Today’s contribution comes from Tom Corson-Knowles, an international bestselling author of 27 books including The Kindle Publishing Bible.
Take it away, Tom!
Belief is one of the biggest obstacles that stops people from earning a good income as freelance writers, side hustlers, and entrepreneurs.
You can always find people who will tell you that you can’t do it, that all writers are starving artists, that your business is doomed to fail, and that you better keep your day job if you want to survive…
But, if you look around, you’ll also find many people who have made it, proven that you can earn a great living in any business or profession, and shown that even a crazy-sounding business idea or project can be profitable if you’re willing to do the work.
Being a freelance writer is an amazing way to put your love of words to use while bringing in a nice chunk of change on the side.
So let’s talk about how you can build a sustainable and thriving side hustle as a writer.
Just follow this step-by-step guide and you’ll be well on your way to earning your first $1,000 as a freelance writer.
1. Define Your Niche
While you might be great at writing on a variety of topics, it’s easiest to break into the freelance writing scene if you focus on a narrow sector at first and build your reputation there.
Picking a niche helps you make more money because it makes it easier for potential clients to say “yes” to you because you’re different than every other writer out there.
Don’t worry, you can always branch out into other niches as you gain experience and publish examples of your work.
To figure out the best niche for you to start in, you’ll need to consider two factors: passion and placement.
What do you absolutely love? I’m not just talking about writing here—this can be any hobby, subject area, or activity that you truly enjoy.
- What do you love to do in your spare time?
- What helps you unwind?
- What would you do all day if you won the lottery and didn’t have to work anymore?
- What subject do you love talking to people about?
Make a list of your Top 10 passions. This is the starting place for finding your niche!
Nick’s Notes: Skiing, travel, sports, podcasting, blogging, marketing, productivity, health… If “passion” is too strong a feeling for you, just list things you’re interested in, excited about, or even curious to learn more about.
If you’re not passionate about (or at least interested in) your niche, you won’t produce the quality of work required to become a highly paid writer and you probably won’t be able to sustain your career.
Consistency is the key to success in business, and passion makes staying consistent inspiring instead of draining.
The second thing to consider is Placement. Now it’s time to go through that list and find out what will be a potentially lucrative writing area for you.
For each of the 10 passions on your list, go find 10 publications that cover that topic. These can be blogs or websites, newspapers, weeklies, magazines, trade journals, or industry publications—the sky’s the limit.
Nick’s Notes: Try a search like ‘blog: keyword’ or ‘magazine: keyword’ to build your list.
Shoot for a mix of well-known, popular publications and more obscure outlets. For example, if you love cooking, you might include publications like Serious Eats and iSante Restaurant Professionals Magazine.
Were you able to get to 10 publications for every passion on your list? Great! If not, consider crossing off the ones that didn’t make it—there’s either not enough outlets or you’re not passionate enough to do deep research on the publications.
Either way, it means you won’t be able to make a good living writing on that topic.
Narrow It Down
Now that you have a list of at least 100 places that will buy writing about things you love to discuss, you can narrow down the field!
When you were researching the various publications, which ones stood out to you as places you’d love to see your work?
Was there a topic where you seemed to breeze through the research phase?
If so, you’ve found your passion and your niche!
If not, pick the topic that seems to have the least competition. For example, if you’re passionate about both Italian cuisine and Thai yoga, you’re probably going to have an easier time establishing yourself in the smaller Thai yoga market, so that’s the best niche to start in.
2. Set Up Your Business Plan
Starting a side hustle as a freelance writer means having a business.
And having a business means having a business plan.
No, that’s not just something that tech startups and manufacturing companies have to have—it’s a good idea to write up a business plan for anything you do that you plan to make money for.
Now, I don’t mean that you have to write a detailed 30-page treatise on how you intend to scale to become a world-conquering writing empire (although that would be cool to post on your website to attract new clients).
At its core, a business plan just lays out:
- what you intend to do,
- how you intend to do it,
- and what you want the results to be.
It lets you check in with yourself to make sure you’re on track to achieve your goals, and adjust as needed.
So take the time to write down some goals and plans. Since we’re talking about making your first $1k as a freelance writer, let’s make that the Year 1 business plan goal.
Nick’s Notes: $1k in a year not exciting for you? How about $1k in the next 45 days.
How do you plan to meet that goal?
Will you write and submit 3 articles a month to major magazines? Write a combination of low-paid blog posts and industry journal articles, then work your way up to national magazines?
What kinds of research and marketing will you do to support your progress?
Think of your business plan as a roadmap to get you to where you’re looking to be as a freelance writer. Give yourself 3-month, 6-month, and 1-year goals and check-in points, and adjust your plan as needed at each of them.
3. Hang Out Your Shingle
The best business plan in the world will get you nowhere if people don’t know you’re available to hire!
Once you know your niche and have set some goals for your writing side hustle, you need to let the world know that you’re in business.
Your Freelance Writing Website
Start by setting up your own website highlighting your work as a writer.
This doesn’t have to be super-complicated—but you need it to be able to show off your portfolio and let people know how to hire you.
Nick’s Notes: Here’s how I quickly and cheaply built a nice-looking site for my service business.
There are four key sections to your website:
- Hire Me
Your About section should be professional and straightforward—you don’t need to tell potential clients about your All Star Gaelic Football Championship medal. Focus instead on your professional accomplishments and what makes you uniquely qualified to write in your niche.
Your Portfolio section features highlights of your professional writing work. Post links and/or PDFs of some of your best writing so that potential clients can see what you’ve done for others.
Nick’s Notes: Don’t have a portfolio yet? This is where your personal projects come into play. Remember, everybody starts at zero. Tom has more on building your portfolio below.
Try to give a range of examples, showing that you can write in different styles: conversational blog post, scholarly article, authoritative white paper, technical industry brief, etc.
The most important section of your website is the Hire Me area. This is where you tell readers exactly how to work with you. Make it easy and straightforward—put up a simple contact form for their name, email, topic, and brief message so that there’s no difficulty getting in touch.
Nick’s Notes: I’d also include your email address or even a Google Voice phone number. Whenever I see a contact form, it doesn’t give me a lot of confidence the message goes to an inbox that’s actually monitored.
If you’re comfortable doing so, you can even include a rate table so that people know what you charge for, say, a blog post vs. a feature print magazine article.
Nick’s Notes: On writing service sites like GhostBlogWriters or Scripted.com you can see the menu of pricing options based on the type and length of the content. Alternatively, services like CopywriterToday offer a fixed price monthly subscription model.
The Contact section of your site can just redirect to your Hire Me page, but you should definitely have a “Contact Me” or “Contact” link on your website’s main menu so that visitors can immediately contact you without having to click a bunch of links to figure out which page they can actually do that on.
The easier you make it for people to work with you, the more jobs you’ll get!
Now that your website is up and running, grab that URL and use it when you’re filling out freelance profiles on major sites.
At a minimum, you’ll want to make sure that you have a presence on LinkedIn, Upwork, and Fiverr. There are also specialty sites for writers like Contena where you may want to start an account. (Use coupon code Sidehustle15 for 15% off Contena any membership!)
Nick’s Notes: I actually connected with my first freelance editing clients on Fiverr. Here are some additional resources related to those platforms:
- Unlocking LinkedIn: Secrets to Grow Your Email List, Expand Your Network, and Build Your Business
- How to Get Freelance Clients (Tips from a Professional Hypnotist), with Jesse Gernigin
- How I Earned $7490 in My First 14 Months on Fiverr (and my plans to double it)
In your freelance site profiles, be sure to highlight what niche you’re writing in and include a link to your website portfolio. Mention any major publication credits you have, like having your writing appear on a well-known website like HuffPo.
Set up social media profiles for your new writing business. Some writers like to fold everything into one—their personal Twitter is also their professional one—and others prefer to keep things separate (so that clients don’t see what they were doing last Saturday night).
The choice is yours, based on what you’re comfortable with—but you should be active on at least one social media site to both promote your writing and find new clients.
Let your social networks know that you’ve started a writing side hustle and ask for referrals. You’d be amazed how many writing jobs come from people you know, who happen to know someone at a website who needs a guest post or an article written.
Put the word out to your network, post links to articles you’ve written, share what other writers have done, and start building a community in your niche.
Before you know it, you’ll have people approaching you with writing jobs. They’ll be small at first, but as you get more established, the sky’s the limit!
Nick’s Notes: I’ve seen this work firsthand in several Facebook Groups I’m a part of.
4. Build Your Portfolio
Almost every professional writing gig will ask to see samples of your published work. When you’re just starting out, that can seem like a horrible chicken-and-egg problem: how do you get paying writing jobs when you have to show examples of published work to get them?
If you don’t yet have any paid examples to show, that’s okay! There are some creative ways you can get the clips you need to land paying jobs, including writing for your own site and contributing free articles to other blogs or sites in your space.
Blogging is a fantastic way to get publication credits.
You can start your own blog (on that shiny new website of yours!) in order to show that you can adhere to a regular writing schedule and produce quality work consistently.
You can also offer to write guest posts for other sites, preferably in your freelance writing niche.
Guest posts are a great way to spread the word about what you do and to help establish yourself as an expert in your field.
At first, you may have to write those guest posts for free—but honestly, that’s okay. You need publication credits in order to prove that you’re a reputable professional, and you can look at guest posts as a form of marketing for your freelance writing business. They’re sure cheaper than taking out Google ads!
Nick’s Notes: I wrote a dozen or more guest posts before I landed my first paid writing gig. In the early days I did articles on sites like Self Employed King, Firepole Marketing, Brazen Careerist, YFS Magazine, Time Management Ninja, and several others.
Approach some of the blogs in your niche you wrote down during Step 1 and offer to write a post for them. Next thing you know, you’ll have some published articles to add to your website portfolio and show prospective clients!
Nick’s Notes: In this episode, Kimanzi Constable shared some of the guest posting tactics he used when approaching popular sites.
You can also trade content writing work for design work, like getting your logo or website designed.
This gives you a great way to get some referrals and publication credits while also getting something more than just the dreaded “exposure” in return.
Help a graphic designer friend redo the content on their website in exchange for a new logo for your writing business; you can then list that website content as a copywriting example in your portfolio!
Heck, branch out and offer to write content for a local restaurant in exchange for a meal or swap writing a few blog posts for a professional massage. Plenty of people are open to trading services if you demonstrate that you’re both going to benefit from it.
Once you have a few samples of your work to show, think about approaching some businesses or publications about contingent work.
Basically, you’re offering to work for free to start with—but only for businesses with reasonable budgets. You create a pre-sale agreement stating that if they like your work, they’ll hire you for a paid project afterwards.
By doing this, you’re demonstrating to the business that you believe so strongly in the value you’ll add for them that you’re willing to give them a free sample to prove it. You’re confident that they’ll love your results and will want to keep working with you.
The key to this strategy is to absolutely knock it out of the park with that first assignment. Get your work done ahead of schedule, with the best possible quality, and be communicative and professional through the whole thing.
Once your prospective client sees how easy and professional you are to work with, they’ll have no qualms about hiring you for the next job—and probably more after that!
When you create the pre-sale contingency agreement, be sure to define the scope of the work carefully, as well as what “liking” your work means. You’re going to give the client a great piece of writing, naturally, but sometimes plans can go awry and businesses might balk due to budget requirements and try to claim that you didn’t meet the scope of their project and so they don’t have to follow through on giving you that paid assignment.
To prevent this, your agreement should outline all your client’s expectations and all your duties, as well as fully covering the scope of work (including revisions) that you’re expected to do.
With that in place and a great trial assignment nailed down, you should be able to sign your first regular writing client with this technique!
5. Find Paid Assignments
With a solid portfolio in place, you can start approaching different outlets for paid work.
Thanks to Step 1, you already have a list of 10 good outlets for writing in your primary niche.
But you can also find writing work through a variety of websites. For leads, check out:
- Contena (Use code holidaywriters15 for 15% off your membership for life! Offer expires December 1st.)
- Media Bistro
- Writers Weekly
- Freelance Writing Jobs
You’ll find both general content marketing and writing gigs and niche-specific leads that will help you establish yourself as an expert in your area.
How to Write a Great Publication Pitch
When you’re ready to pitch your article ideas to well-known publications, there’s one key strategy that can put you head and shoulders above the competition: targeting.
Magazine and website editors are crazy busy. They get dozens of pitches each and every day, most of which are some variant of “I’d love to write for you on Generic Topic X.”
Guess how many of those pitches actually get a paid assignment?
Nick’s Notes: I get these pitches all the time and they get universally ignored!
Give yourself an edge by giving the editor a break. When you pitch a new outlet, do your research and find out just what they’re looking to publish.
For websites, check out their trending topics or most-liked posts and create a targeted pitch that fits that theme. Present the editor with a list of 2-3 article ideas with a headline and a 3-4-sentence summary for each. It’ll make it practically a no-brainer for the editor to say “yes” to working with you.
Nick’s Notes: This is exactly what Tom did when pitching this post. He made it easy to say yes!
Want to write for print publications? Check the editorial calendar of magazines in your niche for upcoming themes. You can usually find these on the magazine’s website by googling for “MAGAZINE TITLE + editorial calendar.”
Nick’s Notes: I was actually surprised that magazine publish this and how easy it was to find! Here’s what I found for a cooking magazine’s future editions:
Most editorial calendars include a contact email for pitches; send in your best article ideas related to that theme, and include a few small pitches for “front of book” content that would fit one of the magazine’s regular departments in the first dozen pages of the magazine.
“Front of book” content like news briefs and new product reviews are a great way to establish a regular working relationship with a publication. Because they’re short and fairly interchangeable, these sections let the editor test out new writers and find out whether they’re a good fit for the magazine.
If you do well, you may get an assignment to write a longer column or one-page department; from there, your odds of being assigned a full feature story go up dramatically!
6. Put Pen to Paper
Or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be :)
Once you’ve got your first few gigs lined up, it’s time to start cranking out the words. All the background research and networking in the world won’t help you reach that first $1k if you aren’t actually getting the writing done.
Your article has to be solidly researched, excellently written, and delivered on time. Do that, and you’ll quickly start getting asked to do more work for those first clients.
You’ll also fill out your clips portfolio to show to other potential clients and start building word of mouth about your work.
Work on developing a regular writing practice: pick a set time of day when you’re going to sit down and write, no matter what. Don’t have an assignment right now? Write something anyway, then start submitting it to various publications.
The more you make writing a habit, the more efficient and effective you’ll get at it, just like with any other skill. You won’t need to be sitting at your desk at lunch pounding out an article for your side hustle because you’ve already blocked off space tomorrow morning after your run and before work to get 500 words written.
This kind of discipline can be hard to master at first, but it’s worth it in the end—the less stressed you are, the better your writing will be and the more of it you’ll be able to do, boosting your potential writing income!
7. Follow Up
Clicking “send” on your latest article isn’t the end of your work—either with the assignment or with the client.
Nick’s Notes: Jason Zook left me with a surprising fact in this conversation — that something like 70% of his sponsorship sales came on the follow-up.
In order to build a sustainable side hustle, you have to build relationships. And you do that by helping your client get extra value out of what you do (while helping boost your own profile at the same time).
Successfully completed your writing assignment and have a new credit to share?
Link to it on your social media profiles, and especially LinkedIn. Help drive traffic to your client’s site—the more hits your article gets, the more likely they are to want to work with you again in the future, because you’ve proven to get results.
After a week or two, reach out to your client and ask if they’d be willing to write you a testimonial for your website or LinkedIn. They might decline (usually because they’re too busy), but it’s a good way to open the door to discussing more work and other opportunities down the line.
Nick’s Notes: If you really want to make it easy for your client to leave you a testimonial, draft it for them. Then send that draft and welcome them to make any edits and for permission to use it. I guarantee you’ll have a much higher success rate!
If you’ve followed these steps, you’ve got a solid business plan, a niche to establish yourself in as a key player, and a solid batch of leads for real, paying clients. You may even have your first paying writing job or two lined up.
Keep applying the steps: search for leads, send out pitches, provide samples, write great articles, deliver on time, and follow up.
In no time, you’ll have earned your first $1k as a freelance writer!
About the Author
Tom Corson-Knowles is the international bestselling author of 27 books including The Kindle Publishing Bible, founder of TCK Publishing, a book publishing company with no fees specializing in digital marketing, and host of The Publishing Profits Podcast show.
Tom has taught more than 80,000 authors how to write, publish and market their books like professionals through his online training courses and programs including Ebook Publishing School, a free online training course that shows authors how to publish and launch their first book internationally.