5 Things Every Freelance Writer Should Know Before Typing a Single Word

how to become a freelance writer
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I’m always looking for ways to make extra money.

While working a full-time job, I’ve waitressed, babysat, been a secret shopper, participated in focus groups, answered hundreds of online surveys and been a guinea pig for online user testing.

Each of these work-at-home opportunities provides a decent amount of cash, but requires you to be in a certain place at a certain time. For someone already working a traditional 40-hour job, it’s sometimes not feasible — or the $10 for taking a survey or mystery shopping just isn’t worth it.

Enter freelance writing.

In the last two years, I’ve managed to add an additional $300 to $500 (and sometimes more) per month to my full-time income.

Sound interesting? Before you start writing hundreds of pitch emails, take a moment. Here’s what you need to know to get started as a freelance writer.

1. Where to Write

If you’re already writing the next Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, take a step back.

“It’s very important to identify the right publications” before you start writing, says Lizzy Schiffman Tufano, a senior editor at a daily Chicago news site, who freelances for Popular Science, The Huffington Post and others.

“Some people make the mistake of starting with the story. You’re going to have quicker success if you start by pitching smaller publications rather than Wired right off the bat.”

I like to reach out to local or regional publications because I’m a subject matter expert in something in this area. I can look appealing to an editor in some way — and they’re likely to hire local writers when they can.

Also, don’t ignore niche publications. If you have specialty knowledge in something, look for a related publication.

There’s a magazine or website out there for almost every topic, so do a few quick searches to identify ones you can pitch.

Use Your Network

If you know even one person who’s connected to the writing industry, that person might know a publication looking for writers.

Check out Meetup groups for writers, freelancers or even young professional groups in your area and start going to events.

Remember to be genuine.

Don’t just network for the sole purpose of getting work. People will quickly pick up on your strategy and will close their doors to you faster than you can hand them your business card.

“Build connections for a lasting relationship,” Tufano says.

Use Your Extended Network

Did you graduate from college?

If so, your school likely has an online alumni directory you can search by city, job title, industry, etc. Type in some keywords and look for any alumni who work at publications that interest you.

Send an introductory email and ask if you can talk on the phone for 10 or 15 minutes.

Get an idea of how freelance submissions work at their publication. Once you develop a story idea, he or she will already know your name and hopefully pass it to the right person.

2. What to Write

After you’ve made your list of potential publications, start digging deeper into each of them and come up with one good story idea for each outlet.

Look through the archives. Make sure the topic hasn’t recently been covered. If it has, try a new angle.

Make your story idea as specific as possible, and make sure it fits with the publication’s style and focus.

Having trouble coming up with story ideas?

Writer’s Digest managing editor Tyler Moss, who also freelances for The Atlantic and Vice, says he often uses Reddit, the local news and a few Google searches for emerging studies (if you’re covering health or science topics).

It’s amazing how the local news can inspire an idea you can tailor for another publication.

It’s important to write about things you know about and enjoy. You may want to get a clip from Wired, but if you know nothing about science or technology, you’re going to hate the writing process and you’ll end up frustrated.

Adam Wren — who freelances for POLITICO, Entrepreneur and Inc. — says to write with the intention of building a solid portfolio.

This means writing what you’re passionate about. If you’re a master organizer, write about organization and all the topics that go along with it.

As your portfolio grows, you’ll start to become known as an expert on the subject matter. Plus, you’re writing about something you enjoy, so the process is that much easier.

3. How to Write Your First Pitch

Develop your story idea as fully as possible before even opening your email. Stick to just one idea to start.

“I’d prefer to see one pitch well detailed than five pitches,” Moss says of new writers.

Come up with a rough outline, identify a few sources you plan to talk to and present it in an organized format to the editor.

This is your time to convince the editor why this story needs to be written.

You also need to convince the editor you’re the person to do it. Include a short bio talking about your experience as it directly pertains to the potential article.

If you have any clips, even if they’re from college, include one or two. If not, triple-check your pitch email and have someone else proofread it to make sure it’s free of spelling and grammatical errors.

Nothing turns off an editor quicker than an unpolished email!

4. What to Charge

When you get your first assignment, the editor will either ask for your rate or tell you what they’re going to pay.

Most likely, they’ll tell you what they can pay. It’s your job to decide if you’re willing to write for their price.

“Calculate in your head how many hours it will take you to do it and determine if it’s worth it,” says Jeff Fleischer, a Chicago-based author, editor and journalist. “Or you may take a lower rate if it’s a good publication.”

I’d always take the first opportunity. You need to figure out if you even like freelance writing — and you need clips. For these two reasons, I’d accept an assignment if it’s offered.

As you become more experienced in the freelance world, you can start to negotiate rates or set a rate for yourself. Maybe you don’t want to write for anything less than 30 cents per word.

When an assignment comes through, do the math on the word count and fee they’re offering and decide if it makes sense for you.

5. How to Invoice

Once you submit your article, you’ll likely need to turn in some tax paperwork, a contract and your invoice.

If you’re just trying this out to see if you like it, you can use a free invoice generator to create a nice PDF.

If you’re more serious about freelance writing, Wren suggests Freshbooks or Quickbooks (which recently introduced a free invoice creator) to keep invoices and finances in check.

Tufano, Moss and many other freelancers use a spreadsheet with organized tabs to track their pitches, works in progress, invoices, income and unresponsive clients.

Find the method that works best for you — and don’t forget to set aside about 25% of every check for taxes. Wren suggests setting up a separate business checking account solely for freelance money.

Don’t forget to maintain boundaries between your full-time job and your freelance job.

“Serve your full-time job before you serve any other client,” Wren says.

You need to honor your employer — so don’t use company time or property for freelance work. Structure your early mornings, nights and weekends for your side hustle.

Your Turn: Have you started a freelance writing side hustle? Share your tips in the comments!

Natalie K. Gould is the VP of Content Management at Advice Interactive Group, an award-winning digital marketing agency in Dallas, Texas. On her off hours, she’s a freelance writer and bourbon enthusiast.