When I tell people what I do for a living, the most common reaction is to ask, “What is a freelance writer?”
There are so many skills that can be turned into a lucrative side gig, but none are more in-demand than writing. There is no industry that does not need talented writers to create content for advertising, social media, blog posts, website content, instruction manuals, and more.
The pace of modern society has driven a demand for written digital content that most organizations cannot keep up with on their own.
So the question, “what is a freelance writer?” does not have just one answer. Instead, freelance writing encompasses a whole host of tasks and skills. Different writers fill different roles, so the job varies based both on who is doing it and who they’re doing it for.
If you’re considering diving into the world of freelance writing, exploring what that means is a great place to start.
What is a freelance writer?
Freelance writing is creating content for others on a contract basis. You provide the written word, your clients provide you with payment.
Writing as a freelancer is different from writing for one specific company or from becoming an author, per se. Authors are generally paid based on the direct sales of the books they publish, with some exceptions.
Freelance writers, on the other hand, write for a variety of companies or individuals and are paid hourly, per project, or per word.
The income of writers varies across a pretty broad spectrum. They can make anywhere from $.01 per word to $90,000 per year, depending on how they structure billing, how much content they produce, and how much experience they have. ZipRecruiter reports that the average income of a freelancer writer in the US is $63,488 annually, although, if you’re a beginning writer, you probably won’t make that much right off the bat.
Types of freelance writers
Ok, you’re thinking, this article has gone over the broad strokes, but I still don’t really know—what is a freelance writer? We can’t really talk specifics without breaking down the question further. There are so many different kinds of writers, and while many of them have similar skill sets, they actually do vastly different work.
Here are just a handful of the different types of freelance writers and what they really do.
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Typically a copywriter is someone who produces formal copy for advertising materials or other publicity. This can encompass things like brochures, websites, email campaigns, and even videos. Freelance copywriters typically produce short-form, witty content. Most likely, their typical clients are ad agencies or small to mid-sized organizations without a dedicated marketing team.
A ghostwriter writes on behalf of other people without claiming authorship of the piece. Many books written by celebrities are ghost-written by someone else, and even much of the web content you see on major publishing sites from CEOs and thought leaders are written by ghostwriters. This is not to say that the thoughts are not original to the listed author, but writing may not be a strong talent for them, or their time is too limited to write their own articles. Ghostwriters will often conduct interviews in order to capture the ideas of their clients before starting a project.
No article discussing what is a freelance writer would be complete without mentioning blogging. Blogs—once a niche fad—have become their own unique empire, and most serious businesses have one. Blog writers must get used to a different, informal style, and be prepared to produce many, many articles on very similar topics without sounding redundant.
Since the launch of business pages on Facebook in 2007 (and maybe before that), social media has been one giant content vacuum. Every business, large or small, needs fresh posts every, single. day. That is a lot of writing that has to be done in a short amount of time. What is a freelance writer for social media? Someone creating all of those 150-character Twitter posts, clever Instagram captions, and countless other social media content daily. Social media writers must be quick and hyper-aware of current events.
Think Rory Gillmore or John Grogan of Marley & Me fame—a freelance journalist who covers news or writes columns for media outlets on a piece by piece basis. Many journalists are freelancers who write for multiple media outlets at the same time. Often, they cover their own costs upfront and pitch completed stories to the newspaper or magazine they wish to publish in and are paid after the fact. Some media organizations also hire freelancers upfront to cover a specific topic.
If we’re asking the question, “what is a freelance writer?” then adding technical writing to the list is probably a head-scratcher. That’s ok because technical writers are literally paid to simplify difficult concepts so that people who aren’t experts in a given field can understand the information. A freelance technical writer will spend their time creating instruction manuals, software menus, research briefs, and even press releases.
Pros and cons to being a freelance writer
If you love writing, you are probably past wondering, what is a freelance writer, and ready to answer the question—is freelance writing for me?
Like other fields, there are pros and cons of being a freelance writer, and it’s best to get a clear picture before deciding to shift your entire career.
- Flexibility: Freelancers work for themselves. This means you can have flexible hours, take on the number of projects that make sense for you, and often work from home.
- Potential: As a freelance writer, the only limit to your earning potential is you. There is no set salary or bureaucratic hoops to jump through in order to earn a promotion. If you have the talent and are willing to put in the work, you can continue to grow your client base and earn more money.
- Variety: I have found that as a freelance writer, the best part is that I get to write about so many different things! I am always learning something new, from the specifics of solar energy storage to how to care for trees. I pick and choose what projects are interesting to me, and I am never bored.
- Stability: Freelance writers are generally not hurting for work opportunities, but the reality is, as a freelancer, you are responsible for bringing in your own business. There is no guarantee that every month your paycheck will be steady.
- Work/Life Balance: Writing, even more than some other common freelance skills, is incredibly portable. While that does give you the flexibility to, say, work by the pool on vacation—it also means that you are working on vacation. It can be difficult to set boundaries between work and your personal time.
- Isolation: Freelancing is not for everyone. As a side gig, it may help pay the bills or allow you to pursue a passion. As a career, however, it can get lonely. Freelancers are responsible for everything: sales, project management, finances, and more. And there is not always a team to bounce ideas off of.
How to get started as a freelance writer
So, now you can fully answer the question, “what is a freelance writer?” and you have decided to pursue it. How do you start? Whether you are a beginner or an experienced professional, the process for starting out freelancing is pretty similar.
1. Develop a portfolio. You’ll need to showcase samples of your writing or create a freelance writing resume in order to persuade clients to hire you. If you don’t have professional samples, it is probably better to write spec pieces than to show student work.
2. Learn all you can. Check out professional writing websites, take a class and practice!
3. Reach out to your network. Talk to family and friends about your desire to take on contract work. Post on social media and even reach out to local businesses to see if you can fulfill their writing needs.
4. Find a niche. It is easiest to market yourself as a writer if you have a skill that no one else does or at least one that not every writer can do. Think about your favorite parts of writing, what you’re good at, and how you can build a career off of that, specifically.
5. Ask for referrals. Once you start to build a client base, be sure to let them know you are open to further work. Ask for written reviews you can share with prospective clients, or ask happy customers to mention your name to others looking for written work.
Where to find freelance writing jobs
If your personal and professional network fails you in finding enough work to keep you busy, there are other ways to find work.
So, what is a freelance writer, really? The formal definition, of course, is someone who writes for a living and works on a contract basis. However, as you can see, it’s really more than that.
A freelance writer loves to write. They have a passion for research, learning, and conveying information in a way that no one else has thought of. They have a signature style, and they are dedicated to creating the kind of content they themselves want to read.
Freelance writers, more than anything else, are storytellers. If you have a story to tell—the answer to the question, “what is a freelance writer?” just might be, you.
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