“Trying to make it as a freelance writer is scary AF.”
With a subject line that bold (and accurate), I wasted no time in opening the email. It was from a young woman who’d recently graduated with a dual degree in English and journalism, asking me how, how, how in the world do I make a living this way?
It wasn’t the first time I’d received an email to this effect, which feels patently insane. If you’d told me just two years ago I’d be earning my keep as a full-time freelancer — let alone giving advice on the subject — I’d likely have laughed in your face. I was working a staff writing gig at the time, and had never so much as drafted a pitch to an outside publication.
I only got brave enough to start submitting ideas after lots of encouragement from my good friend (and fellow TWL writer!) Susan Shain. Thanks again, Susan.
Now, I’ve got over a year of working for myself under my belt — a year in which I actually earned more than I did as a staffer. I enjoy location independence and a workday uniform of yoga pants and tee-shirts, so it’s no surprise that fielding the how do you do it? question has become a common conversation.
But it’s never easy to answer.
So really though — how do you do become a full-time freelance writer?
Here’s the thing.
There’s no guaranteed, step-by-step process that will land you the freelance writing career of your dreams. Ask 10 different writers, and you’ll get 10 different how-I-made-it stories — or, more accurately, how-I’m-making-it-up-as-I-go-along stories.
The actual mechanics of the thing are pretty simple, though not easy: Have good ideas, be good at explicating them clearly, and spend lots of time and energy on the Sisyphean footwork of finding publications that will pay you to publish them. (And convincing them to do so.)
As you’ve likely already discovered, this blog is a great resource for figuring out these logistics and improving your skills at each level. Check out, for instance, our posts on writing awesome pitches, figuring out who to send them to and tightening your drafts’ copy.
As far as stringing it into a full-time living, though, I’ll be honest with you: A *lot* of it is luck, and also getting very cozy with rejection. If I get a positive response for just 10-15% of my pitches, I count that as a huge win.
But if you have your heart set on making it as a freelance writer, there are some actionable steps you can take to make it happen. Here’s my best advice.
1. Use your education
If you’ve yet to go to college or are still in the process of earning your degree, you may want to consider formal studies that will help you achieve your goal.
Contrary to popular opinion, an English degree can be profitable, and the same is true of other writing-intensive majors like creative writing, communications and journalism.
Studying humanities flexes your rhetorical muscles, which will make you a much better writer and pitcher. Plus, these programs lend you the soft skills employers look for — which is good, since you’ll likely need a day job while you’re finding a way to make the whole yoga-pants-forever thing work.
If college is already in the rear view, you might also consider grad school. But be careful. The additional expense won’t guarantee you work down the line, and if you’re already dealing with student loans, you could just be digging the hole deeper. In the case of freelancing, it’s more about experience and practice than the fancy pedigree.
Fortunately, if you’re aching to go back to school, you don’t have to go broke to do it. Many MA, MFA and PhD programs come with tuition waivers, provided you teach, or assist in teaching, a number of undergrad classes while you study. You can also find fellowships, scholarships and other forms of loan-free financial aid if you’re diligent.
Or, for a more DIY approach to education, consider checking out a course on a site like Skillshare.
2. Consider starting with a staff job
Yes, I know: Finding an editorial position — or any job, really — is easier said than done.
But websites and publications do hire writers, and getting a full-time position will give you two amazing, irreplicable benefits: an instant stack of clips and a world of hands-on education you just can’t get any other way.
Working closely with editors and other creatives every day will make you a better writer, period; if you work for a digital publication (likely), you’re bound to get some SEO training and other know-how in the bargain. I know for a fact I owe my success to my tenure at The Penny Hoarder, whose managing editor — Alexis Grant, who also started this website — essentially handed me a writing career whole cloth in hiring me.
3. Get out there and start pitching
“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” – Neil Gaiman
At the end of the day, the only way to become a freelance writer…is to start writing.
That means taking a pretty scary leap: You’ve got to start pitching publications and applying for gigs even if you don’t have many clips to speak of. Hey, everyone’s a beginner at the beginning.
Of course, even if you’ve never published professional work, there are other ways to showcase your writing prowess. Do you have a personal blog or website? A killer short story that hasn’t found a home quite yet? Maybe even a particularly well-wrought essay from college? I applied for The Penny Hoarder with a short memoir I wrote in grad school and — I kid you not — wine-tasting notes. Most employers and clients are more concerned with whether or not you’ve got the goods than where you’ve managed to land them.
Not sure where to start when it comes to finding paid writing jobs? Check out these 10 online gold mines for finding freelance writing gigs.
4. Know this: the work isn’t always glamorous
When I tell people I’m a freelance writer, they often think I’m publishing exclusively in glossy magazines with chic, single-word titles. The closest I’ve come to that, so far, is Yahoo! — a byline I’m very happy with, but whose trademarked exclamation point does not exactly bespeak elegance or sophistication.
The bulk of my paying work is far less illustrious, but critical for rounding out my bank account. Website copy, SEO work and listicle-style blog posts aren’t what anyone dreams of when they feel the pull of the pen, but they’re some of the most reliable ways for freelance writers to pay the bills. Many businesses can provide a steady stream of this kind of work, becoming the anchor clients by which you build a semi-reliable paycheck.
The idea is to pick up as much of this bread-and-butter work as you need to survive, and then use the rest of your time to pitch those dreamy projects you can’t wait to work on. It can be a hard balance to strike, but even un-fun writing always counts as valuable practice. You’ll hone your craft and earn your keep all while amassing more clips — and better chops — to show off when you’re pitching the big boys. Then, you can slowly scale up to working exclusively on better-paid, more interesting content.
5. Networking: Yup, it’s a thing for writers, too
As a serious-business introvert, “networking” has always felt like a four-letter word to me. In fact, I was drawn to freelancing in large part because it got me away from the noisy, crowded office environment. (I love you, The Penny Hoarder folks, but ya’ll are *not* quiet.)
Nevertheless, my first major client — the one that made quitting my day job possible, and whose work still makes up a sizable percentage of my income — was an opportunity I landed in part because of a shared connection. I’ve also written web copy for gym acquaintances, friends and family members, which were gainful projects both financially and in broadening my experience.
The Write Life’s managing editor Jessica Lawlor blogs about how she landed her first freelance client, as well as the ones she found thereafter. From sorority sisters to Twitter friends to existing professional connections, nearly every single story involves networking.
Case in point: Don’t overlook any of your current social spheres when it comes to writing opportunities, and get ready to actively work to increase them. Everyone needs the written word sometimes!
6. Market yourself
The networking we were talking about? It’s a whole lot easier and more effective if you have a proper business presence.
Websites, personal blogs, business cards, work-specific (or at least -friendly) social media accounts and portfolios are the best ways to show off and get the word out about your skills. And besides, they’ll make you feel way more legitimate. (Side note: Impostor Syndrome is totally a thing in this business, so get ready.)
There’s lots of advice here about creating your own blog and setting up a website, but as far as a portfolio is concerned, I recommend Contently. Not only is it a clean, easy-to-use digital showcase, but it can also land you valuable work: the platform matches editors with writers and other content creators based on specific beats and skill sets. I’ve earned literally thousands of dollars simply because I chose to use it.
7. Expect the unexpected
Fickle income, weird hours, totally unmitigated refrigerator access — working for yourself is a strange and sometimes dangerous world.
At the very least, you’ll want to prepare yourself financially for things like invoicing clients and managing income flow and expenses, paying your own taxes, buying your own health care and funding your own retirement. And for even the best writers, clients come and go, so be sure to build up a significant cushion for those inevitable dry periods.
It’s also a good idea to impose rules to lend your otherwise-loosey-goosey day structure — like deciding you’ll only write at your desk as opposed to your couch, for instance, or making yourself put on real pants for the duration of your work day. (Or maybe not. Let’s not get crazy.)
If I had to summarize it all in brief, I’d say this: Becoming a freelance writer requires equal parts semi-pathological levels of type-A dedication, boundless curiosity, and total insensitivity to rejection.
Oh, and luck. A lot of luck.
But like all of the best things in life, even though it’s not an easy journey, the road to the write life is definitely one worth taking — and one we’re excited to help you travel.
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