- Kat Boogaard is a freelance writer focused on careers, entrepreneurship, and productivity. She’s authored content for a number of different websites and brands, including The Muse, QuickBooks, Trello, Atlassian, Wrike, and more.
- When she took the leap five years ago from her full-time marketing position making around $30,000 to become a freelance writer, she wasn’t totally prepared.
- But the move ended up working out for the best. In 2018, she made almost $100,000.
- Her advice for other freelancers is to figure out what you’re really good at, network a ton, embrace your new identity, and be patient — being successful takes time, but it’ll happen if you work hard enough.
A little over five years ago, I took the leap from my full-time marketing position (where I was earning about $30,000 per year) and dove headfirst into a career as a freelance writer. I won’t bury the lead: I wasn’t the slightest bit prepared.
Thanks to the well-meaning advice of my parents (who are also small business owners), I had managed to set up an LLC and open a business checking account before jumping ship from my stable job. I had also scraped up about three months worth of living expenses to carry me while I got my business up and running.
But beyond that? I had nothing but a head full of ambitions. No back-up plans. No long list of clients. No major bylines I could hang my hat on. No big-city contacts (I live in Wisconsin). And no income or health insurance.
It was a terrifyingly uncertain experience, and I don’t recommend that other prospective freelancers follow the exact same path that I did (unless they’re game for a whole lot of nail biting and fruitless searching of their couch cushions and abandoned coat pockets for spare change).
But, for as humbling and rocky as getting started was, it was also incredibly enlightening. I had plenty of missteps, but here I am over five years later with a steady income, a regular roster of amazing clients, and a business I built from scratch.
Experience is the greatest (uhh … and most brutal) teacher, so I’m pulling together a few of my best lessons for other freelance hopefuls.
When I was getting started as a freelance writer, I wrote about a little bit of everything. Storage units. Fish finders. Medical field advancements. You name it, I probably wrote about it.
But then I landed a remote, part-time gig helping people with their resumes, and I realized something: I was passionate about careers, and I had a lot of advice to offer in that area.
With that resume experience under my belt, I focused my efforts on finding career-related writing opportunities. I first started writing pieces for The Everygirl, then I landed a staff writer position at The Muse, and then things kept snowballing from there.
Finding a niche isn’t something that will happen right away (and you should experiment and find where you fit best!), but I do believe that it’s a step that really helped me level up my business.
When it comes to finding your own niche, I recommend thinking through these three questions:
- What do you have expertise in?
- What are you passionate about?
- How do those areas overlap?
Perhaps you’re a writer as well as a part-time personal trainer and you’re enthusiastic about empowering people to live healthier lifestyles. Well, then you’re a great fit to write about nutrition, fitness, and wellness content. Or maybe you’re a web developer with a long career history of working in nonprofits. That means you know exactly what it takes to build impactful websites for those specific types of clients.
Again, a niche might not be something you can focus on right away when you’re just trying to get any paying clients in the door. But, the sooner you can focus your efforts, the more you can build credibility, name recognition, and a client base you actually enjoy working for.
My earliest clients didn’t come through job boards, platforms, or posted freelance opportunities. One came from a fellow freelance writer I had connected with. Another came from my cousin who had heard about a local event that was looking for some help. You get the idea.
That’s the thing: Your early clients might not be total strangers. You likely already have a lot of people in your network who could benefit from your skills and services.
But, they’re not going to throw gigs and paychecks into your lap. You need to roll up your sleeves and put yourself (and your brand new business!) out there.
I sent personalized emails to family, friends, and professional acquaintances I had worked with in the past. I connected with editors, business leaders, and other freelancers on LinkedIn. I attended conferences and other community events in my local area.
In the early days, all of those efforts yielded better results than applying for endless opportunities through job boards and cold pitching until I was blue in the face.
Side note: My friend (and my former editor-in-chief at The Muse), Adrian Granzella Larssen, has an awesome email template she used to land all of her clients when she launched her own consulting business.
I shudder to think of all of the opportunities I missed out on in the early days by being too embarrassed to call myself a “freelance writer.” I would always say, “I’m working toward becoming a freelance writer” or, “I’m hoping to become a freelance writer.”
If you’re in that same spot, I get it. It can feel braggy and even misleading to suddenly slap this title on yourself that you feel like you haven’t earned yet. But, I can assure you that there isn’t some sort of hypothetical finish line you cross where you think, “Okay, I’ve made it. Now I can call myself a freelancer.” There’s no badge. No test. No certification.
So, grab the bull by the horns and own that identity right now. Update your LinkedIn profile and all of your social media bios. Put your title in your email signature. Use obvious key terms like “freelance writer” and “content creator” and not anything catchy or ambiguous like “grammar guru.”
Not only does taking this step solidify your new place as a business owner and a freelancer for hire (and let everybody know exactly what you’re up to!), but it also means you’ll appear in the results when various outlets and publications are searching those platforms for writers just like you.
I made plenty of mistakes when I started freelancing, but there is one highlight that I’m really proud of: I built this career without relying on a single freelancing platform. You know, the ones where you create an account, work (sometimes anonymously!) for clients, and get paid pennies for completed projects.
But otherwise, I tried to stay away from all of those opportunities that I knew hundreds of people would be competing for, and instead tried some more strategic tactics.
Social media — mainly, Twitter — was huge for me when I was actively pursuing new clients. I’d use it as a relationship-building tool to forge bonds with editors, publications, and brands I was interested in writing for. However, I’d also use it to find opportunities that weren’t posted elsewhere.
Here’s how. Using Twitter’s search function, I’d type in key terms like:
- “freelance writer”
- “hiring a freelance writer”
- “looking for a freelance writer”
- “need a freelance writer”
- “accepting pitches”
- “pitch me”
Once I was on the results page, I’d sort by “latest” to see the most recent tweets. Without a doubt, I’d always find a handful of places that were looking for writers that I wouldn’t have found elsewhere.
When it came to finding opportunities in my chosen niche, I used a somewhat backwards (and perhaps even slightly sneaky) approach.
When I found a related article that I loved, I’d always click through to the writer’s bio. That would lead me to their website or portfolio, where I could see some of the other places they had been published. Suddenly I could add at least one or two new outlets to my list of places to research, reach out to, and pitch.
I hear from a lot of prospective or newbie freelancers who say something like, “I want to do exactly what you’re doing and be exactly where you are!”
That’s amazing, and I really do relish those sorts of compliments. But I’m always careful to remind those people that I didn’t start here. Remember, I was the small-town Wisconsin writer (well, I still am!) who was getting paid $40 per 600-word article about storage unit insurance.
As with any sort of career, it’s important to realize that freelancing is a journey — and sometimes it’s a long one. There’s really no such thing as an “overnight success story” in freelancing (or, if there is, I certainly haven’t found it yet).
Need proof? Here’s a peek at my income year-over-year (before taxes, of course) as a freelancer:
- 2014 (only half the year, as I started my business in July): $5,300
- 2015: $32,000
- 2016: $80,000
- 2017: $102,000
- 2018: $98,500
You can see that it took me well over a year to get some stable financial footing, and even now freelancing can still be fickle — which means my income experiences plenty of ups and downs.
Freelancing isn’t an easy way to make a quick buck. It’s not the secret to painlessly earning thousands from the comfort of your pajamas (although, full disclosure, I’m still in my pj’s as I write this). It’s not a constant vacation.
It takes persistence, blood, sweat, tears (oh, so many tears!), a thick skin, and a hell of a lot of hard work. And, it’s only when you’re willing to commit to those things that you’ll really see the fruits of your labor start to pay off. That, my friends, is the biggest lesson of them all.