If you’re looking to grow quickly in your freelancing writing career, here’s a step-by-step three-year plan for success.
When you’re getting started as a freelancer—or if you’re returning to freelancing after a long gap—getting work will be your priority. However, without a long-term goal and a plan for achieving it, you’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.
Every moment you’re in trial and error is a moment that you’re not making an income.
In my first year of freelancing, I remember subscribing to dozens of newsletters, reading thousands of tips, and feeling overwhelmed at the amount of information being thrown at me from many directions.
What I needed was a step-by-step plan. One that would not only keep me organized and accountable, but something that actually helped me focus on the most important aspects of my career for the stage that I was in.
And so that’s exactly what I’ve created for you.
For those of you just starting out or needing a little push to increase your income, here’s my freelance writing three-year plan. Take what is useful and personalize the rest.
YEAR 1: BUILD A FOUNDATION
You’re just beginning. You have no clips and you have no contacts. It’s a blank slate.
The focus of your first year as a freelancer should be to fill up that blank slate.
The first step in the freelance writing three-year plan is to get credits, not only so that you have published clips to show to editors, but because the more assignments you finish, the more confident you’ll become in your ability to deliver. Plus, you’re learning on the job. Better to make mistakes now with smaller publications and more forgiving editors than being blacklisted by a dream magazine.
(Not that you can’t aim high, of course. Do. But don’t forget to pitch the smaller publications as well. If you’re like most of us, you may have to work your way up.)
In Year 1, here’s what you need to do:
1. Focus on getting published
As much as possible. It’ll help you understand the way publications and editors work, it will give you writing practice and a routine, and it will help you get rookie mistakes out of the way. In my first year as a freelance writer, I published 100 articles. That’s 2 pieces a week. It’s really not all that much when you’re doing little else.
2. Practice writing
Put in the hours, no matter how bad you’re feeling, how much resistance you’re facing, or how much you’ve convinced yourself that you’re not good enough. Find your voice. Find the style you’re most comfortable writing in. This won’t happen on your first day or first week or even first month. But by the end of your first year, you’ll have discovered what kind of writing comes most naturally to you. If you don’t have assignments, write essays. Write articles and publish them on Medium. Start a newsletter. Blog. It’s all practice.
Oh, and write and send pitches and letters of introduction.
3. Pitch, pitch, pitch
Send five pitches a day. Get used to it now. Pitching is a constant throughout the three-year plan and the only route to success.
This will probably make you feel uncomfortable. Do it anyway.
They will probably suffer from lack of responses. Send them anyway.
You will probably wonder if you should keep pitching. Continue anyway.
If you go all in, I can promise you that you will never pitch as much or as badly as you will in your first year of freelancing. But this is where the learning is. This is where the growth will happen. And if you keep going, this is where the breakthrough lies.
Seeing as you have more time and less work, commit to sending pitches, letters of introductions, and direct messages. What else do you have to do? (By the way, here’s how I send 25 pitches a week.)
4. Read and learn
Buy books. If you can’t afford to, subscribe to freelance writing websites and newsletters. Let them inspire you. Let them inspire you to go bigger, do better, and push harder.
5. Study the market
Read the magazines you’re pitching. Look through the web content of your ideal clients. See what is being published. Look up writers you admire and read their entire body of work. Read their blog or newsletter archives to see how they worked their way up. Don’t pressure yourself into being them or thinking like them, but know what the marketplace looks like. Know what sells, who is selling it, and why they’re able to. You’ll thank yourself for this research in year two of the three-year plan.
6. Develop a schedule
Do this now before your life gets crazy and you’re hopping from one assignment to the next. Develop good organizational systems that will serve you well into your career. Don’t skimp on software that you need. Develop a work ethic. You’ll be far ahead of other freelancers by the end of this first year if you’ve done nothing more than created good work-life balance and a solid work ethic.
7. Don’t even think about the money
I’m not saying you should write for free (you absolutely shouldn’t!) but write for those low-paying $50 publications and blogs that help you build your credits.
When I get unsure of myself, and that’s still pretty often, my parents like to remind me that my first freelancing paycheck was for $5.
Right now, all that’s important is that you have credits. Lots of them.
YEAR 2: INCREASE YOUR INCOME
You’ve built up an impressive resume, you can now honestly call yourself a working writer and even though the dough isn’t exactly rolling in, you’ve formed a few relationships, done repeat work for editors, and started getting the hang of the kind of stories you’d like to write, the kind of voice you’d like to have, and the kind of issues you’d like to spend more time exploring.
It’s also now time to think about money.
In Year 2, your focus should be on increasing your income and making a living with your work.
At this stage of the freelance writing three-year plan, you need to negotiate for better rates, start writing for higher-paying clients, and let go of some of the lowest payers.
1. Set an annual income goal
A goal that is a stretch for you, something that you’ll have to work hard to achieve, but also one that is attainable. Divide this yearly number into months, weeks, and days. How much do you need to make per day (don’t count holidays)? Can you? How? Make a rough business plan.
2. Focus on building more relationships
If you’ve only written for certain editors once, pitch them again. Focus this year on building relationships with editors and clients, becoming a regular for certain publications, and moving up the ladder. Go meet some of your editors if possible.
3. Eliminate the lowest-paying clients
I can’t tell you how many to eliminate because you’re going to have to figure out that balance keeping in mind your time and your bottom line, but 10% is a good figure to keep in mind. The time you’ve freed up from these clients should go into pitching higher-paying ones.
4. Start networking with other writers
Email people, join writing groups, comment on social media threads, participate in discussions. Become a part of the community. If you can afford it, go to a conference.
Yep, right away. Twenty percent of every paycheck. I really wish I’d done this sooner. My financial life would have been so much simpler.
6. Pitch, pitch, pitch
Back in year one of the freelance writing three-year plan, I asked that you study the market. Use that research now. You’re building up knowledge of the publications and writers you admire, the mood of the market, and the styles and topics of content in demand.
YEAR 3: FOCUS ON RELATIONSHIPS
This is your career now. You’re a freelance writer by trade. Well done, you, for sticking it out for as long as you have.
You’ve made significant progress, and the focus of your three-year plan now shifts to creating a profitable and rewarding career.
It’s time to really pull up your sleeves and prepare for the hard work ahead because now is the time to lay the foundations for your future success. To pitch bigger names and clients, and command the $1-a-word and above rates, if those have eluded you so far.
Year 3 should be all about relationships, because that’s what it takes to sustain a long-term freelancing career.
1. Eliminate 10%
I recommend you do this every year from now on out. If you take away 10% of your lowest paying clients each year, you open up space for higher-paying ones. This is not an exact science, of course, but if you’re constantly harried writing for 20-cents-a-word markets, when are you ever going to find the time, motivation, and urgency to pitch $1-a-word ones? (Here’s a list of $1-a-word publications that you can target.)
2. Build relationships
Relationships matter. Even more now and every year here on after. Relationships with editors, with fellow freelancers, with your readers. Set the tone for your communications, for your business.
3. Set up a website
If you haven’t already, set up your writing website right away. A blog or newsletter is a good thing to have. Not only does it bring you readers, but increasingly, younger editors and readers do not trust static websites. Surely, as a writer, you have something to say?
4. Increase your annual income goal by 10-20%
If you haven’t met last year’s income goal, try to determine why not.
If you had spectacular success, figure out where your best clients came from and double down on that marketing channel.
5. Attend networking events
Meet your editors. If you can arrange it, meet editors you haven’t worked with so that they can hire you. Go to conferences. Talk to other writers. Join journalism or writing organizations.
6. Hire an accountant
If need be, set yourself up as a business. Avail all tax benefits when you can. Get on the ball about this now and your life will become easier in the future.
7. Start targeting your dream publications
You’ve had enough practice. If you haven’t been doing this already, it’s now time to hit the major leagues. Don’t wait to begin on your dreams. Start today.
8. Pitch, pitch, pitch
Need I say more?
And that’s it. A step-by-step freelance writing three-year plan that will help set you up for success.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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