After publishing a post earlier this year with tips for aspiring travel bloggers, I was inspired by some of the larger changes going on at Upwork (formally Odesk / Elance) to share my personal experiences and general best practices for becoming a successful freelance writer — travel sphere and otherwise.
Currently, I freelance write part-time for 2 publications and it’s a fantastic side job. It has flexible hours and I enjoy the creativity of the work. I’m also a full time editor and work with a team of 10 freelance writers. I’m involved in both sides, and can honestly say that simply freelancing is simple, but getting enough klout and skill to become successful… well, that’s a different matter.
What worked for me may not work for you, but maybe it will. Read on for one editor / freelance writer’s tips on how to not just be a freelance writer, but be a successful freelancer.
Choose an Expertise
Successful writers need not only to have strong written communication skills, but also a strong expertise or area of knowledge. What can you talk about with authority? What do you have a vast knowledge of? Dig deep and work on it.
That’s step one. Once you’ve had some success there, diversify. Branch out to another expertise — it gives you a broader pool of clients and keeps you from getting tired of writing the same thing over and over.
For me, I began establishing myself as an expert in Madagascar and Peace Corps via this blog. Though I certainly didn’t know everything about either topic, and had to supplement my knowledge with research, the topics were specific enough that I started to establish myself as someone others could approach if they needed content on either topic.
In the beginning, having an expertise helped focus my searches for freelance work, and it helped me stand out. I wasn’t just a writer, I was a writer with valuable knowledge.
I’ve now branched out and expanded — I also write content for ESL learners, about packing, volunteering abroad, teaching ESL, travel within other parts of Africa, food while traveling, and blogging.
Get Good at Researching
Content that’s written from a person’s own genuine experience almost always ends up being stronger, but there will be times when you don’t know it all, or recognize a gap that could make your piece more useful or better written.
So get good at researching and filling those gaps. Find people to interview if the information isn’t readily available. At the end of the day, most people want to hire freelance writers for their ability to convey new information (yes, some want stories, but most just want a good researcher and communicator). Know where to find that information.
Build a Portfolio
Go Overseas, the blog I edit full-time for, isn’t a particularly big publication. For our columnists, we’re not demanding New York Times levels of experience and enjoy bringing on writers who may only be a little ways into their writing careers.
Even so, I would never hire a writer who has no online presence (online specifically because we’re a digital publication — print is impressive, but it doesn’t demonstrate to me that you know how to write for the web).
And honestly, I don’t care if you got paid for that work or not. It could be that you’ve consistently maintained a personal study abroad blog for the last year. It could be that you’ve done a few guest posts and interviews. Point is, I want to be able to quickly see examples of your work, see that you’ve been working on developing your craft, and that readers are engaging with it.
Your portfolio is key for both establishing yourself as a professional and for making it easier for editors to decide whether or not to hire you.
It also, sometimes, makes you easier to stumble on. Again, as an editor, I sometimes look for people to reach out to for specific pieces. As a writer, I’ve been approached by someone who found a blog post here and asked if I could write a piece on that topic. In short, your portfolio is powerful.
Establish Yourself on Social Media
Again, if I’m hiring a writer for Go Overseas, I won’t consider anyone who doesn’t have a solid social media presence. This is largely in part because we require our writers to market their work, but regardless of if an editor wants this or not, having a strong social media presence:
- Demonstrates authority in the field
- Shows your ability to engage with an audience
- Helps make connections with other influencers, potential clients, and interviewees
When I see on Twitter that someone applying to write about study abroad is in international education, that tells me that they’re a relevant person to hire. If I see that they’re mostly Tweeting about acting and connecting with folks in that field, it makes me question whether they have the required knowledge or not.
On another note, I’ve gotten paid work and made great connections using social media. It’s an incredibly powerful tool — and not one to scoff at if your goal is professional development.
Tips for social media
- List your published work on LinkedIn so you can quickly hand an editor / potential client your resume and portfolio all at once
- Join Facebook groups relevant to your field of expertise. For me, the Travel Bloggers network has been hugely helpful for professional development tips and even some paid work.
- With Twitter, don’t just post your own stuff. Use it as an opportunity to reach out to other writers, editors, and experts in your field that you may not otherwise have a connection with.
- Engage! Don’t be passive, be active. You’re there to make connections, right?
Make Connections Online and Offline
Go to networking events in your industry. Schedule coffee dates. Go to conferences (and not just writing conferences). Make connections with people in your industry offline as well as online.
Often, these offline interactions are the best way to find out about unadvertised work, or stumble on helpful tips about resources, sources, or a hot new topic that you could be the first to cover.
Maintain Your Connections
Once you find a client, get the green light from an editor on an assignment, or are successfully brought on as a columnist, work on maintaining that connection.
Be responsive and professional with your emails. Once the article is published, share it (even if you’re not required to) and tag the publisher in it. Smaller publishers especially will notice and appreciate your reliability and commitment to your work, and will be more likely to continue working with you in the future.
Even once the project is finished, connect with them on social media, LinkedIn, and stay engaged. It makes them more likely to re-hire you or recommend you to someone else looking for a freelance writer.
Balance Paid and Unpaid Work
Especially at first, you’ll have to work on personal branding, portfolio building, establishing your expertise, and connection building.
Sometimes, this means taking on unpaid work. And honestly, don’t underwrite the value in unpaid work. It can be hugely valuable in helping some of your freelance goals if you’re smart about it. Just make sure to keep a good balance, to not accept every unpaid opportunity that crosses your inbox (only the ones that are quality).
Important questions to consider:
- Who is asking you to write a guest post? Are they a large company that you could potentially work with in other ways later? Or is it a smaller blogger with a small reach?
- What are your goals? Getting your name out there? Links? Portfolio building? If you’re trying to market yourself, think about interviews. If you’re building a portfolio, offer a more topical post that demonstrates that you know your topic.
- How much time are you spending on each?
Note: When I say “unpaid work”, I’m also talking about all the extra non-writing aspects of freelance writing (invoicing, pitching, responding to emails, etc.). Make sure you take into consideration all of these factors to make sure everything is worth your time and you’re getting enough ROI for your efforts.
Keep Records of Everything
On that note… keep records of all that work too. As a freelancer, you don’t often have help from other team members or company employees. You are the accountant-lawyer-marketer-and-HR person on top of being a writer.
To help yourself, take records of everything. Literally, everything. For each assignment I do, I have a spreadsheet with:
- Article title
- URL (since all of my work is web-based)
- Payment amount
- Payment date
- Payment platform (PayPal, direct deposit, etc.)
- Screenshot of the live work (since some publishers may take it down eventually)
- Amount of time it took for me to write it
This last one is especially important, because it helps me figure out which publications are worth continuing to work for or not. For example, if I’m getting paid $60 for a post that takes me 2 hours of writing and research — that’s not bad. But if it takes me 6 hours, maybe I’d want to rethink working with them or try to negotiate up my rates.
It’s also helpful to record how much time you spend on other parts of freelancing — like responding to emails, client calls, or submitting invoices. Some clients ask for edits, some don’t. It’s important to take into consideration when I’m setting aside time to work on a project.
Useful Tools and Resources
It’s only in the past year or two where I’ve really tried to increase my professional expertise as a freelance writer and not just as someone in the travel industry or a travel blogger. Some of the resources and tools I’ve found useful for this:
- Upwork — and I’m not just saying this because they asked me to write this post. I’ve been on Upwork long before it was Upwork (and still Elance). Because the bid-and-accept system is a little competitive, I don’t use it as my only source for new clients, but it’s a great supplement. It’s how I recently found and started writing for FluentU, began gaining experience writing press releases for various companies, and some other random work.
- Freelancer at Contently — I love reading this blog for freelancer writers and editors. They do a fantastic job of answering relevant questions and sharing personal experiences to help professional freelancers figure out this at times tricky field.
- Moz — Especially as a digital content marketer, SEO knowledge is key. Don’t shy away from it, learn it. Moz will help you.
Most of the other resources I utilize are specific to the travel industry (TBEX, a travel blogger conference, Travel Massive, a travel industry meetup, and a Travel Bloggers Facebook group), but these are some of my most important resources.
Whatever you’re choosing to be an expert in, find your TBEX / Travel Massive / Travel Bloggers equivalent. For example, if you’re writing about parenting, do a quick Google search for “parenting blogger groups” or “parenting blogger conference”.
Good Luck Out There!
As I mentioned earlier, what worked for me may not work for you — especially if you’re attempting to break into the print world (a hugely foreign beast to me) — but hopefully you’re able to pick up at least one new word of wisdom to get you from freelance writer to successful freelance writer.