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What You Absolutely Need for Freelance Writing Success: My 5 Essential Tips

Carol Tice

There’s a whole lot of freelance writing advice floating around the Internet. There’s a lot of it just on this blog.

Sometimes, writers tell me it’s overwhelming. Couldn’t I just boil it down?

One recent email from a reader brought this home to me. She wrote that she is an experienced writer but had never freelanced and needed to start making money fast.

Also, she couldn’t afford to spend anything on her career right now, not even $25 for a month in Freelance Writers Den.

She wasn’t sure where to begin, and was hoping I could give her a snap answer that would make it happen:

“Please help me!  I know that I have the talent and skill – from past REALLY successful copywriting projects and jobs. I’ve done assignments for Fortune 500 companies and have even won awards.

Could you at least give me the basic secrets for freelance writing success, to get me going?”

I don’t know how secret they are, but yes, I think there are a few basic things you must have, if you’re going to start earning as a freelance writer.

Here’s what they are:

1. A can-do attitude

Are you fired up and burning with a passion to make your living from writing and be your own boss? Are you confident about your skills and willing to put yourself out there?

Most of the writers I meet who aren’t earning are trapped by fears and low self-confidence. They think up excuses about why they can’t move forward — they need a journalism degree, for instance, or the economy’s too crummy to possibly make it as a freelancer today.

Trust me, you will not encounter any bigger challenge out in the marketplace than the negative tape you’re playing in your head.

When writers tell me they’re dead in the water because they can’t find an editor’s email address, or simply can’t manage to hit “send” on that query letter, I know they’re kidding themselves. They’re not doing it because they’re scared.

Pledge to be an unstoppable force until you have the clients you need to feed your family.

Be willing to get creative to solve the obstacles you encounter. Don’t take “no” for an answer. If the rules aren’t working for you, bend or break them or make up your own.

2. A writing habit

If you’re sitting home, waiting to get an assignment in order to write something, this isn’t going to work. Writing is a muscle that needs to be built up, like any other in your body. You need to be working it all the time.

Also, you ought to be writing because you love it. If you don’t love it, this probably isn’t the career for you.

So keep a journal, start a blog, write long letters to your grandma. Have a habit of writing. There is no substitute for writing in quantity and on a regular basis for growing your skills.

If you used to be a reporter like my reader above and now you want to get back into it, begin by writing again. Find pro bono clients who’ll let you do sample work — anything to get the words flowing again. If you’re brand new to writing, same thing — start writing. Then, keep writing.

I was a staff writer for 12 years, required to write at least three stories every single week, often more. If you looked at my writing the year I got that first job and my writing at the end of that time, it is like night and day. Huge amounts of writing will build your skills — and your confidence.

3. A willingness to market

This is the one that divides the women from the girls, as far as earning a living as a freelancer.

Every one-on-one mentee I have ever worked with, I start by asking them one key question. The conversation always goes like this:

Me: So, to begin why don’t you tell me what you are currently doing to market your freelance writing business, so we can talk about what else you might do.

Mentee: You know, I actually haven’t been doing any marketing.

Writers who understand they are running a business know they will need to make marketing a regular activity in their schedule. So understand. This is a business.

Put up a writer website. Get business cards and go to networking events. Get on LinkedIn and start working it there.

Expect to be marketing aggressively for 6-18 months to get your business afloat and build up your client base to where you have a steady flow of good-paying work. It’ll get a bit easier after that, but marketing never goes away.

If you don’t know how to market your business, subscribe here on the blog and get Marketing 101 for Freelance Writers. That ought to get you started.

4. Mentors

If you’d like this process to take ages, try to figure it all out yourself. If you’d like to move along faster, try to lasso an editor or two into critiquing your work on a regular basis.

This is actually how I learned all the basics. Two wonderful editors at two print publications thought my writing showed promise and were willing to be peppered with questions by me on why they changed my lede and cut the quote I loved, and all that. I’d probably still be getting $50 an article if it weren’t for these incredibly giving men.

When I started my blog, same thing. I connected with mentors through Twitter, and through networking groups I joined, who saved me a ton of time and aggravation. You probably wouldn’t be reading this now without them.

5. Writer friends

Finally, no writer is an island. This is lonely work, and your family and friends won’t understand the particular challenges you are grappling with. You need to meet other writers and hang out with them, both online and in person.

Personally, I’ve benefited greatly from going to Media Bistro’s live events…but check around in your town. Do a Google search for the key words you’re trying to rank on and see who tops that search. Then, ask them what writers’ groups are hot locally.

One of those local listservs brought me a lead that turned into a $60,000 client that ran for more than two years. It’s really worth asking around and knowing other writers, especially in your niche. Trust me.

Those to me are the nuts and bolts you need to get your freelance business rolling. If you’ve got questions about getting started in freelance writing, you should know I have vowed to answer 100 freelance writing questions on a recent blog post. Last time I checked, I hadn’t hit my limit yet, so feel free to add yours on there.

What other basic things should new freelance writers do to get started? I’d love it if some of my more experienced readers would add their tips in the comments here.