Cultivate Strong Writing Skills
An individual with lackluster writing skills will never become a freelance writer. A freelance writer who gets sloppy ceases to be a freelance writer. To be an attractive professional in the field, you must be incredibly meticulous about your writing.
Most freelance writers utilize the following tactics to keep their skills sharp:
- Constantly write
- Habitually look up grammatical rules
- Practice addressing different audiences in different tones
- Have others periodically audit their work
Even when you do not have work, you must write. Consider establishing a minimum word quota that you must meet every day. The more you practice, the better you can become.
Your knowledge of different grammatical styles will only grow with repeated exposure. Cultivate a habit of compulsively looking rules up when you cannot remember them. Keep style guides right next to your computer. Should you not be the type who has the patience to thumb through books, buy online subscriptions to relevant style guides and bookmark them in your web browser. If you do not have a particular style guide to which you adhere, run grammar queries using Google Search.
Even if you specialize within a very specific niche of the writing niche, you should be skilled at addressing different audiences in different tones. Being able to write in only one voice is akin to being an actor who can only play one type of role. Do some such actors get by? Absolutely- but their careers are often short lived.
If you are not prompted to practice using different tones in your work, find excuses to do so in your everyday life by writing letters to friends and family, posting to a personal blog, or even toying around tone-challenging hangouts like reddit's /r/ExplainLikeIAmA (where people are prompted to adopt certain tones when providing random explanations).
Showcase the Characteristics of a Polished Professional
In a series of formal and informal interviews, we asked freelance writers about the characteristics of a desirable freelance writer. The most commonly-repeated characteristics involve:
- Strong wrting skills
- Meticulous research skills
- Tactful and thorough interview skills
- Consistent, professional behavior
- Punctuality with regard to communication and project deadlines
Freelance writers with whom we spoke also emphasized the importance of self discipline and confidence. Clients want to work with contractors and employees that make them look good. Those who are competent, professional, and confident make clients look clever for making such good hires.
Good people skills will also have a profound impact on your attractiveness as a freelance writer. Make a point of quickly gleaning clients' needs and priorities. Establish goals at the outset of your contract. Setting clear goals and priorities with clients enables you to avoid wasted time, misallocated resources, and interpersonal misunderstandings.
Develop Specialties; Cultivate Niches
As a freelance writer, you stand to gain a significant competitive advantage by cultivating professional specialties and carving out specific niches. By establishing areas of expertise not only related to writing styles, but also subject areas, you can:
- Increase referrals
- Establish a stronger reputation (as the go-to freelance writer for [Subject X] or [Content Type Y])
- Enjoy higher pay (for providing content that is in high demand but low supply)
- Write more efficiently (by not having to start from scratch when writing about a specialized subject)
Styles of freelance writing and editing in which you might specialize include:
- Business plan creation
- Press release creation
- Procedure, tutorial, or FAQ creation
- Resume creation
- Content editing
- Critiques and critical review
- Content marketing
- Web content and copy
- Article creation
- Grant writing
- Legal writing
- Speech writing
- Technical writing
- Research writing
- Report creation
- White paper creation
Consider specializing in a thematic group of specialties, such as copyediting, content editing, and critical review, or business plan, white paper, and press release creation. Specialize in writing styles that complement thematic ares of expertise you decide to cultivate.
With regard to selecting subject areas, we recommend:
- Drawing from personal strengths and interests
- Looking for subject areas in which there is not already a well-established freelance writer producing content
- Testing several subject areas to determining what is actually in demand
- Putting more effort into areas of expertise that yield the most high paying work
Niches related to lucrative industries (or any professional industry at all) are well worth considering. Trade associations tend to pay more for high quality content than consumer-facing publication such as sports magazines, travel publications, and gossip rags. With the growing popularity of content marketing, a more businesses are looking to hire freelance writers who can write well-informed, interesting, and engaging blog posts, reports, and white papers relevant to their industries. This trend means that freelance writers with expertise in obscure, B2B realms are less likely than ever to be relegated to quarterly industry magazines.
Regardless of your interests or specialties, it pays to have a sound understanding of SEO. Even if your writing never touches the internet, you should understand what it takes to make your profiles and writer portfolio easy to find and access via search engines. For an overview of basic elements of good search engine optimization, visit our introductory guide to SEO.
Effectively Market Yourself
You are far more likely to find work as a freelance writer if:
- Your work is easy to come across (by chance) online
- Your work is under your own byline
- You are very, very easy to contact
- You can elaborate on the value you provide
- You can provide compelling references
The more people see your work and your name when reading or conducting searches about a given subject, the more likely they will be to contact you about writing content on that particular subject. Whenever possible, include bylines in client work. If someone who finds and likes your writing online does not know that you wrote it, that writing won't do you much good. Should you have spare time and something interesting to write about, create and publish work independently.
Keep in mind that you are far more likely to appear ubiquitous by specializing within a specific niche than by covering broad topics, such as food, finance, health, or fashion. You are furthermore more likely gain visibility by publishing content with media outlets that garner a high volume of traffic instead of obscure, personal blogs.
Make it Easy for Others to Email You
It should be incredibly easy to find and contact you online. People who discover your content on websites not owned by you (such as those belonging to a client or publications to which you contribute) should be able to find your contact information through that piece of content.
You can do this by:
- Ensuring that your website, which clearly marks you as a freelance writer, shows up on the first page of search results when people Google your name as it appears in bylines (if your name is very common, include a middle initial in all of your bylines)
- Including contact information within your byline or linked bio on a given site
- Linking to your personal website from your byline or linked bio on a given site
If you have a blog or website that is devoid of contact information, you are effectively shooting yourself in the foot. Do not think that a link to your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn profile gives others sufficient means to contact you. Many potential clients will not have profiles on those sites, will not use them for business purposes, or will not know how to contact you over those social networks.
Emails are a universal form of correspondence online. Either share your email address publicly, link to it, or enable people to email you via a contact form.
Make Your Value Clear
In addition to presenting potential clients with polished writing, you should be prepared to explain how your writing will aid their cause (be it to drive traffic or establish a better reputation).
If you write white papers for clients, be prepared to explain how white papers generally draw interest to companies. Refer to specific white papers you have written, along with the number of blogs and media outlets that mentioned, plus the amount of traffic they are estimated to have driven to your clients' websites.
If you write blog posts, explain how they can improve a site's SEO and engage its community. Refer to real-world cases. Provide information about your past experience with company blogs and how those blogs made an impact on the bottom line. Offer examples demonstrating how well-known companies have boosted earnings or attention through blog posts.
If you provide editing services, be prepared to give examples of the impact different types of editing have had on famous manuscripts. When possible, offer examples of clients who have concretely benefitted from your services. Demonstrate your understanding of what audiences or publishers are looking for and how you are well-equipped to make sure that the text you edit will be well-received.
Assemble Stellar References
You should not have to scramble for references every time a new client requests them. After finishing a job, ask each client if he or she would be willing to provide a written letter of recommendation and/or LinkedIn endorsement and whether he or she might be willing for future potential clients to call should they like to learn more about your performance and competence. By making this a habit, you will build up a respectable arsenal of suitable references and avoid the uncomfortable task of contacting long-forgotten clients in hopes of receiving an outdated recommendation.
In a perfect world, you will always provide top notch services and only choose clients with whom you get along. In the real world, you are likely to work with the occasional client who will not be happy with your work, regardless of its value and quality. Do not use such clients as references.
Seek Out High Profile Clients
The presence of a high profile client (that is, one associated with a prestigious, well-known, powerful brand) in your resume can be as compelling to some clients as ten stellar endorsements from small businesses. When possible, obtain work with well-known organizations that can increase your desirableness and visibility as a professional freelance writer. This work need not involve long-term contracts. Even occasional contributions of one-off articles to a well-known publication can make a significant impact on your career.
Leverage Your Personal Network to Find Initial Clients
Building a robust online presence, client experience, and references can take time. Before you are able you leverage those assets, make use of your personal network to find your first clients. Get over your inhibitions and send your contacts a polite, succinct, polished email explaining your credentials, letting them know you are looking for clients, and asking for referrals. Such mass emails lie at the cornerstone of many freelance writers' careers.
Charge Fair, Reasonable Prices
Proper pricing can make or break your career as a freelance writer. Charge too much too soon and nobody will work with you. Charge too little and you will not be able to support yourself. The key involves intimately understanding fair market prices, your personal financial needs, and the unique value you bring to the table.
Researching the Going Rates
Publications like Writers Market, for which you must pay to access, include up-to-date rate charts that will give you an idea of what clients commonly charge for different writing tasks. Should you not have access to a subscription-only publication showing rates, refer to the rate chart maintained by the Editorial Freelancers Association.
Keep in mind that even when you set your own rates, some publications will always insist that you use their rates when working with them. You can get an idea of what many publications charge by perusing Freelance Writing's Writer's Guidelines Database, which links to the writer's guidelines of a wide smattering of publications.
Understanding Your Needs
Should you work full time as a freelance writer and depend on your income to pay the bills, it is not enough to simply charge the "going rate" for everything; you must understand the rate at which you need to be paid to make ends meet.
Divide the money you need to support yourself for one month by the number of billable hours you have in that month. If you charge by the word, calculate how many words you produce on average every hour. This calculation will give you a clear understanding of the minimum rate you must earn per hour to support yourself. An understanding of this minimum rate may influence what type of work you will accept, as it may become clear that certain types of jobs will never yield sufficient income.
Most freelance writers charge per word. If you type quickly, you may penalize yourself by charging by the hour. To determine what rate format works best for you, make sure you have a good understanding of the number of words you produce per hour.
Understanding Your Unique Value
Though the rates provided by trade publications and associations can give you a general idea of what to charge, they are by no means an indication of the maximum amount you might charge for specialized types of writing. Those with unique areas of expertise, as well as those who are in high demand, can charge more.
By dominating a niche related to a type of writing that is in high demand (as discussed above), you can boost your earning potential in addition to your competitive advantage. It therefore pays to actively evaluate your strengths and interests and investigate ways in which those assets can be applied to a lucrative, under-served niche of the freelance writing world.
Work Tactfully with Clients
Discussion of rates and billing should be as painless and pleasant as possible- both for you and your clients. Make a point of reducing stress on their end by making your rates very clear. Help clients set clear expectations about a project's cost.
If you bill by the hour, calculate the amount of time a certain project should take by breaking discrete tasks into easy-to-estimate chunks. Use those estimates to present clients with an itemized estimate of a project's total costs. Should you work very efficiently and charge a very high hourly rate (which might scare off potential clients), consider only including total costs for discrete tasks within a project and not the amount of time each task will take.
Be very, very clear about billing schedules ahead of time. Request down payments or bill for hourly or piecemeal work at regular, short intervals. While still offering clients several options with regard to payment, you can significantly reduce risk by charging as you go along or requiring down payments. Should you not bill clients at regular intervals or request some payment up front, you run the risk of doing work that will never be compensated.
Even perfectly honest clients who would otherwise pay at the end of a project sometimes drop projects (and communication) halfway through, leaving freelancers in the lurch. Most freelancers who are stiffed by clients do not take legal action, as the money they would seek to recover is typically dwarfed in comparison to the time and money that goes into litigation. Avoid problems in the first place by establishing clear terms and only investing small amounts of time before obtaining payment.
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