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freelancer writing
Eddie Carrillo
Jan 25, 2021
Writing

The Ultimate Guide to Freelance Writing for Beginners

Are you thinking about becoming a freelance writer? You’re not alone. A recent study finds that 36% of the U.S. workforce freelances full-time—even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This work output contributes a staggering $1.2 trillion to the economy.

The extra cool part here is that these numbers are continuing to grow. It’s an exciting time to become a freelance writer. But the idea of working freelance always seems to be shrouded in mystery, so before I dive into the guide, I’ll lay out some insights that I wish I had known prior to beginning my own freelance writing business:

  • Freelance writing is a practical and worthwhile career. And it can be lucrative.
  • Tips and tricks from experts are helpful, but there is no one-size-fits-all rulebook. What works for you might not work for me, and vice versa. Experimentation is a large part of the gig—especially in your first year.
  • You do not need a degree in literature, English, journalism, or anything writing-related. What clients care about are your writing skills.
  • Fiction, poetry, and personal essays are typically not what will pay the bills. Earning money in a writing career generally comes from articles, blog posts, and other content you write for businesses.
  • Creating your own blog isn’t necessarily a must, but if you don’t have any published work, a few blog posts can be used as writing samples to prove that you can write.
  • There are no “going rates.” Pay can fluctuate between different clients and different types of projects.


You might have already decided that freelance writing is the path for you or maybe you’re still weighing your options. Of course, when planning a career, you need something that will pay the bills, so let’s address that elephant in the room right now: can you make a decent living as a freelance writer?

Can I Make Good Income as a Full-Time Copywriter?

Just a couple of years ago, most businesses placed nearly the entirety of their online marketing strategy on the shoulders of SEO strategists (and many still do). The idea is that content that ranks high on search engines will generate leads and ultimately convert those leads into customers. 

But more companies are realizing that high search engine performance doesn’t necessarily lead to customers on its own. Good content does. In fact, as search engines become smarter, good content also ranks better in SEO. And good content is written by copywriters.

This makes copywriters increasingly more in-demand by organizations looking to employ an effective content-based marketing strategy. But do copywriting jobs pay well? It depends.

Copywriting Careers: Agency vs. In-House vs. Freelance

A quick Glassdoor search will give you a data-based answer for how much copywriters in the United States make:

These are nice numbers, but they don’t take into account the variety of places you might work. There are many paths you can take. You might see someone get their feet wet in an agency before moving to an in-house position. Or you’ll hear of someone who built a career in-house before deciding to start their own business. There is no one correct path, and that’s a good thing. You can forge your own. These are the three routes that people generally take:

Agency Copywriter

An advertising or marketing agency is a great way to begin a copywriting career and build your craft. You get to write for a variety of brands and learn how writing strong, human-centered content can truly help a company reach its business goals.

There are many pros to working at an agency, including:

  • Outstanding training
  • Exposure to many brands
  • Networking opportunities
  • Competitive salaries

Let’s talk about that last bullet. Salaries and hourly rates can vary greatly depending on your location and the agency. They aren’t all created equal, and it’s important to pursue a competitive, high-performing agency if you’re seeking a good paycheck.

In general, agency copywriters earn slightly less on the front end (junior level) than the national average, but more on the back end (senior level) than the national average. Key factors include:

  • Years of experience
  • Location (jobs in big cities will pay more than jobs in more rural areas)
  • Agency name (high-profile agencies often pay more than small, local agencies)

In-House Copywriter

An in-house copywriter is somebody employed by one brand (business) and who writes content specifically for that business. A copywriter employed by Nike, for example, is an in-house copywriter who writes content specifically for—and only for—Nike.

One of the great things about working in-house is that there is a lot of opportunity for career growth. Because copywriters are part of an organization’s wider marketing department, promotions mean that you can move up not only on the copy team but throughout the organization as a whole. This could mean future lucrative leadership positions like marketing or creative director. 

Pros for working as a full-time copywriter for one organization include:

  • Growth opportunities and clear promotion tracks
  • Writing for only one brand
  • Competitive mid-career salaries
  • Being part of a team with long-term goals

Working in-house typically provides more income at the front end (junior level) than an agency, and a similar income at the back end (senior level). Moving into positions of leadership can significantly increase earnings potential.

Freelance Copywriter

Good copywriting can come from a freelancer just like it can come from an agency or an in-house writer. In fact, many companies are increasingly hiring freelancers to meet their business needs rather than full-time employees.

Freelancers can perform a variety of copywriting services, like blog posts, emails, web copy, social media posts, and more. A freelance copywriter has more freedom than a full-time employee because they build their own schedules and find their own clients. And while independence means less guaranteed financial security, it also means that there is no cap to earnings potential. 

Benefits of working freelance include:

  • Working from home
  • Owning full control of your career trajectory
  • Uncapped earning potential
  • No boss

While the perks of being a freelancer are great, there are downsides that should be considered before you take the leap to become a freelance copywriter. These include:

  • No employer benefits (e.g., health insurance, paid time off, etc.)
  • Having to manage your own taxes
  • The pressure of finding your own clients

Ultimately, it all comes down to your personal choices and what you want from your career. The bottom line is this, though: freelance writing is absolutely a practical way to make a living, and for many, it can lead to not only a comfortable income but a lucrative one.

Learning How to Be a Freelance Writer

So you’ve decided that freelance writing is the career path for you. Great! Now it’s time to learn how to be great at it. Let’s start by digging into the types of writing you can expect to be doing and how you can master those skills.

What Types of Writing Do Freelance Writers Do?

Freelance writing could include many types of projects. You could produce writing meant for the homepage of a law office website, or an instructional manual for a new cleaning product. Most freelancers make a living with writing that is created with a business mindset, and great writing does this without losing your personal touch for each business it represents.

A freelancer’s projects could include:

  • Blog posts
  • Website content
  • Instruction manuals
  • Product descriptions
  • Social media posts
  • Press releases
  • And more…

These types of writing can be laced with dynamic storytelling, but don't be fooled—if the content doesn't have a clear goal or message, it's not really functioning how it should. That brings us to our next question…

What Is the Goal for a Freelance Writer?

Your personal goal in your writing career may not be the same as every other person. Perhaps you're simply trying to revamp your small business's website on a budget. Or, perhaps you're eager to start from the ground up in building a freelance writing empire. Know your goal and set good personal milestones.

The bottom line of writing for business purposes is increasing exposure, customer rapport, or sales for the brand. You aren't just trying to fill a blank page or solely be entertaining; you're trying to meet the expectations of your client and their needs. Functionally, you do this through understanding the rules of this niche word game.

Tips for Becoming a Better Copywriter

There are many factors that determine how successful a freelancer (or any business) will become, but far and away, the greatest factor is the quality of your work. Start your career on the right foot and make a great impression on every client by using these tips to master your writing skills.

Be Specific

The more specific content is, the more credible it will make a business's brand and the brand’s goods or services appear. There's a difference between calling a local Mexican restaurant's tacos delicious, and saying their salsa has won taste test competitions and the local newspaper voted them Best New Restaurant in a community poll.

Be Clear

Be clear, especially in describing how a feature can benefit a customer. You can say your home cleaning supplies are non-toxic, but take it a step further to discuss how toxicity in cleaning supplies has a direct impact on their family's health.

Call People to Act

End every piece with a call to action or a next step of some sort. That action might be signing up for a newsletter, calling for more information, or acting fast to purchase a sale item before it sells out. Be direct and you'll be the voice in the customer's head saying, "Come on. Do it."

Outline

Outline your writing before you start. This doesn't have to be complicated. A simple list of key points and keywords to include can help you direct the flow of your writing so that creating content is efficient and so the end result reads smoothly.

Know Your Client’s Formatting Needs

Some writing needs to be in a more long-form structure and go into greater detail, especially if it’s for safety or instructional purposes. However, most content writing has more of a marketing angle and will require two-to-three-sentence paragraphs, plenty of bullet points, and headers or bolded words to break up the information (like you see here). Know the kind of content you're working with, especially if it's all digital.

Check Out Your Client’s Competition

One of the best ways of brainstorming how to structure your own copy is to do a Google search for the topic you're writing on and see what competitors have already created that's high-ranking. Obviously, plagiarism is never a goal, but you can learn the information you need and see examples of how to structure it as a quick jumpstart to writing your own copy in an original way.

Find Your Process for Balancing Quality and Quantity

If you're creating a copywriting career, you want to make the most money for your time. This will require finding the right balance in quality and quantity when writing copy.

Knowledge is Power

Without proper research or prior knowledge, there's no way that you can write well-informed content. You'll need to take the appropriate amount of time to research, organize information, and do the writing itself.

Consider Taking a Class

If you don’t have a solid foundation in writing, it’s never too late to create one. Consider taking a writing course at community college or online.

As copywriting doesn’t require formal training, lots of people leap right in without their basics in place. While you don’t need to pursue a degree, taking classes will give you the baseline for your writing career so you have a solid grasp on grammar, structure, etiquette, and other essentials.

Many writing courses focus on persuasive essays about all sorts of topics. You’ll learn the structure of persuasive writing and how to back up your arguments with convincing details. Persuasive writing is the crux of copywriting, and some training can set you ahead of the competition. 

Strive for Expertise

A savvy freelance copywriter will choose jobs that they have already cultivated their expertise and organizational method for. They can spend more time on being a freelance copywriter, and therefore have more time to write copy--and make money.

Know Your Audience

In all of this, recognize the quality that different types of clients require, and cater how much you polish and finesse a piece to suit them. Not every client will need technical language or sophisticated references.

Write, Listen to Feedback, and Write Some More

The most common (and accurate) writing advice ever tossed around is: just write.

The more you write, the better of a handle you'll have on structure, mechanics, voice... all the pesky details of writing that can be sculpted to fit different clients, products, or purposes.

Feedback in that loop is essential. Listening to what clients offer as a critique for what you create is crucial in making a customer happy, sure, but it's also an essential part of opening your eyes as a copywriter.

Never Stop Learning

Becoming a freelance writer online isn’t just one magic moment where everything comes together. It’s continuous. With how quickly technology moves and how rapidly companies modernize, you have to stay on your toes to understand what’s happening in the industry and what that means in terms of staying valuable. 

For example, 20 years ago, most people had never heard of search engine optimization (SEO). Now it’s a must-know for freelance writers. What will the next in-demand skill be? Luckily, today there’s a plethora of online tools and resources for beginner freelancers. Check out Udemy, Skillshare, and Coursera for thousands of courses that might come in handy on your learning journey.

Tips for Building Your Freelance Writing Career

Learning to be a great writer is critical for writing professionally, but it’s only part of the equation. You also need to know how to grow your business and get clients. Start with these top tips.

Choose Your Specialty

The search for freelance writing jobs isn’t always fun. You might reach out to quite a few prospective clients before actually landing a job—or even a response. But it’s important to know that while any and all types of writing sound like gold, I recommend choosing a niche in freelance writing to begin positioning yourself as an expert within that niche. 

This could mean specializing in a particular type of content, like blogs or web copy. It could mean specializing in individual industries, like healthcare or technology. Think of a couple of industries and types of content you can see yourself specializing in. Then cement these areas as your long-term focus.

Build Your Writing Portfolio

A successful freelance career is built out of a rock-solid portfolio. However, most new freelancers don’t have that portfolio yet. But don’t worry—it’s a step-by-step process.

I got my start writing for my university’s magazine. I did the work for free, but I used those published pieces as content for my portfolio. That content got me writing gigs with the clients I currently work for.

If you’re still in school, see if you can find similar opportunities. If not, any of the following avenues can help you put together the first pieces of your portfolio:

  • Your own blog. Write at least three pieces of content on the topics that interest you.
  • Guest posting. Some websites give writers the opportunity to guest blog or guest post. This is a good way to build authority on a topic or gain exposure.
  • Articles on LinkedIn or Medium. Both of these platforms allow you to write and self-publish articles. They’re also good ways for gaining visibility if you share the final piece on social media.

You can also simply write pieces for hypothetical clients and include them in your portfolio - no one said your portfolio could only include content that was commissioned or published.

Set Up Your Website

As you begin working in freelance, you’ll need a hub to conduct your business. Your website will help streamline potential clients’ research into one pristine location where you can control the narrative. You can effectively market yourself using your portfolio, blog posts, professional background, and testimonials from clients. Taking on a freelance copywriter is a risk for clients, and a website helps build up a trusting relationship with your client.  

Prepare Your Pricing in Advance

Before you hop on the job boards and freelance websites, make sure you understand how much money you need to earn to ensure that freelancing is a sustainable career. Many writers make the mistake of working for very little when they start because they don’t know any better. It’s additionally important to know that there are many different formats for getting paid:

  • By the project
  • By the hour
  • By the word (i.e. 10 cents per word)
  • By the page

After putting together the monthly wage you need and equating that with how much to charge, research how you can position your writing services with different clients to make that goal come to fruition.

Start Finding Work

The most important part of launching your career is finding freelancing writing gigs. If you’ve committed to the idea of writing, identified the niche you want to work in, and prepared your portfolio and pricing, you’re ready to find work. There are a variety of platforms and avenues for you to get your first (or next) client. Here are the ones I use:

  • LinkedIn. Aside from the regular job postings, you can now also make your LinkedIn profile include a “providing services” feature. This will make you searchable for potential clients looking for writers with your expertise.
  • Freelance Writing Websites. You’re likely familiar with websites like Upwork and Fiverr. While many of the gigs on these platforms don’t pay spectacularly, they are both legitimate websites for obtaining work. Use them with caution, though, because these sites do charge significant fees and commissions on the work you invoice.
  • Referrals. Some of the best clients I’ve gotten have come from… other clients. Once people are happy with the work you do for them, they’ll be your best advocates.

Let Your Network into the Loop

When companies and publications look for freelancers, they often ask the people they already know for recommendations. Getting a quick, reliable referral bodes better for all parties than posting on an online job portal.

Don’t be afraid to tell your friends, old colleagues, or old classmates that you’ve made your move into freelance writing. Begin posting on LinkedIn and join a Facebook freelance writing group. It’s 2021, and if you’re looking to become a freelance writer online, a clear and thought-out online presence will help you attract clients. 

Reminder: Don’t forget to have those writing samples ready before you publish these posts!

Gather References and Referrals 

As you begin to amass a history of work, be sure to collect feedback from your clients and ask for referrals. If you’ve provided your client with a positive experience, it’s likely they’ll want to recommend your work to others in their network. Having their positive feedback featured on your website will help convince future clients of the quality of your work and the experience they can have with you.

I personally never make a buying decision without first looking at the reviews. If a business had no reviews, I wouldn’t be sure if it was a good investment; I may even question their authenticity. If the feedback you get is negative, you’ve been given a valuable opportunity to improve your work. Take the message as constructive criticism and work on improving your craft. 

Embrace Feedback

As you enter the freelance writing world, it’s important to understand that with it comes feedback, criticism, and rejection. You might pitch to 25 different publications before one decides to take you on. And then that one might have you make some heavy edits to your first draft.

Maybe you pitch an idea and the editor tells you it’s too broad. Maybe you submit your draft and the editor cuts a chunk out because they didn’t think it would resonate with the audience. But don’t take this type of feedback personally—it’s advice! And the more advice you get, the more you’ll develop and improve as a freelance writer, and the bigger clients and better projects you’ll receive.

Making Your Way in Freelance Writing for Beginners

Freelance writing can be an extraordinarily rewarding career. You get paid to do what you love, and you have no boss to listen to, office to go to, or schedule to oblige.

However, just like with starting anything new, it can be intimidating. You’re a writer, but you’re also a business owner and project manager. There’s ambiguity. And navigating these things is a learning process. But that’s what this comprehensive guide is for. Following these tips and tricks is a surefire way to set off on the pathway to success.

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