If you’ve ever wanted to help hone a brand’s social media voice or get published in your favorite magazine, freelance writing is an avenue to make that happen. A freelance writer is able to take on a variety of assignments, all coming down to their ability to write and communicate effectively given a set of parameters. Some treat freelancing as a way to make extra money while others turn it into a full-time profession.
Breaking into the business of being a freelance writer takes many different shapes, whether you go from a full-time writer employed by a company to a project-by-project case or create a website to spotlight your abilities as a writer and advertise you’re looking for work. Additionally, there are many niches of freelance writing that apply to a variety of types of businesses.
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There’s so much to talk about when it comes to how to become a freelance writer and the opportunities available. Hopefully I can give a bit of an overview to get your journey started:
How I became a freelance writer
The path to become a freelance writer is different for everybody. Every writer takes a different path to becoming a freelancer, but you may find the story of Gabe B., an editorial writer with 10 years of freelancing experience, helpful:
“I originally studied journalism in college, where I learned the foundations of writing for newspapers, magazines, news websites, broadcast news, and more. There was also light instruction on freelance writing, but most familiarity with the practice came from actually doing it. During college, I freelance wrote a couple of articles for smaller publications, which was a great experience in terms of refining story ideas and working with editors.
After graduating, I accepted a fellowship at a news startup. Once that ended, I had to figure out my next steps. While I was hoping to land a full-time job, that did not immediately happen. Instead, I started freelance writing for another news startup. They could only offer me 20 hours a week, but I took it. During those 20 hours a week, I wrote a couple of news blogs and one bigger feature story. Eventually, I was offered a full-time position with the publication because they were now familiar with my work and there was a job opening.
Since that first job, I’ve had a number of other full-time positions at various publishers. While almost all my time and work went toward these jobs, I did freelance writing for other places every so often. The policy on freelance writing with a full-time job differs from place to place, but usually the rule is that you can take on a freelance assignment as long as it is work that wouldn’t typically fit under what you cover at your full-time commitment. For example, if you write about beauty, you will likely be able to take on a freelance assignment about food.
A few years ago, I split ways from my last full-time editorial job. Since then, I have found freelance writing jobs through a variety of methods. My primary one is pitching editors at different publications story ideas. This is probably one of the most traditional aspects of freelance writing in the journalism world. Pitching requires a lot of work, flexibility, and especially a thick skin because many of your story pitches are likely to be passed on. But once you find a home for a story idea you crafted, it’s a very fulfilling experience.
Every so often, I am also fortunate enough to be contacted by potential employers for freelance assignments. I have either worked with these editors in the past or are familiar with my previous work and ability to execute. Being asked to take on freelance writing may happen if you have a website touting your abilities and showcasing your past work. This gives a possible employer or editor an idea of how likely you are a fit for a certain assignment and the means to contact you to gauge interest and availability.
Since departing from my full-time job, I have taken on many different freelance writing opportunities. My first experiences were with editorial writing, but I have now taken on copywriting, social media writing, and more. They have also been about a wide range of subjects and niches.”
Types of freelance writing
There are many different categories under the umbrella of freelance writing. Of course, there are certain qualities that many of these categories share. The most important one is that all types of freelance writing require a solid grasp of baseline skills and mechanics such as spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
But considering the wide spectrum of freelance writing assignments available to writers, there’s surely something for everyone. Keep in mind that along with the various formats freelance writing can take, there are any number of topics that can be covered. For example, let’s say you’re a writer interested in health. You might write a reported piece about funding for mental health resources for a newspaper or magazine as one assignment and then write copy for a startup that created an app monitoring healthy sleeping habits as another.
Regardless of what subjects you are most capable of writing about, there are many different types of freelance writing.
This is arguably the most long-established form of freelance writing. Writing for a magazine, newspaper, or news website falls under editorial writing. With this type of writing, you’ll be held to journalistic standards and ethics. In most cases, you’ll have a story assignment and execute it. Some articles will require you to report, meaning pulling together research from various credible sources and interviewing people to use their quotes in the story.
Publications will often hire a freelance writer because they know that writer is well-versed in a specific subject or has access to certain reporting. There are also opinion pieces or “hot takes,” which are less about being objective and presenting the facts and more about pulling together various evidence points, analyzing, and making an argument.
Copywriting is another large subcategory of freelance writing. It’s pretty much everywhere without you even realizing it. As the American Writers and Artists Institute describes the craft, “copywriting is the process of writing persuasive marketing and promotional materials that motivate people to take some form of action.” These actions include donating to a cause, signing up for a newsletter, making a purchase, clicking on a profile, and much more.
Unlike editorial writing, you usually won’t be pitching copywriting ideas. In most cases, you’ll have to apply for copywriting jobs. If you have experience with copywriting, it’s a great idea to have that listed on your professional CV website or have a portfolio of your copywriting work available to view. That way if a business is looking for a copywriter, they can use your website as a resource to see if you might be a potential freelance writer they want to work with.
Content writing is a bit between editorial and copywriting. Instead of telling a story through the lens of journalism, content writing is for marketing purposes. Content writers are still storytellers, but the usual goal is to develop brand awareness and engage readers rather than to persuade someone to specifically buy something.
Overall, content writing will be longer form content such as blogs and articles. The people over UX Planet have some pretty digestive infographics breaking down the difference between copywriters and content writers.
Social media writing
Blending together aspects of editorial, copy, and content, social media writing is specifically creating copy that will be shared on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and more. If it’s for a publication, it often will reflect the journalistic standards and ethics that the publisher holds itself to. But social media writing for a company will likely be more focused on simply helping build brand recognition on social media that will eventually also hopefully convert to more sales.
Social media writing often taps into trending topics to stay relevant in social buzz. That might mean partaking in the latest meme or news cycle. However, a lot of social media writing is evergreen.
At its core, technical writing is a type of writing used to explain complicated, specialized, and technical information to the reader. The most common types of technical writing you have likely interacted with are instructional materials from a new gadget or software manuals. TechWhirl goes into the nitty gritty of what technical writing is.
Business writing is communication materials used in a professional setting. As the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Writing Center explains, it includes “genres such as policy recommendations, advertisements, press releases, application letters, emails, and memos.”
Some businesses will employ freelance writers to create a white paper, an official report that details the company’s mission statement and informs potential customers.
Ghostwriting is when books, tweets, blogs, or any other written material is credited to someone different from who did the actual writing. Celebrities, politicians, and other high-profile individuals will use ghostwriters for their autobiographies. More recently, they will have ghostwriters create content for their social media channels.
Benefits of freelance writing
Freelance writing can be a bit intimidating at first, but once you become comfortable you’ll find that there are a number of benefits that come with the job.
Set your own schedule
The only time restrictions you’ll have as a freelance writer are deadlines. Otherwise, you’ll be able to work whenever you want. This is great for people who don’t enjoy the typical 9 to 5 work day. Meanwhile, other people who like a structured work day can still embrace that mentality. But because you’re setting your own schedule, you can sleep in whenever you want, run errands during the middle of the day, and many more things that come with the flexibility of being a freelance writer.
Work wherever you want
Because you aren’t tied to an office building or even a specific place, you can practically work wherever you want as long as you have the equipment needed to complete assignments. Becoming a digital nomad will allow you to see the world while still making money online.
Manage your own workload
Depending on what your financial situation is, you can work as little or as much as you’d like. If life is fairly hectic and you have other things going on, you can choose to only take on a few assignments. Meanwhile, if you are looking to keep yourself extremely busy, you can hustle to get as many assignments as possible.
Decide what you want write
As a freelance writer, you can be selective with what you want to write about (see our guide on how to start a service business). You may only want to take on stories about a certain subject matter. Or, if you want to learn more about other genres and topics, you can try expanding your horizons and pitch things that are out of your typical wheelhouse.
Steps to becoming a freelance writer
Now that I’ve run through the basics of freelance writing, I’ll touch on some of the steps to becoming a freelance writer. Although everyone has different backgrounds and experiences, these are some general guidelines.
Setting up an organizational system
Everyone has varying levels of organization, but creating a system will help dramatically when it comes to freelance writing. You’ll want to keep track of details such as pitches or reach-out emails that you’ve sent out, assignments that you’ve been given, their requirements (especially the word count and deadline), the rate, and invoicing instructions. Jotting this down in a notebook, Google Doc, spreadsheet, or task management system such as Trello are all different ways to organize your work life as a freelance writer.
Creating a freelancer website
You’ll want to show your previous work and what you’re capable of by creating a freelance website, which will also show that you have an active presence online. Your website can take different forms, but there are two that are most helpful if you are trying to become a freelance writer. If you don’t have any writing samples published yet, using your website as a blog can demonstrate your writing skills. And if you already have work, be sure to have your portfolio on your website or links to your published projects. This will also spotlight the types of writing you’ve done and the topics you have expertise with.
Whichever camp you fall into, it’s good to have links to your social media accounts so potential employers can see your voice on social. This is particularly vital for those that want to get into social media writing.
Generally, your website’s domain name will incorporate your name or business name. And of course, have a contact form or email listed on your website easily accessible in case someone would like to reach out for a freelance writing opportunity.
Choosing your specialty
While being a generalist can be beneficial when you’re more established, it’s important to figure out what you want to write about. That way once you start getting more freelance assignments, you’re building a niche of what you excel at and a portfolio of relevant work. This goes for both the type of freelance writing and the subject material of what you’re writing about.
Securing a freelance writing assignment or job
The next logical step is to finally secure a freelance writing assignment. As aforementioned, nailing a freelance writing opportunity will usually depend on the type of freelance writing. For editorial freelancing, you can start pitching editors to see if they’ll commission one of your story ideas.
Meanwhile, other freelance writing jobs for something like copywriting or technical writing will likely require you to submit an application. You can look for these sorts of jobs on places such as Indeed, Monster, LinkedIn, and more. There are also more specialized job boards for freelance writing opportunities such as Contena, BloggingPro, IWriter, and others.
Setting your rate
One thing that new freelance writers don’t realize they need to do is set their rate. The biggest factor is usually your experience level. If you’re new to the industry, you’ll probably be on the lower end. But once you build a reputation, you can start increasing how much you charge for your work. Rates depend on the type of freelance writing–for example, editorial writing usually pays less than content writing. Also, a bigger, more profitable company or client might have a bigger budget to spend on freelance writers. While keeping all these factors in mind, also know that you should always be paid for your work, no matter what skill level you are at. Do not be afraid to advocate for yourself.
Being able to communicate effectively in a freelance piece is foundational and just as pivotal is staying communicative with your employers and contacts. If you are emailing someone about a freelance piece and they ask a set of questions, make sure you answer all of them in a timely manner. This communication is cardinal throughout the entire freelance writing engagement, whether it’s addressing edits on a piece or updating someone on how a project is going.