A successful freelance writer is not just someone who makes a lot of money, but a person who is creatively engaged in work they love, delivering high quality copy to their clients, and has time for their family and friends (as well as themselves). They might even be a role model of business innovation and success in their local community or among their peers.
If all this sounds like the WritingBiz life you desire, I’ve made a list of essential skills and personal qualities you’ll need to develop in order to get you there. Gone are they days when we believed that only the elite few could be great writers or artists — we know now that achievement comes with focus, applied learning, and smart business choices.
This article is PART 1 of a new blog series Essential Qualities of Successful Freelance Writers. I’m starting with writing skills — because you can’t run a profitably freelance writing business without solid writing skills. Writing skills can be quickly developed with practice, but you’ll need to write a lot.
NOTE: This blog series won’t teach you how to write, consider it more of a checklist for anyone considering a career as a freelance writer.
1. Use correct business English
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no other way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
As a freelance writer you need to be able to write in clear, business English using perfect grammar, spelling and punctuation. There is no way around it — so if English is your second language you’ll need to do some work to get your business writing at a professional standard.
As a professional writer you must know how to construct a piece of writing that:
- Clearly communicates knowledge or an idea — using smart word choices and correct punctuation.
- Arranges the information in a logical sequence — so your reader understands what you are talking about.
- Applies appropriate voice and tone — that engages your audience and keeps them reading.
You’ll also need to know the correct English to use in the geographic region of your clients (or their readers) — either British or American. British English is used throughout the European Union and Commonwealth countries (eg, England, Australia and New Zealand). Whereas countries of the Americas and South-east Asia prefer American English.
NOTE: American English and British English have different spellings and vocabulary, plus a number of different rules for using collective nouns, verbs, and sentences that involve a question.
2. Know the different types of writing
Start using new words immediately. As soon as you feel confident with a word, starting trying to work it into your writing wherever appropriate — your papers and reports, your diary and poetry. An old saying goes, ‘Use it three times and it’s yours.’ That may be, but don’t stop at three.
Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder
Successful freelancers understand (and can apply) the nuances of different types of writing — though they usually apply themselves to a preferred niche. As a minimum you should know the basics of the following writing forms:
- Copywriting — sales writing that focuses on persuading the reader to take action (eg, buy something, optin to an email list, visit a physical store). The copy highlights the key features and benefits of various products and services, and crafts clever tag-lines or catch phrases to grab the attention of readers.
- SEO Content Writing — incorporates blogging, web copywriting and social media writing. The purpose of this writing is to raise the online profile of the writer/organisation, get noticed by search engines, and increase Google rankings and traffic.
- Technical Writing — describes complex processes, technical specifications, and procedures. Accuracy and clarity is critical as the whole point of the writing is to describe something complex in simple terms. This is not the writing to use flowery prose or inject personal opinion.
- Business Writing — includes any written documents for communicating with (or within) a professional organisation. It includes letters, emails, reports, memos, intranet content, and training materials.
- Academic Writing — follows strict formats and includes the essays, reports, and research papers produced by universities and higher education institutions. All academic writing must be supported by reliable research methods and contain a properly formatted reference list.
- Grant and Tender Writing — responds to a call for tenders and grant applicants issued by government, corporate enterprises, and nonprofits. Grant and tender applications must be accurate, lodged on time, and answer every requirement of the selection criteria.
- News and Feature Writing — reports the news or important social issues and may be published either by print or online news outlets. News writing includes direct quotes from one or more live sources — who are either party to the reported events or considered subject authorities.
Freelance writers who understand the distinctions between writing forms are able to construct more effective copy, and better serve the needs of their clients (and their respective audiences).
3. Understand the audience
Who is this elusive creature, the reader? The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds — a person assailed by many forces competing for attention.
Successful freelancers get to know their clients and their readers. They know great writing is more than splashing out a heap of words to a fixed word count — they strive to write amazing copy that creates real results for their clients. Things like:
- Experienced copywriters writing the copy that delivers actual product sales and business leads.
- Skilled technical writers clearly documenting work processes and procedures that increase productivity and decrease mistakes.
- Strategic SEO content writers raising the online profile of their clients by leveraging keyword phrases, metadescriptions, snippets, and page titles.
- Astute grant writers securing additional funding for their client organisation or nonprofit by submitting an amazing grant application.
They’re clear on the purpose of the content before they start writing, and they back that up by adjusting the voice, tone, structure, and form to suit the audience demographics. They know that 2020 readers are savvy and expect good writing that looks great on whatever device they happen to be using.
4. Rigorously edit the copy
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Writing professionals know that a piece of writing is never quite done, it’s only ever submitted. They rigorously check their work for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors — and aren’t afraid to use a dictionary, style guide, and thesaurus when they’re not sure on a word choice. And that’s in addition to the inbuilt online checkers.
They let the writing sit — then revise the copy with fresh eyes, deleting clutter and words that don’t add new meaning. They’re savage with sentences, reading and rereading, inserting and deleting, ensuring the story is moving forward and the paragraphs are linking ideas.
Most of all, they bring this attitude for excellence to all areas of their writing — whether its constantly expanding their vocabulary, or perpetually rewriting the marketing copy on their own website — because successful freelance writers know that as their writing skills develop and expand, so do opportunities for new clients, new projects, and new business.
Don’t miss the next blog in the series — Successful Freelance Writers Know How To Manage Their Time. I’ll be discussing how critical it is to closely manage your time — so you can meet project deadlines (ie, get paid), but still have time to market your writing business (ie, keep the jobs rolling in) and attend the school soccer match.
Look for it on the blog in the next few days.