After ten years of freelancing, my business is *finally* a dream come true. I:
- Do what I love, and I get paid for it
- Write for leading SaaS companies
- Make six figures and only work 4-5 hours a day
But none of this is why I decided to get into freelance writing.
Why did I start freelancing? Frankly, I was tired of the 9 to 5 and longed for the flexibility to work when, where, and how I wanted to. Also, money.
I’m an avid traveler, a mom of two demanding little ones, highly self-motivated, and impulsive. Meaning, I do things like buy tickets to Dubai and hop on a plane five days later.
For me, it’s impossible to manage family life and my dopamine cravings in a traditional job setting. So—I write.
I write at home. On planes. By the pool. At trampoline parks. At the beach.
I write everywhere.
If you’re anything like me and want to build a flexible and thriving freelance writing business, I hope my story helps you.
Here’s a little more about my background, my best tips for freelance writers, and five critical lessons I’ve learned.
1. A diverse background isn’t a downfall—it’s a strength
A few years into my freelance writing journey, I toyed with the idea of getting a Ph.D. in Journalism.
So, I met with a professor at Columbia.
She asked me about my pathway here and my interests. I was embarrassed to answer. My background—like me—was all over the place. I:
- Majored in English
- Worked at a MarTech company
- Spent two years in Russia & Belarus doing service and learning Russian
- Obtained my Master’s Degree in Language Acquisition & Teaching
- Earned my TESOL certificate
- Taught Russian and English at a university
- Worked for an SEO company
- Worked for six years as a corporate trainer and instructional designer
- Quit my job on a whim and started a freelance writing business
And what were my interests? I don’t know—everything!
While I thought my non-linear background would be a massive turn-off to this Columbia bigwig, it wasn’t.
In fact, she loved it. She told me how the best journalists have varied backgrounds and a wide range of interests.
I didn’t end up going the Ph.D. route, but I did internalize her wisdom.
My non-traditional pathway to freelance writing wasn’t my downfall as a writer—it was my strength.
I have a unique perspective and a wide range of skills I bring to the table. I’m a good writer, but I’m also a marketer, a highly skilled researcher, and a subject matter expert.
This lesson is essential for every writer to keep in mind. There is no one right path to becoming a freelance writer.
Leverage your background and unique talents to help you choose a niche, differentiate your services, and provide the expertise only you can.
2. Run your small business the same way you would run a big business
During my first few years of freelancing, I learned a lot about what not to do. Want to avoid some of the mistakes I made?
Run your small business the same way you’d run a big business. Specifically:
- Consult with an accountant
- Hire a lawyer
- Build a website
Let’s dive a bit deeper into how each of these steps will help you set up your freelance writing businesses for success.
Talk to an accountant
Meeting with an accountant was eye-opening, and I kicked myself for not having done it sooner. After talking with a professional, I learned:
- It was costing me significantly more to operate as a sole proprietor rather than an LLC
- My personal and business accounts were muddled, so bookkeeping was a disaster
- I was losing out on tax deductions every year because I didn’t know they existed
The costs to meet with my accountant every year are minimal considering he saves me thousands of dollars. In fact, hiring an accountant is a positive ROI for my business—rather than an expense.
Don’t be like a younger me. Instead, hire an accountant to:
- Help you set up your business entity properly
- Find a stellar accounting software
- Do your taxes
It’s worth it.
Hire a lawyer
I’ve lost thousands of dollars throughout my freelance writing career due to clients ghosting me when it’s time for payment.
It’s a bummer part of freelancing.
While you can’t guarantee a client will pay you, there is something you can do to weed out dishonest clients: Hire a lawyer to help you draft a legitimate contract.
I don’t know what it is about having a contract, but it works magic on clients with sinister intentions. I haven’t had a client miss a payment since I started requiring a signed contract.
While contracts help you cover your backside, they also help in other ways. Contracts:
- Show you’re a professional who has your *ish together
- Outline expectations, including the project’s scope, payment amount, payment terms, terms & conditions, etc.
- Define what is allowed/not allowed (e.g., you can legally use the project on your portfolio)
- And more!
In addition to drafting a contract for my clients, I also hired my lawyer to write a demand letter (i.e., a scary “pay me now” letter) and a subcontractor agreement.
If you don’t have the money to hire a lawyer, you can start by purchasing a lawyer-drafted customizable contract template made specifically for freelance writers.
Build a website
There’s a lot of debate about whether or not building a website is necessary for a freelance writer.
I have a strong opinion on this one: Every freelance writer needs a website. End of story.
Let me tell you the story about how I came to this conclusion. About six years into my freelance writing career, I had a branding crisis and deleted my whole website. I had years of blog content, tutorials, digital assets for sale, affiliate promos and ads, and a robust portfolio. I thought I needed a rebrand.
So, with one swift click, I went offline.
My flow of work dwindled dramatically for the few months I was offline. I suspect I lost some credibility because my brand didn’t exist anymore, and people couldn’t find me.
I quickly realized the errors of my ways and spent $3,000 getting my new website up and running. And, wouldn’t you believe it? My business started thriving again. Immediately.
Here are the advantages of having a freelance writing website. A website allows you to:
- Promote your personal brand
- Capture email subscribers
- Build an audience
- Establish yourself as an industry leader
- Sell digital assets on your website
- Direct people to your website from your various bylines
- House your portfolio
Do yourself a favor and build a website. If you’re not convinced, ask yourself this: Would you want to work with a content marketer that doesn’t exist online?
3. Systems and processes are key to your success
Here’s the most life-changing advice I can give another freelance writer:
Establishing systems and processes is the best thing you can do to build a thriving business. click to tweet
Systems and processes help you:
- Stay organized
- Maximize your time
- Hit the mark on every project
- Get paid on time
- Show off your professionalism
- Manage your projects efficiently
Here are the exact processes you need to help you crush every project, land client referrals, and save a boatload of time:
- Include an intake questionnaire on your website
- Send an intro email
- Draft a proposal and contract before working with a new client
- Schedule—and lead—a kick-off call
- Set expectations and collect essential assets with an onboarding email
- Work from a content brief and an outline
Let’s take a closer look at each process.
Include an intake questionnaire on your website
I have a Typeform questionnaire on my website that helps me manage inbound leads. The questionnaire asks a series of qualifying questions to help me determine whether or not the project is a fit.
The questions include:
- Contact info
- Project description details
- Content marketing goal for the project
It’s simple, but it elicits all the information I need to tell whether I should take the project or refer it to another writer.
Send an intro email
I also get several inbound leads via email. Before hopping on a phone call, I send an intro email. This email includes everything a client needs to know about working with me.
Here’s the email I send my clients:
I’ve avoided hundreds of hours on unnecessary phone calls by laying everything out from the get-go.
It’s worth noting I sometimes schedule an intro call before moving forward. I try not to do this because I limit my working hours to no more than five hours a day, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.
Draft a proposal and contract before working with a new client
Once I’ve determined the project is a good fit, I send a more formal proposal and contract.
The proposal briefly outlines:
- My processes
- Scope of work
- Terms and conditions
As mentioned above, I also include a contract.
To be fully transparent, I haven’t been sending many proposals lately. I’m finding the process a bit redundant. However, I know several freelancers who send proposals religiously, and it works well for them.
But, I always send a contract.
Schedule a kick-off call
Once the contract is signed, I schedule a kick-off call.
During the call, I take the lead.
I ask for any further project details we haven’t discussed in the email. I tell the potential client how I work, what my processes are, and ask whether or not they have any questions.
Clients don’t always know how to work with freelancers. They often aren’t sure how to mesh their in-house strategy with freelancers, or they don’t have any systems and processes for working with freelancers at all.
It saves both of us time if I take the lead and provide a proven process for them.
Set expectations and collect essential assets with an onboarding email
It takes a lot of work to write (especially ghostwrite) for a company. Onboarding requires in-depth research and it takes more time than it does to write the first couple of pieces.
In my onboarding email, I ask the client to send me everything that will make me an expert on their business. This includes:
- Company style guide
- Brand book
- Critical assets
- Demo login
- People to interview
- Case studies
- Examples of content they like
One of my promises as a freelancer is I’ll do the leg work up front. I’ll spend the time necessary to learn everything about my client’s company as possible, but I need their help pointing me in the right direction.
Work from a content brief and an outline
Have you ever turned in an assignment only to have the editor come back and say you missed the mark and need to start over?
It’s the worst.
It’s also a sign you probably didn’t send a content brief or draft an outline before starting an assignment.
Before every project, I send the client a content brief. A content brief is a short document that asks for necessary details to help you hit the nail on the head. My content brief includes things like:
- Who is your target audience?
- What main points would you like to emphasize?
- What do you want your CTA to be?
- Who are some of your competitors?
The content brief doesn’t take clients long to fill out, but it is invaluable in keeping you both on the same page.
Once I have a content brief, I’m ready to create an outline and send it to the client for approval. When the client approves the outline, I start on my first draft, send it over for one round of revisions, complete the final draft, and send the invoice.
Rinse and repeat.
4. Build genuine relationships with other freelancers & industry professionals
I’m currently reading How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith. The book is problematic in some ways, but it does make a few good points.
In essence, the book outlines 12 habits that keep people from reaching their career goals.
One of the habits? Overvaluing expertise.
Here’s the main idea. People become so focused on developing the expertise required for their current role that they either become indispensable or aren’t adequately preparing for the role they want. The complementary idea is people don’t get promotions based on their expertise—they move forward when they leverage their network.
I agree and disagree. I do think it’s critical as a writer to dive deep and develop your expertise. However, don’t compromise building your network in favor of expanding your expertise.
Why? Because your network is what will help you grow your business and land better clients.
Save a portion of your time to connect with other writers and industry professionals on Twitter, LinkedIn, in communities (ahem…Peak Freelance), and in person.
I’ll be the first to say it. Most of my most lucrative writing opportunities have come from referrals within my network—not from people seeking me out personally as a SaaS writer.
Side note: This is yet another argument in favor of building a website with a portfolio. A client will rarely know you by your name and your name alone. Because we’re writers, not movie stars.
Anyway, the single best thing I’ve done for my career was meeting up with fellow SaaS writers at a writing retreat in Austin. I worked with Emma Siemasko and Kaleigh Moore on content for Campaign Monitor and GetFeedback, so I knew them a bit, but the rest of the group were strangers.
At this retreat, we spent time workshopping our businesses, bouncing ideas off each other, and—most importantly—building friendships.
The friendships I formed with the freelancers at this meet-up have been invaluable to my business—and my life.
I turn to this group of freelance friends for:
- Pricing questions
- Partnering on projects
- Quotes for articles
- And more!
Build a network of freelance friends and other professionals in your industry. Take time to nurture those friendships and help each other.
5. You don’t have to make six figures straight out the gate (or ever) to be successful
My last lesson is to not frame your success in terms of how much money you make. There’s a prevalent idea that a successful freelance writer should make six figures.
It’s a garbage metric.
The truth is: I don’t know anyone who made six figures in their first year freelancing.
Most of the successful freelancers I know—including me—started with less than glamorous bylines at much lower rates than they are making now.
I started moonlighting while I was working full-time as a corporate trainer. I wrote penny-per-word SEO articles on—drum roll, please—plumbing. That’s right! Your ecomm & marketing SaaS girl wrote about drains.
I asked some of my writer friends on Twitter what their first gig was and how much it paid. Check it out:
I also recently conducted an in-depth benchmark report on how much freelance writers charge. I wanted to understand whether there was any correlation between how much writers charge and how long they’ve been freelancing.
The data showed a strong correlation between charging higher rates and experience level.
Peak Freelance’s freelance rate survey shows the same:
It makes sense why newbie writers don’t make as much as experienced freelancers.
It’s the same reason why people don’t pay the same amount for a grilled burger made by a college kid as they do for a meal made by a top-tier chef at a superb restaurant.
The first-time griller and celebrity chef have vastly different ranges of experience, kitchen training, and culinary knowledge.
It takes time to build a writing network, produce results for clients, and fine-tune content marketing and writing skills.
I think it’s safe to say the only writers who make over $100K in their first year of freelancing drink unicorn tear smoothies for breakfast. For the rest of us, it’s normal—and perfectly acceptable—to start small and grow each year from there.
As you continue to work hard, practice every day, and grow your business, you’ll leave your metaphorical burger-flipping days behind you. Clients will flock to you in search of a delicious meal (article)—and they’ll pay up without hesitation.
The three pieces of advice I like to shell out concerning your rates are:
- Don’t work for free
- Don’t accept exploitative assignments
- Raise your rates by 10% with every new client you get
Remember how much money you make freelancing—especially during your first year—isn’t the end-all-be-all metric for success.
Instead, ask yourself whether or not you’re gaining more expertise, acquiring better clients, and moving forward with your long-term goals.
Above all, remember freelancing is a journey and you’re not in it alone
I’ve been freelancing for over ten years now. It’s been a journey with a lot of ups and downs. And, I’ve had a lot of help along the way from my spouse, freelance writing friends, excellent editors, and communities—like Marketing Twitter & Peak Freelance.
But, it’s also been a dream come true. I finally have the career that I desperately wanted in my 20s. It’s a career that allows me to stay home with my family, pursue my passions, travel, and meet a lot of cool people.
If you need extra help growing your business, may I suggest joining a formal community like Peak Freelance?