How to get started at freelance writing

A popular Australian website recently published a story about my encore career as a freelance writer. After I shared it on Facebook, a friend asked me, “How can I get started at freelance writing?” His question prompted another question: “How did I get started at freelance writing?” I’d never seriously thought about it before. It seemed like it was just fate pushing me in that direction. It still seems that way, but I had to take some practical actions to make it happen. Here’s how I got started at freelance writing.

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How to get started freelance writing

I had the basics (grammar, punctuation, etc.) down because I have a crappy memory and the only thing that got me into college was my essay writing skills. I dropped out of college and later took up cabinetmaking, so it seemed like all of that work had been a waste of time. Now I’m grateful for it.

The moral: grammar, punctuation and spelling are important

Thirty-odd years later, an Australian surfing magazine started a series of articles about legendary Australian surfboard shapers. Annoyed that they hadn’t written one about a friend of mine who was a brilliant surfboard designer, I sent the editor an email. It went something like this:

Why don’t you interview Bill of Nirvana Surfboards? He shapes for all the best surfers on the Central Coast and I reckon he’s one of Australia’s best. If you can’t send someone up here to interview him, I’d be happy to give it a shot.

The first paragraph of his reply read: “Go for it!” The editor went on to tell me their payment structure, give me a word count and ask for some photos to accompany the article. They published the article and asked me to write three more. Then they got a new editor and that was the last I heard from them.

The moral: If you have an article idea, pitch it.

That success gave me some confidence, but writing was still just a hobby. The next assignments came when I was working at an antique shop, where I restored furniture two or three days a week. I sat in the shop bored out of my mind the other two or three days of the week. The owner advertised in a magazine that let advertisers publish “advertorials” to go with their ads. My boss had lost his writer and didn’t know what to do. I offered to write a piece for him.

“Oh, my writer was a professional journalist,” he replied.

“That’s okay. I’ll write something and if you don’t like it, don’t pay me for it.” I’d read the articles and they weren’t that great, so I was reasonably confident. He accepted my proposal and I went on to write a series of articles about Korean and Japanese furniture. I wrote them while sitting in the shop waiting for customers to walk in the door and got $300 for each of my efforts.

The moral: Be confident. You don’t need a degree to sell an article. You just need to give clients what they want.

Over the next couple of years, I got paid for writing two websites. One was for another employer and the other for one of his clients. Then I sold two articles about Vietnam to Vietnam Airlines and an article about the Gilis (little islands off the coast of Lombok) to the Sydney Morning Herald. It was still a hobby, so I only took the opportunities as they came to me.

I didn’t start writing for a living until no other options were available to me. For the first couple years, I did everything wrong. I found assignments wherever they were easiest to find (bidding sites, mostly) and was making $10 for 500 word articles. I was broke and had to find work wherever I could just to feed myself and my family.

The moral: Have a back-up income or you’ll get ripped off

I’d like to say I did something proactive to get out of that rut, but I didn’t. I was lucky enough to get two long-term clients who were willing to pay me decent money out of the 50+ clients I found on bidding sites. After a few months writing for them through the Elance system, I started writing for them directly and weaned myself off the system.

The moral: Get proactive and you’ll get ahead faster

In about 2012, I started picking up gigs from referrals. By 2014, I was getting as much work as I could handle and the money was pretty good. I was still taking things as they came, though. My strong suit has always been an ability to give clients the content they want. My weakest point is marketing myself.

Nothing lasts forever and one of my best clients is now reassessing their SEO strategy. I may not have the steady stream of work they’ve been giving me for the past five years. Soon I might have to start actively marketing my services. I’ve been writing for some major websites and there’s no reason why I can’t find enough well paying work to keep going. I just need to find the clients. I know some editors now and they tell me they don’t have time to reply to every query and only take on freelance writers as they need them. Not everyone will reply to my queries and I’ll get some rejections, but I won’t take it personally.

The moral: Finding work is part of the job. Don’t hesitate to market yourself and don’t take rejection personally.

Don’t listen to the little voice in your head that tells you you need a degree in journalism to be a freelance writer. I know several seasoned journalists who have trouble getting freelance assignments because they’re stuck in their ways. Journalism, online and off, is changing. If you can provide someone with decently written content they need, they’ll give you the assignment. Before you start writing, read some of their stuff and get a feel for the style of writing they like. Usually it’s at an 8th grade level, so unless you’re doing academic writing, avoid showing off your awesome vocabulary.

That’s all I can think of. Good luck! I’m sure you have some amazing stuff to share.

Further reading:

7 Sources for Freelance Writing Gigs

  • AJ

    Great article and very helpful. I’ve been freelance writing on the side for over 5 years (academic writing). I’m starting to transition to writing for small businesses and corporate clients and I find your site to be a breath of fresh air from all the gimmiky freelance sites that only seem to be selling guides and e-books. I’ll definitely keep your site book marked and best of luck with your blog and career.