I’ve written a LOT on this site about online writing jobs for beginners. I’ve done a beginner’s guide to freelance writing, listed tips to improve writing skills, and recently I wrote a rather blunt guide to the realities of setting up as a freelance writer with no experience.
However, a couple of HomeWorkingClub members persuaded me to produce yet another writing-related article! Both of them had the same idea within a couple of days, and I thought it was a really great idea!
What they asked me to do was to lay out exactly what I would do if I was starting from scratch as a freelance writer. So that’s what I’ve put down in this article in a step by step format.
What I like about this particular online writing jobs for beginners article is that it’s not only what I would do, but it’s also based on exactly what I did. A little over ten years ago I was just starting out myself, and I’m delighted everything went well enough that I’m now being asked to advise others who wish to do the same.
A couple of important points before I start:
- This is only a skeleton list of what I’d do, and in what order. I’ve linked out to lots of further reading and suggested resources, but I could (quite literally) write an entire book if I fleshed out every point in full. There’s so much more advice on freelance writing on this website and beyond, so you should find it easy to find more information on each point.
- Just because this is what I would do, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s exactly what you should do. Furthermore, I’m certain that there are plenty of other people out there who provide this kind of advice who would disagree with some of my strategies. I’ve written this because people specifically asked me what I would do – it’s not intended as a fool-proof blueprint or a set of rules!
With that out the way, let’s get started.
Online Writing Jobs for Beginners – The Steps
1. Get Reading
My first step perhaps seems like a bit of a curveball. You want to get paid to write and I’m telling you to read?!
It’s actually really important. It doesn’t matter if you read fiction or non-fiction, magazine articles or blog entries, but the best way to expose yourself to different writing styles and approaches is to keep on reading.
This might mean sacrificing a proportion of a Netflix habit or swapping out some other hobby. Personally, I find I can make time to read more if I just manage to discipline myself away from social media most of the time! But however you do it, make sure you do it.
If you’re after some inspiration, start with “Everybody Writes,” a book by an Entrepreneur magazine columnist. It’s divided into over 70 easily-digestible chapters, and each one will give you a way to improve your writing skills. Or, check out “Contagious” by Jonah Berger, which will help you understand what kind of writing works online.
2. Start a Blog
Here we go, we’re getting into the actual writing now!
There are several good reasons to start a blog before you start hunting down online writing jobs for beginners:
- It provides you with a place where you can hone your craft and practice writing.
- It’s somewhere where you can write about whatever you like, rather than what you’re being paid to write.
- It gives you your first “clips” – you can send potential clients links to your blog content as examples of your writing.
- The blog itself could potentially form the basis of a stream of income some day.
I must make very clear at this point that I’m not going to talk you through setting up a blog right now. It’s an enormous topic that I will write content about at some point, but it would be going off on a tangent for the purposes of this article. You’ll find a tremendous amount about this online anyway.
If you want an easy route, just go to WordPress.com and start out with a free blog. If you want to take things more seriously, I’d sign up for some web hosting with someone like DreamHost (the provider I use), and set up a WordPress blog on your own hosting.
You’ll need to decide whether to write a general personal blog, or to blog about a niche or hobby that’s of particular interest to you. Unless you’re absolutely adamant that you’ll never get tempted to try to turn your blog into a business, I would do the latter. Blogs about nothing in particular aren’t very interesting to anyone but the people who wrote them (and perhaps their friends and family).
As an example of a niche, my first blog was about my wife and I moving to Portugal. It was never really intended as anything beyond a way of journalling our adventure, so it was quite a surprise when people started paying me to advertise on it (and an even bigger surprise when it evolved into a book!)
What’s more, the blog led to requests for me to write related content for other websites.
Arguably, you could just start hunting down online writing jobs for beginners without this step, but with so many benefits, it’s not one I would personally skip.
3. Sign up to a Content Mill
This step will divide opinion.
I know many people think content mills are the spawn of the devil, and I’d never claim that writing for them is rewarding, enjoyable or lucrative.
But…this is a guide for beginners, and beginners have to start somewhere.
I believe that writing for a content mill for a while will achieve several things:
- It will get you used to working with editors, following instructions and dealing with criticism.
- It will show you whether writing is really for you. Since it may well be years until you are only writing about things that interest you, you need to prove to yourself that you can put up with “the grind.”
- It will start a small (tiny!) stream of money coming in, which is a nice boost.
Most importantly, writing for a content mill will quickly reveal if you’ve actually got what it takes to be a writer. If you struggle to get accepted for a content mill or have huge problems getting articles accepted, it’s worth giving serious thought to whether you need to give up, or pause for a while and work on boosting your skills.
Content mills include TextBroker and Copify. I’m not suggesting you linger on them for long, but I would personally give them a go. They’re quite a “baptism of fire,” but they’re where the bulk of people hunting for online writing Jobs for beginners will end up.
4. Start building up your “clips”
Every writer needs a portfolio, and I’m often asked variations on the following question:
“If I don’t have a portfolio, but can’t get writing work without one, how will I ever manage to build one up?!”
It’s a good question.
If you followed step two, then you’ve got a blog. Now, you can’t fill a professional portfolio with a bunch of posts from a personal blog, but there’s no harm in including one or two of your very best articles.
Unfortunately, content mill work very rarely goes under your own byline, so you will still need to do more to build up your portfolio. Thankfully, HomeWorkingClub writer Michelle has written a detailed post on how to do this here.
Ultimately, building your initial set of clips might mean doing some unpaid or low-paid work, but it’s an unavoidable step.
5. Set up shop on Upwork
In theory, by this point you have a stream of good ideas from your regular reading, a blog as an outlet for your creativity (and a potential shop-front for your business), some experience and pocket money from working on a content mill, and a reasonably respectable/looking portfolio of work you’re happy for people to see?
If so, it’s time to enter the “Wild West” and start competing for work with the thousands of other writers plying their trade on Upwork.
Upwork is a jungle – a place that plenty of people in my position would tell you to avoid. However, I personally believe that learning to traverse it is a rite of passage and a valuable experience.
I won’t go into that much detail here; Instead, I’ll point you in the direction of a previous article I wrote providing tips for success on the platform.
Your time on Upwork will be stressful and time-consuming; You’ll do jobs for peanuts for the sake of good feedback; You’ll probably encounter a scam or two, and you’ll likely fire off dozens of applications for writing work that yield you absolutely nothing.
But…eventually you should start getting some work, and what you’ll learn about the world of freelancing from your time on Upwork will be incredibly valuable. And to be brutally honest, it will quickly teach you if you truly have the level of drive and resilience you need to make it as a freelance writer.
6. Move towards a speciality
In the early days, you’ll take all the online writing jobs for beginners that you can get.
Between the content mills and the job boards, you’ll probably end up writing everything from product descriptions to web content for odd topics you know nothing about.
However, it is best to gradually work towards an area of specialized knowledge. In an ideal world, this will be a topic you’re passionate about and the niche you previously chose for your blog!
In my case, my specialisation ended up being technology, and it has latterly evolved more into cybersecurity, mainly due to how much demand there is for that kind of writing these days.
It actually gets me down a little that specialising starts to become unavoidable after a while; There’s lots I’d rather write about than cybersecurity, but it pays well and there’s plenty of demand for it. Unfortunately, when it comes to personal branding, “Jack of all trades writer,” simply doesn’t read as well as “Cybersecurity specialist” or “Expert in medical technology!”
So it’s important, as your freelance writing career begins to take shape, that you start to ensure your portfolio “makes sense.” If you’ve got an article about skin care next to one about the latest Lego sets, you don’t look like a very focussed writer – and at the higher levels, you’ll be competing against people who are experts in their field.
7. Branch out
You can start this step at the same time as working on Upwork. It’s all about beginning to find clients away from that platform – clients who may have a little more money to spend, and who you can start to form a more personal relationship with.
Competition is strong, but if you’ve been keeping your portfolio up to date and specialising in something, you should eventually find something that sounds like it was made for you.
8. Build and refine
At this point, you begin to make the shift from someone who’s looking for online writing jobs for beginners to someone who’s building a business around freelance writing.
Here are a few of the things I’d be looking to do at this stage:
- Refining and updating portfolios.
- Building up a broader personal brand – perhaps with a writer website and an updated LinkedIn portfolio, explaining what you specialise in.
- Concentrating on ongoing relationships with clients, rather than scoring individual writing jobs. Professional writers don’t pitch for hundreds of individual articles – they build relationships where they’re guaranteed a certain number per month at a frequently-negotiated rate.
9. Get onto the higher-level platforms
These are platforms where household-name companies link up with established writers, and pay proper money for articles. However, they don’t let just anybody in. These sites want to see and check over your clips before you get near any clients. Once again, a specialism in a particular industry will pay off here.
10. Rinse and repeat
Once you get to this stage, if all has gone well, one or all of the following things will be happening:
- Your interactions with Upwork will probably only be when clients personally invite you to discuss a job.
- You’ll have several clients who give you regular work every week/month.
- You’ll have a large enough selection of clients that as one goes quiet, another will suddenly give you a big assignment.
- You’ll occasionally hear from a new lead out of the blue, wanting you to write something for them as a result of some previous work they’ve seen.
- You’ll have some ideas to move forward with – whether than means commercialising a blog or self-publishing a book.
- You’ll feel that you’ve done enough hard graft to call yourself a freelance writer without feeling that you’re exaggerating!
Now, the big question is how long should it take to get from step one to step ten…
Well, in my case, it’s taken a decade! And I’ve been fortunate enough to have other work that I do, including IT consultancy and web design, to help me through the lean times. Those lean times still appear on occasion, but I have enough avenues for additional work that I usually feel about as secure as I imagine anyone does in this day and age.
My wife started freelancing five years ago, and she could tick the above boxes too.
So there’s no easy answer to the question of how long it takes. Drive and determination plays a part, luck plays a part, and the randomness of life plays a huge part too.
My personal freelance writing path has been far from straight; There have been diversions where I’ve had children, moved countries, and ended up on long-term consultancy projects that are completely unrelated to writing. It’s all part of the fun.
Hard? Yes. Unpredictable? Yes. Boring? Never. And that’s why I do it.
I hope this helps a few of you do the same.