In this week's Digital Writing Compass Deep Dive, we want to talk about taking the leap into freelance writing.
Freelancing is one of the most popular ways to start a business on the internet.
The reason why so many people begin here is that it's easy and inexpensive to get started. All you need is a computer and an internet connection, and you've got access to millions of potential clients. Not to mention, there are virtually no startup costs required.
And here's the great news: you don't need any formal education or training to get started.
In fact, it's often better if you don't!
But what exactly is freelance writing? How do you become a freelance writer? And how much can you expect to earn?
Let’s dive in!
What exactly is freelance writing?
Freelance writing is a service in which you trade words (and time) for money.
- You are your own boss
- You set your own schedule
- You choose the projects you take on
You can decide how much or little time you want to spend on each project, and when it comes time to cash in, you receive 100% of the profits. And as long as there is a need for someone to express ideas with words, there will be a need for freelance writers.
There's a ton of variety (and need) in the market to help others put their words in writing:
- From articles to e-books
- From tweets to web content
- From ad copy to writing grants
You may find yourself writing ads for a company that makes sushi-flavored toothpaste. You could write an article for a dog trainer’s website on why dogs are better than cats, or how dogs and cats are both great but also terrible depending on who they belong to.
You can literally write anything for anyone.
Is it worth learning how to become a freelance writer with no experience?
It’s more than worth it.
Every day you hit publish, your network & influence on the internet will grow.
Your writing may not be great when you start, but you will get better quickly if you practice and work on it. It's like lifting weights. If you don't lift weights for two months and then try to lift 4x your body weight, you're going to struggle. But, if you lift weights consistently and build up to that point over time, it will feel effortless.
And this is true whether you are writing for a client or writing your own content.
Is Getting Started as a Freelance Writer Hard?
In fact, it's actually pretty easy—as long as you know what to do. And the best way to learn how to get started as a freelance writer is by doing it!
However, there are three things worth studying to help you increase your odds of success:
- Digital Writing skills: You need fundamental Digital Writing skills and a keen eye for seeing what’s working and not working from the reader’s perspective.
- Marketing yourself: You will be marketing yourself as much as your work. Knowing how to sell yourself will help you get noticed by potential clients.
- Self-motivation: You'll need self-motivation if you want to succeed in freelancing instead of having a regular job where someone else tells you what needs doing and when.
If you give proper attention to each of these areas, you will be well ahead of the competition.
Is Becoming a Freelance Writer a Lucrative Career Choice?
In 2016, I was making $50,000 per year as a copywriter at an advertising agency downtown Chicago.
Then, I quit my job.
30 days later, I was making $20,000 per month as a freelance writer.
I've made quite a bit of money doing it. But the thing is, there's only so much time in a day. And if you're not managing your time (or your clients) wisely, you may find yourself spending more time on administrative tasks and context switching than actually getting paid for writing.
The only way to increase your revenue is by adding more clients or charging more for your services. Both have limits.
Yes, freelance writing is lucrative, but only to a point.
How to Start Freelance Writing With No Experience and Get Paid: Our Advice
In order for you to feel like you have the confidence, experience, and know how to get started freelancing, you need a plan.
Specifically, you need to follow five concrete steps.
And if you can execute these five steps in a few months, the likelihood that you will start making money from freelancing will go up exponentially.
Here’s our advice:
Step 1: Become a master of ONE
When you're just starting out in the world of freelancing, it's tempting to try and do ALL the things:
- Writing blogs
- Writing newsletters
- Writing website copy
- Writing marketing materials
This is inefficient. And this is why a lot of writers burn out so quickly—because they get overwhelmed trying to do everything.
Instead, hyper-focus on one thing and then deep dive into learning everything you can.
- Pick one type of client
- Pick one type of writing
- Pick one social platform
Say you want to be a freelance content writer for marketers, and you want to write on Twitter.
Start by searching Twitter topics for "marketing.” Follow the topic and then browse the top tweets and look for high-performing content. Twitter makes this easy for you by presenting the most recent and popular tweets at the top.
Curate the high-performing content you find on your social feed. Find common themes and curate a thread, like the best marketing tweets for the week of November 1st. Surfacing content for other people to see is valuable. Be sure to add your own opinion and reason for curating the piece. Talking about what it means to you makes for interesting content.
Use this strategy to build out your profile and show off your skills.
Pick 1 thing. Master it. Do nothing else for 1 week.
Step 2: Work for free. Prove you’re a good writer!
After curating some world-class work, start networking with other creators in your niche.
Reach out to them directly. DM them on Twitter or find their email using a tool like Hunter.io and fire off a message.
For anyone who responds, offer your services for free.
You’re probably thinking, “WHAT?! No way! I deserve to be paid for my hard work!”
But writers who make a lot of money don’t get paid for their hard work. They don’t even get paid for their time. They get paid for the RESULT they are able to deliver for the reader, customer, or client. Which means, before you should even start worrying about how to make money, you first need to PROVE that you can:
- Answer people’s questions in clear and compelling ways
- Solve people’s problems using easy-to-understand solutions
- And write things people actually want to take the time to read
How do you learn how to do these things?
Write for free, and let the market decide.
Prove yourself. Show you can deliver the result. Keep sharpening your skills.
The money will follow.
(Note: While you are working for free, keep writing, keep curating, and building in public. Turn your Digital Writing flywheel by showing people you are in the game and actively participating. Stay consistent, and you will become a recognized authority on your topic.)
Step 3: Start charging $$$
Your first project is a test.
- A test for you, to see if you can achieve the client’s goal
- A test for the client, to see if you’re someone worth working with
If you're successful, they'll want more. If not, no harm, no foul.
Once you pass the free test, offer to do more work with them (and make sure they know it’s not free!). This is where most new freelancers go wrong. They ask the next logical question: “How much should I charge?” But this is the wrong question.
Writers who charge per hour (or worse, per WORD) are killing themselves.
Your value is not the # of hours you spend.
It's the result you deliver.
Charging on an "hourly" basis puts emphasis on the TIME and not the VALUE of your skill. Customers then question how LONG it takes you to do something opposed to how DIFFICULT or how SPECIALIZED the task is. This leads to a race to the bottom: "hire the cheapest person possible."
The right question is: “What is the client’s time worth?”
This is how you measure the value you provide. Recognize who you are selling to and how they value time and money. Your time is irrelevant.
Removing hours from the equation makes it easier to build trust. "I'm less concerned with how long this takes me, and more concerned with driving the end result for you." This 1 phrase makes it 10x easier for customers to say YES, because they trust you won't run the bill up.
Pro tip: If your client offers consulting services, search for their hourly fee. This is the value of their time. Multiply their rate by the number of hours it will take you to complete the project. This is your fee.
Charge for the outcome, even if it feels uncomfortable.
Step 4: Leverage your 1st client into a 2nd client
The secret to building a freelance writing business is having clients.
And the easiest way to get new clients is through referrals. Don't be afraid to ask your first client for an introduction to someone.
"I'm passionate about writing. Anyone else you know who might need a content writer?"
If you've done good work for a client, they'll be happy to vouch for you. And even if they don't know anyone who needs a writer like you, they'll probably be willing to connect you with someone who does. Being introduced by someone who knows and trusts you is a huge advantage for any freelancer.
This is the power of credibility.
Step 5: Don't wait for clients. Sell!
Don’t wait for someone to call you, be proactive, and start pitching your services.
- You've done some free work
- You've proven you can do it
- You've leveraged your credibility into a second client
Now get out there and sell!
DM people you want to work for, cold email them, tap your network and get busy selling! Even if that means offering to do the first thing you do for them for free!
Take it upon yourself to sell your services.
Pro tip: Ditch the hard sell. People don't buy your freelance writing service, they buy a transformation. As a freelance writer, you are taking the burden of writing off your clients shoulders. You are saving them valuable time, and you are creating an asset for them that they can leverage for more sales in their business.
Focus on the outcome you create.
How to Start a Freelance Writing Business: Using Systems & Process to Grow Your Clientele
You don't need a lot of clients to make a good living as a freelance writer.
In fact, having too many clients can be detrimental to your business in the long run. You'll end up working more hours for less money, which means you'll have to hustle even harder to keep growing your business.
If you want to go from freelance side hustle to an actual freelance business that has passive income potential and can support you financially, here are the four systems you need to put in place to help you scale:
System 1: Your productivity engine
One of the first challenges you will run into as a freelancer is understanding the art of personal time management.
You might not be showing up to an office 9–5 anymore, but you should still have it in your mind what time you “start work” in the morning and what time your day ends.
The reason is threefold:
- A daily rhythm will keep you focused and accountable.
- You need something to get you out of bed in the morning (otherwise you’ll waste a lot of time lounging around).
- You need to know when your day is “done,” otherwise work life and normal life will blend together in a bad way. Know when to shut off your computer for the day.
Your ability to optimize earnings is a result of how productive you are. You have to master your work habits. Don’t overcomplicate things, stick to the basics.
- Review your To Do list daily
- Do your difficult tasks first
- Batch similar items together
- Keep your email organized
- Plan and track your finances
If you have a routine for when, where, and how you do things, you will be able to ride the ups and downs of freelance life a lot more easily.
System 2: Your writing engine
Just like you need a system for managing your “administrative” time, you need a system for writing.
The 4 writing systems every Digital Writer needs to build are:
- An Idea Generation system
- A Headline Hook system
- A Formatting and Templates system
- A Content Autopilot system
For a deep dive on this topic, check out How to Create Your Own Writing System.
System 3: Your marketing engine
If you want to make money, you have to balance writing AND selling.
Your marketing system is the backbone of your business, and it can be the difference between success and failure.
And to grow your freelance clientele, you need to have a plan for how you're going to get them. This doesn’t mean "Just post on Twitter every now and then." This requires a structured strategy that puts you in front of your ideal clients over and over again in a way that's going to lead them to hire you for their next writing project.
Below are five simple ways you can build your marketing flywheel:
- Be visible (and consistent) where your audience is
- Upsell your current customers on any new services
- Collect email addresses from visitors on your website, or via social media
- Send out a weekly newsletter with the best curated content from your industry
- Post updates about new projects and milestones. Everytime you land a new client, share it
Make it very clear writing is what you do, day in and day out and you’ll have a steady stream of clients knocking on your door.
System 4: Your scaling engine
Most successful freelancers end up falling for the same temptation: "I'm going to build an agency!"
Please hear this: freelance writing businesses are VERY hard to scale.
Adding more clients means needing more writers. More writers means more overhead. More overhead means more sales, and so on. The bigger you get, the more strain & effort you have to put forth to maintain growth.
Without technology or a non-human product, there is nothing (zero) exponential about service companies. 1 new client in = 2+ new writers. It doesn't take long for your overhead to balloon, your risk to go through the roof, and your profitability to incrementally improve.
Instead of adding more writers and clients, here are four actions you can take to make 10X more money:
- Trim your mediocre clients. Ideal clients save you time. Mediocre ones cost you time.
- Raise your prices. The better you get, keep raising your rate and look to replace your lower-paying clients. Tell them you need to up the cost. The right ones will stay. The wrong ones will leave.
- Productize your work. Once your client roster is full and 80%+ are paying full rate, and you’ve raised your prices as high as they can go, the only way to scale beyond is through products. Start turning your knowledge into books, courses, or software.
- As product revenue increases, shed clients. Look at the revenue for each of your clients, and when a product starts making the equivalent amount, let the client go. Get your time back for higher level work and invest your product.
Your overarching scaling goal is to flip freelance client revenue with product revenue.
And that’s it!
Anyone can start their freelance writer journey today.
Stick to Digital Writing fundamentals and start cranking your marketing flywheel, and in a few months, you could be getting paid for your writing.
Maybe even in less than 30 days.
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