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Freelance writing basics

Updated on August 17, 2010

From my book, Freelance Writing- Understanding the toughest trade in writing

I don’t write lullabies, I write books. There’s no sugar coating in this one. It’s important that people starting out as freelancers understand the basics.

This is orientation training. For the purposes of this book, you’re assumed to be starting from scratch.

I’d be doing a lot less than my job as a writer to produce a travel brochure. This is a tough trade, and you need to know how to navigate, what to avoid, and what the real business is about.

A freelance writer is the epitome of the New Economy, working on multiple jobs, around the world. It’s sometimes a complex working structure, but you get multiple income streams, and you can write to your heart’s content.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

It can also be frustrating, with mediocre income for a lot of hard work. It is perfectly possible to spend 12 hours trapped on a screen. I’ve done it. I’ve also eaten muesli for weeks on the basis of the income situation.

Get starry-eyed later.

Learn the job first.


Freelance writing is a job. You do have obligations to others, and you’ll be in no doubt of that fact within 24 hours, in any writing gig.

It’s not a blue sky business. You have to produce, efficiently, on time, and under whatever guidelines are involved.

Income is always an issue. You can find yourself getting outworker wages for long hours, not getting paid, going through mysterious banking rituals with foreign currencies, it’s a long list.

Your writing is your main career asset. You will be asked for writing samples, who you’ve worked with before, what your subject range is, there are a lot of quite legitimate requirements from people hiring writers. Even qualifications don’t necessarily add up to what people want from a writer. Write well, and you have a chance with anyone.

Some jobs aren’t worth doing, others are. High paying writing jobs come with heavy demands on time and sometimes patience. They can be very aggravating. They can get in the way of doing other things that lead to more work. Some lower paying work can give you a way of approaching much better paying jobs.

Basic online article writing, for example, doesn’t always pay well, but when it does, you need to be able to show you can do that work.

Deadlines are sacred. Make that your first thought when you get out of bed.

When you find yourself working on a foreign time frame with 10AM their time the deadline, you make damn sure you meet that deadline.

Don’t get lazy. Unless you really want to annoy the hell out of everyone you’re working with, and lose jobs on a daily basis. There are other writers in this world, and they’ll go looking for someone who can deliver, with good reason. Laziness is defined by poor quality work, sloppy text, typos ad nauseam.

Use your brain, and your talent. In all parts of writing, efficiency of production and efficiency of expression and technique are vitally important. Don’t just crash into a job and wind up with a 1000 word mess. Look where you’re supposed to be going, and you’re more likely to get there.

Types of freelance writing

These are very broad categories, and they often combine, but they’re all distinct.

  • Creative writing
  • Technical writing
  • Journalism
  • Internet writing
  • Contract writing
  • Assignment writing
  • Individual writing gigs, “piece work”.

Creative writing

Potentially the most rewarding, and usually the toughest, in terms of a career. Check out the creative writing on the net and in bookstores, and you can see that the quality is very variable. What you need to see is the standard of writing, as a commercial proposition. That’s what you have to beat.

Technical writing

This is “scientific” writing for the professions. It’s excellent and fascinating work if you’re in that field. It’s also very demanding, quality is a basic requirement. Technical writing pays very well indeed. Sometimes it’s literally a full time job, but you need to know your field very well before anyone will let you do it. It’s a major career plus, because you can prove expertise in that area of writing.


Journalism is one of the most potentially brilliant careers for a freelancer. It’s also a maze of methods, editorial requirements, and requires a huge number of skills at major media level. There are legal issues, ethical issues, and sometimes a need for a level of stamina which is like running a marathon.

Internet writing

The internet is the primeval slime from which modern writers emerge. It’s a slopfest, an outworkers recruitment agency, beautiful, incisive, ignorant, biased, bigoted, brain-dead and dazzling. The internet is also a fundamentally necessary part of modern writing. Everything winds up online to some degree. Forums are sometimes staggeringly ferocious, and occasionally revelations. For freelancers, the net is unavoidable, and the experience is essential.

Contract writing

This is critically important. Contracts can apply to anything. Contract work exists in every profession, and particularly in freelance writing. You are literally under a contract which specifies what you’re obliged to do. All writers are advised to get a very good grip on contracts, because you’ll inevitably be

working with them.

Assignment writing

These are special writing jobs where your topic is created for you by the employer. For aspiring writers, they can be critical steps in going up the food chain.

Individual writing gigs, “piece work”.

These are the one-offs. They can be ghostwriting jobs, special assignments, any individual writing process. They’re also very important. These jobs cover the entire spectrum of writing, and successful freelancers can create a big, impressive CV covering a huge range of writing work.

The portfolio

Writers have to do job interviews, too. This is your nest egg of work which you can use to get more work. It’s absolutely integral to your career as a freelancer.

What you show a prospective employer will be considered to be your standard of work. In copywriting, for example, your portfolio is your biggest asset. It’s who you are, as far as they know.

The requirements for any writing job may ultimately equate to your being a better writer than everybody else.


Quality really matters.

The book is available on lulu.


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    • Paul Wallis profile image

      Paul Wallis 7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      hello hello-

      Really, it's not that easy. I've been writing for years, and it's very much a learning curve until you pick up the fundamentals of the business side. Look for returns, and look for areas where you know you can write well. The added confidence will make things a lot easier.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      I trying very hard to get into and mainly to earn a reasonable amount from it.

    • sugz profile image

      sugz 7 years ago from Quakeville... Christchurch, New Zealand

      will take the opportunity to purchase your book, it's an area i have been intereted in for some years and a bit of extra knowledge will be an advantage :) ty.