How to Build a Successful Freelance Writing Business

By Ana Gotter

Aug 10
How to Build a Successful Freelance Writing Business

Ever since I officially started my freelance writing business, I’ve had people asking me how I did it. They want to know how I’ve built a portfolio, found clients, and learned everything I needed to know to keep it growing.

Essentially, they want to know how I built a successful writing business and how they can do the same.

Let me tell you…

About My Freelance Writing Business

Before we dive all the way in, it makes sense to give you details on my actual business.

I specialize in business writing (including content marketing) and nonfiction ghostwriting. I offer writing, editing, and content marketing services. I write mostly about social media and content marketing, but I’ve written in more than 23 niches, which include:

  • Weddings
  • Traveling & hospitality
  • Hiking, fishing, & camping
  • Finance
  • Mortgages and home buying
  • Pet care

I write blog posts, Ebooks, whitepapers, case studies, email copy, and site copy for businesses.

I edit everything from short stories to professional articles, and I ghostwrite nonfiction books (including creative memoirs). I choose these two specialties because 1) I genuinely love them, and 2) they’re extremely profitable, with some of the highest per-word rates.

Most of the time, when you hear about six figure freelancer writers, they do at least some ghostwriting or business writing.

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Getting Started With Freelancing

I graduated from Florida State University in 2012 with a degree in writing, and I knew that I didn’t care what type of writing I’d be doing as long as I was getting paid to do it. Just to have something to do right out of college, I went to work at Disney, and started applying for fulltime writing jobs in the meantime.

I applied to PR jobs, copywriting jobs, publishing houses, magazines, newspapers, and even local newsletters (where the pay was next to nothing). I tried everything.

And I never got so much as a call back.

The reason why was simple: I had no published samples, no portfolio, nothing I could definitively hold and say “see, this was good enough someone wanted to put it out into the world.

So I started freelancing to build up a portfolio, and did something I’m not entirely sure that I would recommend.

I found a job on Craigslist.

It was a gig to write about SEO, where I’d be paid $15 a post for 1,000 words. This later escalated to 2,000 words and ghostwriting without a fee increase.

My two days off a week from Kay Jeweler’s (my day job after Disney) went to writing these posts.

But it was still worth it, because it gave me samples to get started, which I was able to leverage to a job with a Facebook marketer.

I left Kay Jewelers in 2014 and became a “full time freelance writer.”

And that started a domino effect.

My main client had me write a guest post on Social Media Examiner, where thousands of people viewed my article in the first day. That’s when Max found me and contacted me to write for AdEspresso.

I started writing guest posts for both companies on multiple sites, and more and more people started contacting me. I set up a website, threw myself into my job, started the steady climb of raising my rates, and stopped looking at my writing as “just freelancing to get a ‘real job’” and instead as a very real business.

Finding Clients

I don’t actually find clients.

Most of my clients come to me. A whopping 92% of them, in fact.

Because I believe that statistics can help buffer any blog post, I ran a few numbers on my business, and this is what I found:

  • 57% of my clients have come to me as referrals from other clients
  • 31% of my clients find me after they’ve read one of my blog posts, and contacted me through my site or LinkedIn
  • 1% of my clients have come through LinkedIn Profinder
  • 4% of my work comes through Clearvoice
  • 7% of my work comes because I’ve answered calls for pitches or freelancers that I’ve seen on Facebook

Because most of my clients come to me, the business model that I use takes time to build. You definitely need to build up that momentum, and finding the first few clients and impressing them is often the hardest part.

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Improving Client Retention

I have an exceptionally high client retention rate, with a big chunk of anchor clients.

Another statistic: 94% of all clients who hire me will hire me at least two more times within the year.

Anchor clients significantly reduce the stress of worrying about income. A lot of clients tell me when they hire me that they’re sick of freelance writers who produce low-quality work and who never make deadlines.

A lot of my referrals tentatively add, “I’ve heard you were different.” By producing high quality work consistently and reliably, I am set apart from a big chunk of freelancers—and you can be, too.

Here’s how I have high client retention & referral rates:

  • I prioritize deadlines. This is one of the best things you can do. If I’ve hired you (and I do hire freelancers myself) and you miss your first deadline, I will never hire you again. Meeting your deadline shows clients that you’re reliable and that their project is important to you.
  • I guarantee quality. I include two rounds of revisions in my flat-rate prices, and I never half-ass the work that I do. Everything I take on gets my full attention, even if the projects might seem small. And while I work a lot (about 60-80 hours a week), I never overbook myself.
  • I value continued education. I just signed up for the Copyblogger course today, and I have multiple marketing certifications. I’ve also taken a number of non-certified writing courses, like Pitching Like a Honey Badger (which I recommend for every single writer), that can help me enhance my skillset.
  • I am flexible. I’m not so flexible with my rates, but I’m flexible with how the client wants to work with me. Do they want to approve an outline before I write? Do they want me to send it via a word document, or upload the content into the CMS myself? I’m happy to do whatever makes it easy for the client and so should you.

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How to Start a Freelance Writing Business

After talking to other freelancers, I started realizing that I could make real money doing this.

So I stopped looking for traditional employment, and threw myself into my business.

Trust me when I say that looking at freelancing as a business makes a huge difference—and it is a business.

For a lot of freelance writers, it makes up most of our income. Instead of just pitching and writing and getting paychecks on autopilot, we need to review contracts, track income, consider legal liability, and pay a lot of taxes.

There were a few things that I did that I highly recommend to everyone.

  • Launch a website. You need to make it easy for people to hire you. Since a lot of people find out about you after reading something you have written and then seek you out via Google, it’s important to have a way they can contact and hire you directly.
  • Get a business license. This makes it easier to get a bank account for your business, and an EIN. An EIN allows you to send out W-9s to your clients without needing to send your social security number on them.
  • Get a bank account for your business. Mine came with a VISA debit card for my business, and the two make it easier to monitor and track income and business expenses and set aside money for taxes.
  • Use Freshbooks invoicing software. I love Freshbooks. I’ll never run out of good things to say about it. The software helps you accurately track your income, send out professional, customizable invoices, track who has paid you and who hasn’t, and track business expenses. They have a lot more in-depth features, but that’s the gist. And my favorite part? You can give view-only access to your accountant.How to Build a Successful Freelance Writing Business -- expenses
  • Hire a CPA. My CPA is incredible and has ended up saving me money (even after their fees) by helping me find deductions I didn’t know about. Because my business is an LLC that elects to be taxed as an S-corp, I’d also probably make a lot of mistakes on my taxes that could land my business in trouble if it wasn’t for the CPA. Even though it’s expensive, it is a business expense, making it even more worth it.
  • Build your social presence. I’m admittedly a little bit late on this one; since I do so much ghostwriting, it’s hard to share a lot of my work on social media. I use my LinkedIn and Twitter for professional development purposes. Most people come to me on LinkedIn, but Twitter was another story. TribeBoost has been accelerating my follow rate significantly, which I can use to connect with potential new clients on Twitter.How to Build a Successful Freelance Writing Business -- social-chart

What About Content Mills?

I’m not a fan of Upwork; it’s exhausting to find good paying jobs, it takes a little while to get paid, and the fees are a nightmare. I pay more than enough in taxes already.

If you’re looking for sites to help you find work, I recommend Clearvoice and LinkedIn Profinder (in that order), which I talk about in-depth here. Clearvoice in particular has incredible clients who are professional, pay promptly, and pay well. Whenever I have some extra time on my schedule, it’s nice to know that I have some great resources to fill that slot of time up.

Here’s What Other Freelancers Have to Say

I reached out to my network of talented, devoted freelancers and asked them about how they built their businesses.

Fellow content marketer Cindy Marie Jenkins’ advice is to just “get yourself out there” and become established as the expert.

“Half of my new clients come organically out of workshops I run and from teaching. I learn about what people need and want. If you’re just beginning, know your niche topics, your minimums, and goalpost publications.”

Dahna Chandler is a well-rounded writer who has experience in copywriting, finance writing, and journalism. Her advice?

“Focus. Figure out what you’re getting the most interest from clients to write, and write more that than anything else. Use your experiences as a stepping-stone to better work. My long term goal is to do less writing for more money.”

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I believe that a strong reputation combined with dedication, education, and a strong skillset can help make a freelance writer’s career. Getting your foot in the door is the hardest part, but keeping it wedged there and fighting to get all the way through—and stay there—is a much more long-term challenge.

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Writer. Ghostwriter. Content marketer. Editor.

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