New freelance writers have a lot on their minds. More experienced writers often tell them that they need to build a presence, start networking, and focus on getting referrals instead of simply searching job boards (the best gigs are rarely found on job boards).
But they don't want to hear it. They don't want to wait a few weeks to a few months to have the good gigs pouring in. They want money, and they want it now. They may need it now. They have bills to pay, families to support. You get the idea. I've been told on more than one occasion that I just don't get it--that I don't remember what it's like to be new.
That's not true. Not true of me, and not true of many experienced freelancers. They may not like the advice, but frankly it's what more of us should have been told a long time ago (or maybe we were and we simply didn't listen).
The Reality of Referrals
Referrals are a necessity if you want to make good money as a freelance writer. It does take time to get them on a regular basis. Why do they matter? Because that's where the gigs are--in private networks. You'd be surprised how many big budget clients don't even realize they need a freelance writer until one of their employees, colleagues, or friends hears about their project and suggests a writer who might be able to take it to the next level.
But I Need Money NOW!
Don't we all? That's life folks. You wouldn't jump into most businesses without an adequate budget, so why would you do the same in a freelance career? It's sad but true. Many, if not most, new freelance writers are not equipped to succeed in freelancing in the beginning. They don't plan. They don't have a reserve to get them through the initial phase. They succumb to taking any writing gig they can get. And many of them give up because they find themselves stuck in a low pay rut.
Making it Work
Did you make that mistake? Well guess what. So did I. And I pulled through it. I was one of the exceptions, and I really wish someone had given me a kick in the ass early on telling me I wasn't ready yet and to prepare before jumping in.
You can get past the early funks where you feel like no one respects you enough to make it worth your while. Don't expect to be an exception, but if you're willing to work your butt off, it just might happen.
How did I do it? I silenced those nagging voices that told me to take anything that came along. I developed my USP (the value you offer clients that the competition doesn't). I carved a niche for myself. I made myself visible to that target market. I set reasonable beginning rates and published them on a professional website. I started a blog (or two). I joined communities frequented by my client base. I spent countless hours working to educate clients, to make myself stand out amongst the competition. I offered sales as incentives for first-time buyers (much smarter than offering low base rates to begin with, because your base rates tell clients how you really value your work and your time).
It wasn't easy. I wondered how I'd pay the bills each month. But it always worked out. Just scraping by turned to flourishing in only about three months! That's it. Three months of hell and heartache, pushing myself to my limits, but it led to a strong and sustainable career filled with referrals--referrals from colleagues, past clients, and clients finding me through those communities and blogs.
I had an edge. I came from a PR background, so I knew how vital it was to focus on image and visibility. I knew how to do it. And albeit briefly, I just told you how to do it too. No, it won't be easy, but new writers can start building referrals quickly. They can get a successful career off on the right foot without waiting seemingly forever to attract good clients. It all comes down to whether or not they're willing to work for it, and yes, that may involve sacrifices. Those who aren't willing to do that will follow the many that came before them settling for the little bit of immediate pay they can get, and finding that's what they're still earning in 6 months to a year (or more). They'll either settle for it, or they'll figure out that freelance writing wasn't right for them--it's not a "get rich quick" game as most here know. The rest will surpass them. Consider it survival of the fittest. Which kind of new writer are you?
A Final Tip
How quickly you start bringing in referrals for work depends quite a bit on how you choose your target market to begin with. You probably have more connections than you realize. Use them. Choose a target market where you may be able to get some initial clients through those contacts of yours. (Ask a professor if they know someone in the industry that may need a writer. Ask family members. Ask friends. You'd be amazed at who your immediate contacts know. We're all better-connected than we think.)