So you want to be a freelance writer?

freelance writing tips

So, before I did this blogging thing for a job, I was a freelance writer.

I know that freelance writing is a dream career for lots of bloggers.

And why not? You get paid to go to new places, talk to new people and then write about it. It’s mostly home-based so you can choose your own hours, and nobody minds if you’re wearing your jammies.

It’s basically the perfect job, right?


Well, kinda, sorta, not really…

I spent 12 years writing and editing, as well as commissioning writers to provide content for magazines and websites, and there’s a lot to love about freelance writing.

For starters, it’s true about the jammies. TOTALLY allowable.

And then there’s a job that’s different from week to week. There’s always a new story to tell, a new place to explore, something new to learn, someone new to meet. If you’ve got a short attention span, it’s perfect.

But there are downsides – blogging is a passion, for many, but freelance writing is a business. If you want to make a go of a freelance writing career, then it’s important to be prepared. So here are my seven top tips for freelance writers just starting out:


1. You’re a Great Writer? That’s nice.

Being a successful freelance writer isn’t – as it turns out – much about writing. It’s about selling ideas, and yourself. Oh, and being a decent writer.

A good freelancer is someone who can spot a trend, spin it into a story, and then give the story an angle that fits a particular publication, which hasn’t been done a thousand times already.

You’ll then need to pitch a commissioning editor and convince them you’re the best person to write that story. You’ll write way more pitches than you’ll write articles.

Pitching is a horrible, horrible thing for creative people. And no matter how good you are, or how long you’re been around, pitching a new editor is never anything other than pant-wettingly terrifying (at least, in my experience).

2. You Need a Niche

Sadly, the pay for freelance writing in the UK was never great, and it’s only getting worse. Rates on many newspapers haven’t just stood still over the past decade; they’ve halved.

To maximise your earnings, develop a specialism. Become the “go-to” person for a particular topic. Get to know the experts and key movers in your area. Go to the right events, chat with the right experts, read the right publications. Be someone who can’t easily be replaced with an enthusiastic amateur or a cheap intern.

3. Learn to Love (or just live with) The Panic

Freelance writing is feast or famine. Every time you file an article, you worry you’ll never be hired again. You’ll pitch madly, get too many commissions and then find yourself crying at the laptop at 2am because you’ve got too many deadlines and too many words to write, and it’s Sunday and you just can’t cope and OH MY GOD WHY CAN’T I READ MY OWN SHORTHAND?

Then you’ll wake up and do it all again the next day. And the next.

On the one hand, it sucks. On the other hand, it’s never dull.

4. It’s Okay to be New

In some jobs, you need a long list of credentials to get a foot in the door. But writing – brilliantly – isn’t like that.

Editors are always looking for new talent and voices. Finding someone who is reliable, can write and comes up with regular, great ideas is like striking gold. So feel free to pitch anyone you like if you’re a newbie writer.

When you pitch an editor, use writing samples from your blog, and anywhere else you’ve written online. Include details of your amazing reach on social media.

But DO make sure your blog reflects well on you as a professional writer – clean up the typos, update your About Page, and be sure to mention in social media bio’s that you’re a writer for hire. Think of your blog as your shop window.

5. Earn Your Stripes

Very experienced and senior writers can pick and choose assignments – but when you’re starting out, you could find yourself writing about anything.

Taking on boring or complicated topics and making them sparkle is one of the best ways to improve your writing skills.

During my years as a writer, of course, I wrote magazine and newspaper features that were a lot of fun. But I also wrote a lot of corporate websites and case studies and white papers. I once even co-wrote an encyclopaedia of finance that you can still buy on Amazon for several hundred pounds. That wasn’t the most fun I ever had.

Writing corporate and marketing copy is bread and butter for freelance writers – and it’s often significantly better paid than editorial content.

6. Get Fast

You’ll never earn a living as a freelance writer if it takes you a week to write a feature that’s going to pay you £200.

One of my favourite tips on this score came from an editor who liked to say, “Don’t get it right, get it written!”  

This wasn’t an excuse to write something shoddy, but a cautionary tale against trying to write something perfect. We’ve all stared at a blank page and struggled to find just the right intro for a piece, but rather than spending 45 minutes writing and re-writing that one sentence, just write it, and keep going. It’ll be far easier to go back and fix it once you’ve written the whole piece. And if you don’t have time, you will still have a finished piece of copy when the deadline arrives.

Being able to turn copy round quickly also means you’ll be the go-to person for editors who suddenly have a gap in their editorial that needs filling urgently.

7. Nobody Pays on Time

I can’t emphasise this enough.

As a freelance writer, frequently, the biggest chunk of your working week will be taken up chasing invoices.

You’ll submit invoices with 30 day terms, and you’ll soon realise this means nobody will so much as glance at your invoice for a month.

After a month, you’ll chase up payment and be told the invoice was lost, not passed along, had the wrong date on it, was in the wrong format, didn’t have a PO reference, the cheque printing machine broke… basically, some excuse from a rotating list of about 50 options.

Some clients will pay on 60 or 90 day terms. Others “on publication” – which is great until someone sits on your article for a year before using it. The months when you most need the money (December, January, August) pretty much EVERYONE you work for will pay you late.

Basically if you’re smart, have two months’ money set aside, as a buffer.


[Image: Shutterstock] 

8 thoughts on “So you want to be a freelance writer?”

    1. Oh, it’s hard. When I was features editing, I know it was so easy to overlook an email invoice. I’d always feel awful, though, having lots of experience being on the other side of that.

  1. I continue to wonder why I do it to myself. All of this rings oh so true. And some great pointers I hadn’t otherwise thought of. I’d also say beyond a niche, personally what’s worked for me is being flexible and honing skills to be able to write in a variety of different styles – web copy for a new gift shop, academic papers, my own blog. It’s certainly helped us earn more as a family being able to take on a variety of commissions across multiple sectors. PS do you KNOW how paranoid I am about hitting “Post comment” right now in case I’ve made a typo?!

    1. OH definitely – within your niche, or niches, being able to turn your hand to web, magazine, consumer, B2B is the key to maximising income. I think one of my favourite stories of freelancing was selling the same story sliced different ways to The Sun, The Telegraph, a B2B tech title and a consumer tech title.

  2. Ugh! The chasing of invoices makes me actually want to consider getting a full-time job for a pittance. But I love your tip about being new being ok. It took me a while to decide that I was credible enough to pitch for work, given that I don’t have a huge ‘portfolio’ of published work in grand titles. I’m thinking a lot of it is confidence. And timely delivery – that one let me down once and never will again.

    1. I can tell you as someone who has features edited, I’d get SO excited when someone new popped up with good ideas and contacts. In fact, having a great exclusive interview or story is the single best way to get your foot in a door, regardless of your level of experience.

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