Recently, a friend of a friend posted that she was getting started in freelance writing. It always excites me to hear that someone is getting started in freelance writing, because I think it’s a great way to earn a real living on your own terms.
This woman — I’ll call her Penelope, because that’s not her hame — posted, quite simply, something along the lines of, “Excited and nervous to start my new career as a freelance writer!”
My friend had commented on the post and tagged me as a potential resource for Penelope, and not too long after that, Penelope reached out and asked for my feedback on her plan.
Penelope’s plan looked something like this (I’ve changed a few identifying details):
- Create vision board
- Work on branding
- Work on About Me page
- Build web site to reflect branding
- Figure out niche
- Create service packages
- Attend conference in another state
- Target potential clients with packages
Many of these steps involved spending money — in some cases, several hundred or even over a thousand dollars.
It would be at least four months before Penelope would be ready to target potential client with her service packages, and to get to that point, she would spend a lot of money.
“So, do you think I should change anything?” Penelope asked.
I thought carefully about my answer for a few hours. Penelope is, after all, the friend of a friend. We might eventually run into each other at a party or be at the same conference. She might one day have too much work and need to outsource. I might one day have too much work and need to outsource.
I didn’t want to alienate Penelope completely, but I wanted to tell her that her plan was a giant pile of… doo-doo.
What’s a nice way to say that?
Spoiler: I didn’t figure that out.
When I couldn’t put off responding any longer, I told Penelope that I typically recommend that writers first figure out what they want to write and who they want to write it for — choose their niche, in other words — but that they not take any longer than a few days to make a decision.
Then, I said, she should start looking for work.
Without the vision board.
Without the branding.
Without an About Me page or a website, without attending conferences, and without creating service packages.
My focus, I explained, is on showing writers how to actually make money from writing, not how to spend time and money on things that feel like work, but really aren’t.
I’ve worked with a lot of writers, both one-on-one and in my course. I’ve seen writers come in with detailed plans just like Penelope. I’ve listened to them explain — extremely thoroughly — why it is critical that they focus on their branding.
Branding has lately become a really big thing in the online business world. I can’t tell you how many posts I see in Facebook groups where people post their “branding boards” and ask for feedback.
I call this one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
Spending time choosing colors and fonts, designing a logo, creating combinations of colors and fonts — this feels like work. It even feels like important work.
You are, after all, making critical decisions about your business.
Except that… you are not. You are not making critical decisions about your business, because you don’t have a business yet.
If all you have is a branding board, that’s not a business. And spending hours, days, or weeks on choosing fonts will not get you any closer to getting clients.
You have a business when someone pays you to do work. You want to do everything you can to get to that point as quickly as possible, for one basic reason, which is simply that:
When someone pays you, you will have money.
This, to me, is the heart of a successful business: getting paid.
Vision boards do not get you paid as a freelance writer.
Branding boards do not get you paid as a freelance writer.
Even writing your About Me page won't get you any money. Yes, you ultimately want to have a web site and an About Me page, but you don't need them in order to get paying clients.
Attending conferences might help you meet people who will hire you, but there are so many other ways to find people to hire you that do not involve spending hundreds of dollars on a ticket to a conference, flying to another state and paying for a hotel, hiring someone to take care of your children while you are away, and so on.
When I make a plan for getting started in freelance writing it looks pretty much like this:
- Figure out what you want to write and who you want to write it for.
- Reach out to that person and offer to write that thing.
Two steps. Straightforward. Earning money happens already in step two.
Okay, I’m oversimplifying a bit. It’s true that I believe strongly in foundational work — getting your time under control, establishing smart business habits, and establishing the mindset you need to build a successful business.
I absolutely believe that you need to do these foundational things before you can build a business that will give you long term results, but if you want a quick and dirty guide to getting started in freelance writing, it really does boil down to the two steps listed above.
None of the things on Penelope’s list are bad things for a business. A vision board can be awesome. Paying attention to your branding matters. A website can help bring clients to you. But you definitely don’t spend time and money on those things before you know what you want to write — and who you want to write it for.
Choosing your niche has to happen before you build a site or figure out your branding, because your niche is what defines all of those things.
And that’s where a lot of writers fall into another dangerous procrastination trap. They spend weeks — or even months — choosing a niche.
Actually, they spend weeks or months avoiding choosing a niche. They are exceptionally creative in the ways they do this.
I cannot choose my niche today because I need to thoroughly research these 47 topics before I can pick one.
This week, I’m moving, so I don’t have time to choose my niche.
I’m going to choose my niche right after the kids go back to school.
As soon as the kitchen is organized, I’m going to figure out my niche.
You probably think that I am exaggerating for comic effect. I assure you that I am not.
There have been times when I have worked with a student one-on-one for several hours, and we have finalized the student’s niche. The next day, I get an email that says something like,
I was thinking that maybe this niche is going to be too difficult to break into, and I should probably go with something else. I’m going to think about it for a few weeks.
At this point, I write back or call the student and inform her that she is STICKING with the niche she chose and that I expect to see a PITCH to a potential client by the end of the day.
I do this from a place of love, I promise.
How is that helpful?
If you want to start earning money as a freelance writer, the most important thing you can do is figure out what you want to write and who you want to write it for. Without a niche, everything else is just… commentary. Window dressing. Irrelevant.
When you're ready to start earning actual money, figure out what you want to write and who you want to write it for, and start pitching those clients.
When you're ready to stop procrastinating, you can start working as a freelance writer.