How to Keep Your Head From Exploding With All The Freelance Writing Options

Carol Tice

Head exloding from too much informationThere’s a problem with freelance writing as a career. Luckily it’s a good problem — there’s just so much opportunity!

There are a lot of types of clients and ways to earn. And plenty of writers earn very well.

But there’s a dark side to that bounty, too. Especially for new writers, the marketplace can seem boggling and overwhelming.

Many writers have told me they are paralyzed into inaction. There are so many options, they don’t take any action.

It’s hard to know where to begin, and where it would be easiest to break in.

After all, in the world of good-paying nonfiction writing, there is a ton to choose from. You could write:

  • Articles for magazines, newspapers, trade or custom publications
  • Personal essays
  • Blog posts
  • Case studies
  • White papers
  • Annual reports
  • Textbook supplements
  • Video scripts
  • Speeches
  • Courseware
  • Direct-mail sales copy
  • Brochures
  • Informational web pages
  • Product descriptions

Just to name a few.

So how can you cut the market down to size and find a good entry point? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Start with what you know. If you have life or job experience in a topic, you can use that in your pitches to improve your odds of getting hired. Later, use those clips to move into other areas you might want to write on. My heart sinks when a writer tells me, “I spent 20 years in mortgage finance — but I don’t want to write about that.” That’s an attitude that will make it harder for you to get started and find better pay.
  • Choose a niche or two. New writers often tell me they want to be a generalist because they’re afraid they’ll miss out on gigs if they specialize. But focusing on a single topic or a couple of related ones — say, parenting and food — makes it easier for you to build up expertise and raise your rates. It also makes it more likely prospects who visit your writer website will identify you as the right writer for their assignment. Trust me, you’ll drive yourself less crazy and find more and better opportunities by choosing a couple of topics as your focus. It’s hard to get any traction on your freelance career when you’re writing a smattering of this and that.
  • Narrow by geography. If you can, focus your initial marketing on clients in one major city, or perhaps your state or country if population is small. Yes, it’s a global business and clients could be anywhere, but prospecting locally gives you a better shot at using your local advantage, taking a meeting and connecting with a client in person. It allows in-person networking to pay off for you, too. It’s often easier to find prospect lists by city — of the biggest publications, or fastest-growing companies, for instance. For even more simplicity, match your chosen niche to an industry that’s popular in your town and narrow your prospect pool further.
  • Pick a writing type. Usually, writers naturally gravitate to a particular type of writing — they love case studies or hate blogging. Listen to these instincts and follow them. You don’t have to do every type of nonfiction writing under the sun. Instead, feature two or three types of writing on your site and focus on improving your skills at them. That way, you’ll end up with better clips that bring you better clients and enjoy your writing more.
  • Get feedback. It’s really hard to pursue a freelance writing career in a vacuum. If you can find a writer community where you’ll be mentored and supported and can get your questions answered, you’ll find your way a lot faster.

Recognize that you only have so much time and can’t explore every aspect of freelance writing all at once. Don’t worry that you’re wasting time with the type of writing you’re trying, either, or the marketing you decide to do. Writing is never a waste of time — it’s always good practice for the next gig you’re going to do.

How do you keep your head from blowing off as a freelance writer? Leave a comment and tell us how you’re moving forward.




  1. JaneG

    Don’t be afraid to let go of the writing that really is not yours to do. It will save a lot of time and bring more clarity. I’m afraid I took the longer route, holding on to writing that I thought I should take on simply because I could.

  2. Kevin Carlton


    I totally agree that, rather than being a generalist, you should try and focus on one or two niches.

    And what I’ve found is that there’s an added bonus to this – it doesn’t actually restrict you to your chosen specialist areas at all.

    You may be a specialist in certain types of writing, but you’re no less qualified than the generalist to do any other type of work.

    • Carol Tice

      So true — specializing is a no-lose proposition. I have still been hit to do things I had no experience in — like writing a hiring packet for nurses for a hospital once! Whebn I had no experience writing in healthcare, for hospitals, or for recruiting.

      When you create great clips, they attract great clients…sometimes not even in your chosen niches.

  3. Lindsay Wilson

    Thanks for some great starter tips, Carol! I’ve narrowed the subject matter and identified a niche to pursue, but hadn’t thought of narrowing the type of writing (eg annual reports vs blog posts) or focusing on your local area. I’d always planned on focusing on any location because that tied in with the idea of working from home. But you’re right – people are doubly likely to hire someone they can talk to in person instead of just conversing electronically through the ether. As far as choosing your subject area, that’s one of the few things the content mills are good for. You can write in all areas to get a feel for everything until you decide what you like best.

    • Carol Tice

      I think it helps prevent overwhelm if you concentrate locally when just starting out. You’re more likely to get someone to take a flier on a new writer when they can meet them.

      And I’d counter that you can do pro bono projects for small businesses or nonprofits in your town to get a feel for what you like to do…without the negatives that go with writing for mills. And end up with useful clips, unlike mill work.

  4. Jennifer Gregory

    I totally agree with picking a niche. I resisted for a long time, but my income really increased once I did. For me, I like all types of writing, but I can see when you are just starting out that narrowing the types of writing would be helpful as well.

    I cannot second your piece of advice about getting feedback enough. I was lucky enough to find a writer buddy when I first started and we have been helping each other for over 6 years. We email multiple times a day, read each others work, give each other advice, cheer each other on and lend a shoulder when on bad freelancing days. I honestly couldn’t have done this alone or in a vacuum.

    • Carol Tice

      I’m such a fan of having a writer accountability buddy…you’re lucky to have had one for so long!

  5. Daryl

    Great advice Carol. I also get a lot of help from two people who are even better at grammar than me whenever I need my work to be proofread, and it provides for great feedback. My only issue is the “narrowing by geography”, since I live on a tiny island, it’s already way too narrow!

    • Carol Tice

      I live on a tiny island as well, Daryl, so I consider my “city” to be my nearest major market…Seattle.

      • Daryl

        A tiny island….which is also its own country, which means that there are NO “major markets” in my entire country.

        Not that I’m complaining, but it does pretty much take out the whole “local jobs” thing out of the equation.

        • Carol Tice

          Right – so that’s not the way for you to cut the overwhelm. Instead, maybe cut by industry or type of writing?

  6. Ana Marinovic

    Fantastic. Love it! Perfect advice for where I’m at and for the business planning day I’m about to embark on tomorrow. You’re post has helped re-iterate the best advice known to man K.I.S.S – Keep It Simple Stupid!
    I’m now ready to narrow my niche and target my market. Thanks!

    • Karen J

      I’ve used the KISS acronym for years, Ana, but what gentler-on-myself “second S” word would work just as well?
      Seems to me that constantly reinforcing that I’m “stupid” is counter-productive…

      • Katherine Swarts

        I’ve seen two other versions: Keep It Simple, Sweetheart; and Keep It Short and Simple. And a while back, someone trademarked yet another version as the Keep It Simple Series.

        • Karen J

          Thanks, Katherine!
          I prefer Keep It Simple, Sweetheart (or Sugar) – “simple” isn’t necessarily “short” 😉

  7. Terr

    I also want to chime in about selecting a niche. At first I thought that I had to produce all sorts of projects if I had the ability to do so. But the fact is, there are certain types of projects that I wouldn’t want to produce full time.

    I’ve also learned that even if I’m good at producing certain types of projects, this doesn’t mean that I have to sell these types of services. I’ve learned in general that there are lots of things I’m good at that I wouldn’t sell commercially.

    Also, I’ve also learned to reject the “I’ll do anything for money, JUST GIVE ME WOOOORK!” mentality. I’ve learned that when I solicit ‘anything’, I’ll attract ‘everyone’ and that’s not a good thing. Specializing is best for enjoying my work and attracting the type of clients I’d want to work with.

    • Carol Tice

      Right on — think I forgot to mention you end up a lot happier if you focus on topics you enjoy and build your expertise there. 😉

  8. Kathleen Krueger

    I would add an addendum to the niche advice. Just because you have one or two specialty areas doesn’t mean you can’t still do work in other areas that aren’t as strong. You may find them building with time. Also, I took a course from a veteran freelance writer once who carried several different business cards, each touting a different expertise. On one he was a technical writing expert and another he might be an academic writing expert. He handed them out as appropriate for his networking situations. 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      Well, otherwise we’d never expand into new niches! I’ve always been one to leap on an opportunity to tackle a related subject that I think I could do, to see if I enjoy it. One of my stretch projects was working for a regional transit agency writing their annual report…was a fun challenge! And allowed me to see what doing a government contract would be like.

      Definitely not saying, “Don’t experiment,” but in terms of where you focus your proactive marketing as well as your inbound marketing — what your writer website and LinkedIn profile say, for instance — is good.

  9. Joseph Rathjen

    My eyebrows raised when I saw Speechwriting listed. In high school and college I used to write speeches for students running for school office. I also wrote one for a college professor for a lecture he was giving and he used it. I didn’t realize there was a market for it. I need to look into this. Do you have any resource links for learning professional Speechwriting?

    • Carol Tice

      Not offhand, Joseph, but speechwriting is a lucrative niche. I know one writer who used to write speeches for the president of an Ivy League college. CEOs, big politicians, college presidents…there are lots of prominent people who pay speechwriters because they don’t have time or interest to do it themselves.

      • Karen J

        There are plenty of “medium-small” politicians, and even candidates, who’d be interested in speechwriters, too.
        In fact, I just tonight called-off a project for a local Congressional candidate, because the writing he needed was so far out of my knowledge-zone that I’d have to invest more time in learning the topics, styles and formats than he could possibly pay me properly for.

  10. Joseph Rathjen

    Since I’ve been on LinkedIn, I’ve quickly hooked up with lots of experts in the White Paper writing niche community. A few of them are even mentoring me on how to write a sample White Paper on “How White Papers Can Prosper Your B2B Business” and offer it as a free download for prospective clients to put on my writer’s website. They all agree that it’s the best way to break into the White Paper business and have something to show off and offer possible clients.

    I’ve been sitting on the fence for a while myself deciding on what niche suits me the most. So far, I’ve whittled it down to magazine articles and white papers. Although learning White Papers is a bit more involved and intimidating, the time spent learning how to write them (and the low cost) could wind up being very rewarding in the long run.

    • Carol Tice

      I think white papers are often an upsell with an existing client…but writing one for your business is another great way to show you can do that!

  11. Sara

    Thanks for these tips! I was able to narrow down my focus in just five minutes. This will also help me speak more specifically and confidently when I tell people what I do.

  12. Katherine Swarts

    Nice. I can easily see most of the principles here being applied also to using marketing guides, focusing a business plan, even spending leisure time. (As the old saying goes, “Life is too short to read bad books,” and “The good is the enemy of the best”–someone else’s “best” may be only your “good” or even your “bad.”)

    Pleased to announce that I have finally found my own accountability buddies–and would add that, if anything, the “talk in person” principle is even more important here than with clients. No question that online communities are great, but when all is said and done, it’s hard to get to know a 100%-virtual friend on the deeply intimate level that multiplies exponentially the instinctive sense for what someone really needs–and the best Skype system still can’t relay a comforting arm around the shoulder.

    Sign me “A Recovering Do-Everythinger.”

  13. Holly Bowne

    What a great post! I often do feel as if my head may explode from all the wonderful information I glean from the Writer’s Den, your blog, Linda’s blog and all the lovely writers willing to share their expertise in webinars.

    I’m beginning to identify my primary niches, and only today I was contacted about a blogging opportunity which definitely falls under the category of “writing that really is not [mine] to do,” as your commenter JaneG stated above. It’s a niche I know nothing about, nor do I have a burning interest to learn about it.

    I’ve decided to do something I’ve never done before, and allow this opportunity to pass. Hopefully, by doing so, I’ll make room for more appropriate-for-me opportunities to fill the void. (It is a little scary to turn something down!)

    • Carol Tice

      Congrats on your first ‘no,’ Holly. If you’re going to build the business, you have to realize every nibble is not necessarily for you.

      I find that saying ‘no’ to undesirable jobs often clears the way for a better offer to come into my life. Hope that works for you too.

  14. Rob

    I was “lucky” in the beginning because I didn’t know there were better paying online opportunities out there than those I could find on the bidding sites. I finally left those when I found a few clients who want regular articles and blogs for marketing purposes. Since then, I’ve expanded into a few even better paying gigs writing content and subscription magazine (online and offline) contributions. Right now, I feel like I have a nice balance between bread and butter assignments and better paying one-off assignments.

    All the while, a book that means more to me than any commercial assignment was put on the back burner for “practical” reasons. I simply can’t bring myself to believe that it will sell. Finally, it dawned on me that I’m making enough to live on now and I can afford to indulge myself in writing for writing’s sake. I’ve allocated 10 minutes a day to the book. That’s all it takes to keep the project going, because if I give it 10 minutes, I usually end up spending much more time on it or, if not, it’s in the forefront of my mind until the next day.

    There are niggling voices of greed and paranoia that keep telling me to spend those 10 minutes looking for more paying work. I’m keeping my head from exploding by keeping those voices at bay. Of course, we have to remain flexible, but that’s what’s working for me at the moment.

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah…I think you’ve earned the right to do whatever the F you want for 10 minutes a day, Rob. 😉

  15. Joseph Rathjen

    Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can spend more time honing our writing skills and building a more professional foundation. I find myself in the same position as you Rob. I have a good paying, full time job so I can spend more time procrastinating over which direction I want to go. I test one niche or writing style here and there and study the results. That’s one thing I like about having a blog. I can see where my writing shines and direct it a niche I’m interested in. Sometimes haste makes waste but procrastination stales a fresh idea. I’ve recently marked off dates on the calendar for forcing myself to achieve things I want to do with my writing. Sometimes putting a plan down on paper and following it religiously can force us out of the procrastination trap.

  16. Jessica, The Debt Princess

    “paralyzed with inaction” that’s so very true.

    I struggle with moving beyond my three small clients. I want to get a few more so I have a decent part-time business with this (I’m a part-time teacher as well) as well as changing the niche I’ve been working in towards what my actual degrees and expertise are in. I find that I get overwhelmed with directions/options which often paralyzes me.

    • Carol Tice

      You’re definitely not alone with that, Jessica. I often run into writers I’ve mentored a year earlier, or who are longtime Den members, who confess they floundered about for a year or more before focusing on a direction — and then seeing quick results.

      When writers ask me where to start, I say, “Somewhere.”

      Stop worrying about which is the best way, or the best market, and try something. See if it works. If it doesn’t, try the next thing. Entrepreneurs talk about startup iteration — quickly trying and changing and pivoting your business as you see how the marketplace responds. That’s what freelance writers need to do too!

      • Katherine Swarts

        Any suggestions on the specifics of gauging “working” or “not working”? There are plenty of people who discourage way too quickly after expecting too much too soon, and many others who wholeheartedly believe in a certain path and keep to it for months until it succeeds. Is there a recommended length of time to try something before giving it up on the grounds that it’s shown no obvious results and you’re less than sure of your commitment to it?

        • Carol Tice

          I usually think 3-6 months trying a marketing strategy before abandoning it. You need to put some time in. And then I try to do 6 month and 1 year analyses of how I got my clients — what marketing is paying off? Then I do more of that.

          I know I never would have found the great in-person networking opportunity I did if I’d given up in the first month or two. I had to try several different events before finding the one where my prospects hung out.

          Once I did a post about a marketing technique I did that had worked for me in social media. One commenter responded, “Oh, I tried that once.”

          “Oh,” I said. “I tried that until it paid off.”

          I think you need a certain not-give-up-itis to do this career. You need to be an unstoppable force and keep going despite rejection, not crumple at the first “no.”

          If you’re less than sure of your commitment to doing something, then it’s time to examine why that is before moving forward.

  17. Danyelle C. Overbo

    It’s like you read my (exploding) mind, Carol! I have been feeling very overwhelmed. There are so many things to take into consideration and I don’t even have any direct clients yet! I’ve been working on my website and launching a blog, but I keep getting sucked down the rabbit holes of information out there for every little thing. It can be exhausting. I think I’ll take a step back and try to whittle down to my location and a couple niches. Is there a simple step one for reaching out to these clients once you’ve picked a niche or two?

    Also, just wondered about the links that don’t work sometimes for previous posts you’ve put up. For example, the link to Textbook supplements in this post isn’t working for me. I get an Error 404. Just fyi. 🙂

    Thanks, Carol, great advice as always!

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Danyelle — we did an update where we took the dates out of posts, but it’s causing some problems…if you open that and then suck out the date it should work. Also you can often Google the topic and Make a living Writing and find it that way.

      But thanks for alerting me — need to get on fixing these up — the problem is when they’re sent out via my Mailchimp, their feed/forwarder 404s and won’t kick over to the new link.

  18. Sofie

    As a beginner I’m a bit struggling with the geography tip.
    I’ve been blogging in English for over a year now and I want to keep working and writing in English, but I would also like to target the Flemish speaking part of Belgium, where I live.
    The thing is I don’t have any provable experience writing in Dutch yet, so I was thinking about translating the content that I do have already, but the idea alone…
    It’s not really a creative thing to do, is it:/

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