A freelancer without clients is a coffeehouse without patrons, or coffee. You’ll have time to learn about the state of the writing industry, the purpose of a 1099 or a Trello board, and how to supercharge your editorial skills later. But these things are easier to do when rent is paid, and rent only gets paid if you’re working. This starts by finding writing clients; ideally, those who pay appropriately for your skill level.
The Hard Truth About Pitching
Finding writing clients comes naturally to some people, but for me, it’s always been the hardest part about freelancing. For instance, just between January and July of 2016, guess how many potential clients I queried, asking for work? Here it is, broken down by category:
New work queries to existing clients: 3
Print publications: 10
eLearning jobs: 2
Technical writing jobs: 2
Editing jobs: 1
Upwork jobs: 73
Now, out of these queries, guess how many jobs I actually landed in seven months?
Jobs from existing clients: 2
Upwork jobs: 15
This is common. And keep in mind, these stats aren’t taken from when I was a new writer. This comes from when I had been freelancing for five years and earning $3,000 per month.
This isn’t to discourage you, but just to show you how much time you may have to devote to finding writing clients. It’s just part of the job, like how even a luxury lifestyle still requires running out for toilet paper on occasion.
Why Finding Writing Clients is So Damn Tough
Why do so many queries get rejected or ignored? Usually, potential clients turn down submissions from writers for one of these reasons:
- They have no need for what you’re offering.
- You can’t prove you know how to do the work required.
- They have no clue who you are.
Finding writing clients requires you craft a marketing strategy that confronts each of these things. And if, like me, you didn’t go to business school, you’ll need some sales and marketing wizardry to help.
Thing #1: Clients have no need for what you’re offering.
Think about a time you were confronted by a stranger trying to sell something.
I was approached by a nervous young man, Steve, in the park one day. My partner and I were balancing on our slackline. The man seemed interested and we invited him to try it, but he declined. He was friendly enough as he lingered and asked what we did, and whether we were happy with our work. We both stated that yes, we are happy with our work.
See, doesn’t Alex look happy? Or, at least, very focused?
Then, Steve started a sales pitch (talking about a pyramid scheme), and how we could have more freedom working for his company.
Never mind the point that he was telling two hippies on a slackline that they could actually have more freedom. He could have saved himself a load of trouble if he’d recognized we had no desire to switch jobs in the first place. I felt icky afterwards, too. I had thought that this was a genuine interaction, that I was meeting someone new in the park.
Instead, it was a gimmick, and gimmicks leave people feeling duped. Only rarely do they result in a commercial transaction. A similar thing happens if you’re finding writing clients the wrong way.
Clients Don’t Like Gimmicks Either
Has this sort of thing happened to you? Now, imagine you’re an editor and you receive hundreds of these Stevelike “pitches” a day. Though some writers have researched your likes and dislikes, others are blind-firing into the abyss, hoping to land a sale by sheer luck. Finding writing clients doesn’t happen this way.
How are you going to sell the value of your writing services and capture clients’ attention? It starts by understanding what your client or customer truly wants.#Freelance #writing clients don't like gimmicks, either. Click To Tweet
A good salesperson will get to the core of a buyer’s motives and spin their sales pitch to appeal to that buyer’s problems. It’s called value selling, and it works.
Finding writing clients based on their needs
If you begin with your clients’ needs, you will have a much easier time finding writing clients. It’s not always obvious (like in a job posting, for example), so here are some tricks:
- Read their Facebook business page. Look for hints that a company is growing, or lacking written content.
- Research individual editors at the publication you want to write for –– find them on Twitter and other social media. Study their interests.
- Be blunt. Write an email and ask, “what kind of submissions do you wish would fall into your inbox right now?”
- Join a mailing list for your favorite blog or magazine.
- Request a PR kit to learn more about target readership.
- Read their current web copy and assess it for quality.
Value selling isn’t just a tactic for finding writing clients. It’s a tactic for satisfying current ones, and building long-term relationships. When I get a new copywriting or technical writing client, I spend most of my time asking questions and listening. If I’m writing web copy and my client sends me a link to a site they love, I don’t just take it and say “thank you!” I ask them what they like and dislike. I dig deeper.
The deeper you can get into your clients’ heads, the better.
Be Useful to Your Readership
Every good business, and every piece of worthwhile writing has, at its core, utility. Whether it’s flowery or straightforward, written to advertise or entertain, it must always be of use to the reader.
I cannot emphasize this point enough. Many writing projects start as passion projects, projects you’re writing because they inspire or excite you. In rare cases, your own excitement may be enough to carry your project to commercial success. However, this approach is akin to buying a lottery ticket. If you are the kind of person who buys lottery tickets, go on and take this approach. That’s fine. But consider how many times you’ve won the lottery.
If you are the kind of person who wants to earn money doing the work you love, there is a much better approach, and that approach starts with being useful.
Thing #2: You can’t prove you know how to do the writing required.
The beginning of my freelance career was made up of a string of hilarious and embarrassing misadventures. When you’re adjusting from taking the boss’s orders to holding yourself accountable for binge-watching Game of Thrones, strange things happen to your psyche.
Some days, you’re the permissive parent, telling your child-self to indulge in your free time, because this is one of the perks of being a freelancer.
Other days, you’re the authoritarian, beating yourself up for not being more diligent.
Most of the time, however, you just wish people would take a fucking chance on you, because you know you’d blow it out of the water.
Often, the problem isn’t finding writing clients — but proving that you know what you’re doing.
Cold-calling doesn’t work
With no portfolio, aside from my shelved novel and handful of short stories, and very few industry or professional connections, I had a really hard time getting started. I cold called the general manager of the bar where my partner at the time was working to timidly ask if his restaurant “needed any writing done, maybe for your website? Because I’m a writer, and I have a bachelor’s degree in writing.”
I remember pacing the carpet in my apartment with sweaty palms while I held the phone, waiting for his response, expecting a “no,” but still beating myself up when I got it. He already had someone writing his web content, but thank you and we’ll think about it.
New writer mistakes
I made brochures on my home computer about my writing services, listing services I barely understood. I spent way too much time making the thing graphically beautiful, even incorporating the image of a self-portrait I did with oil paint. This will show them how artistic I am, I thought! Let’s see, services include…direct mail? Ad copy? Sure, those are words that look good on a list. I can figure out how to do them, when the time comes, if the time comes. Given enough time to teach myself, I can write anything.
I distributed these brochures and flyers in places like coffee shops and Panera, places where only a rare second of serendipity could have landed me a client. People looking for professional writers don’t look on bulletin boards, and if they did, their immediate question would be this: how can I trust that this person knows what she’s talking about?
A degree in writing, a certificate from an online class, and even a testimonial from someone else isn’t enough to prove you can write.
Finding Writing Clients That Pay by Donating Your Work
More often than not, your future clients are more likely to hire you when you can demonstrate that you can do a particular type of work, than when you can show them your academic credentials. This spells good news for newbies and experienced writers alike.
Often, the best way to break into the market of your choice is to do a very small project in that field of work – write a news article for a local nonprofit magazine, a service article for a blog, or a series of social media posts for a friend’s budding business. But then we have the famous Catch-22: I need a client to build my portfolio, but I need a portfolio to get a client. What am I supposed to do now?
It’s controversial to suggest it, but I love controversy, so here goes: do one, just one, for free.
I’m not saying go write a bunch of stuff you’re not interested in for free. If you’re going to volunteer your work for the sake of your portfolio, do something really badass that makes you feel good.
Ideas for Getting Your Byline Out There
Here are some ideas, sorted by the type of category you’re hoping to break into:
- Blogging: Offer a local startup three free blog posts. If it grows traffic or sales, offer them additional posts for your regular fee.
- Copywriting: Know anyone starting a business? Offer to write a page of web copy, a promotional brochure, a whitepaper, or a case study.
- eLearning: Create your own short eLearning course on a subject you care about. Teach beginner’s knitting, offer a tennis tutorial, or show how to paint miniatures. For the whole shebang, partner with a designer or web developer to bring the course to life. Do it yourself using an eLearning platform, like Udemy. Otherwise, perform it as a lecture and give it away (or sell it) on your website.
- Article writing: Attend a community event, and take diligent notes and pictures. Write a journalistic piece in the tone of a local newspaper or magazine. Submit the story to the publication on spec.
How to Write for Free Without Being a Chump
Here’s a more in-depth example of this approach. Let’s say you want to get into content marketing, and your sister has started selling a video game. Offer to build her an editorial calendar for her website, maybe four or five blog posts, that cover the video game industry in a way that will be interesting to potential buyers.
Keep track of relevant statistics about the blog posts. How many unique visitors are coming to the website daily, as opposed to before you started blogging? Maybe your writing helped grow the company’s Facebook following, or maybe they saw a significant increase in sales as a direct result of reading your posts.
After you’ve written the agreed-upon amount of posts for your sister, whether in print or digitally, save screenshots or PDFs. When finding writing clients, these clips can serve as hard proof that you can write effectively.
Thing #3: They have no clue who you are.
Most successful writers are not famous. Really. You probably don’t know who wrote “Always Coca-Cola” or Justin Timberlake’s latest song lyrics or many of the top sellers at your local bookstore, but these writers are making a living with their work.
When I say that clients or editors ignore you because they don’t know who you are, I don’t mean they’re rejecting you because you’re not famous.
Instead, what I mean is that you must have prominence in your niche when finding writing clients.
Think Like an Editor
Imagine you pitch an article to the editor of an equine magazine about breeding horses. If the editor Googles you, there should be some evidence that you have experience with horses — whether it’s a LinkedIn profile, an author website, or even a quotation as a source in a newspaper piece. If nothing at all comes up, how does the editor or client know you know about this subject?
That’s not to say you can’t get a writing job if your name isn’t out there, but you have a much greater chance of commanding attention if you have some authority. I started picking up bigger clients when I put more attention into showcasing my expertise.
What If I’m Unpublished?
So what if you’re fresh out of high school, or you simply don’t have niche experience yet?
Clearly, you should give up and become an insurance agent. Kidding. Instead, get out there. Spread the word online and offline about who you are and what you’re about.
Because this can get very overwhelming very quickly, I recommend you begin by picking one platform where you feel the most excited about growing your prominence, and then pour your sweat into that one thing until you see results.
Here’s a list of ideas to start, some of which you may already be doing.
Make your own professional website.
Fortunately, you don’t have to know the difference between HTML and a cascading style sheet to create your own gorgeous website for free. I’ve used WordPress.org, WordPress.com, Hubspot, and Weebly, all free tools, but there are tons more to choose from, in which you can literally drag and drop your page into creation.
Having your own website may be the best step for you if you’re hoping to break into copywriting or content marketing. It acts as a portfolio in itself, proof that you can do the thing you’re trying to sell to others.
Start a Blog
If you do write a blog, remember, a professional blog isn’t a public diary, as it was in 2001. A blog is an extension of your expertise. If you’re a finance writer, your posts should involve money. A creative writer could post flash fiction stories, or an eLearning writer could post about changes in the industry. Keep this in mind about writing your own blog: often you can republish your posts elsewhere to spread your byline, while also commanding a reprint fee. Double awesome.
But once again, we return to the mantra, “be useful.” Driving traffic to your page requires that you publish content of interest to your readers. I would love to write a blog post about rock climbing or houseplants. However, my readers are writers, so the content of this blog focuses on the freelance writer’s lifestyle.
Use Social Media
Social media won’t work for you if your only goal is to garner thousands of followers. It will work for you, however, if you’re willing to put in the time and planning required to participate in real conversations. Each of the main platforms has its own best practices.
I will provide some cautionary advice, though: a social media presence is nothing if you’re not genuine. It’s easy to garner follows on major platforms, but harder to garner trusting relationships. I’ll end with this quote from J.B. Priestly: “The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.”
Good Old Fashioned Networking
Although the digital revolution isn’t sounding its death throes anytime soon, neither is old-fashioned in-person networking. This one is hard for me, but I’m learning to overcome it in different ways. One of these ways is to make an introduction with a client in the cyber-world and follow up with them on the phone to add a touch of humanity.
Check if there’s a co-working space, professional organization or co-op, writer’s group, or writer’s conference in your area. Travel, if you can. Some of my best experiences as a working writer came from forcing myself out of my shell and attending self-employment and writer’s conferences.
Finding writing clients, as described in the title, is like a sport. It involves skill, like improving your ability to do research. The content you write must also be as impeccable as it can be. You can learn it, but to see results you must practice and trust your intuition.