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What Is Freelance Writing? Answers to the Awkward Newbie Questions

Carol Tice

What is freelance writing? Makealivingwriting.comI post a lot of tips here on Make a Living Writing for writers looking to earn more. But recently, a look at my Google Analytics revealed a surprising phrase writers commonly search on:

“What is freelance writing?”

This makes me feel I should back up and start at the very beginning. Clearly, I shouldn’t assume every reader knows what this career is about.

Apparently, some folks know that term well enough to search to find out more about it…but they don’t yet know how freelance writing works, exactly.

So let me fill in the blanks today with answers to some of the most basic questions about the world of freelance writing:

Freelance writing defined

Let’s begin with a definition: Freelance writing is any sort of writing assignment that you do for pay, outside of a staff position. Simple as that.

You are not an employee receiving company benefits such as sick leave or vacation pay, or 401(k) matching. And you are not required to appear at your client’s office and do your work there. You work in a place of your choosing, with your own tools, setting your own hours.

That last part is important, because if you work on-site for freelance clients that require you to keep regular hours at their office, the IRS may reject the idea that you’re really a freelancer. If they do that, IRS will disallow all your expense deductions associated with running your freelance business (ouch!), and potentially sue your client to reclassify you as an employee.

It’s worth taking a moment to read up on the legal difference between staffers and freelancers, so that you don’t get into a tax mess later.

Common types of freelance writing

What sorts of writing can be done as a freelance gig? Just about anything you can think of that staff writers, communications specialists, or marketers do, freelance writers also may get assigned. Here’s a starter list:

  • Web pages (informational or sales pages)
  • Blog posts
  • Magazine articles (for consumer, custom, or trade publications)
  • Newspaper articles
  • Direct mail sales letters
  • Newsletters (physical or email-delivered)
  • Annual reports (corporate or nonprofit)
  • Business plans
  • Media kits
  • White papers
  • Case studies
  • Press releases
  • Research reports
  • Speeches
  • Radio scripts
  • Video scripts
  • Video sales letters
  • Marketing emails
  • Internal/intranet company communications
  • Ghostwriting of anything above that takes a byline

As you can see, the world of freelance writing offers a wide variety of writing types to suit every taste. There’s also freelance writing for businesses in every type of industry, from aerospace to washing machines. And publications covering every imaginable topic.

Yes, it can be overwhelming! The trick is to narrow it down so you can focus, and find clients.

What’s the opportunity in freelance writing?

Are you wondering if freelancing is a fad? Just the opposite.

Companies increasingly love working with freelance creatives, and all studies indicate the percentage of people who freelance will only grow in the future. In fact, there are 53 million freelancers of all types now (out of a 322 million population). Which really puts the lie to the frequently-circulated myth that it’s impossible to make a living as a freelancer. It’s expected that 50 percent of Americans will freelance by 2020.

Learning how to become a freelance writer is the best way you can create career stability for yourself.

How to get started in freelance writing

I get emails every day like this:

“I just recently stumbled upon the world of freelance writing! I’m out of work and think this would be a great thing to do, I loved writing in college.

“How do I get started?”

There are several common ways writers break into freelancing and begin creating a portfolio of work, including:

  • Volunteering to write for a nonprofit
  • Writing for friends’ businesses
  • Writing for local businesses you patronize
  • Leveraging writing experience and connections from a day job to get freelance gigs

For more, I wrote an e-book that takes you step-by-step through exactly how to get those first clips and start finding paying gigs.

How to waste time trying to get started

You may have noticed that list of break-into-freelancing ideas doesn’t include “Get on UpWork and start bidding for gigs against 1,000 other writers” or “sign up for a content mill.”

Sadly, while that’s a super-easy step to take, most writers don’t find these productive places to spend time. On intermediary platforms such as UpWork or Textbroker, you may not know who the end client is and are often ghostwriting. Also, many of these listings seem to turn out to be scams.

That means you don’t get clips, referrals or testimonials. Those are the three things you urgently need to get your business launched, so hanging out in these places is generally a colossal waste of time.

Did I mention pay rates on these places are usually painfully low? That’s another reason this doesn’t help you build a freelance writing business — it’s more for hobbyists.

How to figure out pay rates

One of the most complex questions in freelancing is, “What do I charge?” and its corollary is “How do I physically get paid?”

There are resources on going rates, and I recommend you study them to get a sense of professional pay (hint: not $20 a blog post). But freelance rates are highly variable.

There are two simple methods for arriving at appropriate freelance writing pay rates:

The slow method:

Set a rate.

Next time you get a client, ask for more.

Repeat with each new client until you can’t get any clients — then, you know you’re too high (or that you need to find bigger, better clients).

The fast method:

Join a writer community where you can benchmark your rates and get feedback from other working writers on bids you’re planning to submit. Trust me, it’ll be a serious eye-opener about how much to charge. Namely, lots more than you’re probably thinking if you’re comparing your freelance hourly rate to what you used to make in a day job. That’s a mistake.

As far as how to get paid? Check, electronic bank transfer, and Paypal are the most common methods. You can use all three with clients in another country, too.

Big pay tip: Ask for an up-front deposit of 30-50%. That tends to weed out the scammers who’re planning to stiff you.

2 Answers that cover most newbie questions

When you’re a new freelance writer, you’ll have many questions — about deadlines, deliverables, contracts, and more. The vast majority of them can be answered one of two ways:

  1. Ask your client
  2. It depends

New writers think there is one secret, mystical set of rules about ‘how it’s done’ in freelance writing that they aren’t privy to. And they’re afraid to ask.

But really, nearly every freelance gig is different. Asking your prospect or client is the only way to find out. Pros ask loads of questions, so go for it.

No one else but your client can tell you how they want the writing delivered (Word doc? WordPress?), who you should report to, how long this contract is for, and so on.

What is freelance writing? An opportunity

I’m hoping the information I’ve shared above provides a comprehensive answer to the “What is freelance writing?” question. This is a career you create by taking action to find clients — and the income can range from a little monthly mad money to six figures and more, depending on your drive and your talent.

If you know anyone who’s intrigued by the concept of freelance writing, please pass this post along to them.

What is freelance writing, to you? Leave a comment and let’s discuss.


The Recession Proof Freelancer: A 12-Point Plan for Thriving in Hard Times (from a freelance writer who's been there) By Carol Tice
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