How to Become a Freelance Writer: My Journey from Novice to Expert

freelance writer

Entering the realm of freelance writing with no prior experience was initially a daunting endeavor for me and I assume is the same for you as well, since you’re here trying to get the grasp of how to become a freelance writer.

Yet, the allure of crafting narratives from cozy home corners or quaint cafes is quite irresistible. This journey has not only allowed me to explore the depths of my creativity but also to contribute to the ever-evolving digital content landscape and make a career out of it.

In this guide, I share the essential steps that helped me transition from a novice to an established freelance writer. From refining writing skills to building robust freelance writing portfolios and securing the first client, each phase was a learning curve.

Now, I invite you to embark on this rewarding journey, leveraging the actionable insights and strategies encapsulated in this guide, to launch your freelance writing career from a point of informed confidence.

What Does A Freelance Writer Do?

A freelance writer is a self-employed professional who provides written content to clients on a project-by-project basis. Their primary responsibilities include researching, writing, editing, and delivering various types of content tailored to the client’s needs.

They are the true digital nomads, traveling not the world but the internet, offering their services as wordsmiths to people in need of better content. Remember: content is king! 

Can I Start Freelancing My Writing If I Have No Prior Experience?

Let me tell you a secret: most freelance writers start with no experience.

Sure, some people go through journalism school, and if the school is good, they’ll hit the ground running with an advantage on how to organize their thoughts in writing; they’ll have better form, and they’ll write faster than someone starting from scratch. But being a freelance writer demands other non-writing-related requirements. You need to:

  • Be able to market yourself and master the art of pitching
  • Have a rough grasp of how to manage your finances
  • Know how to deal with good clients and bad clients

Essentially, being a freelance writer means managing your own micro-business. Eventually, you’ll get to a place where you’re writing 80% of the time and running the business 20% of the time, but early on, the ratio will be more like 50/50.

Find some more freelance opportunities that can help you learn how to get a job, here.

10 Steps to Launch Your Freelance Writing Career with Zero Experience

  1. Plan Your Budget And Financial Goals
  2. Set Writing Goals
  3. Get Paid Work
  4. Build Your Wordsmith Toolkit
  5. Learn The Art Of Pitching + Freelance Pitch Email Template
  6. Tools and Resources for Freelance Writers
  7. Brush Up On The Basics
  8. Figure Out Your Niche And Start Building A Portfolio And An Online Presence
  9. Dealing With Clients As A Freelance Writer
  10. Pricing Yourself As A Freelance Writer

1. Plan Your Budget And Financial Goals

What? I’m reading this to become a writer, not an accountant! Fair enough, but listen: writers eat, too. You’re not going to get a lot of writing done if you don’t pay the electricity bill.

You need to start with the logistics and have some goals. Freelance writing does not deliver predictable income, so you either need someone to support you at the beginning or you need to find a job that reliably pays the bills until you can afford to go full-time freelance. For me, it took about 2 years to be able to do it, but your mileage WILL vary depending on the kind of life you want to live and how successful you are at finding good clients reliably.

Open up a spreadsheet (Google Sheets is free). Start listing all your recurring expenses — food, bills, the works. But “item name” in column A, then “item cost” in column B. If you are not certain, ballpark. An imperfect plan can be adjusted. 

After you are done with your recurring costs, you may put in a monthly allowance to save for a dream (let’s say, if you want to spend 3 months per year working while traveling, work out how much that would cost, then divide by 12).

If your goal is to go full-time freelance, though, I would encourage sticking with what is needed to maintain your current lifestyle (or a bit less if you are ok with cutting). After you reach your first set of financial goals, you can always revise and set new targets.

Now, add up all the costs. You’ll need to define your freelance writing rates. But an important guideline is that you should price yourself based on how much you want to earn, not how much you feel you can get away with. The market is large, and there are buyers at all price points; don’t condemn yourself to a life of perpetually living in fear of not making rent just because you feel you need to undercut the competition.

If you did all the above — and only if you did it — and are feeling a bit confused or overwhelmed, try setting a simpler goal that will make sense for you.

When I started, I decided that I would make a real effort to make $1000/month by writing in my free time. $1000 felt achievable, and it would make a real impact on my finances at the time. So, I worked toward that goal every month, and when I reached it, I treated it as proof that I could indeed start phasing out my day job for writing, and set new goals to achieve that.

Tip: Whatever you do, don’t set out without a goal. You’ll never be successful if you don’t know what “success” looks like.

2. Set Writing Goals

Before you take on any freelance writing opportunities, set up your day and workflow so that you’ll be able to honor them. You have three key tools in this pursuit: your writing schedule, word goals, and deadlines.

The writing schedule is the period of the day you devote to writing. Let’s assume that, at the beginning at least, you’ll need to slum it with the other mortals and work 8 hours/day. (Adjust accordingly if you are holding a second job until writing pays the bills, of course.)

At the beginning of your writing career, 8 hours should net you a high-quality, 1000-word article, from initial research to final proofing. However, you’ll also be devoting 1-2 days to researching gigs and pitching. Things can become hectic and overwhelming if you don’t set a schedule, so do it.

Reserve your power hours for writing. Those are the hours that you are the most productive and creative. For most people, that’s in the morning, either before or right after a light breakfast and workout. Schedule two uninterrupted time blocks of at least 2 hours to get your writing done (you’ll probably need a 10-15 minute break in-between). Use the remaining half of your day for research, revising and proofing. Get in the habit of measuring your “words per hour.” And when you have a gig, set a deadline for yourself, leaving, if at all possible, room for a night of rest between writing and revision.

Tip: You won’t get your writing schedule perfectly right away, mainly because you’ll need to take some days off to look for gigs and pitch. But it’s worth aiming for it from the beginning.

3. Get Paid Work

If you don’t get paid, you’re not a freelance writer, you’re just a writer. So, the next step in the process is finding paid gigs. 

What should you write about? As a rule of thumb, you should try to gravitate toward niches you enjoy and have some knowledge about. In my case, I had an extensive education in dentistry, and a passion for video games. There wasn’t a gigantic market for dentistry-related writing, so I started mostly pitching for video game websites. 

But I also tried to go outside my comfort zone and pitched for other areas when I felt the pay would be worth the extra research. From digital copywriting to UX writing, the options are endless.

Tip: When you’re starting out, it’s tempting to stick to what you know. But that’s a mistake; it’s the time of your career when you can’t afford to be picky because you have little in the way of experience or reputation.

4. Learn The Art Of Pitching + Freelance Pitch Email Template

Freelance content creation is all about knowing how to sell yourself.

A friend once forwarded me a scammy-looking email from an Indian internet business-guru. That email changed my life.

The guy was Ramit Sethi, and the email introduced me to his briefcase technique. It’s a simple but powerful concept that essentially tells you that if you head to a meeting and open a briefcase containing everything the prospect wished for and then some, you win.

In freelancer terms, that means that instead of applying for a job generically, you showcase to your prospective client that you’ve already thought about what they want and have a plan for delivering a high-quality article. My easy model for this is to lead with a proposed title (if the client didn’t already established a title for the piece) and a table of contents.

Here’s a simple pitch template for you to rip-off:

Hi, Bob.

I want to apply as a writer to your puppy website. In Nora Robert’s famous words: “Everything I know, I learned from dogs!” Except writing. Dogs aren’t great at that. Which is why you need me!

Here’s a sample article that I can have ready for you — fully edited, proofread, the works, and delivered directly to your WordPress (or CRM of choice) — within 24 hours. Don’t love the title? No problem, I can work with whatever you throw at me.

Title: The Awesome Thing About Puppies Is That Puppies Are Awesome!

Heading 1: How Awesome Are Puppies? Very Awesome!

  • Puppies help you release stress-reducing hormones.
  • Puppies are perfect companions for your child
  • Puppies help you exercise more often

Heading 2: The Science Of Puppies 

  • Outlining study about hormones
  • Outlining studies where puppies help depression
  • Review of studies correlating dog-walking with health.

Heading 3: Everything You Need To Know To Adopt A Puppy Today

  • brief discussion of adoption vs shopping for a puppy
  • suggestions of toys and accessories to get
  • list of resources on where to adopt

What do you think, Bob? You can check my writing samples at this helpful link. Looking forward to writing for you! Best,

This was just a sample I whipped up in 10 minutes; it’s far from perfect. I encourage you to be more specific; the main issue with the article I outlined was that it is a bit too generic. If this was a serious pitch, I’d consider taking one of the headings and making it into a title/article, and using the sub-headings to drill down into specific territory. But my example should give you the gist of it.

5. Build Your Wordsmith Toolkit

Any writer is only as good as their wordsmith toolkit. What is a wordsmith toolkit? It’s your combined knowledge of grammar, structure, vocabulary, styles, and anecdotes.

How do you develop such a toolkit?

You read. You read a LOT.

At least for a few years, most of your free time should be spent reading. That means books over Netflix. That means articles during bathroom breaks. That means visual novels and other text-based video games over Fortnite or DotA.

I have met good writers who took a lot of different writing approaches. Some worked at night. Some worked at dawn. The only commonality between every single good writer I know… It is that, to a person, they were voracious readers.

So read everything. Read about the niches you write or would like to write for. Read about how to be a better writer, or even just a writer. “On Writing” by Stephen King, “The Getaway Car” by Ann Patchett and “Bird By Bird” by Ann Lamott are wonderful places to start, each with wildly varying perspectives.

Read fiction and non-fiction and periodicals. Read everything.

How to Read Like A Writer

As you read, always do so with a pen or pencil. If you read on your phone or tablet, use an app that allows you to highlight and take notes. I use Instapaper because it’s cheap. Whatever tool you use, make sure it’s easy to export/email your notes to yourself.

I like highlights with minimal shorthand notes that I can later expand upon after I’m done reading the piece or book. I have an easily distractible, one-track mind, so it’s not good for me to ponder a passage too much while going through my first reading. Here is the shorthand I use on my highlights:

  • Swipe — “I wish I had written this, but I didn’t, so I might as well do the next best thing and steal it.”
  • BQ — “Beautiful Quote. I will sound smart or witty if I quote this author in some future piece on a related topic.”
  • BS — “Beautiful Story. I’ll keep this close, so I can learn how to write better anecdotes.” (Yes, I know, BS can mean something else. That’s part of the fun.)
  • X — “X marks the spot. This is the gist of the argument, the most (or one of the most) important pieces.” (When I re-read a book or article, I often only read my “X” highlights.)
  • Conf. (Author Name) — “This idea is echoed by, or confirms a point by, another author I’ve read in the past.”

In paper books, I’ll make these annotations on the top outer corner of the page, so I can quickly flip through and know where I have annotated.

6. Tools and Resources for Freelance Writers

I personally, think that one of the best ways to get out of a writing slump is to get enthusiastic about a new, fancy writing tool.

They can range from free to very expensive, and I would point out that I had NONE of the things I recommend when I started. Writing can provide a comfortable paycheck, but better be frugal than be sorry, and no number of tools will magically make bad writing turn good. Stick to free/cheap and upgrade as you earn more.

The Best Writing Apps For Freelance Writers

It’s hard to go wrong with either of the most popular word processors out there. Picking between Microsoft Word and Google Docs will largely be a matter of taste — though if you do work with Word, make sure you turn online syncing on so your docs are accessible anywhere and backed up in the cloud. If you have a Mac, give Pages a shot — it’s very pleasant to use and syncs with iCloud by default. The export options in Pages are also fantastic.

If you want to go beyond that and have an app that’s not merely a word processor — I.E., something for anyone to write on — but a tool designed for writers, you have a couple of great options, depending on your OS of choice. (I have only worked on Windows and Mac, so sorry, Linux users. Can’t help you.)

Scrivener (Windows & Mac) — While a bit old-fashioned and certainly clunky, Scrivener is a dream for helping writers organize their ideas. It’s built around “Writing Projects” where you can organize everything, from timelines to research docs to your actual writing.

Hemingway (Windows & Mac) — Hemingway is the opposite of Scrivener: a minimalist writing app that covers no organizational tools at all and focuses on offering tips to make your writing more streamlined and easy to read.

Ulysses (Mac) — Ulysses is what Scrivener would be if Scrivener cared about being cool and sleek. It aims to be your writing work board, a place where you gather all your writings, from novels-in-progress to guest posts for client blogs. But it also aims to offer a friction-free, minimalistic writing environment.

The Best Proofreading Apps For Freelance Writers

Grammarly has the edge in terms of functionality, but the free version is very limited, and the paid version’s cheapest price point is still a bit hard to swallow — at the time of writing, it’s $144 for a year, paid upfront.

ProWritingAid costs less than half of that per month, and for $300, you can get a lifetime subscription, which should pay for itself in a couple of years.

I’ve gone back and forth with the two, and none integrates perfectly with every writing app, so my advice is: to figure out your writing app of choice first, and then get the one that supports it best.

The Best Writing Environment For Freelance Writers

Writing environments are a very subjective topic. For starters, I’d say it’s ideal to have an office — even if it’s a broom closet under the stairs — with a door you can shut. But I know not everyone can afford this, and if Stephen King managed to write Carrie with screaming kids hanging from his legs, you can write for your clients from whatever environment you manage to get. 

King DID have headphones on with maximum metal blasting directly into his ears, and I do recommend something similar to keep distractions away. Fortunately for your eardrums, it’s 2021, and you can get noise-cancelling headphones, so you don’t need to jack up the volume quite that much.

Add to that a nice chair — or standing desk, if that’s your thing. I’ve tried, but can’t focus while standing. Put a timer on (a kitchen egg timer will do) and make sure to stretch and hydrate every 25-30 minutes.

Perhaps the most impactful part of your writing environment is your computer. As much as I am loath to recommend something that’s costly for most people, I have to admit that once I switched from a Windows PC to a Mac, my writing started flowing much better.

The OS feels like it was built with writers in mind. Things like being able to look up a word or capitalize a sentence from a right-click menu seem quite minor, but it all adds up to streamline your workflow. Someone once told me that the best tool is the tool that fades into the background and lets you do your work, and that’s how I feel about my MacBook.

 7. Brush Up On The Basics

No matter how good a writer you are, you will get sloppy. Especially when deadlines get tight, and word counts feel impossible to achieve (I could swear I just wrote 100 words! Why has the word count only increased by 10?! It must be broken!), you’ll rely on crutches like peppering adverbs everywhere. You’ll be less sanguine about avoiding passive voice. You’ll start using fancy words, jargon, and complex terms to puff out simple statements. As a result, the reading comprehension level of your article will plummet. As my old Spanish teacher used to say: “No bueno.

Articles that are a chore to read might get you paid… Once. But you want to avoid adding them to your portfolio, and if you don’t have a portfolio full of samples that are a delight to read, you won’t get more customers. 

When in doubt, keep it simple. The best advice on writing I ever read was by Dilbert creator Scott Adams in a post he made that was titled, aptly enough, “The Day You Became A Better Writer.” I hope you’ll take the time to read it, but in essence: keep things simple and readable. 

Make it a habit to read your stuff out loud — I know many good writers who are embarrassed to do it (Why? Afraid their cat or potted plant will judge them?!), and that’s why they never get better.

Finally, try to be charming. You can try humor as a shortcut. It’s not going to work on every occasion, but making people smile as they read your article will usually keep them reading.

Oh, I lied. That’s not the final thing. The final thing is: be generous. Don’t write for word counts. I know too many freelance writers who deliver a mediocre 750-word blog post that could have been a good 1000-word post if they only had taken the time to expand upon one or two topics. I’m a fan of you valuing your work (we’ll discuss pricing later) but no-one wants to work with someone who acts like a shoddy amusement park ride and stops working as soon as you run out of quarters.

8. Figure Out Your Niche And Start Building A Portfolio And An Online Presence

All online writing careers start with a domain name. Don’t try to be smart about it. FirstnameLastname.com is the best; if you are cursed with a Jane Doe name, go with JaneDoeWrites.com or JaneDoeWriting or JaneDoeCopywriting. Like many things in personal brand building, simple is better.

Should You Have A Pen Name As A Freelance Writer?

Should you consider a pen name? If you have to ask, you probably don’t. Pen names are to be used sparingly, in the case your writing profession can hurt you if it gets out (let’s say, you are a woman in some countries where women are not allowed to hold certain jobs), or if you find yourself writing for wildly different and incompatible niches (personal development for practicing christians VS. erotic Japanese video-game reviews).

Tip: If you do get a pen name, don’t overdo it. Signing off as Schtolteheim Reinbach III will get old soon, trust me.

9. How To Deal With Clients As A Freelance Writer

This is where I show that I practice where I preach, and I grab one of the things I have on file as a “BQ.” Neil Gaiman said the following in one of my favorite commencement speeches:

(…) people keep working in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. People will forgive the lateness of your work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

Independent writing careers at the start are never incredible. So make it a point to always be a pleasure to hear from and always be on time. As Neil says, two out of three is fine. Three out of three will land you the big bucks, but that’s a goal to work toward, not something that you need (or can) have right away.

Hash out some terms for your client — number of revisions, expected delivery date, method of payment, when you expect to get paid, etc. — but don’t sound like a lawyer. Remember, dealing with you should be a pleasure! Don’t make me feel like I am doing my taxes. Assume that people aren’t going to scam you, and try to make their life easy.

In over 10 years of freelance writing, I was scammed by one client, to the tune of 500 bucks in unpaid work. Sure, it sucked. But it would have sucked more if I dealt with my other clients as if they were all trying to scam me. Don’t act naively, but DO assume positive intentions. Tell people outright: “Look, these are my guidelines, but my ultimate goal is to write an article that I’ll be proud to stand behind. That’s what I’m aiming for, that’s what I want to work with you on.”

In that spirit, be relentless in updating the client on your status, and asking for feedback. Tell your client how you plan to work; let them know how it’s going at each milestone — research, 1st draft, 2nd draft, revision, etc. Ask for their feedback early and often. There’s nothing more alarming for a client than you making a deal and then going dark until the day before deadline — even if you have crafted the perfect article, the client doesn’t know it, so they’ll be anxious. Anxiety isn’t great for repeat customers.

Finally, and in keeping with the point about your reputation: prefer to work on pieces that can go in your portfolio. There’s nothing wrong with ghostwriting — I’ve done my fair share of it — but don’t do it for cheap because it won’t help you advance in your career.

10. Pricing Yourself As A Freelance Writer

The right answer here is that you need to go all the way back to #1 and price yourself according to your expectations. Realistically, if you’re just beginning, you might not be able to command a great price-point. 

My first gigs writing about video games paid a measly 2 cents per word. Yes, I’d make $20 for writing a thousand words! That meant that, to reach my “$1000 on my free time” goal, I’d need to write 50,000 words! That’s a small novel. So, why did I do it?

Because I could use the practice, and I needed to build my portfolio. I wasn’t working for cheap — I was getting paid to practice, and plus I was doing it in a niche I genuinely enjoyed. I never planned to stay that way. Neither should you. Try to get the best-paying work you can get, but accept that at the beginning of your career, it’s better to have low-paying work than no work.

A rule: NEVER WORK FOR FREE. Remote writing jobs that are free are not jobs, they are volunteer work. Don’t work for “exposure.” Exposure means free. Don’t work only to build your portfolio. Your effort, research, and product are worth something, even if you are a beginner.

If you write 100 articles at $20 bucks each, you’ll have $2000 bucks to spend on yourself or a loved one or give to a charity or whatever. If you write 100 articles for “exposure,” you’ll get nothing. That kind of exposure is usually not worth it — you might as well pitch publications that really matter and offer to write a free guest post for them.

Seriously: don’t work for free. Ok, I’ll give you a couple of escape clauses. You may work for free if:

  • You do it for yourself. That’s the case of the aforementioned guest post, or your blog. You are creating content for self-promotion, and you own it.
  • You do it for a friend. Maybe your friend is in a tight spot. Or maybe they want to launch something but are having a hard time bootstrapping. Fine. Lend a hand.
  • Do it for charity. I wrote several pieces for Felipe Pepe’s “The Computer Role-Playing Games Book”; if I charged my current rates, that would have been something like $2000. But I did it for free because Felipe and his publisher were giving away all the profits to charity. At the time of writing, the book has generated just shy of $30000 for people in need. That’s something that I’m proud to be part of, and I’m perfectly happy to work for free for that. 

Tip: A final word of advice: don’t work for middlemen. There are plenty of websites with virtual writing jobs that say that you can sign up with them and be assigned writing tasks. That’s true, but they are designed to drive your rates down, not up. They make their money on quantity, so they don’t care if you are getting paid 2 cents on the word. In fact, they’ll make more money if that’s the case, so they’ll work hard to keep you there. Pitching yourself is hard and emotionally draining and will keep you away from your writing more than you’d like, but it’s the only way to get paid what you’re worth.

How Do I Know If Being a Writer Is For Me?

Do you get a thrill from writing?

I’m talking about a genuine thrill, not a mere liking. You sit down, and although you may struggle with the blank page at times when the words start flowing, you know that you are living your life purpose. Soon, you wonder why you spend all those hours watching Netflix or browsing Twitter when you could spend that time writing. Writing is like chicken soup for your soul, but it is also something more: you must enjoy being challenged, writing about different topics; the greatest game for you is to get an unexpected writing prompt. 

Secondly: do you value freedom over comfort or security? You must be the kind of person who believes in Nassim Taleb’s maxim:

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”

Sure, you may like luxury and comfort. I’m not suggesting you live like a Tibetan monk. But when push comes to shove, you will choose insecurity over having to check in every day at the same time as a modern-day slave.

In fact, while I’ve yet to meet a rich freelance writer, I know of many who are living comfortable lives. Once you build the right portfolio and reach a certain level with your writing craft, you’ll be able to charge a premium for your services. What you won’t have is predictable income, so you need to adjust your budget and pricing accordingly.

Where To Look For Freelance Writer Gigs? Here Are A Couple Of Places To Start

Realistically, when looking for gigs online, Google (or my favorite alternative, DuckDuckGo) is the place to go. But just so you can get a feeling of what to look for when trying to find freelance writer jobs, here are my favorite freelance writing platforms:

ProBlogger is my favorite, but I’ve made good money on all of them.

How To Build Your Freelance Writer Website

Your website should be simple as well. I like using WordPress, but you are welcome to shop around for more out-of-the-box solutions. I hear Ghost is cool.

Whatever technology you choose to use, pick one of the default free themes, and put up a nice header image related to writing. It could be your writing desk, could be a picture of you scribbling in a notebook, could just be a random writing-related stock photo if you don’t have the mental bandwidth available to make something custom. I’ve used a notebook and a coffee mug for years.

You only need three pages to begin with: “About Me,” “Portfolio,” and “Contact.” Portfolio should have links to previous works accompanied by a brief description of what the piece is about. If you want to go for broke, add a “Blog” page there and write whatever you fancy there, 1-2 times per week. Don’t add a blog page if it’s going to become tumbleweed town.

Put the link to your website everywhere you can think of. Social media, car bumper stickers, bios in articles written by you, etc. Use a social media sharing tool — I like buffer.com — to schedule sharing it (and some of your best posts) at least a couple of times per week.

Remember, you are a Freelance WRITER. You are not a Freelance WordPress Developer. You are not a Freelance Web Designer. And you certainly ARE NOT a Freelance Social Media Manager. Go with out-of-the-box solutions as much as possible, and keep things simple and clean. Yes, it’s great if your portfolio website has engaging headlines and strong CTAs and all of that. But at the beginning, settle for “no typos or awkward grammar.” Good enough today beats perfect tomorrow.

And we’re done. You now have everything I wish I had when I started my career as a freelance writer, many years ago. I didn’t stick with it for more than a decade, but I could have, and maybe you will. I promise you that if you follow it, you’ll be well on your way to making money from your writing. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments!

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