When I started my freelance writing business in 2016, I took notes every step of the way. I knew at some point, I would want to retrace my steps and share them with other beginners trying to become freelance writers.
This is not going to be a super long and detailed post. I have too many bullet points to do that.
This is literally every step I took from the very beginning when I was still working a 9-5 job.
The first thing I did was spend some time online perusing job boards like Flexjobs and Upwork. Everyone asks for your portfolio, sample works, URLs to published work. I had none!
Step 1. I gathered all of my creative stories and poems that I had. I began fine-tuning them to share with prospective clients. If you’re curious, this honestly never helped me land a gig, but it did help me get in an organized and creative mindset.
Step 2. I combed the web for ideas on what I needed to learn before applying to freelance writing gig postings. I also looked around for where job postings for freelance writers could be found. (Craigslist, ProBlogger, BloggingPro, Contena for a fee)
Step 3. I discovered that I would need my own website. At this point, I spent days buying a domain, figuring out hosting options, and beginning to learn WordPress operations.
Step 4. I offered my services for free in exchange for testimonials. I told everyone I knew to spread the news. Within a few weeks, I had gigs doing resume writing, writing an article for a hospital newsletter, some website copy, and some proofreading. I even helped an acquaintance write copy for her wedding planning brochure.
I really sucked. I had no idea what I was doing. But I did get most of them to give me the testimonials I needed.
Step 5. At this point, I knew I would need some help setting up my website. I also wanted someone to teach me WordPress intricacies. I paid someone from Upwork to help me get the basics set up.
I am still learning new WordPress processes to this day. I think all writers should at least know how to upload their own work into WordPress because many clients require their writing staff to do that.
Step 6. Then I got on Upwork to find my first gigs. I was still working full-time in an office, and I spent six or seven hours every evening in front of my laptop looking for clients.
I submitted hundreds of proposals in the first month. My first paid job was for $4 to proofread a memo.
You do not need to pay for extra credits to submit proposals on Upwork. You can submit to plenty of jobs with a free account.
UPDATED July 2019–Upwork has changed its pricing structure for both writers and for clients. Back in May, a big change took place. Freelancers are now charged anywhere from $0.15 and $0.90 to submit a job proposal, as opposed to being free.
If you’re curious about how this pricing structure works, here is a great guide to the Upwork Connects pricing changes.
To my surprise, my second client ever on Upwork is still an anchor client three years later. His work allowed me to eventually quit my 9-5 office job.
Step 7. I bought a lot of books I didn’t need. The only book I bought that I still use almost every day is a thesaurus; The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale. I bought a used paperback copy on Amazon for like five bucks, and it has never left my desk.
Step 8. I used my downtime to create a ton of mock-ups. I created fake wedding brochures, newsletters, articles, things I could add to my Upwork profile.
Step 9. I started understanding the importance of networking with other artists. Everyone always knew someone who was looking to have something written or created. Networking is one of the most important things I did, and still do, every day.
I have gotten nearly all my clients because of networking and forming relationships with other writers.
Step 10. Back to my website. Yes, this lovely website you are on now. It took me over three weeks to get my website together exactly how I wanted it. I repeatedly visited other freelance writers’ sites to figure out what I liked and what I didn’t. At the time it felt like my entire freelance writing business hinged on the launch of my website.
It cost me $$$, and I went through five designers before I got the perfect logo. In hindsight, my logo is the least important part of my business.
I love it, it reflects who I am, but no one has ever hired me based on the cool font my name is written in.
I spent time on LinkedIn connecting with people and groups. I asked for recommendations from former co-workers. I spent time learning, listening, and asking.
Step 12. I enrolled at the University of Chicago to receive an official editing certificate. I use that information on my resume and in cover letters, but beyond that, it has literally never gotten me a job.
If you’re wondering if you need a degree or certification to get freelance writing work, you don’t. Clients will hire you based on the work you can show them. This is not accounting for certificates that promote SEO skills and things like that, however.
Step 13. I had been working towards building a freelance clientele for about a month, and I was still working my 9-5. I installed a landline and had fun creating business cards. I also bought a super professional headset.
Looking back, it was more exciting to plan than to actually do. I bought fun things, created logos, and business cards. It gave me the illusion of working towards my goals, but the reality was that I should have used that time and money to actually search for work.
I never once used my landline or headset, and I think I handed out ONE business card ever.
Step 14(ish). I don’t want you to think I am discouraging you from reading helpful books or taking worthwhile I read everything I could find on building a good portfolio, cold calling, cold emailing, pitching, etc. But there was no need for me to spend thousands of dollars trying to prepare myself to become a freelance writer.
All the preparation you need is in practice. I always say that talent and passion cannot do what practice can do.
Step 15. I did sign up for a free trial of Profinder on LinkedIn. I found one small client on there for a one-off job. Then I forgot to cancel my membership before the trial was up and they ended up charging my card $99 for about six months before I caught it. They do not refund money.
I tried finding local businesses who might need copywriting services, but I live in a small town, in a rural area. I decided to turn my attention to the internet only. It was a good
Step 16. I used Medium to publish some sample work, and I even posted my samples on my LinkedIn profile. (In upcoming blog posts, I will share a list of places to publish your work.)
Step 17. I used a Contena coach to help me fine-tune my pitch and create appropriate samples for potential clients.
This was when everything finally started to click. I started getting responses from potential clients. At this point, I had no bylines and nothing I could show except for my Medium article/s and samples I created.
It was enough for most clients, and I finally got my first byline after about five months of starting the whole process.
I always say that talent and passion cannot do what practice can do.
Final thoughts/things I wish I knew then:
I wish I wouldn’t have spent so much time, energy, and money on things that don’t really matter. Those things were business cards, a landline, my logo, books about writing, and more.
Spend your time on networking and perfecting your pitch. If you really want to spend money on something, look into SEO classes, or learning about WordPress.
I hope my timeline helps you figure out what comes next for you. Are you stuck on something? Let me know in the comments.