10 Top Tips for The Successful Freelancer

    successful freelancer - man at desk

    Freelance writing is a wonderful profession — combine the thrill of writing with the freedom of working on your own schedule, and it’s almost a can’t-miss combo. I did it for many years (just stopped in the last couple months) and it was an ideal second job for me.

    But whether you want to just earn some extra income as a successful freelancer or you want to eventually make it a full-time profession, everybody’s gotta start somewhere. And breaking in as a freelancer can be intimidating to newcomers.

    Recently reader Erika wrote:

    “I was wondering if you had any suggestions about how I might go about querying publishers about freelance proofreading and editing positions. I have been working with an educational publisher on a freelance basis, but they only publish twice a year and I want to branch out to help supplement my income. So far I’ve sent queries out to about five publishers, but haven’t heard anything back.”

    That’s a tough question, because as in any field, breaking in isn’t easy. Obviously it can be done, as many other have done before you, but it’ll take some hard work. Here are my suggestions:

    1. Find mentors. When I first started out in journalism, I had about 3 different experienced journalists who took me under their wing. I know, that’s a lot of wings to be under at once, but I definitely was helped by their incredible generosity. Later, when I became a freelance writer, I talked to several other freelancers to get their insights and advice. You can make it as a freelancer without a mentor, but there’s no doubt that mentors give you a boost.
    2. Cast a wide net. It’s not enough to send queries to just one or two (or even five) publications when you’re just starting out. If you don’t already have a lot of experience, you’ll get rejected a few times. Just expect it, and move on. But to increase your odds of success, send queries as many people as possible — 10-20 would be better.
    3. Don’t be afraid to follow up. If you’ve sent out your queries and you don’t hear anything in a week, don’t be afraid to send a follow-up email or call. Don’t nag them too much, but persistence pays off in these cases. It shows that you’re serious and that you are going to do what it takes to get the job done. Be polite and professional in your follow-ups, however.
    4. Get experience. Editors want to see experience. If you only have one gig previously, you’ll want to build up more experience. Take on some low-paying gigs just to get more experience under your belt. In the beginning, it helps to have a day job to pay the bills, so that the money doesn’t matter much. Once you’ve had a little experience, you can move to better jobs.
    5. Educate yourself. It’s smart to be honest with yourself in the beginning — you don’t know as much as the more experienced freelancers. So instead of despairing, do something about it. There are a lot of great sites on the Internet (besides this one, one of my favorites is FreelanceSwitch, but there are other good ones too). Or read this must-have ebook: How to Be A Rockstar Freelancer.
    6. Sharpen your skills. This goes along with educating yourself, but the more you write in the beginning, the better. That’s not just for the experience — writing more makes you better at it. And write a broad range of stuff, from newspaper pieces to various styles of magazine articles to blog posts (guest post for lots of blogs if possible) to newsletters to brochures and more. Experiment with your writing, from different types of ledes to various types of storytelling to humor to emotion.
    7. Start a blog. A blog always helps. It’s like a much-improved resume, and shows off your writing/editing skills. Don’t just blog about personal stuff — make it a showcase for your best writing. If you do a great job and grow a readership, it’ll be a launching pad for all kinds of other opportunities.
    8. Copy other successful freelancers. Mimic the styles of others, just for practice. Read a lot of great writers, from fiction to journalists to your favorite magazine writers. Then steal their best stuff and make it your own.
    9. Tell the world. When you’re first looking for gigs, it helps to send out an email to everyone you know, from friends and family to business colleagues, letting them know you’re for hire. This helps you to get the word out and might even net you a few jobs. Post it on your blog as well, along with any other forums or social networks you participate in. Don’t spam, but don’t be afraid to tell people either.
    10. Be professional. In every interaction with potential clients, with interviewees, with anyone in your field or in a related profession, you need to act professionally. You are building a rep as a pro. Also have a business card (and again, a website or blog) and other ways to show that you’re serious about the business.

    I hope these tips on getting started as a successful freelancer will kickstart your freelancing career.

    Photo courtesy of heipei

    About the author

      Mary Jaksch

      Mary Jaksch is best known for her exceptional training for writers at WritetoDone.com. Grab her latest all new course Blogwriter's Bootcamp 2.0 or a copy of her free report, How to Create an Irresistible Lead Magnet in Less Than 5 Hours. In her “spare” time, Mary’s also the brains behind AlistBlogging.net. and GoodlifeZEN.com, a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

    • Niche Pro says:

      Great tips, thanks for inspiring me!

    • Great tips! Finding a mentor is key in any entrepreneurial-type venture. The thing that I struggled with for the longest time was “how the heck to I find a good mentor and get them to help me.”

      Here’s what worked for me.

      Find someone who is already very successful at what you want to do. Get to know them personally and use your smarts and creativity to find ways to help them become more successful. Even if you have no experience, your interest and commitment to their success will pay you back 10 fold. Trust me. This has worked on multiple occasions for me. You simply have to go after it!

    • These are some great tips! I’ve been a freelancer since August 2007, and have been lucky- because of my connections it has not been hard to find work. However, things are slowing down, and I’m looking to find some more clients within the next few months. Thanks for all the suggestions!

    • Leo Babauta says:

      @Brad Lawless: Hmm … I was suggesting them all on the same topic, but it’s actually better to tailor your queries for the specific publication. Actually, you don’t need to do 10-20 if 5 queries works for you … I was suggesting widening the search if a narrower one wasn’t working. Start narrow and then widen if necessary.

    • Brad Lawless says:


      You recommend sending out 10-20 queries at a time. Are these all simultaneous queries on the same topic, or are they queries on 10-20 different ideas?

      Many thanks….

    • Lori B says:

      Yes, Jesse, you are wrong. Publishers do not have in-house proofreaders and copyeditors; that work is historically subcontracted to freelancers. They do have in-house production managers who do spot proofreading and proof checking.

      Wow. Well, I’m unsubscribing to this blog. I have to say I’m extremely disappointed in the content, the link-baity numbered lists, the quality of the comments, the fact that comments are not being responded to by the blogger, and the general “HEY DIGG ME, HEY LOOK AT MY BLOG TOO” flavor of both posts and comments. Yuck.

    • I spent several years as a freelance journalist before moving into marketing. I wrote a detailed article about how to get started which people seem to find useful. How to be a freelance journalist.

    • Great tips, I’ve been looking for some good writing tips as I just started a new blog. I’m definitely bookmarking this site. =)

    • I think it’s much more difficult to get freelance proofreading and editing positions than it is to get freelance writing jobs. I say I think because I’ve never tried to get a proofreader or editor spot, but I have tried to get writing jobs.

      From my experience in freelance writing for various publications, most of them probably have their own in-house proofreaders and, certainly, editors.

      I think they’re much more likely to outsource the actual reporting and writing of articles than they would be to let an outsider edit them. Publications want to retain their own voice and editorial standards, and they probably feel they can do that better on their own.

      But I could be wrong. I’m speaking as a freelance writer.

    • These are good tips to get started. Thanks for the encouraging words.

    • Great article.

      From the start of 2008 I have called myself a freelance writer and passionate blogger. It was scary to say it at first but now I am getting used to it. Whilst I’m not getting paid huge sums at the moment a girl has to start somewhere.

      I believe if I keep calling myself a freelance writer then I will begin to believe it and then others hopefully will.

      I’m a believer in what you put out there you get back so I write guest articles for many blogs to build my skills and establish a history.

      Whilst this may not be the most financially sensible decision I am passionate about writing and the urge just won’t go away so I am trusting all will be fine.

      I’ve also just enrolled in a 12 month writing program to fine tune my grammar and other skills.

      Peace, love and chocolate

      Carole Fogarty


    • Lori B says:

      i don’t actually think this is great advice for erika. (i have been enjoying your blog otherwise.) she is looking for freelance proofreading and copyediting gigs, not writing, so much on your list does not apply – it is obviously written to freelance writers (“the more you write”, etc.).

      one gig is plenty sufficient if you have done multiple jobs for that educational publisher. i disagree that you should take low-paying gigs for “experience”. if you are already doing the work for one publisher, that’s as good as it gets. build from there. don’t waste your work hours as a freelancer doing things that don’t make you money.

      i’ve worked both as a freelancer and a production manager, and my advice is

      – ask your current production manager for (1) a reference and (2) recommendations for other people to call for work. production people jump from publisher to publisher and they always know people at other companies. if you have done good work for them, they will give you a couple leads.

      – also, always let your current client know you are looking for more work! they may have other opportunities (e.g., working on periodicals) at the same company OR at a sister company – publishing companies buy and sell each other so frequently, there may be some other branch you could work for.

      – cold call. don’t send anything in the mail for this type of work. production managers get tons of resumes and they all go straight to the circular file (meaning, the trash can). don’t e-mail. call and be polite and professional and say “i work for X publisher and i am looking for more work”. i worked as a copyeditor and proofreader for years and i have gotten 90% of my jobs this way. call at least two people every day – NOT at the very beginning of the day when they are feeling frazzled, and NOT at the very end when they are rushing. i like 10:00 a.m. – early enough that you’re not making them feeling like you’re ruining their chances to get their work finished by lunch.

      if your current production manager gave you a name or even just suggested another company, be sure to mention them by name, i.e., “my name is erika whatever. i am a freelance copyeditor and proofreader, and i am looking for new work. jane smith at thompson suggested i give you a call.”

      – for God’s sake, if you do send a letter or an e-mail, proofread it, then DOUBLE proofread it. if you are applying for a job as a copyeditor or proofreader, you cannot afford even one tiny error.

      hope this helps.

    • Allena says:

      At http://www.freelancewrite.about.com I have an entire section on “How to Get Started.”

      The original reader is going about it the wrong way- it’s hard enough to get work through cold calling, which is essentially what you’re doing, let alone breaking in through cold calling. Instead of heading blindly toward those who may or may not be hiring, you should instead look toward those who are looking around for editors/proofreaders. Look at job lists, etc.

      I have a list of ten places to find freelance jobs on my website too.

      Another solid jobs aggregator is http://www.freelancewritinggigs.com. I do recommend that you start your own bookmark system of places to get freelance jobs, once you get started these places.

    • Any experience with the freelance bidding sites for writing? It’s hard to sort out what’s legit from what might not be.

    • Jeniffer says:

      Great tips, especially the follow up tip.
      So many times, people fire off letters and resumes for whatever they want in their life, whether it be employment, volunteer work, freelancing–whatever–then just sit around waiting for the phone to ring.
      Follow up–so many don’t, that it may be just the thing to get you noticed aside from the pack.

    • Jason R says:

      I’m also interested in “breaking into” proofreading/copy editing. I’ve been volunteering my time with selfmadechick.com, just for some experience. It’s been great. I’m trying to get the word out about my services, and you’re right, it’s tough.
      But, it’s good to see that I’m slowly taking just about every step that you mention. I definitely need to get my blog set up. I’ve been putting it off for months now, but I finally see how important it is.
      Thanks again for the great tips!!

    • Stomchi says:

      Really from your article i came to know that freelancing is also a best way to earn money online. It would be better if I would get some more information regarding how to earn money online.

    • Eamon.Mack says:

      I’ve bought How to Become a Rockstar Freelancer as a result of this article. I need every bit of help I can get. Thanks for a very insightful article.

    • As a college student in the process of setting up a casual side-career in freelance design/writing, tips like these have always helped. I second the vote for How To Become a Rockstar Freelancer, too. Thanks for posting!

    • e3941297e17226345b367b4f61e62e3e98e44947f806b5be70