Reader (and writer) Rebecca asks:
I've been freelancing for about a year and a half and I'm doing alright for myself, but I'm still on the content mill treadmill. What's the best way to break out of the content mill rut of low-paying, high-volume gigs, especially when almost all of the work that I've completed as a freelancer is under contract so I can't even put it in my portfolio as samples?
From my perspective, there are three components to this query. The first one is probably the most important, which is interesting because it’s the part of the question Rebecca didn’t ask:
What does “doing all right for myself” mean? After a year-and-a-half of freelancing, how are you doing on the following metrics:
Earnings (reliability, predictability, relationship to income needed to meet financial goals)
Time spent (reliability, predictability, relationship to time needed to meet personal and professional goals)
Basically, what I’m asking is what aspect of your current situation is the most critical? Is it the time aspect or the money aspect? If both “earnings” and “time spent” are truly all right, then why not work for content sites forever? You can get a lot of gigs off those sites, after all — and if you are an efficient writer you can earn around $500 a week (pretax), assuming 3 cents a word, 600 words an hour, and 6 hours of freelancing work every weekday.
(Yes, I know that 600*6*5*0.03 is actually $540. Assume you’ll spend 30 minutes of every 6-hour session on admin, and that your work will average down to $500 per week.)
Is $500 for 30 hours of work every week all right?
But maybe your numbers are lower than that, either because you aren’t averaging 600 words an hour or because your content sites aren’t giving you a consistent amount of assignments every week.
Or maybe what you secretly want is to be a six-figure freelancer ten years from now (like I am).
Which really means you want to know how to increase your income by $20K each year (like I did).
You can already see how the question is changing — we’re going from “how do I get off the content treadmill” to “how do I increase my per-word earnings?”
Or, if you want to think about it from a different perspective, “how do I write more words per hour?”
This brings me back to the question of which part of your situation is the LEAST ALL RIGHT — the time aspect or the money aspect?
If you need to maintain the income you’re currently bringing in from content sites, you’re going to need to find a way to work the hours you’re currently working while allocating additional hours towards locating higher-paying clients.
If you can live without a portion of the income you’re currently bringing in, you can accept fewer content assignments and use that time to find higher-paying clients.
Are we all on the same page here?
Now I’ll answer the question Rebecca actually asked.
There are two ways to get freelance assignments:
Ask for work (cold pitching, warm pitching, pulling assignments off a content board, etc.)
Be asked to work (network recommendations, ongoing client relationships, new client queries, etc.)
At this point in your career, you’re probably going to want to use a combination of cold pitches and network recommendations.
There are a bazillion guides to pitching out there, including ones written by me, so I’m not going to recap any of that unless someone asks me a specific question about a specific aspect of the process.
(“How do I find clients that accept freelancers with my level of experience,” for example, is a very good specific question. One of you should make sure to ask that question so I can answer it in another column!)
There are fewer guides to getting freelance gigs through recommendation, so I’m going to try to cover what to do in as few words as possible:
Ask your freelance friends who they’re writing for. Make this a 1:1 interaction (email, direct message, in-person conversation), not a message board or Facebook group interaction. Give your friend the opportunity to speak honestly about their opportunities, including whether any of those opportunities might have an opportunity for you.
If you have a positive professional relationship with a content site editor, let them know you’re looking for clients and ask them if they know anyone who might be a good fit. They might not have an answer today, but a week from now, when they get that email saying “hey do you know of some good finance writers because we need to ramp up our blog in a single month,” they’ll think of you.
When I was looking for ways to increase my income by $20K in a single year, I used both of those tactics — while continuing to maintain my content site output. I had the privilege of being able to throw more hours towards building my freelance career, which meant that I didn’t have to spend any of the hours I was currently using to earn content site money.
If you can’t put more hours towards freelancing, you might have to take a temporary money hit until you can land clients paying more than 3 cents a word (or whatever you’re currently earning). Budget accordingly.
oh wait I forgot about the “how do I share the work I’ve done if I can’t put it in my front-facing portfolio” question
very simple answer
send the links via email
Thanks for thinking of me! Here are three samples of work that I recently completed for CONTENT SITE. These are ghostwritten pieces, so I’m sure you’ll understand why I can’t share them on my professional portfolio — but I’m linking them here so you can get a quick sense of what I’m able to contribute.
if your contract is so so so so very strict that you can’t even do that, here’s another option:
Thanks for thinking of me! Right now the majority of my freelance work is through CONTENT SITE, and the nature of my contract doesn’t allow me to share individual examples of my current writing.
However, EDITOR’S NAME can speak to the quality of my work
[or, if you don’t have a specific editor to name]
However, I’d be happy to submit a 300-word writing sample on a subject of your choice
[or, if you wouldn’t be happy to do that]
However, you can see samples of my work at my personal blog
you get the idea.
There's one more question you need to ask yourself before you begin the process of adding new clients to your freelance portfolio.
What kind of writer do you want to be?
Like, if the answer to “how much money do you want to earn next year” is “current income+$20K,” then you should ask yourself how the freelancers earning at that level are getting it done — and whether the kinds of assignments they’re writing are likely to match your interests, expertise, etc.
Or, you can approach the question from the other direction: Which freelancers have the kind of writing life you want? What are they doing? Who are they writing for? How much are they earning?
What kind of writer do you want to be is such a huge, important question, and I am so very very out of time to give it a more thorough analysis — so let me know if you want it to be the subject of a future freelance advice column. ❤️