How to become a freelance content writer (+ my lessons learned in 5 years)

Back in 2018, I quit my full-time job as a marketing manager and had no idea what I was going to do next. I’d applied for a couple of other full-time content roles, but nothing had fallen into place.

Even though I didn’t have a plan of what I was going to do next, I knew I needed a fresh start. Little did I know that shortly after handing in my notice, several opportunities fell into my inbox that I could juggle simultaneously as part-time projects.

I had accidentally become a freelance content writer, and in my first month, somehow made $15k. My income didn’t stay that high, at least not on average, but I kept freelancing for the next five years.

This mostly looked like writing blog posts for B2B clients in the SaaS (software as a service) sector, with some adjacent website and branding projects along the way too.

(This year, I’ve transitioned more to my own writing and blogs, as this has been bringing in more money, but I still work with occasional content clients.)

Thinking of becoming a freelance content writer? Here’s everything I can pass on to help you on your journey to starting a freelance content writing business.

A lot of this is based on what I share in my book, Simple Business, so grab a copy of that if you’d like more detail. But let’s dig into the best advice for new freelance content writers here.

Everything you need to know about becoming a freelance writer in 2023

How to know if freelance writing is a good fit for you

A bit about the good and bad parts of being a freelance writer. First, the good stuff:

  • You set your own rates and don’t have a boss capping your earning potential
  • You set your own schedule and have flexibility around when you work
  • You choose who you work with
  • You can have more job stability working with multiple clients than with a full-time normal job

Now, the bad things about being a freelance writer:

  • You are responsible for getting the work done. No one else is going to make you accountable for getting to your desk in the morning.
  • You are responsible for finding clients, making money, and doing everything else in your business.
  • You can’t just sit at a desk and twiddle your thumbs until 5pm.
  • You have to work with clients – and not all of them are easy, reasonable, and hands-off. I’ve generally been very lucky with my clients, and I hope you can be too. (Also, the good thing about having a natural referral system from the great work you deliver is that you can fire clients that are a bad fit.)

For most people, the best way to find out if you’d make a good freelance writer is to just try it. The great thing about doing freelance work is that you don’t have to go all in. In fact, it’s better to go gradually in when you’re starting out.

Without quitting your job or doing anything drastic, you can put out feelers and find your first client. See how that first piece of writing goes, then do the same with a second client. If you enjoy the work and your clients love the results, then you can scale your time as new projects roll in.

What you need to succeed as a freelance content writer

I may be biased because this is the exact route that I took, but I think the best way to become a freelance content writer is to…

  1. Be an employed writer
  2. Build a network and experience
  3. Go out on your own when you’ve got a good reputation

On your way through these three steps, you’ll also gain these things that make it easier to succeed as a freelance content writer:

  • Skills – Unexpectedly, being a fantastic writer is one of the most important keys to success for freelance writers. This means attention to detail, minimal or zero typos, and an excellent grasp of your language.
  • SEO expertise – If you’re a freelance content writer, you’re almost certainly writing online content. This means you need to be a great writer and very familiar with SEO. To succeed, keep learning to write with search intent in mind. For online content projects, your success will often be measured by the SEO impact: in particular, keywords, rankings, and traffic gained.
  • Work ethic – Being a good writer requires a lot of focus, especially if you’re freelance. When you are your own boss, you need to have the discipline to get to your desk, sit down, focus, and get your work done on time (or ideally, early). If you struggle to focus and be productive – not all the time, but for enough time – it’s going to be very difficult.
  • Experience – The more content you’ve written, the more you have in your portfolio to convince prospective clients to work with you. The more high-profile the brands you’ve written for, the better. But that said, often it’s just as valuable to have industry-specific experience. If you have concrete results (including SEO results such as keyword rankings or increased traffic) you can use in your marketing, you’re also in a great position.
  • Industry – You can work on freelance writing projects in all industries, but over time you’ll probably gravitate towards certain sectors and build up valuable knowledge and connections here. For me, it was originally travel tech, and later more general B2B SaaS. For you, perhaps it’s wellness, beauty, finance, or DIY. See where your experience, curiosity, and clients guide you, and don’t be afraid to focus your messaging on a specific industry. It’ll often be more compelling for the right clients than a more generalized alternative.

How to find your first clients as a freelance writer

In a post on Medium a while back, I looked at where my first fifteen consulting clients came from. It was pretty much 100 percent referrals and word of mouth.

When you do great work and have happy customers, the marketing you need to do to bring in new customers can be minimal – or even unnecessary. Your existing customers do your marketing for you.

When I started my consulting company, I had a head start. I hadn’t planned on starting a business at all, but several different projects came up at the same time and I had the flexibility to do them in parallel.

But what if you’re starting completely from scratch and have no relevant contacts, testimonials, or experience to speak for yourself? Ideally, try to gather those things first. But you can also…

  • Start with your current network of friends, work contacts, and other people you know. Put the word out about the business you’re starting, the service you’re offering, and how people can benefit. You might be surprised at who’s interested, or who knows someone it would be great for.
  • Create a simple website and use it to present your experience, what you’re offering, and blog posts (or podcasts or videos) answering your audience’s questions and writing about what they care about.
  • Get clear on the type of person who would be your ideal customer and think about how best to get to know them, online and offline.
  • Find a way to reach them with something free that will provide a tonne of value. Often, you don’t even need to mention your paid product at all. If people want more from you, they’ll either ask or join your email list and seek out your paid offerings.

I love Kevin Kelly’s concept of 1000 true fans: the thousand people in your community who will jump at anything you offer.

These are the people who sing from the rooftops about your business without you even having to ask. If you put out a book, they’ll read it. If you launch an app, they’ll want it.

Kevin says that’s all you need for a business to succeed: a thousand true fans. In the early days of your business, achieving ten and then one hundred true fans is one of the best goals to have. For some businesses, this is more than enough to thrive. 

No matter the number, over time, one of your top goals should be to maintain the respect and interest of those fans.

This doesn’t mean perfection, but it does mean showing up consistently, delivering everything you say you will, and being a little more generous than you need to be. And just being a good, friendly human.

How to build a successful business as a freelance content writer

As I shared in Simple Business, if a business doesn’t work out, usually it comes down to one of these three things: 

  • It doesn’t solve a problem well enough
  • It tries to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist
  • People don’t know about what you offer

Often, business owners get so caught up in the third problem – people not knowing about what they’re selling – that they double down on expensive, time-consuming marketing. 

They think marketing will solve everything. And sometimes it does, very temporarily. But really, the first two problems are much more lethal than a lack of marketing.

A great product beats an incredible marketing strategy any day. For freelance writers, your product is your writing – the style, angle, and perspective that only you can bring. It’s also how easily you pick up briefs, work out what your client is looking for, and overdeliver.

Be so good that your customers keep coming back for more and create and operate a referral system for you, so you rarely have to think about marketing.

How much can you earn as a freelance writer?

Here are the honest and transparent numbers of what I’ve charged for blog posts as a freelance content writer. Keep in mind that these rates are for B2B tech clients, which tend to pay higher than other industries.

Back in 2018, my first ever blog content client paid me $500 for about 800 words. This was a Swiss-based client, and they set the rates. Companies in the US and Switzerland generally have much bigger budgets than UK-based and European companies, but over time you’ll figure out what your clients are comfortable with.

In 2020, a couple of years into my freelance business, I charged:

  • $485 for blog posts of ~800 words
  • $725 for 1200 words or over
  • (In hindsight, I should have had another invoice category for posts over 2000 words, as these were common.)

Over the last year or so, my blog content rates have been:

  • $660 for 800 words
  • $825 for 1000-1500 words
  • $1200 for blog posts over 2000 words

During my first freelance projects, some of my clients set my rates – and they were a hell of a lot more than I would’ve charged. Double, at least. That worked wonders for my self-confidence and perceptions on what I could and couldn’t charge.

For my next projects, I forced myself to quote more than felt comfortable. And it was always accepted. This told me that next time, I could charge slightly more. 

I knew the client could always bargain and bring the amount down. But they didn’t. They wanted the result I could give them, and they were happy to pay for it. 

Don’t take advantage of people and ask for a ludicrous amount if you know you can’t offer a huge amount of value. But if you have a lot to offer, don’t sell yourself short. 

Don’t assume that everyone has the same ideas about money, value, or budgeting as you do. They might have an account full of cash and a desperate need for what you offer. 

Over time, I’d recommend nudging your rates higher (if your results and experience back this up) and seeing how clients respond.

As you work with more clients, you’ll get a better idea of what’s the right price for you and your ideal customers. But avoid starting out by undervaluing your services or being the cheapest on the market

Answering your questions about being a freelance content writer

How much can you charge as a freelance B2B content writer?

Depending on your experience and the budget of your clients, you can charge over $1,000 per 1200-word post as a B2B content writer.

What do you charge clients with low budgets?

In 2018, I worked with a brand that was in a really interesting sector, but could only pay $185 for well-researched posts. I worked with them anyway and got some great stuff in my portfolio, but restricted my time to max one day a week for less than 4 months.

After this time, I had enough experience and wanted to earn more in less time. I wouldn’t take on clients like this now, but it made more sense then. It’s up to you to decide what currency matters to you now: experience, freedom, or money.

When should you raise your rates as a freelance writer?

A good time to raise your rates is when you bring in a new client. Test the waters and try charging slightly more than you have before, or what you’re comfortable with.

If your new rates are accepted, you know you can probably go higher. If you hit resistance from multiple people, you know you need to make your value more obvious or lower your prices until you have more experience behind you. Often, the best way to find your best rates is to go slightly too high and then reduce if necessary.

Want to dig into how to start a freelance business? Your next steps will vary based on your country, but here’s my simple checklist for starting a business.

For more like this post, you can also head over to my advice on making money writing online in 2023, whether it’s through your own blog or by writing for clients.

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