pen name if you’re doing it for the right reasons.

Client Acquisition Primer

The following sections are arguably the most important ones of this guide, but strangely, they’re also probably the simplest.

Getting clients isn’t actually all that difficult if you’re a good writer.

You have to understand that, as I explained previously, the vast majority of freelance writers on the internet suck. They’re terrible. If you’re a good writer with a professional presentation and you don’t mind hitting the pavement (digital or otherwise) every now and then to land clients, you’re going to do just fine.

Hell, with enough persistence you’ll more than likely get to the point where you have to turn down work or acknowledge that it’s time to bump up your rates.

This probably sounds like a no-brainer to some of you, but don’t discount the possibility of working with local clients.

The internet makes it easy to forget that some of your best clients might be your closest neighbors. While it’s perfectly fine to shoot for gigs with people that live far away, sometimes even in different countries, most of the strategies discussed here are perfectly viable for finding local clients.

It also makes cold pitching a lot easier when you can say “I also live in (wherever you live).”

Chances are you’ll still communicate with local clients in the same way as the others — e.g., email and over the phone — but if a contract sounds juicy enough and it would help you seal the deal, don’t hesitate to meet them in person if that’s a possibility for you.

There are many, many ways to find clients.

If you’re just starting out, experiment with the different methods discussed in this guide. You might find that you really have a knack for cold pitching and you don’t need any of the other methods. More than likely, you’ll use a mishmash of strategies to get clients.

Let’s discuss your options in detail.

What’s the Difference Between a Cold Pitch, a Pitch, and a Warm Pitch?

“Cold pitching” is the act of trying to sell your services to someone that you’ve never spoken to before. It’s usually done through email or over the phone.

A “pitch” is a term that some people would use to describe responding to a job advertisement. So in that scenario, you haven’t spoken to the potential client yet, but they’re expecting inquiries from writers (and thus your message isn’t going to come “out of the blue”).

However, it may also be used to describe a situation in which the potential client is in some way aware of you — e.g., you’ve connected with them and had a couple of short chats over social media — but hasn’t necessarily expressed interest or disinterest in your services yet.

Essentially, when you’re “regular pitching” someone, look at it as though they’re in a neutral state and it’s up to you to sway them one way or another.

A “warm pitch” is when you try to sell your services to someone that you know is probably interested in you specifically. For example, maybe one of your other clients referred you to them, and now you have to reply to their email and convince them why, yes, it is a good idea to hire you per their friend’s suggestion.

Client Acquisition: Cold Pitching

If cold pitching freaks you out, I’d wager that’s a problem with confidence, not a lack of experience.

Think about it.

Let’s say that a new restaurant opens up in your town. You try it out, and it’s a fantastic experience. The food is delicious and the service is on point.

What if a stranger on the street stopped you and asked you if you knew somewhere good to eat? Would you hesitate for a moment to tell them about it? Would you hesitate to tell your family and friends about it?

Probably not, because you believe in the product that they’re selling so much that you have the confidence to recommend it to anyone.

You need to develop the same amount of confidence in your freelance writing services.

It isn’t hard to sell something when you truly believe that it’s good.

For example, look at how hard I pushed you at the beginning of this guide to sign up for my mailing list in order to get access to the extra resources for this post. That wasn’t difficult for me and not for a second did I feel scummy about it, because I genuinely believe that if you do so I’ll have the opportunity to become a positive force in your life.

It’s normal to have cold feet (heh) before doing cold pitches for the first time. But if you’re having a confidence issue, there’s two ways to fix it:

1.) Get over it. Seriously, just get over it. If you know you can do a good job and that you’ll improve the business/life of the person you’re about to pitch, stop screwing around and pitch.

2.) Improve whatever it is that you’re not feeling confident about. That might mean working on your portfolio, sprucing up your site, or admitting to yourself that maybe you shouldn’t be pitching whoever it is you have in mind and moving on to someone else that you do truly feel like you can help.

Once you’ve got your internal turmoil sorted out, cold pitching shouldn’t just feel natural — it should feel like trying to help someone. Because if you’re doing things right, helping is exactly what you’re doing.

How to Find Cold Pitching Opportunities

This section could be as long as this entire guide, because here’s the answer:

Literally anywhere.

OK, not “literally” anywhere, but the point is that opportunities to cold pitch are certainly not sparse.

Here’s a few scenarios:

  • You’re a home improvement buff. You pitch companies that sell tools (or affiliate marketers who have websites about them). You write product descriptions for leafblowers. You target local “handyman” companies that need their websites spruced up.
  • You’re at a local pizza joint. You notice that their brochure sucks. Maybe they’d like to hire a writer to make a new one?
  • You know a thing or two about camping. You pitch every single camping blog and tent manufacturer as far as the eye can see.
  • You love cameras and photography. You pitch a dozen of the thousands upon thousands of companies in this industry.

If you skipped it, go back to the What to Write About section and read underneath “Drilling Down Helps You Pitch.”

The possibilities with cold pitching are more or less endless.

First, you have to figure out who you want to write for.

Second, you have to get them to notice you…

An Example of a Cold Pitch

We’re going to take a look at an imaginary scenario of a cold pitch. It’s my hope that this will demystify the process a bit and help you visualize things.

Let’s say that when you were younger you worked for a landscaping company for a couple of summers. You’re not an expert at trimming hedges, but you know enough about the topic through first-hand experience to be able to write about it confidently.

Couple this with the knowledge that that most people in the landscaping business aren’t tech gurus, so there’s bound to be more than a few companies with websites and other sales material that could probably use some attention.

While you could cold pitch pretty much any landscaping company in the country, or other countries for that matter, you decide to start locally, since you know it’ll give you an edge.

You go to Google and look up local landscaping companies.

You look at a few and eventually pick one to cold pitch based on a few things you notice:

  • Their site isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either. They have sections for “residential landscaping” and “commercial landscaping” but it’s mostly fluff — you know that if you were a customer you would want to know more.
  • They don’t have a blog.
  • They proudly link to a local news article where they were featured after doing a particularly nice job on some wealthy person’s personal garden.

You continue to browse the site and find the owner’s name and email address — nice, it was listed instead of just a contact form. Since it’s a medium sized landscaping company and they don’t employ a “Director of Content Operations,” you decide that’s probably the best person to contact.

You begin to write your email…

Subject Line: We have a mutual interest in gardening?

Hi John,

My name is Kimberly Turner and I’m a freelance writer from Sameville.

I saw the article about your company in The Local Gazette. You do beautiful work.

I help businesses like yours form stronger relationships with their customers by using the written word effectively. In fact, I’ve been published by SomeGardeningBlogYouGuestPostedOn.com and SomeGuysLeafBlowerAffiliateSite.com.

I noticed a few areas of your website that could really use some TLC. Specifically, the section that describes your residential landscaping services is a little generic. After seeing your piece in the Gazette I know what you’re capable of and I’d love to have the opportunity to help you connect in a better way with your potential customers.

John, may I send you my portfolio so that you can look it over?

Best,

Kim

All right, let’s break this down.

1.) The subject line asks a question. Not all cold pitches should have a question in the subject line, but in cases where you find it to be appropriate or relevant — as Kim was able to do — it increases the chances that the target will open your message. Also notice that the subject line Isn’t Written With Each Word Starting In A Capital Letter. Writing normally makes it feel less “salesy.”

2.) She immediately stated her name, what she does, and where she’s from. Including your location is a humanizing touch, even if you’re not pitching locally. The reader has an instant, albeit brief, idea of who this person emailing them is.

3.) Kim immediately references the article, which is no doubt a source of pride for the business owner John. This establishes that she’s done her homework (even though it took all of 5 minutes) and this isn’t some cut-and-paste spam email. She pays him a compliment but doesn’t get weird and overdo it.

4.) Kim then states exactly what she does and references two related areas where she’s been published. You don’t have to do this in a cold pitch, but I ain’t gonna lie, it helps.

5.) Kim gets to the point. Not only does she say that his content sucks, she points out that a really important, specific part of John’s site sucks. She references the article again and states that she doesn’t just want to make John’s content better — she wants to help him get more business.

6.) No hard selling. Kim restates the owner’s name and asks a simple question — “John, may I send you my portfolio so that you can look it over?” She does this because she knows that John knows why she’s emailing him. Asking if she can send her portfolio is low pressure and will take her to the next step and closer to negotiating a deal.

I want to be really clear about something: this is an example. Not all cold pitches have to or even should look like this.

It is however a realistic representation of how you might choose to cold pitch a company and how the process might look.

“GOLDEN” Pitching Templates for Freelance Writers

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Cold Pitching With Direct (Snail) Mail

What I mean by cold pitching with snail mail is to actually print off hard copies of your pitch and, instead of emailing, actually dropping them in the mail.

Does it require a lot more effort? Yes.

Does it cost you a couple of stamps? Yes.

Is it effective? Oh, yes. Yes it is.

The reason that snail mail pitching is so effective is because nobody else does it.

I can almost guarantee you’ll be the first freelance writer to ever pitch a company via snail mail — interesting, considering that by definition the communication mechanism at play with all mail is the written word.

It requires a larger investment of time, but other than that, the process is more or less the same as email. Write your pitch, print it out along with your portfolio, and mail it off.

However, if you want this method to be as effective as possible, there is a way you can crank it up a notch…

Good god, I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I can’t.

In what is perhaps the best thing to ever come out of the “Black Hat World” internet marketing forum, back in 2011 a guy named 7878 posted a thread about direct mailing.

What he was doing has nothing to do with freelance writing, but the gist of his strategy can be adapted to most kinds of small-scale snail mail marketing campaigns.

Here’s the thread so you can see for yourself, and below you’ll find a screenshot of the post in question just in case it ever gets taken down.

7878

To summarize for you though, he composes his written pitch, prints it off, and then adds two red dice into the envelope:

8phgo

Brilliant.

Absolutely brilliant.

As the gentleman explains:

“…Because lumpy mail works. I didn’t come up with it, but I’ve used it before and I know it kills. It also gives your prospect a token that differentiates you from the dozens of other letters they’ll likely read that day. Fold your dice into the letter so they can be seen as soon as the envelope is opened.”

Now, of course you don’t have to use dice, your item could be just about anything. Maybe something cutesy relating to the name of your freelance writing service? Something related to the industry that you’re pitching? The point is to add something with a little girth so that you stand out.

Other important takeaways from 7878’s post include using a highlighter (a real one) to make certain parts of your pitch stand out — for a freelance writer this could be effectively used to make a particularly powerful sentence in your pitch really pop — as well as handwritten notes with a pen. At the very least, use a pen to personally sign your letter.

If you’re struggling to get noticed, dump $20 into postage for a snail mail “campaign.” Just do it as a test and only if you can afford it.

I’ll be surprised if you don’t get at least one response.

Client Acquisition: Discussion Forums

I think when most freelance writers look at discussion forums for client acquisition, they’re hitting the usual suspects — affiliate marketing forums (since affiliates frequently hire writers to create content for their sites). You know the ones: Warrior Forum, Digital Point, WickedFire, Black Hat World, and probably about a dozen others.

While it’s true that you can find clients willing to pay you well on these sites — they’re not all looking for $0.01/word writers — in most cases you’ll encounter people looking for the more, er, affordable services. It’s still worth advertising on these forums if you have the time or the inclination, but in my opinion it shouldn’t be your top priority.

This doesn’t mean that forums can’t be useful. Think about which ones might attract members of your target demographic. If you’ve decided on a handful of niches that you want to write about (or at least would like to write about), you’ll probably be one of the only freelance writers peddling your wares on a topic-specific forum.

For example, if you’re an all terrain vehicle nut, ATVConnection.com is home to over 160,000 members.

To find discussion forums within a particular niche, check these sites out:

Again, you shouldn’t expect to have a flood of clients from this, but if you’re trying to cast the widest net possible it is worth considering.

Client Acquisition: Freelancing Marketplaces

Freelancing marketplaces (or platforms) are sites like:

Generally, freelancers have two lines of thought concerning sites like these. One perspective views them as a worthless race to the bottom — since you will encounter countless freelancers scrambling to undercut one another.

The other views them as a potential source of new clients if you’re very selective.

I fall into the latter category.

However, I’ll say this right now: don’t sign up for one (or even two or three) of these sites and expect to have them be your only source of clients. Assuming you’re being paid what you’re worth, freelancing marketplaces should be only one part in your overall client acquisition strategy — another tool in your tool belt.

If you get a great client from one of them, great. If not, you have other sources.

If you’re doing nothing but bidding on freelancing marketplaces, you’re probably going to become frustrated very quickly. Don’t fall into this trap.

Having said that, if you want to incorporate these kinds of sites into your overall strategy, I would encourage you to do so. Not everyone placing jobs on these sites are looking for bargain-basement rates — some people actually do want the level of quality you can provide them with and are willing to pay for it.

But they’re a significantly smaller percentage than the people looking to pay the lowest possible fee for “okay” work.

I have two tips for these kinds of sites:

1.) Don’t bother being intimidated by what other freelancers are bidding. If you’re doing it right, most bids will be lower than yours. You’ll see everything from $0.01 per word on up. Bid what you’re worth and nothing less — not even when you’re starting out to “get good reviews.”

2.) Exercise your right to turn down an offer. You will have people lowballing you frequently.

If you operate under these two understandings, you actually can find decent clients on these sites.

Keep in mind that the vast, vast majority of proposals that clients receive on these sites are absolute junk. I’m talking really, really terribly written proposals from folks who barely speak English, let alone write it at the level that you’re (probably) capable of.

In the event that you bid on a project that was posted by someone who both wants quality and has the budget for it, your chances of success are reasonably high even if your bid is dramatically higher than everyone else. It’s fine that your bid is higher because you’re offering the kind of quality that clients like this want.

The Terms of Service Problem

Most freelancing marketplaces have a stipulation in their Terms of Service (TOS) that states freelancers and clients are, under no circumstances, to communicate or conduct business outside the website. This is so that the freelancing marketplace (e.g. Upwork) can ensure that they continue to get a cut of every transaction — typically 10% or more.

This means that if you bid on a project for $400, you actually only get $360 for completing the project.

I’ve had people ask me about this so I want to make it clear: understand that violating the TOS on a website is NOT the same as breaking the law.

It can, however, result in your account being terminated if you’re “caught” conducting business outside of the site. Many of these platforms will monitor your on-site communications with clients to ensure that you aren’t sharing email addresses or other third-party methods of communication.

Obviously, most freelancers want to conduct business outside the site so they don’t have to keep coughing up 10%+ for every job they take from a particular client.

What I’m about to tell you is my opinion. If you go and get yourself banned, don’t come crying to me.

My opinion is that you should try to move clients off of these sites as quickly as possible.

You certainly wouldn’t be the first freelancer to do this, and in my experience, most clients have no problem with it whatsoever.

When you send someone your portfolio, leave your contact information intact. In the event that you’re “caught,” which is fairly unlikely anyway, odds are you’ll get a warning and be able to keep your account. Again, this isn’t for sure, I’m just telling you what my experience has been.

A nice way to move a client off of a freelancing marketplace is to exchange Skype usernames with them, or phone numbers, or some way to communicate that can’t be monitored by the platform you found them on.

After moving into a private conversation with a potential client, nine times out of ten all I’ve had to do is ask them one simple question:

“How in love with Upwork’s system are you?”

(Or whatever the marketplace is called.)

After asking this question, I’ve literally had clients launch into RANTS, profanity included, about how much they hate it. They hate the fees, they hate the backend of the site, they hate the crappy proposals they get from know-nothing “freelancers.”

In my experience, setting up a 1-on-1 situation isn’t nearly as problematic as you’d imagine. Once you’ve moved a client off the site, just proceed to do business with them exactly as you would anyone else.

Client Acquisition: Social Networks — Yes or No?

Yes.

To some degree.

I recommend that you have accounts on the following social networks:

Being available on social media might net you some new clients — particularly for referrals, as it makes it easy for your preexisting clients to suggest you to others. However, a large part of the value here is that being on these networks will add to your legitimacy.

“Yes,” you say. “I have nothing to hide! I’m on Facebook.”

Using social networks effectively means that you’ll casually network with potential clients. Engaging with their content and having a couple of casual chats with them before pitching can give you a slight edge, since you’ve already put yourself on their radar (and, presumably, they already like you).

This is very much a “do as I say, not as I do” situation. I’m actually quite a private person and as such have a crippling social media allergy. Don’t bother trying to find my personal Facebook account, since I don’t have one.

To be honest, I’m probably disadvantaging myself by not having a LinkedIn account either, but beyond the social media accounts I have for The Free Creative Society, I don’t really want more.

On that note, if you were to pick only one of these social networks, go with LinkedIn. It’s for businesspeople and will give you access to the LinkedIn job board.

Client Acquisition: Press Releases

Using press releases to find new clients isn’t an unknown technique, but it doesn’t get discussed very much… probably because it’s highly effective.

In a nutshell, the process works like this:

1.) Find a press release recently distributed by a company or individual who you think you could write for.

2.) Send them a cold pitch.

The reason this is so effective is because the clients are, in a way, “pre-qualified.” After someone puts out a press release, you can safely assume a handful of things about them:

  • They’re already working with a writer (someone had to write the press release).
  • They might be interested in hiring someone with better writing skills (as can be seen from the lower quality of a lot of press releases).
  • They’re engaged with actively promoting their business.
  • They have at least a surface level understanding of the efficacy of content marketing.

PRWeb is a massive resource for new press releases. You can filter by date, time, and location, the latter of which makes it a great way to find local clients — search for the closest major metropolitan area near you and get pitching. PRWeb isn’t the only game in town but it’s a good place to start.

Thoroughly reading a press release can give you ideas on how to pitch. Referencing the press release is fine, as is complimenting whatever achievement they’re promoting with it.

After that, pitch more or less as normal.

If you can find flaws in the press release — something bigger than a typo — don’t hesitate to politely point them out. Errors in press releases are more common than you might think. I’ve run across plenty with “click here to visit our website” type lines that had no clickable link.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Hi [name],

My name is [your name] and I’m a freelance writer from [area].

I saw your press release this morning. Congratulations on [something — keep it brief, don’t slobber on them].

I’m making an educated guess, but you appear to be the appropriate person to alert about something I noticed while reading.

With complete respect, I found a couple of flaws which might be affecting the way your potential customers engage with this press release.

Most notably, [describe major flaw].

May I send you a few potential corrections and improvements?

Best,

[Your name, phone number, website]

A message like this is loaded with value. Even though the whole process might only take you ten or fifteen minutes — from reading the press release to emailing a message like this — you’ve just made an impression as a genuinely helpful person (even though your “agenda” is clear from the first line where you state your occupation as a freelancer).

This is all assuming it won’t take you more than a few minutes to show them your corrections/improvements. The idea here isn’t to work for free, it’s to get your foot in the door.

If they respond positively and you send them a couple of corrections (at this point it is appropriate to mention typos), you’re in a great position to pitch yourself as a writer for their site, promotional material, their next press release, and so on.

Don’t get hung up on trying to find flaws though, I just wanted to point this out as one potential strategy for cold pitching press release leads. There’s plenty of different ways you can go about it. As I said, your usual cold pitching strategy (perhaps slightly tweaked) is more than likely just fine.

As with any cold pitching strategy, it’s a numbers game. Be as detailed as possible without spending too much time on any single pitch.

Client Acquisition: Automated Alerts

Did you know that you can have writing opportunities delivered right to your inbox?

Google Alerts is a very powerful tool that I think a lot of freelancers ignore. Which is silly, because it’s very quick and easy to set up.

Here’s what it does:

Google Alerts is a content change detection and notification service, offered by the search engine company Google.

Translated, this means that you can receive an email whenever something new pops up online about whatever search queries you’ve entered into Google Alerts.

For us, this means that you can set it up to let you know about potential writing opportunities.

Here’s an example of how you might set up an alert:

google-alert-example

In this example, the search query is in quotes. Quotes around a search mean that you’ll get exact matches for what you’ve entered. So in this case, pages where writer wanted appears, which is what I assume you want, not pages where both writer and wanted are present (e.g., “I was a freelance writer and I wanted to strangle my clients.”)

You don’t have to do this, but sometimes it helps.

How often determines how frequently Google will send you alerts. I recommend setting this to “At most once a day,” especially if you’ve entered a fairly generic term.

Sources can determine determine where you want the results to come from, like news sites or blogs. Just leave this set to automatic.

Language is probably best left as English, though anyone working as a translator would benefit from having separate alerts set for multiple languages.

Region is again probably best left to “Any Region,” though if you’d like to receive results from only, say, the United States or only the United Kingdom, you can narrow things down to a geographical area.

How many determines whether you’ll get what Google determines to be the “best results” or just all results in general. For our purposes, setting it to “all results” is better. You might have to scroll through some spammy links, but you’ll see everything.

Deliver to is where you want the alerts to be sent. This is probably your email address, but if you’re familiar with RSS, you can also have the alert set up as a feed.

Here’s a list of generalized searches to give you an idea of what your Google Alerts list might look like:

  • “writer wanted”
  • “writer needed”
  • “hiring writer”
  • “hiring freelance writer”
  • “hiring copywriter”
  • “hiring freelance copywriter”
  • “freelance writer wanted”
  • “freelance copywriter wanted”
  • “blogger wanted”
  • “hiring blogger”
  • “looking for a writer”
  • “looking for a freelance writer”
  • “ghostwriter wanted”
  • “ghostwriter needed”
  • “hiring ghostwriter”
  • “looking for ghostwriter”

Things get really fun when you start setting up alerts for things that you’re specifically interested in writing about. The plus (“+”) operator lets Google know you want to include a given keyword — it must also appear on the page.

Examples:

  • “writer wanted” + “plumbing”
  • “blogger wanted” + “technology”
  • “ghostwriter wanted” + “romance”

Take some time to fiddle around with this and set up a nice big list of queries for yourself. If you find that your inbox is getting cluttered by all of your results, you might want to set up a separate email just for Google Alerts. Check it daily.

Use Google Alerts to Appear Way Smarter Than You Actually Are

Alerts aren’t just good for finding writing opportunities, they can also be used to enhance your current client relationships.

For example, say one of your clients has a technology blog and you’ve been hired to write about Apple products. In this scenario, you could set up a bunch of alerts and have Apple news delivered to you daily or as-it-happens.

Another scenario might be to use Google Alerts as a way to get more work from clients who hire you sporadically. Let’s say every so often one of your clients contacts you to write about 3D printers. If you have a few alerts set up for 3D printers, you can see what the latest news is, allowing you to quickly come up with some titles/topics to pitch.

Google Alerts is super useful. Start using it.

Just as a quick reminder, you can get a ton of free extra resources that really compliment this post. Download them now!

Client Acquisition: Follow the Money Freelancers

Once you start working as a freelance writer, you start noticing things that you didn’t catch before.

For example, you’ll start to look at author bylines/bios more often — and you’re going to realize that a lot of sites, perhaps even some of your favorites, are publishing contributions made by freelance writers.

Switch over from your writer brain to your marketer brain for a moment. What this means is that everywhere you see contributions from freelance writers, you’re also seeing a website, blog, company, or individual who pays freelance writers.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Do you think it would be worth pitching these kinds of sites?

I’d say so.

To take it one step further, you can Google the name of the freelancer to discover all of the other places they’ve contributed (credited) work. There’s another big list of sites you can pitch.

To take it even further, you can set up a Google Alert for their name. This way you can be immediately notified of sites/organizations that have published (and presumably paid for) their work.

Is this a little stalkerish and Machiavellian?

Sure.

But personally, I believe competition is healthy. If you feel that this strategy falls into an ethical gray area for you, by all means, skip it.

But don’t kid yourself for a second — other writers are doing this too, potentially with your submissions.

Freelance Writing Job Boards

The running theme throughout all of the sections of this guide that talk about client acquisition has been diversification. You should have an overall client acquisition strategy — something that isn’t reliant on only a single method.

Remember the diversification mantra when you start looking at freelance writing job boards. They’re incredibly useful and I suggest that you check them frequently for new opportunities, but they certainly don’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) your only source of new clients.

When you apply to a gig from a job board, keep the following in mind:

  • Do not cut-and-paste a standard pitch.
  • Instead, actually read the job description. Reference specific pieces of information to convey to the recipient that you understand what they’re looking for.
  • Explain why you’re their best choice — now isn’t the time to be modest.
  • Include samples of your work and/or your portfolio.
  • Be very, very easy to contact.

Here are the job boards that I recommend you check daily:

Here’s other boards to add to your rotation and check sometimes:

And of course don’t forget to occasionally peek at classified ads:

Note that there’s plenty of spam and scams on classified ads, but you can find legitimate opportunities with a little perseverance. I recommend using them only for local clients unless you’re feeling adventurous.

Extra Services & Upsells

I believe that you should work on making your writing service as excellent as it can possibly be before delving into anything else.

However, assuming you have the necessary skills, freelance writing can open up a variety of additional opportunities.

You’ll frequently find yourself working with website owners who might benefit from additional services. This could range from graphic design to web development to everything between.

If you possess the ability to help them, why not do it for a fee?

For example, a major component of how effective/successful a website is involves the collection of email addresses. I do it on this site, but consider that it’s more or less universally useful — a small clothing boutique might collect email addresses to alert their potential customers about sales or to distribute coupons.

Thus, if you have the ability to set up an Aweber account for one of your clients, you’d more than likely be legitimately helping them. Furthermore, you can write the autoresponder series for them (the messages that automatically go out to an email list).

If you’ve written an ebook or report for one of your clients, you might offer to do the graphic design for the cover or the internal layout design.

And, of course, many freelance writers also moonlight as freelance editors.

Again, I’d encourage you to get your freelance writing game down before doing anything else. After that, as long as you’re legitimately skilled with whatever ability an upsell requires, you might find great opportunities to pick up some extra income and further develop the relationship you have with a client.

Networking With Other Freelancers

Networking with other freelancers can be very valuable.

For one thing, it’s just nice to know people in the same line of work as you. But from a business standpoint, it can open up occasional opportunities.

Establishing relationships with freelancers working in other industries (e.g., graphic designers or web developers) gives you both the opportunity to recommend/refer one another. Clients will ask you from time to time if you can recommend someone for a certain task, and it’s nice to be able to have an answer.

Believe it or not, this same concept applies for other freelance writers. Suppose that your freelance writer friend is overbooked — they might refer one of their clients to you so you can handle their overflow (and you may end up doing the same). Or, possibly, their client needs something written that they don’t know about, but you do.

If you like, you can even establish commission based “finder’s fees” with other freelancers — e.g., whenever you send a job to your graphic designer buddy, he or she tips you 5%, and vice versa when they come across writing gigs.

Don’t ever blow off friendly messages from other freelancers as not being worth your time. Referrals from other freelancers has net me some great clients before.

Other Client Acquisition Opportunities

Client acquisition opportunities are everywhere.

Opportunities can present themselves while standing in line at the grocery store, while picking up copies from your local print shop, or while screwing around on Facebook.

We’ve discussed a ton of different ways to find and acquire clients in this guide, but understand that the sky really is the limit insofar as how you get clients.

As you continue to evolve as a freelance writer, you’ll discover the strategies and methods that resonate with you. You’re going to have to experiment a lot in the beginning, but give it some time and you’ll find what works for you.

And I really mean what works for you personally — it doesn’t matter how everyone else is getting clients.

How can you get them?

What strategies are you great at?

What unique selling proposition do you have that sets you apart from everyone else in this line of work?

If you’re really struggling, send me an email. I’ll look over what you’re doing and give you suggestions.

A Word on Content Mills

Don’t.

Just don’t.

While I believe that in order to survive content mills are going to have to change their strategy to focus on quality over quantity — and some are beginning to do this — I believe that at least at the time of this writing you’re far better off setting up private relationships between yourself and your clients.

If you find a content mill that can pay you what you’re worth, great. Run with it. But in my experience this is unlikely.

For a deeper understanding of my thoughts on content mills, read this post about content mill juggernaut Textbroker.

Keeping Track of Clients, Potential Clients, & Other Contacts

It probably won’t be too much of a problem at the beginning, but you’re eventually going to have to figure out a way to keep track of everyone that you meet.

You’re probably going to want to place people into three categories:

1.) Potential clients

2.) Clients

3.) Other contacts (e.g., your freelancing friends, people you’ve done business with but aren’t your clients, and so on)

How you organize this is up to you. You could use your email client’s built in address book. You could use a spreadsheet.

Personally, I really like Highrise.

Highrise is a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform. It has a bunch of nifty features, but I mostly use it as a fancy address book and to occasionally use its reminder feature — you can have it send you a notification if, say, you need to call someone on a certain time and date.

Best of all, they have a free plan. It’s tucked away on the bottom of the pricing page:

highrise-free-plan

Once you’re in, you can create contacts. Fields for pretty much all pertinent info are present:

highrise-example

(Sorry for the example, I’m a ten year old boy trapped in a man’s body).

However you do it, keep track of people. Don’t be too pushy, but using a reminder system to reach out to potential clients every so often can keep a lead warm.

How to Keep Your Clients Happy

Do excellent work.

Never be late.

Be polite and friendly.

That’s it.

The following venn diagram was apparently inspired by this fantastic speech given by Neil Gaiman.

neil-gaiman-freelancing-venn-diagram

But some freelancers might see it like this…

want-it-all-venn-diagram

How to Be an Excellent Communicator

Since you’re a writer, I’m going to assume that you’re already a good communicator, since at its core that’s what writing is all about.

However, there are times where you’ll have to decipher what your client is saying or even what they want/need.

This can become frustrating.

While I don’t think it’s necessary every single time you take on a new project, having a basic questionnaire ready to go can be extremely helpful to draw out as much information from a client as possible. This cuts back on potential revisions and is more likely to give you the information you need to write a piece that the client likes (and benefits from).

Here’s an example questionnaire you could use:

1.) Please describe your target audience for this piece in as much detail as possible. Information such as your “ideal customer’s” age, gender, interests, and geographic location will help me write the best possible content.

2.) What concerns are members of your target audience likely to have?

3.) What would you like your potential customers to feel after reading this piece?

4.) What specific actions would you like your potential customers to take after reading this piece?

5.) What writing style, voice, or tone best suits the image that you’d like to project? Strictly professional? Light and casual?

6.) Is there any pertinent information that MUST be included in the piece that may not be obvious to me?

7.) Can you think of any additional information we haven’t yet discussed that would be helpful in conveying your message?

Providing your clients with work that they’re ecstatic about sometimes requires asking questions.

Never, ever worry about looking “less professional” because you have to ask for clarification or more information.

You’re a freelance writer, not a clairvoyant.

Further Reading

toolbox-cover-war-of-art

The War of Art is my favorite non-fiction book.

As I state in the Toolbox section of this site:

The War of Art changed my life. I’ve read it… what, a dozen times? I’ve lost count. It’s one of those books where after you read it, you want to buy multiple copies to give out to your family and friends (and I did exactly that).

chicago-manual-of-style

The Chicago Manual of Style is my preferred style guide and, even though I flub up its occasionally dense requirements all the time, I recommend having a copy.

ogilvy-on-advertising

If you’re at all interested in copywriting, you need to get to know David Ogilvy immediately.

Immediately.

Thought to be the inspiration for Don Draper on the TV show Mad Men, Ogilvy is known as the “Father of Advertising.” He produced three books. I recommend you at least have a copy of Ogilvy on Advertising, but you may also wish to pick up Confessions of an Advertising Man and his autobiography.

FAQ

Do I need to have any educational qualifications to become a freelance writer?

No. Nobody cares. Just be a good writer and you’re all set.

Is it possible to become a fiction freelance writer? Like a ghostwriter?

Yes. Pick the genre(s) you’d like to write about and craft a portfolio around them. Be very, very selective — with the explosion of the independent publishing industry, there’s plenty of people out there looking to hire ghostwriters at rock-bottom prices. If you’re genuinely good at writing fiction, make sure you’re charging what you’re worth.

Someone asked me to write a review for a product that I don’t own. In fact, I’ve never even seen it before in real life! Should I do it? Is it ethical?

This is very common. Probably a large percentage of the product reviews you’ve read online have been written by freelancers who couldn’t possibly care less about the product. As to whether it’s ethical or not, that’s up to you.

Is Weebly a lot worse than WordPress?

It depends on what you want to do with it. For a basic portfolio site, no, it’s fine. I wouldn’t recommend that you blog with it though — if you want to do that, you should figure out WordPress. Weebly is just to make things easy and cheap. There’s about fifty gazillion of these “website builder” services out there, so use whatever one you like.

My client is asking me to revise a piece I submitted. What do I do?

You should do it as long as they’re being reasonable. If you have a client that’s obviously being completely unreasonable, you can refuse. Understand that they’ll probably never work with you again and that they may badmouth you, but don’t ever let yourself be held hostage.

Instead, prepare for this kind of thing in advance. Let your clients know how many revisions you’ll offer on a piece before they have to pay extra. Two is a fair number.

Also, understand that there’s a difference between a revision and a rewrite. A revision might include a handful of small changes. A rewrite is essentially doing the piece over — typically I believe that you shouldn’t offer “full rewrites.” A paragraph maybe, but not the entire piece. You’ll get people taking advantage of you if you do.

English isn’t my first language. Can I still make it?

Maybe. Unless you can write at a native level, don’t expect to as much as freelance writers who can. Be brutally honest with yourself about this — or ask someone else to be.

What tools do you recommend for time management?

Tomighty for Pomodoros and Producteev as a cross-platform calendar. Both are free. Check out my Toolbox for more useful stuff.

Can I contact you?

Yes. You’re encouraged to do so — I reply to every message I get.

Wrapping it Up

Well, there you have it.

Over 15,000 words on how to become a freelance writer.

That should be enough to get you started, right?

Don’t forget to pick up the free extra resources that accompany this post.

I worked my butt off on this guide. I really, really hope that you get some value out of it. If you’d like to say a small thanks, I’d sincerely appreciate a share on your social media accounts.

Feel free to get in touch with me anytime.

Truly, thank you so much for reading.

Best of luck to you!

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