Whether you start a freelance business to make some extra cash on the side or go full-time to replace your current income, the bottom line is the same. You’re in it to make money. You want to get paid to write.
Sure, you can still have passion projects that feed your creative side, but when push comes to shove, your freelance business comes down to the almighty dollar.
I know when I first dove into freelance writing, I did as much internet research as I possibly could to get a feel for the field and what I could earn.
I came across a ton of posts outlining the finances of different freelancers. “How I Made 10K+ This Month” and “Freelance Writing Let Me Retire Early” were just a few of the headlines that had my head in the clouds.
I quickly learned that a beginner’s freelance journey is much different from the posts and reports from these seasoned writers.
Like many writers, I started freelancing part-time. I snuck in time to write before and after my 9-5, as well as during my lunch break and on weekends. I also started out with no writing samples or professional writing experience.
I started my freelancing career as green as they come.
However, I still had high hopes that I’d land a high-paying job quickly. I was confident in my craft and felt that as long as I pitched consistently and published some samples on my website, the offers would come rolling in.
That’s when my reality check hit.
After sending out a minimum of ten pitches a day for two weeks, I was ecstatic to hear back from three potential clients. The first asked me to send over samples that weren’t self-published, of which I had none.
The second told me that my proposed rate of .10 a word was “above their budget.” The third was a bit more promising, went back and forth with me after I sent over a personalized sample, but ultimately went with a more experienced writer.
Some side hustle I had! I hadn’t made a penny, and apparently self-published pieces weren’t going to cut it.
However, the good thing about starting from the bottom is that the only way is up. When it came to earning money as a new freelancer, I learned four crucial lessons.
1. Taking Unpaid Gigs Is Okay (At First!)
Out of all the writing courses I’ve taken and freelancers I follow on social media, almost every single one suggests never working for free.
After striking out few times as a newbie, I disagree.
The hard truth I’ve learned is you have to start somewhere, especially when you need to beef up your portfolio and resume.
Nine times out of ten, potential clients want to see work that isn’t self-published as a form of “social proof.” In a nutshell, they want to see that others see value in your work.
So how can you get published samples when just starting out?
Use the barter system.
For a new freelancer, the barter system is an excellent way to get your social proof (and some samples!). My mastermind group was a huge help in getting myself up and running. While I continued pitching for paid jobs, I also offered to guest post for fellow writers from my group.
As many of the writers from my group were also in the early stages of their business, many of these posts would be unpaid. However, it was mutually beneficial for both parties as the writers got free content for their site and I got samples published by another source.
It’s also important that you continue to pitch paid gigs while you work to gain samples. You never know when you’ll be a good fit elsewhere or when your expertise will come in handy.
By no means do I advocate working for free for an extended period of time. I’m talking about doing it just long enough to get yourself some reputable samples. I look at it as a way to pay your dues and pave the way for paying jobs.
2. In a Pinch, Content Mills Have Their Benefits
Veteran writers often tout warnings about working for “content mills,” and for good reasons. Most mills undervalue writers and pay less for more work.
Content mills often pay between .03 and .05 cents a word, which pales in comparison to the industry standard of .10 cents a word.
As with unpaid gigs, content mills are jobs I feel can be okay to take, but only early on and for a short period. I didn’t always feel this way.
Note: Contena Scout will usually flag these agency jobs as “low paying” but don’t let that scare you!
After speaking with colleagues and hearing their horror stories, I avoided mills like the plague. It was only when I unintentionally started working for one that I realized they do hold some benefits.
In between leaving my full-time job and infrequent workload, I became anxious about the lack of money I had made. That anxiety ultimately led me to take a job that I now recognize as a content mill.
At the time, I thought I was taking on a simple multi-topic writing gig.
I knew I’d be writing about topics that weren’t necessarily in my niche, but it was easy enough work, and more importantly, it meant I was finally earning some money.
It didn’t matter it was just a few bucks; it was money I had earned and was a boost to my confidence.
Surprisingly, I was allowed to use the articles I wrote in my portfolio, even if I wasn’t given a byline. The small influx of cash and the added bonus of more published samples made this content mill a viable short-term gig for me.
No matter if you’re in it for extra cash or as your full-time job, money can get tight. If you’re hard up for cash and have the time to devote to churning out pieces (while still pitching), working for a content mill can be a decent stopgap to help cover small bills.
If you must take on a content mill-type job, aim for one that will allow you to use the work as samples, or at least will give you a testimonial you can share with potential clients.
3. Work Smarter
Once you’ve had some works published to use as samples, finding paid work becomes a bit easier.
While you may not be making the big bucks yet, at this point you should expect to be landing gigs paying at or around the standard .10 cents a word.
Depending on the client, you may be paid per word, by the hour or even per piece. My suggestion is to stick with a per-word price unless you have an ongoing contract with clear expectations and understanding of the needed work.
I took on flat rate jobs that paid well enough only to find that the work was extremely research-heavy, and therefore time intensive. While I was happy to have made it to my (at the time) desired rate, I was losing out on the backend regarding my time-per-project expenditure.
Whether you’re part or full-time, you should be sure to value your time as well as your word count.
You’ll still come across clients that say the standard of .10/word is too much to pay a writer but don’t be discouraged. There are plenty of clients that respect and value writers time and efforts, you’ll just need to find the right ones.
This is where Contena really helps, by making it easier to find quality, high paying gigs.
With perseverance, I eventually got there.
Although turning down jobs gave me anxiety, I knew I needed to put the appropriate value on my services. By becoming selective, despite having a light workload at the time, really helped boost my confidence and take my business seriously.
Armed with my newly-found confidence, I slowly began raising my rates with newer clients until I had hit my sweet spot. It took some time, but in the end, it was worth it.
4. Embrace the Unpredictability
The very nature of freelance work is unpredictable. As a new freelancer, you may be landing more one-off types of jobs. A steady income can seem like a mirage in a hot desert at times.
Some weeks, I was making great money and others, not so much. I felt like I was riding an emotional and financial roller coaster. One week I was fully confident and the next, I felt like a sham.
Again, perseverance and patience play an immense role in becoming a solid earner.
Because of this instability, I would suggest having a bit of savings to help tide you over during slow periods. Even when you land well-paying jobs, you may not always get paid immediately. Often I find myself having to wait a month until a specified billing period to get an invoice paid out.
As you gain experiences and expertise, you can slowly raise your rates.
Conversely, while I learned to shy away from less-than rates regularly, I sometimes take on jobs for slightly below my asking rate if the job is particularly beneficial to my goals.
If the topic is in my niche and the client has a large following that would give me more exposure, I may make an exception and take on the job.
When you’re just launching a freelance writing business, there are a couple of traits you should have in your toolbox (and a few to avoid). Be driven to succeed, have patience, be determined not to give up and most of all, have a very healthy dose of realism.
More than likely, you will not be making $500 per article right off the bat. However, as long as you’re putting in the work to better your craft consistently, you can get there eventually.
Trust in yourself and the process.
Any advice given in absolutes should also be taken with a grain of salt. “Never work for free,” “Avoid content mills at all costs,” and “Don’t ever work for less than .10/word”, just for example. Do what works for you and helps motivate you to move forward. Different strokes for different folks, as they say.
Each writer’s journey will be different. Depending on your experience and expertise, you may be able to hit financial goals and milestones faster (or slower) than your peers.
What’s more important is that you don’t get discouraged and give up. Freelancing can be a lucrative and rewarding career; you’ll just need to be ready to be patient and committed to your goals.