12 Essential Tips for Freelance Writers

“…freelancing is about cultivating an off-the-charts level of personal organization, spending time creating a portfolio site and determining rates…”

by Gretchen Kalwinski

Senior Writer & Creative Strategist 

I’m a full-time freelance writer and often get approached by people hoping to buy me a coffee and find out how it works. Most think of freelance writing as a fun profession in which you hang out in sweatpants, write about your thoughts and feelings, and wait for checks to roll in. I’m here to disabuse you of that idea; (well, except for the sweatpants; that really happens, and it’s dreamy). To me, freelancing is about cultivating an off-the-charts level of personal organization, spending time creating a portfolio site and determining rates–and then keeping up with accounting and invoicing tasks. And, yes, you may also get to do some great creative activities and projects. (In addition to writing features and travel stories, I’ve written for chocolate, tequila, and furniture companies and taken fascinating press trips.) But, it’s a hustle to stay afloat and getting established takes time. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

I wrote this post because I can’t have coffee with everyone—but enjoy being helpful. If the below 12 tips sound doable, and you’ve got rock-solid organizational skills, plus a touch of ADD, hey, freelancing could work for you.

  1. There is No Magic Website: I think people hope here’s a secret website containing a list of articles and copy just WAITING to be written. It doesn’t exist. The truth is, freelancing involves a lot of hustle.
  2. Read Everything on Freelancers Union: Lots of great tips here.
  3. Don’t Quit Your Day Job (Yet): The freelance lifestyle is tough and often unstable. I recommend doing it alongside either a full- or part-time job. That’ll enable you to take relevant projects, and say “no” to terrible clients. Sans panic attacks.
  4. If You Just Quit Your Day Job Anyway, Read This: If you don’t have a portfolio site, set one up STAT with your clips, (screenshots of blogposts, social media, newsletters, articles, web copy, etc). Some templates and sites are: Pressfolios, WordPress, Virb, and Squarespace. Also:
  5. Don’t Work for Free: It hurts you and other writers fighting for livable rates. (Fiction and personal essays can be an exception here).
  6. Guard Your Time: It’s a Precious Commodity: Since I spend about 20 hours/week on non-billable tasks (accounting, marketing myself), the rest of my weekly time must be efficient. I don’t do many friend-lunches or TV binging during the week. Time is $, especially for freelancers.
  7. Try Community-Centric Remote Working Sites: I’ve been lucky enough to get referral work via my network, so I haven’t used these to find work, (but I hear good things).
  8. Don’t Work without a Contract: Without one, you’ve got no payment guarantee. An email can serve as a contract, but I prefer a signed document. Contracts should include fees, timelines, and revision rounds. Google for templates or use this one from Freelancer Union.
  9. Take Time Upfront to Establish Your Rates: This is consuming, but worth doing thoughtfully. Per-word rates can run from $.25/word to $2/word. Copywriting can be billed at hourly or project rates. This Cloud Peeps article, the Editorial Freelance Association rate sheet, and thisFreelancers Union blog post can help.
  10. Don’t Neglect the Financials:
  11. Getting Magazine/Bylined Work and Pitching to Editors:
  12. Getting Writing Work That Doesn’t Involve Pitching (Copy, Content, Editorial, etc).
  • Make your SEO solid; (Google “SEO best practices”). Fix broken links and make it easy for those seeking your skills to find you.
  • Send messages to your network, (with clips/site), saying you’re available for writing projects.
  • Go to industry events every week.
  • Get inexpensive business cards. (Moo.com works just fine). 

  • Personal budget: Make one. Set aside savings each month to build a 5-6 month safety net.
  • Taxes and accounting: Set aside 30% of each check or risk getting a bill at year’s end. Pay quarterly estimated taxes using this IRS sched.
  • Find an accountant who can deal with freelancer/contractor tax issues.
  • Getting paid: Use time-tracking/invoicing software. I like Harvest.
  • (If you want magazine/byline work and don’t know how to pitch, joinMediaBistro, ($55/year) which gives access to “how to pitch” articles).
  • When pitching, make sure your topic is relevant and hasn’t been recently covered. Trust me, I’ve been an in-house editor and you don’t want to waste their time.
  • You can bid on jobs on Ebyline.com.
 (Free for writers.)
  • Yes, you must network: (But it’s not a dirty word; just communicating with folks with similar interests.)
  • Even though writer-editor types tend to relish their alone time, networking is crucial. Cultivate whatever extroversion you can (industry events, etc), to get yourself “out there.”
  • Contact your “soft” network, (not close friends, but former colleagues who you worked well with, for instance).
  • Use LinkedIn to: Find creative ad and marketing agencies in your area, search for relevant groups to join; (i.e., LinkedIn for Journalists, marketing groups). And/or,  post relevant links and articles so connections consider you a thought leader.) 

  • Editors: Consider joining EFA for their JobList. $180/year.

Read this advice on LinkedIn.