This is a long, lonnnng (3,500+ words) Part 2 to my post The Truth About Being a Freelance Writer. I know a lot of people are thinking of doing this but wondering how to start. This is just my experience and what I did.
Freelancing is not easy and the money is not always stable. You have to be very self-motivated. Since I’m just starting, I use Upwork (previously Elance) to find jobs, and this could very frustrating. But I had no professional experience before this and no contacts, so I’m not sure where else to get jobs. It takes patience to sort through the hundreds of job listings on Upwork to find one that’s interesting AND pays well. And your pay may not be ideal.
But it also rocks. You can wake up whenever you want to. There’s no commute through rush-hour traffic. You don’t even have to get out of bed.
I know some of you are interested in trying freelancing, so hopefully this post helps a little!
Some disclaimers first:
I’m not saying I’m an expert. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not even doing things the best way. Other freelance writers get paid a lot more than me (I can only dream about getting to that level someday!) But that said, I believe I’m doing okay all things considered… though I know there’s still a lot of room for improvement
I also don’t think Upwork gets you the best pay. Or at least, it’s hard to find a client willing to pay well. But it IS a good place to start if you have no previous experience or contacts. I had no portfolio and had no idea where else to find paid writing jobs. While I’m not going to be completely transparent about how much I earn (because I would like to earn more in the new year and I don’t want any future clients potentially reading this and using it as a benchmark), I’ll try to give you some ideas (you can always contact me if you have questions!). I probably will update this post as I learn and earn more.
This is about how to start freelance writing/editing. Though I’m guessing if you’re looking for another kind of job (like virtual assistant, web developer, etc.), some of these tips could apply too.
This post is only to provide some practical, realistic tips to start freelancing on Upwork, based on my own experience. Yes, there are posts out there like “how to make $6000 in your first month on Upwork”, but honestly I don’t see that happening unless you’re a SUPER fast writer or want to be working around the clock.
Starting with no prior experience
(I feel like 95% of my regular readers are bloggers… so this section is for you. If you’re a non-blogging reader, say hi!)
I had no portfolio, no contacts, no references, etc. All I had was this blog.
But speaking of this blog, I believe this was why I was able to get jobs pretty fast. I heard stories before about how it’s really hard to get your first job… how you may have to apply to dozens of jobs before finally getting hired. My first day of job search, I applied to about 7, and was hired for 2 (1 of them turning out to be my best long-term client).
This could just be luck, but I honestly believe it’s because of this blog. I may not have had past professional experience, but here on this blog, I have hundreds of writing samples. In my job proposals, I directed the client to take a look at my blog. Here’s an example of what you could say:
If you want to start freelancing and have a blog, I advise you to make sure the most recent few posts on your page are your absolute best writing. (Or direct them to a “best of the blog” page where you have hand selected your best pieces). Take the time to edit your posts and make sure there is no spelling or grammar errors. Make sure the writing is clear and easy to read. (And for goodness sake, make sure there is actually plenty of writing, instead of just a blurb and 20 photos!)
You want to show potential clients that you are capable of writing engaging copy. Put your personality and unique writing style into it, but also make sure it’s informative.
And if you don’t have a blog, prior experience, or any writing samples, it may be harder to start but not impossible either. It’ll take more time on your part, which we’ll get into later.
Oops, we’re already getting ahead of ourselves. Because the first thing you need to do is set up a good profile. Find a picture that shows your face and is professional looking (i.e. don’t use that awesome travel picture of you taking a selfie with a deer).
Here’s my (partial) profile:
Since I really had no prior paid writing experience, I just emphasized my blog experience. You can reference mine but please don’t steal it :). I’m rather proud of what I came up with. I went on to explain a bit more about my schooling and work background (which was engineering) and why I made the switch to writing.
You’ll also see a Tests section, where you can take some tests to show your skill levels. I only took two:
It’s okay to leave the Portfolio blank for now, but as soon as you get a couple of jobs, you can update it. Or if you have a couple of blog posts that you’re really proud of, you can put them in there too until you can replace them with paid work.
And then here’s the hardest part:
Deciding your rate
I’m pretty sure every freelancer struggles with this. I’m still don’t even know myself. I honestly had NO idea what is reasonable (seriously, let me know if you know!), so I started out by putting $15/hour. But what you display on your profile is NOT the end-all-be-all. For every proposal, you also submit a rate, so you can change it for each job according to the difficulty level. And after a couple of jobs, you can always increase the rate.
And now I’m going to tell you what I did WRONG, and hopefully you guys can learn from it.
Because I started with nothing, I thought that I shouldn’t charge too high or I risk not being hired especially with no reviews and no portfolio. And I was seriously discouraged by all the people charging only $3/hr. That’s why I picked $15. I thought it seemed like a decent place to work my way up from.
But if I could do it over, I’d start high… like $30/hr or even more. Because you know how hard it is to work your way up from a low number to high?? You can’t just randomly tell your client “Oh by the way, I’m increasing my rate now that I have experience, and it’s double what you’re currently paying me.” But if you start high to begin with, you’re already at good starting point!
And you’re also setting yourself apart from the lowballers by bidding high. This shows that you know you’re awesome and will deliver outstanding work (and then you’d better make sure you do!). The challenge with this is targeting the right kind of clients who are willing to pay top dollar for good quality.
But man, I wish that’s what I’d have done. Because I’m confident in my abilities. I know my worth. But now I’ll need to work my way up.
Picking the first job
When you’re starting out, you have no reviews (and I’m also gonna assume you have no portfolio either). Clients are taking a chance on you. Why would they hire you when there are hundreds of other freelancers with great reviews and writing samples? Now, I believe it didn’t take me long to find jobs because I have writing sample on my blog, so clients can be pretty confident in my skills.
But if you’re having trouble landing a job, you probably just need to get that first review. As soon as you have that first 5-star rave review, clients will see you a trustworthy freelancer.
So for the first job, you may have to take a quickie job. If you want to do this, don’t worry so much about the pay. Your goal is ONLY to get a review to pave the way for better opportunities. This kind of job should be a ONE-TIME task, so you can just finish it quickly and get your 5 stars (treat it as the most important job/client ever and do as perfect a job as possible). You do NOT want to be stuck with a long term job that pays poorly.
And when you’re starting out with nothing, it’s especially important to take time in crafting your proposal. After all, you have nothing to show, so your proposal is the only chance to get a client to consider you.
If you’re applying to 10 similar jobs, do NOT just copy and paste the same proposal for everyone. You want to stand out! We’ll talk about the proposal later.
Decide how you want to be paid
There are 3 ways basically:
– By the hour: This is my preferred method (for now) because I feel like I’m a really slow writer and I obsess over editing and details. So I’m afraid if I’m paid a flat rate, I may work slower and the amount of time I take will overall be less worth it. To me, this way, at least I feel like I’m being paid fairly for my time.
But the downside to this is that your rate is fixed. You can’t just write faster and earn more money. And it may also be challenging to find a client who is willing to pay you however long it takes you to write a good piece. I’m glad my current client values quality over fast results.
– Flat rate: This is like when the client says the pay is $XX per article. I worked with a blog who paid $50 per article, and to me, this could go either way. Sometimes, an article will take less time to write, so the flat rate works out great in your favor. But other times, it could take a lot of research and then it sucks to spend so much time for that price. Now, I work with him on an hourly basis and I earn probably around 50% more per article now.
So I would suggest you only do this way for topics that you already know well, or if you’re just a super-fast writer (which I’m not).
– Per word: I’ve never tried this, mainly because I have no idea what’s reasonable to charge per word. And again, I’m afraid that if something takes a lot of research and if I obsess over editing, it won’t be that worth it in the end. But I think this could be quite good if the per-word-rate is good, which to me means at least 10 cents a word. (sadly, you see SO many listings on Upwork of just $0.02 per word… ummm NO THANKS).
I’d like to try this way someday, after I learn to write faster. Seriously, I’m the slowest!
I know some of you guys do this… so if you have had the experience, do you mind just leaving a comment to say what you usually charge per word? Will appreciate that a lot!
The downside to ALL of these is that on Upwork, you’ll see a ton of Indians charging like $3/hr or $0.01 per word. And yes, a lot of people hire them because they’re cheap (that goes for both the writers and clients). It takes time to find a client that will pay what you deserve.
Finding a client
You want to find a client that values good quality over a low rate. You want to say far away from the clients who are just looking for a cheap writer. Don’t even apply to those jobs even if they sound interesting!
To find quality clients, you may want to filter your search results by Experience Level (on the left side bar):
Stay away from Entry Level! You’re worth more than this! This is for the clients who want to pay very very little for work (like $5/post) and for the writers who are willing to accept that measly pay.
This looks like the job from hell:
You can start with Intermediate. These clients are willing to pay more, though you’ll find horrible ones too like the above example. Heck, if you want to try bidding high, why not even try your luck in the Expert Level, where you’ll find the highest paying serious clients. Or if you can do niche writing in a very specialized field (like medical writing), you’ll want to be at Expert Level.
Now let’s talk about what kind of clients to look for:
In all Upwork listings, at the side, it will tell you how much money the client has spent so far and their average hourly pay.
- The most important to me is the average hourly rate paid. Only consider clients who pay what you’re aiming for.
- Then look at how much they’ve spent so far. If they’ve spent thousands or even tens of thousands, this means they are a reliable client who is serious about hiring freelancers on Upwork to be part of their business.
- Look at where they are located. So far, I only work with US, Canada, or UK companies. Because they are more likely to pay a fair hourly price. There is no way you can expect a Southeast Asian company to pay you a standard western rate.
You’ll want to stay away from clients that look like this:
Also look at their reviews. You can see what other freelancers have said about them and how much they were paid for what kind of tasks. See if the client has hired writers in the past and what they paid for writing services. Sometimes, it’ll be a lump-sum flat fee instead of hourly. And of course, it goes without saying that you want a client with good reviews.
I prefer the clients with long term projects (6 months or more). Because it sucks to keep on finding new work. I feel really lucky that my first client was looking for a long term partnership. This means that there will always be steady work coming in.
Also take a look at how many people have applied to the job. Of course, the more desirable jobs (good topic, good pay) will have more applicants. But too many applicants will mean that your proposal has less of a chance of standing out, especially if you don’t have a lot of prior experience.
Spend time on the proposal. This is your initial impression and your only chance to get noticed.
Like I said before, don’t just copy & paste the same thing into 10 different proposals. You want to personalize and tailor each one. (Yes, this takes time). Make the client feel like that you have really read through the description and that they’re offering the most interesting job in the world. Make them see why you’re perfect for the job.
I’m not sure how good my proposals are, but here’s an example that got me hired with my best long-term client:
Okay so that’s probably a pretty lame opening line. But after poking around Upwork for a bit, it seriously bothered me how many freelancers from non-English-speaking countries there were charging like $2/hour. I was starting to think that being a native speaker was a huge selling point. So I decided to emphasize that I’m raised and educated in America.
The original job description was blogger outreach (commenting, emails, and such), social media, etc. So I used my blogging experience in the proposal. He also asked proposers to rewrite a “mistake paragraph” to prove your editing skills and attention to detail. And then you can see that I invited him to look at my blog for writing samples.
Funnily enough, after he hired me, he decided to have me do editing/article writing instead. I’m super happy about that change, because who am I kidding… I’m HORRIBLE at blogging networking and social media.
All these tips are for if you already have a blog. So what if you don’t have a blog??
Don’t worry, you can still make your proposal stand out.
A serious client will specify what kind of topics they are looking for in the job listing. For example: the listing may say that they are looking for someone to write about health and wellness topics, including healthy recipes. In your proposal, you can submit a short 100 – 200 word writing sample on the topic. Or you can say something like “I am dedicated to healthy eating and already have some recipe ideas,” followed by some ideas. This shows you have given it some thought and will make you stand out from other proposals.
Once you get the job
It doesn’t stop once you’re hired! It’s so important to establish a good relationship. Not only for the positive review, but for repeat business as well.
Take each job like it’s the most interesting, important job in the world, even if the assignment is to write a 300 word blog post about lipsticks. Here are some things to do:
- Be super communicative by constantly providing updates. Ask what the timeline is and all the requirements. Be upbeat and friendly… like this! :)
- Double and triple check your work to make sure that it is completely error-free. This is your first assignment for the client and you want to deliver your absolute best.
- Do your best to deliver the assignment early. That’s always a nice surprise and appreciated.
Speaking of reviews, you ONLY want 5-star reviews. Getting 3 stars is worse than not being reviewed at all. But don’t worry, be communicative, reliable, and deliver good work, and you’ll be on your way to a perfect rating.
I didn’t even end up getting this job! The job was to start with an article about a recent SEO news. Now, I’m not an expert at all on SEO (if I were, this blog would be a lot more popular, ha!), so I took the initiative to write up a sample draft on the topic (like what I suggested) just to make sure that he and I are both happy with the work. He really appreciated that and paid me for the time. In the end, he found another writer more knowledgeable about SEO, but it’s still a great connection to make for potential future work.
A word about payment
All payment is handled through the Upwork platform. You just link your bank information and you can choose how often money is deposited.
The only thing I don’t like is that Upwork takes a significant chunk. It’s even worse now than when I started. The rules got changed a few months ago and they are now (for each client/job):
- For up to $500: Upworks takes 20%
- For up to $10,000: Upworks takes 10%
- For over $10,000: Upworks takes 5%
This new system is to reward people who stay with a client long-term. But unless you get a serious client, it may be hard to hit that $500 mark, and geez… 20% is a LOT.
The Upwork fee is kind of annoying, but it’s also there to protect you from not being paid. I’ve heard horror stories about getting work through your own channel, and a client taking months to pay. This fee ensures that as long as you’re putting down time into your Upwork timesheet, you’ll be paid for your work and on time, so I guess that’s good. I worked with a client who was absolutely HORRIBLE about communicating (like, she’d give me work and then just disappear and not respond to any messages). But it was fine because Upwork ensured that I got paid for my work.
I know some people take it off of Upwork and do payments through Paypal, but again, you’re taking a risk if the client isn’t trustworthy.
Too Long; Didn’t Read
It’s hard to find good high-paying clients on Upwork, but not impossible either, especially after you have a review or two under your belt. Take your time looking for a good client who understands quality and is willing to pay what you deserve. Don’t sell yourself short; you don’t want to get stuck in a long term job that pays poorly. I would suggest to start high even… I wish I had! Treat each job like it’s the most important thing, get that 5-star review, and you’ll be smooth sailing from then on!
I’m really thankful that I’ve had good experience with Upwork and jobs I’m happy with. But I think I’m also ready to see if I can get better rates elsewhere. We’ll see what the new year brings!
Did you make it all the way to the end?? If you’ve have freelancing experience and don’t mind sharing what you earn per word/flat rate, please comment below! I’m still learning too and I’d really appreciate any tips!
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