People frequently ask me how to get started as a freelance writer. I’m here to encourage you. I started from scratch and so can you. It’s not easy, but it’s possible!
The reality check
Before I tell you about how to build a freelance writing portfolio, there’s one thing I want to emphasize first. This will separate you from all of the other people who claim they want to be freelance writers. Marketing expertise, networking skills and creativity are important, but there’s one key factor that will lead you to freelance writing success.
You must love the writing process. This means you take part in the act of writing on a daily basis. You don’t just think about writing. You don’t just talk about writing. You actually write.
As a freelance writer, you will spend the majority of your time alone, writing and editing. You have to be invested in developing your writing practice so that you can help your clients. You’ll be writing proposals, pitches and emails on a daily basis. You’ll probably be writing for very little pay or even for free as you build your portfolio.
This is when dedication to writing and personal accountability will carry you through. If you’re the type of person who can get curious about divergent topics like blockchain technology, women’s fashion, and mobile apps all in the same week, you probably have a shot at pushing through the void to find an opportunity where clients will pay you a decent rate to write for them.
From the beginning, you have to take yourself seriously as a writer. Writers can’t hide. The proof is in your portfolio. You’re selling your skill, so you need to constantly prove that it’s valuable.
If you’re stubborn enough to persevere and humble enough to check your ego for a while, your freelance writing business will begin to take shape. Never take your writing for granted, because unfortunately, other people will. Don’t worry, you’ll probably work with some tough clients who have unrealistic demands, but you’ll quickly move on to better projects, as long as you love your process!
The 6-month challenge
Here’s exactly what I did when I was starting out as a freelance writer.
First, I made a 6-month commitment to jumpstarting my freelance career. At the time, I was working part time at a restaurant, so I would work nights and weekends while my days were free. I was fortunate to have steady money coming in, which made it possible to write for extremely low rates. Each day, I would go to a coffee shop and scour the internet for freelance writing gigs. I looked for any opportunities that would help me build my portfolio.
A caveat to this story is that I’m also a certified English teacher. I knew in the back of my mind that I could probably find a full-time teaching job if all else failed. While I like teaching, I don’t love it the same way I love working as a freelance writer. I really wanted to give freelance writing the honest effort, so I took the risk.
I applied to every single writing gig that I could find, regardless of pay or experience. As part of my commitment, I vowed to say yes to any writing assignment that came my way, paid or not. It was hard to accept that I wasn’t going to get paid the big bucks, but I just needed to build a foundation.
It turns out that this strategy is really effective if you’re stubborn like me. After only a few days, I found an opportunity with a digital marketing agency. I’m going to be honest because I think freelance copywriters need to share information and be transparent about rates. My first paid assignments were for .04 per word.
After my “test” article was accepted, I started to make a few hundred dollars each month for my writing. Yes, that’s right. I started out getting paid about $20 dollars for 500 words. But, like I mentioned earlier, I loved the writing process and I had a goal.
For me, it was fun to do research and learn about different topics. I liked seeing the articles I wrote getting published online. I always knew that I would only work like this for 6 months. Soon enough, I had an array of writing samples to show to my future clients!
Digital agency to Upwork
While the digital agency paid a pitiful rate, it gave me valuable writing experience and I learned a lot. I was making progress as a freelance blogger and I knew that I could increase my rate fairly quickly. I was simply building momentum. It was around this time that I connected the dots between content strategy, content writing and SEO. From there, I went ahead and applied to Upwork.
My first phase on Upwork was a string of product description and blog assignments. I discovered that writing product descriptions is a fairly easy way to get clients. In addition, there are some professional small business owners and digital agencies on Upwork who need reliable content writers. In the beginning, you can use Upwork as a side hustle, but in order to grow, you have to figure out how to pitch clients directly.
As the 6-month deadline approached, I knew I wasn’t working at the level I was capable of. You only have to spend a few weeks on Upwork before you realize that it’s probably best to spend your time and energy marketing yourself directly to clients who have budgets and standards high enough to pay a fair rate. My experience on Upwork helped me develop a no-nonsense approach to chasing leads and a BS detector for clients that aren’t serious about their projects.
Today, my portfolio is full of examples of all kind of content including website copy, blogs, email newsletters, case studies and SEO articles, just to name a few. As you start building your foundation, you’ll find your niche. You’ll figure out the kinds of projects you enjoy working on and what you’re good at. It’s very likely that you’ll expand your digital marketing skillset quickly.
It’s important to keep an open mind at first. Try different things. Be open and willing to say yes! The beauty of freelancing is that it is usually project based. If the project doesn’t go well, you can always move on. If the project does go well, there’s a very good chance your client will continue to work with you as a long-term contractor.
I know getting started as a freelance writer seems impossible. In the beginning, you’ll probably feel like an imposter. Everyone has to start somewhere, so just put yourself out there and be patient. If you keep proving your value, the money will come.
About a year after I started freelancing, I officially launched Karen Miller Writes. My goal is to remain small and keep working toward 6-month goals! Even after all this time, I still love spending my days writing and collaborating with small business owners.