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There are lots of jobs that help you become a digital nomad, but one that’s nearest and dearest to my heart is freelance writing. For years, I wanted to write online, but I had no idea how to become a freelance writer.
Fortunately, I found a contract writing gig on Craigslist that ultimately helped me make writing my full-time career. Over the past few years, I’ve learned a ton about freelance writing from my own experiences and from freelance writers I’ve met along the way.
If you’d love to get paid for your writing and have an audience read your work, here’s how to become a freelance writer — and how to turn freelance writing into your full-time job.
What is freelance writing, anyway?
Fun fact: The word freelance dates back to medieval times. Although some knights were loyal to a single king, others would fight for whoever paid them, making them “free lanced.” Nowadays, “content is king” and the “the pen is mightier than the sword,” so … there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Before diving into how to become a freelance writer, let’s take a moment to define what freelance writing is.
Like wandering medieval knights, freelance writers typically don’t work for a single company. Instead, they often write for a variety of publications at the same time.
As a freelance writer, you’re self-employed, so it’s up to you to find clients, track payments, and pay your own taxes. Not only will you have to be self-reliant, but you’ll also have to stay organized, so you can successfully juggle multiple projects and deadlines at once.
But while all this responsibility can be challenging, it also comes with a lot of freedom. You get to be your own boss, and you can set your schedule and work from anywhere.
Note that freelance writers might work on a variety of different content types, including,
- Blog posts
- Search engine optimized (SEO) articles
- E-books or newsletters
- Features or other journalistic pieces
- Ghostwritten materials
While you might write all different types of content, it’s typically a good idea to stick to a few specific niches, as you’ll learn more about below. And as you build your portfolio and gain experience, you can eventually charge more for your work.
Eventually, you could turn freelance writing into your full-time job.
Pros and cons of working as a freelance writer
Of course, working as a freelancer has its advantages and disadvantages, so it’s useful to be aware of them before you embark on this path.
First, some pros of freelancing:
- Work when you want, where you want
- Be your own boss
- Don’t get stuck in a non-compete agreement that stops you from writing for certain companies or publications
- Have no limit on your income, apart from your own time and energy
- Get to be a (paid!) writer, while also sort of feeling like a badass wandering knight from the Middle Ages
On the other hand, some potential cons include,
- Your income will likely change from month to month
- You’ll have to hustle to make enough for food, rent, Netflix, etc.
- Being self-employed means dealing with your own taxes
- You’ll have to procure your own benefits, such as health insurance and an individual retirement plan (IRA)
- It might take some time before you can fully support yourself on your freelance writing income.
According to a Porch.com survey, freelancers’ annual income can vary from less than $15,000 to over $100,000, but more freelancers say they have job satisfaction than office employees (73% vs. 66%).
Ready to get started learning how to become a freelance writer? Here are 14 essential steps to freelance writing success.
How to become a freelance writer: Laying the groundwork
You love writing, and you’re eager to get paid for your brilliant ideas. But before you start applying to jobs, it’s useful to lay some groundwork. These steps will put you in a better position for success once you start pursuing clients.
1. Hone your storytelling skills
Although you don’t need a specific degree or training to become a freelance writer, you do need to be able to communicate clearly through the written word. Online writing is often different from the kind of writing you did in school. It tends to be more conversational, engaging, and clear to the point of simplicity.
Some online newspapers, for instance, ask journalists to write at a level a sixth grader could understand!
Even if you know lots of big words from majoring in English in college or crushing the verbal section of the SAT, your expansive vocabulary might not come in handy when it comes to writing successful blog posts.
One way to improve is simply through reading lots and lots of articles online. Take note of how writers structure their sentences and paragraphs. Look at how a writer sequences their ideas throughout an article, as well as how they use headers to organize and highlight ideas.
Additionally, check out how the writer hooks the reader in the beginning, whether by sharing a fun fact (“free lanced” knights, anyone?) or reminding you of a struggle in your life — and promising a solution.
And don’t forget to analyze how a piece looks, too. You typically won’t see big chunks of text online, for instance, because they’re not very digestible for the reader.
Instead, bloggers leave plenty of white space, sometimes even highlighting or bolding important ideas so they jump out at you. They know our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter by the day (hey look, a squirrel!), and most people don’t read each and every word.
Breaking up your ideas into skimmable sections or lists is one way to communicate information while keeping readers interested. To wrap up this section before I break my own rule by rambling, here are some free courses to brush up on your writing and content marketing skills.
Free courses to hone your online writing skills
- The Strategy of Content Marketing from Coursera
- Content Marketing Certification from Hubspot
- Writing For The Web from Open2Study
- How to Make Money as a Freelance Writer from Mama Hustle Repeat
- Get Paid to Write Online course from Elna Cain
- How To Write Better Headlines – For Content, Email & Social from Udemy (update: this course is now $11.99, but I recommend it if you want to get better at writing headlines!)
2. Determine your areas of expertise
Before getting started as a freelance writer, take time to identify one or more niches to focus in. These could be areas where you have experience, expertise, or simply personal interest.
As a freelancer, you’ll need to be able to research, learn information quickly, and write with authority on a variety of topics.
But you’ll have a better chance of being successful if you stick to a few specific areas. Plus, you can develop expertise as you go, as well as build an impressive portfolio to show prospective employers.
Of course, that’s not to say you can’t try something new, especially if you’re interested in the subject. Personal interest is important; if you’re bored by a topic, your freelance writing job will become a drag, and your lack of excitement might show in your writing.
But you should take time to learn about the subject matter and write samples so potential clients know you’re not a total newbie. So, what are some areas where publications and companies are looking for content?
Well, you can find articles on anything and everything on the internet, but these topics tend to have lots of opportunity for freelancers:
- Personal finance
- Health and fitness
- Nutrition and food
- Product reviews
- Parenting advice
- Real estate
- Technical writing
- Digital marketing
Of course, industries are always changing, and a niche that’s profitable one year might not be so popular the next. As part of your research, try to stay up-to-date on what opportunities are out there, so you can adapt your skills accordingly.
3. Create a website advertising your services
When you’re thinking about how to become a freelance writer, you might be focusing on how to sharpen your writing skills. But you can’t forget the business side of things, since freelancers are self-employed and must market themselves to get work.
Creating a website for yourself can be a big boon to your freelance writing career. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t have to blog regularly or anything (although that could help raise your profile).
Instead, focus on creating a website, perhaps with your first and last name as the URL. Write up a bio, as well as a description of your services.
Once you’ve gotten some work published, you can include samples and links on your portfolio page. After snagging some clients, you could also ask for testimonials and post them on your site.
Even if you’re not tech-inclined, it’s easy to set up a simple website for yourself, and there are lots of great articles online that walk you through the process of setting up website hosting or using WordPress.
By the way, if you feel awkward creating a website for yourself, remember that its purpose is to market your services as a freelance writing professional. As a self-employed individual, you have to market yourself as a company would. So while you might feel funny building a website for yourself, remember that you’re creating a website for your company — at which you happen to be the sole employee.
4. Market yourself on Twitter, LinkedIn, or other social media
Besides setting up your own website, you also need to publicize your services on social media. Twitter and LinkedIn tend to be the most useful for scoring jobs, but you might make the most of Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, too, if they’re relevant to your goals.
Again, you might feel funny proclaiming your freelance writing goals to the world before you’ve really started your work. Believe me, I know what a powerful (and self-defeating) force “impostor syndrome” can be.
But once you get over your fear, you’ll realize freelance writing isn’t such an audacious goal. Anyone can do it — including you!
So don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, as you never know what opportunities will come to you once you share your goals with the world.
5. Network, network, network
Building a network within the freelance writing community is huge to being successful. Meeting other freelancers can help you in a ton of ways, including,
- Having a support network of encouraging friends to cheer you on
- Gaining models of people who have succeeded as freelancers to inspire you
- Learning about new opportunities for work
- Having friends to get drinks with at industry conferences
- Meeting like-minded people who love to chat about storytelling or website design, because let’s face it, your mom doesn’t really know what you’re going on about and is just being polite.
Along with connecting with other writers, you can also meet potential clients who will hire you. LinkedIn, Twitter, and industry conferences are all great ways to connect with people and grow your network.
Women and gender non-conforming writers can also join “Binders Full of Writing Jobs” on Facebook to connect with one another and find jobs for writers and editors. The #binders groups had somewhat secretive beginnings, so I hope I’m not breaking any rules by mentioning it here (is the first rule of binders groups not to talk about binders groups?!).
6. Write some sample articles
Getting started as a freelancer can feel like a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Clients want to see samples before hiring you, but you might not have samples before you’ve ever gotten hired.
Although it might feel tedious, it can be a good idea to write some samples before you start job-searching. That way, you’ll have something on hand to show clients if they request samples of your writing.
If you need the motivation of an external deadline, try pitching an idea or two to a non-paying website. Since they’re not paying you for your work (some say they pay in exposure, psh), they might be more likely to accept cold pitches from non-experienced writers.
And although you won’t get paid, you might get the motivation you need to produce your samples. This initial investment of time and energy will be worth it if it leads to future paying jobs.
Stage 2: Pitch your ideas and start writing content
Once you’ve brushed up your writing skills, figured out your niche, and built your online presence, it’s time to get into the nuts and bolts of freelance writing.
7. Make a list of publications to pitch to
One way to get hired as a freelancer is to pitch your idea directly to a publication. Not all publications accept unsolicited ideas from freelancers, but some do.
One website I love for finding publications in your niche is WheretoPitch.com. You just type in a topic, such as money or health, and it pulls up a list of blogs and publications that accept pitches.
If you have ideas for articles that you haven’t already published elsewhere, pitching them to outlets can be a great way to start making money as a freelance writer.
8. Learn to write the perfect pitch that will get you hired
If you want your pitch to get accepted, you must learn to write one that won’t be ignored. Your pitch should be clear and concise, as well as match the tone of the publication you’re pitching to.
After all, you wouldn’t write in the same style for The Onion as you would for U.S. News.
Provide a possible headline for your piece, as well as a short description of what you’ll be writing about and why it’s important.
It’s also good to show you’ve done your homework on the publication. You can state why you’re pitching to them specifically and why you think their readership will enjoy your article.
Finally, thank the editor for their time, and make sure to follow up in a week or so if you’ve don’t hear back.
9. Look for writing jobs online
The other way to get hired as a freelance writer is to look for jobs online (or ask your network about opportunities; an introduction email can be so much more effective than applying anonymously).
You might first come across sites like Textbroker or iWriter, which, while legitimate, will pay you pennies for your work. Unless you’re desperate, you should probably avoid content mills in favor of higher-paying work.
Sites like Freelancer, Fiverr, and Upwork are the next step up. Employers hire for one-off and recurring projects on these sites. That said, they don’t always pay well, and it can be tough to get hired with all the competition.
Finally, you can look on job boards and groups such as,
- Morning Coffee Newsletter
- Binders Full of Writing Jobs (for women and gender non-conforming writers and editors)
You could even try Craigslist, but make sure the posting looks legit, as Craigslist postings aren’t typically vetted as thoroughly as those on other job boards.
By the way, you might also look for full-time writing jobs on a job board that features remote jobs. Of course, these full-time positions are salaried and often come with benefits, so you wouldn’t be freelancing.
But if you’re concerned about providing your own benefits and paying your own taxes but still want to work from home as a writer, you could look for a full-time job writing for a company’s blog or working as a content marketer or copywriter.
10. Design an organization system to track your assignments
Before you know it, you could be juggling several clients, projects, and deadlines as a freelance writer. All this work can get confusing fast, so come up with a system of organization that works for you.
This will help you keep track of everything and avoid getting overwhelmed during a busy month. And if you’re running low on projects, you’ll be able to see at a glance that you need to hustle and try to pick up more clients.
Choose whatever works for you, but setting up some sort of calendar and planner system will help you prioritize your tasks and stay on deadline.
Stage 3: Taxes, forming an LLC, and other nitty-gritty details of being self-employed
So by now, you’ve probably realized that writing is just one part of working as a freelance writer. Because you’re self-employed, you’ll be responsible for all the details of your one-person business.
Before getting overwhelmed, though, remember that everything gets easier with practice. Although it might take a bit of a learning curve to file your taxes as a freelancer, for instance, eventually you’ll have a handle on it all.
Here are some tips for taking care of the financial matters that come with freelancing.
11. Create a budget to keep tabs on your cash flow
Since you’re not a salaried employee, you might have an irregular income from month to month. Creating a budget is important for tracking your income and expenses, especially if you’re freelancing full-time.
Mint is a useful app for tracking your expenses, or you could simply write everything down on a spreadsheet. Whatever approach you take, it will help you stay on track and avoid overspending.
Plus, it will come in handy when it comes time to file your taxes.
12. Pay taxes as a freelancer or independent contractor
Working as a freelancer comes with some great advantages, but unfortunately filing taxes is not one of them.
As a freelancer, you’ll probably have to pay estimated quarterly taxes four times per year. You might also be responsible for self-employment tax, which includes taxes for Social Security and Medicare.
If you’ve set up any long-term contracts, you might pay taxes as an independent contractor and will need 1099 forms from your clients. Either way, you will at least likely be able to deduct your work expenses, so make sure to save receipts.
If all this gets too complicated, you might be better off working with a tax preparer or accountant than doing it on your own. And remember to save a portion of your income for taxes every time you get paid, so you don’t end up with a tax bill at the end of the quarter or year that you can’t afford.
13. Consider forming an LLC
You don’t have to set up a “limited liability company” (LLC) to be a freelance writer, but it could be a smart move. When you form an LLC, you become a member of your business, rather than the owner of it.
As a member, you won’t be personally held responsible for debts or legal liabilities that your business incurs. For example, if worse comes to worst and you end up bankrupt, you won’t lose your personal property.
In some cases, you can choose to have your LLC taxed as a corporation, which could save you money. But you still have to treat your LLC as a separate entity when doing your taxes, so you might want to consult an accountant or financial advisor to make sure you file everything correctly.
14. Get your own benefits, like health insurance and an IRA
As a freelancer, you’ll probably have to take care of your own benefits, such as health insurance.
Use an online health insurance marketplace to compare costs, or work with an independent health insurance broker to get you on a plan.
Apart from navigating your way through the maze of health insurance, you might also set up your own IRA. 401(k)s are employer-sponsored, but you can set up a tax-advantaged traditional or Roth IRA on your own.
By taking these steps, you’ll be protected with benefits and still have the freedom of being your own boss.
Keep honing your writing and storytelling skills
As you can see, succeeding as a freelance writer involves lots of prep and planning. But when figuring out how to become a freelance writer, don’t forget about the bread and butter of the work: writing.
Ultimately, your skill as a writer will carry you far, and you want to continuously improve. Practice your writing everyday, and learn all you can about the craft of storytelling. Read all you can, too, as reading will help you pick up what works and what doesn’t in whatever niche you choose.
Working as a freelance writer gives you the freedom to choose your jobs, set your schedule, and work from wherever you want. If you’ve dreamed of writing from all corners of the globe, check out these incredible cities for freelance writers and other digital nomads.