A simple guide to becoming a freelance writer

Becoming a freelance writer is one of the most rewarding career decisions you can make – but you need to think carefully in advance if you want to make the best of it.

Freelance writers get the joy of working with words, but there are some important steps that you need to take in order to make the transition as stress-free as possible. Read on to find out how to become a freelance writer.

Decide what you want to write about

The first step is to identify the areas in which you want to write. For example, do you want to be a freelance journalist? Do you want to write corporate blogs? Do you want to be a ghostwriter? Do you want to be an advertising copywriter?

There is a huge range of options within freelance writing. Make sure that you choose not only what you’re interested in, but also what you’re good at.

Think about training

Once you’ve worked out what you want to write about, your next step is to identify whether or not you need training.

While plenty of writers get into the industry without a qualification, you may find having one useful in certain circumstances. For example, journalists might choose to take an NCTJ, while copywriters might take a course at the College of Media and Publishing.

You should remember, however, that these courses cost money, and they may not necessarily pay themselves off in terms of commissions or gigs. You may wish to have a look at the sorts of jobs you might be applying for in advance, in order to see whether a qualification is worthwhile.

Learn how to pitch

Pitching is a crucial skill in virtually every area of freelance writing. If you’re a journalist, it’s absolutely vital: you’ll need to know exactly how to make a story interesting to an editor, and how to prove that you are the right person to write it.

If you are copywriting, jobs might be fielded out to you more often, but you’ll still need to learn how to deliver on a brief. For example, how can you interestingly interpret the story of the company for which you’ve just been commissioned to write a blurb? How can you pitch that CEO’s ideas exactly correctly so that they’ll achieve the maximum media impact?

There is a whole host of information online helping new freelance writers learn how to pitch. You should read as much of this as you can, and don’t worry if some of it doesn’t immediately seem relevant: there is a lot of bleed between disciplines within freelance writing.

Build up a portfolio

When it comes down to it, it’s simple: nobody will hire you unless you have a portfolio.

This means that you need to build up writing samples, or ‘clips’, as quickly as you can. You might do this in local publications or student magazines, or, for example, by providing copywriting work for friends or family.

While it’s far from ideal, the sad truth is that you may have to work for below market rates to begin with, while you build up your body of work. However, you might also think about using websites like Upwork and Fiverr to find quick wins with clients who may not require such a significant portfolio, in order to build up some evidence of past work – and get paid for it in the process.

Identify clients

Next, you need to find some clients! You might like to start with the platforms like Upwork that we mentioned earlier, as these are simple ways to bid for and secure work.

However, it’s important that you cast your net as wide as possible. Try looking on job search sites like Guardian Careers, and make sure that you are signed up with a few freelance recruitment agencies.

It’s also crucial that you build a professional website including examples of your recent work, information about you, and contact details. You can find more help in our step-by-step guide to building a business website.

Track your time

Once you’ve found a few clients, you need to keep track of how much time you are spending on each project. This is important whether you are billing by the hour or by the project, as it will help to ensure that you know exactly how much time is being taken up with each client, and how profitable each working relationship is.

There is a range of free time-tracking apps available online, but Toggl is one of the simplest, and will allow you to keep track of multiple projects and clients easily.

Register as self-employed

Tax is boring, but registering as self-employed is an important necessity. You need to register with HMRC as soon as possible, and you’ll need to complete an annual Self Assessment tax return to record and pay tax on your self-employed earnings. Read more about the self-employed tax deadlines.

Get insured

Finally, you should make sure that you are properly protected. Freelance writers might not think that they need insurance, but there are a range of risks that you need to think about.

For example, if you regularly come into contact with clients or members of the public, you should take out public liability insurance. Here’s more on what public liability insurance covers.

If you give advice to clients, you should consider professional indemnity insurance. It may depend on things such as the type of advice you offer, or whether you have sign-off, however. Read our FAQ page titled do I need professional indemnity insurance if you’re unsure.

And, if the time comes that you employ other people, you are legally obliged to take out employers’ liability insurance.

Still unsure if freelancing is for you? Tell us your concerns below and we’ll do our best to help!

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