9 problems every freelance writer faces when starting out

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March 10, 2021
5 minute read

Every freelance writer faces challenges, but when you’re just starting out, certain obstacles pop up more than others. To set yourself up for success, it’s important to understand what those are. Below, we’re outlining the nine problems every freelance writer experiences in the beginning—and how you can overcome them.

1. Writing without a portfolio

Most beginner freelance writers don’t have a lot of experience, let alone a portfolio of work to show potential clients. But trying to get writing work without a portfolio is like applying to a job without a resume: difficult and unprofessional. Prospective clients and editors may not take you as seriously if you don’t have at least a few decent writing samples that showcase your skills.

The solution:

Before you email editors or apply to writing jobs, establish some credibility. The good news is you don’t need a long list of impressive clips—you just need a few strong samples of your work. Consider the type of writing and field you’re interested in. Do you have any writing samples that demonstrate your talents in that area? If not, it’s time to create some, even if it means working for free.

Ask your friend if you can write a series of emails for their weekly newsletter, for example, or approach the owner of your local coffee shop with an offer to redo the “about” page on their website. Once you’ve gathered your samples, you can use a site like Squarespace, WordPress, Writerfolio, or Contently to make a simple online portfolio to send to editors and prospects.

2. Not having enough work

When you’re starting out as a freelance writer, one of the biggest challenges is getting enough work to make a living. Not only is it hard to land gigs and persuade people to hire you when you don’t have experience or referrals to fall back on, it can also be tough to find decent job opportunities when you’re still learning to navigate the freelance world.

The solution:

Securing freelance writing assignments takes time and strategy, so embrace the fact that your new job as a freelance writer—at least at first—isn’t to write. It’s to look for work. Work on crafting the perfect cold pitch, compiling a list of viable prospects, and sending emails to businesses or editors.

You should also regularly apply to writing gigs on job boards and reach out to your professional network and personal contacts to inquire about writing opportunities. Getting consistent work requires tenacity, so make sure you follow up with the people you email and continue to put yourself out there.

3. Not understanding marketing

You may think the only skill a freelance writer needs is the ability to write well. Right? Not exactly. Becoming a freelance writer means running your own writing business—and that takes marketing savvy.

Marketing yourself and your services is key to early and long-term success as a freelance writer. A solid marketing plan will help you bring in steady work and score referrals from clients.

The solution:

First, educate yourself on marketing basics by reading articles from sites like CopyBlogger, HubSpot, and the Content Marketing Institute. Next, work on creating monthly and weekly marketing plans structured around action-based goals, like emailing 50 prospects a week or applying to five writing jobs a day.

Make sure you record your tasks and track your outcomes as you go. After a month or two, you might want to double down on a particular marketing strategy or experiment with a new one if you’re not getting results.

4. Scope creep

As a beginner freelance writer, you may not have the experience or insight necessary to recognize the signs of scope creep ahead of time. Scope creep is what happens when you agree to a specific amount of work prior to starting a project, then the amount of work increases or changes once the project begins.

Let’s say, for example, that a client assigns you a 500-word blog post for $100. After you turn in your first draft, they ask you to bump up the word count to 800 but don’t offer to compensate you for the additional work. That’s scope creep. Taking on projects where the scope changes drastically isn’t just draining—it can also derail your work schedule and affect your freelance writing income.

The solution:

Avoid scope creep by asking thoughtful, detailed questions upfront. Before you agree to a project or assignment, make sure you understand the amount of work involved, the timeline, your exact responsibilities as a writer, and your client’s expectations for communicating and conducting revisions.

Once you know what your editor or client requires of you, draft a contract that spells out the details, including the rate you’re charging and how you’d like to be paid. Having a contract can help protect you from scope creep and keep your clients accountable.

5. Time management

When you’re not used to the demands of freelance writing, you might have a tough time juggling all your responsibilities. Securing work, marketing, building your portfolio, networking, handling administrative tasks, and actually completing assignments takes diligence and focus. If you don’t manage your time well, you might struggle to turn in quality work and get more business.

The solution:

As a freelancer, one of the best things you can do to manage your time is establish set working hours. Instead of writing or researching only when you feel inspired, create a weekly and daily schedule to follow.

To stay on top of your workload, try ordering the tasks on your to-do list according to importance, eliminating distractions in your work space, and building extra time into your schedule in case you need a cushion. If you need help concentrating, experiment with The Pomodoro Technique, where you work for 25-minute intervals with 5-minute breaks between them.

6. Negotiating pay

Negotiating your rates is always a little bit daunting, but it’s especially difficult when you don’t have glowing client testimonials or years of experience that help demonstrate your worth. Plus, when you’re new to freelancing, it can be tricky to figure out what to charge.

The solution:

The more information you have, the easier it is to negotiate. Instead of setting your rates arbitrarily, take some time to research the standard market pay for the type of writing you do. Keep in mind that rates might differ based on the industry, niche, and specific client or publication in question.

Once you know the market standard, you can adjust your rates depending on your level of experience. Setting your pay is personal, but it’s a good idea to aim for a number that’s fair and reasonable given the scope of work, but that still feels like a win to you.

7. Maintaining clients

So, you landed an assignment or two—great job!—but then never heard from your editor or client again. Maintaining professional connections can be challenging, but if you don’t take the time to build a working relationship with your contacts, you’ll have to start from scratch every time you need new work. Not only is that strategy time consuming and exhausting, it’s also not very cost effective long term.

The solution:

Establishing a connection with everyone you work with can land you consistent assignments, referrals, and more money. The first step to building a positive working relationship is turning in exceptional work. Whether it’s your first or fifth time working with someone, go above and beyond to produce high-quality writing, take feedback with grace, and communicate with kindness.

From there, make a point of staying in touch. Depending on what your contact needs, you can brainstorm pitches, offer to help with additional projects after you submit assignments, or send check-in emails once a month. And remember: staying front of mind doesn’t mean you have to be a professional networker or social butterfly. Most people looking to hire freelance writers just want reliable, communicative writers who turn in great work on time.

8. Imposter syndrome

Most new freelance writers suffer from imposter syndrome, the belief that you’re not as competent as other people think you are. Without a history of successful writing jobs and satisfied clients, you might feel like you’re not worthy of calling yourself a freelance writer. And when you experience feelings of unworthiness, your confidence and motivation tends to wane. This can make it difficult to apply to writing jobs, pitch with confidence, and negotiate pay.

The solution:

The trick to beating imposter syndrome is to take action. After all, confidence comes from execution. By regularly applying to gigs, turning in work on time, sending email introductions, and expanding your portfolio, you’ll become more and more self assured.

Above all, try not to get in your head. Instead of dwelling on your lack of experience, trust your writing skills, devote yourself to learning, and focus on celebrating every victory—no matter how small.

9. Getting clients to pay you

As a newcomer to freelance writing, you might have trouble getting your clients to pay you. There are a few possible reasons for this:

  1. If you don’t know how to distinguish between “good” and “bad” clients, you might end up working with someone who’s flaky or unreliable.
  2. You might not know how to set up clear payment terms with clients.
  3. You might have difficult or complicated payment options for your clients.

The solution:

Use a contract to state your fees and payment terms upfront, including how you handle late payments. Make sure you put your payment policies and information on your invoice template as well, then send the invoice as early as possible to give your clients plenty of time to pay.

Rising above the challenges

There are certain inevitable problems you’ll encounter as a beginner freelance writer, but none should permanently take you out of the game. By knowing what to expect, taking strides to prepare yourself, and staying persistent, you can overcome challenges and grow your writing and business skills.