Ever wanted to learn how to get paid to write online? Now is a perfect time to make that big transition.
More and more people are turning to online work, including learning how to write and get paid online. They're finding ways to turn their passions into a career.
If becoming a freelance writer and writing online for income is at the top of your list, this guide is for you. I’ll teach you everything you need to know to start getting paid to write quickly, even if you have little to no experience.
- The hard and soft skills you need to succeed to become a working online writer
- How to create a portfolio even if you’ve never landed a writing client in your life
- A few things I learned the hard way (that would have made my life easier if I knew them before)
By the time you’re through, you’ll know exactly what you need to do to get started. You'll learn how to get paid to write online. 🎉 ✍️
Part 1. Learn the Skills You Need in the 2020s to Get Paid to Write
The beauty of the internet is that anyone can teach themselves skills and build a career from scratch. In fact, people sit down every day and figure out how to get paid to write online.
You can be one of them. It’s totally possible.
If you’re approaching writing online as a career for the first time, and have little or no experience, that’s all right! Freelance writing is a viable, thriving career even in the 2020s.
Of course, a big part of getting paid to write online involves understanding the skills you need. Here’s a closer look at the soft skills and the hard skills that you must develop to succeed.
First: Do You Have What It Takes to Freelance? A Word About Soft Skills
I’ve worked with freelancers for over a decade, so allow me to let you in on a little secret:
Despite the fact that 36 percent of the U.S. population works as independent contractors, not everyone is cut out for the freelance life.
There are a lot of people out there who frankly shouldn’t go into self-employment as a writer or as anything else.
Freelancing is not a walk in the park. You’ll need certain soft skills to succeed, including:
- A solid work ethic. Do you have follow-through? Will you meet deadlines without fail and always present your best work? A lot of freelancers don’t. Guess what? Clients and agencies also stop sending them work before long. This is by far one of the most important skills you need to keep in mind as you get ready to get paid to write online.
- Good communication. From comments in your writing to emails with clients and editors, you’ll need to know how to present yourself professionally and communicate in a way that moves the project forward. (Here are some great tips for professional communication for freelancers.)
- Research skills. How do you write authoritatively on a topic you know little to nothing about? Simple: Have stellar research skills. You don’t necessarily need to know everything about a topic, but you DO need to know where to find the information you need.
- Active listening and asking questions. Interviewing clients is hard. So is discerning what the client really means when they type something out in a creative brief. You’ll not only need to develop the ability to understand what’s really before you but also to ask the right questions to get the information you need.
- Networking. Finding clients presents its own challenges (we’ll look at that below), but do you know how to find other professionals? Editors? Subcontract writers? A business manager? There are all sorts of ways to network, from LinkedIn to joining skills academies where you can connect with other like-minded professionals.
The Hard Skills You’ll Need to Get Paid to Write Online
It’s often said that success is half sweat, half skill. If you’ve got the soft skills above, then you’ve got the mindset you need to thrive as a freelancer. But if you really want to get paid to write online in 2020 and beyond, you need some specific technical expertise:
- SEO. You may not necessarily specialize in SEO writing, but you must be aware of the best practices surrounding it. In the 2020s, SEO remains a major feature of writing. I recommend that you learn basics like keyword research, identifying good quality links, and how to use keywords in your writing so that you rank while sounding totally natural. I teach an SEO writing course for online writers. Learn more about it here.
- Content types. Not all content is the same, and you’ll need to master the various types that exist.
- Content strategy and marketing. It’s all but taken over the online writing industry. Again, you don’t need to be a guru at it, but you should be familiar with how and why online content is most effective when it aligns with a brand’s business goals.
- Digital marketing. You should have a solid grasp on digital marketing topics. This will help you if you write landing pages, social media content, or similar advertising copy.
- Writing for the web. You probably learned a very distinct way of writing in school – but it won’t help you get paid to write online. Consider reviewing the basics of writing for the web, or even taking a course like my. new Unlearn Essay Writing program that updates your writing skills.
- Storytelling. Angles aren’t just for polygons and journalists. Knowing how to tell a good story will amplify the effectiveness of your writing, especially if you choose to specialize as a growth-focused content writer.
If you want to dive into top resources to follow and learn from, check out my free Content Hacker™ educational resource list.
Part 2. Create Your Writing Portfolio (Even If You Have No “Experience”)
So, you’ve been studying the skills you need to get paid to write online. You may even already have most of them, which brings us to our next step: putting together your portfolio so you can start winning clients. At this point, you may be asking yourself:
How on earth do you do that without any experience??
I hear you. In fact, a lot of my students have asked me this exact question. Here’s what I recommend you do.
(If you’ve taken the Practical Content Strategy & Marketing Course, I walk you through the process of creating a brand content strategy step-by-step literally inside of the course. It's powerful and a huge value-add for my content strategy students! Some have even used it to build their own brand from scratch. You can totally apply this course to building a writing brand of your own.)
1. Collect 3-5 of Your Best Pieces From All Sources
A wealth of tutorials and information exists about learning how to write for money online. As you research, you may even come across courses you decide to take. You’ll notice that good ones will usually have assignments and “homework” for you to do.
This isn’t just to keep you busy. It’s supposed to help you create presentable pieces that you can use early on to promote your services.
Remember: It’s okay to use mock-ups and “samples.” Just make sure that you label these as such in your portfolio.
2. Write a Bio
Create a simple bio for yourself that highlights your professional interests, skills, and experience. Make sure to include your position (“freelance writer” or “copywriter” or “SEO writer”) and sell yourself. A photo is also a good idea to help potential clients get a sense of your vibe.
While it’s okay to include interesting factoids about yourself, I would caution you against things like how many pets you own or your favorite flavor of tea unless they directly relate to your writing or specialty. Including things like how you live in northern Vermont with three cats, your spouse, and two kids simply isn’t relevant, interesting, or polished.
Pro-Tip: It’s a good idea to create a “longer” bio for your portfolio and a shorter version for things like blog posts and social media. You can always link to your portfolio there and drive interested people to your site.
Your professional bio is an opportunity to showcase your personality. Source: HubSpot
3. Pull It All Together in a Simple, Modern Portfolio
Armed with writing samples and a bio, you’re ready to create a site.
It doesn’t need to be a complicated one – in fact, at first, it shouldn’t be. Your focus should be telling your potential clients who you are, what you do, and how they can contact you.
If you’ve got the skills and gumption to build it yourself, you can get a web host and download WordPress. I only recommend this route if you’re able to build a site with a modern, professional presentation.
Otherwise, plenty of resources exist that make it super easy. Consider one of these hosts specifically designed for writers who need portfolios:
- Clippings.Me. Easily create a customizable portfolio and upload an unlimited amount of “clips” (online links or PDFs of your work).
- Journo Portfolio. This site is free, lets you choose from a variety of cool, customizable themes, and is easy to use. It’s mobile-friendly, too!
- Pressfolios. This journalist-friendly site lets you organize your body of work in a quick and easy way.
Part 3. Places to Look to Get Paid to Write
You’ve got the skills and you’ve got a portfolio to prove it. You’re now ready to hit the keyboard and find your first clients. YAY!
If you got onto Google and searched “freelance writing jobs” you probably came across something like this:
Cool! But then you clicked on it and saw things like this:
And not just one. There are dozens of jobs that pay less than what you’d make waiting tables for tips only.
Low-paying gigs are a reality of the online freelance writing world. And if you’re just starting out, it’s easy to believe that you have to settle for this because you’re “a beginner.”
You can not only get paid to write online, but you can – and deserve to – be paid well.
There are two routes you can consider: working with an agency or going solo. I’ll look at both right here.
Working with an Agency
An agency can be a shortcut into getting paid to write online. Many hire writers as subcontractors to handle gigs, and they can be a great place to start. I’ve written a guide on how to apply for jobs for you to consider.
There are numerous pros to working with an agency:
- They handle clients for you. That can be a load off your shoulders if you’re just starting out or don’t want to deal with it.
- They can mean steady work quickly. Agencies pick up freelance writers to handle overflow that their own writers can’t take. They can hire you and hand you work that day.
- You might be able to work with a local agency. Look on Indeed for content marketing, branding, digital marketing, SEO, or writing agencies in your area.
- Many will train you into other areas. Many agencies help their writers develop skills because it’s a win-win situation when they do good work. At Express Writers, I train my writers in SEO and content strategy to make them more effective.
There are also some disadvantages:
- Some don’t pay well. In general, expect them to charge between 40 and 60 percent above what they’re paying you.
- You need to be careful with NDAs. It’s not unusual for agencies to forbid you from using anything you create for them in a public-facing portfolio.
Going at It Solo
Many people also get paid to write online by going at it solo. This can be a great option if you truly value freedom. But the onus is wholly on you to bring in the dough.
There are advantages to going at it alone:
- More freedom and flexibility. You have much more freedom with what you charge, how you work with clients, and you choose to work with.
- Unlimited earnings potential. You don’t have an agency taking a cut.
- It’s a good option if you want to build a reputation. You’ll have a byline and be able to advance your own authority.
But there are also some disadvantages:
- Greater vulnerability to scams. It’s an unfortunate reality that some people will try to scam you. I’ll look at some common ones in section five.
- It can be a lot more work. All marketing, client attraction, and project management will fall directly onto your shoulders.
Going solo is right for many people, and neither option is ultimately better or worse. As you’re just getting started, you may want to try doing both to see which you like better.
Looking for clients and gigs can also be more challenging. In general, there are two things you can do:
- Cold emailing. Spend some time researching companies you want to work for and approach them. You’ll need to learn how to pitch yourself, and those networking skills will come in handy. Be careful not to spend too much wasted time here. Some freelancers swear by cold emailing, but as of this year I think it's getting overly saturated. It doesn't work for me — full disclosure.
- Working on a platform. Many platforms exist where writers (and other freelancers) can sign up to access clients. This makes the marketing easier, but there’s more competition. Additionally, most platforms take a cut as payment for connecting you with clients. Here are 50 places for you to look for work.
Part 4. Get Paid to Write: Why the Riches Are (Still) in the Niches
Ever hear that saying?
Conventional wisdom holds that you’ll make more money if you specialize, rather than become a generalist. In writing online, that’s true.
Although you should be able to write competently on a wide range of topics, developing a specialty lets you delve deep into a particular topic.
The better you know the topic, the more likely people will seek you out for your expertise in it.
If you don’t already have a niche, don’t worry. Many writers start out as generalists. This can be a great way to identify interests and hone your skills early on. However, you should keep your eyes peeled for lucrative, interesting niches that you would be interested in pursuing.
When it comes to writing online, there are three ways to niche down:
1. Niche by Industry
Specializing by industry is perhaps one of the most common ways to niche down in the writing world. In fact, most job listings that you see will prefer writers with specific industry expertise.
One advantage of specializing by industry is that it allows you to niche down further. For example, if your industry of experience is cybersecurity, you might niche down further by:
- Working with cybersecurity startups
- Ghostwriting for cybersecurity
- Specializing in content strategy for cybersecurity firms
When you first get started with getting paid to write online, keep your eye open for industry niches that interest you. You can always go more specific from there.
2. Niche by Content Type
Another common way for writers to niche down include specializing in content types. This is a great way to develop expertise in specific types of documents, many of which frequently have technical requirements that you must master. This allows you to raise your rates far beyond what a generalist would be able to do.
Some common examples of niching by content type include:
- Ghostwriters. These are writers who craft documents or content where someone else gets the byline.
- SEO writers. These writers specialize in SEO content.
- Grant writers. These writers only do grant writing.
Like with industry, content-type niches can go further. For example, you may specialize in grant writing for a specific type of non-profit, or niche into executive ghostwriting. Other content-type niches include:
- Product descriptions
- Emails and e-newsletters
3. Niche by Approach
Niching down by approach is a new philosophy that’s appearing in online writing. In essence, rather than specializing in an industry or content type, you’ll brand yourself based on your approach to writing.
For example, I consider myself a growth-focused content writer. That means my approach is designed to grow your brand and its reach.
Other approaches include:
- Conversion-oriented. That’s a writer whose approach emphasizes conversion. Copyhackers is perhaps the most well-known voice of this niche.
- Investigative. Although you typically see investigative writing in relation to journalism, this is a writer who focuses on original research and uncovering original stories.
- UI or UX focused. UX content, or content meant to enhance the user experience, qualifies as a content type. It’s also a philosophy that suggests good content is good UX because it’s rooted in user needs.
(Want more ideas about how to get paid to write online? Check out my book: So, You Think You Can Write.)
Part 5. Other Tips, Tricks & Things to Be Aware of When Getting Started Writing & Freelancing
At this point, you should have a pretty good sense of what it takes to get paid to write online. Hopefully, you’ve also been able to compare where you stand and think about the next steps you need to take.
I’d like to round out this guide with a few tips and tricks that I’ve learned from being a freelancer for over a decade.
Here are four things you should absolutely do as early as possible in your freelancing career to maximize success, ones you might not have considered:
1. Set Up Your Office for Comfortable Functionality
You’d think that working from home is a cakewalk – after all, your commute is 20 seconds and you get to spend all day in your PJs, cozied up with your pet and favorite mug.
And you can. They don’t tell you how sore you might be from it, though.
Working from home catches people off-guard with how stressful it can be. However, part of that stress occurs because we’re rarely set up with ergonomic solutions. Forcing your body to lounge on soft pillows without the proper support will take its toll.
You don’t need to rush out and buy a whole new office, but you should put some thought into your workspace.
Check out this guide on creating your dream home office with ergonomic solutions to stay happy and productive. 😊
Setting up your office is an opportunity to establish physical boundaries for a work-life balance… something freelancers are notoriously bad at! Source: deMilked
2. Get Familiar with Tools but Don’t Overdo It
Feeling overwhelmed by the number of tools and apps out there? If you check out my Content Hacker™ starter kit, you’ll find close to 40 of them.
There are tons. And yes – your clients will expect you to know at least a few of them.
Many of these tools come with pricey subscriptions, and that can prove daunting if you’re just starting out. However, as much as possible, I highly recommend that you take a moment to play with some of the major tools used by writers in your specific niche or industry. That may include even the free trial versions. This way, you aren’t blindsided when a client suddenly starts referencing metrics in Ahrefs or rankings in SEMrush.
Here are the big ones I recommend you review:
- Ahrefs. It’s an SEO tool set that’s most commonly referenced when it comes to link-building.
- SEMrush. It’s a go-to for SEO, content marketing, and competitive research.
- Google Analytics. Almost anyone who has a site uses Google Analytics to track traffic and content performance.
- Google Office. From sharing documents to collaborating on creative briefs, expect to use it. A lot.
- Alexa. Yes, the service by Amazon is a great way to check out site performance and research content.
- Slack. A collaboration tool, it’s becoming more common for teams to keep in touch with each other.
- CoSchedule. A leader in the content strategy industry, it’s great for topic planning as well as learning how to make the most out of your content.
3. Learn About Taxes A.S.A.P.
Another common subject that blindsides new freelancers? Taxes.
In case you didn’t know, freelancers in the U.S. fall into a special tax category with the IRS. You must follow certain rules, but you also have certain privileges that traditional employees don’t. In particular:
- Get in the habit of saving money. You’re responsible for both the business and personal taxes from everything you earn. You’ll pay a self-employment tax, plus federal and state income taxes. Your tax bill will be somewhere between 15 and 25 percent of your annual income every April.
- Learn if you need to file quarterly. Check the IRS website for guidance on this.
- Understand what it means to be an independent contractor. The IRS lays out an exact definition of an independent contractor. This includes what clients can and cannot force you to do.
Working with an accountant can help you get the most out of your tax deductions – but be careful with them. Freelancers are more likely to be audited than other professionals. Source: Debbie Ridpath Ohi.
4. Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Scammers
It’s an unfortunate reality with online work that scammers exist everywhere. I’ve come across many as a freelance writer over the last decade (and even fallen for one or two!). Many are quite clever and experienced at what they do. Keep your eyes peeled and your wits about you. If it feels wrong, it is!
Some common scams that exist in freelance writing online:
- Extensive “samples” to “test” you or “determine writing quality.” A portfolio is your first line of defense against this. Legitimate clients will never ask for free articles, product descriptions, or anything else. Some agencies might, but this should never be more than a paragraph or so.
- Clients who want to take you off-platform. If you’re working on Upwork or another platform, you may come across clients who want to take communications off the site. Be very careful doing this, as some clients will ghost you after taking the final product. And since you violated Upwork terms by going off the platform, they won’t do anything.
- Clients who want you to deposit checks, purchase certain things for a project, or otherwise send money to places. Although it might sound obvious when stated like that, similar scams have successfully conned people out of thousands of dollars in 2020 alone. If they’re asking for money from you, look twice!
- Fake job posting scams. You’ll find them most frequently on Craigslist, but they exist everywhere. The job doesn’t actually exist. They just want your information.
- Tax document phishing scams. Be wary of clients that want you to submit tax documents to them. You should never hand over anything other than a W2 or a W4 – and you should definitely never do it on a platform like Upwork, where the platform handles that information for you.
Summary: You CAN Get Paid to Write
If there’s anything you took away from this, I hope it’s this one thing: You CAN get paid to write online and you CAN turn your passion for writing into a career.
I’ve covered everything you need to know, from skills to things to beware as you set out on your new career.
Freelance writing is a fun, challenging, and fast-paced career that demands a commitment to constant learning. It’s been a wild ride of the past decade, and I’m looking forward to the next ten years.
So, don’t be shy!
Get started today as a freelance writer and get paid to write online.
Get the skills you need to get paid to write online. Join the Content Hacker™ Academy and flourish today!