How to Win the Freelance Writing Game

Carol Tice

How to Win the Freelance Writing Game. Makealivingwriting.comTrying to make it as a freelance writer can feel a lot like trying to play a very complicated game — one where no one tells you the rules.

Well, today, I get out the freelance-writing game box, open it up, unfold the instruction sheet and lay it out for you.

There are basically two things you need to do a lot of to earn a good living as a freelance writer.

1. Write a lot

I know a lot of writers who don’t seem to write anything until it’s time to turn in a paid assignment. This is not a good approach, unless you have deadlines every day.

Good writers get that way because they write in great quantity.

Most good ones I know usually write every day.

They get feedback on their writing from editors and other writers, which they take to heart.

And they get better and faster at writing.

In their free time, they keep a journal.

Or write a blog.

Many writers are willing to do this write-a-lot part. Often, you’re sort of addicted to writing, anyway.

That’s how you got this idea of earning from your writing, anyway, right?

But here’s the part most writers aren’t willing to do:

2. Market your business a lot

Whenever I meet a writer who complains they are not earning well, I ask them what they are doing to market their business.

They always have the exact same answer for me:

“Well, actually, I’m not really doing any marketing.”


Think of any small business you patronize. Do you think they would have any customers if they never marketed their business?

What happens to businesses that don’t do marketing is simple. They go out of business.

You might imagine that as a creative type, the rules of business are somehow different for you. That you’re magical and special.

But the rules are exactly the same.

Quality freelance writing gigs typically will not jump out from behind a bush and bite you, especially when you’re just starting out.

You have to proactively rise up on your hind legs, and go out and find those clients.

If you do lazy marketing like reading Craigslist ads, you are swimming in a low-value prospect pool, and you will tend to get low-paying clients.

You’ll have to go places that 10,000 other writers aren’t looking to find better pay.

People are always asking me what sort of marketing works best – is it Twitter, emails, direct mail, cold calling?

Here is the best kind of marketing to do: The kind you are willing to stick with.

Here’s why that is…

Have you ever wondered what sort of game freelance writing is, really?

Once you understand what kind of game it is, I think you’ll be able to play it to win.

So here it is:

It’s a numbers game

Linda Formichelli and I find ourselves saying this on the Freelance Writers Den forums all the time.

Writers tell us:

“I’ve sent out this one query letter and I’m waiting to hear back.”


To earn a living at this, you need to send many query letters, or make hundreds of cold calls, or send dozens of warm emails, attend many in-person networking events, or whatever else it is you do for marketing. (You can learn about all of those marketing methods by subscribing to this blog and taking my Marketing 101 course, BTW.)

It’s like the lottery.

Enter more times, and you’re more apt to win the jackpot.

Place bets on many different horses, and it’s more likely one of your horses will finish in the money.

Everybody understands how those games are played.

Play the freelance writing game the same way, and you’ll shorten the time it takes to arrive in the winner’s circle.

Join my freelance writer community


  1. Anne

    Dear me! I feel a bit told off, or at least slapped 🙂

    While writers aren’t “magical and special”, we are quite unique in what we do. Ours is the only profession in which it’s okay to wait for a year before getting paid for work done (in the case of publishing our books). I know I’ve waited for an entire year for a publisher to reply to me. Once I was published, the offers rolled in like a broken dam 🙂 We do get taken for granted. I’m sure you’ve already addressed the subject of clients who want free sample articles.

    You said, “You have to proactively rise up on your hind legs, and go out and find those clients.” While I don’t really fancy being equated to a dog, 🙂 I understand that marketing is a large part of the writer’s work day – so large in fact, that we spend more time marketing than we spend writing. I’m saddened by this because while I’m a great writer, I’m a rubbish marketer. I resent spending 80% of my creative time marketing the 20% of work I actually get to do.

    Good post. Like I said, I felt a bit told off by the tone, but good advice about marketing.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Anne —

      It seems like I’m an equal opportunity offender lately with my tone, after all the feedback on Uttoran’s guest post. So I apologize if you were offended. (Lions have hind legs too, you know 😉

      But it does get tiring to hear the tales of earning woe all the time from writers who don’t do ANY marketing (and I find that is the vast majority of would-be freelance writers). If you are doing marketing, that part of the post isn’t really talking to you.

      The good news is if you find a type of marketing you love (or two) and do it consistently, it shouldn’t be 80% marketing time forever. More like a 12-18 month window of intensive marketing at that level, and then hopefully the ratio of marketing time starts to decline. At this point I have to do little active marketing as I have enough good-paying clients and referrals coming both from them, and my LinkedIn profile and writer website.

      I’d still argue that what we do isn’t unique and somehow different from running a business of any other type.

      We’re in business. That’s the reality.

      Freelance photographers, webmasters, graphic designers, etc etc are all subject to the same sort of payment delays we see. And at the end of the day it’s still about marketing our business and watching the bottom line.

  2. Thomas

    I have my blog URL hyperlinked in my email signature blocks-regardless of who the emails go to, and why I’m sending them, every recipient gets my URL hyperlink.

    Exposure is everything, and even if the email recipient isn’t a direct potential client, they may be a great conduit to one.

    Just be sure there are no typos in the email. 🙂

    Good Stuff, Carol.

  3. J. Delancy

    I wrote a blog post called “40 Things I Learnt By The Age of Forty”, here is number 20, “The people who get promoted are those that work hardest . . . . . . . . on getting promoted.” It’s true in the organization I work for which has over 20,000 employees and it will be true in the world of freelancing.
    Avoidance of the truth (however brutally presented) does not stop it from being the truth.

    Another good post Carol.

    Thanks again.

    • Carol Tice

      So true!

      Reminds me of what my dad told me about college — the most important thing to study was my professors, and what they liked. 😉

  4. Katherine Swarts

    I like the part about “stick with the kind of marketing you are willing to stick with.” (I prefer networking, both e- and person-to-person, by a long shot.) A surprising number of people who would never think of trying to mimic the format of a published bestseller will approach marketing plans with the attitude “Peter Bowerman started with the cold-call-blitz approach so my best bet must be to copy it slavishly, even though I hate talking on the phone.”

    I’d actually like to see a post series–or a Den discussion, forgive me if there already is one and I haven’t found it–on “creating your own best business/marketing plan.” The specialist-vs.-generalist argument exists here no less than in writing itself: some people say it’s important to have at least the tip of a finger in every possible option, others claim there’s nothing wrong with dispensing with (for example) cold calling altogether if you use the same amount of time, and use it effectively, for options you feel more comfortable with.

    • Carol Tice

      I definitely don’t agree you should be trying to do every kind of marketing under the sun…that’s insane.

      For me, I found doing about 3 types at a time was a good mix. Maybe InMail and in-person networking and sending query letters. Now it’s mostly query letters and passive marketing from my writer website and LinkedIn profile. It should always be a couple-three different ways…but definitely not every way!

      You can only figure out your mix with experimentation and seeing what works…so I don’t know how I can teach that! You just have to try it. Every writer gets results with a different approach. I know one writer who gets all his clients shmoozing editors on the phone. I say great! As long as you DO some marketing, it’s going to be a good thing.

      • Katherine Swarts

        Talk about insane, I don’t know if “chronic leave-out-nothing syndrome” is officially on the known-mental-illnesses list, but there are times I feel I should be taking medication for it! It took me over a decade to work most of the way from “interested in everything” to “found my niche,” and even longer to get over feeling guilty about every suggestion I didn’t implement.

  5. kls

    How do you write faster? I can’t even begin until I figure out my lead, which can take ages, and then when I do, I still write at sloth speed.

    • Carol Tice

      See #1. The more you do it, the faster you go.

      And if it takes forever to figure out the lead…write the bullet points first. Start anywhere. There’s a lot of obsessing with writing the first line first, which slows down the whole process. I rarely write the top (or the final version of the top) first these days…I have too much of a complex about it! So much easier to write once I have a chunk of the story written already.

  6. Anita

    That pretty well sums it up: Write a lot. And market a lot.

    If only I enjoyed the second as well as the first.

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah, that’s pretty much the problem in a nutshell. And many of us with journalism training were basically never prepared for a world where marketing our writing services would be required, beyond interviewing for a staff job we’d hold for decades.

      But those days are over, and now marketing is essential.

  7. Jamie

    It’s so simple but true.

    I spent years writing fiction and no fiction and most of it is gathering dust in an old wardrobe in my parent’s house. I participated in forums for feedback but usually fell short of trying to “market” my work. When we are young and idealistic we often think not to taint our creative genius with marketing – but it is absolutely essential if we are to get our writing in front of readers.

    What’s more is when we do market and start achieving results it helps give momentum to the habit of writing daily. Writing daily is necessary practice for maintaining the habit and speed of writing also. Like exercising regularly – we tend to get rusty if we don’t keep it up.

    Thanks for sharing Carol – good stuff:)

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