Today I'd like to share some reader questions from a reader who preferred to remain anonymous. His questions revolve around getting started as a new freelance writer on a part-time basis. We'll call him Matt for the sake of this post.
Jen Grant, whom I answered in our last reader Q&A post, asked for something similar during a Twitter conversation recently:
@AllIndieWriters Jenn! Thank you! I've been digging around more and more...maybe an easy start guide or "start here" for newbs like me.
— Jen Grant (Brentano) (@jenbrentano) February 27, 2014
@jenbrentano That's in the plans actually. A big beginner post probably Friday, and "start here" sections will be added in a week or 2.
— Jennifer Mattern (@AllIndieWriters) February 27, 2014
Obviously I didn't have the post finished on Friday as I'd hoped, but better late than never. As as I told Jen, there's more to come with new "start here" sections coming to the site to help guide new writers. Keep a look out for those. You should start seeing them next week.
Now, back to the question I received via email.
Getting Started as a Freelancer: The Questions
Hello Jenn, my name is [Matt] and I've discovered All Indie Writers through a writing magazine a few weeks ago and have looked into it today. I'm contacting you because I'm an aspiring writer. I've started writing as a hobby for a decade and begun taking it seriously as of late 2012. Last year I've entered in two contests hosted by Writer's Digest. I didn't win the Popular Fiction Awards contest, and I'm expecting results for the Short Short Story contest next Friday.
I'm pursuing a career(nighttime/weekend) as a writer. At the moment, I have three novels in the works. I'm working on them not all at once but separately. I'm also interested in doing freelance writing just to make a little money since I'm having a little difficulty in finding a part time job to pay off a debt. I've read a few articles describing what freelance writing is like but I feel that I need a professional opinion about this.
Reading the about section of your site tells me you mean business and I'm prepared for criticism for how I'm approaching this and these are the questions I want to ask.
- How did you end up starting freelance writing?
- What websites have you used to find freelance work? What sites should I avoid that seems sketchy?
- How should I watch out for scam jobs? What should I look out in terms and conditions and contracts?
- I've read that at times legal matters can get involved in which the writer can get into trouble. How do I avoid said trouble?
- For tax seasons, what forms should I fill out? I've also read that people who take freelance jobs need to save EVERY paystub, check or payment they receive throughout the year.
- I've wanted to do blogging but I never know what platform my blog should stand. How do I find my niche? I have limited hobbies and interests. I believe I should expand them.
I understand that this email is a bit long and my questions are a tall order, but I'm really serious about my writing and I'm looking to improve and to become published one of these days. Thank you for you time in reading and answering this.
The Tough Love
First let me say that freelance writing isn't something you should pursue just because you want to pay off a debt. It's not easy money. The money doesn't always come quickly. You're either in it to run a successful business or you aren't.
If that's what you're looking for and prepared to work towards, keep reading. Otherwise, my suggestion is to keep looking at more traditional part-time jobs. They might not be as easy to find these days, but if you aren't truly prepared for what freelancing entails, it's going to be even less of a sure thing.
I've received similar questions to Matt's more times than I can count over the years. And usually I don't bother answering. Why?
They're very vague. And the answers are already out there. Anyone who truly cares about running a freelance writing business should be fully capable of doing some simple research on their own before tapping colleagues. We've even talked about several of them here before, so searching this one blog would have answered some of his questions.
This isn't to pick on Matt.
Like I said, these questions are common. It's easier to ask someone for answers than to do a little digging. But I have more interest in helping those writers who are already actively trying to help themselves. Besides, when you take the time to really narrow down the focus of your questions, the advice we can provide will be far more valuable and relevant to you.
That said, I've decided to make an exception and point Matt in the right direction.
My hope is that other new freelance writers might have their similar questions answered. And frankly, the next time I get these kinds of vague questions, I can simply direct the individual to this post.
But look. If you really want to become a freelance writer, you have to take it seriously. You're going into business. If you think you can conduct research for client projects, start by conducting some of your own.
- Read some books and blogs on the topic to pick up pointers.
- Choose your specialty and spend time researching your target market and the kinds of needs your target clients have.
- Research your future competitors to see the quality of their work, the types of projects they take on, and what they charge.
Here are some blog posts here on All Indie Writers that I would recommend as a good place to start:
- Freelance Writing Jobs for Beginners: Where to Start
- Reader Questions: Getting Started as a Freelance Writer
- 5 Online Writing Jobs for Beginners
- Freelance Writing Jobs You Can Pursue Today
- 9 Rookie Blunders That Will Cost You Freelance Gigs
- Freelancers: How to Get Started Without Getting Exploited
- Reader Question: Moving Beyond Penny Per Word Writing Gigs
- 4 Tips for Better Understanding Your Target Market
- 5 Reasons Freelance Writers Need a Professional Website
- How to Get High Paying Freelance Writing Jobs
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's get to the questions.
1. How I Got Started as a Freelance Writer
I've discussed my background in freelance writing at length here before. So I'll just give you the short version.
I began taking on writing projects back in 1999 while I was still in college. Several years later I started a small PR firm. I took on a lot of PR writing projects through that business, and I also pursued marketing copy, business plans, and other business writing projects on the side.
Technically I became a full-time writer back in 2004 through that work, but I didn't focus on writing and publishing exclusively until 2008 when I stopped offering consulting and other PR services. I've been at it ever since.
2. Websites for Finding Freelance Writing Work
When people ask me where they can find freelance writing jobs, as in what websites they can visit for leads, I generally give them the same response. There is no "where."
You don't find most great gigs advertised in a freelance marketplace. Most aren't on job boards. You find them by tapping your network, building your visibility through your writer platform, and directly pitching clients you'd like to work with.
That said, if you're just starting out and you want a few gigs to get you going, here are some places you can look:
- The All Indie Writers Job Board -- I post direct listings and curate job ads from around the Web, only including ones that disclose pay rates.
- Media Bistro
- The ProBlogger Job Board
- The Blogging Pro Job Board
What I would avoid are sites like the following:
- Any freelance marketplace where you have to bid to land jobs -- They all have a race-to-the-bottom system that does not work in the favor of freelancers. Some go even further, letting clients spy on your work (Elance and Odesk are notorious for it, and now they've merged -- stay away).
- Any site that requires you to pay before you can view job leads, especially if some or all of those leads are curated from other sites where you could access them for free
- Any site that puts you through the ringer with tests and required free samples -- Any serious client can figure out if you're what they're looking for from a portfolio, or they can pay for any samples they demand. These are often "content creation" companies that either hire contractors outright to write for their clients or they try to play the middleman and connect freelancers to clients who pay them for the leads.
- Classifieds sites like Craigslist -- While there are occasional gems (and I try to bring them to you here in our job board), you can easily spend hours looking at gigs there and find nothing worthwhile. There are better ways to spend your time.
That's not to say that all of the above are "sketchy." But I'd be especially cautious of anyone asking you to pay for leads or opportunities.
3. Avoiding Freelance Writing Job Scams
Here are some key freelance job scams you should try to avoid:
The client requires you to pay a fee or buy something for consideration.
I touched on this briefly in my response to the last question, but it's worth repeating: if anyone asks you to pay for a chance to land a freelance writing job, run. There are far more reputable sources out there that aren't all about leeching off new writers. These kinds of sites, companies, and publications don't exist to help you. They exist to squeeze every last cent they can out of you.
No legitimate employer would charge their potential employees a fee for a chance at an interview. The same policy goes in freelancing. If they want money up front -- for "learning materials," for a course they expect you to take before they can hire you, etc. -- it's a scam. Move on. Clients pay you. You do not pay them.
The client requires a free custom sample before they'll consider you.
No. A million times, no. "Freelance" does not mean you work for free. You sure as hell shouldn't be working for free on a prospect's terms. If you want to volunteer to write for a nonprofit you care about, have at it. At least you'll get a respectable sample out of the deal (although free still isn't the best idea if you can make it a paid gig).
A job ad requires you to register somewhere or sign up for an email list.
They're likely just building their subscriber base, not hiring for a legitimate freelance gig. Don't waste your time on these folks.
The pay offered is little to nothing, but the client promises great "exposure."
Exposure doesn't pay your bills. And if they had so much "exposure" to offer, writers would be beating down the door to write for them, and they wouldn't need to post their insulting little ads online. If they really had such a big audience that the exposure would matter to you, they ought to be able to monetize that audience (through publication sales, advertising, etc.).
If they can't work their own business model out successfully, you probably don't want to waste time with them anyway. I wouldn't say these are always scams. Sometimes the prospects are simply naive or think too highly of their own publications. You can do better.
And of course, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
4. Legal Issues Facing Freelancers
I'm not a lawyer. I don't even pretend to be one on the Internet. So I won't give you actual advice on this front. But I can give you a few legal issues that you might want to look into. These are some of the concerns most likely to affect freelance writers.
- Intellectual property rights -- Your main concern will be the copyright on your work -- knowing how to transfer it when you want to, knowing when clients cross a line and go beyond their license, and how you can and cannot reuse or resell what you write. A good resource to start with is Copyright.gov.
- Libel / Defamation -- This is where you risk being sued for saying something defamatory about someone in your writing. You can protect yourself by being clear when you're giving an opinion vs claiming facts, and by not publishing false facts about anyone. Be ready to back up claims. Here's a good introductory article on the topic: Defamation Law Made Simple.
- Asset Protection -- You might want to consider getting professional liability insurance to protect you from lawsuits that might arise from negligence (such as you writing something that gets your client sued). Is it likely you'll need this? Probably not. But it doesn't hurt to be safe. We talked about this issue here recently related to the LLC business structure.
Your best bet is to discuss your legal concerns with an attorney. Remember that laws can vary depending on where you live, so generic advice on the Internet could leave you at risk.
5. Taxes for Freelance Writers
This is another area where I won't give personal advice. You really should talk to a qualified tax expert.
I will say this -- yes, it's a good idea to keep records of all of your freelance payments. If you use a payment system like Paypal for most, their records will keep track of things pretty well for you. Other records you might want to hold onto are bank statements, invoices sent to clients, and receipts for any business expenses.
Here is the IRS page you'll want to take a look at (assuming you're in the U.S.). It contains a lot of good information about taxes for the self-employed in general.
One of my former regular contributors, LaToya Irby, specialized in financial issues. She covered some common tax concerns of freelance writers in the past. Here are a few of her articles you might want to check out:
- The Financial Side of Becoming a Freelance Writer
- A Primer on Taxes for Freelancers
- Documents You'll Need for Tax Time
That should give you some good information to start with.
6. Becoming a Blogger
First, why do you want a blog? Is it to serve as a niche site that you hope to earn income from? Or is it a business blog to attract clients? The blog you're reading now is an example of a niche blog. A blog on your professional website would be a business blog.
Don't expand on hobbies just because you feel like you need to for blogging. You don't need many. You're better focusing on just one to start. If you want your blog to help bring in freelance work, then focus on the freelance specialty you choose. For example, I'm a freelance business writer and professional blogger. So my business blog covers business writing issues and tutorials and information about running company blogs (the kind I help clients manage). The emphasis should be on your clients' interests, not yours.
As for platforms, I recommend WordPress. Preferably, go with the self-hosted variety where you register your own domain name and get your own Web hosting account.
As for blogging in general, that is far too detailed a topic to cover as one section of one post. I have an entire section of this site devoted to blogging. That's a good starting place. And here are a few specific articles that might be able to help you out:
- 101 Niches to Write About
- 10 Blog Post Ideas to Beat Writer's Block
- Make Money Blogging: 20 Blog Revenue Streams
- 3 Places to Get Great WordPress Themes
- How to Write a Blog Business Plan (with a free downloadable template)
Matt, I hope that gives you some useful background to pursue your own part-time freelance writing business. And for anyone else, if you have any follow-up questions that apply to your own writing career, please send them in. I'm happy to help when I can, and you could be featured here on the All Indie Writers blog through the free writing advice series.