In a previous article, I explained why I think that freelance content writing is the best side job for professionals. Without putting too fine a point on it, I wrote that writing is a skill most professionals have and that it’s highly marketable and in-demand. I also promised to show you how to start content writing from scratch. Continue reading below for the basics.
How to Start Content Writing: Foundations
Successful content writing requires a certain set of skills. More than anything else, you’ll need to know how to do the following:
- Find a client
- Keep a client happy
- Write well
- Write quickly
- Accurately gauge your worth in the marketplace
- Run a small business
Now, this is just one way to organize the many skills you’ll require to be a successful writer. I’ll go through each item in turn and explain what I mean by each one.
Find a Client
When you’re first starting out, you have zero clients. There’s a reason people say that the first client is the hardest one to win. You have zero referrals on which you can rely, no references from past work, and no portfolio you can show off. In a very real economic sense, you’re an unknown quantity. Your future client has no idea if you’ll do a great job or a horrible one.
Luckily, the internet has made it a lot easier to for newbies to find content writing work. Freelancing platforms like Upwork and Fiverr connect wannabe writers (and other freelancers) with clients. And while it is certainly possible to make a go of it without the assistance of these sites it’s much harder.
When I started content writing I joined Upwork. I’ve read that it’s become difficult for some people to create a freelancing profile on that platform due to overcrowding and active efforts by the Upwork team to limit the number of freelancers competing for clients on their service.
If you’re an accomplished professional, however, you should be a shoe-in to be accepted. Take care that your Upwork application is polished and accurate and you should be able to join the freelancer ranks in no time.
Once you’ve joined a freelancing portal you face your next challenge. You need to differentiate yourself from the thousands of competitors vying for the same clients you’re seeking. Keep the following principles in mind:
- Find a hook – Emphasize a unique characteristic of your background, education, or experience to appeal to potential clients
- Polish your application – No one likes a CV, resume, or application letter that’s riddled with errors and typos. You are, after all, holding yourself out as a competent writer. Your application letter should be immaculate.
- Remember the value you bring – Examine your strengths as a beginner content writer. Are you a subject matter expert? An accomplished wordsmith? A sound technical master? Pitch your strengths to clients who seek those skills.
- Respond promptly – This can’t be overemphasized. The earlier you get to the client after they post a job on Upwork, the better your chances of being hired. Also, the faster you respond to their inquiries, the more likely it is you’ll be hired.
- Focus on low-end work at the beginning – While you’re free to seek out higher paying jobs right from the get-go (and your personal experience and education may qualify you to do that), most people will have to spend some time in the trenches when they start content writing in order to rack up a few positive reviews before they move on to better paying clients.
Keep Your Client Happy
At the beginning, freelance writing is all about building credibility. On freelancing platforms like Upwork you do this mainly by collecting five-star reviews from happy clients. Once you’ve finally landed that first client, do everything you can to keep him or her happy.
This will be much easier to do if you’ve pitched to the right clients. Remember that you’re there to bring value to the client. If you’ve marketed yourself accurately, you’ve matched with a client seeking subject matter expertise and writing ability that you possess. When this happens, keeping a client happy is easy. Just do good work with the skills you have and they’ll likely be thrilled.
Remember that, when you first start content writing, a good review is worth more than the few dollars you’ll earn from the job. Don’t work for nothing, but remember how much a five-star review is worth to you in the long run. There’s a huge difference between the amount of money a freelancer with fifty positive reviews can ask for and the money an untested freelancer commands.
Write Content Well
This one’s kind of a no-brainer. The better you are at writing, the easier it will be for you to start, and succeed at, content writing. A writing guide is beyond the scope of this article but there are countless resources out there to help you write well.
Keep in mind as well that, as in any field, you don’t have to count yourself amongst the best in your craft to be highly successful. Technical skills are just a part of what you need to succeed at content writing. Take me, for example. My writing is good, but not extraordinary by any stretch of the imagination. While I can string a sentence together reasonably well, I’m sure my work is littered with countless errors that would make any editor cringe.
Your goal shouldn’t be to be the best content writer (a goal that is likely unobtainable anyway) but rather to be a writer who’s good enough to be successful. This can mean different things to different people. A writer of technical manuals will need a different set of skills than a legal blog writer. A social media writer will need different skills than an editor at the New York Times. You need to be good enough that your target audience wants to read what you’ve written.
Write Content Quickly
As important as writing well, writing quickly is a crucial ingredient to being financially successful when you start content writing. You can earn $0.25 per word and still not make a living if it takes you four hours to knock out 500 words. You must be literate and efficient in order to make a decent living at content writing.
One of the key components of writing efficiency is to know when what you’ve written is finished enough. Writing can always be improved. Some writers spend hours taking their work from an A to an A+ without considering what this does to their ability to earn.
Now, in some cases, it makes sense to refine a piece of work to the point of perfection. If you’re writing your first piece for the Washington Post and it’s going to be read by millions of people, by all means, tinker away. However, if you’re working on your third article of the day for a consumer blog your goal should be to take the piece to a level of quality that will exceed the expectations of your client without cutting into the time you need for the fourth article.
Know Your (Demonstrated) Worth
This is an important bit of advice. You have to get to know what you’re worth in the marketplace. This will be difficult at first. After all, you have no experience in the marketplace. But over a short period of time you’ll get an idea of what people are willing to pay for the kind of work you’re willing to do.
Also remember that what you’re worth depends on the value you can demonstrate to clients. In other words, you can be the best writer in the world and still find yourself out of work if you haven’t proven your skills. Clients seek a demonstrated ability to solve their problem when they hire writers. So as you develop your portfolio and freelancing profiles you should continually be re-examining your objectively ascertainable skill as it relates to your competition and adjusting your prices accordingly.
If you’ve just started and are taking on your first client, you’ll have very little demonstrable value as a writer and the price you command will reflect that. If you’ve got fifty positive reviews and a record of long-term engagements your prices should go up.
Content Writing Is A Business
When you start content writing you’ll quickly learn that it’s a business like any other. Without a supervisor, boss, or manager, you’ll be responsible for arranging your affairs in a way that maximizes your income and minimizes your expenses.
Learning to run a successful business is outside the scope of this article, but at the very least you should be familiar with simple profit and loss statements (P&Ls), basic bookkeeping, and how to keep records sufficient for the taxing authority in your jurisdiction.
I’ve barely scraped the surface of what you’ll need to do when you start content writing. Each of the subjects I’ve touched on above could form the basis of a long book in a longer series. Hopefully, though, I’ve brought to your attention at least some of the areas you’ll need to keep in mind as you move forward with this new side hustle of yours.