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How to Become a Freelance Writer: A Guide to Getting Started

Updated on June 24, 2017
Austin Hackney profile image

Austin started freelance writing in 2007. Since 2010 he's made his living selling words to both print publications and online markets.

How to Become a Freelance Writer
How to Become a Freelance Writer | Source

Making a Living as a Writer

I've made my living as a freelance writer for the past 10 years. If you want to find out how to become a freelance writer, you're in the right place. In this article I'll introduce you to the fundamental approach, organisational skills, and personal attributes you must learn or develop to do just that.

It doesn't matter if you're planning to write part-time or to make writing your only source of income, the advice I offer here applies. Part-time or full-time, the skills, qualities, knowledge, and application are the same. The only difference is that a full-time professional writer must write more to make a living at it!

The first things you need to be a successful freelance writer are discipline and determination. This business is not for the fainthearted. If you want to make money, you need to get up every day and go to work in the same way as you would with any other job. Learning how to become a freelance writer is not only to do with craft, technique, and market knowledge. It's about rigorous self-discipline. You find time to write, and you write. There's no lounging about waiting for inspiration.

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When is the Best Time to Write?

I'm an early riser and complete my 5000 word quota before lunch. Other writers burn the midnight oil. Some write throughout the day during regular office hours. In the beginning other commitments such as family or the day job may determine your opportunities to write. The ideal time to write is when you are relaxed and alert.

What time of day you write will be a compromise between your personal preferences and your circumstances. It's worth experimenting with working early in the morning, the afternoon, or in the evening to find your most productive time. You may set aside several hours or you may work in fits and starts. There are no rules. You must discover what works for you. All that matters is that you make time to write and that in your writing time you do nothing else.

I recommend that you write every day. You'll be more productive if you write for 20 minutes in the morning before going to work, and do so every day, than if you write for several hours one day and then nothing the rest of the week. I can't over emphasise how important regular, disciplined work is. It is the key to your success.

Once you have worked out how much time you can spend writing each day, and when, you should set yourself a word quota to meet within that time. This is very important. Without a quota you have no clear guideline or aim and it's all too easy to fritter the time away and write little. Daily writing can be hard at first but as with any other skill it becomes easier with practice. Set an easy target you are likely to reach, and then increase your quota a little at a time as your skill and discipline develop.

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Where Should You Write?

When you're first learning how to become a freelance writer, you may not enjoy the luxury of a dedicated place to write. If you're a writer who needs complete peace and quiet to work, you might try the study rooms in your local library, set up a shed in the backyard, or rent a small office space. I know one writer who started out her career with a tiny desk in a cupboard under the stairs while wearing sound excluding earmuffs!

Some writers prefer to work in company or with background noise. If that's your temperament, a coffee shop is the ideal place. In good weather, you might write in the local park. Again, the ideal place to write is a matter of preference. The important thing is that having found the time to write and a place to do it, you get on with the job.

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Getting Started

A common, somewhat romantic, misunderstanding among the uninitiated is that writing flows from inspiration. The opposite is true. Writing stimulates inspiration. You cannot solve the tyranny of the blank page by caving in to anxious thoughts, daydreaming, or invoking the muse by complex rituals of procrastination. Writing is the only way to fill the blank page with words.

Careful planning the day before, sketching out an outline of your story or making bullet points of the key arguments in your article or essay, is a good idea. Be prepared and know what you will write in advance. Then sit down and write. Remember that all good writing is rewriting. No one in this profession turns out perfect copy the first time. Allow yourself to write badly. You can always improve a completed piece. You can't edit a blank page.

So don't rely on inspiration. Prepare in advance and plan what you will write in as much detail as possible. When you sit at your desk or open your laptop, just write.

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Dealing with Writer's Block

The novelist Philip Pullman has said he no more believes in writer's block than he does plumber's block or builder's block. Writing, he suggests, is a trade like any other. So-called writer's block is an excuse for laziness and a lack of discipline. Sometimes writing is easy, but more often than not it's damned hard work. But like anyone else with a job to do and a living to earn you get on and do it. I agree with him.

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The Writer's Toolkit

Part of understanding how to become a freelance writer is also practical. There is a certain toolkit of basic equipment you will need to get started. Foremost is a reliable computer and fast Internet connection. Backup facilities should include space on your local drive, an external hard drive, and a cloud drive. Digital work is the norm these days, so daily backup is an essential part of your routine. I favor a belt and braces approach, saving work on the computer, the external drive, and in the cloud. If the work is of enduring value, I'll print off a hard copy, too.

Besides computing, you'll need a few pens, notepads, an appointments diary, and a filing cabinet to keep your hard copy, cuttings, and non-digital contracts. A good dictionary and thesaurus is indispensable. A copy of The Writer's Handbook or The Writers and Artists Yearbook may be useful. If you are not confident of your grammar, a program such as Grammarly or Pro Writing Aid may be a godsend.

Many freelance writers find that dictation software is also an asset. Others prefer to type. If you don't touch type, I'd recommend learning either by taking a short course or using one of the free touch typing tuition apps available.

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Research Skills and Organized Filing Systems

In the pre-digital age the most powerful weapon in the freelance writer’s arsenal was her "cuttings file." It was a box file or a cardboard wallet filled with stories and articles clipped from magazines and newspapers. She'd choose such pieces as sources of inspiration or a starting point for research. They'd be on "evergreen topics." That means subjects of perennial interest to readers. I still keep such cuttings and recommend you do, too.

It's also useful to keep a "commonplace book" which you can use to scribble down thoughts and ideas as they occur to you, or references and quotations taken from books you're reading. Learn to read fast and scan for relevant information. Even in the age of the internet, don't underestimate the value of your public library and help from a skilled librarian.

Whatever topic you're writing about, developing your research skills and keeping organized files of your findings is vital. A wise freelancer knows no information goes to waste. With experience you will find you can turn one commission into six saleable articles from the same research by putting a different spin on it or attacking the subject from a new angle.

The Internet opens vast resources to the modern freelance writer. Online research demands a particular set of skills, not least understanding how keywords and search algorithms work so you can zero in on the information you need as fast as possible. You must also learn to check and confirm any information you find online is true. You can store a virtual cuttings file as bookmarks, on your hard drive, or in the cloud.

A wit once said, "Taking information from one source is plagiarism. Taking it from several is research." There's truth in that. Plagiarism or breach of copyright is the worst crime any freelancer can commit. If discovered, even unintentional plagiarism could be the end of your career. Always draw on several sources, and always create a new, original piece written in your own words. It's fine to include relevant quotations but you must be sure to give full credit and reference sources.

Simple Submissions Record

Title
Publisher
Submission date
Accepted/Rejected
Paid
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
It's a good idea to keep a record of all the work you submit, who you submitted it to, whether it was rejected or accepted, and when you are paid.
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Dealing with Rejection

Rejection is an unavoidable aspect of every writer's life. A vital part of learning how to become a freelance writer is learning to cope with rejection of your work. The most important thing is not to take rejection personally. It's your work that's rejected, not you.

Once that's clear, the next thing is to assess why the editor rejected your piece. Maybe the editor has already committed to or published something similar. You may have submitted the piece to the wrong market for its content, style, or tone. You must learn to read publishers' submission guidelines and make sure you stick to them.

It may be the case that your writing isn't up to scratch yet. Don't worry. You're just starting out and learning on the job. When a publisher rejects a piece, take a deep breath and make an honest, critical assessment of your work. Rewrite and improve it where you can and send it out to someone else. Then forget about it and move on to a new piece.

My Top 10 Tips For Successful Freelance Writing

How to Become a Freelance Writer

To become a freelance writer, you must develop skills in research, concise and correct writing, self-discipline and perseverance. You must read and understand what the market and publishers need. A professional and friendly approach is essential. Then it's a simple case of writing and submitting completed work. In a nutshell: research, write, submit, and repeat.

© 2017 Austin Hackney

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    • Austin Hackney profile image
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      Austin Hackney 4 weeks ago from UK / ITALY

      Hi May,

      Thank you for your kind comment. I'm glad you found this article useful and I hope it helps you with your writing career.

    • profile image

      May Cooper 4 weeks ago

      Thank you very much! I really appreciate you putting the time and energy to put this together.

    • Austin Hackney profile image
      Author

      Austin Hackney 5 months ago from UK / ITALY

      You're welcome. I'm glad you found it useful.

    • mactavers profile image

      mactavers 5 months ago

      Good advice. Thank you.