To succeed as a freelance writer, you must have a small business owner’s mindset.

Starting a freelance writing career is not that different from starting any business – you must convince people the product you produce is worth paying for, including any written content.

Many rewards come with learning how to become a freelance writer, but there’s also risk. Inevitably, you will make mistakes, but there are some straightforward dos and don’ts to keep in mind when starting a freelance writing career.

A young freelance writer researching a topic

What Is a Freelance Writer?

Becoming a freelance writer means you’re a self-employed professional who writes articles and other forms of content for a variety of different clients, whether they are publishers or private companies. The more versatile and diverse a writer you are, the more likely you will have a broad range of clients in various industries.

What Does a Freelance Writer Do?

Aside from writing, freelance writers interview people to gather information, conduct research, and manage clients. You’ll also need good organizational skills since you’re your project manager, and you’ll need to be mindful of tracking your income and expenses to serve as your own bookkeeper.

What Kind of Freelance Writers Are There?

When starting your freelance writing career, decide what type of writing interests you. Is it long-form feature writing for magazines? Copy for brochures to help companies with their marketing? Ghostwriting blogs for company executives? Do you want to write about health, finances, or food?

Your clients could be newspapers, magazines, or corporations that need written blogs, advertising copy, flyers or webpages. Some content must be short and to the point, while other writing is lengthy and more in-depth.

What Equipment Does a Freelance Writer Need?

Being a freelance writer doesn’t require a great deal of upfront investment – a decent laptop, internet connection, and phone is all you need. Of course, if your assignment requires photos, you’ll need a decent camera, although today’s smartphones can take high-quality shots. A digital recorder to record interviews is also handy.

How Do You Find Freelance Writing Jobs?

Most resources are online and include guides to periodicals that hire freelancers and websites that match freelance writers with clients. Job sites that advertise full-time jobs also post freelance and short-term contract gigs. LinkedIn can be a valuable resource for finding work and being found. Referrals will help you generate business – if you do great work, it will be remembered.

Set up an online portfolio showcasing samples of your work. It could be your website as well as a profile on LinkedIn. And use social media channels such as Instagram and Twitter to promote your work.

How Profitable Is It to Become a Freelance Writer?

An established freelancer with a reputation in specific subject matters can earn a six-figure annual income. However, being able to write about complex topics is generally more lucrative – technology, health and medicine, and finance require a level of expertise that customers value and will pay you well to write.

Subjects such as entertainment, food, and travel can be less profitable to write about – many people are happy to write about these for fun and for no pay, so it’s hard to make money writing about these topics. (In the case of travel writing, it is possible to get free trips and experiences that can offset the lower pay).

Writing for corporate clients invariably pays more because you’re supporting marketing efforts or doing technical documentation. Technical writing can command good pay due to its complex nature and domain expertise. Writing for periodicals such as newspapers and magazines, whether print or online, can pay well depending on the publication, but that market has shrunk.

What Steps Do You Need to Take to Be a Freelance Writer?

You need to set yourself up as a business and understand how to manage it from a financial point of view, including your cash flow.

Because you’re not a full-time employee, your tax situation is different. You must pay taxes on your income – your clients won’t deduct them. That includes setting aside enough to cover federal and provincial income tax owing and collecting the appropriate provincial sales tax. You should immediately apply for an HST (harmonized sales tax) number. You don’t need to charge HST if you make less than $30,000 annually, but your long-term goal is to make more.

Self-employed individuals must also make higher Canada Pension Plan (CPP) contributions, although you need not worry about Employment Insurance (EI) deductions. Consider getting an accountant that specializes in helping freelance and self-employed workers.

There can be value in incorporating yourself as a business, but there are a lot of pros and cons. That’s another area where it’s best to seek expert advice since the deadlines for filing an annual tax return and the type of deductions you can claim may vary depending on the legal structure you set up. For example, a sole proprietor is you personally, whereas a corporation is a separate entity (that’s also noteworthy if you’re sued).

What Kind of Insurance Do Freelance Writers Need?

If you write about anything with authority, it must be correct. Making a mistake, even an honest one, can create liabilities with financial repercussions. That’s why it’s important to protect yourself with insurance, including errors and omissions (E&O) coverage. You’ll also want to cover yourself against a cyber-attack, as you’ll digitally store the intellectual property you’re developing for customers. Cybercrime is a rising threat for every small business and self-employed professional.

What Risks Do Freelance Writers Face?

Starting a freelance writing career brings with it both risks and rewards. The risks are why you need to treat it like a business.

As your business picks up steam, you’ll need to keep up with multiple projects. That includes managing clients and billing and being mindful of multiple deadlines for different customers – a major risk for freelance writers is they take on more work than they can handle and risk missing deadlines.

There’s always a risk that a client doesn’t pay you; it’s rare, but it can happen for several reasons, if only because they are struggling as a business. You end up being one of many creditors to whom they owe money. Legal expense insurance can help should you need to start proceedings to collect a debt.

Economic cycles can affect freelancers the same way it affects businesses. Some years you may have fewer customers, although a recession can be beneficial as some businesses would rather hire by the project rather than hire a full-time writer. The “feast or famine” cycle is often discussed in freelance writing circles. Still, an established writer will enjoy fewer extreme fluctuations – it’s normal for clients to come and go, no matter how successful you are.

Despite the risk of being a freelance writer and being self-employed, having multiple clients means you have a diversified income stream. Depending on your subject matter and writing, becoming a freelance writer can be pretty lucrative and pay better than having a full-time job. Just be sure you’re mindful of the risks, and work to acquire the necessary business acumen, which includes having freelance liability insurance.

– Reviewed by Shelly Petrie, Team Lead, Digital Solutions Team, Zensurance.

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About the Author: Gary Hilson

Gary Hilson has more than 20 years of experience writing about B2B enterprise technology. He has been published by EE Times, Network Computing, EBN Online, Computing Canada, Channel Daily News, and others. A Zensurance customer, when he’s not tapping on the keyboard, Gary collects comic books, attends live theatre, constructs Lego, and buys books he always intends to read.