1. Be a good writer. It may seem self-evident but there is a substantial group of people who believe that they can write but when they attempt it, their lack of originality, good grammar, and self-discipline prove otherwise. Be sure that you’re comfortable with writing, that it is a medium in which you can express yourself with ease and clarity, and that it is something you don’t mind doing almost every single day of your life without respite. If you don’t already have writing qualifications, consider doing a college degree in journalism or English, or taking a workshop so that you’re at least aware of the major requirements in writing, and the terminology used. Even if you already have a degree in a non-writing related course, you may find it easier to either get a writing diploma or to get an entry-level job as a copywriter or editor in a field related to what you graduated in.
- Decide whether you prefer fiction or non-fiction or perhaps even both. Non-fiction is much easier to sell than fiction, so bear this in mind when making your choice. If you’re writing for fun, you have more leeway to experiment, though.
- Decide whether you want to write for a living, for extra money, or for fun. The reason for your freelance writing will impact the approach that you take to running your freelance operation. Bear in mind that treating freelance writing as a full-time income will require a lot of hard work and establishing yourself in the niche, so be prepared to put in the effort and time.
- If you already have qualifications, from a degree to a diploma, always make use of these to support your expertise. These are extremely helpful in a competitive world where many people are seeking the same thing but who don’t have the qualifications to stand out.
2. Be comfortable communicating. Unless you want to be the hermit novelist living in poverty, you’ll need to reach out to other people as a freelance writer. You’ll need to be prepared to market yourself, to drum up business, and to chase leads. You will also need to be happy to turn around work quickly and according to the client’s or employer’s needs and changes, and all of this requires good negotiation and interaction skills. Fortunately, much of this can be done by email, meaning that you can rely on writing to connect but it does mean you’ll need to be prepared to put yourself out there and not just sit about waiting for leads.
- As part of this, you’ll need to know how to write a query letter. A query letter explains the concept of what you’re proposing to write, along with a very brief explanation of your experience and qualifications. This letter has to sell your idea to an editor, blog owner, or website operator and will become a regular part of your toolkit. The sooner you’re comfortable with it, the better.
3. Realize that turning a creative passion into a job can dampen your enthusiasm. No matter how much you love writing, there will be occasional writing jobs that you’ll hate doing. In this situation, you’ll need to learn the art of “just doing it” regardless of your feelings, your desire to procrastinate, and your temptation to rush through it. Master pushing through the dislike barrier by treating it as the work that it is and looking forward to the more interesting writing coming up. Some freelance writers find it helps to maintain their own writing on the side, as a means for ensuring that at least something they’re writing remains a pure joy.
4. Balance the joys of working alone with soaking up the vibes from being around other people. Working from home or for yourself can be very lonely at times (no matter how much you love your writing) and you can feel as if you’re working in a vacuum. Part of the answer to this is to accept the unusual (and often liberating) nature of being a freelance writer; the other part is to get out and be around people as much as you can. Get portable by having a notebook or laptop, and portable Wi-Fi access, and go and write around people when you’re feeling lonely – a cafe, a library, a park, anywhere that you feel involved in society again. You might find you need to do this regularly, or every now and then; just find your own rhythm and don’t box yourself inside your house all day.
5. Be prepared for a lot of self-discipline and good money management. If you’re planning on making a career from writing freelance, you’ll need to have a good sense of responsibility toward your clients or employers and yourself.
- Have financial systems set up before you start taking in work and be regular with your invoicing, tax filing, and reconciliation of accounts. You cannot afford to be sloppy when it comes to your income!
- Be organized; have a dedicated writing space, all of your reference books in one place and easily obtained, all the writing equipment that you need in good working order, and a decent ergonomic work station set-up. Writing daily can do terrible things to your posture if you don’t take good care of it!
- Have a deadline system in place. Whether you use a diary, an online reminder system, a wall chart, a whiteboard, or whatever, be sure to have some sort of system in place that allows you to see at a glance what writing work is due when and for whom. That way you can prioritize accordingly and not have last minute rushes.
- Communicate well and regularly. It’s very important that you feel comfortable reaching out to people to make queries, to reassure them of your skills and ability to meet deadlines, and to keep clients and companies informed as to your progress and any issues that may come up.
- Don’t take on more than you can do. Part of being organized is knowing your limits. Once you do get into a flow of regular writing, don’t be lulled into a false sense of confidence that you can do more than the hours in the day. Remember to maintain a good balance in your daily life.
Set a goal and keep working in the meantime. If you plan to write magazine, online, and newspaper articles, don’t quit your day job until you’re making enough money to sustain your lifestyle. This means that you might have to do your writing in the early morning or in the evening or whenever you have a spare moment, such as on the weekends. However, it’s good practice to trial your writing aspirations in this way because it provides you with the opportunity to see whether you enjoy writing under pressure and across a broad range of different topics. It also gives you the opportunity to work out whether you can write well enough.
7. Become active in the writing community. There are writing groups and freelance writer associations in many countries and it’s a good idea to belong to them so that you can meet other writers, get information and advice, and establish your credentials as a writer. A quick search online should find organizations in your local area or country. Look for a group that has meet-ups, seminars, guest speakers, and offers advice on all aspects of writing including publishing and marketing, as well as having contacts with publishers and networking opportunities. Many of these groups may also be an excellent resource for writing job leads, so being a part of them will soon pay back in terms of contacts and work offers.
- Attend conferences and conventions that focus solely on writing, authors, and freelance writing. You can meet publishing professionals on these occasions, as well as having the opportunity to network with other freelancers.
- In the United States, you can subscribe to “The Writer”, a publication which provides information and advice on writing a query letter, finding publishing houses, and how to run a writing business. It’s an excellent resource if you’re keen to become a full-time magazine writer.
8. Decide what type of writing you’re going to do. These days the choice includes print writing (magazines, trade publications, newsletters, and newspapers) and online writing. It’s possible to do both, although you may find yourself very stretched trying to keep up. Even within the online writing sphere, there are various possibilities, including blog writing, guest blog writing, topic specific websites (for example, green living, pet care, collectibles, etc.), “article mill” sites (these vary in their quality), and so forth. There is also official writing for government, but for this type of writing you’ll often need qualifications and experience in the policy-making areas you’ll be writing for; contact a company that handles such writing to ask them what they’re looking for. Be aware that many print publications such as newsletters and trade publications are done in-house or outsourced to a company specializing in writing. In this case, you may be better off trying to get on the books of a company that is happy for you to do freelance work across a range of topics using their contacts. They’ll take a commission but you’ll gain the benefit of their expertise and established market.
9. Start looking for opportunities to write to build your portfolio. Initially it is important to establish your credentials and build a portfolio. It may be simplest to begin by writing for small, non-paying publications and websites. By writing articles for smaller publications, you will gain experience, get known, and get a bunch of published articles with your name on them that you can use to show clients and employers. You need that portfolio for established publications to take you seriously and hire you. Visit your local library to get lists of publishers and ideas for whom to contact.
- Submit a poem or story to a children’s magazine such as Owl if you’re a young person.
- If you’re a teenager, join your school’s yearbook committee and submit articles to the school newspaper. Regard this effort as good practice for your future freelance career.
- If you’re a college or university student, craft strong, well-written essays for class that you might be able to later get published. You can also offer your services at the writing lab, and write articles for the student newspaper, literary magazine, and alumni magazine.
- For an adult, start with reputable online sites that accept articles – make contact with the owners of sites and blogs that you admire and explain that you’re building up your portfolio and would like to write some pieces for free in return for your name being publicized. If you have your own blog or website, this can help you as you can include it as a back link with your name.
- Non-profits are also excellent places to find writing work. Donate your time and effort and get your work published in their newsletters and publications and use those as part of your portfolio.
- Turn your best articles into PDFs that can be easily emailed to potential employers or clients.
10. Reach out and start job hunting. When you feel that you’re capable of writing professionally, think of something you’d like to write about, then start contacting the relevant people. Find publishers you’d like to write for, then read their guidelines. This cannot be over-emphasized – sending queries and articles in that have nothing to do with the publication is as bad as turning up to a job interview never having researched the company. Know your market and target your writing accordingly. And always send a query letter to a major publication before submitting a completed article, unless you’re submitting “on spec”, or you’re happy to waste precious time on an article that may never be published.
- For a newspaper: Send a query letter to the city/lifestyles/sports editor of your local newspaper asking if they’re interested in publishing an article on the topic. Include the first paragraph of your article and an outline of the rest. Call in two weeks, if you don’t get a reply. Another approach is to send in a completed article for them to consider “on spec”. In this case, the editor will read it but doesn’t have to publish it.
- Magazine or other major publication: Think of something you’d like to write about, then send a query letter to the editor of a pertinent major publication asking if they’re interested in publishing an article on the topic. Include the first paragraph of your article and an outline of the rest. Call in four to six weeks if you don’t get a reply.
- Online: Check online job boards for columnists, bloggers, web content creators, and other writing jobs. Use a query letter approach in an email if it seems appropriate, or simply respond in a straightforward manner to the job’s description. For guest blogging, make it clear you have read and enjoyed the blog in question and keep your suggestion short and sweet. Good blogs get an an overwhelming amount of requests and yours needs to stand out to make the blogger want to even read it. For article sites, if they require you to apply to be an approved author, then do so and supply all the needed background information and proof of your qualifications. For those sites that don’t need anything more than joining, get on with it and join but don’t rely on these sites to make a living!
11. Write your article. If you haven’t already sent a full article but just the query, then it’s time to get started once the client or employer confirms that they want your writing. (Congratulations, by the way.) Write in your own unique and brilliant way and avoid conforming to the mold of other writers. By all means conform to the required guidelines of the publication in question but try to avoid cliches, hackneyed turns of phrase, dull prose, and deadly boring content. You’ve got that worked out already, right?
- Keep a thesaurus, dictionary, and grammar book with you at all times. If you’re writing in an English that isn’t your own dialect, or isn’t your native language, also have the grammar for the English you’re writing in.
12. Find steady freelance writing jobs or even ongoing contracts. There are plenty of possibilities in both print media and online media. The difficulty will always be the competition, so you’ll need to keep your style sharp and interesting, your list of contacts detailed, and your motivation stoked. Keep improving your writing skills by reading widely, attending relevant talks and seminars, and staying up-to-date in the areas you’re writing about. This is especially important if you’re writing in areas that change rapidly, such as technology and fashion.
- Update your portfolio every time you have an article published.
- Learn from your editor’s comments. Fix your grammar quirks, mend your heavy prose, and celebrate the fact that someone is giving you golden advice on how to improve your writing skills.