I started freelancing in 2011, as a web developer.
As my experience grew, so did my desire to try something new. In 2019, I started writing online. Before I knew it, I was making money as a freelance writer.
It was a new start. My programming experience wasn’t very helpful, and neither was my network of techie friends. I felt like I was in uncharted territory, but I did my best to remain humble and keep improving. In 2020, I found a couple of good writing gigs. Soon after, writing gigs started finding me.
I made some mistakes along the way and lost out on some opportunities because of my inexperience as a writer.
What you’re reading now is the blog post I wish somebody had shared with me in 2019.
What qualifications do I need to become a freelance writer?
Technically, there are no strict requirements for becoming a freelance writer. You don’t need a degree, a certificate, or a writers’ retreat.
There are, however, certain traits that will help you tremendously. First and foremost, you need to be open-minded and willing to learn. Especially when coming from a different industry (like I did), you need to fully embrace the fact that you’re a beginner again. It’s harder than it sounds, particularly once you’ve reached some level of acclaim in another field.
Besides that, all you really need is a solid command of the English language, determination, and communication skills.
What do freelance writers get paid?
Rates for freelance writers vary wildly. Writers might charge anywhere between $0.20 and $1.00 per word, with many distributed around $0.30 to $0.40 per word.
If you subscribe to some of the many feeds that deliver writing gigs to your inbox, you might think that it’s reasonable to expect to be paid even less than $0.10 per word. Don’t fall for it. Many of the projects in these free feeds are of the lowest level. That’s why they’re in free feeds.
There are far better potential clients out there. On my first freelance writing project, I charged $750 per story, and the stories were roughly 1,500 – 1,600 words in length. Only later did I find out that this was a very high rate for a beginner.
In this case, my inexperience served me well – I translated my rates as a software developer into this new world and the client just said yes without negotiating.
How do new freelance writers get hired with no writing experience?
It is difficult to quantify the value of writing, which means that communication skills are a huge factor. I know what’s on your mind right now:
How quickly will you find your first freelance writing gigs? How much will you get paid for those assignments?
I wish I could answer these questions for you precisely, but can’t. I can tell you one thing: your success will hinge on the quality of your proposals.
The prospect’s first impression of your writing is the proposal you send. Whether you send it to their email inbox, their social media, or their Upwork project, as an inexperienced writer you should put extra effort into your first impression.
As a general rule, you should go the extra mile in everything you write – whether it’s a blog piece, an email, or a simple Twitter DM.
How to become a freelance writer with no experience
I hope that you now have a rough idea of what it’s like to be a beginner in the world of freelance writing.
Now, let’s get specific. There are levels to this game.
We don’t just want to be writers – nor do we want to be content factories – we want to be top-notch writers who command premium rates. We want to put ourselves in a position to be picky about clients and projects.
Keeping that in mind as our long-term goal, here are 11 ways you can kick-start your freelance writing business
I come from an engineering background. There, we have a saying: your output is only as good as your input.
It is as true in writing as it is in data science.
Do you want to be a versatile, charismatic writer with the ability to adapt your tone and style to meet your client’s goals? Then you should read works that challenge you and expand your understanding of the world (both vertically and horizontally).
- Vertically: diving deeper into your industry and core skills.
- Horizontally: learning about a broad range of industries, genres, and styles.
As a beginner, this is doubly valuable because it gives you an edge over many more experienced writers.
What should you read?
Ebooks aimed at freelance writers are fine, but they are only instruction manuals. To build a solid foundation, you should think outside the box. Here are some examples to illustrate my point:
- Learn about behavioral economics to understand buyer behavior, marketing, and pricing. Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” is a classic in the field.
- Read the classics to enrich your style and build a broader context from which to draw metaphors, anecdotes, and examples. No online course can replace reading Hemingway.
- Read about industries you’re interested in. It will help you pitch to clients and be more persuasive as a writer. If you want to write about finance, give Nassim Taleb’s books a try.
2. Write on a platform like Medium
I got started on Medium in 2019. In the first months, I experimented with different topics, styles, and article lengths.
There is no better way to see what suits you than to try it out with a live audience.
My experimentation helped me niche down – I ended up writing exclusively about entrepreneurship, freelancing, and productivity. Those are the topics I know most about and – as it happens – are profitable niches.
Medium is great for practice. Before 2019, I had only written school essays and a few online reviews.
It’s also great for networking.
I’ve met a number of interesting people and, in March 2020, got my first offer to write for a startup in Finland. I wrote four pieces for them about bootstrapping and VC funding. In the process, I got to talk to founders who had successful exits behind them. It was a great bit of experience that validated for me that freelance writing is a feasible source of income.
3. Start a blog
Platforms like Medium are great for multiple reasons, but one thing is decidedly lacking: control.
When you blog on a 3rd-party platform, analytics are almost completely missing. You get some traffic stats, but it’s only a high-level overview. For example, you might get 1,000 visitors from Google for a Medium story, but you will have no way of knowing which search terms they used.
Without knowing which search terms they used, how can you learn and adapt? How would you know which search terms to double down on or which long-tail keywords have potential?
You also can’t easily capture user emails, which is a crucial part of building your network. Some platforms even dissuade affiliate marketing.
This is all by design – platforms aim to keep you dependent on their internal algorithms. It is only when you start self-hosting a blog that you begin to understand every aspect of blogging online.
Search engine optimization (SEO), ranking, conversion rates, adapting length and style to the reader – these are all bits of knowledge that your future clients will appreciate.
4. Learn about SEO
Learning how to rank on various search engines is one of those things that you can never completely master – because it keeps evolving. But, you can learn the basics fairly quickly if you put your mind to it.
Most of your future freelance writing clients will set SEO goals for you. It is nice to think of writing as a purely creative activity, but ultimately clients are paying for results. If you can’t get eyes on your writing, it’s as if it doesn’t exist.
I was late to the SEO party because I relied on Medium’s algorithm at first. Hosting my own blog, and securing my own domain, forced me to step my game up. If I could go back in time, I would take a few days to focus on SEO before I write a single word.
Read Also: An Honest BigScoots Hosting Review from a 6-Figure Blogger
5. Talk to other writers
When in doubt, talk to people. You might be surprised by how helpful people are.
Networking with industry professionals and other writers on Twitter has provided me with lots of learning opportunities. Later, it got me a few projects organically through referrals.
If you follow the right people on Twitter (or some other platform), you can adopt a lot of technical knowledge: how to research articles, how to craft effective CTAs, or how to write high-quality titles for your pieces. That last one, by the way, is simultaneously a crucial SEO skill and a crucial client persuasion skill.
You can also learn freelancing skills – finding freelance writing work, approaching clients, writing great proposals, and managing your time. I write about these topics weekly over on my freelancing blog.
6. Learn about editing
Many beginner writers imagine the process like this:
- The client hires you.
- You do your magic.
- The client pays you.
In reality, it’s more like this:
- The client hires you.
- You submit a first draft.
- They return it with anywhere between 10 and 50 comments and edits.
- It takes you more time to make all the changes they want than it did to write the first version.
- Rinse and repeat 2-3 times.
This is perfectly normal – we’re writers, not mind-readers. No brief is so detailed that we can 100% match the client’s expectations, especially in an unfamiliar industry.
But, you can make your life easier. When you finish your first draft, take a step back and look at it as an editor. Re-read it a few times (preferably the next morning, with fresh eyes) and look for:
- Inconsistencies (in style, structure, or content)
- Inaccuracies in the content
- Claims that require a source
- Grammatical errors
- Vague statements
- Trains of thought that are hard to follow
The more editing you do, the easier you make it for the client, and the less you have to revisit everything later. Everybody wins. Looking at your own work impartially is hard. Ruthlessly editing your own writing is even harder. I found this very difficult at first, but if you practice, you can become good at it.
7. Find your niche
I can write about anything – if the price is right. Some topics require a ton of research and others come naturally to me. I have a genuine interest in some industries.
All of this determines my time input, which factors into the price. Consider these two articles:
- How To Bootstrap a Startup as a Software Engineer (2,000 words)
- Unlocking the Mysteries of Alzheimer’s in Neuroscience Research (2,000 words)
I don’t know about you, but I can write the first article with virtually no preparation, while the second one, without personal subject matter expertise, would require tons of research and extensive client input. The price would have to reflect that to make it worth my while.
It’s not just a matter of what interests you, it’s about the value you provide to clients too. If you can provide unique and deep insights into a topic, you are far more valuable. Add to that the fact you’re saving the client’s time by not needing a ton of meetings and revisions to get the job done.
Ideally, your freelance writing niche should be something where you can provide tons of value to clients; something that pays well and comes naturally to you.
8. Cold pitch publications
Don’t you wish you could put something like “published in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal” in your bio?
It’s not as unrealistic as you may think. Many big publications will consider unsolicited pitches, as long as you put in the effort. You probably shouldn’t start with the highest-tier magazines, but rather find a publisher relevant in your niche and submit a few drafts or writing samples to them.
You’ve got nothing to lose – if they say no, you can always repurpose the drafts for your own blog or for a client. If they say yes, you will earn some money and boost your bio. As a bonus, you might get a chance to work with a professional editor from the publication.
9. Offer to write guest posts
Similar to pitching publications, you can find other blogs in your niche and offer to write for them. This is a great way to get your work in front of more eyes and get some SEO juice for your blog or personal website.
The trouble is, major blogs don’t easily accept guest posts. You may think it doesn’t make sense for them to refuse free content, but consider it from their perspective:
- They are probably more experienced than you and can write the content better themselves, tailor-fitted to their needs.
- They often have regular contributors whom you are competing with.
- They often have way too many cold pitches to consider them all.
Some major blogs will actually charge money for guest posts that include backlinks to your website.
Don’t let this scare you off. Start small. Find some niche bloggers that are only one step ahead of you and offer to write for them. Work your way up the ladder.
10. Leverage a writing agency
Freelancing can be lonesome. I’ve always had a lone-wolf approach to business, but not everyone is cut out for that – and that’s fine. If this is you, you may want to consider writing for an agency at first.
A good agency will supply you with clients and briefs, manage invoicing, and help you out from an editorial standpoint. In return, they will take a (probably major) cut of what the client pays for your work. You will also have less choice in terms of accepting/declining projects and less creative control.
You may find this helpful during your transitionary period but remember: you can always change your mind and start looking for clients yourself.
11. Never stop learning
Those were 11 ways you can kick-start your freelance writing career. I hope that my experience as a successful freelance writer can help you get your foot in the door.
When you find yourself in doubt about whether you should try something, pitch somebody, or talk to a writer you know – do it. You never know when your big break is gonna come.
As a bonus point – that applies to a lot more than freelance writing – I leave you with this: never stop learning.
Whenever you don’t understand something, research it. Learn new words, try new processes, and get feedback from experts whenever you can. Don’t let a day pass without working on your writing skills, your pitching skills, your editorial skills, or your communication skills.
Stay persistent, and you will succeed.
Are you thinking about becoming a freelance content writer? Let me know in the comments below.