Although it may not seem like it at times, there are many different ways to make a living online. When I decided that I wanted to quit my job, I knew I wanted to find something that afforded me freedom and flexibility. After many months of trying and failing, I eventually stumbled upon freelance blogging and never looked back.
This post contains a comprehensive overview of how I became a successful freelance blogger, and by extension, shows you how you can follow a similar path. It’s part biography, part instruction manual. If freelancing is something you’ve never considered before, take a few minutes to read about how it changed my life.
More unusually, I’ll also explain why, when I was making over $150 per hour, I stopped.
Step 1: Find Your Niche
To go far in freelance blogging, you’ll need a blog of your own that can provide you a space to gain experience, produce samples of your work and demonstrate your blogging prowess to potential clients. Such a blog will be integral to attracting freelance clients. But there’s one step that comes before even creating your blog: determining your niche.
Every successful blogger has their niche — the content area that they write about, whether that writing be for their personal blog or as freelance work for clients. Indeed, these two types of blogging are closely linked, as what you write about on your own blog can impact what others will pay you to write about.
It is completely possible to just write, giving little consideration to the specifics of your topic. However, it is only once you begin to write about certain things that you can claim credibility. In order to snag fulfilling, high-paying work, you’ll need to have a solid reputation – the likes of which you can only establish by consistently producing good content in a specific niche. Whether you are writing on your own blog or for clients, establishing credibility in your niche is imperative.
That gets at the core reason as to why you should give some thought to the subject matter you want to blog about. Clients want to work with people who have written in their niche before, so starting in one subject area can become a self-reinforcing cycle that leads you to bigger and better work within that niche (and closely related topics). The good news is that you can find a niche today – no matter who you are, there is something that you can write about.
Your goal should be to do the majority of your work in one or two specific markets. This is an approach that I have written about before and call client specificity. In fact, you don’t even need to be an expert on your chosen topic – if you’re honest with people, you can build your own credibility over time.
But even while you focus on developing your standing in your niche, remember that this will be an ongoing process; you’re not married to the topics that you write about initially. You can always expand or transition. At the same time, your best chances at snagging paying work will come on topics in which you have expertise.
When you apply for gigs, your clips will be extremely important. Because most blogs will want to see samples from the same niche that they occupy, the topic of your prior writing can be a huge determinant of what sorts of jobs are open to you.
However, keep in mind that this is not true in every instance. For example, similar to Location 180, my blog Leaving Work Behind, was at first little more than an online accountability journal for my efforts in quitting my job, but my first jobs were related to WordPress — a content management system. The only connection between my blog and my first two jobs were that the blog ran on WordPress — I never actually wrote about it.
This is another excellent post on finding a niche or coming up with ideas to write about.
Step 2: Start A Blog
The only way to get good at blogging is to blog, so if you haven’t already launched your own blog, get to it! You can learn by doing, and it won’t take you all that long to get started, so you may as well get out there and start blogging.
Of course, beyond that basic fact, it isn’t quite as simple. You need to figure out what your blog is going to be about. Some people try to get a big readership and earn money directly from their blog, while others just start blogging and take it from there. While the first strategy may or may not succeed at netting you cash directly from your blog itself, it is possible.
Blogging for Bucks
If you’re trying to start a blog that you believe holds the potential to reach a massive audience, you will need to give careful consideration to who you are going to write for. If you’re trying to start a blog with the intention of directly reaching out to people, you need to define your audience.
Right now, I am working on a second blog called Healthy Enough. While Leaving Work Behind began as more of an ad hoc endeavor, I have clear goals with my new project. I knew that if I wanted the blog to appeal to enough people, I would have to determine a very specific target reader. I went as far as to create an customer avatar, with a name, age, and specific interests.
When I write for Healthy Enough, I wrote for that person.
Getting specific here is recommended, but don’t worry: you can and will reach people beyond the narrow profile of your target reader. Writing for a specific target reader is always easier than trying to piece together a post that you vaguely think some group of people somewhere might someday want to read, and ultimately it leads to better results.
If you start with a clear idea of who you want to write for and produce high quality content then you will be a good part of the way towards a popular blog. In fact, within a few days of re-launching Healthy Enough, I had attracted 2,000 visitors.
Blogging for Practice and Samples
You don’t necessarily need to have a fine-tuned strategy for creating a business out of your blog itself – that can come later. The biggest benefit of a blog is not building an audience (though that can be excellent). The biggest benefit is the collection of samples that you will create. You can use these to establish credibility in your niche and get new jobs.
I started my first blog, without knowing what it would eventually become. I figured that a blog would be a neat way to chronicle what happened as I tried to make money online.
I aimed to be as accountable as possible with monthly income reports, starting from the beginning of my journey. I had noticed that although many other bloggers had income reports, none of them chronicled their respective journeys from the very beginning — the first reported month was often a big earning month. I bucked that trend by offering income reports from day one.
So while Leaving Work Behind certainly wasn’t a private blog, its primary initial role was to act as a public accountability journal, not to generate an income. Yet even though I originally didn’t intend to earn money from my blog itself, it has slowly but surely become central to my business.
Why You Should Blog With WordPress
Whichever approach to blogging you choose, you’ll need a publishing platform. Chances are, you don’t know how to code web pages yourself. Even if you do, maintaining a blog would be tough work in the back-end, so it might make more sense to use some sort of content management system.
But you can’t just throw your blog up with any service on the web. If you want to be taken seriously, you should avoid tools likeGoogle Blogger or Weebly. These tools are generally aimed at Internet beginners who want to create small, informal, personal websites. As such, they should be avoided by anyone who is serious about growing their freelance blogging business.
My only recommendation for content management is self-hosted WordPress. It’s a CMS system built for blogging, and has probably the largest support community of any product online.
WordPress is free and open source, which has helped cultivate a vast community of people who are constantly innovating and providing new plugins, themes, and tutorials. User-created plugins allows you to add extra functionality to your site, tailoring it to your specific needs.
As an added bonus, there is a sizable writing market in the WordPress niche. If you run a WordPress site, you may be able to tap into it even if you don’t generally focus on technology.
I do need to make an important distinction. There is a big difference between WordPress.org (which I advocate) and WordPress.com. While they’re similar, the latter has far fewer options. WordPress.com hosts sites for its users, but in return burdens them with a number of onerous restrictions. It’s worth it to pay for hosting and host your own installation of WordPress.
To do that, you’ll need to find a web hosting company like WestHost (my hosting provider of choice) or one of the one’s Sean recommends. Then you need to purchase hosting and buy a domain name, and finally, set up WordPress. Because WordPress has become near-ubiquitous in the blogosphere, many hosts offer handy one-click WordPress installation.
Need more reasons to start a blog? Here are 56 of them.
Step 3: Expand Your Reach…
While starting your own blog is critically important, you should keep in mind that it is but one part of the larger picture. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to make a living solely by monetizing your blog, and that’s where the freelancing comes in.
Going beyond your own blog is vital – you should get your writing in front of new eyes, preferably by writing for clients who pay you. The more places on the web where your work appears, the higher the chances become that you will find paying work in the future. Having a decent site design is also key to keeping clients there long enough for them to send you an email.
Samples are key in this stage. Especially when applying for paying gigs, people will want to see what you’ve done in the past. That’s the great thing about freelance blogging: every bit of work that you do should directly boost your chances at getting better-paying work in the future.
The more you write, the more developed your skills become. So whether work is on your blog, for a client, or as a guest post, you should be writing every day. Furthermore, every time you write (unless it’s ghostwriting), your name and a link to your site will appear in your byline. This too will help you increase your profile.
Really, blogging begets blogging. The more work you do, the easier it will be to work your way up the ladder and get more (and better) clients. That of course begs the question: how do you do more work? How can you expand your reach?
Step 4: …By Working for Clients
One viable option is to find paying work with a client. This is freelance blogging in its purest form: you offer your blogging skills as a service to people who need blogging.
Remember to keep in mind that you’re offering a service. You’re not going to be doing your own personal projects – save that for your blog. When working for clients, you will generally have to follow stricter criteria in terms of what they need for their audience.
But that’s okay. You simply need to adapt to the tone and style that they want, and write on the subject matter they ask for. If you write good blog posts, many clients will offer you long-term work.
How to Find Clients
A lot of people stumble upon large freelance websites advertising low-paid gigs and assume that those are their only option. They are wrong. I have never used services like oDesk or Elance to find work. I’m not an anomaly either: you do not have to work for pennies in a race to the bottom of the barrel.
Sean’s Note: There are actually some really good ways to make good money via sites like oDesk and Elance – you just have to know how to do it. But I’ll save that for a future blog post
If not giant online staffing platforms, where are you supposed to find freelance blogging opportunities? I recommend trying online job boards. They tend to offer better-paying work, and you can work directly with the client. You won’t have to work through an intermediary.
In fact, I found my first two jobs this way. In September of 2011, I submitted a bunch of applications to opportunities featured on the ProBlogger Job Board. The next month, I heard back from James Farmer at WPMU. He offered me a paid trial, and the rest is history. Then in November, I got a response from Vladimir Prelovac (the CEO of ManageWP), and started writing for his company’s blog.
I submitted the above applications on a whim, but within two months I had two good clients who were paying me to blog and publishing my content with a byline. I never went in search of another client — all other clients have come to me.
In a nutshell, two gigs and one job board launched my entire freelance blogging career.
This isn’t the only way, however. I’ve also known others to be successful by marketing aggressively and searching directly for clients in their niche. Whether or not they post to job boards, a blog may still be looking for contributors, so reaching out could land you some work. One thing to note is that standalone blogs are generally not as viable as businesses that have blogs – businesses have other streams of revenue and thus can more often afford to pay you a professional rate.
A few other resources on finding client or writing work:
- 2 Things You Must Know to Grow Your Consulting Business
- How to Make $3,000 in Two Months With SEO Writing
Step 5: …Or Starting With Guest Posts
When you’re looking to expand your reach, there are paths that you can pursue in addition to securing clients of your own – guest posting can be a great strategy. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s actually pretty simple: you write a post that another blogger posts on their blog, typically (but not always) as a one-off thing.
Guest posting can help get your name out there in front of a lot of different people. In fact, I guest post nowadays (you’re reading a guest post right now!), usually to promote other things I’m working on. In this case, I’m writing this post in the hopes that you’ll try out my Paid to Blog course. (How’s that for full disclosure?
The biggest reason to guest post early on is that it can bolster your credibility and get your name out there. I cannot stress this enough: writing for high quality blogs is vital – the more you write, the more people will see you as someone they can go to for blogging services.
While you will always earn money from long-term clients (if they refuse to pay you, run away – fast), guest posting is a different deal. People understand that the primary reason for guest posting is to promote your own blog and freelance services, so some blogs don’t pay for guest posts. One example would be The Write Life. Guest posting brings with it substantial benefits in the form of exposure, so free guest posts can pay for themselves with the revenue you bring in from referrals. Other blogs do pay for guest posts, like Be A Freelance Blogger.
Step 6: Do A Great Job
Whether you’re working with clients or crafting guest posts, it’s pretty obvious that you should aim to produce work of stellar quality. When I was writing for ManageWP and WPMU, I didn’t just crank out mediocre posts and call it a day. Instead, I worked to write content that I would be proud to have my name associated with. Good writing earns good money.
There are some basic things to pay attention to as you begin to write content for clients. You should always be on the lookout for typos. Everyone has a few mishaps slip in every now and again (I’ll be amazed if Sean doesn’t pick out at least one typo in this post ;-)), but if extensive mistakes are the norm for you then you’re not doing your job right.
Maintaining a standard style can also be a boon. I recommend buying yourself a copy of the Yahoo! Style Guide and sticking to it unless your clients request that you do specific things that deviate from its recommendations.
Remember that clients expect you to make their lives easier. They want you to succeed (as it’s in their best interest), and if you produce excellent content for them, they’ll continue to give you work. Maintaining a relationship with a client does not only help your bottom line; it boosts your reputation as well. If you continue working for the same client over a stretch of time, it’ll show that you’re able to write at a high level for a sustained period, which is great when trying to net future clients.
Step 7: Let More Clients Come to You
Once you start working for a few blogs, you may not need to continue searching for jobs. As I’ve already said, after securing my first two clients, I never had to look for work ever again – clients came to me via my bylines and my blog.
By writing great posts for established blogs, I built up my reputation and people sought me out. A good portfolio can help seal the deal.
Craft Clear, Compelling Content
The most important part of attracting new clients is to write compelling, useful content – if you write epic posts, people will be eager to head over to your site and learn more about you.
When someone stumbles upon a bland, cookie-cutter, run-of-the-mill pile of crap, they just skim through it, shrug, and move on. But when someone finds a real gem of a blog post, they sit down and read it all the way through – maybe they share it with their friends or put your advice into action. If they’re looking to hire a blogger, whoever wrote the superb post will be at the top of their list.
Bring In Better Bylines
But writing amazing posts is not enough. You need a solid byline. Unless you’re ghostwriting, your byline will usually appear alongside each post you write, whether it be for your own blog or for that of a client. It varies, but in most cases you will be able to write one or two sentences explaining who you are and providing any relevant links. You should put a good bit of thought into your byline. How can you best direct traffic through a link to your blog’s hire me page? Needless to say, your byline will need to be well-written.
One thing that can boost the efficacy of your bylines is to explicitly mention that you’re a freelance blogger for hire. It’s something I’ve learned over the past couple of years: when you make it abundantly clear that your services are for sale, you can get more people to come to you.
Watch the Clients Come
By blogging more, I gained credibility. Extensive writing gave me the opportunity to prove myself. This is one great aspect of freelance blogging that I mentioned earlier: everything you do should, at least in theory, directly contribute to boosting your bottom line or advancing your career.
Success breeds success – if you consistently write great content, more and more people will be willing to pay you great rates. All of this supports a key point: samples with bylines published on a variety of sites increase the likelihood that you won’t need to look for work.
During the formative months of my journey, I tried to generate income in a number of other ways. I joined affiliate marketing programs, released my own information product and more. But writing for clients was (and is) my primary means of making money. At that point, then, I was making the equivalent of over $150 on the freelance blogging side of my business.
Then I stopped.
Step 8: Switch to Subcontracting
Okay, to be fair, I didn’t stop blogging entirely. I still blog for my own sites, Leaving Work Behind and Healthy Enough, and write the occasional guest post. But for the most part, I have now shifted completely toward a subcontracting business model.
What does that mean? Basically, I started hiring out my writing work and acting in an editorial role. That led to my effectively hourly rate increasing to $400+.
The idea is pretty simple: if I outsource some tasks to other people for less money than I earn from the tasks, I make a net profit. My equivalent hourly rate for freelancing in June of 2013 was $161. So I did the math. If a client is willing to pay, say, $50 for an article and I can pay someone else something like $30 to write it for me, I make $20.
Subcontracting makes financial sense. I certainly earn less per project than I did before, but I also spend far less of my time on those projects. I calculated it along the lines of a 40% reduction in income in exchange for an 80% reduction in time taken. Those are the kind of percentages I can work with.
Originally, I went into this with the idea that I would make less money than before, but that I would have far more time to spend on other things that are more important to me. I’m happy to say that’s been the case, and I haven’t regretted moving to subcontracting for a moment.
My current role is to make sure that the pieces that my writers produce are suitable for clients. I read each piece and make changes where necessary. Instead of spending all of the time it takes to write a post, I just do any necessary polishing and send the post on to my client.
Sometimes, I will write up post outlines that I then send to one of my hired writers. But a lot of the time, I just give them a topic and they put together the piece on their own. It’s a great deal for everyone involved. The writers I hire get to work for decent rates and gain experience, and they don’t have to worry about sourcing work from tons of different clients if they don’t want to – I bring it to them. At the same time, I’m taking a good chunk of the profit from each article. It’s great for my bottom line.
I should note that, for me, a huge strength of this model is that my brand is attached to it. Earlier this year I tried to create a company called Clear Blogging Solutions. The idea was that it would be a subcontracting agency for written blog content. But the project ultimately didn’t pan out as expected. Why? I thought hard about it before I realized that a major selling point that drove my success was me – my writing, my credibility and my track record.
It turns out, though, that the failure of Clear Blogging Solutions was hardly devastating. In fact, I kept the subcontracting model in place because it works — I just moved back to marketing the work under my name brand.
So subcontracting works, but but I only gain new clients through the credibility that I built for myself. This makes it clear that if you want to succeed at subcontracting, you need to first become a successful freelance blogger in your own right.
The Internet offers myriad ways to make money and live the life that you want to live, and I am a good example of just one such way.
From having a small blog and writing for initial clients, I was able to grow my business to the point where I was making a lot of money, then one-upped myself by switching to a subcontracting model. I started with nothing in the way of professional writing experience, and I now make over $400 an hour by subcontracting freelance writing.
For me, freelance blogging provided a perfect route to success. Hopefully, you can learn something from my journey. Freelance blogging can be a pathway to success, so why not give it a try?