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Starting out as a freelance writer - Copify 1

How to get by when starting out as a freelance writer

There was a time when ‘going freelance’ meant that you’d just hurled your typewriter at your editor because let’s-just-say-they-didn’t-like-the-way-you-did-things.

Well, times have changed: freelancing is something that most writers go through when they start out, and is also increasingly popular among more established media, marketing and PR professionals, as it dawns on them that they could just as easily file their copy from their favourite cafe as endure the morning commute.

But that’s not to say that freelancing is all tax-deductible laptops and flat whites. The Guardian put it thus:

“The reality of working for yourself isn’t always as idyllic as it may appear. Financial insecurity, long hours and the weight of responsibility for generating your own business can all take their toll”.

They’re right: starting out as a freelance writer can actually be quite scary, especially before you get established and build up your client base and contact list. But, with perseverance, you can end up with a refreshing, rewarding career. So how do you go about it?

Writers write — so get some writing experience…

Starting out as a freelance writer - Copify 2It’s going to be difficult for you to acquire work as a writer without being able to prove your ability. This doesn’t have to be from a major publication or for a big brand, just something that you can show to a prospective employer or commissioner that proves you are, in fact, a good writer. They won’t hire you for anything without this assurance.

A personal blog post or essay will work fine as a starting point, as will work for a student paper or something similar.

From there, you can start building up a body of work that you can be proud of.

…but avoid working for free

A lot of blogs and websites won’t part with their money that easily, due to budget constraints real or apparent. While it’s okay to write trial pieces for free and build up your portfolio, after that you should ask for money. Your time is worth money, as is your skill, and you should be reimbursed for it.

Freelancing websites such as Copify offer payment with every job and offer you excellent experience in interacting with clients and building up a varied, rich portfolio. They are an excellent place to start, as they don’t require you to have a list of contacts in advance — but they do help you to build one up.

Showcase your best work

When it comes to assembling your portfolio, quality is key. Sometimes — and this happens often — you’ll find that you’ve done some work on a cool website or for a well-known brand or publication, but the work isn’t necessarily your best. Your employers won’t care so much about the ‘who fors’ as the ‘how goods’, so make sure that your best work is at centre stage when you direct people to look at it. Also, it’s worth remembering that the work that you show people needs to be relevant to the given job, so make sure to show an advertising agency your copywriting, rather than your journalism, and so forth.

In terms of finding a host for your portfolio, there’s plenty of useful, free services out there. Two we recommend are Contently (who may also hook you up with some work if they like your samples) and Clippings.

Have a great web presence

Starting out as a freelance writer - Copify 3Though it may seem intimidating, staying active on social media — Twitter especially — is a great way to get noticed by other writers, publications and influencers. Though the artistry of tweeting has been lost slightly by the 240-character increase, it’s still useful to try out jokes, ideas and generally schmooze with the nation. It’s also a great place to share your work and get yourself established. Just one or two tweets, a few times per week, will work wonders in getting you out there, as will guest posting or publishing on websites like Medium.

Do your research properly

When you’re applying for work, pitching for jobs and are generally on the hustle, make sure that you’re speaking to the right people about the right subject, in the right tone of voice. You’ll have to send out lots of emails when you start out, so make sure that each and every one of them relates closely to what your recipient actually does, rather than what you think they probably do.

For example, it’s always good to mention an example of the company’s previous work — this will show that you are interested in working for them specifically. Also, gauge the tone of the organisation: if they’re very formal and official-looking, then write appropriately. Likewise, if you’re applying to work for a more edgy business, you can attempt to squeeze a few jokes in. It all helps you to get noticed, and break the ice.

Be determined

If you’re pitching for work or applying for positions, don’t expect to hear back right away, and don’t be offended if you don’t hear back at all. Media, marketing and PR professionals are going to be very busy; they’ll have deadlines to think about and people to manage. Freelance journalist Kate Hutchinson notes that:

“Editors often don’t reply, so be politely, gently persistent. Email them once a week with ‘little lovely reminders’. And if they eventually do reply and they don’t like your idea, don’t take it to heart or be dissuaded. Just fire off another, better idea.”

Don’t expect the big bucks

Starting out as a freelance writer - Copify 4Freelance work is all about the famine and the feast and is heavily weighted in favour of the former. But things even out: sometimes larger companies offer you lengthier, well-paid projects which will earn you enough to even out the more meagre, odds-and-ends work that you may rely on between. So be prepared to do a bit of budgeting.

Don’t be afraid to ask about money

Liv Siddall, a former editor of Rough Trade magazine and now a freelance writer, editor and content producer, noted recently that:

“It’s very British not to talk about money – I often go for meetings where we discuss what I’ll be writing for them, but there’s no talk of pay, and then I have to go home and email them about it.”

Any freelancer will agree. While pay is sometimes discussed, it often isn’t. Don’t be afraid to ask about your remuneration in advance of starting the work, and definitely don’t be afraid to more firmly ask people who owe you money to pay you. Agree your payment terms early in your copywriting brief or contract (especially timeframes and rates) and have these written on your invoice — it makes the matter far less disputable.

But be nice

There’s nothing wrong with being firm with people when necessary, especially with regards to your pay or treatment, but remember that, as a freelancer, you need to keep people on side. That way, you can be their friendly, go-to writer for a wealth of tasks. So be sociable; go and meet clients if you’re asked to, and pop into their office now and then as appropriate. It’s that sort of behaviour (along with your excellent work) that may get you a staff position down the line.

Have fun!

Finally, don’t forget that working as a freelancer allows you lots of freedom. As long as you don’t have any in-house commitments or meetings, you’re perfectly entitled to write wherever you want — providing you meet your deadlines and briefs, and don’t contradict any terms or conditions for your work. So extend that holiday and do some work abroad, go to the nicest cafe in town, and meet new people in co-working spaces. There are lots of people in the same boat, and it’s a boat that you may want to board for a long time.


Main image: bruce mars
Image credits: Tirachard KumtanomNegative SpaceSkitterphoto



Jon Clark

Jon joined Copify in 2016. He is a versatile, experienced writer with a background in content marketing, journalism and social media. He has written for local and global websites alike, entertaining and informing audiences with his unique written style.

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