Launching a Career in Freelance Writing: Leads, Clients and Pay Rates

Like a pack of baby seals conscious of the ever-pervasive and always hungry predator, writers stick together. One question I often hear is, “How can I make money on my writing?”

My answer is usually the same: build a blog, makes business cards, and network until you bleed.

Then I hear: “Shut up — it’s not that simple.”

I say: “Yes. It is.”

Them: “What can I do?”

Kevin: “Whatever they want.”

They say: “What if I’m not qualified?”

Me: “Can you write?”

Them again: “Do pigeons crap in the winter?”

Me: “Weird question, but yes. Then you’re qualified.”

#FreelanceMagic

There are too many obstacles keeping writers from working professionally. The biggest one is insecurity. That’s how it was for me, at least. I had been writing (creatively) since I was 10. Yet, I believed — before I could ever sell my skill — that I needed to be a perfect writer, that I needed to reach some rarefied echelon, some snooty status.

Then I realized: The only way I’d get there is if I started writing. And if I did it all the time.

Then I realized: I didn’t need to be Hemingway to write a business blog. Or advertising copy.

So then: I wrote.

And then I found: Most of my clients couldn’t write a sentence to save their lives. Or they hated the effort it took. Or they just didn’t have the time. Whatever it was, they needed my help for a reason. To them, I was the second coming of Hemingway or (depending on the client) Dr. Seuss.

Starting from Scratch

For the last two years I have built a career out of freelancing. At any one time, I service 6-10 clients: this includes copywriting, corporate blogging, social media and journalism.

I don’t mean to sound as if I’ve “made it.” I haven’t. In fact, I recently relocated, meaning I lost a heavy dose of work. Though I was able to retain a fair share of copywriting clients (since remote working is a perk of the trade), all my regional journalism clients were lost. But I’m not worried. This is freelancing life: it ebbs and flows and sometimes sucks.

Launching a career in freelance writing, however, is quite simple. Like any career, you first need to pay some dues. This means low wages, bad assignments, and unideal clients will haunt much of your first six months. But look at it this way, you’re launching a business; take the work when and where you can and shave off the bad clients as you progress.

In the interest of elevating the state of writing, here’s some early-on advice for the beginning copywriter, editor or general wordsmither for hire:

Where to find your first jobs

Media & Business Mixers: These happen all the time. They’re a great way to get your name out there; in the least, you can meet some people doing the same thing as you. Look at them as friends, not competitors. If you’re friendly, they may just throw you a bone. I sure would.

Young Professional Networking Events: This is a variation of what’s above. Specifically, your town should have a Young Professionals group. If you’re under 35 (honestly, I’m not even sure age matters), this is a great way to meet the right people. Everyone is motivated and looking to do business.

Branding & Design Firms: You’ll meet these people at the above events, but you can also start researching which companies are in your region. Don’t be afraid to go to their offices and introduce yourself. Even if a job doesn’t come from it, it will help you gain confidence in you and your elevator pitch. Don’t be too salesy, however. Just be yourself.

Local Publications/Journalism: Don’t be afraid to email editors. They’ll usually respond, and if they don’t, try to meet them face to face. Most editors love to be pitched (but not all). So shoot them an email and ask if they have anyone covering an event or topic. The pay is usually crap, but your local publications are probably the best tool for networking early on.

Small Businesses: Use your personal network to find local businesses who need some writing work. You can spiff up their website text for a quick, flat fee. Write some blogs for them. See if they need any social media help. There isn’t HUGE money in this, (since you’ll probably be doing favors), but it’s a great way to build up your portfolio.

What services you should offer

Copyediting & Proofing: Offer your ability to edit the text of any document, no matter how big or small, digital or print. As a writer, you’ll be able to spot the easy typos and ugly cliches in seconds. Your greatest skill, however, is not that you’re a writer, but that you have a fresh pair of eyes. They don’t need to know that.

Corporate Blogging: Blogging isn’t enjoyed by every writer; regardless, every writer can do it. Offer to write corporate blogs for branding firms and their clients. You’ll need to spend time learning their industries, and you’ll need to write in a consistent voice that matches their brand. But you can do it. It’s all just writing.

Copywriting for Web: This is a variation of copyediting and proofing (above). Instead of just editing, you’re creating from scratch. Startups, small businesses, nonprofits, etc. — they all need websites with text. Be a buddy and help them out.

Social Media Management: How does this qualify as writing, exactly? Great question! Social media is a specific skill, and not every writer can do it. But don’t be afraid to try. Read some books about it and build up your own platforms. You’ll find that social media is a great foot-in-the-door for future writing work.

What you should charge

I know you’re looking for an explicit number here, but I’m sorry. There just isn’t one. I’d LOVE there to be some set wage, some minimum per-word rate. It would certainly protect young writers from getting taken advantage of. The simple truth is that most jobs, especially early on, will set your rate for you. Journalism especially. It’s generally a crap shoot (as mentioned above), but it’s totally worth it. You’ll gain credibility and great contacts. Even if you write one or two articles for free (shame on that publication) consider it a cost of business.

For copywriting, editing and other writing-related jobs, here’s my advice: even when you’re starting out, don’t be afraid to set the bar high. If people aren’t biting, adjust. If necessary, take a pay cut to get your foot in the door, but don’t let them take advantage of you.

Set a personal standard (e.g., $15/hour) and try to stay as close to it as possible. For example, if a journalism assignment offers you $50, try to not spend more than 4 hours on it (you’ll get faster the more you do it). If someone asks you for a quote to edit their website, give it your best guess: how many hours will I realistically spend on this?

Occasionally, you’ll be asked for a per-word rate. Don’t let this scare you. Just look at the assignment and ask yourself the same question: how many hours will I realistically spend on this? As you progress and earn an awesome portfolio, your personal standard will increase. The eventual goal, of course, is to turn the tables: to set your own price, every time.

Remember: in freelance writing, you don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be willing.

As you launch your career, you’ll be surprised by how many people need your services. Before you know it, you’ll have more work than you can handle. So get out there and write. And don’t forget to make some money along the way.

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