A Freelance Writing Guide for the Coronavirus Shutdown

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Friends. I started this blog in 2010 when I was brand new to the city. Back then, I was mainly an actor, which meant I was actually paying my bills by temping, babysitting, and catering/working auctions at events. Any breakdown in social structure–such as our current state with the coronavirus–tossed my budget out the window in just days.

When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, my now-husband and I were both living freelance paycheck-to-paycheck, but our recent move to Jersey City meant that our income essentially halted. The Path trains to NYC shut down for a month, and though private busses started up eventually, you typically had to wait in line for hours to get a seat. Our income was non-existent for about two weeks, which was more than enough to make us scared about groceries and rent. After the whole debacle, we both took full-time jobs and focused away from theatre for nearly five years (and never truly turned back, honestly).

For everyone suddenly separated from their only source of income, I hear you. Times like these are not only scary for next month’s rent, but can scare you out of the field for good. If there’s one piece of advice I learned from our experience, it is to never make life-altering decisions or declare massive changes when you’re in a panic. However, the massive change after Sandy did eventually help me find my current full-time freelance career in marketing writing.

If you are interested in learning a new work-from-home strategy while we all have time, read on!

Marketing Writing for Actors and Artists

So here’s the thing. Marketing freelance writing worked for me. It is not going to work for everyone. I know that sounds like an obvious disclaimer, but with everything changing so quickly, I want to reiterate that you should only throw your time into something you feel is financially worth your energy. If you get started and feel completely uninspired, it’s okay to turn back.

I am a content marketing writer. This differs from copywriting. Copywriting is the short-form content that sells you something directly. Think Peggy Olsen from Mad Men.

I primarily write the blog posts you see on a brand’s website. The articles pull people to a website when you google things like “How do I floss my teeth?” or “Best falafel near me.” On a basic level, these phrases redirect you to businesses that want your trust and money. Nowadays, Google is far more complex in their algorithm than just shoving phrases into a post. This concept refers to SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. As a writer, you typically do not handle the SEO side of things (though some do, and get paid for it), but you should understand it on a basic level to get started.

Marketing writing is pretty ideal for the theatrical brain. Many agencies use personas or a target audience when they send you an assignment. It’s very similar to getting into the mind of a character if they were about to wander the internet to buy something.

  • Jacob Marley does not want the same hat as Laura Wingfield.
  • Eurydice needs cheap matches in a hurry.
  • Lady Macbeth can spend a little more on cleaning solution.
  • Roxy Hart needs low-cost legal advice.

I digress. Actors, writers, and other artists could be great at marketing writing because:

  • We understand human nature
  • We get into the minds of other characters
  • We’re used to communicating a thought and can therefore explain a complex topic in simple words
  • We take direction well (which is a big perk for editors)

Most companies I work with want someone who can take complicated jargon and make it readable to the person rushing around the internet who only has 45 seconds to learn how to make an omelet. If they really love the blog, they may click on the call to action (or CTA) at the end of the article to order the food-delivery service that posted the article in the first place.

You get it.

My Content Marketing Career Path

This is the super-basic timeline of how things worked for me (skip this if you’re in a rush):

  • 2010: I started a blog for myself. Hey! It’s this blog!
  • 2015: I submitted my first article about wedding planning to Offbeat Bride in 2015. The site does not pay but they do get significant online shares (and I was not trying to make money off of writing at the time because I had a full-time job in a school).
    • A high school friend then reached out with information from his company, Skyword, a platform that connected freelance writers with brands.
    • My first gig was with xoJane, where I sold my soul and personal stories for $50 a post.
    • I placed these articles in a portfolio on Contently.com, another freelancer site, but also a great place to host a free portfolio
    • I spent the rest of the year placing my blog posts on sites that occasionally featured writers, allowing me to add more articles to my portfolio.
  • 2016: I built a profile on Upwork and Clearvoice, two more freelancing sites.
    • A writer reached out on Upwork asking if I’d edit and proofread her work. I did and the job went well. When she gave me a good rating, Upwork placed me in the Rising Talent program, which pushed me to the top of some application lists.
    • I started writing landing page content for a wedding website, blogs for a landscaping firm, and even articles for a stroke rehab device company.
  • 2017: I left my full-time job when the shift financially made sense. Income ebbed and flowed for a year and now I work with 4-5 main clients on a regular basis.

Content Marketing Steps for the Quarantine

Okay, so how do we squeeze my journey into a few weeks or days? First of all, you need material. Just as you need a reel to get acting jobs but need acting jobs to get a reel, this can be a catch-22. However, some clients just want to know you can write.

I am always of the camp that you shouldn’t throw too much money toward a new trade until you’re pretty sure you’ll be pursuing it for some time. So, everything below is free other than setting up Upwork (which charges for credits when you apply to something on your own).

Spec Materials for a Portfolio

A marketing temp firm once advised me that spec material in a portfolio is better than nothing. WordPress.com blogs are free, so you can host them here if you just need a landing page. If you want to gather writing samples in a hurry, you can create a few spec items to add to your portfolio. These might include:

  • A how-to article about a niche subject you know a lot about
  • A review of a recent product you’ve used
  • First-person account of recent travel or experience with a business

You can even create more specific materials such as samples of marketing emails (this is beyond my expertise though), social media promotions, or even copywriting ideas.

In short, make it easy for the client to glance through your writing and get a sense of your energy. You don’t have to shift your writing to sound sale-sy or “professional.” Use your voice, make it easy to read, proofread your grammar. Grammarly has a free option for proofing and Hemingway App is a great way to check if your sentences are hard to read to the average human.

As I mentioned above, I like Contently for hosting a portfolio, though my Upwork, website, and facebook page receive the most messages about new gigs.

Learn Marketing Basics

LinkedIn Learning has a 30-day free trial on their classes. Sign up, mark the end of your 30-day trial on your calendar, and take a few courses on SEO and marketing basics. Be sure to include this in any freelance profiles you create. This will also help you speak the lingo when you submit for gigs.

Determine Your Rates

This is super tricky in early career days. Rates significantly range in freelance writing. Full transparency, my current rate is anywhere between 10 and 25 cents a word. Some companies offer a specific amount for their contract, while others ask for your rate. I went as low as 5 cents a word when I started, in other words: $50 for a 1,000-word post. That is no longer sustainable. Low-paying work eats up time.

Nowadays, my lower rate is for consistent clients that give me a ton of work each week that I could write with my eyes closed. The higher rates are for articles that require interviews, extensive research, or a personalized touch of creativity. I no longer take on short articles that pay less than $150 a pop. Most pay between $200 and $350.

Remember, this is only my experience. I speak with plenty of freelance content writers that charge far more or less than I do, use different platforms, and started from different training backgrounds.

There are far more things to consider for determining your rate. This is still my favorite chart.

I also recently wrote this post about avoiding weird job posts and red-flag clients.

Finding Gigs

Here are the top ways I find work:

  • LinkedIn: Look for remote and freelance content writing positions
  • Upwork: Create a profile and use “connects” to submit to clients or answer requests for proposals for free. You should note that Upwork does take a cut of your pay, which decreases as time goes on. They do, however, protect you from payment complications and create the contract for you. Once you get into the top-rated program, you start off with free connects.
  • Clearvoice: Create a profile and clients come to you (you cannot search on your own)
  • Facebook groups: I am part of a female freelance writer group that frequently posts jobs. Lemme know if you want an invite.
  • ProBlogger:This is where I started out. It’s super basic but occasionally can set you up with a good match.
  • Idealist: Some non-profits need content writers, though this pay will be understandably lower than a large brand.

If you’re comfortable with this idea, post a note on your personal Facebook wall that you’re looking for clients for your new writing venture. Friends in your circle may work for companies that only hire freelance writers OR are looking for volunteer writers for their non-profit for you to put in your portfolio. Always use your discretion if free work is worth your time. Never feel guilty about saying you are unable to take it on.

Get Everything in Writing

Though I write about this is all my freelance posts, I can’t stress this enough: Never start a writing gig without written confirmation of due dates, your agreed-upon rate, and the invoice process. You are not rude for asking. Theatre can unfairly teach us to celebrate anyone who lets us work no matter how we’re treated. This is not cool. You can and should ask for clarification about payment before getting started.  If you get rude pushback, you don’t want to work with them.

We’re In This Together

If you have any questions about my process, please feel free to reach out. Again, there are so many other ways to go about this, but this is what worked for me.

I know this is easier said than done, but please send up a flare if you need a gifted grocery delivery, FaceTime happy hour, or just to chat. You’re not alone in this.

Sending love from Apartment 5B.

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