4 Skills Freelance Writers Need to Develop to Impress Clients

$50.

That’s what a campaign manager recently offered me to write a 2500-word blog post for him.

😬

I responded politely (and clearly) that 2¢ per word wasn’t a reasonable rate for me.

After sending off the email, I thought, “Freelancers have been decrying pennies-on-the-dollar wages for a while now, yet the problem doesn’t seem to be going away.” And it probably won’t. As English becomes more common the world over, content and copy (particularly content) become commodities that can be so easily acquired from abroad for cheaper.

Sorry if I sound pessimistic, but these are facts that freelance writers have to face in order to survive. And by no means am I suggesting that we should cast stones at writers abroad (I’m speaking from the US) who can afford to take the lower wages—those writers need to do what’s best for them and their families, and I have to do the same. Wake up call: Freelance writers have to compete in a global market.

So how do you compete? You differentiate. You specialize. You do what only you can do. (Oh gosh, I’m sounding like those feel-good motivational speakers that bother me so much).

How’s this: Want to charge a rate that’ll buy you your Sunday dinner? Show your clients you’re worth it. Show them you’re better. I can speak from a somewhat unique perspective because I work as both freelancer and client. I hire freelancers and have been hired as a freelancer. From my perspective, here are some of the skills that catch my attention whenever I interact with freelance writers.

1. Storytelling

I mention storytelling at my own risk, because this threadbare buzzword is so worn that mentioning it to prospective clients may have the opposite effect of what you intend. Yet I stand my ground: storytelling is an important skill you need to develop and show your clients.

The key here is show, not tell. Anyone can say they’re a storyteller (that’s what makes it a buzzword). If you don’t mind a little biblical paraphrasing (with a little personal twist 🙊), “Be a doer of the word and not just a sayer.” Putting “Master Storyteller” in your LinkedIn title might impress someone for two seconds, but if you really want to catch their attention (and hold onto it), show them.

Becoming a storyteller is going from “Your business is like a car: it needs regular maintenance and a periodic oil change” to “It’s time to get that jalopy of a business you’re running out of the ditch off I-15 and up on a lift for some TLC.” Making every sentence count counts.

Here’s a good example of storytelling from fiction writer Felicia Sullivan (check out the intro).

2. SEO writing

SEO skills among writers are becoming more common, but it’s still essential for impressing clients. To differentiate yourself in the SEO realm, you need to recognize that SEO is more than just keywords.

The real value of SEO writing comes when you understand how an individual piece of content or copy fits within the SEO architecture of the website at hand. Understanding site-wide SEO can make you look like an expert when pitching your client.

Think about how a client might respond if you told them that on top of writing an SEO-optimized post, you could also give them recommendations of where to include internal links on their site and what the anchor text of those links should be. A quick search of the keyword on their website could quickly give you a list of pages you could recommend for internal linking—a quick win for you that could boost your value.

If you can mix SEO writing with good storytelling, you’ve got a winning combination. I like what content writer Tina Eaton says on her home page: “Consumers are savvy. They’re sick of the SEO-stuffed, low-value bull most brands are cranking out.” Convince your clients that you can write something that is both findable and enjoyable to read, and you’re golden.

3. Research skills

“You’re asking for how much?” is what I imagine client’s think sometimes when I send them what I want to charge. Clients are appalled by price because they think of your work as writing—just sitting down and writing. And because “anyone can write” (their words, not mine), charging as much as you do seems to them like a gross crime.

But what if instead you were to sell your research skills instead of just your writing skills? Sell your understanding of how to find information. Sell your trip to the library. Sell your discussion with an industry expert. These are things that you’re going to do anyways, so sell them as part of the package.

Selling research skills is analogous to selling experience, which is why all these motivational speakers (I’m not bitter) make so much to talk for an hour. It’s not the act of talking that they get paid for, it’s their name, their know-how, and their experience.

Unless you’ve been writing in a specific niche for some time (with your name listed on the publications), you may not be able to sell that kind of experience. So instead, sell your ability to research.

I recently worked with a freelancer to write an eBook about a dense subject: new regulation about consumer data protection in the EU. She had no background in this area, yet we paid her a sizeable wage. Why? Because of her ability to research. Even though the content she created required a significant overhaul to match our brand (it was the first piece she had done with us), there was enough meat in that content to feed a family of lions. I had all the pieces I needed to construct an eBook that was on-brand.

Sell your research. And show examples of how that research improves your storytelling ability.

4. Network

Networks provide a two-fold benefit to freelancers:

  1. Networks help you find clients
  2. Networks help your research

I mentioned recently on the Writing Grid Slack channel a referral that came through the grapevine to me. She passed her name to an investor friend, who passed it to our CEO, who passed it to the VP of marketing, who passed it to me.

The effect of this daisy chain increased the credibility of the writer in my eyes because if her name was important enough to pass along, her work must be worth looking into.

Beyond client networks, there are networks of sources that can give you information. In the same way that a feature writer wants to maintain a connection with their sources, a business writer should also have a network within their niche. Those relationships are worth something, to you and to your clients. Don’t fail to bring that up.

Being Different in a Crowd of Freelancers

Developing these skills will set you apart from the beginners, impress your clients, and help you make a decent wage. But another important element is finding the right clients. If you’re trying to feed Tiny Tim, then working for Ebenezer Scrooge may not be your best strategy. Just know that not everyone will pay what you’re asking. Don’t despair. Keep looking.

I’d love to hear any of your thoughts! Please comment below.

About Jack Vawdrey

Jack is a combo freelance and in-house writer, dedicated to all things automation, particularly in the freelance writing world. Jack founded Writing Grid to help other freelancers increase productivity and succeed as self-employed writers. Is this working for me?

2 thoughts on “4 Skills Freelance Writers Need to Develop to Impress Clients

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Kathy! I agree, you have to be willing to stick it out even when things look bleak. Breaking into freelancing is tough, but if it wasn’t tough it wouldn’t be worth it, right?

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