Zanny Merullo Steffgen
Your Freelance Writing Questions: Answered
If you’re considering taking on some freelance writing work or you’re working on building a freelance writing career, you’re probably full of questions. Is it even doable to freelance write full-time? How much money can you actually make? How do you go about getting started? Read on to see the answers I’ve stumbled across as I’ve built a freelance career!
First of All, Who Am I?
You’re probably wondering what qualifies me to answer questions about freelance writing. Well, I’ve been doing it for eight years and went full-time in April of 2021. Since then, I’ve been writing articles to help people make the jump to a freelance career. Along the way, I’ve learned my fair share about how to make a living from freelance writing alone. In this article, I share what I’ve learned with you in the hopes that you can discover the freedom and joy of a freelance career as well! Any additional questions? Leave a comment!
Do you have to have a degree in English to be a freelance writer?
This may come as a surprise, but education actually factors very little into your ability to have a freelance writing career. In fact, I have built a successful freelance writing business throughout the last year and I never went to college.
You may see a college degree as a requirement for some full-time writing jobs, but with freelance work it really doesn’t matter as long as you can produce excellent quality writing. Aaaand producing it quickly doesn’t hurt. In all my years of taking on freelance gigs, I never once was asked for my education level.
The one advantage of studying English in college or getting an MFA is that it most likely will improve the quality of your writing. In the event that you did get a degree in a writing-related field, you could probably use that as a reason to charge higher rates. But the reality is that you can set your own rates without even mentioning your education!
2. How did you make the decision to become a freelance writer?
For me, it wasn’t just about the chance to work from home and make my own schedule. Before I made the switch, I was working full-time as a restaurant manager and taking on the occasional writing gig here and there. Writing was more of a hobby than anything, and was my escape from the stresses of the career I’d built.
The idea to switch to full-time freelancing had been in the back of my mind for a while, but started to sound better and better the more miserable I became in the restaurant industry. Thankfully, I had slowly built up a resume of published works over the years and had copywritten nearly full-time for a bicycle tour company in the past, so I had enough experience to think I had a chance at a successful freelance career.
Suddenly I realized that all of the skills that made me good at my restaurant job — solid customer service, problem-solving, time management, a good work ethic — were also skills that translated well to freelance writing. After all, it’s not only writing skills that make a successful freelancer but also strong business management, the ability to form lasting client relationships, and an inner drive to keep moving and improving. So I decided to give it a try.
I negotiated with my husband that I would give writing a go full-time for the summer of 2021. If, by the end of that time, I didn’t make enough money to hold up my share of expenses, I’d find another job. And here I am, nearly a year later and still at it!
3. How did you get started freelancing?
My very first gig, eight years ago, was writing blogs for CIEE while I studied abroad. I had to submit writing samples and pass an interview to get the position, and my only payment was probably something like a free invitation to a study abroad group lunch.
So, for the next six months, I wrote one or two blogs a month about my experience — what it was like to attend classes in another language, navigate cultural differences with my host family, or what I did with friends on the weekends. Not long after, my writing was featured in an online magazine for people with chronic illness. With these first two unpaid gigs in my resume, I was able to get more and more projects, and within a couple of years, I was getting paid for each article I wrote.
When I went full-time, I tried out the platforms Upwork and Fiverr. I’d read somewhere that starting with low prices was a good way to build up a reputation on a platform, so I began by selling 500-word articles for $20 and charging $25 an hour. Once I’d gotten several clients and positive reviews, I raised my prices, then again, until I finally had established myself as a competent writer and could charge my ideal prices, which are more than twice as much as the starting rates. As tough as it was to get paid so little in the beginning, I’m glad I started off this way because it allowed me to build up a presence and become a top-rated seller on Upwork.
4. How long did it take you to make a living from freelance writing?
I began freelancing full-time in April and really gave it my all. It wasn’t until October, however, that I made enough to live off of freelance writing alone. By December, I was making $5000 a month, and in the first three weeks of January, I made over $7000. Although I didn’t count the total number of hours I spent working to make these amounts, I know that I worked 5–6 days a week on and off from about 11 am until 8 pm. I also dedicated much of my “free” time to finding new opportunities.
In order to make a living from freelancing, I had to build up a list of clients who offer regular work, constantly search for new opportunities, and say yes to every job that came my way. Now that I have established a successful freelancing career, however, I have no trouble getting clients and have had to start turning down work!
5. What freelancer platforms do you use?
I’ve had the most luck with Upwork, although for a time I got the majority of my gigs from Fiverr. Although I’ve also joined other random writing platforms since then, I’ve found those two to be the most consistent. On Upwork, you create a profile and then apply to jobs with pre-set budgets. On Fiverr, you sell a specific service and set the rate yourself.
Keep in mind that you need to abide by the rules each site sets for its freelancers, among which is the one that says they’ll take 20% of your profits. With Upwork, this changes to 10% after the first $1000, and some clients come without the Upwork fee. Attempting to get clients you find on these sites to pay you off of Upwork will most likely trigger a review from the sites and get your profile disabled, so tread carefully.
6. How do you find your gigs?
Those projects that don’t come to me through Upwork or Fiverr are typically word-of-mouth referrals and magazine pitches. I’ve gained quite a few clients who were recommended to me by someone I wrote for in the past. That’s why it’s important to stay professional and offer good customer service! (Such as giving discounts for regular work, maintaining contact, and offering free revisions if needed.)
I also subscribe to writing opportunities newsletters that arrive in my inbox full of the latest calls for pitches. Then, I’ll save the opportunities that suit me in a folder on my computer and pitch when I have time. In the past year, I’ve had over seven articles published thanks to this strategy! While it’s not enough to sustain myself completely, it’s great to make a few extra bucks from these creative pieces. Plus, it builds my resume.
7. How do you know when a pitch will be successful?
The truth is you never can know for sure. Sometimes I get a feeling about a particular idea, or think that whatever I’m pitching would be a great fit for the publication in question, but it really all comes down to whether you have the right story at the right time. Here are a few ways to give your pitches the best chance of success:
Follow directions. (If you’ve read calls for pitches before, you’ve probably seen that some editors are really specific about what they want in a pitch. Some may instruct you what to put in the subject line, how many words to keep it under, or exactly how to structure your pitch. Whatever you do, don’t take these requirements as simply suggestions. Editors don’t need another excuse to skip over your pitch!)
Lead in with a headline. (This helps editors visualize what your piece will look like in the publications. Go for something succinct that is instantly intriguing for readers.)
Keep it short and sweet. (With all the hundreds of pitches that editors scroll through each day, they really don’t want to have to spend 15 minutes reading the six paragraphs you’ve come up with about your idea. Start with an intro, explain in one paragraph your idea and why you’re the person to write it, then finish with a brief mention of your previous work with links. Done.)
Do your research. (Just recently I only lightly skimmed a publication before sending a pitch and got a nice response back. Something like “thanks for your pitch, but we don’t accept personal essays, only reported features.” Well, it was extremely kind of them to even respond after I’d made such an avoidable error there, and I took it as a lesson to make sure I understand exactly what kinds of pieces a magazine publishes before I pitch them. If for no other reason than to save their time and mine!)
8. Do you have financial security as a freelance writer?
Because my last few months have been increasingly successful, I’m at a point where I feel fairly confident about my financial situation. This is because more than half of my clients are long-term. That being said, if something changes and I lose a few of those clients (which does happen), then I have to start looking for new work again and that’s never guaranteed.
The good news is that there is high demand for freelance writers these days, especially in the era of search engine optimization when every business needs content. This also means that there are tons of freelance writers out there, and clients can easily find someone who charges less than you. Therefore, it’s up to you to convince them why they should shell out a little extra for your services. It helps to find a niche that you excel in or create lasting relationships with clients who have an abundance of work to be done.
So, basically, there is very little financial security in the freelance writing field. I’ve had to drop clients who promised ongoing, well-paid work but didn’t follow through, and I’ve been dropped by clients who suddenly took their projects in another direction or decided they didn’t have the budget to pay a writer. The best you can do is to find a few clients who keep coming back for more, stay on the lookout for new opportunities, and jump on finding new gigs as soon as you have an opening in your schedule.
9. How do you choose what to write about?
With most of my clients, this is chosen for me. Meaning that I apply to jobs with budgets that match my rates and topics that match my experience and they decide exactly what I write about. I typically look for gigs in the industries that I know best, based on my prior work and life experiences.
When pitching magazines, it’s much the same. If I see a call for pitches about something that I would feel comfortable writing about, I come up with an idea and send an email to the editor.
What’s fun is that this had led me down so many interesting paths that I may never have chosen for myself. In the past year, I’ve written about everything from meditation and mental health to wine, health insurance, fashion, real estate, and more!
10. How do you know if your writing is good enough?
When I was first getting started, I sent a lot of my drafts to my father, who is an author. He gave me feedback that was extremely helpful to my development as a writer, and his is still the voice I hear in my head when I comb through my own pieces. If you have someone in your life who is an experienced writer and has offered to help you, take the offer! This, in addition to frequent practice, is a great way to improve.
Reading is another super important factor when it comes to improving your writing quality. I often read through pieces a magazine has published before I submit my work there. I take my gut reaction about the quality of the writing into account, and sometimes look deeper. What tools does this author use to hold a reader’s attention and do I use those same tools? What is the sentence structure like in this piece, and how does my work read in comparison? Then in my downtime I’ll read a lot of classics. There is something about immersing yourself in someone else’s well-put-together words that can work wonders for your own writing.
Other than doing your research and reaching out to mentors, you have very little control over knowing whether or not your writing is “good enough” for a publication or client. You will probably get feedback as you start taking on writing assignments, and take that into account as you edit drafts and find new clients. That doesn’t mean clinging to every critical word someone has said about your work (after all, if they were an expert writer they probably wouldn’t have hired you), but rather thinking about what you can learn from their words.
11. Is it worth it to write for an agency?
So I have heard that some freelance writers work for marketing agencies or other companies on a freelance basis. My only experience of this in the past is when I worked as a freelance copywriter for a bicycle tour company. The reason my position was “freelance” is that the work was not guaranteed by a contract, but rather given out on an as-needed basis. I found this to be a great way to get started and learn my way around copywriting, and highly recommend it if you find a business you love that values your work.
My understanding of writing for an agency is that they take a cut of your profits. If you can work out a deal where you still get paid an amount that you deem fair, then that’s great! Working for an agency will mean consistent work and support when you need it. It’s all about what kind of deal you have and what kind of commitment you are looking for.
12. How do you set rates?
This is a tough one, especially when you are first building your freelance business. As I mentioned before, I started out with low-paying work until I had built up enough of a presence to ask for what I thought is fair. You also have to take into account that sites like Fiverr and Upwork take a percentage of your profits.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you set your rates:
Do a competition check. (When I first was getting started, I’d often do a quick google search to find the industry average rates for a certain kind of work. That helped me get an idea of what range the client was probably thinking of and then decide on what felt fair to me from there.)
Think hourly. (If a client is asking for a per-word or per-article rate, think about the time you’d put into the project. Start by setting an hourly rate you’d like to stick to and then calculate the word or article charge from there. Then, keep track of the time you put into it to see if the rates match up. If you charged too little, keep that in mind the next time.)
Do the math for yourself. (While rates typically are associated with experience and quality, you also have to make sure they’ll work for you. Do the math to figure out how much you’d need to make to sustain yourself, and then charge accordingly. Some clients may not hire you if your rates are too high, so there is some trial and error involved.)
Be up front. (Most of the time clients just want to know that they’re not getting scammed. That’s why I’m always upfront about my rates. For example, I’ll tell clients that I charge a certain amount extra if there is SEO work involved. Then I tell them that this is because I pay for a premium subscription to an SEO software that helps me with this kind of writing, so I need to be able to cover the cost of the tool that helps me do that job well. Clients appreciate this and are more likely to pay extra if they understand where the money is going. This is also helpful if you are locked in rate negotiations.)
Offer tiers. (Another great way to ensure fair rates is to offer different tiers of services. For example, I tell clients that my rate depends on the number of words, the amount of research involved, and whether or not I have to optimize work. If clients insist on me finding photos to accompany my work, I charge extra as well. That way, I ensure that I get paid fairly for the work I’m doing while also attracting clients who may not have agreed to my prices if I’d only told them the cost of an all-inclusive package right away.)
13. Are there opportunities for growth?
Absolutely. That’s the great thing about freelance writing — there are always new opportunities that arise from it! For example, I have one client I write blogs for who has now gone on to offer me a part-time position and an additional weekly gig. Although I’m not sure I’ll take them up on it yet, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and it gives me hope that I’ll be able to make a real career out of freelancing!
There are also plenty of opportunities to learn and expand the services you provide. One client I had been writing marketing emails for then asked if I could take on a pitch deck project, which I had never done before. So I did the research and worked with the client on it, and now I can offer that as a service in the future.
14. Do you think you could freelance write long-term?
You’re probably wondering if this is a viable long-term career path. My answer at the moment is yes, but I don’t think that’s what I’ll do. If I’ve learned anything in the past year of freelancing it’s that this work can open all kinds of doors. While I’d love to continue with it for the foreseeable future, I also am open to committing to one writing position if the right one comes along.
Because that’s the thing about freelancing — I’m free to manage it as I please!