Content writing—the art and science of planning, creating, and editing written content—can be a rewarding career in more ways than one. Especially if you go freelance.
But, if it’s a whole new world for you, it can also be tricky to get your foot in the door and get to a place where freelance writing is sustainable for you. That’s where this guide comes in.
Not only does it explain exactly how to start content writing but it also shares some of my favorite content writing tools and resources. (Plus, I set the record straight on a few common myths and misconceptions such as the ol’ “you must pick a niche ASAP or you will fail” speech.)
How to Start Content Writing: 5 Steps to Success
You could dive right into pro content writing without a plan like I did. I knew how to write well and act professionally. But…
- Did I understand how my work contributed to my clients actually getting results from content marketing? Not really.
- Did I have any portfolio pieces to my name? Nada.
- Did I have even the slightest idea of how to market my services and get work that paid more than a few dollars? Noooope!
I knew literally nothing else that was necessary to make freelance content writing work for me. And it was a steep 4+ year learning curve.
If you start off like I did, you also run the risk of struggling endlessly like I did. Why learn the hard way when you don’t have to. Just use the following 5-step process to get you properly prepared.
Step 1: Learn Content Writing
Although this is listed as step 1, learning about content writing is something you should continue doing even once you’ve got some professional experience under your belt. What in particular should you be well-informed about, though?
Learn the Skills of a Content Writer
Are you cut out to be a content writer? You can and should answer this question before getting started by getting an idea of the skills you’ll need. There are many but some of the most important are:
- Communication (duh!): Not only is content writing a form of communication but you’ll also have to communicate clearly with clients and others in the course of your work. You have to be able to do both effectively.
- Research: You’ll need to research topics, stats, the target audiences and industries you’re writing for, and more. You have to know how and where to find reliable information.
- Self-Editing: Whether you end up working with editors or not, you’ll be doing a ton of self-editing. So, in addition to being in the trenches attending to the finer details, you’ll need to be able to look at your work from an unbiased bird’s eye view and see how to improve it.
- Organization: From each piece of content to your project management system to your schedule and beyond, everything must be organized. Clutter and chaos never = clarity.
- Adaptability: Industries change. Audiences change. Clients change. Can you keep up?
If you have these skills, you have the potential to be a successful content writer. Now, you’ve just got to add to that foundation. How?
Study Content Writing Examples and Practice Often
One of the best ways to learn to write great content is to read great content. Whose email newsletters can you not wait to read? Whose blog posts do you savor every word of? If there’s a certain industry you’re interested in, who’s known for their authoritative, in-depth, helpful or entertaining content?
Once you’ve identified the who, think about what makes their content so effective, why it’s attractive, etc. Then, apply the lessons you learn from your favorite content writing examples to your work.
A few sources of good content that I enjoy and learn from are:
Everybody Hates Marketers for boldly going against the grain of typical marketing advice
The CXL Newsletter also for sharing fresh, thoughtful perspectives
Growth.Design’s UX case studies (not specific to written content but they still teach a lot of valuable lessons for content writers)
Backlinko for in-depth, step-by-step explanations
The Bigger Picture: Content and Digital Marketing Strategy
Why does content writing matter? If you’re not quite sure how to answer that, research content marketing strategy (and digital marketing strategy overall).
Each piece of content you create will be part of a larger marketing strategy and, therefore, tied to one or more business goals. But how can you get results for your clients if you don’t understand the strategy or end goals?
Even if you don’t plan to sell content strategy services or tackle other aspects of digital marketing, knowledge will make you a more valuable asset to clients and, ultimately, make your freelance content writing business more successful.
Who Offers the Best Free Content Writing Training?
Despite what their creators will tell you, you don’t need expensive content writing courses to get started. Much of what you need to know about content writing, freelance writing, content marketing strategy, and digital marketing is available for free.
Some of the best places to start are the HubSpot Marketing Blog and HubSpot Academy.
Step 2: Make a Plan (But Don’t Overthink)
Once you have a working knowledge of what content writing involves and are set on giving it a try, you can start plotting your path. Many new content writers feel overwhelmed at this stage and unsure of which direction to take their new freelance writing businesses. Totally normal.
Just remember this: While you should go through each of the following steps to set yourself up for success and achieve it sooner, your plan can, should, and will evolve. So, yes, think it through now. But don’t overthink it.
Consider Picking a Starter Niche
Notice that I said, “Consider picking a starter niche” and not simply “pick a niche.” There are benefits to being known for a single thing like travel writing or writing only about cryptocurrency. For example, it can be the key to earning more if your ideal clients are looking for specialized expertise. However…
It’s also easy to get stuck at this stage because you:
- Don’t know enough about any one niche to feel comfortable picking one
- Don’t want to feel locked into something that you might not like
- Prefer to be able to switch things up so that you don’t get bored
If you fall into any of the above categories, hear this:
- You can still be “successful” without picking a singular niche (despite what people say)
- You can switch your niche if you pick one and it doesn’t work out
- You don’t need to pick a niche right now if you’re not ready
It’s perfectly fine to explore your options and see what unfolds naturally. To give yourself a starting point, though, and help you iron out how you’ll brand and market your business, start at the intersection of interest and opportunity.
Make a list of the topics and industries you’re interested in and then look around the web to see if there are paying opportunities out there. If so, you just may have found your starter niche!
Choose From a Million Types of Content Writing
Besides thinking about niching down, give some thought to what types of content writing you’d be best at. These might include:
- Blog posts
- Case studies
- White papers
- Website content
- Email newsletters
Feel free to explore and switch between types. The more you do, you’ll inevitably find your sweet spot. But picking 1 or 2 types to start will give you at least a couple of advantages:
- You can focus fully and get good at whatever content type you choose
- Potential clients will have more confidence in your skill as a result of that focus and practice
Additionally, having an idea of what you’ll be writing can help when it comes to setting your rates.
Set Income Goals and Pricing
You could write a book on the topic of pricing for freelance writers. (In fact, I actually wrote a short pricing guide that’ll help if you have no clue where to start with setting rates.) But here are some basic things to keep in mind.
- Start with your income goals. What do you need to make monthly to keep the roof over your head and food on the table?
While it can be helpful to research what other freelance writers are charging, everyone’s life situation is different based on the local cost of living, lifestyle, and many other factors. So you need a rock bottom number that will work for you and an ideal number that you can work toward as you gain experience.
- Reverse-engineer your rates. Based on your rock bottom and ideal income goals, you should be able to calculate an hourly rate by taking into account how many billable hours you have per week, how much work you can reliably secure, and how long each project will take. (This hourly rate can then be translated into another type of pricing such as per piece.)
- Not all pricing models are made equal. There are pros and cons of per word, per project, hourly, and value-based pricing. But per piece/project works well for content writers who manage their time wisely because it:
- Earns them a fixed amount (unlike hourly, which can go bad if you work too fast or too slow)
- Allows them and their clients to focus on quality over word count
- Is simpler to calculate than value-based pricing, especially if you’re new to content writing and unsure of the impact of your content
Lastly, while you may need to ease into making your living mainly or only off of content writing, know that it is possible.
Create Brand and Marketing Strategies
To be clear, you don’t need to spend $1K on a logo or create a 10-page marketing strategy to start with. But you should have:
- A clear starting idea of your purpose, which is part of brand strategy
- Ideas of 2 to 3 ways you can get your writing services on the radars of potential clients, which is part of marketing strategy
Both of these strategies will change and get more robust as you gain experience. But it’s important to have at least a basic starting point. Why? Without even a basic brand strategy, it will be far harder to convey to potential clients why they should choose you. And without a reliable marketing plan, you’ll struggle to get enough work.
Super Simple Brand and Marketing Strategy Resources
Not sure where to start with these strategies? Here are some of the simplest resources.
Steph Egger’s Brand Position Template
HubSpot’s Marketing Plan Template
Step 3: Pick Content Writing Tools
Shiny object syndrome is real. But don’t be lured into thinking that you need a tool for everything.
Be subjective about what you need vs. what you want, what other people are using, etc. A few good questions to ask yourself include:
- Will this speed up my content writing process and get my clients the same or better results?
- Will this save me time in other areas of my business and allow me to focus more on my top priorities?
- Will this help me do something essential that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do?
If you can honestly answer “yes” to any of those questions, then you’ve found a tool worth having. Speaking of…what are some content writing tools worth considering.
3 Helpful Content Writing Tools
- CoSchedule Headline Studio: When you’re new to content writing, it can be tough to write compelling headlines that make people want to read your content. Headline Studio can teach to write click-worthy titles by giving detailed breakdowns of what works and what doesn’t.
The free plan offers limited features, which are still useful, but a paid plan (starting at $19 per month) will get you deeper insights.
- Grammarly: Never underestimate how easy it is to miss typos and other errors when you’ve been working on a piece of content for hours. In addition to doing your own proofreading, run your content through Grammarly to catch anything you missed.
Grammarly has a free version that catches most glaring errors but, if you want to upgrade to Premium, you’ll be paying $12 per month.
- Hemingway App: If you struggle with writing clearly, using too much passive voice, choosing simple words or other common issues, Hemingway App can help. For best results, I recommend checking your content here before popping it into Grammarly to check for errors.
While you can use this tool for free online, I highly recommend purchasing the desktop app, which is only $19.99 (one-time) and can be used offline.
With the right tools in your toolbox, it’s time to start working on your portfolio.
Step 4: Create a Small But Mighty Portfolio
Technically speaking, if you know how to position and sell the value of your services, it’s not impossible to land projects without a content writing portfolio. But having one helps to seal the deal with new clients.
The thing is…many beginner content writers stall big time because they fall into 1 or more of these 3 mental traps:
- Mental trap #1: “I need my first client to get my first portfolio piece but I can’t get my first client without a portfolio piece.”
- Mental trap #2: “Will I look inexperienced if I only have 2 or 3 portfolio pieces? Just to be safe, I’m going to hold off on marketing and pitching until I have more examples of my work.”
- Mental trap #3: “I’m new to this whole content writing thing. How do I know if my work is good enough to show to potential clients? I’d better wait to get started until I feel more confident.”
Maybe you’ve thought some of the same things (I know I did when starting out). And while it’s normal to be a little unsure, that feeling doesn’t have to stop you from moving forward. Why not?
- You can create mock projects that closely resemble the kind of work you want to do for clients. You don’t have to wait for a client to take a chance on you to start building your portfolio.
- A few high-quality pieces are more than enough to help you land projects. Especially if they’re interviewing multiple other content writers, which can be time-consuming, most clients won’t look at more than 2 to 3 work samples anyway; delaying getting started until you have a million samples is useless.
- Analyzing good content is one of the best ways to learn to write it yourself. So read often. Study the content authorities in your niche are producing and apply what you learn. (Plus, start networking early on and you may be able to find writers who’ll give feedback on your work so that you know it’s “good enough” to go in your portfolio.)
Tools For Building Your Content Writing Portfolio
You don’t need an elaborate 10-page website (now or possibly ever). However, your portfolio should be professional. That means no Google Drive folders or long, ugly links pasted into Word documents.
Especially with free, user-friendly website builders like Carrd out there, there’s really no reason not to have a decent portfolio site. Even a single page will do.
Out of all the tools I’ve tried for my site and portfolio, though, my favorite combo has been Namecheap, WordPress.org, and Elementor. The total cost per year is relatively inexpensive and Elementor allows me to easily change my site as my business changes.
Step 5: Start Getting Content Writing Projects
Going back to step 2, you should have some ideas for how to market your services and, ultimately, get clients. Those plans will probably include working with content agencies, attracting or approaching direct clients, and/or using writing or freelancing platforms. Let’s talk about each briefly.
Work With Content Marketing Agencies
Content marketing agencies are often tasked with creating tons of content for several clients at a time. And it’s not uncommon for them to have small and/or very busy teams. In other words, many agencies need help! So they can be a great way to get your foot in the door as a content writer, gain some experience, and get a peek behind-the-scenes of executing a content marketing strategy.
However, you should aspire to work directly with clients as well. One reason is that you can earn more with no middleman in the picture. How can you connect directly with potential clients?
Work Directly With Clients
There are many ways to connect with potential clients. For example, you could try:
- Building an online presence through social media, doing content marketing, etc.
- Getting to know other freelancers who can refer work to you when they’re too busy or a project isn’t a good fit for them
- Networking at events or through platforms like LinkedIn (yes, LinkedIn works)
- Keeping an eye on job boards to see who’s hiring
- Doing cold outreach (AKA contacting people you’ve never met before to see if they might need your help)
Though all of these can and do work in general, you’ll probably need to test out several methods to see what works for you. I recommend picking 2 to 3 methods at a time and going all in.
- If within 3 months, you’re seeing little to no results from one, replace it. If within that time, you are seeing some results, continue and/or test tweaks to get even better results.
- If after 6 months, a method isn’t performing as well as you’d hoped, shift focus to another one.
- Repeat as necessary.
With time, effort, and consistency, you’ll find the most reliable ways to get new projects when you need them.
Join Content Writing and Freelance Platforms
They’re definitely controversial. But you can land projects with the help of content writing platforms such as CopyPress or Scripted and broader freelancing platforms. And we’re not just talking about “take what you can get” projects. Depending on the platform you choose and the approach you use, there are likely some good, high-paying clients and opportunities to be had.
Take Upwork, for example. There’s no shortage of writers competing on price and clients looking for the absolute cheapest work. But there are also many freelancers making tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars there and collaborating with their dream clients.
The point? Don’t dismiss such options based on one side of the story from people who’ve struggled to get traction on content-specific or freelance platforms. Same goes for opinions from people who’ve never even tried them. If many more people have tried them with great results, see for yourself what potential they have.
Note: If you want to skip past the newbie challenges of Upwork specifically and get straight to making money, check out my Upwork Starter Guide and the Ultimate Upwork Guide.
Bonus Step: Use Current Clients to Get More Work
Once you land your first content writing projects, you’re good to go, right? Wrong! Maintaining a full schedule is a must and an ongoing activity. So you need to be strategic about retaining current clients and, when needed, finding new ones.
True, you could take the passive approach, focus only on what’s on your calendar for the month, and then scramble frantically to secure a new project every time one ends. But that’s a recipe for frustration and unpredictable income. What are the smarter, more proactive alternatives?
Impress ‘Em With Quality Work
The most basic thing you can do to keep a full schedule is churn out high-quality content. If you do, it’ll be easier to retain the clients you already have, which is always easier than searching for new ones.
What is “quality” content, though? It’s goal-focused—focused first on what readers need or want from your content and then on moving you closer to your marketing objectives. Quality content is fully optimized to reach those goals. That optimization encompasses:
- Adhering to content writing best practices such as using breaking up text so that it’s easy to navigate and understand
- Targeting keywords that can bring in organic traffic from search engines like Google (if you decide to so SEO writing)
- Differentiating the content you produce from what’s already out there
Writing good content consistently can help you keep clients longer and/or keep them coming back to you if you do mostly short-term projects.
Upsell Your Current Clients
The best content strategies include several kinds of content to accommodate audience preferences, people at different stages of the marketing funnel, etc. So, often, there’s more that you can help your clients with than what you were initially hired to do.
Especially as you learn more about content marketing strategy and your clients’ goals, you’ll be able to spot other opportunities to help them. You could also offer more content if it makes sense. Either route would help you earn more and do more good for your clients’ businesses.
Encourage and Showcase Reviews
This might feel a little awkward at first but don’t hesitate to ask happy clients for reviews and testimonials. Even if they’re happy, relatively few clients and customers leave reviews without being prompted to. It’s an easy thing for a busy individual to overlook or forget about so a low-pressure request can do the trick.
And once you get a review or testimonial? Don’t let it sit and gather dust. Use it to build your credibility and win other work. Spotlight it on your website, feature it with a portfolio piece from the corresponding project or even include it in your proposals for other projects.
Potential clients will almost always trust what others say about you than what you say about yourself. So, instead of talking about how great it is working with you and how stellar your work is, let clients do the talking for you.
Ask For Referrals
As with reviews, you can also ask for referrals from your happiest clients. If you do great work, they’ll likely refer you to others naturally. But asking occasionally doesn’t hurt.
Not sure what to say? You can use a simple message like this to either get extra work or a recommendation to a potential client:
Starting the week of [month and date], I’ll have a slot opening up in my schedule. If there’s anything you need a hand with, just let me know. And, if not, feel free to pass my name and info on to anyone you know in [your niche] who may need a [your content writing service]. Thank you in advance!
Simple but effective.
Get Started Content Writing
Freelance writing as a beginner can be an overwhelming process; there’s so much to learn and so much to plan for. Not only do you need to expand your knowledge of content writing and choose what kind you want to do, but you also have to create and execute a marketing plan, decide on pricing, and more.
This crash course in freelance writing for beginners can help you get your footing. But remember that your business will evolve so don’t sweat it if you’re not 100% sure of yourself right now. Often, it’s better to create a general plan, get to work, and perfect the smaller details later.
That said, if you’re brand new (or sorta new) to content writing or freelance writing and have a nagging question on your mind, shoot me a message on Twitter. Happy to get you pointed in the right direction 🙂