There's a simple formula for finding success as a freelance writer: Submit good copy on time and be easy to work with. Supplement that with the rest of our editors' advice and you'll leap through the new writer's jungle of portfolios, pitching, and getting paid.

Freelance writing is a flexible and potentially lucrative profession. But that first gig can be elusive, and it’s usually a steep learning curve on the way to landing repeat clients.

The right guidance can improve your odds of breaking through, and then fill your LinkedIn inbox for years to come. So how about some tips straight from those who hold the purse strings?

The editors at Money Under 30 have pooled together our collective years of fielding pitches, briefing assignments, and negotiating rates to form this insider handbook for neophyte wordsmiths.

Mastering the Old-School and New-School Basics

First things first: You can never know too much about narrative structure, sourcing information, grammar, usage, punctuation, syntax, and the organization of ideas.

Whoa, that seems like a lot. And yet we want even more than that.

Editors are seeking out writers who can do more than write. You don’t need to know everything about publishing, but offering creative skills beyond the written word will make you stand out against the competition.

Provide More Than Just Text

If you can shoot a decent photo, edit videos, or design some eye-catching graphics to accompany your text, make sure your editor knows that.

A woman saying, 'I can do it all.'

Source: Giphy.com

Keeping au courant of social media trends and knowing the basics of SEO (keyword research, site authority, ranking difficulty, linking best practices, etc.) will help improve the traction of your articles and can also help you deliver more successful pitches.

Being competitive might also mean you’ll have to abandon some of the technophobia writers are prone to. Some sites may ask you to upload and publish your content, so knowing your way around at least one CMS, like WordPress, might make you a more attractive prospect for certain publishers.

And — fetch your smelling salts — some HTML won’t hurt.

Portfolio > Ph.d.

An advanced degree in Early Slavic Literature might make you the life of a party. But good writing samples, not a diploma, are what ultimately lead to writing gigs.

That said, while you technically don’t need to go to college to be a successful writer, taking a few professional development courses in English, creative writing, journalism, PR, marketing, or business will give you a leg up if you don’t have a degree.

Building Your Portfolio

It’s a conundrum as old as the quill/pen/MacBook itself: Writers usually need experience to get experience. But breaking through is well within your reach.

Start Small; Start Local

If you already have a regular day job unrelated to writing, consider if your employer runs a blog, email newsletter, social media presence, or any other medium that will give you a chance to write some kind of published material.

Currently unemployed? Apply the same approach to any community, educational, religious, sports, or charitable organizations you might belong to. The bottom line is that you’ll be hard-pressed to get freelance writing gigs unless you already have some kind of writing sample to show, and approaching an organization you’re already affiliated with might be the easiest way to land your first writing responsibilities.

What Do You Really Know?

Once you have some basic writing samples — be they ad copy, social media posts, or even internal company announcements — start looking for chances to write outside your circle, but inside your wheelhouse. There are publishing opportunities for virtually every subject under the sun, and some publishers may be willing to overlook a limited portfolio if you have significant real-world experience in the topics they cover.

Identify what you love and have lived and then find out who’s publishing content about that. Are you a budding writer trapped in the body of a car salesperson? Your firsthand expertise might be more valuable to MotorTrend than a more experienced writer whose closest exposure to the auto industry are marathon GTA sessions.

Don’t Worry About Rates at First

Although it’s important for every seasoned writer to know their worth and advocate for appropriate pay, you should consider writing for low pay or even for free at first, provided the content is published and credited to you. Those initial clients will be giving you more than money. They are giving you bylines and experience, which you’ll need in order to start earning some real bread later on.

Uncontrolled laughter

Source: Giphy.com

One fine day you’ll have a steady stream of paying clients. And if at that point in your career an editor asks you to do an unpaid, ‘trial’ article, you can muffle your laughter while drafting your version of the ‘Sorry, I don’t work for free anymore’ email.

Sourcing Paid Clients

Once you’ve accumulated three published writing samples you’re proud of, it’s time to let the world know you’re the next big thing, and that they’re missing out if you’re not on their roster of freelancers.

A man saying, 'I'm kind of a big deal.'

Source: Giphy.com

Start within Your Circle

Do a long brainstorming session of all your personal and professional contacts. Then edit the list down to those whose companies might have need for writing services of some kind. The majority of businesses create some kind of written content, be they in the healthcare, education, tech, finance, travel, or etc. sectors.

Then Move Outward

Complement your in-network approach with an out-of-network approach:

Content agencies typically pay peanuts, but they can be a good source of gigs early on in your career. Many agencies serve as middlemen/gatekeepers with the businesses you write for, limiting your contact with publishers and restricting your ability to expand your network. But some agencies encourage you to work directly with the client, allowing you to build relationships that might one day lead to a higher-paying contract, sans agency middleman.

Freelance marketplaces have a reputation for low pay, but platforms like Upwork actually offer a wide spectrum of rates. The variety of gigs you can find are unparalleled, and you can search for specific subdisciplines like technical writing, copywriting, screenwriting, recipe writing, grant writing, and translation.

Email subscription services compile writing jobs from a variety of sources and then send them to you on a bi-weekly or weekly basis. You typically have to pay for the subscription, but some, like Solid Gigs, offer a trial period.

Stay Flexible

Be open-minded about the jobs you take, particularly early on in your career, with respect to both subject matter and the format for your work. Later in your career you might elect to specialize in writing web or ad copy, technical documentation, UX microcopy, grants, curricula, blogs, etc.

Even if you already have a decent portfolio, take low-paying jobs occasionally for some prominent, widely-recognized media outlets or commercial brands, just to have bylines that will catch an editor’s eye.

Pitching and Submitting Samples

Originality Wins

Always search the site for your article topic before you send it, and only pitch topics that the site hasn’t already covered. Pitching something that a publisher has already covered to death will not only make you look boring and unimaginative; it will also make an editor question your fundamental research abilities.

Even if your pitches aren’t quite what an editor is looking for at that time, your originality will still leave a positive impression and keep you in good stead for future assignments.

Don’t Forget the Why

Too many writers waste their precious pitch space on what their article idea is. But half of your pitch should be about why. Mention why your article idea will get traffic. Is there search volume for it? Is it seasonally relevant? Is it a topic that can be expected to grow in interest/attention over time?

And why are you the right person to write it? Was it inspired by your own personal experience? Do you have past writing samples in related subject matter?

Quality Over Quantity

You might have a prolific portfolio spanning a wide range of subjects. But no editor is going to read more than three samples, and you don’t want to risk them clicking on your comparatively weaker stuff.

Source: Giphy.com

Pick the two or three pieces that are your best, that are most relevant to the publication in question, and that most clearly display your suitability for the job.

Be 404 Free

Check to ensure all sample links you submit work (no 404 pages). Back up all your published articles with PDF versions so that you’ll still have a demonstrable portfolio even in the event that your past clients go defunct, change to a paid subscription model, etc.

Be Smart About Timing

Wondering when to respond to a job posting? Here’s a bit of counterintuitive advice: While most guides say you should get your response to a job listing in ASAP, it actually might be better to wait a few days. By then, the initial avalanche of applications will have ceased, and the exhausted hiring editor will feel less overwhelmed and more likely to give your pitch or application a serious, unhurried look.

Similarly, avoid sending pitches on Monday and the first work day after major holidays, when they could get lost in the multi-day email pileup.

Finally, try to pitch one to two months in advance of when you expect your article to peak in public interest. For example, don’t wait until early February to pitch a great couples-themed article topic, as by that time the publisher’s calendar might already be full of lovey-dovey articles.

Don’t Give Them a Reason to Reject You

Your cover letter or email correspondence with a new publisher should be grammatically and stylistically flawless. You’re auditioning to be a paid writer — if you can’t handle a basic introductory note, why should they trust you to handle a much larger writing project? Writing a brief but engaging cover letter is certainly a challenge, but that’s why it’s so essential. It shows them what you can do.

Avoid boilerplate. So many applications are thrown in the “nope” file because they used tired, cliché-ridden prose in their introductory letter. (Often while claiming to love language!)

Judge Judy sighing and putting her head in her hands

Source: Giphy.com

If your pitch paragraph sounds like a parody of content marketing evangelism drivel, re-write. If you can’t make it through your own cover letter without falling asleep, re-write.

And don’t be overly casual in your email. Yes, it’s a casual medium, but the same rules apply here as to a standard cover letter. It’s your introduction in a professional capacity — include a proper greeting, a few complete sentences that explain why you are writing, and a sign-off. Use those manners your mama taught you.

Networking

Build Relationships with Your Editors

Your editors are your best contacts for future work.

When editors are looking for new writers, the first thing they do is reach out to their editor friends to see whom they recommend. Editors also tend to bring their favorite writers along with them when they get a new client or move on to a new publication.

Remember to communicate with assigning editors often, not just when pitching. That way they’ll have you in mind when their assignments need ownership. Follow their site’s output to stay clued-in to the type of content they’re interested in publishing, and when they produce impressive stuff send them a quick message to give props.

Be Social

You can get a lot of gigs from other writers who had to turn an offer down for whatever reason, and many writers already work (or one day will work) as editors. Your writer colleagues are also the best source of inside information on what different clients pay, how much you should charge for unusual projects, etc.

One great way to meet other writers is to join a local writers’ or editors’ association. These groups often host networking nights, workshops, conferences, and other events, all of which can be a great way to connect with other writers and learn what opportunities are out there. These groups may charge a (sometimes hefty) membership fee to take full advantage, but you can usually attend events at a non-member rate without having to fork over for a full annual membership.

Twitter also has a very active community of freelance writers and editors, and following the right people can land you freelance opportunities. If you’ve garnered some type of writing experience in a specific vertical, find people that work at publications you’d love to contribute to. Send them a friendly DM inquiring if they are looking for freelancers.

Referrals

If you’ve worked with a client for six months or longer, and they consistently give you good feedback, ask them if they’d be game to endorse a skill of yours or write a recommendation for you on LinkedIn, or write a testimonial quote for your website.

Getting Paid

How Much Can You Expect to Make?

As a very broad benchmark, new writers can typically expect to start at $0.10-$0.12 per word for long-form content. But rates vary substantially from one writing niche to another, which is, again, a great reason to develop a network of writer peers. Not sure what to charge for a job? Ask your colleagues.

You won’t always get a rate that your abilities merit. But don’t ruminate on what you’re being paid while you’re actually working on a piece, and always submit your best work, even if the rates are lower than what you want.

A woman lamenting that she's underpaid

Source: Gfycat.com

For example, let’s say you have a goal to earn $30 an hour and you have an article that pays $200. The math indicates you should spend about six and a half hours on that article. But if it requires eight hours to do it well, then take the extra time and do it right. This will help you in two ways:

  1. It will put you on better ground to ask that client for a raise.
  2. The better your work, the easier it will be to get the next client.

As your experience level and portfolio grow you can gradually raise your rates by charging each new client a little bit more than your last. Once you have a full schedule, start dropping your lower-paying clients. You can charge at the top of the rate scale when you have more clients coming to you than you can reasonably handle.

A Little Mystery Is Sexy

Don’t send your rates in an initial pitch email or submission to a job posting, unless specifically instructed to do so by the client. It’s better to wait until after the client is interested in your work. It will be harder for an editor to turn you down once they’ve seen good samples and pitches, even if your rate is above their typical price range.

Read the Whole Contract

Understand which rights a publisher is paying you for. They may be buying first-publication rights (which typically means you’re free to re-pitch or re-publish elsewhere after a set period of time), or full copyright (which means they own the content). Your contract with the publisher should clarify what they’re buying and for how long.

Dealing with Rejection

Being a freelance writer is a bit like being a thespian. You’ve chosen a life path that may involve 10 No’s for every one Yes.

There’s so much you simply can’t know about that could be the deciding factor in whether or not you’re chosen for a writing job, and many of the factors in play have nothing to do with you or the quality of your work.

Editors are often overworked, burnt out, and usually have to make quick decisions to keep up with the constant flow of the 24/7 news cycle. Our decisions are influenced by our schedules, workload for the day, moods, and the semi-blind luck of when we receive your communiqués.

Some editors will have an aesthetic completely different from yours, and, even in the best of circumstances, probably won’t like your piece. This doesn’t mean your work isn’t good.

Take every rejection with a balanced mix of ‘Hey, it’s their loss,’ and a healthy dose of some ‘How can I make my pitch/resume/writing samples a little better next time?’ introspection.

Remember the Other Golden Rule (i.e., the Most Important Tip of Your Life)

Once your writing career takes off, you won’t have time to review all of the wise words above on a regular basis. But you should always keep front of mind the following three essentials that editors want from writers:

  1. We want you to be easy to work with.
  2. We want you to submit on deadline
  3. We want you to be a good writer.

The secret “golden rule” is that you really only need two of these qualities to get repeat clients.

If you’re great to work with and always on time, you don’t necessarily need to be a perfect writer.

If you’re a sensational writer and editors love you, you can probably get away with some late submissions (some).

If your work is as punctual as the Shinkansen and the copy is always fabulous to boot, editors might suffer through an otherwise insufferable personality (but please try to be pleasant instead).

You get the point. Two of the three essential attributes is all you need in your career. Having all three will shoot you to the top of an editor’s list and keep you there.

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