Have you ever gotten halfway through a project before realizing there was a much better way of doing it? That’s what happened to me, except that instead of a single project it was seven years of working as a writer. Yikes.
Hindsight is 20/20, but if you know what to look for, there’s always time to make changes and get on the right track. The earlier, the better!
My goal with this article is to help you identify some areas where you could be working smarter as a new freelance writer, so you don’t repeat the mistakes I made starting out.
Here are three things I wish I did when I started out freelance writing and how you can start doing them today:
1. Build a Published Portfolio
Most freelance writers start out with ghostwriting contracts. It’s a great gig, but there’s a catch:
As a ghostwriter, you don’t get authorship credits for your work.
When you’re starting out, this doesn’t feel like a big problem. As long as I’m getting paid, why do writing credits matter?
The problem shows up later when you try to apply for more advanced contracts. At a certain point, clients you’re pitching start asking for a portfolio of your published work. They don’t want a collection of PDF or Docx files; they want to see articles published on reputable websites with you listed as the author.
What’s so special about published work?
Think of a published portfolio as a verifiable public record of your work. Not only can clients see the work itself, but they can also look at:
- How well the page ranks on Google
- The prominence of the publisher
- How your content fits in a real-world scenario
- Quality of the linked sources and references
It’s easier for a client to see the value you’re offering when they can look at your work in its proper context. Published articles are the best way to do that.
I learned this lesson the hard way. While I only ran into the need for published articles occasionally as I was growing my career, I was still able to build enough steady clients to cover the gaps for a while without authorship credits.
At some point, I had to take an extended break from work and when I returned, I tried to jump right back into what I’d been doing before. Unfortunately, the steady clients I had been working with moved on and there weren’t any new leads in the pipeline.
When I looked for new opportunities at my level, every client required a portfolio of published work that I couldn’t provide. After seven years of work, I only had a handful of articles published under my own name, and it wasn’t the work I was most proud of.
How to build a portfolio of published work
From the very start of your writing career, seek out opportunities to publish under your own name. There are a few ways to do this:
- Publish your own content
Whether it’s on your own website, an online portfolio site, Medium, or even LinkedIn, it can be valuable to write and publish your own content regularly from early in your career. You may even be able to build an audience of your own and get new clients that way.
- Pitch for guest posts
Pitching is intimidating, especially when you’re just starting out, but it’s a valuable skill to learn. Submitting a few good pitches every month could result in a handful of published posts throughout the year. Quality trumps quantity here.
- Ask long-term clients for publishing credits
If you work with the same client for a while and things are going well, they might be willing to give you a project with authorship credentials, if they have access to it. It never hurts to ask!
It’s hard to stress just how important published work is for a freelance writer. This is your chance to create a track record of your success. Make sure you have something to show for all your hard work! Your future self will thank you for it.
2. Ask for a Higher Rate
One of the trickiest things to figure out when you start freelancing is how much to charge your clients for your service. It takes time to refine your pricing model. Don’t make the mistake of being too timid to raise your rates when it makes sense.
Within my first year of writing, I had no frame of reference for how much to charge. I was so hesitant to increase my rate because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find new clients at a higher rate. Was my work even good enough to justify more than what I was already charging?
I got the push to increase my rates from a very unlikely source: one of my clients!
I’ll never forget that moment. We had been working together for a few months and this client was very happy with the blog posts I’d been sending them. Their words were something to the effect of:
“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but you should be charging a lot more for your work!”
When the person paying for your service is telling you that it’s worth more than what you’re charging, a rate increase is long overdue. Don’t let it get to that point.
Testing the limits of your rates
When should you consider raising your rates? Here’s what I’ve learned to look for:
- You’re getting more work than you can handle
An abundance of work doesn’t necessarily mean your rates are too low, but it can indicate that people would be willing to pay more for what you’re offering in order to get your dedicated attention. While higher rates can reduce your leads, you’ll be walking away with more from every project and you might end up with a roster of serious clients who are willing to pay for a job well done.
- Clients aren’t negotiating your prices down
If I’m negotiating terms with a new client and they don’t even hesitate when I mention my rates, that tells me the project cost is probably lower than their budget. If this is happening to you regularly, you could be charging under-market rates for the service you’re offering.
- You’re applying for larger, more in-depth projects
When you’re moving into more advanced projects, your rates should move forward with you. Complex projects take up more of your time and require a specific skill set you have that others may not. Even if the deliverable seems basic to you, the overall complexity of the project should play into your rates.
- You’re including more value-add services along with your writing
Whenever you’re asked to take extra steps in the content creation process, that’s a value-add that should be included in your pricing. A lot of clients try to sneak these things in by mentioning them as if they’re no big deal. (It’s called scope creep — and you don’t want it!)
“You can just upload this to my WordPress site when you’re done, right? And input the metadata, optimize the keywords for my SEO plugin, add images, and create a short blurb for my socials?”
Those are all reasonable requests for a client to make to their writer. BUT, value-add services like these should be included in the negotiations and factored into your rates. Everything your clients are asking you to do for free is something they would either have to pay someone else to do or spend their own time doing.
- You haven’t changed your rates in over a year
Inflation happens. Market rates change. Don’t get too attached to your prices! Do a little research every year and see if it’s time to raise your rates to keep up.
I’m not saying you need to raise your rates every time you encounter one of these situations. The idea is that you need to keep your rates flexible instead of getting stuck at an arbitrary price point. When your skills grow and the value you offer your clients increases, your rates should gradually move up as well, just like they would if you were working a traditional job for an employer.
Make a point of regularly pushing the limits of your rates. During negotiations, start at a higher price point than before and see how your leads respond to it. This is how you slowly raise your price floor, even if you don’t always get jobs at your highest asking rate.
3. Reinvest to Upskill
Upskilling is important for advancing in any career field. As a freelance writer, you have a lot of room for growth.
As you apply for better jobs and larger projects with higher budgets, clients will have higher expectations of you. You can’t just coast on your writing skills forever if you want to keep advancing.
Learning must be a continuous part of your career progression. I recommend setting aside a little bit of what you earn from every contract to fund courses, certifications, learning platform subscriptions, tools, or other learning resources.
While this has been part of my strategy for the last few years, I wish I had started from day one. There were too many projects that took longer because of extra research, too many clients I had to turn down, and way too many hits to my confidence when I realized my peers were eons ahead of me in what they could offer as a value-add alongside their writing!
How do you start upskilling?
The most practical thing you can do to start your upskilling journey is to look for free learning resources that are directly relevant to the type of work you’re doing now or the kind of work you want to be doing.
Free resources can get you part of the way there, but you’ll need to start investing in quality courses at some point to get past the basics. Wade in a little to get a feel for what’s worth the money and what’s a waste of time for you.
There are a lot of skills that work well in tandem with writing. If you don’t know where to start, here are a few areas that are always practical to expand your prospects as a freelance writer:
- Search engine optimization (SEO)
- Google Analytics
- WordPress content management
- Pitching and sales copy
- Email marketing
- Social media marketing
- Business plan, case study & other formal business writing
- CV/resume writing
- Scriptwriting for video content
- Basic HTML & CSS
- Basic graphic design
- News-style writing, including AP style & press releases
This is just a tiny taste of what’s out there for you to learn!
These days, you’ll always find me with a few workbooks around my desk full of notes from whatever course I’m going through at that moment. It could be anything from botany to color theory, but it’s all working together to bring me closer to where I want to go with my career.
What do you want your career to look like in the future? Where do you want to be in 5-10 years?
Upskilling broadens your horizons and opens more opportunities for growth that you might not have had before. Whatever skills you need to reach your goals, set up a learning track and get started now.
Work smarter — NOW
Don’t wait until you’re seven years deep in your career to find out there was a better way of doing things all along. Even if it’s uncomfortable or difficult, start looking for publishing opportunities, examining your pricing model, and upskilling.
The benefits you’ll get from each of these three actions compound over time. By starting early in your career, you’ll see the fruits of your labor sooner and you’ll set up a solid foundation for growth in the future.
About the author
Christine Smith has been a full-time freelance writer since 2014. She writes about business, remote work, real estate, finance, and gardening. Check out more from Christine at her website, or connect on LinkedIn.