If you think about who freelancers are, the quick answer would be that they are people who don’t have a long-term commitment to one employer. This is accurate enough but does not describe freelancers in full.
Their most prominent feature is that they are essentially one-person businesses, one-person teams. In this article, we will tell you exactly how to become a freelancer. And not just any freelancer—one who is good at everything at once. All it takes is these 7 relatively simple steps.
Wondering how to become a successful freelance writer (or designer, programmer, etc.) with the huge competition out there?
The secret is knowing how to stand out.
You are basically building a solo business and thus need to do some branding to become recognizable. First of all, come up with a name for your business identity. It can be built around your own name—for example, “John Smith Writing Services”—or it can be something more generic, like “Compelling Copy Company.”
This is not essential if you are starting out on a freelance platform (where all that’s required is filling out a profile), but if you are willing to go the extra mile and create a website, business cards, and so on, then a unique personal brand will be necessary.
Invest some money into getting your logo and visual brand identity created and polished by a professional designer. Your work will eventually speak for itself, but since your future clients haven’t had the chance to see the quality of your work just yet, a good first impression can make a crucial difference.
Next, your website.
You will want to pick a domain that is:
– Informative – It gives a hint about what you do or identifies you in a clear and memorable way.
– Easy to memorize – It’s not too long and preferably is free of acronyms and uncommon words.
– Easy to spell – Imagine how many times you will have to say your domain out loud. It’s best if you don’t need to say it symbol by symbol every single time. You should avoid dashes and underscores if possible.
Having your own freelance website, and in particular a strong domain name, immediately puts you a cut above those other freelancers who still send their emails from a Gmail account. If you are serious about yourself, others are likely to follow your lead.
Now, what is it exactly that must be on your website? Here are the key 4 elements not to miss:
- A brief summary—Who you are, what you do, and why you are the right person to choose. This statement must be short and to-the-point.
- Exactly what services you can provide—A reasonably detailed description of the various sorts of freelance work you can do.
- Your portfolio—As large a variety of work as possible, done for diverse clients and purposes.
- Contact details—Your email address and phone number.
You are, of course, not limited to these 4 elements, but they are the absolute minimum that your “business card” website must consist of.
All in all, a personal website is great, but in case you are only just now figuring out how to become a freelance writer, you will most likely be seeking jobs on freelancing platforms.
On these platforms, your primary means of presenting yourself is a standard profile, where it all boils down to the first impression you make, which is most frequently based on your rating—the feedback your clients leave. Hence, you will want to do your absolute best to make your first clients very happy.
Below we will be talking about how to do just that.
The key to convincing your first clients that you’re the right person for them is showing them what you are capable of—and that is what a portfolio is for.
But what can you show in your portfolio if you are just starting out and all of your previous projects belong to your old employers?
If you have nothing to show for yourself so far, there are three things you can do to get samples quickly:
– Ask a previous employer to let you showcase some of the old work you did for them.
– Make up some imaginary job for an imaginary client and do it.
– Offer your services to someone free of charge.
In the latter case, a solid option is to do some work for a non-profit organization. It’s a real win-win strategy, as they get some free professional help that they probably need, while you get to do something you actually care about and end up with a good portfolio sample (which will look even better once you mention it was pro bono work).
It may not be easy to land clients before your portfolio is built up. You may even be asked to do some work for free before getting hired, for the reason that your potential client will want to make sure that you perform well.
This happens a lot in the creative industry…but does not happen pretty much anywhere else. Imagine going to a new coffee shop and asking the barista to make you some coffee for free so that you can see if it’s any good, or telling a hairdresser that you will need to see your haircut before you decide whether you are willing to pay for it or not.
This doesn’t quite tie together, right?
In some situations, you may consider doing this if it’s to your own advantage (for example, if doing the job will result in a nicer portfolio or valuable feedback, which will in turn help you get more clients).
But in every other case, you should keep in mind one fact: such requests indicate that your potential client does not acknowledge the value of your work, and agreeing to such terms without a good reason devalues your time and effort.
Finding freelance jobs usually gets much easier once you’ve gained some momentum. But before anyone has heard of you, it can be a real struggle. So, we’re going to explain how to start freelance writing if no one seems to need your services.
There are 2 obvious things you can do from the very beginning. One is to use your existing contacts—friends, family, former colleagues—to spread the word about starting your new freelance path and being available for hire.
If you want to speed things up and gain some experience and feedback quickly, you may also want to mention that you’ll come cheap.
Another way is to try your luck with finding jobs online. There is a great variety of options to choose from, most of which fall into 4 major categories:
- There are many global online platforms for freelancers in all industries such as Freelancer and Upwork, as well as more specialized ones like Krop for creative professionals or Dice for tech specialists.
The general principle with these sites is that clients post the jobs they have, and freelancers apply and offer their services. Whoever seems like the best match to the client gets the job.
- The opposite principle is used on Fiverr, where freelancers list what they’ve got to offer, and clients come looking for the right specialist.
This is a good place to land some small jobs, likely with no significant commitment, to gain some experience and fill up your portfolio. The downside is that the budgets here are relatively low.
- Location-specific freelancing platforms take an interesting niche, where clients and freelancers can connect based on their location, skill, time zone, country, etc.— Localancers, LocalSolo, MeFi Jobs.
- If you’re looking for a more reliable, stable place to get jobs on a regular basis without having to compete with many other freelancers every time, try becoming a member of hand-picked freelancing communities such as Envato for designers and developers or Cool.Club for freelance writers.
Freelancers usually work with an hourly rate, determining the price of a job by estimating how many hours it will take to complete. In order to decide what your hourly rate should be, try answering the following questions:
– What do other freelancers charge?
Do a little research on freelancing platforms where the hourly rates of freelancers can be viewed by the public. Look for people who have the same specialization as you and similar freelancing experience/skill level. See how much they charge on average—you don’t want to charge much more than that unless you are offering some extra benefits for the money.
– What is the least you should charge?
Estimating the least amount of money you can earn to make ends meet is another way to determine your hourly rate. Calculate how many billable hours you want to be doing per week (by “billable” hours, we mean those that will be spent working on client projects).
These will be accompanied by some hours spent searching for jobs, accounting, and marketing yourself—as well as being sick or simply not having any work to do at the moment.
When you take these non-billable hours into account, you may realize that your minimally acceptable hourly rate is in fact somewhat higher than you had initially estimated.
– What is the most you can charge?
Over time, you will also find out what is the most you can reasonably charge with your current level of expertise.
This is a process of trial and error, and overestimating may cost you some clients, so it’s best to do it little by little.
Once you get a job, nothing is more important to your future reputation than delivering strong results on time. To achieve this, you need to:
- Name a reasonable delivery date. This is actually much harder than it sounds and will most likely take some practice before you start to get it right every time.The timeline that you set will also determine the price that you charge the client, so when making this decision, you’ll be balancing two things: the risk of choosing too little time (in which case you can end up underpaid if the work takes longer than expected) and the risk of choosing too much time (which may result in the price exceeding a reasonable level).
- Stick to a schedule and complete the work on time or ahead of time. Freelancers are very exposed to distractions due to the lack of a standard “working” environment, so you may want to implement some time management habits.
A good time-tracking program will surprise you in many ways by showing you where your time is actually going (as opposed to where you think it is going).
You are likely to realize that you in fact spend much less time working than you think you do, and that a big chunk of your working day goes to answering emails, messaging, checking the news, and so on. One way to turn this around is to use software designed to help people stay concentrated and boost their productivity.
There are countless browser extensions and timer apps for freelancers that may do the trick, with the most widely known being those built around the Pomodoro Technique.
It also never hurts to isolate yourself from distractions as much as you can. We recommend using one of the many browser extensions available to block certain websites during your working hours. These programs can detect and block the ones that distract you the most—for example, Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit.
Now that your project is finished, it’s time to figure out how to receive your earnings. Invoicing used to be a big issue for every freelancer even just a few years ago, requiring lots of paperwork and tax/legal knowledge. This is fortunately not the case anymore.
Pretty much every serious freelancing platform will have you covered on this aspect, and for those working independently, there are plenty of online invoicing tools for small businesses—Curdbee, Nutcache, and The Invoice Machine to name a few.
With this variety of handy tools, generating an invoice is no longer an issue. The payment itself, though, is less of a sure thing. There is probably no freelancer in the world who will not, sooner or later, run into a client who either delays payment, tries to reduce the price post-factum, or simply refuses to pay altogether.
These incidents can cause huge problems for a small freelance business—especially if the payment was meant to cover some urgent expenses, such as bills or daily living needs.
Let’s go through three of the most common types of problematic situation (and the corresponding ways to ensure that you get paid).
– The client takes extremely long to pay the invoice.
The “terms of payment” section of your invoice specifies the length of time after the job is complete that the payment has to be made. If your relationship with the client is regulated by a freelancing platform, this section is most likely not optional for you, as the terms of payment are identical for every contract.
This is a relatively lucky case as the platform itself does the work regulating disputes, and payment cannot be delayed by the client without providing a legitimate reason.
In case you’re invoicing the client yourself, it is reasonable to give a 30-day payment term as opposed to more the common 90-day term used by bigger companies (while a large company can handle a long wait for payment if it occurs, this is not necessarily the case for you). Favoring the client by giving 90 days to pay may be somewhat more generous than you can actually afford.
As soon as it becomes clear that the payment is being delayed, you need to start providing the client with regular reminders. It is in no way embarrassing to drop as many reminders as it takes to make the payment happen. Simply keep in mind that you have completed your part of the agreement and the client has not, so if anyone should be ashamed, it’s them.
If you feel guilty writing on and on about the money, or if you receive increasingly annoyed answers, just try your best to keep calm and insist on receiving your well-deserved payment. And if it costs you the relationship with this client, well, maybe they are not the kind of client you would want to keep working for, anyway.
Here’s another important detail:
One thing to try out if you’ve experienced late payments several times is setting up a system of late fees—say, a 1% fee when the invoice is not paid on time and a further 1% for every month of delay.
This section of the invoice will not necessarily get a warm reception from your clients, but it will indeed give them an extra incentive to pay on time, which is after all the most important thing.
– The client tries to pay less than was agreed upon.
This situation typically happens when the original project quote was not clear enough. Basically, in these instances, the client states that the services you’ve provided were not of satisfactory quality or that you did not deliver everything they had asked for.
To settle this argument, you will need to accumulate all available documentation of your cooperation with this client, be it the itemized quote or simply the email correspondence—whatever you can find to prove that your client did accept the suggested plan and that you did deliver everything that had been negotiated. Do stand up for yourself—in a calm and polite, but firm, manner. Bargaining is not a pretty thing to do when the agreed-upon services have already been provided.
– The client refuses to pay for your freelance services.
This is when the situation moves from a small argument over nuance to a more serious legal matter. A client’s refusal to pay is a reason to either seek a solution from the regulating platform or help from legal counsel.
Once again, complete refusal to pay rarely happens if you’re working on a freelancing platform (unless, of course, you actually did a bad job or didn’t do it at all). The agreed-upon sum of money is usually deducted from the client once the work has begun and is released to you as soon as you deliver the result (unless the client claims that they didn’t get what was requested). Hence, there’s really no way around payment for the client as long as they got what they came for. If conflict arises, it’s up to the platform staff to regulate it, and you won’t need to seek any outside assistance.
If there is no such go-between in your relationship with your client, however, a dispute over payment is a reason to seek legal counsel, be it either one of these:
- A lawyer (if you have one)
- A debt collector (if the disputed amount of money is high enough to make it worth hiring one). Debt collectors usually take a percentage of the sum they are supposed to collect, so this is not an option if the disputed payment was not very large.
In fact, if the loss is relatively small, the most reasonable, although unsatisfying, solution may be to write the sum off as an extra cost and avoid that client in the future (and any others who resemble them). It may be disappointing, but at least you won’t risk losing more money fighting than the amount owed in the first place.
Generally speaking, delays in payment (or even outright refusals) are one of the major risks of any freelance career. That’s why it is a really good idea to always have some financial reserves, whether in your business or personal account, to survive times of turbulence.
There is, of course, no general rule that will keep you safe 10 times out of 10; however, there are some things that should alarm you if they occur at an early stage. The types of clients who are more likely than others to cause your freelance business trouble are as follows:
– Those worried too much about being ripped off
Of course, no one has to trust an external contractor right away. But if you get asked to sign a seemingly abnormal number of legal documents (contracts, non-disclosure agreements, proprietary information agreements, and so on), this may be a reason to be cautious about the client.
The thing is, sometimes those who believe they will get ripped off look for the signs of being ripped off so hard that they end up finding “evidence” against you. Such supposed proof will speak loudly enough to them even if it is, in fact, nothing.
– Those referring to poor experience with other freelancers
This group of clients frequently overlaps with the previous one. They seek concession and reassurance, telling you all about how badly things have turned out with other freelance writers (or freelance developers, designers, etc.).
One thing to keep in mind is that the other side is not given a say here, so we can’t see the full picture. Clients may feel overly protective of themselves because they have had some poor experiences with other freelancers, but for all you know, all of those negative interactions could have been their fault as well.
– Those asking whether they will have to pay if they don’t like what you do
These questions indicate two things about the client. One is that your client is relatively or completely new to working with freelancers and is reasonably concerned, in which case getting them familiar with the general procedure will most likely be enough to quell their fears.
Otherwise, these questions demonstrate the client does not value your time and effort, or doesn’t trust you in general, which will almost certainly result in being dissatisfied with each other in the end.
There is no rock-solid rule that allows you to predict whether a particular client will be reasonable or not; however, paying attention to these and other small hints at the early stages of cooperation may spare you some pain in the neck later on.
After your job is done (and you are paid), one last thing to do is make sure that your clients will come back if they need to, and recommend you to many others. You can win this kind of loyalty if you polish your client service, which means making sure to always:
– Stay in touch. Find a way to always be available during business hours, so they can count on you if any urgent issues come up.
– Build quality relationships. Be someone they want to work with—someone genuinely interested in their success, easy to get along with, approachable, and reliable.
– Go the extra mile whenever you can. Occasionally over-delivering and exceeding a client’s expectations can pay off in lots of ways. Don’t miss your chance to give some bonus text, an extra feature, or a super-quick delivery (it’s best if you can save the day when they come with an emergency deadline), and you will end up having some really loyal customers.
Hopefully, this article has shed some light on how to start a freelance writing career. As you can see, being a successful freelancer essentially boils down to a simple loop. Grow your personal brand, get some clients, do the work, leave them satisfied, and then repeat.
We hope that our article has provided you with some actionable tips about how to start freelance writing that you will now be able to successfully implement.