AARGH! #2: Laying the Foundation
GOOD TO SEE YOU AGAIN I’M SCARED
Welcome back to AARGH!
So, where are you on your journey? You’ve committed yourself to the idea of freelance writing. You’ve sat down, made a hot cup of coffee, told yourself you’re going to make it happen. Maybe you’re going to work in your off time after your day-job. Maybe you recently quit or lost your job and you’re starting fresh. If you’re anything like me, the anxiety of your paycheck becoming a big question mark for the foreseeable future might be twisting knots in your stomach. Don’t worry, mine too.
You’re fucking terrified, or maybe surprisingly confident. How long will it take to get clients? How long until you get consistent ones? How many people can you pitch a day? What if they never respond? What if they never even read your emails!?!? MY BRAIN IS FRIED AFTER WRITING 8,000 WORDS!!! AM I A FAKE WRITER?! WHAT AM I DOING AARG—
When I get into thought loops like that, I have to back away from the computer. Usually I’ll go do a quick chore, scroll Reddit for ten minutes, or just go hug my cat. Negativity spirals are a real thing and you need to fight them to stay productive and positive.
It’s going to be fine. If you’re planning this properly, then there will be risk, but not so much that you are going to be destitute if you fail. Statistically 20% of startups fail in their first year. In case nobody told you, you are now a one-person startup. Is there a real chance of failure? Yeah, about 20%. But that’s also an 80% shot at making it past year one. I’d take those odds. Be patient, work hard, budget your time, and be prepared.
I can’t fix the knots in your stomach, but I can tell you what I did to scream less. Do math! Sit down and take a hard look at your bank account. How much money do you have saved? How long could you pay your bills if you made exactly $0? Do you have debt? If you’re married or share finances with a partner, make sure they’re on board with your plan and figure out if they’ll be able to pick up the slack if your income comes in under what you were making previously. If all of that is unfamiliar to you and you’ve never set up a working budget before, go ahead and peep this free budgeting tool.
Don’t scream for this part. There’s plenty of time for screaming coming.
When I say ‘foundation’ what do I mean? You need to create the base layer of your writing business. How are people going to find you? How will they contact you? How will they pay you? Where can they find your previous work?
Long story short: make a website. But here’s a pro-tip: if your budget is tight, don’t pay for an expensive recurring service… yet. And don’t pay someone to make your first site. There are plenty of free-ish options to go with while you get yourself established.
Remember from AARGH! #1: you can learn anything on the internet for free if you look hard enough. With the power of Google we can all be Will Hunting.
My recommendation is to make something simple like a free WordPress or Wix account and maybe buy yourself a flashy domain name. CopyByCody.com costs me like $12/year. Don’t be that person who dumps beaucoup-bucks into their new hobby only to realize they don’t like it that much.
I hopped onto the /r/Freelancewriters Wiki and after some reading made an account on Fiverr, Upwork and WordPress. I snagged my domain and started building the site you’re reading this on. Upwork was a bit of a process to get approved for, but you’ll get there. And most importantly: I kept reading. Never assume you know better than those who are more experienced than you. Defer to experience until you know what you’re doing.
“Charge for value – it might only take an hour or two to write it, but it will generate serious income for your clients year after year.”
“Track your metrics. Know what it costs you (time, cognitive load, opportunity costs) to produce each deliverable. Set a schedule for regularly increasing your net revenue and stick to it.”
“That you shouldn’t be afraid to push back on clients for better pay or deadlines. I can be a bit of an anxious person but once I started doing this, I found that most people are happy to negotiate as long as you provide good quality work. Also, you shouldn’t be afraid to pitch just because your idea could get shot down.”
I made pretty much all of those mistakes. My first actual writing gig on Upwork was writing erotica for about $0.01 per word. In other words, an incredible time sink for next to no money. I just wanted to nab a good review but suddenly I was roped into writing lengthy works for shit pay for a person who was unpleasant to work with.
That was a big mistake. Let’s get you over that hump: charge what you want to make, within reason.
Can you speak English at a native level? Do you have a basic understanding of SEO? Do you have at least one category you can write about with real authority and experience? Cool, set a rate that will pay you a living wage. I’m happy with my rate; it matches my skill level, pays the bills, and it will increase as my experience, network, and number of published works increases.
There’s no set number you can put on yourself. However, 1c per word is slavery. If you keep writing for $1 per 100-word clients, you will be forever trapped chasing down new clients just to make ends meet for a quick payment.— ExistentialAlcoholic
If you can write coherent English, there’s no reason anyone should be charging such ridiculously low rates. You don’t have to have perfect grammar and you don’t need to have work published in the New York Times to get 5c per word paying jobs. Set a price and stick to it.
Do you really want to be at the mercy of cheap slave drivers who want meaningless content? I’ve done so many articles at that price that I wish I would’ve kept for myself and used on blogs to sell things. I put in a lot of effort, time, research and crafted articles with nice structure, all so I could get a quick $10-20 payment out of it. I didn’t think I was worth it at the time but I easily could have been charging 5c or even 10c per word.
I Think I Forgot How to Write
Like me, you made a website and some accounts. Hopefully you’ve revamped your LinkedIn to reflect your career-change. You’re starting to feel like the ball is rolling now! You’ve probably spent a good amount of time working on this, and you’re ready to start making money.
But what are you going to write? Look at you, sitting there in your gym shorts with a cup of cold coffee, staring blankly at your monitor. You’ve got, like, 30 tabs open in Chrome from the Wiki and you’re trying to think of content you can write about, but your brain is now just pumping out something that sounds like static on an old TV.
Let’s see… you didn’t go to college so you don’t have a degree. You like working out but you’re not a personal trainer. Cody said to be an authority on a topic…
Okay, okay! You can cook pretty well. Your mother taught you to cook and bake and you can make a real mean soufflé. But you’re not a chef or anything…
Maybe you were a bartender for several years and have a lot of experiences to share, but does that qualify you to get paid to write about it? Oh God oh fuck, what if other bartenders readmystuffandthinkIwasashittybartenderandohjesuschristI—
Again, stop. Take a lap.
Okay, here’s what worked for me. Grab some paper and make a list. Write down the things you have experience doing. Even if it’s just a little. Literally any topic that you know more about than the average person. Think of what makes your ears perk up when you hear someone discussing it a few feet away.
1. I taught myself how to pick locks when I was 12-years-old and I own a couple of kits.
2. I love hiking and primitive camping and picking out new gear to take on trips.
3. I have a degree in broadcast production and I’ve had internships and jobs centered around video and photo work. In my free time I love taking photos, including astrophotography, nature photography, and portraits. I could talk your ear off about the history and origins of photography and tell you my favorite things about my favorite photographers.
4. I’m obsessed with movies and television. I’ve consumed so much of the stuff that my mind is constantly comparing real life scenarios to movie plots, wondering what my favorite directors are up to, and counting the days until that new movie gets released. When a movie comes on, I’m more surprised when I don’t know an actor’s name than when I do. I know story structure and tropes so well that realizing I have no idea what will happen next excites me. I even made some student films in college!
5. Outer space fascinates me and I can tell you about several of the theories as to how the universe will end, and I can tell you why colonizing the Moon is a much better idea than colonizing Mars.
Are you an authority on all of these things? No, but odds are at least one or two of these things will stand out, and you probably like the idea of writing about them. Maybe you are an expert in one of them. Is this your niche? Not yet. These are pretty broad topics, and we’ll cover niches some other time.
(Shit, I have yet to truly find a niche niche. Remember, you’re on this ride with me.)
Some people have the luxury of being veterans in their fields. If you hunt down the credentials of, say, National Geographic writers who write about archaeology, you’ll notice they tend to have doctorates in the field. Write what you know. But if you don’t have an expensive degree or decades of experience, don’t give up. It just means it’s going to be harder to pull off at first.
The next step for me was to sit down and make a new folder on my bookmarks bar called ‘CONTENT SWIPES’. A swipe is a term in copywriting for some copy that you enjoyed and save for later to study and learn from. Content swipes are the same thing. I went online and started pulling up articles on films, television, photography, camping, and space that resonated with me or held my attention. Then I’d save them to the folder. I also searched for the authors to find more of their work.
You aren’t going to plagiarize them, but allow their content to mentor you. This is freelancing. Nobody is holding our hands through this shit. Find some swipes, read them, re-read them, break down the article, identify the structure of it, identify what makes it good and maybe even what could make it better. Run the article through a site like SEMrush and see how its SEO performs. Identify the keywords. Keep doing this for days until it clicks.
Then, write an article of your own about something similar. Break it down the same way, read it back to yourself aloud. Run it through Grammarly to avoid silly mistakes. Post it on your site.
Congratulations, you made your first sample. And remember, as you work and improve you can always rewrite your samples or put up new ones you’ve written as you go on. As a writer, writing should (at least sometimes) be fun. Write something for shits and giggles and its alright, throw it up on your samples page.
Now you’ve got a website, a treasure-trove of guides and information on how to get started, access to a community of freelancers constantly discussing the craft, several platforms to start looking for work, a sample of your writing, and a pretty good idea what you want to write about.
Next, we’re going to talk about pitching. How to do pitch, who to pitch to, what to say, and how to cope with rejection. This will catch you up to where I’m at right now in my journey, so I’ll be sharing guides and advice on pitching from more experienced freelancers than myself.
My fingers hurt though, so we’ll talk about it in AARGH #3.
Sincerely Screaming Internally,
— Cody Szaro