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Freelance Life
How to Become a Freelance Writer From a Successful One
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AnnaMarie Houlis image
AnnaMarie Houlis,
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Journalist & travel blogger
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Freelance writing can be a lucrative career for those willing to hustle — those committed to putting the work into finding the work and then doing that work on their own volition. A successful freelancing career is rewarding, as well; though you work for a number of clients, you're ultimately your own boss, responsible for taking on your own tasks, motivating and even challenging yourself. Perhaps the most enticing facet of freelance writing: beautiful, coveted flexibility.

I left my full-time editorial career to pursue freelancing one year ago, ditching my Brooklyn apartment. With just a backpack and my laptop in tow, I've been earning a living from beachfront cafes on sun-swathed Thai islands, by lantern from camping tents along the craggy cliffs of the Albanian coast and even from long-haul overnight buses across India. Barring the howler monkeys swinging overhead, this surf camp in a dusty Costa Rican beach town is actually one of the most work-conducive spaces I've discovered thus far. Though I am catching the sunset surf soon because I can — after all, I make my own hours.

Since launching my freelance career, I've built a life for myself that means I can go chasing waterfalls by motorbike, hiking lava-spewing volcanos or scuba diving for whale sharks on a Monday. And, often, I even get paid to write about those experiences.

So long as there's a stable Wi-Fi connection, the world is my office. And I've earned more money freelance writing than I had ever earned working as a full-time editor — though the notion that freelance is "feast or famine" is grounded in truth, no less. Some months are better than others. That's largely because freelance writing requires far more effort and is much more time consuming than any job I'd worked before — it's a you-get-what-you-give deal, which means that I'm working hard, albeit from a jungle.

There's no leaving your work at work with freelancing; setting boundaries is a skill I've been fostering over time, though I still find myself working well into the night and early morning several times a week. My editors don't necessarily know my workload for my other editors (nor do or should they care), and so I'll sometimes find myself pulled in multiple directions with a pile-up of impending deadlines. And a decent chunk of my day is answering emails or pitching stories — time for which I don't get paid. In fact, there are days I don't get paid at all; there are no sick or vacation days in freelance.

To call freelance writing a dream job would, therefore, be to negate the underrated difficulty of it — but my job is as close to a dream as I can conjure in my waking life. Here's everything I can tell you about giving freelance writing a genuine go yourself.

What Is a Freelance Writer?

A freelance writer is a self-employed professional who writes for a number of clients — magazines, blogs, businesses or brands. A freelance writer is somewhat akin to a business owner in that they're responsible for managing their work and manifesting their own success. In fact, according to the Internal Revenue Service, a freelancer should even file their taxes as such.

Though some freelancers have contracted work, as well, most freelancers are regularly pitching one-off articles and projects, and getting more work by developing relationships with their editors or managers who continue to hire and recommend them. This means that freelancers neither have the comfort of job security nor the promise of a paycheck — but the aforementioned job perks can make the career choice an alluring one, nonetheless.

How Do Freelance Writers Get Work?

Freelance writers get work from a variety of mediums, depending on the nature of their writing.

For example, magazine writers and social media content creators may get work from cold-emailing editors (or via recommendations among editors) pitches (story ideas). They may also visit magazines' job openings for freelance writers or calls for submissions. There's also a gamut of job platforms freelance writers can use to find work, such as legitimate journalism job boards like MediaBistro.com or JournalismJobs.com, or freelance gig platforms like Fiverr.com or Upwork.com . Then,  of course, there are associations that freelance writers can join, such as the International Association of Professional Writers and Editors, which will email job openings to them each week.

Freelance writers working for businesses on promotional or sponsored content, however, might fare better by reaching out to prospective clients directly. Networking platforms like LinkedIn.com are incredibly resourceful for connecting with industry insiders with fewer degrees of separation; in fact, using LinkedIn to find mutual connections to form introductions can help freelance writers ensure that their emails are actually read.

How Much Do Writers Make Per Hour and How Do Freelance Writers Get Paid?

There's no general standard for a freelance writer's income. That's because freelancers set or negotiate their own rates based on their experience, bylines and credibility — as well as the client's budget. Rates are also dependent upon the nature of the writing; for example, if a writer is covering a reported piece that requires research and interviews, they may earn more than a writer rounding up a lifestyle listicle or creating content for a social media post.

That said, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), writers and authors make, on average, $61,820 annually, which works out to a little less than $30 per hour ($29.72, specifically). Meanwhile, Glassdoor reports that the average salary for “freelance writer” is $42,120, and PayScale says a "part-time freelance writer" salary is somewhere between $24,000 and $115,000. The numbers are inconsistent because the work and the rates for that work are inconsistent.

I make sure to take into account the amount of time and research a piece will take (in addition to any added costs, such as travel expenses), and I work with my editors to come up with a rate that's comfortable for everyone involved. That said, as I've progressed in my freelance career, the number of lower-paying articles I'm willing to spend the time writing are fewer and farther between. As I've built my portfolio, I know what I can and have earned, and so I have to use my time wisely. If one article will take me five hours to write and doesn't pay so well, I may feel more inclined to spend the time pitching new clients or better-paying clients instead, even though I'm not paid for pitching. But if it'll only take me an hour to churn out, and I have the time or feel strongly about the story or company, I may be more willing to do the work at a lesser rate.  

Freelance writers often have the flexibility to work with clients on either an hourly or per-assignment basis — whichever makes the most sense. If they write hourly, they submit their hours likely on a weekly, biweekly or monthly basis via an invoice. If they're paid per assignment, they'll submit an invoice listing their completed assignments also most likely on a weekly, biweekly or monthly basis.

Depending on the employer, they'll be paid shortly thereafter. The most common invoice payment term is net-30, which means they'll be paid for their work 30 days from submitting their invoice. These payments can be made in a variety of ways, typically by direct deposit or check. Though many startups and smaller companies will also pay via PayPal or Venmo, as well.

How Do I Become a Freelance Writer with No Experience?

Freelance writing is far from an easy career to cultivate. It takes time to develop relationships and rapport with editors and managers, and it requires a level of commitment and organizational skills previously unbeknownst to me.

I studied journalism and worked as a full-time editor for five years, freelancing as a side gig before ever diving into it full time. I'd work my typical nine-to-five (or seven or eight) in the office, and head home to hop right back on my laptop and work on the articles I'd commissioned for other publications... for half a decade, discluding the time I spent freelance writing in college, as well. My plan was always to build a network of editors and industry insiders with whom I had a close enough relationship, so I knew I could have a steady flow of work before taking the leap into freelance full time.

That said, I know tons of freelancers today who'd studied history or finance or psychology and worked in totally irrelevant jobs before giving freelance writing a go — and they're successful. It is possible and, often, other fields of study and other career experiences can actually color your writing.

Here's my best advice for you.

1. Start a Blog

The Catch-22 about becoming a writer is that you need to have been a writer to be a writer. In other words, without writing clips, it's tough to prove that you're an adequate writer, let alone a skilled writer worth hiring. Before I ever became a professional journalist, I was a blogger. I launched HerReport.org to share stories about women's issues around the world, and my travels to chase those stories, and that's what I showed prospective employers when they'd inevitably ask for writing clips.

The point is to put yourself out there, let the world know you're capable and get yourself a portfolio started. Websites like WordPress, Squarespace and Wix are popular blogging platforms. WordPress, which I use, allows you two options: WordPress.com, which hosts your blog for you with a selection of themes but limited customization options (it's free for a domain ending in .wordpress.com or starting at $4 per month for your own domain), or WordPress.org (free), which uses third-party hosts like Bluehost (starting at $2.95 per month) but houses your blog and offers a full range of customization options.

2. Write for Free

Writing for free isn't going to make you a living now, but it can lead to a living later. When I started off writing in college, I began writing for websites calling for submissions that didn't pay. I just wanted the byline to add to my portfolio — and, ultimately, valuable experience — so I wrote primarily for other blogs and women's organizations with missions that aligned with my interests. I then had all of that to show when applying for writer openings with women's magazines down the line.

3. Start out on Public Forums

There are tons of public forums for which you can write. Unlike starting your own blog — which requires a ton of marketing, social media promotion and even web design you may or may not have signed up for — there are public blogs that already exist. Take for example, Medium, a platform to discuss tech, politics, culture, business, life and more. In fact, anyone who publishes on Medium (and anyone can) can also join the Medium Partner Program. Through this program, they can earn money for sharing their best stories that readers believe should be compensated.

HubPages is another online public forum where you can get started writing for free. Start your own page that'll be shared with the site's over 34,000,000 monthly readers.

4. Take Writing Workshops

You're spoiled for choice when it comes to writing workshops. Even as a professional writer with a degree and a number of years of experience, I enroll myself in writing workshops. Most recently, I completed a writing workshop for travel blogging that taught me the ins and outs of pitching collaborations with brands and even provided me with email templates and a networking group on Facebook.

You can find tons of workshops on websites like UDemy, which offers 80,000 online classes starting at $12.99, for example.

5. Network

If there's one thing I've learned over the course of my career, it's that networking is a bigger bulk of the job than I'd ever imagined being true. I constantly use LinkedIn and my social platforms to connect with other writers and editors. And a good percentage of the work I do is for editors I've met via other editors or writers who've helped connect or have recommended me.

Here are some tips for networking:

  • Start attending writing conventions and conferences, such as BlogHer or The Writer's Digest Conference
  • Reach out to your personal social networks or former colleagues and ask people about writing opportunities of which they may know — at least let them know you're looking so they'll think of you if opportunities arise.
  • Look for first-degree connections on LinkedIn when you're searching companies for which you'd like to write, and ask them to help you.
  • Join writers' career communities like that of the International Association of Professional Writers and Editors to look out for opportunities and connect with other freelance writers.
  • Email editors and ask them to help point you in the right direction for pitching contacts.

What Is the Best Advice for Becoming a Successful Freelance Writer?

Freelance writing is a challenging but exciting career. Despite the luxuries that freelance writing can afford you, like flexibility and a remote working space, you do need to put in the work to do it well.

Here's my best advice for flourishing as a freelance writer:

1. Just Do It

Motivate yourself to get started somewhere. The worst that can happen is that the recipient rejects your application or pitch. I've sent countless unanswered emails over the course of my career (and plenty of ideas that have been rejected), which have all lead to me to where I am today: a blonde beach in Costa Rica writing this. 

2. Be Authentic

When you go for it, be sure that you really know the content your pitching is right for the client you're contacting. In other words, know your client. Blindly emailing a million editors and brands the same ideas isn't going to translate so well.

Understand that different outlets and brands have different audiences they're targeting, and studying up on their existing content and gauging their followers will always help you tailor a pitch more successfully.

3. Keep Organized

Keep yourself organized once you get going. Organizing your assignments and keeping track of your deadlines and paychecks can quickly become overwhelming. Using simple to-do list apps like TeuxDeux, which is basically a virtual checklist that'll carry over tasks you don't cross off, can help you keep track of deadlines.

Even smart websites like Shovel can help you plan your work and ensure that you use your time wisely, too. Shovel will keep track of what you have to do, calculating how much time you have available to do it (and whether or not you have enough time) all in real time. While it's designed for students, freelance writers juggling assignments and projects can use it, too.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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