Recently, my niece reached out to me (Hi Lauren!) and asked me how to get started as a freelance writer. She’s a college student who wants to make some extra cash without the schedule issues of a “real job” as she takes a full course load.
Instead of spamming her with 10,000 texts, I decided to write a brief primer on how I would start making money from my writing if I were new to freelance writing.
What Do I Know About Freelance Writing?
I have supported my family for the past six and a half years from my writing. Every year I have made more money than the previous year. During that time, I have also been the primary caretaker of my four children. I usually put between 15–30 hours a week into my writing business, but I still earn a full-time income.
When I started working as a freelance writer, my previous business and career had imploded. We had no money. The only reason we weren’t homeless was the generosity of our family. My rise is more tortoise and less hare.
I make most of my money as a copywriter and a content writer. I love helping businesses grow and reach new clients and customers. I am a colossal marketing nerd. I am fascinated by what motivates people to buy and what scares customers off.
I’ve carved out a career that I love, and that gives me a lot of freedom.
Everyone needs to find their own path. I’m not going to lay down the ten commandments of making money from your writing. There is no freelance writing gospel. But, I can share what has worked for me, what mistakes I made, and what trends I’ve noticed over the past six years. If you think something else will work better for you — do it! You know more about you than I ever will.
Ideally, you will eventually have your own freelance writing website. It doesn’t need to be fancy. You need to own your domain name. I prefer using WordPress for my sites, but you can also use Square or Wix to develop a simple, professional website.
However, if you’re a broke college student, you may not have the funds to invest in a website right now. That’s okay. But, you should make it your goal to get a basic website set up in the next 60 days. It isn’t very expensive. You can do it for as little as $10 a month and a lot of googling.
The key to getting started as a professional writer is to find a way to get someone to pay you. This sounds obvious, but many aspiring freelancers never get past this first step.
There is nothing like the feeling you get the first time you get money in your account from writing you have done.
Making money as a writer is as much about confidence as it is about skills.
If I were getting started today and I had no professional writing experience and no cash, I would start by setting up a Fiverr account and hunting for work on job boards.
A Word About Content Mills
Sites that pay you pennies per word to write content are known as content mills. They are not a good place to build a career. A quick search will show you hundreds of articles about the evils of content mills. These articles aren’t wrong.
But, if you have zero experience and no money to invest in your career, they are awfully tempting. There is no barrier to entry. But, you will make less than $5 an hour on these sites for a long time. There is almost no way to level up.
There are other ways to get started. What you really need are writing samples. You don’t need to work at a content mill to get those.
What Sites Should You Start With?
Other popular first stops for new writers are bid sites like Upwork, Guru, and Freelancer. On these sites, you apply for gigs by submitting a bid. When you have no reputation on the platform and no samples, you are stuck trying to be one of the cheapest options just to get your first assignment.
These sites also charge you to apply for jobs after a certain point.
Many would-be writers spend hours a day scanning these sites and bidding for jobs. It makes you feel productive, but it actually wastes your time and prevents you from getting paying work faster.
I think you are better off avoiding them completely. For new writers, they are only marginally better than content mills.
I like Fiverr because you control your rates and clients come to you. I also like that you know you’re going to get paid for your work. The site isn’t perfect. You end up paying 20% of your rate to the site. But, since you control your rates, you can price the commission into your rates.
For example, I charge $150 for a basic 500-word blog post on Fiverr. This means I make $120 and Fiverr gets $30. I’m comfortable with the $120 rate because Fiverr does all the marketing and billing for me.
Fiverr is better than the bid sites because customers come to you. It is better than content mills because you control your rates and you can level up quickly.
You will want to make sure that you have other sources of income besides Fiverr. Since you don’t own the platform, it could disappear tomorrow. The algorithm could change, and you could be left without clients — the more sources of income you have as a freelancer, the better.
Here are some tips to start making money on Fiverr:
The best advice I ever found about Fiverr was, start out by offering something so good someone would be crazy not to try you out.
When you’re new to Fiverr, it can take a long time to get traction because there is a lot of competition. But, once you start making sales, the platform can be a consistent source of revenue.
I started out on Fiverr writing two 500-word articles for $5. I only did this until I had a few reviews and enough orders to level up. Fiverr uses a leveling system. The higher your level, the more freedom you have for your gigs.
Once I had five reviews, I doubled my prices. I kept doubling my rates every week until I felt comfortable with my reviews and my workload.
Within just a few months I was charging $25 for a 500-word article. Within a year I was charging $50.
I currently charge $150–175 for a 500-word article.
Fiverr can help you get experience writing a variety of different types of content. It’s a great way to test your skills and the demand for your services.
But, it’s unlikely you can make decent money from just Fiverr, at least at first. The second place you should start looking for work is on reliable job boards.
Job boards allow you to connect with people looking for writers. These people are posting on job boards because they don’t know where to find a writer. Often, they are comfortable working with beginners.
Some of the best job boards are:
I have personally had to most luck with Problogger. But, I’ve landed decent gigs on the other sites as well.
I have also found work on Craigslist. You need to be careful using Craigslist. Because it’s free to post a job, there are a lot of scammers. If it sounds too good to be true, skip it. I stick to major cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco when scanning Craigslist.
You should never write for free or for exposure based on a listing you find on Craigslist.
When it comes to increasing your chances of landing a gig you need to follow the directions carefully and exactly.
Read the entire job posting. Often, they will ask you to use a specific phrase in your subject line or as your first sentence. This is how they filter out people who don’t care enough to read the entire job posting.
If the post asks for three samples, give them three samples. Not one and not ten. I have hired writers from job boards before, and anyone who failed to follow this simple direction was eliminated from consideration immediately.
For best results, you should check out job postings first thing in the morning and apply right away. Often so many people apply that the posters only look at the first ten or so applications.
They want to see your samples. If you don’t have any samples, you should create some.
There is a lot of advice on the internet about how to get samples of your writing. I hate most of it. I think it’s a bad idea to offer to work for free for friends and family to get a writing sample. It puts an award strain on those relationships.
Here’s what I did instead.
I went to the job boards and looked at three different writing jobs I wanted to apply for. I then imagined what kind of article they would want me to write. Then I wrote that article. I proofread it several times and used it as a writing sample.
It worked I just attached the Word files I had created as my samples. Eventually, I got hired to write for other people, and I used those projects as samples.
You can also use your own blog or Medium posts as samples. But, the best writing samples are in the same general field as the job you’re applying for.
What Type of Content to Write?
There are a lot of different kinds of content you can write. Starting out, I would stick to blog posts. There is a high demand, the format is simple to learn, and you can turn out a high volume of work quickly, once you get the hang of it.
Writing for businesses tends to pay more than writing for lifestyle blogs. I prefer writing B2B (business to business) content because the clients are nicer, pay more, and they need a lot of content.
Over time you can experiment with other types of content. I rarely write blog posts for clients anymore. I find that writing web copy, emails, and video scripts are more profitable and more enjoyable for me.
But, as you begin, keep it simple. The skills you learn writing blog posts will translate well to any other type of content writing.
Thoughts About Your Rates
Don’t sell yourself short. With the exception I noted above about Fiverr, you should expect a decent rate for your work. Even as a beginner you can reasonably charge $25-$50 per 500-word post.
I wrote a longer piece about freelance rates:
How to Set Your Rates as a Freelance Writer
The mechanics and best practices for setting your freelance writing rates
TL/DR Charge more money than you think you should.
Niche or No?
Most freelance writing experts say you should have a niche. But, you don’t need a niche right away. You may need time to see what topics you’re drawn to. That’s fine. However, when you apply for jobs, I wouldn’t mention that you were a generalist.
If the job is for a bank, you can say in your cover note that you are a financial writer. Then include samples related to finance or banks. If the job is for a virtual reality company, say that you are a technology writer or a video game writer and include relevant samples.
This isn’t lying. It’s marketing. You are positioning yourself to get the job.
When You’re Ready to Set Up Your Website
Once you have enough cash, create your own website. It doesn’t need to be fancy. It can be just a home page and a portfolio page.
For the first few weeks or months, you will not get a lot of business from your website. But, having a website makes you look and feel more professional.
When you can send links to your portfolio with your job board applications, you will start landing more jobs.
But, the real reason to start your own website is that it lets you start cold emailing clients.
Many new writers are scared to cold email clients.
Get over it.
Cold emailing is much better than cold calling, and it can help you ramp up your income fast.
I wrote a detailed piece here about cold emailing:
How to Write a Cold Email When You Have No Clue
From subject line to sign-off, a foolproof plan for crafting effective cold emails
TL/DR cold emails are a numbers game. Send out way more than you think you need to.
Whenever I hit a lull in my business, I send out a batch of cold emails. I always land at least one project.
If you want to be a professional writer, you have to be willing to track down some work. Not all the jobs are going to come to you. Cold emails are great because often you end up getting jobs nobody else was even applying for.
Make sure and send a link to your portfolio, or one specific portfolio piece in your email.
Other Ways to Make Money
Working for clients is not the only way to make money as a freelance writer. You can earn a nice side income writing for blogs that pay for guest posts.
I enjoy writing locked posts for Medium. You can get paid to write about almost anything here. Some writers are making great money from this site:
How I Increased my Medium Earnings from $180 to $3000 in Three Months
Spoiler: I wrote a lot.
Before you start applying for writing jobs, you need to take care of a few basic business details. You need to have a PayPal account. I would also recommend a Stripe account. This is how you will get paid. You most likely don’t need to incorporate or open a special business account. But, you are responsible for checking the laws in your location.
Some freelancers use fancy software to keep track of invoices and their income. I now use FreshBooks for this, but for the first several years I just used a Google Spreadsheet and sent invoices with PayPal.
The Right Mindset
You can make money online as a freelance writer. The sky’s the limit. I know of writers who work seven days a week and make $300,000 a year. I’m too lazy for that. But, I also know of many writers who work part time and make $40,000, $60,000, or even $100,0000 a year.
It takes hard work and persistence. The hardest part is starting. If you’re willing to keep going even when things are slow, or you run into a bad client, you will make a great freelancer.
It’s a fun way to make extra money, and the freedom is incredible.
Here some additional posts I’ve written about freelancing: