10 Steps to a Freelance Writing Career

One of the keys to freelance writing success is finding the right market for you. Developing a writing specialty that is both enjoyable and profitable will bring you long-term success as a writer. You don’t have to limit yourself to a single market. You should find and exploit your strengths in as few or as many areas as you feel comfortable working in. Below is a ten-step plan that outlines how to find success as a freelance writer though specialization.

Step One: Analyze your Strengths as a Freelance Writer

Make a list of subjects that you both know about and feel you would enjoy writing about. Ask yourself:

  • What do I know that others either don’t know or don’t understand?
  • What am I educated in?
  • What work experiences do I have?
  • What would I like to learn more about?
  • What am I passionate about?

Don’t just ask these questions in your mind. Write down your answers. You will need them for later steps. Don’t be afraid to get specific. “I like to write about psychiatry” is a valid answer, but “I like to write about healing children who have been through psychological traumas” is a much more specific answer that could lead to articles or even books.

Write down all of the jobs you have held and classes or other educational experiences you have had. Even if you don’t plan to write about them right away, you may find that they can add unique twists on article ideas. Sticking with the psychology theme, if you once held a job as a florist, you might decide to write an article about the psychological effects of flowers on trauma victims.

For more information try 6 Freelancing Lessons from Tony Stark, aka “Iron Man” and Do Interesting Things.

Step Two: Analyze the Freelance Writer Markets

There are many markets for your writing. From print magazines to blogs to web content providers to small and large businesses. Don’t limit yourself to the publishing giants. The competition is steepest there, and unless you have a solid reputation and some good connections, you will find it very hard to crack those publications. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to crack them, but don’t make that your primary focus or you are likely to spend a lot of time waiting for assignments rather than completing assignments and getting paid.

Some markets to consider: consumer magazines, trade magazines, professional journals, newsletters, local and regional publications, electronic publications, textbooks, and corporate publications. This is by no means an exhaustive list of publishing opportunities but it should give you an idea of where to start.

Use your Internet resources. Search for sites that deal with your areas of interest. They can be both publication possibilities and research resources.

For more information try 40 Freelance Writing Markets Paying $100 or More (Much More) and The Monster List of Freelancing Job Sites.

Step Three: Pick Your Initial Freelance Writing Specialties

Not every specialty you have is going to be highly marketable. There are many factors to consider when picking your initial specialties:

  • The number of potential clients (Publications, businesses, people) who may be interested in your specialty.
  • Whether or not you have something new to add to the area of knowledge in that specialty.
  • The potential profitability of writing in that specialty.
  • How long you feel you can write in that specialty without becoming bored or running out of things to say.
  • Do you have equal credentials to the people publishing in the field? If not, can you find a co-author who does?

Analyze your list of specialties and decide for yourself which ones have the greatest chance for success. Pick specialties for which you can both find markets and maintain your motivation. Generally, you want to start with from one to three specialties. The list of specialties can grow over time, but don’t spread yourself too thin at the beginning.

For more information try Should You Specialize in Website Content? and The Freelance Copywriter’s Unfair Marketing Advantage.

Step Four: Find Freelancer Allies

Even before you start sending out queries, you should start making contacts. This requires research and bravery. You need to find professional organizations, clubs, support groups, special libraries, experts and any other resource that will help you succeed in this specialty. Don’t settle for just knowing where, what, and who these resources are. Contact them and establish a relationship. You will need them for more than article research.

Knowing all of the people within a certain field will result in assignments and other opportunities. In addition, you may find that one or more of the “experts” in the field are looking for co-authors or ghostwriters to help them become better known. Just because a person knows a subject, doesn’t mean they know how to write about it. Also, look for other writers who are writing in your field. Contact them. Try to convert them from competition into allies. Sometimes, other writers are so swamped they might forward opportunities to you. Someday, you might be in a position to do so yourself.

For more information try Let me Show You Inside a Secret Blogging Alliance and Are You Forgetting to Network With Your Friends?

Step Five: Start the Query Process

Make a list of ten or so publications or clients that you want to query initially. Analyze their needs. Read back-issues and Internet pages of publications. Look at the past publishing history of business clients. Contact publications and ask for their submission guidelines. Many major publications will not accept blind submissions. If your heart is set on them, you will have to find a way to develop a rapport with the editor.

Try for a variety of prospects so that there is as little overlap as possible. Try different types of publications, different regions, different companies and so forth.

Querying is, of course, an ongoing process. When your first round of queries is out, you will want to be researching your second round. Don’t just wait for opportunities. Be proactive.

For more information try 7 Steps to a Successful Freelance Query and How to Write a Query Letter.

Step Six: Gain Something from each Freelance Assignment

You may find that your initial assignments don’t pay as much as you would like. Sometimes, they may not offer any money. Chances are, you will not start off at the top of the pay bracket unless you happen to be well-known in your field. The key is to work your way up that pay scale at a speed that is acceptable to you. To do this, try to gain something from every assignment. Much like an athlete or a musician, your initial aptitude and ability will only get you so far. Experience, research and coaching are needed to get you the rest of the way. Here is a partial list of ways you can improve your writing:

  • Find at least one new source (Person, book, web site, article) for each article you write, even if you have covered the territory before.
  • Write each article with the intent to improve one aspect of your writing skills:(To write more quickly, to make less initial errors, to improve your editing)
  • Do everything you can to meet every requirement your client has set (Subject, sources, length, supplemental materials, and of course, deadline.)
  • Improve your relationship with the editor or client. Sometimes you can get to know them as a person. The busiest ones will not be as open to talks, however, even if they like you. Don’t take it personally and don’t be an annoyance. At minimum, ask a client what else they are looking for and follow up with another query. Remember the first part especially. Often, editors already have ideas. All you may need to do to get an assignment is ask.
  • Develop a circle of mentors or peers. Join a writing group. Email a blogger. Form individual relationships. Find people who can help make you a better writer and a better freelancer.

For more information try 5 Things You Never Say to an Editor and Proofreader’s Marks.

Step Seven: Develop a Clipping Library of your Freelance Work

Keep all of your published materials. Keep your initial computer files and keep any print versions of your work. A clipping library will come in handy in many ways. You can use the information as sources for new articles, to refresh your knowledge of something you’ve covered, and to send out as samples to new prospects. Organization is not always easy for writers, but an efficient filing system can do wonders for your projects. In effect, you become your own research library. This will come in handy when it is time to recycle and reuse.

For more information try Quick Guide to Creating an Efficient File System and Getting Things Done: How to Take Control of Life.

Step Eight: Recycle and Reuse your Writing Work

One of the great advantages of having a specialty is that you can constantly reuse your work. Here are just a few examples:

  • If you have retained the rights, you can resell articles as reprints without changing a word. That means you can get paid two or more times for the same exact article.
  • You can repurpose an article. For example, an article about preventing heart attacks can be rewritten slightly for sale to a fitness magazine, a business management magazine and a senior citizen’s magazine. A new introduction and the personalization of a few items might take an hour, and the new sale might pay the same as the initial article or even more.
  • You can combine pieces of more than one work into a new, different article.
  • Once you have written a number of different articles about a subject, you can consider combining them together into a book. Publishing a book on a subject is a great way to generate new prospects and to be recognized as an expert in the field.
  • You can give lectures based on your articles. Depending on the subject, lectures can pay quite well, and they further establish you as an expert in the field.

For more information try Repurpose or Reprint? What Do I Do With My Articles Now? and How To Repurpose Your Articles.

Step Nine: Work on Your Writing Credentials

Anything you can do that builds your reputation as an expert in a field will improve your opportunities. Here are a few ways you can work on your credentials:

  • Take classes in your specialty, and if possible get a degree or a certificate.
  • Teach seminars or classes or give lectures in your specialty. This is much easier to do than it sounds. Provided that you don’t have a fear of public speaking, you can almost read straight from your articles. The best part is that these opportunities don’t just improve your standing; they are generally paying opportunities.
  • Be available for interviews. If someone else wants to quote you as an expert in the field, jump at the opportunity.
  • Attend conventions and other gatherings of people in the field. Even if you aren’t giving a presentation, you can still introduce yourself to people and tell them you write in the field.
  • Write a book or an eBook. There is no better way to establish your credentials than to write a book about your hey subject.

For more information try Thirteen Steps to Write and Publish a Free Ebook In Thirteen Hours and How to Become an Expert on Nearly Any Subject.

Step Ten: Learn When to Say When

As stated earlier, you can continually expand your specialties. You might start out writing about two subjects that may or may not be related. For example, you might start out writing about the Russian economy and about model trains. After a year, you might find that your interest in the Russian economy has lead to an interest in Middle Eastern business practices, and that your interest in model trains has either vanished or is failing to generate the business to make writing about it profitable for you. You can always drop or cut back on one specialty to pursue another or to concentrate on your remaining specialties. You can also go back when and if you feel it is time for another try.

For more information try How to Defeat Burnout and Stay Motivated and Are Your Stuck?.

2 thoughts on “10 Steps to a Freelance Writing Career

  1. Very good stuff.
    I started out as a freelance writer with Associated Content. I was a military guy so I needed the extra cash!
    I now write for several sites- Associated Content, Digital Journal, Examiner, Demand Studios to name a few. They all have their advantages. All of your tips apply to the freelance writing world. I don’t do it full time, but I do believe it is highly possible to make it a career- IF they stay focused on the tasks at hand per each site’s design.
    For instance, Associated Content doesn’t pay a lot up front for articles like they used to. Yet if you write one article a day and spend 30 minutes promoting it in different corners of the web, you can rake in serious dough after 6 months just from residuals. Pam Gaulin makes over $1,000 a month in residuals alone from stuff she wrote YEARS ago. I don’t promote much and haven’t written much since my early days but I still get $50 a month off of only 300 pieces.

    Writing for Demand Studios is a different story. If you get hired, you can make $15 per article. But there are many rules and regs for how you write them. But to make the most money, you don’t need to promote articles; you just have to crank out as many as you can without getting rewrites requests. And if you DO get rewrite requests, either do what the editors want or let the piece rot and move on. Most corrections take 5 minutes. You get paid much faster and make more money, but no residuals.

    With Examiner, you can write articles based on your area of expertise. You get no up front money. But the residuals are $1 per 100 clicks. Write on a timely subject and you can make a lot of money FAST, watching your earnings almost up to the minute. I made $50 a month on 25 articles for 3 months straight. Those were articles I whipped up in 15 minutes. To make serious money, you have to have good timing and a good area of expertise. And Examiner has lots of national exposure. This one guy is a “Big Brother” television show examiner. When the show is in season, he reviews the episodes and posts them right after airing. Even interviewed booted contestants. He easily made hundreds of dollars in a DAY.

  2. Excellent article , John. You write with clarity and provided us with a blueprint overview of what is needed to be a freelance writer. As a senior and a second career, I will use it as my guidepost.. Thank you!

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