“Every company is a media company,” Tom Foremski, ex-FT journalist and the editor of Silicon Valley Watcher, said a decade ago. He meant that increasingly, even companies that aren’t concerned with news or journalism must be able to make meaningful connections with customers with the written word.
Given the growth of content marketing, blogging, and social media, it seems pretty clear that the demand for good writers will remain high.
Starting your own writing business is easier than ever, but making it work as a full-time gig is still challenging. This article will help you think through whether making writing your primary occupation or looking at writing as a side gig might be a good opportunity in 2020.
Recently, I was helping a digital company in their search for a full-time copywriter. The search actually failed. Of the many professional writers around, none would consider full-time, long-term jobs.
They’re all self-employed now; they figured out how to make it profitable. In this era of omnipresent content, top-notch writing is in the highest demand—and freelancing has its benefits.
The broad market and flexible hours make this profession ideal for people with the right skill set. But before you dive in, evaluate your skills and be critical and honest with yourself. Are you a skilled writer? Are you ready to do full-scale customer service on your own? It’s one thing to write full time, but another to manage client relationships too. Are you knowledgeable enough in certain spheres to create compelling writing?
Yes? Good. Let’s look into details then.
What should you consider before you start a writing business?
The pay an aspiring writer can expect at first might seem discouraging when compared to any mid-level office position. Despite the demand for quality writers, and the increasing number of professionals in the field, there are not that many writers who actually make living exclusively from freelance writing. It’s not impossible, but to get there, they’ve been working hard for years. This isn’t meant to be discouraging, but it’s important to be real about what you can expect when you’re first getting started.
The professional, self-employed writer risks an irregular income. However, if you sign enough contracts and secure a couple of long-term gigs, you’ll be surprised at the potential. Think of each smaller writing gig as an opportunity to build a positive relationship with a company, so that you’re their first-choice for bigger and longer-term projects.
Pro tip: Don’t sell yourself short. Do some research so you can price your work according to your skill level and the scope of each project. Resources here and here can help you get an idea of the average range.
2. Working with clients
The competition in the writing field is high. To create a lasting relationship, provide outstanding customer service. Go the extra mile to give your clients the special treatment they can’t get anywhere else. Make it a practice to underpromise and over deliver.
Always do what you’re expected to do—get clear on expectations right from the beginning. Sounds basic, yet it can be tricky. For each job, write a brief proposal listing the exact scope of work the client expects you to deliver, based on an in-person meeting or phone or Skype conversation.
Pro tip: Make a detailed questionnaire for yourself to guide your conversation with your and form the foundation of your scope document. Ask your client to sign the proposal before you begin, as a gesture that they agree that you’re both on the same page. Keep it on file and email them a copy.
3. Affordable growth
Writing needs relatively low startup investment, aside from the most valuable—your time and effort. A major in writing or journalism might help, but the certificates are not a must at all. You’ll need access to a computer, an internet connection, and a space that work that’s comfortable for you, where you can occasionally take phone or Skype calls with clients. If you like what you do, and your clients are happy, that’s all you need to run your business.
Establishing yourself as an authority is a sure way to increase your price tag. Pick the industry you feel most confident about, and become an expert. Do what you’re good at, and write about what you know. But keep learning. Find a mentor, preferably an exceptional editor that is willing to field your questions and help you build your skills. Keep an eye out for useful online courses and industry conferences. Don’t discount the value of a solid grip on grammar.
Most writers put having a flexible schedule at the top of their list of reasons to consider freelance writing. You can work from anywhere as long as there is Wi-Fi.
You’re also not linked to one employer. That gives you a wiggle room to set different hourly rates for different jobs. Say, social media management can bring you $15 per Instagram post, while a ghostwriting project can shell out something as pleasant as $15K in one run.
It probably won’t make you a millionaire unless you can figure out a way to scale your services without working 20 hours a day, but it does have some perks. The other benefit is that you don’t necessarily have to go all in and quit your day job while you build your writing business. You can start to scale it while you work your day job.
Pro tip: If you have the flexibility, think about moving to a country where the cost of living is adequate to your earnings. Thousands of writers choose Southeast Asia or the small European countries.
How do you get started?
Choose your niche
Here is a list of services that are in high demand now. Narrow it down to several options that you feel most confident about.
- Commercial: business naming, slogans, commercial campaigns, public relations, advertorials
- Social media: Insta updates, Facebook posts, profile descriptions
- Web content: Personal and company blogs, feeds, community bulletins
- Technical: Manuals, instructions, technical specifications
- Business: Business plans, pitches, grant inquiries
- Translations: If you speak a second language, this is a good area to consider
- Fiction writing: Novels, short stories, poetry, plays
- Ghostwriting: Biographies, memoirs, business books
- Mobile and computer game writing: Dialogues, scripts, in-game interactive storytelling (a rare breed that you can find on niche bulletin boards)
- Journalism: News, reports, corporate journalism
- Reviews: Product reviews, experience reviews, book reviews
- Children’s literature: Popular science, stories, poetry for children
Build a portfolio
Whichever writing category you choose, you need to build a relevant portfolio. Make sure it convinces your potential clients that you’re the best candidate for the job. A proper web page with your best writing samples is the foolproof solution. Even better if you can point to published writing samples.
Get your writing samples together
- Browse through your Google Docs. The chances are high that you will find something good enough to kick off your portfolio.
- Publish your work on a Medium blog and share it on LinkedIn.
- Join a writing community and look for a mentor. College newspapers, for instance, are usually friendly to the aspiring writers. Try to get feedback from a professional editor.
- If you’re running your own blog or business Facebook page, don’t be shy. Showcase the particularly good pieces.
- As you get your first gigs, ask the clients if you can use excerpts from their orders in your portfolio.
How do you attract paying clients?
In general, bigger companies will usually have bigger budgets, so they can be more lucrative. Medical and business writing are charged top-of-the-range, so look into healthcare and business development industries for higher fees. If you plan writing for web publishers, the rates database from Contently is well worth looking through.
To start building your client base:
Use your personal network
Reach out to your friends, colleagues, community and online connections. Tell them that you’re looking for clients, and make sure that you’re making it easy for them to access your portfolio of work. Create some business cards and use them. The chances that someone in your circle needs writing services are pretty high.
Send pitches to local businesses
There are lots of benefits to finding local writing work. It can be easier for you to immerse in a company’s brand and voice when you can meet in person. Figure out the best person to contact and see if they need your particular writing skillset for any upcoming projects. Remember that a big part of writing for companies is understanding and being able to write in their brand’s established voice and tone.
Use online platforms
Clients you find using online freelancing platforms might not seem like they have quite the potential for building long-term relationships. But these platforms can be useful for drumming up occasional work. There’s always the possibility that a single project that goes well could grow into something bigger.
Upwork and Freelancer are popular platforms.
On Upwork, you create a writer’s profile and get updates through email when clients pick you to pitch for their projects. It’s fair to think you might get several calls per month if you took the time to write a quality profile.
Freelancer is full to bursting with opportunity, but the competition is crazy. You’ll need to stay constantly tuned in to get a good catch.
But be careful out there. The bad news is that both of those platforms have been regularly reported for scams. Use common sense, and remember that anything that seems too good to be true probably is. The good news is that there are new platforms popping up every day. Look into Fiverr, ProBlogger, and PeoplePerHour for starters.
LinkedIn can be a good source of potential client leads. If you defined your niche already, you know the work and clients you want. Who would you like to write for? Say, hospitality? Finance? Go to LinkedIn and type it into the search bar. In the results window, switch to the “Companies” tab to see the list of businesses with your keyword. Pick a company, and click on “See all employees on LinkedIn” link to proceed.
Write a strong pitch that’s customized for each company, and send it out to the content officers. It feels more professional than cold emailing—and more convenient for the employers to send you an instant reply.
ProTip: You are guaranteed to get rejected. It will happen; it’s part of being a freelance writer. Not every gig is the right one for you. Don’t let it get you down. Use those rejections as opportunities to fine tune your pitch.
What you can do today to start your writing business:
- Set your rates
- Define your areas of expertise
- Practice writing
- Start a blog (Twitter helps, too!)
- Shout out to your social circles
- Write a pitch proposal
You can do it
Starting a writing business is challenging, yet no more challenging than starting any other business. Spend time on proper planning, outlining your roadmap, defining the obstacles, and deciding how you will overcome them. Now go for it.