Disclaimer: The type of writing this article covers involves copywriting, feature writing and other forms of corporate communication. We’ve got absolutely nothing on J.K Rowling so if you’re looking for advice to write a novel you might wanna look elsewhere.
When I first started working in the creative industry, I quickly discovered it didn’t pay a lot. Compared to my peers who were earning $3,000-$4,000, my role as a Junior Copywriter only paid me $2,700.
To make matters worse, the hours were also long, and the subjective nature of what was ‘creative’ also meant clients often thought they could do their job better than you. It also opened doors for multiple, seemingly ‘unlimited’ changes.
Not exactly a good ROI on a university degree.
Fortunately for me, I soon also discovered one advantage: Unlike professionals such as HR, accountancy or civil engineering, as a creative it’s quite possible for you to have project based side-hustles.
Given my financial situation then, I quickly decided to take on freelance gigs to supplement my income.
During my first three years as a working adult, I spent many weekends and weeknights writing articles, newsletters, website copy and other forms of written communication.
In the five years since then, I’ve must written at least a hundred of them, with topics ranging from about the performance of trucks to consumer trends.
Till today, freelance writing still forms a significant backbone of my income stream.
At the risk of creating more competition for myself, this is my attempt in helping you get started.
Share the love, amirite?
Here’s how to do it, and also my greatest takeaways and mistakes.
Don’t just “write about what you know”
‘Write about what you know’ is one of the most common pieces of advice given to aspiring writers – my university tutor in Creative Writing used to say in class.
This is commonly interpreted as “write about things you already know.”
However, the outcome here is that everyone will write about the same basic listicles you won’t be paid a lot for.
Instead, if I may propose a slight rejig: ‘Write about what you know. So, go know more things.’
In my experience, the well-paying clients don’t want you to write about things that everyone knows and wants to write about – lifestyle, travel, current affairs.
Instead, big money comes in when you write about what others can’t.
To get well paid, take time to master complicated subject matters, but make sure they’re simple enough for the layperson to understand.
This could be anything from personal finance to property, blockchain, medical conditions, sustainability etc. The list of complex topics is non-exhaustive.
Having a speciality will set you apart from all the other writers who can only write about generic topics. And it will enable you to charge more.
(Further reading: ‘Distinction’ under the Four Horsemen of success)
Don’t be picky at the start
When I started out freelancing at 25, I took on every single job. Even those that paid $50 per article.
Now, I understand the hesitance to spend precious hours creating content for a measly $50 (or worse, write for exposure), but the important thing is to first get your name out there because it shows that you are reliable and consistent.
But, allow me to present another POV that matters a lot – that of your editor/client:
When a client or editor assigns work to a new writer with no established body of work, they’re taking a big risk. Beginner writers can go off-tangent, write poorly, or even worse – go M.I.A.
From an editor’s POV, they rather reduce their risk and mental health by going with someone more expensive, but will get the job done. After all, editing (or rewriting) someone’s work can be even more exhausting than writing an article of your own.
Without writing samples, all you are is a scary, unknown risk. With a portfolio of stuff you’ve done, editor would be able to go through your writing and see if you’re a suitable fit. Even if you’re not the best writer, they’ll be able to assess the risk of taking you on, and decide whether it’s worth the trouble.
In this light, price and enthusiasm are the newbie’s way of competing against more experienced writers.
Network with other creatives to get jobs
Hot tip: If you duke it out with the people on Fiverr purely on cost, you’re never going to get any gigs. There are writers in the Philippines who can charge a fraction of what you do.
Instead, the jobs I would focus on are either:
- The ones that require localised knowledge of the Singapore market.
- Writing gigs that require high trust; the ones that are so important for the client that they can’t risk outsourcing to some unknown person overseas. These could be urgent work, or highly technical work. Basically, lots of responsibility involved.
Often, these opportunities don’t happen on a platform where customers give jobs to the lowest bidder.
It happens in networks where people trust each other to get shit done, or via word of mouth.
My way of breaking into these networks was pretty conventional.
I did an internship in 2008, which helped me in editorial writing, and I was also in the advertising agency from 2014-2019, which gave me different opportunities to know more people – including clients.
Yes, of course you’ll be seen as competition, but I’ve found that when it comes to writing, your work (and work ethic) speaks for itself.
If you write a good article, no one can claim credit for it. So, build trust. Establish credibility. Prove that you can deliver.
When they run out of capacity to write, they’ll probably refer you to a client.
Maintain a blog and write in your free time
Even when there is no gig, write often and seek feedback from people you respect.
Practice makes you a better writer. While creativity is excellent, being able to force your way through writer’s block will ensure you will be able to deliver no matter the occasion.
Secondly, visibility matters. For people not in the media industry, you might want to maintain a blog or write often on your social channels.
If you get good enough, you might be approached by others to write for them at some point. This is known as inbound marketing, and it’s far more effective than cold calling/emailing.
Finally, the research you’ll inevitably do while writing is a great way to improve your knowledge, which will in turn help you become more fluent in a certain topic (see point 1).
Expect rejection and multiple changes
Here’s how the less-informed views freelance writing: You sit down at your laptop at home, bang out a few words on whatever you want, then you rake in big bucks every month.
Your average reader has a poor understanding of the effort involved to write an article they actually want to read.
They don’t see the multiple drafts, late night research and the mental fortitude needed to power through writer’s block.
Neither will they understand that writing also involves managing clients, understanding audiences and very often, chasing for overdue payments.
Indeed, there’s every possibility that the 1,000 word writing project might take months to complete, simply because of the entire process.
If that sounds tough, that’s because it is. However, as with all things, consistency is key.
Truth is, no one starts off as a good writer.
Rather, the people who are still writing today survive because of a mix of talent, knowledge, experience and perseverance.
Time to get your first gig
The road ahead is not easy, but here are some tips to get started that didn’t fit anywhere else in the article.
Do not send your university essays as writing samples. Too often, the writing styles are too different for mainstream consumption. Sending these also signals the editor that you are unaware of the differences.
Learn how to write a good collaboration email + memorable subject header. You’d be surprised at the number of emails that editors receive on a daily basis. They’re very busy people. If you seem rude, seem passive aggressive, entitled or even boring, you WILL get ignored. (You might also get ignored even if you don’t do anything wrong, because they’re just that damn busy)
Remember that you are writing for money, not passion. When you serve a client, their objectives have to be factored in. Learn how to strike a win-win for both readers and your clients.
Don’t forget your paperwork! Remember to negotiate terms before the job starts. These include work scope, costs, how and how long till you’ll be paid, number of round of feedback, how long the project will last for, what happens if they abandon the project halfway.
For smaller jobs, a letter of agreement with these terms might be overkill, but for smaller projects ($500 and below) you can just opt for written acknowledge via email. This will help when disputes occur.
All the best, good luck… and oh..
May the best writer win.
Stay woke, salaryman.