The purpose of this post is not to scare anyone away from freelancing. I just want to acquaint you with the realities I had to face. These are based on my experiences and might be different for you. Also, there are people making 6 figures from writing but the honest ones will tell you there’s nothing easy about the work they do.
Last year I had a plan to increase my income as a freelance writer. My plan was simple.
- Find clients
- Get hired
- Write articles
- Get paid. (My goal was to hit 1k in my first month)
If you are a freelance writer, you can tell that this was a plan doomed to fail. But I did not know it then.
I based my half-baked plans on unrealistic expectations gleaned from Medium articles by other writers “crushing” the freelance game. These writers were making (or claimed to make) 6 figures. They had clients knocking down their doors. Cash was piling on their front lawn or on whatever beach they were lounging on. They made it seem so easy. So I thought making money from freelance writing would be a breeze.
Several months down the line I discovered some hard truths I will share with you in this post.
Now let’s take a look at my plan, why each part failed so badly, and what you can learn.
1. Find clients
There was a major flaw with the first step in my plan. I knew what to do but I did not know how to do it. So I began by trying out what these writers prescribed.
I branded myself as a freelance writer on social media.
I set up a website.
I joined freelancing platforms like Upwork and Fiverr.
I wrote guest posts.
I applied for jobs I found on LinkedIn/Reddit.
Nothing worked. I was disappointed and felt I wasn’t doing something right. What I didn’t know was that every writer had client acquisition channels that worked for them. I just had to find my own path. I kept experimenting and this led me to cold emailing. But it didn’t get any easier.
For each client, I “found”, I had to go through the excruciating process of · identifying companies in my niche (B2B SaaS)
· finding the contact person at the company (usually the founder or someone in marketing)
· and then hunting down emails (couldn’t afford to pay for an email finding tool so I had to limit my search to 50 emails per month).
After suffering through these experiences for many months, I found clever tricks to find companies and contact persons and I automated my prospecting process.
Lessons: Finding clients is not so easy. You have to find the client acquisition channel(s) that works for you. Find out what options are practicable for you and then experiment with all of them until you get results.
2. Get hired
After crossing my first hurdle I arrived at the next one; convincing prospects to hire me.
I sent out emails by the boatload. But not before I had spent two days rolled up in a fetal position, overthinking sending them.
P.S I am not a very bold person. Sending an email to a total stranger asking them to hire me did not come naturally.
It was hard but I did send these poor ripoffs of templates I found online to prospects. I put in the few samples I had (most of them were irrelevant). I mentioned that I had a certification in content marketing. Sad right? But that was all I had. And unlike the writers that had written for Forbes, HBR, and all the other big boys, the notable publications mentioned in my pitches were Medium, The Strive, and The Startup.
The replies trickled in. And then I learned the painful truth that a positive reply would not always translate to work or money in my account. And that positive replies sometimes took two months to materialize into actual work.
Also, no one mentioned that a lot of prospects would want to get on calls to interview you before assigning you a piece. No one mentioned that you would have to deal with people who are surprised you speak English as an African or try to lowball you when you send over your rates. I had to deal with rejections that had little to do with my skills and everything to do with my location.
The few positive replies kept me from drowning in sorrow over the curt ones that made me feel like an irritant and less like a content writer.
Because of how emotionally draining cold emailing was, I paused on sending out emails when I landed my first two clients. This mistake would come back to bite me in the ass much later.
Lessons: Don’t use the templates you found on writing in your emails without tweaking and personalizing them. Everyone else who read that article or took that course is probably copying and pasting it in their emails.
If you are not white or do not speak English as your first language, don’t expect your experiences to be the same as most of the 6 figure writers. Our path is different and a lot harder. You will gain more from reading or speaking with a successful writer with the same experiences as you.
Also, location and skin color will sometimes matter more than the skills you have. When this happens, do not let it get you down. Look for clients who know that where you come from does not determine the quality of your work.
Finally, you’ve to keep pitching to keep a consistent flow of work coming in. I had no work for months because I stopped pitching.
3. Write articles
This was the hardest part.
I am not an organized writer. Most of the pieces I had written on Medium were “inspired” pieces. No outlines. No thought for SEO. No client on the other side with expectations or strange demands (like expecting a 300-word article to rank).
I had to teach myself how to organize my thoughts before writing. I had to learn how to optimize for keywords. I had to drag my butt to the chair when I did not feel like writing. I had to chase down clients to remind them to send me information that was vital for the work they needed me to do.
And the learning did not stop after the writing. I found that I had to learn how to deal with the fear that came each time I was about to send a draft to a client. The thoughts that would fill my head. What if they hated it? What if it was terrible? Receiving feedback on my work did not feel good and I almost gave up on writing when one of my clients asked me to make some edits.
Lessons: Writing for yourself is very different from writing from clients. Get used to writing when you don’t feel like it. Also, clients will stir a wide range of emotions in you. No matter what happens, stay professional and try to find the best solutions for them. If they don’t take your advice, don’t force it.
You are not the words you write. So always remember that any feedback you receive is not directed at you. Make changes fast and learn from your mistakes.
You should also know when to take a stand and not let any client treat you like a slave. Draw the line at abusive language or inhumane work terms. You are a freelancer, not a slave.
4. Getting paid
Usually, in the articles I read the writer would write and get paid. Just like that. No difficulties with PayPal. No customers having weird policies about payment platforms.
Not a single word was mentioned about the rates you’d get charged while using payment platforms. Or the fact that the payment process might be very different for someone living on a different continent. No one mentioned that you’d have to create invoices or that you would sometimes have to wait for weeks before your money gets to you. The money you needed urgently.
As a writer living in Nigeria, I struggled to charge good rates for my work. Prospects would tell me that my prices were too expensive and above budget. I did not collect a deposit before starting projects because I felt my clients would not trust me enough to pay me before delivering the work. I had to find ways to get my money into my bank account in the easiest way for my customers. Which any Nigerian writer would tell you is near impossible. Changing government policies, crazy exchange rates, and the unavailability of some payment platforms in my country narrowed my options to next to nothing. I lost gigs because of these problems.
Losing gigs and not charging enough made my $1k goal impossible to achieve. Each new morning reminded me of the fact that I was very far away from making the amount of money I wanted. I was depressed and some days I would just give up on working.
Lessons: It is okay if you don’t hit $1k in your first month. Or in your third or fourth month. Move at your own pace, not at the pace of a random person who hit $3k once and wrote a Medium post about it. Instead, follow people who earn these amounts consistently and find out their process.
Also, set realistic goals for yourself. If you want to earn more, you are not going to do that by charging measly rates. All you’ll get for your hard work is a severe case of burnout.
Writing for a client that doesn’t want to sign a contract won’t end well. If they are not ready to commit to the project, you should run.
Here’s some more unsolicited advice that could help you
I’m terrible with conclusions but here it goes.
Know that freelance writing is easier than most jobs but not easy. Be wary of people who gloss over how their network, skills, and location gave them a leg up. The dream of easy living and no hard work they are trying to sell does not exist.
Even though you make your hours and you are your boss, you still have to show up to work every day (well not every day but you get my point). You have to learn how to manage clients, deal with rejection, and not get distracted by successes.
You will learn best by asking freelance writers questions and not by reading posts written by someone trying to sell you a course. Twitter is a good place to start. There you will find freelance writers talking about how hard this job is. Not the whitewashed rubbish that pops up on Google.