Writing can seem like the quickest, easiest, and more attractive way to start a self-employed career. Especially with online courses promising you can work remotely from a tropical beach, and earn a good living from a laptop in just a few hours each day. And while it may be possible for a tiny number of people, the reality of how to become a freelance writer is a bit different.
There are legitimately wonderful things about being a self-employed writer or author. But these tend to come from a passion for creativity, research and writing itself, rather than a luxurious lifestyle. It may be a fairly accessible career, given that most of us have been writing in one form or another since starting out at school. But it also means it’s often undervalued as a skill, especially with many people offering low-priced articles on freelance job boards.
- Why become a freelance writer?
- What types of self-employed and freelance writing work exist?
- What skills do you need to become a freelance writer?
- How much can freelance writers earn?
- How to start freelance writing with no experience?
- More support and resources for freelance writers
Why become a freelance writer?
Most successful creative freelancers have never asked themselves this question. They have a compulsion to write (or paint, make music or capture photos), and want to be able to devote their time to their passion, rather than fitting it around a day job.
But there are other benefits to becoming a freelance writer. You may want to find your own balance between your work and personal life. Or to be able to work remotely some, or all, of the time.
If you’re lucky enough to already be employed as a writer, you may decide to switch to freelancing either to focus on one particular subject, or in search of more variety. It really depends on what you want to achieve as an individual.
There are a huge variety of ways to earn a living as a freelance writer. But almost all of them require a passion for research, creativity, and endlessly tweaking words and grammar to fit a brief, please a client, entertain readers, and work for search engines at the same time. Good writers tend to combine boundless curiosity, and a desire to share interesting facts and information with as many people as possible.
One benefit of freelancing writing is that you can generally be more flexible with scheduling your time, as long as you ensure you meet client deadlines. Many people fit their writing into the early morning or late evenings around families, jobs, or other commitments.
What types of self-employed and freelance writing work exist?
Words are used and required in a huge variety of ways, leading to a number of specialist disciplines within freelance writing. Some offer more demand and higher rates, but require more proven experience to secure projects. And you will often find clients, and even writers themselves, confused about what it is they’re actually looking for.
In all of the examples of freelance writing opportunities, the work may be published under your own name. Or it might be shared under the name of someone else, such as a senior figure at a company or a celebrity, which is referred to as ‘ghost writing’. A high percentage of freelancers will produce huge amounts of ghost-written content.
Copywriting: This refers to writing text for advertising and marketing. Copywriters provide the words for billboards, brochures, tv scripts and jingle lyrics for adverts, direct mail marketing and more. It can also include social media content, which can mean also knowing how to include images, video and specific information for social networks, such as right hashtags.
Blogger: Self-employed and freelance bloggers tend to focus on specific areas of expertise, creating regular content for client blogs or their own sites. These will tend to feature more individual or brand personality in the writing style.
Article and Feature Writers: Longer, more detailed articles and features can be published across various digital and print formats. These usually require more research and interview skills, and need to provide a comprehensive and more objective look at a subject. You’ll often find guides and longer ‘how to’ articles included in this category.
Journalist, reporter, or news writer: Journalist is a broad term for anyone involved in gathering, investigating and sharing news and information, whereas a reporter will be focused on directly collecting and communicating material to the public. A journalist could be a reporter, editor, or TV news anchor, and will tend to include commentary and context, but a reporter will generally publish factual information. And to make this slightly more confusing, many publications and sites outside mainstream news media will now hire ‘news writers’ rather than reporters.
Freelance Authors: Some freelance writers will be credited as co-authors if they work with celebrities and notable figures to create full length books or e-books. Others will work as ghost writers on behalf of the named figure.
SEO writers: If you’re writing for websites in any capacity, a knowledge of search engine optimisation is important. But SEO writers tend to focus on this area, which can mean crafting content for product descriptions, landing pages and other areas where it’s particularly important to attract readers from search results.
There are also a range of other opportunities related to freelance writing, including proof reading and copy editing (or sub-editing for newspapers and magazines). Working for yourself means you’re able to choose to focus on specific areas, or across various disciplines.
What skills do you need to become a freelance writer?
If a client has paid you to produce words, then you’ve become a freelance writer. But to be successful, or to be offered specific projects or roles, you’ll need to demonstrate a range of skills and qualifications.
The most important is a love of the written word. Despite the availability of software tools and AI assistance, you need to enjoy what you do. That includes reading for inspiration, research and acquiring new techniques. And then spending time crafting your content to be as good as possible. Especially when being a writer means spending hours agonising over the structure of a particular sentence, before deleting the entire thing and writing something different.
Communication and interpersonal skills are important to not only maintain a good relationship with clients, but also build a rapport with interview subjects, colleagues and other writers. You may need to deal with designers and editors before your work is published. And a good network of other freelance writers is invaluable in finding out about projects and opportunities.
Organisation is important in two ways. The first is the obvious need to manage clients, projects, deadlines and invoices, which can often be a challenge for anyone who prefers to focus on creativity. But it’s also key to making use of your research effectively and creating well-structured articles.
Most freelance writing projects will focus on experience rather than qualifications. But you may find larger publications and longer-term contract work requires you to have formal education, including a degree or postgraduate qualification in journalism.
Before you commit to potentially expensive and long-term training, it’s worth researching the projects you’d like to be winning, and seeing what types of qualification they typically require. You can then look at the recognised and often official bodies for those specialisms to decide which courses and education will be most suitable and valuable. There’s no point in signing up for a three- year journalism degree if you want to mainly write blog posts. But courses from organisations like the Press Association, or the Publishing Training Centre can be a useful justification for increasing your rates, and help you beat the competition for a particular opportunity.
In addition to research and writing, an increasing number of clients will also expect you to upload articles, add images, and include elements for SEO such as meta descriptions. So having a basic understanding of the most popular website content management systems (such as WordPress), and simple photo editing software will be useful. Common examples include Photoshop (or the free alternative GIMP), and Canva for creating social media imagery.
You should have a good understanding of grammatical rules, along with a grasp of the relevant SEO best practice for articles. Most word processors and writing tools will include checks for spelling and grammar, but they won’t catch everything.
How much can freelance writers earn?
It’s hard to estimate an average income for freelancers in the UK, as tasks and rates can vary wildly from recent graduates working for free to the top tier of self-employed authors and copywriters.
The average freelance writer income based on 17 salaries submitted to Glassdoor is £24,470, and Indeed put it at £26,913 per year. But Indeed also has Freelance Copywriters at £43,721 per year, so the amount can vary quite a bit between individuals.
Your income will also depend on whether you price individual projects, use an hourly rate or invoice a cost per word. It’s important to think carefully about which pricing model you use for a piece of work as you need to ensure it’s financially worthwhile. (Freelance Corner members can access a guide on How to set your freelance rates, here)
One useful resource is the Rate for the Job page on the National Union of Journalists London freelance website. This provides examples of publications and fees paid for various freelance columns, features and more. There’s also Who Pays Writers, which is more focused on American publications.
As with any freelance career, the more you can prove relevant skills and experience, the more you can justify charging. And you’ll also gain a better idea of roughly how long a particular article may take, although it’s not always guaranteed to be the same, even for very similar topics. Challenging clients, writer’s block or other issues can slow things down unexpectedly.
A problem which can seriously impact the profitability of a freelance project is if you get bogged down in endless requests for edits and changes. A clear and detailed brief at the start of the work will help avoid this, but it’s also important to agree how many rounds of revisions will be included in your quoted price before work begins. If a client knows they’ll have to pay extra for more than one set of edits, they’re more likely to provide comprehensive feedback straight away.
How to start freelance writing with no experience?
One of the best things about freelance writing is that you don’t have to wait for clients to start building up experience and a portfolio. You can start straight away by writing about subjects that interest you. Or pick a company you’d like to work with, and try to create something suitable for their publication or website.
And it’s never been quicker or easier to share your writing. It’s fairly simple to start a quick blog or website to publish your content using a popular CMS such as WordPress, which also allows you to learn about adding images, SEO, and other relevant skills. Or you can use a platform such as Medium, which was created for people to share their writing.
Starting your own website can even become so successful you might not need to work for clients. Many writers and journalists have also started email newsletters which bring in substantial amounts of income if they become popular.
There’s a strong case to argue against writing for free to gain exposure. Not only does it mean giving away your time and effort, but it also undervalues the whole industry. And this is also the case if you’re massively undercharging for your articles.
You need to make your own judgement on whether submitting free work might pay off in the long run. But a good rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t offer free content to someone who will try to make money from it. Writing for your own site, on social media, or somewhere like Wikipedia can be useful and fun. And it can potentially lead to paid work in the future. But writing for commercial publications and businesses should always be rewarded financially at an acceptable rate.
It’s useful to start networking with other writers either online, or in the real world. And it’s easy to find friendly groups like our own Creative Freelancers UK to get started. But it’s also worth checking out local non-writing meetings, as you may be the only creative person in the room. And that means anything related to writing will definitely be directed towards you.
And make sure that you store all of your published work, and reviews or testimonials from happy clients. Take screenshots in addition to storing the urls of any online articles, as websites can disappear, or older content can be removed over time. There are also online writer portfolio sites (for example Clippings.me) which allow you to save your best work to share with potential new clients.
The final element of building a freelance writing career is becoming comfortable and effective at pitching to businesses and publications. There are various resources for finding editors and publications looking to receive pitches, such as the Freelance Writing Jobs newsletter. But you need to know how to contact and persuade those people to select you as a writer.
Various examples and templates exist for writing pitches, but essentially you need to quickly introduce yourself, explain your incredible idea, and include some links to previous writing. The key is to make sure you explicitly link your knowledge and abilities to the proposed content, showing why you’re the perfect person to write that particular article.
It’s also important to do any required research before pitching. This includes lining up any essential interviews, or submitting any necessary Freedom of Information requests. Editors are unlikely to risk planning articles weeks or months in advance if you’re never going to get the subject to speak to you, or some basic research will probably reveal a problem with your idea.
Creativity can produce an amazing article, but drive and determination build a successful career. Even established journalists and writers know that most of their pitches are likely to be rejected, but they understand from experience that it might just be down to bad timing, changes in editorial budgets, or just a commissioning editor in a bad mood on a particular day.
More support and resources to become a freelance writer
- Freelance Corner – our site filled with advice on all aspects of starting your freelance career and finding more success, along with resources, tools and practical benefits for members. Including a range of freelance guides including getting work and being paid, here.
- IPSE – the UK’s only not-for-profit association dedicated to the self-employed.
- Creative Freelancers UK – our Facebook group to network with other novice and experienced self-employed business people.
- Freelance Writing Jobs newsletter – a weekly collection of writing opportunities.
- The National Union of Journalists – the independent journalists’ union.
- The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) – a non-profit body for editorial professionals.
Researching other freelance careers? Why not check out our other guides:
- How to become a freelance web designer
- How to become a freelance SEO consultant
- How to become a freelance Virtual Assistant (VA)
And you can get support and help if you’re starting out with self-employment, or still in the early stages of building your career, with the IPSE Incubator. The 12-month programme is currently free with IPSE membership, and includes advice, events, webinars, networking and more, tailored to anyone just beginning their freelance business.