There are several sets of skills that a person needs to become a freelance writer because you are not only a writer, you are an entrepreneur. Congratulations.
Being a freelance writer is one of those dream jobs—something you fantasize about while tapping away at an Excel spreadsheet in your cubicle. Making that dream a reality involves, well… reality. The beauty of becoming a freelance writer is that you can start part-time, freelancing as a side hustle, until your business grows to the point where you can kiss your boss goodbye. But you’re going to need some skills.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first.
Basic English: Without a working knowledge of basic English, spelling, grammar, and sentence structure, your freelancing income will be limited. I won’t say it’s impossible to make a living as a freelance writer without these because many writers whose first language is not English sell poorly written articles to content farms for $2 an article. In countries where the average monthly salary is $300, earning $2 an article and turning out three to five articles a day is one way to make a living. In all seriousness, it wouldn’t keep me in scotch.
Do you have to be letter perfect? I’m not. When I edit, I am constantly checking spelling and grammar rules, sometimes just to double check, sometimes because I really don’t know or can’t remember. Some rules are broken or ignored on purpose, depending on what I’m writing and the intended readership. Most of the work I do is in “casual English,” the language we speak when talking with each other. If you’re working in corporate, technical, or academic areas, your language will be more formal and will need to be that much more grammatically correct.
Keyboarding and Word: You don’t necessarily need to be a fast typist, but being a two-finger, hunt-and-peck typist is going to cost you money. If you’re not a touch-typist yet, try an online typing program like TypingClub.com to up your speed and accuracy.
You also need to have a strong working knowledge of Word. Some people use Google docs but Word is the product of choice. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a PC or Mac. You’ll be regularly called on to insert images and graphics, create tables, number pages, build a table of contents, add hyperlinks, and use any number of features that Word has. You will also find yourself teaching your clients how to go through your edits to add their own or how to make a comment on a document. If you have graphics skills, you can add those services to your menu of offerings.
Research: As a freelancer, you need to know how to do basic research to find the data you need to substantiate what you’re writing. You can find anything on the internet but you need to look beyond the first page of the Google search. Sometimes you will need to research offline. (Gasp!) Your local library may not cut it. You may end up interviewing experts or contacting libraries and associations in far flung places. (That should sound like fun to you.) Pro Tip: Get a local library card. All the cool kids have one. It gives you online access to national and international services like research libraries, eBooks, and movies for your downtime.
You also need critical thinking skills to vet your sources. I’m going to give more weight to a paper written and endorsed by the American Society of Civil Engineers than I am to the opposing paper written by one civil engineer. But I’m also going to check to see if that one engineer has any other engineers who agree with him. Is he a crackpot or the sole voice of reason? It’s my job to check.
How to Clearly Communicate Thoughts and Ideas: Have you ever read the instructions on how to assemble something and you can’t figure out what they are trying to say? It’s obvious that the instructions were written in one language and poorly translated into English (or German or Spanish…). Those instructions may or may not have made sense in their original language but that doesn’t matter to you when you’re trying to assemble your kid’s toy at 1:00 am.
As a freelancer, you need to be able to transfer what’s in your head onto paper. In order to do that, you need to understand the concept before you ever try to write it out for other people. That’s why I encourage freelancers to start in a field they have experience in. I started freelancing by working with clients in the real estate investing field. I had a huge amount of personal knowledge and first-hand experience, I had taken courses and seminars, and I had a network of contacts I could check in with when I had questions. The advice often given to new writers is “write what you know.” This is true for freelancers, too.
One of the reasons why people hire freelancers (including ghostwriters) is that they know what they do but they can’t communicate how they do it. You are the interpreter for your clients. You must have the ability to clearly relate information so a reader can understand it as part of your skillset. The more writing you do, the better you get at this.
Tone and Engagement: Finally, you need to be able to keep the reader’s attention. Start by matching the tone they expect. The writing tone you use in an article aimed at Gen Z is going to be very different from the tone you would use in a grant proposal. The ability to shift gears and match tone with your target audience will serve you very well as a freelance writer. You should have writing samples available that show your range in this.
Engagement is what keeps people interested and reading. This is done with paragraph structure, well-placed sub-headings, and transitional words and phrases. Novelists use cliffhangers at the end of their chapters; the reader has to turn the page to find out what happens next.
Part of engagement is building trust with your audience. That may involve including statements and concepts that you know your audience will agree with to establish commonalities and rapport. From there, you can add new data and concepts, useful tips, even obscure facts which let people feel like they now know something others don’t.
As a freelance writer, you are in business for yourself and as such, you need to understand that the business side is just as important, if not more so, than the writing side. A mediocre writer with strong marketing skills will earn more money than a talented writer with poor marketing skills. If you have the attitude that “I’m an artist; I don’t want to worry about numbers” then you’re not going to make it. Numbers are money and most of us don’t have a trust fund.
Organization: Being in business for yourself means that you need to balance out a multitude of activities: marketing, sales conversations, scheduling, delivering the work, keeping the books, admin work like invoicing, etc. It’s a lot to juggle and that requires the ability to organize your work load and schedule. If you’re a procrastinator or avoider, you’re going to have to set up routines that you don’t deviate from. Being an entrepreneur is a lot like spinning plates on sticks—you are constantly running back and forth, making sure none of the plates drops and breaks. Being organized takes away a lot of the anxiety that freelancers have. You know what you need to do and when you need to do it. Things don’t fall through the cracks. If an unexpected bill comes in and you need to make some money fast, you know just what to do in your business to pick up a quick job.
Additionally, being organized can reduce the workload in all aspects of your business. For example, it can help you create a repeat business that decreases some of your marketing duties. It’s far easier and less expensive to retain a client than to find a new one. Keeping in touch with previous clients keeps you top of mind when they need a writer the next time. It also can generate referrals from those happy clients. Organizing a personal (not automated) “keep in touch” program, contacting past clients on a regular basis through email or phone just to see how they are doing, keeps you in front of them.
Organization also prevents emergencies and being forced into making decisions that you’d rather not make, like taking a job with that client you really didn’t like. Putting systems in place early on in your business will help your business grow smoothly and keep you off the feast or famine rollercoaster that is so prevalent in most small businesses.
Internet savvy: You need to have an internet presence not so people can find you—that’s a business unto itself—but so people can check you out once they’ve found you. I can remember back in the late ‘90s when it was strange for a business to have a website. Now if you don’t have a website, you’re not in business. You need to have a basic website that tells people what you do and how you can help them. You also need a social media presence, at the very least, on LinkedIn.
Beyond that, you will need to be well-versed with activities like using email, apps like Zoom or Messenger for video calls, uploading files, and creating a professional profile on freelance sites like Upwork. Knowing how to use forums or to find a prospect’s email buried in their website will help you find work, rather than waiting for work to come to you.
Marketing: Your ability to market yourself will make or break you as a freelance writer. Yet the idea of marketing often puts knots in our stomachs. Why is it so hard to market yourself? We’ve been taught not to brag or blow our own horns. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an egomaniac in order to create a strong marketing presence.
Marketing involves putting yourself in front of the people who need you and showing them that you are the right person to help them. If you are starting your freelance writing career in an industry that you have experience in, you already have some contacts. Let people know what you are doing now.
Your marketing doesn’t have to be complex; it just has to work for you. I have fewer than two dozen clients in any given year and I make an okay living. I could crank it up and rule the world, but I don’t want to be working 24/7/365. You may want to build an empire. If so, your marketing will encompass many different strategies and a large budget. Your marketing needs to fit your goals and your goals may change over time. Knowing the basics of marketing will get you started. How deep you go into marketing is up to you.
Using Online Freelance Sites: Many freelancers go through services to find work, particularly at the beginning of their careers. You can bid for jobs on sites like Freelancer.com, Guru, and Upwork. These sites help you find work, gain confidence, and learn the marketplace. You can also make good money on some of them. Other sites are filled with jobs listed by people searching for bargains. You want to avoid content farms—those internet companies that pay a low rate per word and basically burn you out.
Depending on where you are in your life, you may start here or use these to supplement your income. For long term career prospects, you will want to build your reputation outside of these platforms and develop your book of business. As your reputation as a reliable writer who delivers quality content grows, so do your fees.
You might also want to put your articles up on sites like Medium, Substack, or Newsbreak. Many freelancers have built audiences on these sites and are making a good to great living. Each platform has its own personality and a slightly different audience. If you are blogging (and as a freelance writer, you should definitely have a blog on your website) you can repost articles from your blog—with or without changes—to these sites. It helps you get your writing seen and can increase traffic to your site and in turn, generate income.
The most successful business people have a high EQ: Emotional Intelligence or Emotional IQ. This psychological theory was developed by John Mayer and Peter Salovay and popularized by Daniel Goleman in his book, Emotional Intelligence.
“Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.”Mayer and Salovay, 1997
Put in less academic terms, emotional intelligence embodies social awareness, the ability to “read” other people and respond them and their needs as well as self awareness, the ability to understand and regulate your own moods and drives, to think before acting, and to suspend judgment.
In terms of freelancing, internal motivation, one of the components of EQ, may be most important. It’s having a vision of what’s important in life, not just in work. When you find yourself working on a project and not noticing that hours have passed, when you go above and beyond for a client because you want what you’re writing to be better than good enough, when you research some obscure point for a blog post that you may never get to use, that’s your internal motivation kicking in. Internal motivation is also that voice in your head that tells you that things will work out when you’re facing failure. It’s what keeps entrepreneurs, dreamers, visionaries, freelancers, and crazies going.
Your personal skills are what will bring you repeat business and referrals. They will help you “close the sale” not because you are silver-tongued, but because you are able to connect on a real level with the people who will become your clients.
Many writers consider themselves introverts. I certainly do. But if you met me at an event, you wouldn’t know it. I have learned how to talk to people, to ask questions, to be genuinely interested in people. My trick is that I consider each new person I meet to be a potential character in a novel. And, over the years, I have found that you can learn something from just about everyone. You don’t have to become the life of the party. You do need to be able to carry on a conversation where you can uncover what the person needs and wants and be able to show that person that you are the perfect writer for the job, whether it’s a corporate VP who needs an employee training manual or a magazine editor looking for 3,500 words on badgers.
It’s Not Rocket Science–Thankfully
Freelance writing isn’t rocket science. Beyond being able to string words together coherently, some organizational skills, and some marketing savvy, there’s only one thing stopping you: Fear. For most of us, writing is deeply personal and we want our work to be met with nods of approval, if not outright praise. We are our own worse critics and many times we feel as if there’s this mythical approval process that we must go through to be anointed a freelance writer.
I’m here to anoint you. Give it a try. Post an article on Medium or sign up on a freelance site and bid for some jobs. Write something for free for a friend or write some articles for your portfolio that showcase different types of writing. If you’ve read this far (we’re about 2,600 words in here), you really want to write for a living. If you don’t have all the skills you need to be a freelance writer, you can learn. You can become better at every aspect of the business. But you need to start. Now.
Have you thought (for reals) about writing for a living? My book, Start a Professional Writing Business, gives you an overview of the business, what you need to get started, writing niches to choose from, and what you can expect to make. Just $2.99.