How to become a successful freelancer
Are you just starting out as a freelance writer? Don’t pay too much attention to business cards, or a website.
Of course, it is good to think about a logo, a company name, and the colors of your online portfolio. But with beginning writers, the focus on those peripheral issues sometimes becomes an excuse not to have to think about the biggest challenge: finding fun and well-paid work.
Make it easy on yourself. Set up a simple website on a platform such as Journal (especially for journalists) or in WordPress and present yourself as a copywriter or journalist.
- Don’t worry about your education
There is no perfect training for a freelance writer. Of course, it helps if you have a writing course, but I also know great writers who have studied history, psychology, physics, or biology.
One of the best freelance journalists I know didn’t even have a university degree at all. After graduating from high school, he worked as a postman for a while. He then became a journalist simply by writing and reading a lot.
- Know who you are going to write for
As a freelance writer or journalist, you can write for 1001 clients: from small self-employed to large companies, from sports sections or science editors to women’s magazines and legal magazines. In addition, there is a lot of competition from other freelancers.
You’ll get off to a faster start if you specialize in a particular niche, such as psychology, sports, law, or technology.
By writing a lot about a certain subject, you automatically build up expertise and become more attractive to clients. For example, Psychology Magazine is more likely to hire someone who often writes about psychology than a journalist who does all sorts of things. A law firm would rather hire a copywriter who regularly writes about legal matters than a general reporter for a newspaper.
Specialization can be very narrow. For example, you can become a copywriter in the field of mortgages. But if you like more variety, you can also choose a broader niche.
- Don’t bet too high
Of course, everyone wants to write for the New York Times, or for Apple. But start small. Don’t feel too big to gain experience as a freelance writer at a small blog or local newspaper. Do you still study? Then sign up as a writer for the university newspaper.
- Build a varied portfolio
Any potential client will ask you for samples of your work. Very handy if you can show some different types of stories.
Especially in the early stages of your career as a freelance writer, it is important that you develop yourself as a writer. If you mainly write news stories for a regional newspaper, then also submit a proposal for a report. If you mainly think of recipes for a food blog, try to arrange that you can also do an interview, for example with a top chef.
- Don’t sit around waiting for assignments
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of freelance writers and journalists. If you wait for a magazine, blog or company to approach you with a writing job, you can wait until you weigh an ounce. Be too bold rather than modest when looking for freelance jobs.
Take the initiative and email the newspaper, blog, magazine, or communications department of the company you want to write for. Introduce yourself neatly, and send examples of previous work. Don’t take a rejection as a definite no, but as a sign that you need to gain more experience. Just try again a few months later.
- Always come up with story ideas
Nice that you want to write for your favorite newspaper, blog, or magazine, but which story exactly?
When I managed freelancers myself for the editorial staff. I was surprised at the ‘drought of ideas’ in the emails I received from them.
When I approach a new client myself, I always make at least two suggestions for articles that I would like to write for them. This will make your job demand much more concrete (see the next point for an example). The editor will then be more inclined to answer. With a good story idea, you show that you have thought about the magazine and the target group and that you do not write to potential clients indiscriminately.
- Keep your acquisition emails short
The reader probably has more to do. Introduce yourself briefly, add a few examples of your work. And also keep the elaboration of your story ideas as short as possible. I usually explain my subject, angle, and plan of action in about five sentences.
- Don’t send the same idea to multiple clients
When you have a great idea for an article, you want to make it as fast as possible. It is then tempting to send a proposal to several editors because this increases the chance of a response.
Don’t do it, because if several clients say ‘yes’, you have a problem. The last thing editors want is for their major competitor to come out with an identical or partially overlapping article.
- Don’t be too restricted in your freedom
Sometimes newspapers or magazines try to ban you from writing for a particular competitor. Don’t let yourself be too impressed.
They consciously choose to work with a freelancer, so they shouldn’t expect you to work for their newspaper or magazine alone.
Only if you are going to write about the same kind of topics for a direct competitor is there a real problem.
Furthermore, they cannot possibly ask you to cancel other jobs, or they have to compensate you financially.
- Meet clients and other freelancers
Step away from your screen. Of course, you can maintain contact with colleagues and clients by e-mail, but it has great advantages to meet colleagues in person. Visit drinks and conferences, or make an appointment to visit an editorial office.
If people know you by face, they are more likely to think of you when they need a writer for a job. In addition, at events, you will also meet people from your field that you do not know yet. They can bring you new ideas, or even bring you into contact with new clients.
- When you network, be direct
Effective networking is above all: holding back. Go to drinks and conferences because you are genuinely interested in the people who attend and the knowledge that is exchanged. Don’t always turn the conversation to your job search, that comes across as sought after and annoying.
When a golden opportunity arises, don’t beat around the bush and keep it short. Suppose you have a nice conversation with someone and he works for the client of your dreams: just say that you would like to write for that title. If the other person hints that there is no need for freelancers, don’t push or sulk. Resume the fun conversation. If you two seem to click well, the other person may come back to it one day.
- Send yourself on a course
A good writer does ‘retraining’.
As a freelancer, you may not have a boss who pays for expensive seminars and workshops for you, but there are many affordable writing courses that encourage you to look at your work with fresh eyes. That could be a journalism course, but also a short story writing workshop, or maybe even poetry.
- Give yourself good fringe benefits
Remember that as a freelance writer you are your own boss. When the weather is nice and everyone is at the office, give yourself a free afternoon and visit the beach or forest.
Did you have a good month? Take an extra holiday in the middle of the year, or give yourself a bonus with which you go shopping for a day. And treat yourself with the purchase of a good laptop or lunch at that good sandwich shop in town.
This all sounds obvious. But for most people who have grown up with the idea of working from 9 to 5 in the office, going into town in the middle of the day sometimes feels like “truancy.” Get that idea out of your head. You are a freelancer, you decide!
- Say no to clients every now and then
I cannot emphasize this point enough. As a freelance writer, you tend to always please your client, often out of fear that they’ll hand the job over to someone else next time.
That fear is unjustified and unhealthy. In fact, when I started to say no more often in 2017 (because I was getting stressed out), I noticed that no client gave up. Some editors even started offering me jobs more often.
- Allow yourself colleagues
Loneliness is one of the pitfalls of being a freelance writer. If you want, you can sit in your pajamas behind your laptop all day with the curtains closed.
I am more productive and creative in an environment where other people are also working. When I work from home, I miss the coffee machine chats, lunch together, and brainstorming sessions with other writers.
- Determine your working hours
When do your work stop and your private life start?
I couldn’t answer that question for a long time. If a newspaper or magazine had a nice job, I almost automatically said yes, even if I had to work in the evening or on the weekend. I was afraid to disappoint people.
That went well for years until it became too much for me in 2017 and I became overwrought. I was so busy with deadlines that I couldn’t sleep at night. So start delineating your working day on time. For example, do not work more than eight hours a day, and not on weekends.
- Let others read your work
A fresh look at your work can do wonders. When you toil for a long time on a story, you no longer see the big picture. When I’m stuck writing an article, I often ask one of the other journalists or copywriters in my office to look at the text.
They can often point out flawlessly where the story is troubling: for example, the angle of view is not completely sharp, or there is a problem with the nutshell paragraph.