Do you dream of becoming a freelance writer, either to supplement your current income, or to escape the 9 to 5 and work with no pants 5 days a week? You’ve come to the right place because I’m here to help you lose your pants.

It can seem overwhelming to go from zero to hero. However, when you have all the information you need the process can easily be broken down into small manageable steps.

This is the only complete guide you will need to start your freelance writing business. You’ll cover every aspect of how to get started, and when you’re done you’ll be ready to start freelance writing.

But Wait, Do I Have to Quit My Job?

No. The great thing about freelancing is that you submit proposals to get gigs, so it’s relatively easy to control the amount of work you get.

This means it’s easy to start right now, even with a full time job. You can try it out as a side gig and decide later whether to grow it. If your dream is to go full time, you can cross that bridge when you come to it.

Let’s get started building your freelance writing business.

The Essentials

This guide begins with the 5 essential steps you need to complete to get started with your first gig in freelance writing. Additional topics to consider follow right after the 5 essential steps.

Step 1: Choose One or More Niche

Before you begin take some time to pick a few niches to write about. Picking niches will help you to write about topics you want to write about, and make you stand out to your clients.

Think about it this way, would you rather be mediocre at writing about everything, or great at writing about a couple of topics?

To find your niche, think about:

  • Topics that interest you
  • Topics you already know about
  • Your work experience
  • Your personal experiences
  • Your hobbies
  • Your education/degrees

Write down 5 niches and then rank them in order of preference, 1 being the niche you would most like to write about.

Go ahead and take 15 minutes to do this exercise (I promise the guide will still be here).

Now that you’ve got some niches to write about, it’s time to gather some writing samples.

Step 2: Gather Samples

You need to have some writing samples before you start pitching for gigs. If you don’t have any, don’t fret, there are many ways to get some.

  1. Start a blog. Your articles will serve as your samples. You can use a very simple website creator like SquareSpace, start a simple free blog with WordPress.com, or start a custom website/blog with WordPress.org. If you’re opting for the latter, there’s a great guide to get you going.
  2. Guest Post. You don’t need your own blog to guest post on someone else’s website. While guest posts are a good way to direct traffic to your own site, it’s also a good way to create some writing samples. Guest posting is simple, and it starts with reaching out to prospective blogs and pitching a guest post idea. Many bloggers are quite busy and are very grateful to receive guest post submissions. How to do this will be discussed in more detail in the section on pitching, which follows the same concepts and templates.
  3. Offer to write for free. This could include guest post inquiries but also include offering to do gigs for free, reaching out to websites, asking friends who need some copywriting done, or any way to get your name out there. These samples will be well worth it for establishing your credibility.
  4. If all else fails, simply write some articles in a word document or Google doc. Spend time on them so they’re well written and good samples of your writing.

When you have compiled 3 or more writing samples, the next step is to display them together in a portfolio that looks good and is easy to share with prospective clients.   

Step 3: Build a Portfolio

You need a portfolio to showcase your writing and show prospective clients your writing ability. The more obvious way to do this is by having your own website or blog, which you can simply share with prospective clients to show them your work.

Websites have the additional benefit of letting you add a hire me page and a client’s testimonial page. While a website is great, it is not a requirement.

If you don’t have a website, or even if you do, you can still create a portfolio for free and share your writing in a beautiful, organized manner.

Here’s a couple of ways to do it:

  1. Contently: the great folks at Contently allow you to build a beautiful free portfolio and its super easy to setup. You can then share your new spiffy portfolio with all your prospects. For an example check out my Contently and then go make one of your own.
  1. Pinterest: you can easily use Pinterest to create a free portfolio of your writing. To do this simply create a new board in Pinterest, and name it something like “Bob’s Writing Portfolio”. Pin only the articles you wrote that you want to share to that board, and now you have a free portfolio you can share with prospective clients. This is much easier than making and maintaining a website, the only caveat being your articles will need to be online somewhere so you can pin them. For an example check out my writing profile on Pinterest.

Once you’ve got some samples gathered into an aesthetically pleasing portfolio, you’re ready to start finding gigs.  

Step 4: Find Gigs

When it comes to finding gigs you have a variety of options available to you. The options range from your basic content mills, like Upwork, to blogging, magazines, websites, and contacting local businesses.

The goal right now is just to find opportunities you want to pursue and bookmark them or write them down. You’ll be pitching them in the next step.

  1. Upwork

Upwork is obviously pretty competitive and if you do what everyone else is doing you won’t make any great strides. However, if you take the right approach you can hack Upwork and make 6 figures, as some freelance writers have already done.

One expert explains how he did it with 2 approaches: find sleeper clients and get repeat business. He did it with just 27 clients in a single year; 4 were repeat clients from the previous year, so that’s just 23 new clients over the course of the entire year.

Try scanning Upwork and other content mills for writing gigs that interest you, and make a note of them.

  1. Websites

When it comes to websites, Bamidele at Writer’s In Charge put together a huge list of 110 websites that pay writers. Start there.

Begin by picking 5 websites that pay writers and are also within your chosen niche(s). Then read through the requirements for pitching or submitting proposals to those websites.

If you need additional ideas check out these great resources for writing gigs:

  1. Job Boards

Job boards are another great source for writing gigs. Here’s a few to comb through for prospective work:

Again, look for opportunities within the niche(s) that you’ve selected.

  1. Magazines

Magazines are another available source for gigs. Find some within your niche(s) that you can cold pitch to with your ideas.

Try Googling for magazines in your niches, and if you need some more ideas here’s a couple lists of magazines that pay writers:

  1. Cold Pitching

Cold pitches are much easier to do than you might think. Put away the fear, don’t worry about rejection, and look for opportunities to cold pitch.

In my experiences guest posting, I’ve sent 5 emails with a 0% response rate, and I’ve also sent 2 emails and received a 100% response rate. Results will be mixed and rejection is just part of the process.

You can cold pitch to:

  • Local businesses
  • Websites
  • Any business
  • Startups in your niche

Find any of the above to cold pitch to, research the company and its website, and then brainstorm how you can help them, whether it’s to start a blog for them, manage their current blog, do ghost writing for them, or write some other type of content.

Try to dig around on their contact page and in the comments section of their posts in order to find their first name. This will help you later when you cold pitch them by making your email more personal and more likely to be read.

When it comes to getting gigs pull from a couple of the sources above, because you’ll want to try out some different approaches. Remember, the important thing right now is just for you to get started.

Now that you’ve written down at least 5 potential gigs, it’s time to start pitching (knowing how to throw a fast ball not required).

Step 5: Start Pitching

Don’t worry about being 100% qualified for the gigs you apply for, you just need to get your feet wet. It’s pretty hard to learn how to swim if you don’t get in the water.

Pitch anything you’re partially qualified for or interested in. You can always research topics you don’t know as much about, and you’ll quickly learn that’s just part of the job.

Set a goal for yourself, and try to do that many pitches every week. This will take time at first, but be persistent.

If your pitches aren’t getting responses you can tweak them and retest. You can also try a different approach such as asking the client more questions instead of just sending them a proposal.

You’ll get better by doing. Here is a sample template to help you write your first cold pitch.

Cold Pitch Templates

Template #1 – Guest Post Proposal

Hi Future Business Partner,

My name is Garik and I love the content at (website)/I’m a big fan of (website). I especially like how you provide useful resources to help freelance writers find gigs, such as this article (LINK).  

I would love to guest post for your website if you’re currently accepting submissions.

I’m a freelance writer/content writer for X Company and would love to provide value to your readers. Here are 3 article ideas that came to mind:

  1. Article Title. 2-3 bullet points highlighting the article.
  2. Article Title. 2-3 bullet points highlighting the article.
  3. Article Title. 2-3 bullet points highlighting the article.

All content will be original and I promise to get your readers talking to each other. Let me know which idea you like best.

Reply if you would like to discuss further, 

Garik

To get my cheat sheet, 4 Easy Cold Pitch Templates for Freelance Writers, enter your email address in the opt-in bar at the top of the page. ^^

Other Topics to Consider

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve worked through the 5 essential steps and you’re ready to start freelance writing. However, you may still have questions.

If you’re hungry for more information about starting and growing your freelance writing business, here are some additional considerations and details to iron out as you progress with your business.

Compensation

The biggest takeaway: Don’t charge $15/hour.

As you start freelance writing you likely won’t know what to charge, and you’re equally likely to undervalue your work and charge well below what your work is worth.

There are 2 big problems with charging $15/hour. The first is that quality clients will assume you aren’t very good, and therefore won’t hire you. The second is that if you price yourself lower than everyone else, or near the bottom of the going rate for freelance writers, you just end up competing with the lowest bidders on the least desirable jobs.

If you’re interesting in freelance writing I’m assuming that low profit, low quality work, isn’t what you had in mind.

Instead seek out high quality clients, charge a fair rate for what you are worth, and write high quality pieces, exemplifying your best work.

The caveat: if you have trouble starting from scratch, it’s ok to consider starting for free, doing one or two articles, and then charging. This will help you get experience, gather writing samples, and potentially build relationships. However, once you’ve done so, be sure to charge what you are worth.

To give you a baseline, I would recommend starting around $50/hour. If that makes you uncomfortable then start below that and work your way up to it as you build confidence in your writing. Don’t be afraid to test different rates on clients and see how pleased they are with your rate and quality of work.

Consider that you will often need to give your rates in a variety of formats:

  • Per gig
  • Per page
  • Per word
  • Per hour

Therefore, pick one rate and come up with rough equivalents for the others so you have some idea of what to charge no matter what the format.

Here are a couple free compensation guides for freelance writers that you can check out to get some idea of the current rates in the market:

In the 4th guide you might have noticed that the majority of writers surveyed in 2012 were in the range of $50-$69/hour. It’s ok to start below that but if you do, make it your goal to get up to that rate.

Don’t spend too much time setting your rate when you get started. You can revisit it later once you’ve established some business, and at that point you may want to invest in the Writer’s Guide 2016 or simply raise your rates from where you started and see what you can make based on the value you’re providing to clients.

Hacking the Freelance Writing Space

Here’s some food for thought as you grow your freelance writing.

Getting gigs through a content mill like Upwork will require consistent new clients, adding up to many clients throughout the year. You’ll spend a lot of your time marketing, submitting proposals, and competing for those new clients.

If you want to hack the freelance writing space and work with fewer clients, while potentially earning much more money, there is another way.

The 80/20 solution is to aim for big clients. Most freelance writers will make 80% of their revenue from just 20% for their clients. Therefore, if you aim for those big clients that pay well and send you continuous work, you can do less with more, and bypass the rat race of trying to get as many clients as possible.

This equates to more time spent writing, more money, and less time dealing with one off clients and marketing. For an example, one writer made ¾ of her annual income from just 6 clients!

Proposals

Proposals will vary depending on the kind of gigs you are applying for, but most gigs require some type of proposal.

Here’s what you need to know to get started:

  1. Be professional and friendly
  2. Make it original, don’t just cut and paste
  3. Address the client’s needs, remember this is about them
  4. Address the specific project and why it interests you
  5. Attach 1-3 writing samples, as related to the bid as possible, or a link to your portfolio
  6. Outline a plan of action
  7. Explain last why you’re the best person for this job

When talking about Upwork specifically, there are some specific considerations to take into account. I would suggest you start out with a few different proposal templates. This will take time but it will help you test what works and you’ll likely be applying for many gigs when you get started.

Once you start getting jobs, you can gauge which template is the most effective and simply use that one, customizing it for each client.

Tips for proposals on Upwork:

  • Keep proposals short and to the point
  • Catch their attention fast. A good way to do this is to use their actual name, and you can find this by reading through their comments, as people will often reference them by their first name
  • Include your samples as high in the proposal as possible
  • Highlight anything great about you when answering the question of why they should work with you

Additionally, when starting on Upwork you will have no feedback, and feedback is important for getting gigs. Therefore, consider doing some or all of the job for free just to obtain some initial feedback. If they like you, the relationship will pay you back in the end.

Make it clear that you need 5 stars and exceed the client’s expectations, offering to do whatever you can to ensure they are completely satisfied with your writing.

Also consider asking a question or giving advice, instead of just sending a proposal. If you can open a dialogue with the potential client, that will get you an in.

Outside of Upwork, if you’re drafting a more in depth proposal for a business client, it’s important to address the key elements of a proposal. The main sections are:

  1. Cover Page: This page is aesthetically pleasing, and usually contains the client name, the proposal name, and your name.
  2. How You Will Meet Their Needs: This section identifies the client’s problem and how you can address that problem.
  3. Delivering Results: This section identifies the positive results your solution will give them, and some bullet points about each one.
  4. Recommendations for Your Company: This is your recommendations for the client, including multiple options, some potentially long term, and bulleted details about each.
  5. Your Investment: Break the project down into phases at a high level, and provide costs for each phase as well as total project cost estimates.
  6. Why Choose Me? The special value you bring to the table and how it will benefit them. Focus on them.
  7. Timeline: Provide estimated completion dates for each phase of the project, and any additional time deadlines you think would be relevant.
  8. Next Steps: This is your call to action section with what the client should do next to move forward with the proposal. Consider making a limited time offer to encourage action.
  9. Terms and Conditions: This is where you throw in the legal jargon to protect you from liability and address questions such as who owns the work, if it can be used elsewhere, etc.

Proposals will vary in length, but starting out it is not likely you’ll be going for a huge project, so keep the proposals short. As you move along, if you find you need help writing a medium to long proposal for a big project with a business client, a great resource for freelance proposal templates is Bidsketch.

Contracts

As a freelance writer, contracts are an important way to protect yourself and ensure you get paid. With a content mill like Upwork you can make a contract within the platform, and Upwork processes payments as well.

However, when you source your gigs from cold contacts you will want to draft a contract and have the client sign it in order to protect yourself from doing work and not getting paid. A contract will also afford you certain legal protections.

For small clients also consider getting paid up front to protect yourself; for larger clients this is generally less of a concern. You have to take some risks going into business for yourself and you will learn more as you go.

If you want a template or sample contract, here are some great options:

Making the Leap to Full Time Freelancer

A hot topic when getting into freelance writing is how to make the leap to making it your full-time gig. Since you can start part-time and grow it until you’re comfortable making it full time, there’s not a huge inherent risk.

If you’re interested in making the leap, or just want to read some funny and inspirational stories about people who have, check out these articles:

Reading how others did it is a great way to prepare for making the leap yourself. There’s no exact science for when to make the leap. Some writers made the leap from the very beginning, while others took the leap once they felt ready to do so.

If you want to know if you’re ready, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Are you currently making enough money from freelance writing to survive and cover your expenses?
  2. Are you successful in growing your business and acquiring new clients?
  3. Can you keep a budget, tracking your expenses and your business income?

If you can answer yes to these questions, chances are you’re ready to make the leap.

Stay Knowledgeable

As with starting any business or venture, it’s important to stay knowledgeable. Once you’ve started your business, follow some top freelance writing blogs to help fuel new ideas and growth over time.

You’ll get new ideas for getting more clients, marketing, and tips on pretty much every aspect of the business. Keep an open mind and pick some favorites to subscribe to.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Additionally, follow some blogs and websites in your niches so you stay current in your areas of expertise and at the top of your game.

Call to Action

That completes the guide and you are now ready to start freelance writing. Here are your next action steps:

  1. Download the extra cold pitch templates so you’re ready to start cold pitching. (The opt-in is at the top of the page)
  2. For ambitious people only: Get your first freelance writing gig, and then report back here in the comments how it went and what you learned from the experience.
  3. If you found this article helpful, please share it with 3 people you know that would also benefit.