by Leslie Hancock
In my 20 years of freelancing, I've had many, many friends and professional acquaintances ask me, "How do I become a freelance writer?" It's a question I always struggle to answer because it really is a different journey for everyone who takes it. A lot depends on your financial situation (can you just quit your day job cold turkey and absorb the lost income while you build up your freelance clientele?); your work history (do you have relevant writing samples you can show to prospective clients?); your network (do you know other freelancers who can help you navigate this new world?); the industry for which you want to write (do you need advanced degrees or special training, like for medical writing?); the region you'd like to target (do you want to write for local companies only or work for anyone in the world?); and so on. But there are a few things you can do that seem to be almost universally helpful in getting started as a freelance writer.
Work In-house First
It really helps to work in-house somewhere doing exactly what you hope to do later as a freelancer. You'll need the industry contacts and referrals when you're on your own. You'll also need pieces for your portfolio, without which you will struggle mightily to get new clients.
Build a Portfolio
In my experience, it's almost impossible to get work from people who don't know you without an online portfolio of published work to show them. When you go independent, your portfolio becomes far, far more important than your resume or CV ever was. They no longer care so much about your education or your past roles. They want to see the proof, in print or in pixels, that you have what it takes.
What if you don't have anything to put in a portfolio, either because everything you've written is behind an NDA (nondisclosure agreement) or isn't relevant to the business you plan to start? Well, I'd say you shouldn't try to make the transition to full-time freelancing until you do. Seriously, I've watched so many talented writers bang their heads futilely against that wall that it's the first and strongest advice I give. Do whatever you need to -- volunteer to write for a non-profit or take ridiculously low pay or subcontract to someone else -- to get some legitimate, real, industry-relevant pieces out there. And if you're ghostwriting, don't forget to get permission from the client to reveal that you're the actual writer.
Build a Professional Network
As a solopreneur, you have to work especially hard on keeping up your professional network, both online and in person. It's really easy to retreat into your little freelancer world and let those contacts lapse or stop working to make new ones. But referrals are the freelancer's best marketing tool, and you won't get them if you don't keep up relationships and remain visible.
Leverage social media to build your personal brand and make contacts. Join local and national organizations that offer you continuing education and networking opportunities. (I belong to the Texas Freelance Association, for example.) Go to local meetups for writers, content marketers, business leaders and communicators. Go to conferences if you can. Join a coworking space. If none of these things exist in your area, start one. Get out of your bubble and be with people.
Making the transition to self-employment is more challenging for some than for others. There are many, many factors that make it more complicated than just deciding one day to quit your daily grind and live by your own rules. But it is absolutely the right decision for many of us who have found we thrive in this lifestyle, which is most assuredly not for everyone. Talk to full-time professional freelance writers before you make the leap yourself. Decide if it's for you, and be honest with yourself about your time management skills, your ability to tolerate feast-or-famine income cycles, your willingness to accept uncertainty, and so on. Assuming you're not being forced into freelancing because you got laid off and can't find a full-time job (or a similar high-urgency situation), give yourself the time to prepare for self-employment and lay a firm foundation for your new business (yes, you're starting a business) before letting go of the day job.