When I started out as a freelance writer, I had no idea what I was doing. I was a wide-eyed dreamer fresh out of college, and I was looking for a way to use my philosophy degree.
Let me tell you this: freelance copywriting is a far cry from reading Donne’s poetry on the weekends while writing essays on Heidegger during the week!
I’ll admit I was a little out of my element at first. Learning how to find clients, write for an audience, and build my portfolio was a major challenge.
(The fact that I was guzzling coffee the way a Hummer guzzles gasoline didn’t do much good for my anxiety in those days…)
It was a rough time in my life. If I’d been smarter I would have had a plan for when I got out of college. But I learned my lesson, and now I’ve managed to come through with no harm done.
Why am I telling you all this? I’m telling you because I want you to know I started from the bottom. But with help from the right books and the right mentors I learned how to win high-paying clients, run my freelance business, and provide my clients with the persuasive copy they want so badly.
But here’s the thing: all that takes time.
It Takes Time to Build a Freelance Writing Business
No matter how much experience you’ve got, it can take some time to build up your freelance business from scratch.
There are a million little problems you’ll run into along the way, ranging from obviously important stuff like “How am I going to get enough business that I won’t end up on the street?” to less obviously important stuff like “How am I going to motivate and manage myself when I don’t have a boss to do it for me?”
(The flipside of being your own boss is that you have to be your own boss.)
I don’t want to scare you off by making these problems seem insurmountable. You’re not going to have to do anything you can’t do. Running your freelance writing business means you’ll have to stretch yourself, but if you want to do it, it’s just a matter of time and diligence.
But again: it takes time. Let me take a minute to show you a few of the ways building your freelance writing business is going to take time.
First off: it takes time to learn how to work with yourself.
Maybe it’s just me, but a lot of the time life feels like a constant battle between the part of me that’s gung-ho and wants to take over the world and the part of me that wants to sleep 20 hours a day and go for months between showers.
The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed part of me that’s always motivated and the part of me that wants to fling boogers at the wall all day long.
The thing about freelance writing is that you have to bring those two halves of yourself into balance. It takes some time to figure out how to do that.
Second: it takes time to learn how to get clients. (And it takes even longer to figure out how to win well-paying clients.)
You have to figure out your way of promoting yourself—and yes, you have to promote yourself.
Even when you’re a mega-successful freelance copywriter making gazillions a week typing up copy from your yacht in Honolulu, you’re going to have to promote yourself.
If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of self-promotion: get over it or get out.
Third: it takes time to develop a method and a feel for each type of project. I’ll get into more detail about types of projects in a later post, but the point is that you need to have procedures together for how to handle each type of project.
Does the client want content marketing? You need to nail down your methods.
Does the client want direct response copy? You need to be able to tell them what to expect when they work with you.
Does the client want you to do a case study? You need to have procedures in place for doing your interviews and getting the material together.
To sum it all up: at this point, you’re like Christopher Columbus right after he landed on the coast of San Salvador.
Freelance writing is a vast landscape full of brilliant opportunities and unknown dangers. It’s a great, dark, empty space on your map.
Before you can make the most of freelance writing, you have to learn all you can about what’s on that map.
Let’s take our first few steps.
Start With the Job Boards
If you want to get your feet wet in freelance writing, the job boards are a good place to start.
The job boards are the Caribbean Islands of the freelance world. You don’t want to stay there forever, but it’s a good place for the new explorer to start.
(Note: there are problems with the job boards. I’ll tell you about them a little later, but for now keep in mind that even though they’re a good place to learn what you’re doing, you don’t want to stay there forever.)
There are many, many job boards full of opportunities for freelance writers. Maybe you’ve heard of a few of them. You could try out Upwork, ProBlogger, or FreelanceWritingGigs if you’re interested in starting out that way.
(Technically, Upwork isn’t a job board, but it’s enough like one that it might as well be.)
The companies you’ll find on these sites are already looking for writers. They know what they want, and they already know what they expect from you. This gives you the chance to practice selling your services in an environment where your prospects are already in the market for your writing.
With the online job boards, the work comes to you.
You develop a feel for the process of selling your freelance writing services.
You learn how to manage the different types of freelance writing projects.
Most importantly, you get a life raft you can use to learn how freelancing works while you’re hunting for bigger and better jobs.
Why You Don’t Want to Stick With the Job Boards Long-Term
You’ll never hear me say a word against the job boards. They’re a brilliant way for a beginning freelance writer to learn the ropes and build up a portfolio.
That being said: you don’t want to depend on the job boards in the long term.
Think about it: businesses that are already looking for writers go to the job boards because they know there are hundreds or thousands of writers there, looking for work.
That means the average writer’s odds of getting picked for a specific job are pretty low.
It also means the average writer isn’t going to be able to command a good price.
I don’t want to say that all of the companies you’ll find on the job boards are looking to get low-quality work done on the cheap, but many of them are.
And the ones who are looking for the best work are still drowning in applications.
Perhaps the best reason to avoid the job boards: lack of respect.
In the eyes of the companies who hire you, you’re just another employee.
You’re not a skilled professional offering a valuable service. You’re just another shlub who found the way into a stack of applications.
If you became a freelancer because you wanted to be your own boss, don’t spend more time in the job boards than you have to.
As a way for learning the ropes and doing your time, the job boards are great. But they still won’t beat finding an experienced mentor who can guide you through the process.
Let me know if you have any questions or concerns about freelancing. I’m always trying to tailor this blog to your needs, so I’d appreciate the help.
And I know some of you don’t like to post publicly, so feel free to contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d rather do it that way.
Good luck, and good copywriting!