6/27/2016 Edit: This is still a helpful post, but you can download a more in-depth guide: here.
Just so we’re all on the same page, this post is not about how to get to the A-list writing level. I don’t know how to make it as a successful author or how to get $10,000 a month, but you can be sure I’ll write a post about it once I figure those out, though.
This post is simply for those out there who are willing to hustle and want to start paying their bills with writing projects.
I have been paid as a freelancer for more than five years, but I have been 100% freelance for about a year and a half.
If you Google how to be a writer, you’ll see more than 10 articles on why you shouldn’t or that you might not be “good enough”. I am of the mindset that if you want to be a writer, you can be a damn writer. Unlike other fields where your genetics, class, or pure talent matter, writing is 30% practice, 49% hustle, 20% being a good person, 1% luck. Do those add up? I don’t know. Whatever, math sucks.
When I first started, I read every single blog and article out there on how to make my business work. Now that I am at the point of finally having consistent writing projects and income, I thought I’d reflect back on the advice and go through what worked for me and what didn’t.
Personally, it took me much longer to build my business because of all the things I thought I “should” have like a fancy website, business cards, an office, a huge network, etc. So, I thought I’d cut through the absolute bullshit so you don’t have to waste the time I wasted.
The common advice out there and my reflection:
1. “Guest blog everywhere possible!”
This isn’t one I’ve pursued yet. So, yes, you can make it as a writer without guest blogging. I’m sure it will be helpful when I finally get around to doing this, but this isn’t 100% necessary to getting started.
2. “Get on social media!”
So far, my Facebook page only has 36 “Likes” and I hover around the 600 followers mark on Twitter. I don’t have a huge following but I am very active with the people there. I’d say Twitter alone brings in about 40% of my income.
3. “Build a huge portfolio!”
This one is semi-important. I have about 700 pieces of work between college and freelance work that are not in my online portfolio… Yet. Most are due to confidentiality agreements, but so far letting my blog speak for itself as my portfolio is the biggest help. Potential clients go to my blog, read a post or two, and say “good enough” and e-mail me. I’d say only have about five of your strongest pieces up and call it a day.
If you don’t have a portfolio, you may have to do some free work simply to build a portfolio. In the first 8 months, I didn’t make more than $10 per hour, and now I am up to between $30 and $50 depending on the project. Understand it will take time, but it won’t be forever like some “gurus” claim.
4. “Build a huge website! Self host! Make it sexy!”
If anyone tells me to “sexy” up anything again, I’m going to throw them across a room. Every traditional business person is going to have their heads explode right now, but I only have my website hosted through WordPress.com. Yup, that’s right, I’m not self hosted. Has it hurt getting clients? Nope.
5. “Network with everyone! LinkedIn! E-mail your entire network all the time!”
I have yet to ever mass-blast all of my friends/family with my work. I know tons of people who spam me with their MLM crap and businesses, and that just gets them unfriended. I never ever have put anyone on my mailing list that didn’t ask, blasted out to all my friends to “Like” my Facebook page, or mass messaged everyone on LinkedIn. Maybe I’m a sissy, but this just felt like such an icky idea.
However, networking with people by bringing value is probably the #1 thing I have done to help grow my business. More on that below.
6. “Go to every networking event possible! Make business cards!”
I haven’t made a single business card yet. I send my website and LinkedIn profile to people instead. I went to one networking event and it was such a god damn circle jerk that I refuse to go to one again. My hours are incredibly precious to me and I only want to focus on things that work. Keep in mind, I haven’t gone to any of the huge events, so maybe those are awesome, but definitely none of that shit is necessary to pay your bills.
Side note: That is just for regular networking events. If you ever get invited to speak or give a presentation, do it.
7. “Build an email list!”
I love my email list, but that is rarely where my clients come from. Like I said earlier, maybe one day when I get into affiliate marketing or making products this will be far more lucrative, but until then it hasn’t necessarily been the determining factor.
8. “Build products and courses!”
This was was not that important to getting clients, but now that I do have products for sale I can see how that helps. However, initially the most important part was making clients happy.
9. “Niche down!”
Meh. I started out super niche and then most of my clients came from other industries. I would say to niche down in the type of people you want to work with instead of the specific industry. Now instead of being picky about only working with people in the fitness and travel industries, I prefer clients who are hard workers, understand the importance of clear writing, and also own their own business.
I also no longer care what kind of writing I get. Some people do, and that’s fine, but personally I love to mix it up. This week I have blog posts, copywriting, a grant, and an ebook to write for clients. I love the variety.
Some added tips:
Tip #1: Don’t be a jerk.
I know, I know, we’ll get into more practical tips but this one needs to be said. I have seen tons of people ask a writer something simple like, “Hey should I blog?” which is something we have been asked/talked about a whole lot. Instead of answering the question like a nice person it almost ends up like, “LOL LOOK AT THIS TOOL ASKING ME THIS DUMB QUESTION.” Seriously, don’t be a prick.
People will hire someone that is nice to work with. We have all had far too much experience with assholes, so be a good person and you will always always have referrals.
Most of my clients, friends on social media, and referrals always eventually turn into friends. I love people and I love that a skill I have can somehow help them. Nothing in the world feels better. This is business, but at the end of the day I want do develop relationships that last a long time.
Tip #2: Go above and beyond. Always.
No matter what you are working on for someone, include something extra. Maybe you write posts for people and throw in a free new tagline or some Tweets they could use. As my revenue grows, my thank you gifts will grow. Be grateful every step of the way that someone is paying you to write.
Tip #3: Give constantly.
Most people are of the mindset that someone needs to be paying them andonly then will they help them. Being helpful 24/7 may not pay off in the short term but it will definitely help you in the long term. This metric isn’t measurable, you just have to use faith with this one.
The nitty gritty of what worked:
That was enough rambling, and I know you’re dying to get to the point of something you can use, like, right now.
I gotchu. I’m breaking this down into two categories, short term strategies to pay those bills that are due this week, and long term strategies that bring in the great clients in a few months.
My short term strategy (Repeat every 1 to 3 months):
Maybe you need clients like ASAP, and holy shit do I get that. Here were the things I did to get clients and pay those bills that are due at the end of the month:
1. Give a deal to any single person who can send you a referral.
The more referrals a client sends me, the bigger % I give them off their next package. One client has doubled my income just through referrals, and as a result she is paying 50% of her original for my work. Maybe this won’t work as a long-term strategy, but like I said in the beginning, this is the strategy for people who want to quit their day job and pay their bills. Help every single person who helps you.
2. Post a free online ad.
Craigslist brought absolutely jack shit, but my ad was horrible so that was my fault. I’ve heard lots of people can find work through Craigslist, but the one that really worked for me was Reddit. What?! Yes, Reddit. There is a section for freelancers and I posted up a “looking for work” post that I am a writer, willing to hustle and work really hard, and here is my website. That brought in an extra few hundred dollars a month and a huge amount of my website traffic is from Reddit still just from that one post. I had never been on Reddit before, but I want to make out with it now because it’s just fantastic.
3. Do something free for a potential client.
Message every single potential client you have right now and be like, “Hey I know you were looking for a content writer, and I’d love to write a free post for you to see if it’s what you’re looking for?” 99% of the time, they will say yes because who says no to free work? Once you send it over, then make sure to follow up with a mini pitch. Remind them that you’d love to take the x, y, and z projects off their hands for $x amount of dollars. Send them links to your portfolio or other people you have helped. Sometimes just even helping them remove the stress of having to write content is a huge weight off their shoulders.
4. Any kind of Q&A forums.
Both Reddit and Quora have worked well for me. Of course, there are millions of others, but following all the way back to tip #1 from earlier, don’t be a jerk. Be nice, helpful, and give as much information as possible. You’d be surprised at how many people want to hire you to do the work load instead of them stressing about it.
My long term strategy (Keep doing this all year):
Content is wildly important. It took me about 6 months to consistently get traffic from Google to my site. Here’s the biggest thing you need to know:WRITE CONTENT FOR PEOPLE WHO WOULD HIRE YOU.
The biggest mistake I see people make is that they write content for peoplein their industry instead of people who would give them money.
Yes, I am writing a blog post right now for writers, but I have a full understanding that this just to help people, this post isn’t to get clients. Most of my content, however, is for business owners. Those are the people who would hire me. If you are a writer, DO NOT WRITE BLOGS FOR OTHER WRITERS. Writers are not going to hire you to write because they will just do it themselves. Write every single post with your potential clients in mind.
If I was a business owner and I was looking for a copywriter and I went to a website and all of the posts had to do with freelancing, raising rates, improving your writing skills, that doesn’t speak to me as a business owner.
So what do you write about? Well, who would hire you? What are their pain points? What do you make easier for people?
I focused a lot on content that helped business owners get their writing crystal clear to attract clients, improving their opt-in form, what on earth to blog about, etc. That is what keeps them coming back. Content that can help them. Content with actionable steps.
Another tip is to mention some big name people in your posts. This is how I have gotten followed by some big names (Ashley Ambirge, Gary Vaynerchuk, James Altucher, etc), and I never went into it with the intent of getting followed, but I did take their content, apply it, it worked, so I wrote about it. Then, they usually shared it with their own followers.
Everyone will have a different social media platform that will work best for them. Mine happens to be Twitter. I am on there every single day reaching out to the people I know and people who are talking about the things I’m interested in. Don’t get me wrong, I could do a much better job, but by building these relationships when someone needs a writer they usually think, “Oh, well Jackie’s a writer so maybe she can help.”
Like the content rule, follow people who can actually hire you. Far too many people chat on Twitter with people who won’t hire them. I love all writers and I love to learn, it is essential to my business, but I know that it’s business owners who end up hiring me, so I make sure to follow and interact with them too.
3. Network with value.
I said this earlier, but give something to every single person who comes around you. I always answer every e-mail someone sends me with questions, I answer every Tweet, I give free extras to everyone… I try and do anything possible to help freelancers and business owners leverage the power of the internet.
This all roots from my deep belief that I want everyone to have better writing and communicating skills. Sure, it helps with business, but by being a better communicator people can build better relationships in every aspect of their lives. So, I willingly help every person I can.
Finding a root purpose will help you with your long-term strategy because some days will suck and you will need the motivation.
4. Broaden your content.
I have twelve blogs. (You can see them all: here. Most of the blogs on each of them have been taken back to “drafts” and will be posted again soon.) When I first started out, I didn’t have any damn idea what I wanted to talk about so instead I registered 12 domains generally relating to areas I like to talk about and just started writing. At least half of these have brought me writing contracts because of the specialty I understand. I do a lot of writing for fitness websites, lacrosse websites, and local sites about Denver simply because I know enough to talk about each of those. Plus, it gives me practice with a variety of styles.
So if you have a few ideas of where to start, just start them all. You never know which ones will help you down the line.
If you want a full step-by-step guide to how I built my freelance business and am able to do it full-time, you can see that here: LAUNCH YO BIZ.