Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there are way more people getting into freelance writing than there are successful full-time freelancers. Maybe it’s just a perception thing on my part, or maybe the barriers to transitioning to full-time are so big that most writers just can’t make the leap, so they get stuck in limbo.
It can’t be impossible though, right? There are many writers who have overcome the barriers and succeeded at making writing their livelihood. You know who you are. I tip my hat.
I asked freelance writers across multiple platforms what their top advice was for new freelancers. You might be able to guess some of my responses: how content mills are the worst, how clients offering low paying gigs should be burned at the stake.
I also got some responses saying how the internet ruined writing, and how all those coaches and masterminds out there marketing their services are usually a waste of time.
Some took a more humorous approach, saying the best thing you can do as a freelance writer is to marry someone with money and get a gym membership. Others echoed your wizened father who told you not to quit your day job.
Amidst the frustrated sentiments and humorous observations, there were some real nuggets of wisdom I wanted to share here. I hope they can be helpful for freelance writers at all stages of their careers.
1. You reap what you sow
This advice came from full-time writer Tina Eaton, who’s a member of our freelance writing group on Slack. Beyond being just a good mantra for life in general, she emphasized the need for the hustle in freelance writing.
You’ll reap what you sow. No one wants to hear it; but regular outreach, follow up, and realistically quantifying these efforts are the best way to get clients. Eventually, even clients you actually want. You can’t just update your LinkedIn profile and launch a website and expect the qualified clients to come pouring in. Trust me, I tried. It’s a tough, nebulous world in the beginning—but if you stick with it you’ll find your niche, figure out where to invest time and money in your outreach strategy, and start having the career you actually wanted.
2. Save your change
Even if you are able to beat the odds and go full-time, your money problems aren’t going to solve themselves. You need to manage your freelancer finances well, for a variety of reasons. The biggest part of managing finances is saving money. Full-time writer Kaleigh Moore gave some good thoughts about the different things you need to save for.
Save for tax season
I work with an accountant for the bookkeeping and taxes of my business, because I abhor it. I’m completely intimidated by that side of things, so I defer to an expert. But even though I faithfully pay my estimated quarterly taxes (both federal and state, mind you) I have owed at tax time every year on April 15. Not a ton, but I owed. No tax return for me.
The lesson here is that even though you’re getting as close to your projected income as you can with those estimated payments, there’s a chance you’ll still end up owing at the end of the year. This is an issue for freelance writers because our overhead is so low that deductions are limited. You’ve got a computer, a desk chair, and desk…and not a lot else.
Keep a reserve of at least $2,000-$5,000 in the account you pay your taxes from in April, ‘cause there’s a good chance Uncle Sam is gunna claim it.
Save for retirement
You can probably just ignore this one, because you want to be a freelance writer until the day you die, right? You’ll have no choice, if you don’t start saving now.
You’re going to have to be disciplined if you’re moving away from a cushy job with a retirement plan. The bossman isn’t going to be around to match you. Here’s what Kaleigh Moore has to say about it.
I had a nice retirement match at my first job out of college, and setting that whole situation up was a breeze because the employer helped me through the process. Once I left that job, I quickly realized that to keep on pace with my retirement planning, I needed to make it a priority and set up some accounts of my own.
I worked with a local broker to establish a Roth IRA and a SEP IRA that I could contribute to on my own, and make regular, monthly contributions to these investments.
It’s really easy to let this slip down the priority list when you’re doing a million other things, but be sure to do this early on when you start as a freelance writer. Time is money when it comes to compound interest, so don’t put it off. It’ll cost ya.
Save for emergencies
One writer succinctly summed up the need to save some of your money:
Create an emergency fund before you quit your day job. If you can’t afford an emergency fund, you can’t quit your day job.
Imalwaysnapping on Reddit
3. Don’t give your content away
The only time you should write for free is when you write for yourself. Writing for someone else for free not only signals that you’re not a good writer, but it affects your mentality. If you do write for free, the next time you’re pitching a paid gig, some mad imposter syndrome will settle in.
Plus, writing for free doesn’t just hurt you—it hurts all writers! Don’t perpetuate the myth that writers like to work for free. It makes all of us suffer.
Never do a job for a prospective client for free “to gain experience.” If your writing is good enough to be used for their business, it is good enough for the client to pay for.
4. Raise your rates!
One of the hardest things for me to understand in the early days of freelance writing was how charging low rates is actually the dumbest thing you can do to get new clients.
Not only does this cause burnout and do more harm than good, but it also tells clients that you don’t value your work…
Which means the good clients won’t want to work with you, and since we have to find somebody who’s willing to pay us for our work, that usually ends in you working with a bunch of shitty clients…
Which always leads to burnout, stress, and future articles about how being a freelance writer is the dumbest thing you can do.
Know what I mean?
Good, now that you know, I need you to go back to the drawing board and start increasing your rates.
My question is: what exactly does it look like to switch from low rates to high? How do you know where to draw the line? One freelancer recommends turning down gigs even from the beginning:
Be selective about what you take on. When you first start it can be tempting to jump on anything you’re offered, don’t do it, take the quality jobs that will help build your reputation.
5. Read more
You’ve heard this before. It’s old news. But are you doing it? Are you actually reading more?
The advice to read more applies to all writers—prolific writer Stephen King (do I even need to put the word prolific there?) says “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Don’t think you’re counted out because you’re writing non-fiction—you need to read more.
6. Find your niche and thrive
Ever seen a star-nosed mole? If you haven’t, look it up, because I’m too afraid to put a picture of one here. The star-nosed mole is one weird-looking creature, but it has found its niche—with it’s tentacled nose it can detect prey, and even smell underwater by inhaling bubbles. Pretty funky, but super specific to its survival. It found its niche.
When determining your own niche, start by deciding what you like to write about. Don’t say “I’ll write about anything.” That might be helpful for a little while so you can learn what you like, but it’s not a good model for a long-term writing career.
Hungry, new freelance writers often take any job because, MONEY. I get it. I did it, too. But as soon as I defined my niche as a writer (for me, it was with SaaS companies) I started getting more consistent work and better, more relevant referrals. I came to know a lot about the subject matter they were interested in. I could showcase testimonials that were impressive for new, like-minded clients.
Once your workload picks up and you’re no longer sweating the need for more freelance writing gigs to pay your bills, transition your way into a niche. The sooner the better.
7. Choose your clients wisely
Would you take an in-house writing job where you knew the boss was going to be terrible? That they were going to turn down everything you sent in, without giving clear feedback for an edit, and then ask you to do additional work for free? Then not pay you because they weren’t really planning on it in the first place?
Of course you wouldn’t. But freelance writers do it all the time.
From atomicdustbin on Reddit:
Never miss a deadline.
Choose your clients wisely.
Bad Advice You Should Never Follow
“Start at a low rate and take crappy jobs.”
When the owner of this comment posted it on Reddit, it quickly got shamefully relegated to the bottom of the feed.
Don’t take low rates and crappy jobs. You will regret it.
Share the Love
One of my favorite things about the freelance writing community is that they are so willing to share their ideas with others. Please comment if you have any other advice for your fellow freelance writers.