Most people learn how to become a freelance writer — or, in many cases, how not to become a freelance writer — the hard way: through trial and error.
They start a website, throw up a few samples, pitch jobs on Upwork, and maybe even land a few clients.
However, they quickly realize they aren’t making enough money for their time, and certainly not enough to take their freelancing career full time. This is where many new freelance writers throw in the towel.
They begin to believe “you have to have a degree in journalism” or “know the right people” to become a successful freelance writer. Some even convince themselves that freelance writing is not a viable career option.
Holly Johnson’s story, on the other hand, shows aspiring freelance writers exactly what is possible with this flexible profession.
Meet Holly Johnson, a Six-Figure Freelance Writer
Holly is a wife, mother of two sweet girls, and a freelance writer who makes a six-figure income online.
In 2018 alone, Holly earned over $225,000 creating content for sites like The Simple Dollar, LendingTree, Bankrate, U.S. News and World Report, and other well-known publications. Her success led her to create a course to teach other freelance writers how to grow their income online.
Holly’s husband, Greg, runs their own personal finance blog — ClubThrifty.com — which also brings in a six-figure annual income.
While it may sound like the Johnsons are living the dream these days, that hasn’t always been the case.
Life Before Freelance Writing
In 2011, Holly’s days looked like the average worker in corporate America: wake up, dress to impress, rush out the door, drop the kids off at daycare, head to work.
Nine hours of misery.
Head home, throw together a quick dinner, catch up on chores, put the kids to bed, read/relax/breathe for a moment, go to bed.
Rinse and repeat.
Holly knew there had to be a better way. A way to be there for her kids, spend more time with her family, and do work she not only enjoyed, but that supported the lifestyle she desired. One that offered more than 20 days of paid time off and the occasional 3% annual raise.
From $0 to Six Figures Freelance Writing
After years at an unfulfilling job that stole the majority of her time and energy, Holly decided to make a change. She turned to the world of online business for a way out.
“When we started our website in 2011-2012,” Holly says, “I was looking for a way to make some extra money. It takes time to build a considerable income with a blog, so I turned to freelance writing while we built up our readership.”
During her first year as a freelance writer, Holly built her portfolio on the side of her full-time job. That meant her writing had to be done in the evenings and weekends. While her new writing career took up the bulk of Holly’s already scarce free time, she kept the bigger picture in mind.
“My initial goal was earning $3,000 per month freelancing so I could replace most of my income and quit my job,” Holly shares. “I wanted a way to work at home so we would have a better quality of life, even if that meant earning less.”
Little did she know, freelance writing would not only be her ticket out of corporate America. It would also propel her family into financial freedom. Within her first two years as a full-time freelance writer, Holly broke the six-figure income barrier.
Life Today (As a Full-Time Freelance Writer)
Since taking her writing business full time, Holly’s income and lifestyle have improved substantially. In 2016, 2017, and 2018, she brought in over $225,000 creating content online. That figure doesn’t include income from her blog or online courses, which Holly says have surpassed what she makes as a freelance writer.
Whereas Holly and Greg were lucky to receive a 3% annual raise in their previous jobs, freelance writing and blogging allow them to earn as much as they want to support their ideal lifestyle. In Holly’s words, “This money allowed us to pay off our beautiful home and pay for a $100,000 remodeling project in cash last year. We are also investing large sums and on a path toward very early retirement.”
Beyond income, the Johnsons’ quality of life is greater than they ever imagined. Holly graduated from 20 days of PTO to traveling with her family 12 to 16 weeks per year. “We’ve taken our kids all over Europe and the Caribbean mostly,” says Holly, “although we’ve been on quite a few other international trips.”
For an upcoming excursion, they plan to explore Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Italy, with additional trips scheduled in Hawaii, England, Scotland, France, Spain, and the Caribbean later in the year. “We could never live like this before,” Holly says, “because we didn’t have enough vacation days.”
With limited funds and capped vacation days, trips like these were once a pipe dream. Now, they’re the Johnsons’ reality.
How to Become a Freelance Writer: A Step-by-Step Guide
After building a six-figure freelance writing career, Holly received thousands of questions from aspiring writers looking to build a career online. Armed with years of experience and lessons learned through trial and error, she created her course, Earn More Writing, to help writers uplevel their freelance business.
Holly also offers a free online workshop called How to Build a Six-Figure Writing Career.
Since her course launch, she’s helped hundreds of writers build a freelance writing career from home. If you aspire to make an income as a freelance writer, here are eight steps you can take to get started.
1. Narrow Your Focus
Before you dive deep into how to become a freelance writer, decide what type of freelance writer you want to be.
The better you define your passions, hobbies, interests, or areas of expertise, the easier it will be to find freelance writing jobs that match your skill set.
To be clear, you don’t have to confine yourself to one specific topic. However, in Holly’s experience, “it can help if you have some expertise in a specific area.”
For example, if you’ve worked in marketing for a decade and can authoritatively speak on various marketing topics, it will be easier for you to land freelance writing clients in that niche as opposed to something you have no personal experience with.
2. Learn What You Don’t Know
As a new freelance writer, you’ll have to answer a lot of questions. For example, how much will you charge for your work?
Don’t be afraid to research successful writers and borrow a page from their playbook. For example, Holly suggests that new freelance writers “set a minimum hourly rate they’re willing to work for and set their per-piece rates from there.”
“This doesn’t mean you’ll write hourly,” she explains. “It just means you will only take on assignments that result in your hourly minimum rate or more.”
Say you want to make a minimum of $50 per hour. You estimate it will take you three hours to write a 1,500-word article. Using this idea, you would charge $150 per 1,500-word article, which comes out to $0.10 per word.
“This works best when you are able to estimate how long a project will take you,” Holly admits. However, your predictions will become more accurate with time.
3. Create an Online Portfolio
Even as a new freelance writer, you’ll need a portfolio to share your work with potential clients.
“After all,” Holly says, “it will be more difficult for people to hire you if they cannot read some of your writing samples online.” A simple portfolio website will do the trick if you’re not interested in writing an ongoing blog.
In order to showcase your work to potential clients, you’ll first need to create some samples. You can do this in a couple of ways.
One option is to write and publish a few articles on your own website. While that can be a great start, clients may feel more comfortable hiring you if they see your work has been published on other sites as well.
As a new freelance writer, one of the best ways to get your work out there is to reach out to websites in your niche and offer to guest post for free. Not only is this a great way to build your portfolio; it will also help get your name out and put your work in front of potential clients.
4. Find Your First Client
Don’t be discouraged if the majority of your pitches go unanswered at first.
“It’s not too difficult to get more ongoing work when you have a few clients,” says Holly. “What’s difficult is getting your very first writing job…You have to find that one person willing to give you a chance.”
Often, finding that first paying client is a challenge for new freelance writers. But the good news is, you can send an unlimited number of pitches for free using online job boards.
Many beginner freelance writers turn to sites like Upwork for those first few clients. However, the majority of those writing jobs are low-paying. Not to mention, there are so many people competing for jobs, you could send in dozens of pitches without hearing from a single one.
Two of the best freelance writing job boards are at Problogger and FreelanceWriting.com. Both sites post new opportunities each day, and you don’t have to pay to join and start pitching your services.
5. Improve Your Writing (and Other) Skills
Just like with any skill, the more you practice writing, the better you become. And the better your writing, the more you can charge for your services.
That doesn’t mean you have to be perfect or even a great writer to be successful. However, it should encourage you to spend some time honing your craft.
In addition to improving your actual writing, figure out what other skills can set you apart from the competition and devote time to learning them.
For example, according to Holly, “SEO content is probably the most in-demand type of content right now. Many websites are competing to rank for various keywords on Google, and they need qualified SEO writers to create content that fits their guidelines.”
Explore job postings in your niche to find out what companies are looking for in their writers. That way when you go to pitch a new client, you can highlight how your experience makes you a perfect fit for the job.
6. Invest in Yourself
Perhaps the best way to launch or uplevel your freelance writing career is to make an investment in yourself. There are two main ways to invest in your new writing career.
Time: This one is a given. As with any new skill — especially one you want to make money with — you should plan to spend a significant amount of time researching, reading, and improving your writing.
This includes reading books and blogs, listening to podcasts, setting your rates, pitching new clients, learning new in-demand skills, and anything else required to get your freelance writing business off the ground.
Money: Another option for investing in yourself as a freelance writer is to pay for training, such as an online course or personal coach.
Most freelance writers, or anyone who starts a new business venture, avoid monetary investments for fear of losing money or not seeing results. They opt for the trial-and-error method, often floundering for months or even years. Some figure it out while others give up before ever landing their first paying client.
When it comes to investing in your freelance writing future, there’s no one right answer. If you’re highly self-motivated, then you may be fine with investing your time to research freelance writing for yourself. However, if you value your time and want a proven path for success, consider investing in a mentor who’s already done what you want to do.
For example, hundreds of new and established writers have invested in their freelancing career through Holly’s Earn More Writing course. An online course or coaching program can be a great way to build a foundation and learn the skills you need to start earning money as a freelance writer.
If You Want to Become a Professional Freelance Writer, Persistence is Key
Persistence is often what separates successful freelance writers from those who never land their first client.
Growing a freelance writing business is no easy feat. It takes time, patience, and a little bit of hustle. However, Holly and many of her students have found the hard work well worth it.
“Writing full time has impacted my lifestyle in many ways,” she tells us, “the most important of which is the freedom I’ve gained.” For Holly, that freedom means traveling the world, setting her own hours, and, most importantly, being there for her family. Her life today is far beyond what she ever imagined working at her full-time job.
When you learn how to become a successful freelance writer, there is no limit to how much income or freedom you can create. However, it’s up to you to create it.
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