Freelance writing seems like the ultimate dream come true, doesn’t it?
You get the freedom to work for yourself, write what you want, when you want and choose who you work with. You have complete control over your life. The only rules are the ones you make.
What could be better than that?
A step-by-step guide on how to start freelancing and setting up your freelance writing business for success, that’s what.
Before I explain what I mean, let’s talk about what usually happens.
Once you realize how awesome freelancing is, you jump in feet first. You start looking for work and find clients who aren’t willing to pay more than $5 for 500 words.
For a while, you work long and hard. You’re convinced this is just a rite of passage that you need to cross before finding the really good gigs. Maybe once you have more writing samples, clients will pay more.
Of course, that doesn’t happen. The more you work for low pay, the more you attract low paying work.
It’s as if you’ve hit a glass ceiling you can’t break through.
That’s when you start getting disillusioned. Maybe there just isn’t better-paying work out there. You can’t spend your life working for low pay. You’re already struggling to make ends meet!
You start wishing for a do-over. A step-by-step guide that not only shows you how to start freelancing but also how to do it successfully. A guide that tells you:
- what to do to,
- when to do it and
- what sequence to do it in.
I know I did.
This is the part where I tell you that you made a fundamental mistake when you started freelancing. That you didn’t stop to think before making the jump. That you saw the shiny, attractive side of being a freelance writer and naively thought that was all there was to it.
But, here’s what I’m really going to say:
Businesses are built on mistakes. Successful businesses are built on lessons learned from those mistakes.
Which is why I’ve created this comprehensive guide on how to start freelancing the right way. If you’re just starting out, this is your lucky day.
If you’ve been freelancing for a while, use this guide to learn from your mistakes and make changes to fix whatever’s not working in your business.
Ready? Let’s get started!
How to Start Freelancing on the Right Foot in Ten Clearly-Laid-Out Steps
Step 1: Decide: Business or Hobby?
The first thing you need to do when you start freelancing is to decide whether you’re going to run a business… or indulge a hobby?
If trying your hand at freelance writing and seeing how it goes sounds like a good idea I can tell you right now – you’re indulging a hobby.
Because let’s face it. Freelance writing is a business – NOT a hobby.
Nobody starts a business to see if it’ll make money. They do it because they’re passionate about succeeding and are willing to work their ass off for it.
Is freelance writing a business or a hobby for you?
If the answer’s hobby, feel free to proceed however you want. I wouldn’t advice giving up your day job, though.
If you’ve decided it’s going to be a business, it’s time to sit down and make some plans, strategies, and goals.
Step 2: Plan, Strategize and Set Goals
I get it. Planning and strategizing is scary. You have to answer so many questions and make an equal number of decisions.
- What kind of writing will you be doing?
- Who are the clients you want to work with?
- How will you find them?
- What will you charge them?
- How are you going to get writing samples?
- What will your working terms and conditions be?
- How are you going to market your freelance writing business?
- How much money do you need to make to break even?
- Most importantly, where do you see your business going?
And these questions are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s enough to overwhelm the best of us!
The questions can be never ending. Before you overwhelm yourself, let me tell you, by the end of this guide, you’ll have the answer to them all.
First comes planning.
Let your imagination run wild. Don’t think about where you are right now or worry about how you’re going to get what you’re envisioning. Just… imagine.
Where do you see your freelance writing business going? What kind of clients do you see yourself working with?
Are you a one person powerhouse? Or do you work with a team of gladiators?
Etch out a complete picture of your freelance business. There are no right or wrong answers. Just a vision of how you’d like to run your business.
It’s perfectly okay to want to create your business similar to another freelancer’s. I have always looked up to James Chartrand and her business, Men With Pens. When I started planning my business and its growth, I thought I wanted to do things just like James.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that the business I wanted to run was the complete opposite of how James runs Men with Pens.
If you don’t know what you want, choose a freelance writer you admire and see how they run their business. Ask yourself: Do I want to do this? If not, what would suit me better?
Once you have a complete picture of your business and where you want it to go, write it all down. Don’t get bogged down by turning it into a formal business plan. Just open up a Word document and jot it all down in bullet points.
Then comes strategy
A strategy is the action part of your plan. Take each point in your business planning document and come up with actionable steps to make it a reality.
Put your thinking cap on. What can you do to get closer to your business vision?
When I decided I wanted to work with small businesses, my strategy looked something like this:
- Find ten small online businesses that are using content to market themselves.
- Use Twitter to find them.
- Look for their blogs.
- Sign up for their newsletters.
- Interact with them.
- Find out which blogs they read and guest post on them.
- Network with other freelancers who work with small businesses.
Your strategy doesn’t have to be fancy, formal, or even well thought out. Mine certainly wasn’t. You can always add or subtract things depending on how they work out.
Do yourself a favor, don’t skimp on this. Most freelancers fail because they don’t strategize. Don’t be that freelancer.
At last, comes goal setting
A lot of people think goal setting is about achieving something. I don’t.
The way I see it, goal setting is about finding out whether or not your strategy is working.
Tell me. Would you rather fail to achieve your goal of earning $2k/month in 6 months? Or know you won’t be able to meet that goal and change plans accordingly in your second month?
Goal setting helps you save time and avoid complete failure. It gives you room to make changes to your strategy and try new things before your goal’s time expires.
Strategizing increases your chances of success.
When setting a goal, make it specific, measurable, and time sensitive.
Don’t just commit to writing eight guest posts in 2 months. Instead, commit to pitching and writing one guest post per week. Take it one step further and list the blogs you want to guest post for. Create a backup list of blogs to pitch to in case your original choice rejects the post.
You’ll know within a week whether you’re on track to achieve the guest posting goal or not.
Taking my small business client example forward, one of my goals was to pitch my freelance writing services to 3 companies on my list by the end of the month.
Notice how my goal wasn’t to get them as my clients? That’s because it’s not under my control. Whether they hire me or not is not my decision. Who I pitch my services to – now that’s completely up to me. And if I fail to do it, the fault’s mine.
Remember: Plan -> strategize -> set goals
Step 3: Choose 3 – 5 Writing Services
Now that you’ve envisioned the kind of business you want and have set goals for what you want to achieve, it’s time to choose the writing services you’ll provide.
As tempting as it is to list all the type of writing you can do, I would suggest choosing 3 – 5 you’re exceptionally good at.
If you write marketing copy, branch it out into product descriptions, sales letters, press releases, email newsletters, etc.
If you want to blog for clients, focus on all things blogging like freelance blogging, ghost blogging, guest blogging, etc.
When talking about your services, focus on your client and what your writing can help them achieve. More customers? Sales? Money? Make it about them – not you.
The more specific you are, the better your chances of doing the kind of writing you enjoy and want to be known for.
Step 4: Start Developing Your Writing Portfolio
If you’re a freelance writer with some experience under your belt, you’ve already completed this step.
In case you’re a new freelance writer and have no samples to show, I just want to say: stop panicking.
It’s not the end of the world. The whole issue of not having samples because you don’t have clients and you can’t get clients because you don’t have samples is the most useless piece of crap I’ve ever heard.
Every time a writer uses this excuse, all I hear is: I’m not serious about being a freelance writer.
A freelance writer who is hell-bent on making a success of his writing business will have no qualms about creating samples he won’t be paid for.
If you don’t have samples and clients – what do you have to do all day? Use the time to create samples for yourself.
Want to write product descriptions? Write at least three descriptions of products in your preferred target markets. Then put them up on your writer site as samples.
Want to write web copy? Write it for yourself. Or offer to do it for free for another small business owner or freelancer. Just don’t forget to ask for a testimonial in return.
Work Pro Bono: There are TONS of non-profit organizations desperate for good writers. Brochures, case studies, reports, white papers, etc. is how they market themselves. Find a charity you’re passionate about and offer your services as a writer. In return, ask them to give you a testimonial and referral.
Guest Post: Best portfolio developing method ever! You get credit, build authority as a writer and in some cases, even get paid. What’s not to like about this scenario?
Start A Blog: As clichéd as it sounds, this advice works. You don’t have to blog regularly or even worry about getting traffic. You aren’t building a popular blog. You’re setting one up to attract clients.
Create five blog posts to publish on your writer site. Make sure each one is written from the client’s point of view. How will the client benefit by hiring a freelance writer? How can a freelance writer solve their problems, help them earn more money, and build their authority?
Show them what working with you is like and how your work process is designed to help clients achieve the results they want.
When writing, think ever-green pillar content that isn’t marked by a date on your blog.
Step 5: Work Out Your Freelance Writing Rates
Don’t you just hate all the generic advice about setting your freelance writing rates out there? Nobody is willing to come right out and give you a number!
Actually, Sophie Lizard managed to get people to tell her. She surveyed her readers and released a freelance blogging rate guide that shows you what majority freelancers are earning plus a bunch of other stuff.
But if you’re anything like me, you probably still want someone to give you actual figures. Luckily, I’m more than willing to oblige.
Disclaimer: These rates are based on opinion and experience only. You’re more than welcome to charge more. In fact, I strongly encourage you to.
What to charge:
If you’re just starting out
I get it. You’re a new writer, don’t have any experience under your belt, and you’re afraid no one’s going to hire you.
Here’s what I suggest you charge if you’re just starting out: $25 for 300-500 words.
It’s high enough to discourage scumbag clients who pay $1-$5 for articles but not so high for a small business owner whose business is just starting to take off.
If you have some experience
If you’ve been blogging for a while and have a few guest posts published and a blog of your own that’s gotten decent social media and comment love – you’re an upcoming writer with some experience.
To you, I say, please don’t charge below $50 for 500-750 words.
If you’re unsure about charging this much, consider this: There are a ton of blogs out there that pay $50 for guest post submissions. If you’re having trouble finding clients, start guest posting on them. Sophie Lizard has another free report (that woman’s a genius) that lists blogs that pay $50 or more for guest posts.
If you’re experienced
Now here’s where the power is yours. You’re free to set your rates depending on how often or how significantly you willing to raise them.
At this point, you should be charging a minimum of $100 per 500 – 750 words. Anything less and you’re shortchanging yourself.
Freelance writing rates are not written in stone.
We often get so caught up in writing for clients and worrying about earning money, that we forget we can change our rates at any time.
You can quote different rates to different clients – even publish them online and keep increasing or decreasing them depending on your situation.
Trust me; no client hangs around their writer’s site to see if he’s raised or lowered his rates. Once they’ve contracted you to write for them at a certain rate, what happens later is no concern of theirs.
The Freelance Writing Rates Experiment
Once you’ve set your rates, try a little experiment. Come up with three sets of rates and divide them into three tiers. Keep this information for your eyes only. You are running a business after all.
Set 1: The rates you won’t work below – at any cost
As a freelance writer, you’re bound to go through a time when work dries up. I know how that feels – the sheer desperation of finding work. You’ll get so worried about making money; you’d be tempted to work for any amount.
We both know that’s not a sustainable way to run a business. It’s only going to result in loss of time, money and your credibility as a writer.
The rates in this set are your protection against making bad business decisions. These are rates you absolutely must not work below – no matter how badly you need work. Doing so harms more than it helps.
Set 2: Your actual rates
As your business grows, you’ll find yourself hitting a sweet spot where your rates are concerned.
You’re comfortable charging these rates and feel completely justified in them considering the value you bring to the table.
You instinctively know that any client not willing to pay these rates is not going to be a good fit.
Every time a client asks you your rates, these are the ones you quote.
Set 3: High-end rates
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a freelance writer in possession of writing skills and business acumen must be in want of a higher rate.
(Yes, I realize I have totally butchered Jane Austen’s most famous sentence.)
Oh man, I love these. High-end rates are the ones you wish you were earning. They’re the rates you fantasize about.
If I were charging these rates, I’d be able to upgrade my laptop. Get a Mac. Go on a vacation. Pay off some debt. Take my kids to Disneyland…
Whether you realize it or not, you fantasize about higher rates too. You’re just too scared to charge them.
But every now and then, try quoting them to a client. Just to see what happens.
Quote them when you’ve plenty of work, so you’re not worried about losing a client. May be even when you’re not all that interested in the project but wouldn’t mind doing it for a significantly higher rate.
In short, these are the rates you quote when there’s no risk involved. It’s the best way to find out how far you can push the ceiling.
It’s how I made $300 for a single blog post the first time.
Step 6: Figure Out Your Working Terms and Conditions
You’re bound to have your own preferences when it comes to doing business – even if you don’t stick to them.
From a business point of view, I’d say agreeing to every client stipulation is a mistake. It makes you look like a doormat they can rub their shoes clean on any time.
Don’t ignore your preferences. Make them simple, direct, and easy to follow.
When figuring out your preferences, there are only 8 things you need to focus on. The rest is just gravy.
- Rates: What’s your fee?
- Payment: What’s the payment schedule going to be like? How do you preferred to be paid?
- Single Point of Contact: Communicate with one person only to avoid confusion and unnecessary work.
- Kill Fee: Sometimes, a project gets canceled. You understand that. But the client needs to understand they have to pay for work already done.
- Revisions: Every good freelancer includes a certain number of revisions and rewrites in his fee. Two revisions/edits and one rewrite is included in mine. After that, additional charges are incurred.
- Scope Creep: Given the chance, this nasty bugger will take over your life. It’s simple, really. An expanding project scope also expands the project fee.
- Copyright: What copyrights do you retain, if any? When do you hand over the control of the copyrights to your clients? Hammer it out with your client.
- Deadline: Deadlines tell the freelancer when she’ll get paid and it tells the client when the project will wrap up. It’s a win-win for both parties.
You know the awesome thing about working terms and conditions? It doubles as a contract. Set it up in a simple document. Add a place for the name and address of your client, along with a place for both your signatures and you’re done.
Step 7: Set Up Your Online Shop
Up till now, you were doing the behind the scenes work in setting up your freelance writing business.
Now it’s time to unleash your business in the wild, wild … err, you know what I mean.
I wouldn’t advice doing anything fancy. All you need to set up shop is a website.
Setting Up Your Freelance Writer Website
You don’t need hundreds of dollars to set up a professional website for your freelance writing business. In fact, depending on your budget, you can get a professional looking site anywhere from $0 – $100.
No, I’m not kidding.
The Free Theme Option:
The best professional, free WordPress theme I’ve come across is called Responsive. I use it on my writer site, samarowais.com. It’s simple, gets the job done and has an excellent option of displaying testimonials and/or little snippets of (up to) three services you offer.
Update: I no longer use Responsive on my writer site. Here’s a screenshot of how it used to look:
The Ultra Cheap-Yet-Professional Option
I recently came across a service called Writer’s Residence. They take the headache of hosting and website themes away from you and let you focus on your business.
It allows you to create resumes, upload as many writing samples as you want and doesn’t require any HTML knowledge. You also get a 30-day free trial.
The Slightly More Expensive But Still An Insanely Affordable Option
I’ve used WordPress for about 6 years now but every time I’ve tried to tinker some code, I’ve inevitably broken my site.
When I launched this blog, I chose the Genesis Framework by StudioPress (Owned by Copyblogger Media).
Best. Decision. Ever.
Not only is StudioPress affordable, they have a marketplace filled with professional looking themes that are easy to modify, SEO friendly, and come with online support.
The amount of tutorials and documentations available is enough to help you to make any changes you might want yourself – without spending hours trying to get something to work.
If money is tight, you don’t even have to buy a theme. Just buy the framework and modify the parent theme it comes with. Simply uploading a header is enough to give your writer site a unique, professional look and set it apart.
Cost: $59.95 – $99.95
5 Pages Your Freelance Writing Business Site Needs
Once your site’s all set up, it’s time to fill it with content. Of course, what you include on your homepage is up to you but there are a few pages you absolutely must have on your site.
About Me & You (the Client)
This is the page where you tell clients about yourself and how you can help them.
To be honest, About pages have always been a mystery to me. How the hell do I talk about myself without sounding like a pompous ass? It’s why my writer site doesn’t even have an About page. All I have is a little blurb about who I am and what I do on my homepage.
Wait, you don’t have an about page? Then why do I need one? You’re obviously doing well!
Err… do as I say. NOT as I do.
More than one client has told me they were put off by the lack of an About page. They only contacted me because they’d read one of my guest posts or knew about my blog which does have an About page.
If you struggle with writing about yourself and showing clients how you can help them, check out Amy Chick’s About page workbook. Even if you only modify the template she provides, you’ll be setting your About page apart from the crushing crowd of your competitors.
Update: I finally got my act together and wrote an About page for my writer site. Can I just say? It’s kick-ass! Check out the About page for my writer site here.
Work With Me / Hire Me / Services
Remember how you singled out 3 – 5 writing services in Step 3? This is where you talk about them in detail.
If your writing services are interconnected and you don’t have too much content, feel free to list them all in a single page.
I prefer to give each writing service its own sub-page because each service requires different information from the client.
My freelance blogging services page has a short introduction about how blogging can help my client’s business, my rates, working terms & conditions that are specific to this service and what to expect when the client contacts me.
Same is the case with my blog content planning and blog editing services.
Update: I changed how I listed the details of my writing services. Instead of having a separate page for each service and listing pricing and packages for them, I now have one page for all my services and only list starting prices. You can check it out my writing services and rates here.
This is the one page that requires very little content. But I wouldn’t suggest you leave it blank. Include your email address, phone number (optional), social media links, and your working hours.
I like to tell clients how long it takes me to respond too. It helps manage expectations of when to hear from me.
Testimonials (optional only until you get testimonials)
This is pretty self-explanatory. If you don’t have a lot of work under your belt yet, you might not have testimonials to display. That’s okay. You can skip this page for now.
Start gathering praise of your work. It doesn’t have to be a formal testimonial. It can be a tweet, an email conversation (use with permission though), a forum post – anywhere someone’s praised your work.
Use them as testimonials. The good news is, if the praise is on social media, you can easily embed it in your page to establish its legitimacy.
If you paid attention to Step 4, you should have a few writing samples by now. List them on this page and don’t forget to provide a link.
Don’t waste your time looking for a fancy display or a WordPress theme with a good looking portfolio option.
If you want a good looking portfolio, create one on Contently.
Another cool way to create a good looking portfolio is to create a board of your writing samples on Pinterest. You can embed it on your website or let it be as is and provide a link to it in your Portfolio page.
The reason I call publishing your rates page optional is because publicly listing rates online is a personal choice.
Listing them – not listing them, they both have their pros and cons.
Personally, I’m all for listing rates online. It chases off deadbeat clients who’re only looking for the “best rates”. And the clients who do contact me have seen my rates and are willing to pay them.
Publishing my rates online has dramatically decreased my negotiation time. Granted, I get fewer work queries but the ones I do convert into paying work most of the time. In fact, of the last 10 work queries I’ve gotten, 9 have converted into client work.
The one page that’s not included in this list
Notice how I don’t include a blog in here? A blog is optional. Yes, it helps you get samples and show clients your expertise and writing skills, but if you already have writing samples, it isn’t a necessity.
My writer site certainly doesn’t have a blog. I refer to Freelance Flyer, or my previous blog if I need to direct clients one.
If you want to have a blog connected to your writer site, by all means, go ahead. Use the action plan stated in Step 4 to get you started.
Step 8: Market Your Freelance Writing Business
The beauty of this guide is that you only need to do each step once – except this one.
Marketing is the one activity you need to do over and over again if you want a steady stream of clients.
I won’t lie to you. It’s one of the toughest things about freelancing. But it’s not as excruciating and impossible as we make it out to be.
The good news is, you’ve already done a few marketing activities. You’ve set up a website that has an About page, a Services page, and a testimonial page.
Instead of focusing on big marketing activities and overwhelming yourself, focus on smaller ones.
- Create an email signature that introduces you as a freelance writer for hire.
- Send an email to your personal contacts.
- Guest post.
- Use social media to follow, engage with and help prospective clients.
- Set up an email newsletter for prospective clients to keep them up-to-date about your work
- Highlight a client you’ve worked with on social media
- Comment on blogs and forums your prospective clients frequent.
When it comes to finding ways to market your business, the sky’s the limit.
- 5 Sure-Fire Ways to Get Freelancing Clients When You’re Just Starting Out
- 9 Often Overlooked Ways to Market Your Freelance Writing Business
- Freelance Marketing 101: Creating a “Magnetic” Freelance Business
- 10 Tips on Marketing Yourself as a Freelance Writer Online
- 50 Ways to Build Your Freelance Blogging Business
- How to Find Clients and Market Your Freelance Business
- 27 Proven Freelance Marketing Tips
These should be enough to give you your own list of marketing activities.
Even when you have more work than you can handle, don’t stop marketing. It’s always better to refer someone else than not receive any work inquiries.
Step 9: Make It Easy For Clients to Hire You
Marketing your freelance writing business doesn’t guarantee clients. It does, however, guarantee you being found by them.
Whether they hire you or not, that’s a different thing altogether. So do yourself a favor and make it easy for them to hire you.
Put your contact information everywhere
A prospective client will only visit your website or profile once. If they don’t find what they’re looking for, they’ll move on.
Don’t hide your contact information even if it’s unintentional. Put it up front for them to see. Include your website address, email address, Skype ID, Twitter and G+ accounts on your Contact page, About page, email signature, and any other place you think it’ll help.
Reply to emails ASAP
When it comes to email communication, the early bird always catches the worm. The faster you reply to emails, the more chances you have of landing the client.
It’s a tactic that has worked for James Chartrandtenand she swears by it. I learned it from her and I swear by it.
Every time I’ve responded to a work related email within a couple of hours, I’ve had an easier time landing the client.
Clients don’t just contact one freelance writer. They email a bunch of them. What’s more, they don’t even want to find the perfect fit. To them, getting work done as soon as possible is more important. And the freelancer who gets back to them the fastest is usually the one they hire.
Of course, I’m not saying you keep checking your email every 15 minutes. But doing so every couple of hours is more than doable – and something you’re probably already doing.
Don’t procrastinate. The client’s not going to think you’re desperate for work. They’re going to be impressed by how prompt your communication is.
Explain how you work before you work with a client
Clients don’t like surprises. If you like to do things a specific way, make sure you brief your client beforehand.
Don’t send him a 10 page questionnaire without mentioning it in the hiring process.
I send each of my clients a questionnaire before I start working with them. It gives me a better understanding of their business, project needs and required results.
Before signing on the dotted line, I make sure my client knows I’ll be sending them a questionnaire and that I won’t be starting work until I receive it back.
Make sure you’re both on the same page
Imagine finishing a big project only to find out the result wasn’t what the client expected. What a nightmare!
Sometimes, what the other person means gets lost in translation. It’s only natural. After all, you can’t recall a phone call verbatim and message and tone can easily be misunderstood in an email. Besides, the more emails you exchange, the more the information gets distributed.
So before you start working on a project, make sure you and your client are both on the same page. Send them an email recapping all your client’s project requirements including the terms and conditions both parties agreed upon.
This way, if something got lost in translation, the client will let you know.
Step 10: Lather, Rinse, Repeat Step Eight Over and Over Again
As comprehensive as this guide is, it contains steps that you only need to do once. But there’s one step you need to repeat over and over again, and that’s Step 8 – marketing.
If you want to have a steady stream of clients who can’t wait to work with you, don’t stop marketing your business.
If you want so much work you’re forced to refer other freelancers or create a team of your own, don’t stop marketing.
If you never want to worry about paying the bills or putting food on the table, or not having enough money – DON’T STOP MARKETING.
Yes, that’s me shouting.
Go through the links provided in step eight and make a list of all the marketing activities you can do. Then pick one every day and do it.
Even if your list is only ten items long, they’re 10 marketing activities you hadn’t been previously doing.
Word of advice: Push yourself out of your comfort zone when marketing your business. Not all the time. Not even every day. But every once in a while pick a marketing activity that scares you. You’ll be surprised at the results and the opportunities that come your way.
Putting This Guide to Action
You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.
Growing up, it seemed as if my mother was in love with this idiom. She used it on me whenever I was … not my usual, charming self. (Which was quite often to tell you the truth.)
It took me a while to get past the indignity of being compared to a horse, but once I did, I realized she was talking about personal choice.
She could teach me to be polite but whether I chose to be polite or not was up to me.
She could give me advice, but whether I followed it or not was my prerogative.
She could tell me not to touch a kettle with boiling water but whether I listened to her or not was my choice (I totally listened to her on this one).
It all boils down to choice.
Whether you’re going to use this guide or not is up to you.
I’ve given you step by step instructions on how to set up your freelance writing business for success. Now it’s your job to put it in action.
Whether you do or not… that’s entirely up to you.
Now the question is, what are you going to do?