Successful Freelance Writers Stand Out With These Traits

The other day, I talked about three keys to freelance writing success — three things you could do, actions you could take, and traits you could cultivate with work and practice. But that’s not the whole secret. There are three more characteristics that most – if not all – successful freelancers have. If you don’t have them starting out, you can definitely develop them. Once you’ve developed these characteristics, you need to learn how to convey them in a short email in order to sell yourself as the writer for any particular job you may want. That’s really all it takes.

Keep reading as I share the three characteristics successful freelancers possess, and how to show prospective editors that you have them, too. (Even if you don’t… yet.)

So you can’t fake this or create it, but it definitely helps. It’s a large part of how I land freelance writing jobs so quickly. Even if you haven’t been writing for more than 20 years, with a 10-plus year freelance career and four Editor-in-Chief titles under your belt, you can still present yourself as a seasoned veteran.

Play up any writing experience you do have – even if it dates back to your college newspaper. Your own blog, if it’s professional looking, well done, and updated regularly, can impress editors as much as a byline on a high-traffic website. When you apply for jobs, share your best, most prestigious clips. You may not have a LOT of experience, but everyone has SOME experience. Showcase it to set yourself apart from the pack.

If you have real-world experience in any particular field, make sure to mention it. If you’ve written articles on a specific topic, let the editor know. If you’re lacking in both these areas, you can still show knowledge of the particular publication, website or topic, to convince editors you’re qualified to write for them.

If you try to fake enthusiasm, it’s going to get old quickly. You won’t have much success, as it’s pretty easy to scope out those who try to fake it. If you do succeed, you’ll be stuck with a writing assignment you hate. If you’re going to do that, you may as well work a nine-to-five office J.O.B.

Don’t apply for any freelance writing jobs or pitch any articles that you’re not enthusiastic about. You might be enthusiastic about the subject matter (ideally), the specific publication, or maybe just the pay rate. If paying the bills through your writing is all it takes to get you excited, you could have a long and illustrious, albeit mercenary, freelance writing career. For the purpose of your pitch letter, however, you’ll want to channel all that enthusiasm into the topic.

Passion shows… and passion sells. If you can convey a passion for the writing craft, (along with writing aptitude) and back it up with real-world knowledge of the marketplace (even if you only garnered that knowledge through a Web search 20 minutes before writing your pitch), and a few clips that display your passion and knowledge –you’ll find plenty of freelance writing gigs yours for the taking.

The Keys to Freelance Writing Success

Photo by Daniel Lee, Licensed via Flickr Creative Commons

I’m writing for three new clients this month. My plate is not full yet but I won’t lie, I’m pretty busy. It made me stop and think about how I got here.

After my contract with Crestron Electronics ended (I hate to keep bringing that up, but it really was the start of what I consider “Phase 3” of my freelance writing career and a pretty significant moment in my business), I didn’t have many clients.

I spent about five days diligently searching my favorite sites for writing jobs, and applied for about 10 different gigs that appealed to me. From those efforts, I landed two steady jobs that I absolutely love. None of these articles take a lot of time, since they are all fairly easy to research and not at all technical. (Except for one, which is in the audio visual industry, so it’s still second nature to me.) But they represent steady income and fun work. The third client, if you’re wondering, actually approached me based on content he’d read on other sites.

I know writers who spend day in, day out, applying for gigs and coming up empty. What’s the difference? There are three traits I know I have, which any writer can work to cultivate for a successful freelance writing career, too. I’ll tell you how to use these traits to find more writing work right now.

Skill and/or Talent
This one is easy for any writer to showcase. No freelance writer is going very far without it. Now, skill can be taught while talent comes naturally. Ultimately, knowledge and hard work, taking time to study the craft of writing, can make up for any lack of natural talent. When you apply for jobs, take time to pull out your best, most relevant clips to share – articles that showcase your knowledge and experience in a given field as well as your natural writing talent and, most importantly, your skill with the written word.

It took me 10 job applications to land two jobs. I had to provide writing samples (paid samples) for both. And if I didn’t get such amazing clients my first time around, I would have kept looking for as long as it took. I don’t always get 20% or more of the jobs I apply for – but when I do, I celebrate with Dos Equis. I mean… Yeah, pretty much that’s it. Either decent beer or cheap wine.

In almost 20 years as a freelance writer, I’ve had more ups and downs than I can count. Many years ago, I was promised steady work for a local newspaper, so I quit my part-time job at the bookstore to focus on writing. A week later, the newspaper folded.

More recently, I had one client who maxed me out every month with work, until the company restructured into a cheap content mill and my income was sliced in half. Last year, to recover from this financial blow, I took a full-time contract position, only to see it end unexpectedly.

Through all of these ups and downs, I’ve learned two things:

– It always gets better again.
– You just have to keep going.

Positive Thinking
This brings me to my third point, and one that so many (unsuccessful) business people forget. You have to think positive. And that doesn’t mean being positive that things are going to stay the same, get worse, or flat-out suck. You have to absolutely believe in your heart that things are getting better. And then you have to put in the work to make it happen. Checks will not appear in your mailbox because you are thinking about money, the way the movie The Secret makes it seem. Positive action, positive thoughts, and positive energy work together to bring your beliefs into alignment with reality and create success.

Back in my earliest days of freelancing, I titled my first blog, “Anything That Pays.” This is because I would take virtually any type of writing work to earn an income. (I really did, too. No, you can’t see the clips.)

But one thing I learned from all that writing was how the Law of Attraction works when it comes to being successful. The more you write, the more opportunities you will have to write. Pay scales will rise. It’s a slow and steady climb. But you cannot let up.

I suppose you can think of perseverance and positive thinking as two sides of the same coin. After all, what’s the use of continuing if you don’t really, truly believe things will get better as you progress?

Skill. Perseverance. Positive thinking.

If you apply these three traits in equal quantities, you will achieve freelance writing success.

Photo by Daniel Lee, Licensed via Flickr Creative Commons

How to Avoid the Content Rabbit Hole and Write Without Distractions


Here I go, down the content rabbit hole again. As I curate content for my social media clients, I often wind up… distracted. So many good articles vie for my attention.

“This could be good to share with my network.”
“Oh, Client X could use this information.”
“Maybe I could link to this piece in an article I could write for Z….”

On and on. If I’m not careful, I could spend my whole morning just reading. Which is not all that different from what I did as a teen, poring over stacks of women’s magazines with my mom at the kitchen table. That was probably a formative experience in my life as I went on to become a magazine editor and then a freelance writer.

It’s just that now, there’s so much MORE content, and it’s so much easier to access. Those hours spent reading, while undoubtedly important, can be deadly for a freelancer who needs to actually write (and find gigs, and pitch articles) to earn money.

Here are some ways to tame the reading beast that lives inside all writers long enough to focus on writing.

Set a Timer

Content curation is a big part of my job as a social media manager. But there’s only so much content I need to share each day. Depending on what I already have in the pipeline for my social media clients and what the rest of my day looks like, I set a timer for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. That’s all the time I allow myself for content curation. If my social media duties are done for the day and I’m just browsing for fun, I give myself 15 minutes in the morning before I start writing.

Follow a List

Now that I’ve been providing social media services to companies in the audio visual and technology industries for more than a year, I know the right places to look for the best content. I have a list and I make my rounds. Then I stop. That’s it. Yes, this takes tremendous discipline, but so do many aspects of working from home.

Keep Idea Files
If you’re absorbing massive amounts of information in one short block of time, you’re bound to forget a lot of it. I keep idea files for each of my clients and the markets I typically write in: personal finance, parenting, technology, video displays, small business, etc. etc. This way, when I see a great article I may want to share, link to, or use as a resource, I know where to find it later. When I’m browsing on my phone (which is where I do most of my reading), I immediately email the link to myself with my client’s name or the relevant market as the subject line.

Give Yourself Time for Leisure Surfing
Writers love to read. And sometimes, we just want to read listicles on Buzzfeed. That’s okay. Instead of zoning out in front of the TV at night, allow yourself leisure time in the evening to read whatever you want. It’s probably still a good idea to set a timer so you’re not up until 1 AM reading about the 10 best foods to blast belly fat or where the Kardashians are vacationing this year.

Engage in Sprints
Of course, surfing the Web is just ONE of the many distractions freelance writers face. Ultimately, it’s up to us to sit down and write. Engaging in writing “sprints,” where you set a timer and simply write, non-stop, for 15 minutes up to an hour, helps improve focus.

It helps to find a writing buddy. Text or private message your writing buddy (or send out an open call Twitter or Facebook to your writer friends) and ask, “Who wants to sprint?” Set the timer. Then write. Ignore emails, phone calls, or any other distractions.

You may decide to share your work at the end of the sprint, but you don’t have to. Certainly, a lot of my work these days is under non-disclosure agreements, so I’m not going to share it with anyone other than my editor until it’s published. But even if you can’t share your work, you can always boast about how many words you wrote in 30 minutes, and try to beat your best word count next time.

Sprints also serve the purpose of helping you “turn off” your inner editor until an article is completed. It’s a technique I recommend highly. When you’re done, reward yourself with some Web surfing time. Bloggers posted thousands of new articles while you were gone, and you’re missing them! Yikes!

Show the World You’re Not a Content Mill Writer

I just completed a series of articles I’m extremely proud to put my byline on. Forgive the blatant bragging, but after a year of not doing much writing, it’s nice to look at something I’ve written that’s more than 140 characters and say, “Damn. That’s pretty good.”

The market has changed even in the 10 or so months since I haven’t been pursuing freelance writing work. Two years ago, I was literally turning down clients or subcontracting work because plenty of companies were willing to pay fair rates for high quality content. I think I got out just as the market shifted, although I actually had no intention of leaving.

High-paying, high-quality markets and clients willing to pay for real value from their content producers are still around, but they are harder to find. Content mills have grown better at marketing themselves, which means more businesses view the mills as a viable solution to their content needs. I won’t go into why I personally feel that’s a bad choice for businesses. Instead, let’s talk about:

What this shift means for writers.
As a writer looking to make a living wage, you need to prove you’re providing better quality than clients find in the content mills. If you’ve been writing for the mills for a while, it can be difficult to change your mindset and, not only ask for what you’re worth, but earn those higher wages by providing quality content.

The following is a quick blueprint of what goes into a higher-quality article, how to give clients who pay more the value they deserve.

I’ll get into how to sell these benefits in a future piece. For now, let’s explore how high-quality writers deliver what high-paying clients demand.

Research the market.
Pitch quality ideas in line with your client’s target market. Research their concerns, desires, and pain points, then choose topics that help solve their problems

While content mills assign your story topics, out in the real world you’re often asked to generate the ideas. Learn how to do this quickly and accurately and you’ll shine above your peers.

Use reputable sources.
While the client I was working for this week did not specify a need for expert interviews, they do expect well-researched pieces. I linked to an article written by another editor of mine for a Fortune 500 client, and an article written by an expert I know personally in a particular field. With 20 years of writing experience, I know a lot of experts. Using them as sources, even if I’m not calling them up for an interview, benefits all parties involved.

Exceed the minimum word count — but not the maximum.
Longer doesn’t necessarily mean better. When I reached the end of my second piece I was faced with cutting 200 or so words. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “I was going to turn in a shorter piece, but I didn’t have the time,” then you know exactly what I mean.

When I re-read the article, which was originally written on my iPhone while my son scaled netting at an indoor play place, I knew I had plenty to cut. The end result of taking my virtual editor’s pen to the piece was a meaty and informative article that was 50 words under the limit, and 250 over the bare minimum the client expected. This, to me, is the sweet spot that says I didn’t just stop when I hit the limit, but I didn’t ramble and ignore directions, either.

Maybe it’s not right to judge an article by its length, but when I’ve assigned pieces to writers with a word count range, and they submit something that is just one or two words over the minimum and didn’t expand the article fully, I felt like they were putting in minimal effort: “You wanted 300 words, here they are. Next.” That’s not to say all articles that dance just around the minimum word count are incomplete – but some are.

Spend time on your articles.
Even if you bill by the project, hourly rates are critical for a business. And, make no mistake, writing is a business.

Content mill writers are always racing against the clock to increase their hourly rage. They’ve learned the formula to write “good enough” content that will get them more content mill jobs while still making more than they would flipping burgers (ideally). But if you believe you can be better than that (I believe you can, and I don’t even know you!), look for the better paying jobs and then give them the time they’re worth.
When you charge more for your work, you can take time to research more thoroughly, write and re-rewrite The difference is: less passive voice (more active sentences), a few clever turns of phrases, more compelling subheads, and an overall tighter piece that flows better. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one for clients who want their readers to keep coming back.

Seek out the better paying jobs.
Higher paying jobs are out there, and they aren’t hard to find. It’s believing you’re worth it that can be the challenge. Apply for the jobs, follow these tips, and build a better freelance writing career.