How to Become a Freelance Writer (How I Make $10K+/M)
Table of contents
While not everyone is suited for a career in writing, it does hold a lot of advantages.
Many freelance writers manage to make a good living writing for institutions, publications, and brands, and earn upwards of six figures per year.
This step-by-step guide will help you get started as a successful freelance writer with a steady income and a flexible career.
Let’s dive in.
Who needs freelance content writers and why?
There’s an unending demand for good content for every possible industry and profession.
- Any business or brand that needs to communicate with its customers, from local restaurants to Fortune 500 companies
- Publications: from mainstream publications in verticals like sports, business, education or healthcare; to trade journals in niches as specific as dental implants or mushroom growing
- Agencies of all types: advertising, PR, social media and content marketing agencies
- Professionals such as doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants, real estate agents and even creative professionals such as singers and artists
- Content entrepreneurs and personalities who need an active social and digital presence
- Educational, governmental and not-for-profit institutions from community colleges to the department of defense; from global NGOs to your local dog shelter
- Students looking for help with writing college entrance essays, terms papers, resumes and more
While these businesses and individuals are busy in their day-to-day, they need you to create content that helps them stand out in a crowded world.
One of the perks of being a freelance writer is that your clients pay you on a project or hourly basis. This is a win-win situation for you and your clients. They get professional writers on a pay-as-you-use-basis; and you, the freelancer, get the income, flexibility, and work-from-anywhere life you always wanted, all while following your passion for writing.
How much money can a freelance writer really make?
Your income will depend on several factors.
- Your level of experience and expertise: Newbies are obviously going to make less than those who have published their work. It is still likely that you will be able to start at a much higher rate if you are just starting out as a writer, but already have a lot of experience in a very specific field.
- The kind of writing gigs you apply for: Big brands pay more for thought leadership content than a start-up software firm or a school district's teacher handbook.
- The industry niche you choose: The top paying freelance verticals according to ZipRecruiter research are finance, psychology, architecture, and science.
- Geographical location: In spite of the fact that freelancers can work from anywhere, their location may affect the value they place on good content or the laws governing how much they have to pay.
- Most importantly – the number of hours you choose to work! Moms with two kids may not be able to write for more than a few hours each day, which will obviously limit the number of clients you can take on. Students and wannabe novelists can take on much more work.
Salary.com puts the median salary of freelance content writers at around $55,000 per year, and ZipRecruiter puts it at $66,000, with an hourly rate of around $30 per hour. Other sources put the rate for beginners at about $100 per 1,000 words. Experts and established writers can easily command upwards of $100 per hour.
Well-known freelancers such as Holly Johnson, who used to work full-time in a funeral home for $40K per year, now earns more than $200K per year writing blogs for other people.
Jennifer Gregory has even written a book on building a freelance writing career that’s pretty much considered a bible of sorts to those getting started in the business.
Both writers and many others have gone from $0 to six figures in a matter of a few years. However, there are others who struggle to earn pennies writing product descriptions on no-name ecommerce sites.
Ultimately, how much money you make as a freelancer comes down to your goals, talent, and bandwidth. Just remember, it's not a static thing. As you gain experience, you can build up a diverse set of clients without putting everything on one project.
My personal story
As a freelance writer, I have built up a mixed portfolio including corporate clients, publications, and bloggers over the last seven years.
For the big brands, I write long-form content such as eBooks and guides that can take up-to a week to produce but pay more. Besides writing regular columns of about 800 words each, I pitch interesting topics and get a byline, which is an excellent source of new business for me.
My blogger clients, who pay the least, also demand the least effort and time from me. It's just fun for me to write about topics like parenting and pet care. Because of my approach, I am less prone to creative burnout. Additionally, one of those sectors will still have the budget for content despite any economic conditions, so it keeps the home fire burning.
Getting started: 5 steps to become a successful freelance writer
This guide takes you through the five steps that have led several successful freelance writers to success in a variety of verticals and niches.
1. Level up your writing and professional skills
The ability to write is a non-negotiable component of a successful career as a writer. However, as a freelancer, you also need to master a number of professional skills. This is because freelancing is not a creative endeavor. In order to achieve your earning potential, you must serve as your company's CEO, not just its writer.
First and foremost, learn to write
If you are new to writing, invest in a paid writing course or workshop that trains you on effective writing techniques or take one of the many free or low-cost courses on Udemy or Skillshare.
To create better content, you'll need to learn the basics of content marketing, content strategy, and search engine optimization (SEO).
Write at least 1,000 words every day. This is especially helpful if you're just getting started and don't have a body of work. Write about common themes in your niche by commissioning yourself to write articles. In addition to getting practice, you will soon build a portfolio of content you can share with clients. Using a smart tool like Wordtune is helpful to see how a sentence can be framed better or reworded.
Learn to read a content brief
It is also helpful to be able to read a content brief. A brief will usually include the intended target audience, the purpose of the content, the expected outcomes, and any specifics such as writing style (AP, Chicago) and technical jargon. Your client will receive more predictable results if you write the content brief correctly.
Develop clarity of thought
As a freelancer, you will be working on multiple topics and themes as an outsider, so developing clarity of thought is an important skill. In order to cover key aspects of the topic, you must create an outline based on your brief and explain a complicated or boring story in a way that is simple and engaging.
It is possible to hire an editor or proofreader to review your work, but it comes at an additional cost to your initial salary. If you want to ensure that your own piece is grammatically and structurally correct, you should level up your self-editing skills. In contrast to publications and agencies, brands usually don't have editors on staff.
Good research skills
Creating premium content requires more than regurgitating the top ten of a given topic from the internet if you want to charge a premium. For a unique angle or perspective on a done-to-death topic, you need to go beyond Page 1 of Google. Read academic essays, listen to podcasts, and even reach out to professionals to gain insights. To find my own unique perspective, I use a smart research tool like Wordtune Read to get the essence of multiple long-form content.
Must-have skills besides writing
Unfortunately, just good writing skills will not automatically transfer into a successful freelance content writing career. As an independent professional, the buck stops squarely with you. Your clients will expect you to be in charge and deliver on your commitments. So have total clarity on:
Organizing and managing your bandwidth
Be cautious about making commitments you can't meet, don't overcommit, and plan ahead for sick days.
Get your paperwork in place
You should always be professional when handling the client's proprietary information, and sign and abide by an NDA if necessary. Request everything in writing - from client feedback to invoices. For example, never discuss monetary matters or accept changes to the brief over the phone or via WhatsApp - always ask for emails instead. Learn negotiation skills and be confident about the value you bring and your pricing if possible.
2. Pick a niche
I can't stress how important it is to find a proper niche. While there are writers who are generalists, specialists will always get paid a premium because they would know their subject better than others.
On the other hand, you don’t want to take on content writing gigs in highly specialized areas without knowing enough about it. I often get enquiries about topics that I am not an expert in, and I always politely decline.
But how do you pick a niche if you are not an expert in anything yet?
You can choose a niche by subject/industry. Everyone knows something. If you don't have professional or paid experience, think about what you know, are good at, or are passionate about.
Your college days might have involved a lot of travel. Write parenting articles about single parents struggling with child care if you have been traveling or backpacking a lot. If you’ve grown up in a household where art and culture or food were always a central topic, then find clients in related industries where your rich perspectives and knowledge will be valuable. Have you trained your own pets? Consider writing for pet care blogs and brands. Have you sunk a lot of money into crypto? Take your experience and write about it.
You can take anything you know or are passionate about - even stuff you've failed at - and apply it to your writing. As you get gigs and get better at writing, you can always expand your scope to newer niches. Either way, being specific makes it easier for clients to find and choose you.
Alternatively, or in addition to a subject niche, you can further specialize by service/ format or channel. Even within a chosen niche, you may find that a particular format suits you more than others. The more I write about marketing and customer experience, the better I become at writing mid-to-long-form content – anywhere between 800 and 4,000 words. In contrast, I'm not as proficient at creating social media or website content. As a result, I tend to choose projects that fit my abilities. As a note taker and a distiller of key insights from lengthy verbal conversations, I have been pitching some of my corporate clients to repurpose webinar content into blogs to help their gated webinars go viral.
A wide variety of formats are available, such as articles (short and long-form), newsletters, blogs, social posts, video scripts, speeches, research reports, case studies, marketing copy, white papers, eBooks, and more. As a competent writer with strong grammar and punctuation skills, you could even start writing technical guides, user manuals or product descriptions if you have no particular interests or passions. Alternatively, you could become an editor or proofreader in demand.
You could also specialize in creating content just for a particular channel, such as Facebook or TikTok, if you know it well.
If you are confused about finding the best niche for you, try this:
- Make a list of subjects or skills you feel comfortable with or are adept at. It could be an area where you’ve had professional or amateur experience, just a hobby or passion, or even just something you’ve grown up around. Everything teaches you something! If absolutely nothing comes to mind, make a list of subjects that interest you or you think you may find interesting or exciting to learn and write about.
- Then, try and find at least 5 paying jobs in that niche on writing sites, job boards, through agencies, and even via local contacts. If you can, then it’s worth going ahead with.
In 2022, some of the higher paying niches include:
- Financial writing
- Cyber security
- Crypto economy and neo banks
- Health and wellness
- Education and parenting
- IT and SaaS
- Travel and recreation
- The pet care industry
Some of the rapidly growing content format and service opportunities include:
- Video scripting including SEO content for video and audio formats
- Content for online educational videos, workbooks and guides
- eBooks and white papers are always in demand with corporate clients
- Research reports, annual reports, donor reports are getting more user-friendly and often come in interactive digital formats. This is a growing area of opportunity
- Ghost writing for CEOs and famous personalities that want to build their personal brands
- Podcast scripts
- Content repurposing - taking existing long-format content and repurposing it for social media posts, blogs and infographics
3. Build a portfolio and personal profile
Once you pick a niche or two to focus on, and decide on your preferred services, formats or channels, it's time to let the world know that you are open for business. If you have no paid or published work to display, here’s where all those blogs and articles you ‘commissioned yourself’ to write should come in handy. The main thing is to communicate to potential clients that you know your niche and you can write well about it.
Put your portfolio, however limited, on either a blog or webpage, or one of the free platforms such as Fiverr or Contently, which are really job exchanges but handily double up as a place to showcase your content.
If you are aiming for a more B2B client base, then don’t forget to build your social media profile on LinkedIn and post regularly about your chosen niche to build your personal profile on the subject.
Another great tactic is to start sending in free content to blogs as a guest blogger. Many publications accept guest posts if they fit the editorial guidelines, and while they don’t usually pay, they do give you a bio and link back to your website or LinkedIn profile if they publish your piece.
The idea is for potential clients to easily find you and view your work, so that they can make a quicker decision in your favor. Of course, you need to be prompt with any inquiries the moment they land in your inbox.
4. Time for outreach: find those clients!
Now that you’ve positioned yourself to get work, it's time to find your first clients! Again, there are a plethora of options to choose from, including:
- Marketplaces for freelancers such as Fiverr.com or Upwork.
- Content writing and marketing agencies such as Contently or Skyword.
- Going directly to clients via referrals or job ads, or sending out letters of introduction to potential clients that create content and may be looking for writers. Your applications or outreach emails are of course the first impression about your writing talent, so take the time and trouble to get your pitch right.
- Building a profile on LinkedIn and reaching out to people in your network. You can also start participating in conversations around content creation or your niche subject on LinkedIn and Twitter, to get noticed as a freelancer who knows their stuff.
- Activating your college, professional and if unavoidable, personal networks.
Content marketing agencies and boards such as FreelanceWriting or ContentWritingJobs help freelancers connect with writing jobs, though the pay varies. I’ve found they usually offer between $25 and $100 per job.
The benefit of gigs on such portals and boards is the sheer diversity of jobs on offer, and as you can see in the screengrab below, the specific niches - from immunochemistry to technical writers, there is something for everyone. Shorter blogs are relatively quicker and easier to write, and you also get a byline in many cases, so it may be a good way to get started and build up a portfolio of paid work, however low.
Going directly with clients like brands or institutions will of course pay higher, often more than $1 per word or $100 per hour of work; but in many cases you won't get a byline and no one will ever know that you wrote the content unless they agree to give you a testimonial for your website.
Also, these are more complex content pieces that often need a lot of research and even subject-matter expertise, so while they pay more, they also take up more of your time and clients can be exacting and very picky.
Bonus tip: calculate your runway
Before you quit your day job to be a freelance writer, calculate your expenses and figure out how long you can survive without an income.
Factor in food and living expenses for at least four to six months, because it may take a few months for your efforts to start paying off!
Set a monthly earning goal for yourself and work backwards to pitch the right kind of jobs and clients.
5. Land and expand
All of these steps are sure to land you a gig or two and get the ball rolling.
Now it's time to upsell to existing clients, get repeat business and expand your base. Easy ways to do this is of course to do a great job of following the brief, delivering on time and making sure there are minimal reworks on the submission. Your first three to five clients will be the hardest, but after that, you should have enough work examples and testimonials to keep your momentum going.
Happy clients can be a source of income for years, and if they feel you really have a pulse on their product or publication voice and audience needs, they’d be happy to pay a premium to keep you on. You can further add value to your client by suggesting graphics to go with the text, more topics and ideas, helping distribute and amplify the content on your own social networks, and perhaps even learning some basic CMS skills to upload your content directly into their system to save the content team time and effort.
Life as a freelance content writer
We've discussed the 5 steps you need to get started as a freelance content writer, and following these should prepare you for success!
As in any career, you should expect the first period to include many ups and downs. Learn to be comfortable with client rejections, but once you land a client, make it go a long way by giving it your best, even if it's not the highest paying job.
Every article you publish will be another brick to cement your long-term freelance writing career. Handle it with care, and soon you should be on your path to freedom, flexibility, and hopefully, a six-figure income!