Becoming a successful freelance writer is hard work. There’s a lot to learn, and some of the processes involved are complicated, but getting started isn’t.
Here we've boiled it down to ten simple steps. During your first year as a freelance writer, in particular, focus on these ten steps, every day. This post is adapted from some of the tips contained in the Freelance Writer's Success Kit. Check out the kit if you'd like more help in building your freelance writing career.
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Define Your Specialty
Successful freelance writers specialize. Are you a business writer? A travel writer? A health and wellness writer? Decide. Develop your expertise and education in that area. Build your knowledge and authority on that topic.
Don’t worry too much about the pressures of being an expert. My kids think it’s hilarious that I’m seen as a parenting expert, but you know what? I have a degree in Child & Family Studies and I’ve been published in The Washington Post’s parenting section. I’m (finally) happy to own it.
Find Your Markets
Once you have the expertise and knowledge, you need markets to sell it to. Freelance writing clients can come in the form of magazines, websites or businesses. There are a few ways to find them.
Look at market databases like those at Funds For Writers and Writing For Dollars. Search online for websites covering what you want to write about.
Go to a store (or library) and buy (or borrow) a stack of magazines. While you’re there, pick up a copy of Writer’s Market. Oh, and consider subscribing to get our free list of paying markets for freelance writers (for a limited time, new subscribers are getting a 50% discount off the Freelance Writer's Success Kit too).
Do Your Research
There are two steps to the research process. Start with the writer's guidelines. You’ll find them on most websites that accept freelance submissions (or the website for the magazine or other publication you’d like to write for). You may have to search for them. They may be under ‘submissions’ or ‘write for us’ or somewhere unexpected like the ‘about’ or ‘community’ page. Read them. Every word. Get really familiar with what this market wants from its contributors.
Then research the market itself. Read a ton of articles on the site or in the publication. Read the comments, or readers’ letters. Look at the advertisements and product reviews. Get inside the head of a typical reader. What are her pain points? What’s her knowledge level? What are her goals? At this point you should be full of ideas for articles you could write. Make notes. Jot down possible titles. Outline potential article ideas as you go.
Develop Your Routine
Writers write. It’s that simple. Develop a good, consistent, productive writing routine. Write every day. Aim for a word count. Or do what I do and just start each week aiming to write more each day than you did the day before, then tally your weekly word count. This means if I have a productive Monday, I’m on track for a productive week. When you’ve finished writing, rest, re-write, edit, proof, and polish.
Pitch Your People
Done all the above? Then double check you followed the guidelines, and pitch. Write that query letter (there’s a template in the Freelance Writer's Success Kit). Submit that piece. Then start writing something new.
Build Your Portfolio
Everything you write goes into your writing portfolio. Build a body of work that represents what you can do. Showcase it on your website if you have one, and/or via an online portfolio builder such as contently.com. Save everything you publish. That’s your proof you can do this.
Create Your Online Presence
You don’t need to be everywhere online, but you do need a presence. Aim for a website that attracts your ideal clients. The Freelance Writer's Success Kit includes a client grabbing website guide to help you build a great freelance writer's website that attracts clients while you sleep. Create a presence on social media sites you enjoy and understand. That doesn’t have to be all of them. Craft a cool, succinct bio that accompanies all your online work and links back to your client grabbing website.
Track Your Results
What works? What doesn’t? Your easiest clients are ones you’ve already sold to, so follow up every success with a new pitch to the same market. Where’s your website traffic coming from? Especially traffic that converts to more work? Is it social media or is it the sites you’re already writing for (where people swill be clicking the link in your byline)? Do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.
Optimize Your Systems
Systems are your friend. Templates are your friend. Automation is (sometimes) your friend. Strategic outsourcing is your friend. Get things in place now, before you get busy. Ask yourself what systems you need to have set up before you get super successful and crazy busy.
Plan Your Career
Placing your first ever freelance piece is exhilarating. Celebrate. Briefly. Then calm down and carry on. How can you build on it? How can you repeat it? What next?
Planning your freelance career is like planning any career, and life in general. Where do you want to be in six months? This time next year? Or in five, ten or twenty years? What do you need to do today to make it happen. Go do it.
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