Getting your freelance writing career off the ground can be a daunting task. It often takes months, if not years to build a base of clients that can provide you with enough work to earn a livable wage.
Here are eight tips that will put you on the path to achieving that.
1. Get Your Writing Samples in Order Before You Start Prospecting – Eager to get their freelance career on the move, many writers start reaching out to prospective clients without thinking about what they’ll do if they actually get a response.
If you do send an email or cold call a business and they show some interest, one of the first things they’ll ask for are work samples, and if you don’t have good ones, you might be letting a lucrative opportunity pass you by.
The more writing samples you have, the better. If you’re targeting a specific industry, try to write about something that’s relevant to it. If you don’t have a sample that pertains to that industry, create one. A work sample doesn’t have to be from a previous job. It can be something you just felt like writing about.
Most importantly, make sure your writing samples are cleanly presented and 100% free of errors before you send them off for a potential client to look at. This might seem rather obvious but more times than not, young writers are more concerned about getting their samples sent than they are about what they look like.
It’s also always a good idea to send your samples off to another “competent” writer for review just to make sure you didn’t miss anything blatant.
Just remember, you only get one shot to make a first impression. If your samples don’t reflect the highest quality of your work, it’s going to cost you.
2. Refine Your Pitch Before You Start Emailing Potential Clients (and Personalize It) – Much like your writing samples, you need to refine your pitch before you start emailing potential customers.
Many experienced freelancers advocate for writing a sales letter to customers, which basically tries to convince a company to enlist your services. A lot of writers have had success doing this; however, it’s important to remember that you’re not trying to sell these people a car and sometimes it’s beneficial to be a bit more subtle.
For instance, instead of aggressively pitching your services to a company, start off by simply asking if they enlist the services of freelance writers to help deal with their workload. A lot of places will say “no” in which case trying to convince them otherwise will likely be a waste of time.
For the ones that do say “yes”, you’ve got your foot in the door and now you can let your writing samples do the talking. Most of the people that will be hiring don’t necessarily want to hear about your background. They’ll be looking to unload some of their excess work on you and all they want to know is that you can make their job easier by performing the tasks that they give you.
If you have something that makes you unique (maybe you have a background in the industry that the company is in) then go ahead and put that detail in your initial email, but don’t just come out and start ramming your CV down the throat of your potential customers. If your writing samples are good, you’ll get work.
It’s also important to personalize your emails so that recipients know they aren’t getting spammed. For instance, always open the email with the first name of the person (you can use Mr. or Mrs. but it gives off a very formal tone and sometimes determining whether the recipient is male or female can be difficult).
Try to include the company name in the first sentence of your email as well. That way, the person can be relatively sure that you didn’t just buy a mailing list and shoot off 1,000 emails hoping for a response.
It’s also good to let your recipient know that if they aren’t the person that you should be contacting, you’d appreciate it if they would forward your message to the appropriate personnel at the organization.
3. Know Who Your Potential Customers Are – Many freelancers – especially those beginning their career – make the mistake of not knowing who to target when they’re looking for work. Because of this, they get a lot of “not interested” replies from their recipients or in many cases, no reply at all.
If you’re looking to do work for an advertising agency, find a personal contact of someone at the company (probably a Creative Director or an Editorial Director). Don’t just send in a token resume to the email@example.com inbox.
Find the agency website and see if they work with the types of clients that fit your skillset. If you’ve identified an agency that you think you could work with, start looking for the email or phone number of the person you need to contact.
For many freelancers, this is a painstaking process but there are plenty of contact databases out there (www.zoominfo.com is great) and if you don’t feel like paying for one of those, just Google “email @nameofthecompany.com” and see if you can get lucky.
For example, if you want to find the email address of someone at Wal-Mart, type into Google:
The first couple pages will likely be filled with firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com but if you keep looking you’ll start seeing actual email addresses (e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org). Start looking for people in the marketing, communications, media or public relations department to contact.
You can also cross-reference this information with social media sites like LinkedIn or Facebook to make sure you’re targeting the right people. Once you have the name of someone to contact and the email pattern (email@example.com), you’re good to go.
You can always call a phone number and try to get someone to transfer you to the right person as well. In any case, you need to be savvy and put some time into finding the right people and doing the work that other freelancers might not be willing to do.
4. Start Small and Test the Waters – If you’re just getting started and you’ve never reached out to a potential customer before, don’t start by going after the big fish. Instead, start by testing your sales pitch out on smaller clients.
If you find that your response rate is extremely low, revise your approach. Once you’ve got something that you know works, you can start going after more lucrative opportunities.
Remember, you might only get one shot at proving to these people that you can help them out. Don’t waste it!
5. Keep Prospecting, Even When You’re Working – When you do start getting work, don’t just assume that you can stop looking for it. Even if you’re swamped, take some time every week to reach out to new customers.
There will likely be a lag period between when you first contact a customer and when they actually give you work. You never know how busy you’ll be in the future and it’s always better to have too much to do then not enough.
If you only start looking for work when you don’t have any, you’ll end up with dry spells with no income and if you want to be a full-time freelancer, that’s a recipe for disaster.
6. Don’t Rely on Job Boards to Get Work –Some freelance gigs (especially ones with agencies) will get posted on big job boards like Indeed or Monster; however, most of the time these jobs require applicants to be onsite and if you apply you’ll be competing against hundreds of other freelancers for the job.
Successful freelancers rarely, if ever, apply to jobs on Indeed. If you do see something that fits your skillset, go ahead and apply, but don’t sit around and bank on getting the job because more times than not, you won’t hear back.
Elance and oDesk are also sites you want to stay away from if you’re seriously considering a full-time career as a freelance writer. You’ll be bidding against other applicants and most of the jobs pay peanuts. Once again, if you are a member of the site and you see something that you like, feel free to apply but don’t bank on consistently getting good paying jobs because you won’t.
7. Play The Numbers Game – When you’re looking for freelance gigs it’s important to remember that the more people you reach out to, the higher your chances are of getting work. You might only have a 10 percent response rate but if you reach out to 500 people, you could end up getting enough work to keep you busy for a long time.
8. Keep Track of Every Person You Contact – Always keep an organized list of phone numbers, email addresses, names, and companies of the people you contact. A lot of places will tell you that they do in fact hire freelancers but they don’t have any work at the present time. Keep these people on file and email them every few months just to check in and see how things are going.
There’s nothing worse than looking through thousands of emails trying to find the information of someone who you need to contact. Put everything into a simple spreadsheet and go back to it occasionally to see who might be worth reaching out to.
Alex Misiti is a Freelance Technical Writer, Engineer, and Founder of Medium Communications, LLC. For questions or comments, feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.