How can I get started as a freelance writer?
October 20, 2013 11:29 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to make around $300-$700 a month doing freelance writing to supplement my income. So far I have been overwhelmed with the resources online and still have no idea where to start. I have no experience writing professionally but I am an English major and have been writing almost all of my life. I'm mostly interested in the "Elance" platform but I'm open to other options. How do I get started?

Let me start you off with a little bit of background on the reason why I can only make $700. I'm currently on social security disability and if I make more than that I may lose my benefits. This element is crucial. I'm not looking to start a giant enterprise, I just need some extra cash, so please be mindful of that. Much of the advice I've seen so far has been aimed at people looking to get rich. That's not what I want, ironically.

Okay, here's how it started. At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, I recently was wandering through the internet when I stumbled across a website called Elance, which, apparently, is a platform for businesses and freelancers to connect over the internet. I didn't know what it was at first but I started browsing through it and realized there were tons of jobs for writers, which is my specialty, and other types of jobs as well. Ever since then, I have been obsessed with the idea of freelance writing and using this website to somehow get started.

One problem, however, is that a lot of the jobs on the website say "writing" but are highly specialized types of writing like "web content, SEO, copywriting, proofreading." I have no idea which ones I'm best suited for, which ones to avoid, or even what some of them are. As I said, I have no professional experience writing but I have been writing all my life and consider myself pretty skilled at it. I just need to harness that into freelance writing.

So far, I have been completely overwhelmed by all the information out there geared at getting started as a freelance writer. It's hard to know which is good advice and which is garbage. I know one thing has thrown me off, and that's that a lot of the advice seems geared at people who want to make thousands of dollars a month, which I don't.

I was thinking about getting some books on different categories of freelance writing to get started. What I really need is some first-hand guidance, maybe from an experienced freelancer. I really want to make this Elance website work but I really have no idea how. Just keep in mind my income limits.

posted by dargerpartridge to Work & Money (23 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I hire and manage writers at my work. Many of these writers are professional web developers or designers, very few would describe themselves as professional writers.

What do you know? What did you study, what do you do for fun, what are you generally knowledgeable about? Start with that, write a few sample pieces (any serious writing gig will require them) and put them on a blog. Your blog doesn't need to be fancy, or frequently updated.

Then look for work that matches those interests loosely, or gigs where you could research your way through writing articles. I started out by writing 200 word posts about email marketing 7 days a week for a client. I knew nothing about email marketing. Doesn't matter.

Don't let fancy terms scare you: read up a bit on SEO (I recommend the free resources at and and go from there.
posted by third word on a random page at 11:56 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

One more thing: absolutely everybody out there will try to sell you some special guides to getting started as a writer. Generally, these are a waste of money. They are the reason that so many people try to make a living from writing about freelance writing. Don't spend your limited dollars on a special writing guide. I have read them all through my work. They are not worth it.
posted by third word on a random page at 11:59 PM on October 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Who do you know who is making money at writing? Who do you know who pays writers? Don't ask them for work or referrals to work. Ask them to meet you for coffee to discuss their work. Then ask them what they do and how they work. Let them know what you are capable of, and suggest that you'd be interested in a head's up or a referral if they come across work they think you'd be suited to. If you don't know people who write or who hire writers, reach out across your social network and ask to be introduced to these people.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:17 AM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Just as an FYI: the income limit is the least of your worries. The freelancers I know are hustling to make any money at all at this point, so don't worry too much about making too much. Pretty easy to control that.

Like many things, it's going to be about who you know. Get on your network first of all, and see where there might be gigs, and as croutonsupafreak says, find who's making it work, get some idea how to do it, get a mentor.
posted by miles1972 at 12:48 AM on October 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

Well, you're an English major, which makes you an expert in at least one field, which is literature. For your sample, can you write something erudite, incisive, and learned, something that adds to the sum of human knowledge and could get published in a journal? Because otherwise, your area of expertise is "people writing about people writing about writing," and you're going to be writing for content farms like eHow about how to be an expert whiskey taster based on 15 minutes of Google and Wikipedia research.
posted by Nomyte at 12:53 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

The number of hours you work can also screw up your disability, regardless of how much income you bring in. You should make sure you understand the rules about this before you start working.
posted by xyzzy at 2:19 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's good advice to write about something you know a lot about, but unfortunately academic journals don't normally pay authors (and it is rare for a non-PhD or PhD student to get published in one.)
posted by third rail at 2:30 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I didn't know what it was at first but I started browsing through it and realized there were tons of jobs for writers, which is my specialty, and other types of jobs as well.

Well. . . sort of. It may look that way, at first, but it is definitely in Elance's interest to make it appear that way. Turns out there are fewer jobs that actually pay than there are jobs, and approximately six metric craptons of freelancers chasing those paying jobs.

But you should definitely be aware that doing this can jeopardize your SSDI status. It really is supposed to be for people who cannot do any kind of productive work. There are a lot of people who are capable of doing some work and constantly skirt the edge of how much they can work without jeopardizing their benefits. The Administration knows this, but it doesn't like it very much.

Now I don't know you from Adam, and I have no information about the specifics of your case, so don't take this the wrong way. But the fact that you're looking at this at all suggests that you may be the kind of edge case to whom an ALJ granted benefits rather than go through the hassle of writing an opinion explaining why you're being denied, but about whom said ALJ would not hesitate to write that opinion if it came to light that you can, in fact, make some money. Read up about the trial work period. There is an income limit, of which you're already aware, but for the self-employed, there's also an hourly limit: 80 a month.

All I'm saying is that you need to be aware of the spirit of the SSDI program. It really isn't intended for people who can work but for whom work is difficult, or who would rather not work. It's intended for people who can't work. If you can work 20 hours a week doing freelance writing, your goal should really be to do that work (or more!) and transition away from receiving benefits. Or, at least, that's the way the program is set up to run. And the fact is that benefit levels are so meager that it shouldn't be that difficult to exceed your SSDI benefit amount by working, even with something as dicey as freelance writing.
posted by valkyryn at 3:04 AM on October 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

You would have to be writing a lot, or would have to have been writing for a long time, to make $700 a month. I was pretty active for a content-farm kind of thing like ehow for a couple months, and I think the most I made was $50 in a month; that paid only about $10 an article. Unless you're putting in a 50 hour workweek or are writing something highly specialized, you will not have to worry about making more than that amount.

I can't speak to what others are saying about the finer points of avoiding running afoul of benefits; I'd look more carefully about what the rules are. But if a high dollar amount is all that you're worrying about, I think you'll have no problem avoiding it - quite the opposite, in fact.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:30 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just as an FYI: the income limit is the least of your worries. The freelancers I know are hustling to make any money at all at this point, so don't worry too much about making too much.

QFT. Really, read these two sentences multiple times!

I'm a freelance writer and there have been months/years when I haven't made anywhere near that much, and that's while I was working at it all the time. If there are indeed limits on the hours you can work, as xyzzy says, you should be aware that the time freelance writers put into even a short article might really surprise you.

I don't know about Elance specifically, but I'll say one thing about freelance writing in general. There are basically two skills you need to do it. One is writing, though if you only want to produce 'content" that probably doesn't matter much. The other, far more important if you want to make any money at all from it, is exactly the type of research you're asking us to help you with here. That is what freelance writing is. Constantly researching markets, trying to find new clients, figuring out what is sketchy and what's legit, understanding what opportunities exist (or don't) and whether a certain job is worth doing or not. Even if Elance is perfect now, you have no idea (no one does) what could happen in a month or two, so you will really need to be constantly looking out for other places to write even if you're doing very well with one platform for now.

If you don't want to do this part - and if you don't I don't blame you, it's time-consuming, annoying, and overwhelming - then I would kindly suggest maybe freelance writing isn't the best choice for you, at least at the moment. I mean, I'm sure AskMe can help you, because people here know a lot about everything. But if you're making an effort to make several hundred dollars a month through writing, then you will be doing precisely this sort of research for hours a day at first, and hours a week for years to come if not forever. And you're going to be doing it by yourself. That is the job description.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:58 AM on October 21, 2013 [9 favorites]

And to answer your question more directly, in terms of resources. Look at the Renegade Writer, here's the section for new freelancers. The site is more about making a good living by writing for all sorts of random markets, but again, you don't have to worry about making too much.

Also look into taking a beginning class through a Continuing Ed department or community college. It would be called something like "The Business of Writing." Make sure the person teaching it has written a lot, which should be easy to look up. (Though I have no idea if that sort of training for a career is allowed while receiving SSDI, so do check that first!)

You can also go to the library or Barnes & Noble (or look on Amazon if you can't get there) at books written for writers just starting out. Actually Amazon might be better, because you can read the reviews. These books are usually tailored to a specific type of writing, because while there are similarities, travel writing and technical writing and copy editing all have different "rules" you need to learn. Pick a few you think might interest you and read those. You can just take as a given that any book saying you can earn gobs of money doing this is talking about the extreme edge of possibility in order to suck you in to reading about the boring every day stuff.

And, if you go to Barnes & Noble, look for magazines like Writers Digest. They often have lots of good information for people just starting out.

(I still think, based on your question, that you will probably hate this. But these are still good types of resources to check out to help you decide if that's true.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 5:33 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Coming back in with another data point about the dearth of money in freelance writing:

By far, the luckiest break I've gotten freelance writing was a job I got through a personal connection. I had volunteered to write these souvenir-program kind of things for a theater company I was affiliated with for years - three or four articles about the show's history and subject matter - and after a few years, the head of that company moved on to take over another company in Pennsylvania, and they had a grant for "improved educational outreach" fall into their lap and didn't know what else to do with it, so the head of the company asked me to keep doing that for them, for pay this time.

Reiterating that my landing this job at all was an extremely lucky break of networking, and it is pretty unusual for a new freelance writer to get a consistent gig like that so early and so easily. And yet - that gig only paid me about $550 per year.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:03 AM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'd specialize in a particular type of writing and hustle to get that kind of work on the side by word of mouth.

For example, I write a mean resume. I used to have a business where I'd do someone's resume for them. I'd charge $100 per. (Now I do them for free for my friends and family.)

You can control how many you do, and the amount of time you spend doing them. It's also very focused. It's one thing and after awhile you start to knock them out. You've got some stock phrases, you've got a method, you've got a template, it's pretty simple.

Now, I'm not sure this is viable as a true side business anymore, but it's an example. Rather than publishing, you're mostly writing for people who need help with something.

So my suggestion is not to work on freelancing (as others have pointed out, it's not all that lucrative.) But instead, learn how to write a resume and cover letter and do that by word of mouth.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:07 AM on October 21, 2013

This is not my field, but I just want to drop in and say, briefly, that you are getting a lot of very discouraging advice here, and I'm sure it is being given in an honest and a fundamentally constructive spirit: people want you to go into this with your eyes open.

That said, I wish there were a caveat that was posted along with internet advice given to people asking about well, most careers, but particularly anything to do with writing, and this is it: everyone is going to tell you it is impossible, there are no open positions, and you will fail. I encountered this when I was thinking about positions in publishing, in journalism, in freelance writing, in creative writing, and in academia. These are all fields currently in crisis, which means they're not as secure as they used to be, and they're very competitive, which means a lot of people have tried to succeed in them and haven't. You are facing long odds trying to break into freelance writing and it's not wrong to tell you so.

At the same time, I look back on the period when I was trying to figure out my career, and I see entire fields that I didn't even attempt to break into...why? Because someone on the internet told me it was impossible. And yet today I know people who do have those jobs, who frankly may well have been less qualified than I am, but they didn't listen to people on the internet, and here we are. The field I'm in now is equally as competitive and 'in crisis' as all the other ones; I'm here because it's the only one I didn't scared away from by a lot of people's well-meaning but terrifying advice. Luck is a big part of success in any field, so if it's something you really want, you may as well roll the dice. With you, in particular, it sounds like you don't have much to lose by going forward (it's not like you're choosing between this and life as a freelance software designer) so I would maybe take a breath, recognize the difficulties ahead of you, that failure is an option but not an inevitability, and proceed.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:36 AM on October 21, 2013 [15 favorites]

Steering things back from what pretentious illiterate said -

I don't think anyone here is telling you to not go ahead. In fact - if I understand things correctly, you are the one hesitating because you're afraid you'll make too much money, and the rest of us are saying that that ain't likely and so you can proceed.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:50 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

if I understand things correctly, you are the one hesitating because you're afraid you'll make too much money, and the rest of us are saying that that ain't likely and so you can proceed.

Not entirely. For self-employed people, SSDI work requirements are evaluated on both an income and a time-worked basis. If you're doing 20+ hours a week of freelancing, and that might even include things like communicating about potential gigs, they're going to count you as having done substantial work and re-evaluate your eligibility for benefits.

This means that freelance writing might jeopardize your eligibility for benefits while providing less than the amount you'd earn at a minimum wage job. That's a lose-lose, right there.

So you really need to decide just how important these benefits are to you. If you are committed to returning to work, by all means, go for it. But if you are not willing to jeopardize your benefits under any circumstances, this is sounding like a worse idea all the time.
posted by valkyryn at 7:05 AM on October 21, 2013

Fair enough valkyryn; still, though, the larger point is that pretentious illiterate seemed to have missed that the question is about dargerpartridge wanting limited success.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:20 AM on October 21, 2013

Here's how I started freelancing. I sent query letters to a couple of small publications--local alt weekly and an online journal aimed at higher ed. Each letter had two or three story ideas. I included samples of previous work and a short bio.

Got 1 assignment, finished on time, got it published, and then asked editor for more suggestions of stories she'd like to see. promoted the hell out of the new published piece.

Got a job as a paid blogger about local media--but if I hadn't, I would have started my own blog. Got friendly with local writers/journalists/editors. This was key--I found out about people to pitch, people to avoid.

I haven't done content mill or SEO writing, but if I was just starting out, I'd give it a shot. If you know about people with disabilities or navigating the SSDI world--that's a niche market that would be a good place to start. Parents of kids with special needs have made careers out of writing about their kids and kids' challenges. (Look up Rob Rimmel-Hudson.)
posted by Ideefixe at 7:27 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I tried what you are trying a couple years ago and had very marginal success. There's not a lot of work for freelance writers these days. There are so many "resources", but very little in the way of actual helpful guidance in this field. The Renegade Writer is probably one of the best.

If I were you, I'd start a blog on something I was passionate and knowledgable about instead and work on monetizing it and/or getting a book deal.
posted by Jess the Mess at 8:04 AM on October 21, 2013

Another thing you might do is offer to help edit essays for college-bound seniors. Think of it as tutoring and do a "pay by the hour thing."

Here's a site where you can't post your hourly rate, and a short bio of why they should pick you. There are tutors there, but you can advertise that you'll work with kids remotely, so you don't have to go to them, and vice-versa (which some parents may actually like!)

They'll handle the payment part, so that's covered, and you can control how many hours you work with the students.

So you can make $40 per hour, and work under 20 hours per month.

This might be the perfect supplement to your SSId.

Just a different way to look at things!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:04 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

You might look at whether there are any small organizations, like nonprofits, you have some connection to - either a friend works there, or the org concerns something that is related to you -- eg your local area, school, church, nationality, disability, hobby, something you studied, a cause you're interested in, whatever. Small organizations often have little newsletters/magazines that come out a couple times a year. They may need someone to write very modest articles. They may pay a small amount for an article. (The pay will likely be less than you'd think, and less than makes for a reasonable hourly rate. But it's a way to get started.) You could look around and see if you have any connection to any org that puts out small publications like this, and contact them. You could even brainstorm a subject for an article and "pitch" it to them.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:47 PM on October 21, 2013

Go sign up for a Textbroker account and have at it. They start everyone out at a level 3, but if you're any good you should move up quickly. The pay is dismal, but you eventually develop a following and you'll get direct orders. You can set your own rate for direct orders.

It does help to choose a couple of niches.

You can also go grab gigs at Fiverr.

I really like the Freelance Radio podcast, though they don't update it nearly enough. It's hosted by Kristen Fischer, a successful copywriter. She has a lot of good info.
posted by Ostara at 6:36 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Another thing you might do is offer to help edit essays for college-bound seniors. Think of it as tutoring and do a "pay by the hour thing." "

Actually, that's pretty much the best suggestion here, if you have some academic credentials you can fall back on. It's something that a handful of my friends have done, specifically for ESL students who want to go to college. The only real problem is that it's seasonal work. It's also easier to hew to a strict time and dollar limit.
posted by klangklangston at 2:27 PM on October 22, 2013

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