If you were to tell sixteen-year-old me that I would ever brand myself as a freelance writer, I probably would have laughed at the absurdity of that thought.
Now, I am a second-year Economics undergraduate by day and a freelance writer by night. Some days, I still wonder, “How did that happen?”
Freelance writing is probably not on most people’s minds, and I get it. It was never on mine till recently too. I never thought anyone could build a freelance writing side-hustle while in college or even while working a full-time job.
As with most content on The Side Blogger, I must admit that I cannot speak of freelance writing as anything more than a side-hustle because that is not my experience. This blog post is for college students and non-career writers who are curious about freelance writing on the side. I hope to share some of my insights into freelance writing as a side-hustle, and who knows, you just might give it a go, too.
Freelance writers are not all the same
Before I began freelance writing, I never gave much thought to the types of writing that freelancers do. In my naivety, I thought either you wrote books, or you published articles online. If you thought as I did, you are not wrong, but it is more sophisticated than that.
Take ghostwriting, for example. Ghostwriters produce content (books or articles) under a pseudonym or on behalf of a company or individual. Sometimes companies hire ghostwriters who contribute SEO content—content that ranks on search engines—to drive traffic to their business.
I used to be averse to ghostwriting, but I now recognize that ghostwriting has its benefits too. You may ghostwrite if you do not wish to be explicitly related to your content, or businesses may need you to disassociate yourself to appeal to a specific audience. For instance, ‘X Research Team’ sounds more credible in some contexts than college student Ming.
(FYI, I ghostwrite for small businesses as well, but I can assure you that I am real, and my given name is Ming.)
That said, I am not a huge fan of ghostwriting because it is not as fun to write under any other name but mine.
Besides ghostwriters, there are copywriters, copyeditors, bloggers, newsletter writers, proofreaders, or even hybrid combinations of the above.
I prefer to write in my name, but I would understand if a client requires me to ghostwrite as well. For the most part, I ghostwrite SEO content for small businesses and new websites that are trying to rank on search engines.
You don’t need to specialize in one niche
Most veteran bloggers and writers advise newbies to ‘niche down‘ and to stay on topic. By doing so, writers establish authority within a topic, build a brand, and make it easier to acquire new clients.
I post about university life and blogging on my blog, but my freelance work is very diverse. So far, I have written in finance, education, business, self-help, and writing niches for my clients. I do not think that it has hurt my opportunities, but it could mean that I would encounter more difficulties if I try to write for larger corporations.
You would have to decide how far you see yourself going with freelance writing, but I would suggest not to box yourself in too early on either.
For starters, you could explore writing in different niches to gauge how readers and clients respond, as well as how interested you are in each topic. Now is the time to experiment and not be overly hung up over what others say about niching down. It is advisable but by no means the only strategy to adopt.
Writing samples and portfolio
We sometimes forget that writers are creatives just as designers and artists are. Clients want to know what they are getting themselves into, and almost all of them will request writing samples.
You can project a professional front by investing in a blog or a freelance landing page. I went for a blog, but freelance writers such as Elna Cain have dedicated landing pages for potential clients.
However, for most of us who only want to build a freelance writing side-hustle, not a writing career, setting up a domain is expensive and time-consuming. Unless you are interested in web development, you may prefer to host your writing elsewhere.
For writers who need a space to display their writing samples at little to no cost, here are some suggestions:
- Medium has a ‘clean’ and simple look that is perfect for hosting writing samples. For more information, you can refer to this blog post to get started writing on Medium. Medium’s interface has been revamped since this blog post was written, but the ideas remain largely the same.
- Contently allows you to link all of your written works. You can check out my profile here, though I have not updated it ever since I launched my blog.
- LinkedIn is the go-to social network for employers, employees, and job-seekers. I have never published any articles on LinkedIn, but I believe it is a great place to start. I am connected with several freelance writers on LinkedIn as well.
Alternatively, you could send cold pitches to some of your most trusted websites and businesses. Some businesses maintain a blog to drive search traffic, and if your writing is compatible, do not be afraid to reach out!
In your cold pitches, you may include the following:
- A brief overview of your experience and why you have a unique perspective on the subject.
- Propose a few blog post outlines for the client to choose from.
- Attach links to your writing samples if you already have some.
- Most importantly, be yourself, because your email pitch is a writing sample in itself too!
Besides writing samples, your portfolio should also use your experiences to your advantage. What do I mean by that?
Well, if you are a barista outside of school, talk about how you can write as a food blogger from the point of view of service staff members! You would be surprised by how unique your perspective from behind the counter can be.
Or perhaps, as a college student, what is your area of specialization? What are some problems you face, and how are you uniquely equipped to talk about them?
Use everything within your experience to inform your writing.
Ultimately, it is all about how you ‘spin’ your perspective. Your experience is different from everyone else’s, and they inform your writing in ways that nobody else can replicate. Own it.
How to find freelance writing gigs while in college
Now that you have identified your areas of interest and hopefully given some thought about where and how to set up your portfolio, all that remains is to score your first freelance writing gig. There is no one method to land your first client, and much of it rides on how compatible you are with your clients as well.
The most conventional method is to regularly apply for writing jobs on job boards. However, even choosing a few job boards to focus on requires much research.
I live in Singapore, and in my experience, it is more difficult to apply for freelance writing job opportunities that are based elsewhere. My luck with job boards only improved when I began exploring local job listings. No matter where you live, you will probably have to cast your net wide to search for jobs both within and beyond your city.
Some of my favorite freelance writing job boards include:
Once you have identified a handful of platforms, consider setting daily application targets. You will encounter numerous non-replies and rejections, but what is the worst that can happen? Nobody has to know that you have a 99% rejection rate when you are new to freelance writing!
Another way to score your first writing gig is through networking with other writers. I landed half of my freelance writing gigs because my friends recommended me to their clients. We may work remotely, but you would be surprised by how far networking can get you. Engage meaningfully with others, and they just might refer you to your first writing gig!
The following are some suggestions to network with other writers:
- Connect with freelance writers on LinkedIn.
- Publish on Medium and comment or interact with the works of other writers.
- Join freelance writers’ Facebook groups. Sometimes, people may post job requests or even pass on work that they are unable to commit to.
- Create a Twitter account and tweet regularly. Establish an online presence and support other writers.
- State in your username or bio that you are a freelance writer on all of your social media profiles.
The tricky business of determining your freelance writing rates
How much to charge for your freelance writing services is a thorny subject that all freelancers have to grapple with. While I do not recommend over-pricing your services, writers should not under-value themselves either.
It is easy to keep returning to the same excuse that we write for free to build up our portfolios. I know because I was there once. However, there must be a point where we begin to charge for our services, or in some cases, to raise our prices.
Once you begin charging a rate, do not be afraid to ask for a raise once you have settled into the rhythm of things. You could even propose payment plans where you progressively raise your rates for clients you have an ongoing agreement with.
The first few articles could be priced slightly below your regular rates to help you and your client familiarize yourselves with each other’s working style. Once you are more aware of your clients’ expectations, you can then agree on a higher and more reasonable rate to work with. To our clients, the time saved between submitting and publishing is valuable too!
As a final note on pricing, I tend not to state my rates anywhere because every client’s need is different. Each piece of writing requires a different level of research, and some clients may even request blog post graphics. Therefore, I prefer to find out more about the job before we discuss rates.
When we finally get to the numbers, never forget that you always have the right to counter-offer and even counter-counter-offer if it comes down to that. Of course, if the first offer is fair, there is no reason why you should not agree to it there and then!
Finding the right balance between studying and freelance writing while in college
Hustling as a freelance writer while in college is one of the best decisions I have made. I take great pride in my writing, and it feels great to earn some income from doing so.
However, as with any side-hustle, things can become overwhelming quickly. How does one strike a balance between hustling and studying (or working full-time)?
When I write, I feel guilty about neglecting schoolwork. On the other hand, I feel so passionate about my side-hustle that I often am tempted to drop everything else to write.
The following are some suggestions for how you can manage your time between university and freelance work:
- Block off timing for University or full-time work, and do not allow yourself to be distracted during this period.
- Raise your prices to make the time spent freelancing worth the effort.
- Uphold high standards that will help you retain current clients and acquire better-paying clients. In the beginning, you will realize that job boards are flooded with low-paying gigs. Retaining clients means you do not have to spend as much time pitching either!
- Always try to stay ahead of your schedule by one or two assignments. Ensure you have some buffer time in case something comes up on either side.
As I have mentioned, I am not a full-time writer, and I am not sure if I ever will be one. What I do know is that it is possible to run a freelance writing business while studying or even while working a full-time job. It will not be easy, but things should get better once you get the hang of it.
I hope that this blog post has addressed most of your concerns regarding freelance writing. Should you have any questions regarding how you, too, can build a freelance writing side-hustle, you may contact me or even leave a comment below. I may not have all the answers, but I could point you to relevant resources that I trust. All the best!
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