How One Freelance Writer Kicked Content Mills and Earned Big

Carol Tice

By James Patterson

It was February of 2010. I walked in the door and my wife immediately knew something was up.

“I’ve been let go.”

The words rolled off my tongue and didn’t sound real. I had been let go from my corporate writing and public relations job, the first time anything like that had ever happened to me. Looking back, the next few days were a complete blur of trying to get my bearings and figure out what to do next.

Naturally I was worried. The job market is poor now, but back then it was even worse. Compound that by the fact that I live in a town of only about 50,000, meaning communications jobs were even more scarce. I didn’t have the savings or equity built up in my house to just pack up and move to a bigger market (even if I could sell my house, which was a long shot).

I felt stuck.

For years I had wanted to try my hand at freelance writing, but never had the time to do it with my full-time job — or the gumption to quit and just jump into it with both feet. Getting let go gave me the opportunity I was waiting for.

I decided to turn lemons into lemonade.

For the first few months, I wandered aimlessly through the freelancing desert.

I wrote for Demand Studios. A lot.

It was mind-numbing, soul-crushing work, but it paid the bills. But I knew that wasn’t enough to stand on.

In June, I Googled “Idaho freelance writer” on a whim just to see if there were other people like me in my area. I stumbled across the website of Lindsey Woolman, a freelancer in Boise. I emailed her and asked her a few simple questions about how she got started, how she finds clients, etc. She was kind enough to email me back, and recommended the services of a “freelance writing mentor.”

That was my first introduction to Carol Tice, in June of 2010.

“You have to spend money to make money,” was my line of thinking. I hadn’t invested any money into my freelancing “business” up until that point. In fact, I hadn’t treated it like a business at all.

Listen in on my first mentoring call:

Carol: Well, are you doing X to market yourself?
Carol: Well, what about Y? Are you doing that?
Me: Er, no.
Carol: Okay, well surely you’re doing Z, right?
Me: Not exactly.

Over the next two hours, Carol laid out a plan for how I could land new clients and start having a real freelancing business that didn’t involve selling my soul to Demand Studios.

A marketing plan emerges

Here were her suggestions, and what happened as a result of following them:

  • Go through my LinkedIn contacts and solicit referrals from people in my network. Result: I was referred to client who has given me nearly $20,000 of work over the last year.
  • Try cold calling to break the monotony of sending out emails and not ever getting any responses. Result: After several weeks of call after call and follow-up after follow up, I landed one of the hospitals in my region as a client. I now handle all their writing and social media efforts.
  • Contact old colleagues and see if they needed any freelancing help. I called a former co-worker at a marketing firm in Washington, D.C. and simply asked “Could you use any writing help?” Result: That one phone call landed me projects on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through this whole process, it’s that the age-old principle of the law of the harvest really works. You reap what you sow. If you put out negativity, thoughts of doubt and feelings of worthlessness, that’s what you’re going to get.

But when you put in the work, believe in yourself and your abilities and tell yourself you’re really worth $100 an hour or $1 per word, that’s when things start happening. You should be the only one who can tell you what you’re worth.

James Patterson is a freelance health writer and public relations consultant at OnPoint Writing and Communications. Follow him on Twitter at @jamespatterson3. His past clients include the National Institutes of Health, the President’s Cancer Panel and the National Diabetes Education Program. James has chosen to donate his $50 guest-post fee — it goes to homeless charity Invisible People TV. Want to guest here? See my writers guidelines.


  1. Barb Johnson

    Great post. I’m afraid your first phone conversation with Carol would be mine to the exact T.

    Thank you James. And congratulations on your good success.


    • James

      Thanks, Barb. I know you’ll love the course, and someday maybe you’ll be back here writing a blog post about all your ensuing success!

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Barb —

      MOST writers answers to those questions would be the same. And that’s why they’re not earning well.

      Marketing is POWER. It brings more leads, and then you start raising your rates, and picking and choosing the best clients, and you’re on an upward cycle of making more.

  2. Wendy

    Loved this post. Thanks for sharing, James. I freelance for magazines and newspapers, but plan on branching out into corporate communications this fall when my kiddos return to school. Your post gave me the encouragement that I need to make those dreaded cold calls. Best wishes to you!

    • James

      Embrace the cold calls, Wendy! I know the guys at The Wealthy Freelancer just did a course all about how cold calling is less-effective, but that certainly hasn’t been my experience. Maybe it’s just my personality. I prefer getting a “no” and moving on rather than wondering if an email’s been opened or not. And Carol taught me how to stop being afraid of the word “no,” and rather embrace it as a tool for success. Let us know how your cold calling goes!

    • Carol Tice

      Or…if you hate them…don’t make cold calls. I tend to send what I like to call “warm” emails instead.

      I do some market research about the company — read their site and materials, and then scan for news about the company.

      Then you can pitch them, “I was reading about your company’s recent growth in the Times — congrats! It made me want to take a look at your website, and noticed your blog hasn’t been updated in six months/you don’t have any case studies/a strong About page/whatever else is missing…I help clients grow their business by providing strong content in these areas. Here’s an example: ”

      This was more the technique Ed Gandia at Wealthy Freelancer recommends, and I like it as well. Of course if you were referred by someone to the company, that’s even better — a true warm call.

      In general I say don’t do any marketing technique you hate — because the most important thing is finding what you’re willing to consistently DO. And if you hate it, you’ll stop.

      What’s great about cold calling is it takes so little time to make many reach-outs. You’re not overthinking it, sweating over a query or letter of introduction…it’s just Hi, I’m a freelance writer in healthcare, may I send you some samples? Do you work with freelancers? The end. You can do a lot of those fast and as James saw, often land a client.

      For anyone who missed Peter Bowerman on the Freelance Writer’s Free-for-All (all these tapes are available for members of Freelance Writers Den)…he had NO writing experience, made a few hundred calls, and was fully booked. So that’s the beauty of the cold calls.

  3. vonnie

    Glad to hear about your success, James. I’m beginning the Blast-Off course on August 2. Can’t wait to get started!! 🙂

  4. Mike

    Great post! Content mills and clients that want to turn you into a sweat shop are NEVER good.

  5. Karen

    Great post, and your 3 strategies are good strategies for all of us. Only wish I had a natural talent for cold calls, instead of the irrational fear I have them instead! afraid I may have to stick to the “warm emails”.

    • Carol Tice

      That’s cool. I think there’s no law that says every freelancer has to make cold calls. I personally haven’t.

      My rule is — find marketing you are willing to consistently do, and keep doing it. Use several approaches. I do in-person networking, I’m active in social media, I send queries, I SEO my sites and social-media profiles, I send marketing emails to companies. That was plenty to get me the volume and quality of business I want.

  6. Jonan Castillon

    James, your successful freelance experience inspires me a lot. You are a living testimony that what Carol teaches are working and effective. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Sarah Porter-Pennington

    Great post James. Really inspiring, especially to me. I’m stuck in the Demand Media grind–and I’m so burnt out on it. I have to force myself through it to get the bills paid while looking for clients. I have been sending query letters, but most of the time I only find one-time or part-time gigs. I have a personal project going to get my writer site built, start blogging there and perfect my writing a little more to start querying and cold-calling local businesses. I live in the a rural area and I don’t think there are many freelance writers in my area that are marketing to local businesses, at least I don’t find any on search results.

    I’m just stuck in that place of feeling like I don’t have enough experience to try to explain my writing services to local businesses. I feel like I have a lot more to learn–but I’m hoping by the end of August to be more prepared to market to local businesses.

    I’m sure Carol will have lots to teach me in The Den.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Sarah —

      Well there are certainly oodles of learning materials packed into the Den…happy to have your participation over there! Invites go out to folks on waiting lists Monday and Tuesday, so stay tuned!

  8. Kostas

    Hi, great post, becoming a freelance writer is probably the dream of many people but it requires really hard work especially in the beginning in order to build your portfolio, but when you get the experience and have happy clients who would willingly promote your work you can make a decent income

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