Reader Questions: Getting Started as a Freelance Writer

I was contacted recently by freelance writer, Steve Koch, with some questions that might be on the mind of other new freelancers. He agreed to let me publish my responses on the blog so hopefully other readers with similar questions will benefit.

Reader Questions

"I have some general questions about getting started as a freelance writer. I have gone to the usual attempts (elance, helium etc.) and have become more frustrated than anything else. I have had articles published and created/edited newsletters for non-profits, but I can't seem to break into any freelance jobs that will pay something besides - 'nice job.'"


  1. In looking at job openings I see the words 'copy' and 'content'. I believe 'copy' relates to advertising, marketing, selling etc., but I'm not sure what 'content' is. Can you explain what the terms mean and how they differ?
  2. There are many sites looking to take advantage of beginners either by offering jobs that pay little or do not fulfill their promises or offer magical courses/lessons to help you break into the field. What are some of the things to look for to avoid being scammed?
  3. What is the best way to break through and get your first paying writing job? While not looking to pay the mortgage with the first job and understanding that every step allows us to progress toward our goals I'd like to be sure I am looking to scale the right ladder."


Copywriting vs Content Writing

Leaving the journalistic definition of "copy" aside, here is how I usually explain the difference:

When you write content, your goal is to inform, educate, or entertain. Most articles and blog posts would fall into this category.

When someone is looking for a copywriter, on the other hand, they expect you to write something that can influence the reader or drive them to action. For example, with sales copy your goal is to convert readers into buyers. With PR copy, your goal might be to influence readers by either reinforcing or changing opinions about an issue or an organization.

Some clients honestly don't know the difference. That's why you'll often see the terms used interchangably in ads for freelance writing jobs. But for those clients who do understand the difference, it can be important. While there is certainly overlap between content writing and copywriting (think a PR feature that uses content as a tool to influence readers, or a blog post that includes a call to action within it), sometimes clients are looking for specific skills. For example, if they want someone with direct sales experience, they might advertise for a copywriter expecting that (whereas someone with only content writing experience might not be qualified).

When it comes to job ads, my suggestion is to simply take things in context. If they ask for a copywriter, but they want you to write how-to articles for their blog, content writing experience is probably what they're looking for. If they say they want a content writer but they want you to write a sales letter, you'll probably need experience writing direct marketing copy.

Freelance Scams: Warning Signs

When it comes to people and companies trying to scam freelance writers, here are a few warning signs that would send me running:

  1. You're asked to pay for anything. If it's a legitimate gig, you should be the one getting paid.
  2. The company or person advertising the gig says there is little pay now, but you'll either get great "exposure" or there will be more work to come. No no-name site without a working budget is going to give you much exposure. And you don't want more work where that came from anyway.
  3. If the ad specifically solicits work at home moms or students, that generally means they're trying to appeal to people they feel they can exploit.
  4. As for those offering courses, if they seem to spend more time worrying about the upsell and cramming more products, services, and memberships down your throat than they spend actually helping you, I wouldn't pay them a dime. Always look for testimonials, and try to get some from people you know and trust. If the only person actively praising something is the creator, that's a red flag.

The Fastest Way to Land Your First Freelance Writing Job

While I'm a big fan of what I call "query-free freelancing" (building your writer platform and network in a way that gigs come to you instead of the other way around), this is a case where I fully support direct pitching.

The fastest way to get a paying writing job is to identify some companies, websites, or publications that you'd like to write for and then directly pitch them with your story ideas or services. It might seem intimidating when you're brand new, but remember, the worst they can do is say "no." And that's okay. It just means you haven't found the right fit yet.

Keep pitching until someone bites. And in the meantime, start building your platform and network now so prospects will have an easier time finding you later.

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.

Subscribe to the All Freelance Writing newsletter to get freelance writing updates from Jenn in your inbox.

18 thoughts on “Reader Questions: Getting Started as a Freelance Writer”

  1. Great post, Jenn. I’m going to add my own two cents:

    After you look at the ads for a while, it does get to a point where you can tell from the wording if they’re paying too little or nothing at all. I’ve seen everything from lines like “An easy job for the right person” (with the idea that no one will ever be the right person); “writing test” (no freaking way); “gain valuable exposure” (they’re paying nothing); “We have a limited budget, so bid accordingly” (oh HELL no!); and “we need writers” (plural is never good).

    Like you, I’ve seen clients use those terms interchangably. Never hurts to ask them directly what the job entails. Makes it easier to pull together a quote.

    • Good additions Lori! If the client goes on about how easy a project is, it means they don’t respect (and probably don’t understand) what really goes into doing the job right. That, or they just don’t care. In any of those cases, they probably expect to get the work done for very little pay.

      I’d avoid any requests for writing tests as well. Any client who knows what they’re doing can review your samples for previous clients and get a good feel for your ability. If the job is so unique that your existing samples won’t work, it’s okay for them to request a custom sample — but only if they pay full price for that sample. It’s not uncommon for clients to ask for paid samples or hire you for a small project before hiring you for something bigger.

  2. Great share! I started with posting on forums. Being in a community of digital enthusiasts really helps finding your first writing job. I got mine at The pay is really low. I can’t blame them though. They need funds to run the site. At least it doesn’t require any membership fee.

    As a first timer, I was willing to do any article. I ended up writing a couple of carpet cleaning and dentistry articles– something that’s not in my niche. There are days where you end up with great clients and there are days that you pick the really bad ones. Some of these (especially new requesters), immediately reject really good works because they failed to explain the instructions in detail. Communication between requester and publisher isn’t real time either because the admin does not allowing adding messaging and emailing outside of the site.

    Yes, copy and content is confusing! LOL. Reminds me of one who requested spun content based on an old content. What is it exactly they require? A content writer or a copy writer?

  3. Great points Jenn.

    I’ve seen some very expensive writing courses that really made my skin crawl, sometimes because the price was very high (like two grand), and sometimes because the person offering the course had little actual experience as a successful writer.

    • Both of those sound like great examples of warning signs John. I have no doubt that some of the higher priced courses are worthwhile, but that seems excessive. It would have to be something highly specialized and targeting experienced pros for that to even begin to make sense to me. My general rule for things like courses is that they need to be able to pay for themselves, and quickly. For beginners, I wouldn’t recommend spending more than you could earn in one (or two max) gigs that would likely result from what you learn from it.

  4. I started on Helium several years ago when I couldn’t write to save my life. The pennies add up slowly but it is a place to get your feet wet when you totally lack confidence. I have now earned over $300 but it is a very slow process.(5 years)I rarely go there these days.

    I then went to Elance and since I write mostly in one niche I used key words pertaining to it in my profile. I only bid on one or two jobs for the first two years. Then I was contacted by another writer who was behind and needed some ghost writing help in my niche.

    My stuff was well received and she passed my name on to her editor, who immediately contacted me about writing for her. I wrote several articles and got to the point I could sell anything I wrote to her.

    This gave me a body of work to use as samples and I have been bidding jobs in my niche ever since. I have more than doubled my rates and still have more work than I can comfortable handle. I have written two e-books at my top rate and will be raising it again soon since I am getting many invitations to bid on work. I am not shy about what I charge per word. (I realize it is lower than many full time freelancers but it is much higher than the people looking for bundles of articles at $3.00 each)

    This has led me to contact publications directly and has allowed me to work on an even broader base.

    All told to this point has been a good five years since I put my first stuff on Helium, and I am far from making the jump into full time…The last year and a half have been a constant growth time for me…if I were to somehow lose my 9-5 I feel I could ramp up my marketing and pick up some of the slack.

    I have learned quite a bit in just the short time I have been coming here to read.


    • Thanks for commenting Randy. I’m glad to hear you’ve been experiencing growth and that you seem happy with your progress. I hope you see continued improvement in the New Year, and reach whatever new goals you’ve set for yourself. 🙂

    • Hi Jen. Sorry for being lazy to search, but do you have a post on how to submit a pitch to these companies? Say for instance you’re already working for another client, can you present your work from that previous client as part of your portfolio?

      Congratulations, Randy. Wow. Good for you! I’ve always told myself that building a career online takes time. I just wished critics of online jobs can see that too.

      When you mentioned Elance… that’s, right? I’ve tried the site but I never got past security check. I was really concerned of putting on a scan of my ID (which I think they required was my passport ID) since there were a lot of scams going in the country of using fake passports and stuff.

      There are certainly some interesting article requests there. I was never successful in getting a project that I had prior knowledge of writing about. If it’s alright, would it be so rude to ask the process of their cashout? Is it Paypal? Is it a direct client-to-writer payout?

      As a comparison of iWriter (not the Mac software but the website ), minimum cashout can be forwarded to your Paypal account. Oh and I guess one more tiny tidbit is that they cater to non-US resident writers.

      P.S. Sorry for the super long comment.

      • I’ll leave your Elance questions for Randy as I no longer associate with the site and might not be up on all of their latest policies.

        As for pitching, I suspect Chris Bibey and Catherine L. Tully have some related posts in our archives — the marketing and magazine writing sections — as they covered cold pitches and querying.

        What specific kinds of companies are you talking about though? (I apologize; I’m responding to comments from the admin area, so I don’t always see the normal comment sequence to see what you’re referring to.)

        For portfolio pieces, it depends on the kind of work you’ve done previously. Usually you can show past examples as a part of your portfolio. And exception would be if you were a ghostwriter or something, and you signed an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) as a part of your contract which states you can’t disclose anything about the past working arrangement. If your work is bylined and published online, you can certainly send a link to it as a portfolio sample. You just have to be careful about republishing things in a portfolio depending on the rights you signed over to the previous client.

        • If you’re selling articles, I guess that means you’d have to ask the person you sold it to, right?

          Although I’ve successfully tracked my articles online and the owner has not posted a byline to it, I am assuming that once I have sold it in such a manner, I’ve relinquished all rights to it… that’s unless there’s an unwritten writer’s code that I am yet to familiarize myself with.

          • That depends on copyright and licensing laws where you live. But in general, in the U.S., you would be fine using most articles in your portfolio. It’s all in how you use it. For example, if you gave the client exclusive publication rights online, you shouldn’t publish the article in full on your own portfolio page. And if you signed an NDA that forbids you mentioning the project or your relationship with the client, you shouldn’t use it in your portfolio at all. But linking to something, showing a portion of it, or sharing it privately or in image form (so it’s not indexable content) is generally fine.

            There are no unwritten writer’s codes. In fact, if you’re operating under U.S. laws you retain the copyright to everything you write unless you very specifically sign those rights over in a contract. That protects your ability to create derivative works, resell to other markets, etc. Just check your contract terms, project briefs, or anything else you technically agreed to by taking on the project.

      • I myself have not done the verify ID part of the elance process and I will not.

        I get my money through paypal but I believe I can have it DD into my bank account if I choose.

        It took me almost two years to get my first gig there and then almost another year before I had more than two people I worked for. I have been lucky that I have been able to build some solid working relationships there.

        It has gotten my name out in my niche and helped my grow somewhat. I do realize it is not for everyone.

  5. As a new freelance writer this article is very helpful in so many ways. It brings a few questions to mind about how to network online (something I have trouble with). If anybody has any feedback on marketing yourself online when you’re new I’d love to hear it!

    • Hi Johanna. Do you have specific questions about networking? If so, I encourage you to take advantage of my new Reader Q&A feature, where you submit a question, and I give you a detailed answer while featuring you and your question in a blog post. This way questions don’t get buried in comments, but are featured on the blog where other writers with similar questions have a better chance of finding them. If you’d like to do that, you can use the form at the link below.


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