How to Get Freelance Writing Referrals Even if You're New

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.)

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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5 thoughts on “How to Get Freelance Writing Referrals Even if You're New”

  1. Thank you so much for this post Jennifer! It’s exactly what I needed to hear as a beginning freelancer. In fact, with all the research I’ve done and the professionals I’ve spoken with, one of the best pieces of advice given was that referrals and getting repeat business from existing clients are the most successful ways to build your network and find high-paying projects. It’s actually kind of tragic that so many newbie freelancers immediately fall into the rut of bidding/auction sites or apply for an insane amount of gigs that are only paying $0.05/word, sometimes less. Nobody could live off that. And the importance of referrals extends even beyond freelancing. My last two full-time jobs I obtained by having an ‘in’ or referral that got me in touch with the right people. In both cases, there wasn’t even an open position being advertised on the job boards!

    • To put it in perspective, new writers can kind of think of their freelance network as an employment agency. I used to work for a major nonprofit. A part of my job was to interview and hire people to help us out with various events and campaigns. We didn’t publish job ads. We worked with a select few employment agencies. The hires came through referrals from those agencies. They were to us what your colleagues and existing clients are to people in their network. Others really will ask them who their writer is, if they know someone that could help them out with a project, etc. With the employment agencies, you formally “applied” to be eligible for those referrals. With freelancing, your platform and past work are your application. Basically, everyone who knows you is like a potential employment agency who might call you up one day to tell you about a job offer you’d be a good fit for. And like you mentioned, even some full-time jobs are never advertised–the same is absolutely true of freelance gigs. To get them, you need the “in” of that agency (your network).

  2. We do talk about those things… quite a lot actually. 😉 And reason for the job ads is about directly confronting the problem of wasting time scanning job board after job board. I’m a realist. While it’s stupid to spend all of your time applying for advertised jobs, people aren’t going to stop (and there ARE decent advertised jobs from time to time – most aren’t advertised, but some in fact still are). I’d rather bring them some jobs each day to their inbox than pretend people are going to stop looking at advertised jobs altogether, and save some folks some time in the process.

  3. I totally agree that the bread-and-butter of freelancing is repeat business, not scanning job boards. It’s the same when you are looking for conventional work; you don’t get much worthwhile employment scanning the want-ads. Which makes you wonder why all the freelance ads? The space might be best suited to teaching people how to create their own employment network and developing repeat customers.

  4. To their credit, many freelance job aggregators are improving the quality of the offers, weeding out the ridiculously low payments, the obvious scams and the pure time-wasters.


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