How to Start Making Money as a Freelance Writer: A 3-Step Process

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If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be earning six figures online as a freelance writer, I would have thought you were crazy.

After all, I had no writing background, no relevant education and no network — all things I thought were prerequisites to launching a writing career.

But then, after finding myself unemployed in the summer of 2012, I set out to find an easier way. Since then, I’ve figured out that getting paid to write these days is less about credentials, degrees and who you know, and more about being motivated, resourceful and knowing where to look for work.

Ready to become a well-paid writer? Here’s what worked for me.

Step 1: Go Where the Fish Are

The biggest hurdle in becoming a freelance writer used to be finding people who’d pay you to write.

But I’ve found that online freelance marketplaces — like Upwork — totally remove this barrier, letting you easily apply to any of the thousands of writing gigs posted by real clients everyday. These sites can be pretty competitive, and they tend to feature lots of low-paying jobs, but if you choose carefully and use the approaches I lay out in this post, you can still make good money while doing work you enjoy.

Another thing that’s great about online freelance marketplaces is that you can find jobs that don’t require any formal experience or training.

For example, my first job was writing short, templated children’s stories — basically the writing equivalent of “paint by numbers.” Just about anyone could have done it, and it was a great way for me to get my feet wet and earn some quick money ($340 by the end of my first week… not bad for a guy with just a laptop and a bank account!).

Step 2: Create a Targeted Writing Sample

OK, here’s the elephant in the room: I had absolutely no examples of previous work to show to potential clients on Day 1.

This can seem like a big hurdle when you’re starting out, but it’s really not.

It turns out most clients don’t care if you have a “complete portfolio” (whatever that means). I’ve found that a single, short writing sample is often enough to get you hired, as long as it’s closely related to the gig you’re applying for.

This makes sense when you think about it, since writing jobs tend to vary pretty wildly from one another. So when it comes to showing off your writing samples, relevance is far more important than quantity.

Think of it like ordering a wedding cake: If you want a unique flavor, then you’re probably going to choose a confectioner who can offer you a sample of a cake that’s the most similar to the flavor you’re imagining.

Based on this psychology, I took an unconventional but extremely effective approach to applying for writing jobs online.

If a job description called for an article about, say, the health benefits of coffee, I’d write up a short article that talked about the health benefits of red wine, and show that to the client as proof that I could complete the job. (Note that my sample in this case was a similar “flavor” to what the client needed, yet still different enough that it wouldn’t be misunderstood as a “free sample.”)

This strategy paid off, big-time. My writing samples grabbed clients’ attention and got me hired for lots of gigs, including ones that paid $40-$50 per hour.

Step 3: Write a Super-Simple Proposal

So you’ve found a writing gig that sounds interesting, and you’ve got a relevant sample ready to go.

Now, it’s time to write a proposal — this is essentially your job application, but we’re going to make it very short and simple — and attach your writing sample to it.

Remember, I started off with no experience, so I had to take the focus off of me (a good practice for seasoned writers too, since clients don’t want to hear all about us), and let my highly targeted writing sample do the selling for me.

Instead of writing a long, detailed proposal about myself and my work history, I just banged out a few sentences letting the client know that I’d attached a writing sample that was very similar to what they were looking for. (Remember, relevance is key.)

That’s it.

If you put yourself in the client’s shoes, you’ll realize that although this “pitch” is ridiculously simple, it’s also very hard for them to resist. They’re likely to read your sample even if only out of curiosity at that point!

And once they do, you’ve got a good shot at winning that job, since, as we discussed earlier, your sample will probably be the most relevant one they receive.

Will You Try This System?

There you have it: the exact 3-step process I used to go from zero to well-paid writer, while never having to send out a single cold-email or do an ounce of networking.

There are two things I’d like you to take away from this post:

  1. Earning a good income from writing is totally doable, even if you’re starting with no experience, and
  2. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as most people think.

So if making money writing is something that interests you, I hope you’ll give it a shot.

Your Turn: If you’re a freelance writer, how did you get started? Share your strategies in the comments!

Danny Margulies is a six-figure freelance copywriter on a mission to help others succeed as well-paid writers. Get his top 5 hacks for making money on Elance, totally free.