Since I switched from working as a full-time university writing instructor to being a freelance writer in 2019, many people have asked how I built a new career so quickly. I'm not going to give myself more credit than is due — I was primarily able to financially sustain myself as a freelancer quickly by following advice laid out in blog posts by Jennifer Goforth Gregory.
Around that time, I also ordered her book, The Freelance Content Marketing Writer: Find Your Perfect Clients, Make Tons of Money, and Build a Business You Love. Because my career began sustaining me financially within a few months, I didn't get around to reading the book until now.
If you're interested in a career as a freelance writer, I cannot recommend this book enough. In the book, Gregory outlines, in detail, how she grew her career over several years, and how she began making over $100,000 per year (according to her blog, she made over over $200,000 in 2022) all while working a flexible schedule and taking several weeks off each year.
The book focuses specifically on freelance content marketing writing, which, in my experience, many clients just call "content writing" or something more specific, like "blog writing" or "newsletter writing." There are many types of freelance writing — journalistic, technical, copy, instructional, etc. Content often reads like the writing done for publications, but it's published by brand websites, non-profit organizations, or personalities, rather than newspapers, magazines, or online publications.
Since Gregory has a background in journalism, much of this book is geared toward journalists. Some of it feels a little defensive, or like a persuasive attempt to convince them to stop looking down on content marketing writing. I found this funny, but recognized it revealed a truth — I've seen many journalists and creative writers alike rant on Twitter about how no one is making $100,000/year from freelance writing (um, yes they are, just from content, not from journalism or creative writing…) or boasting about how they would never compromise their values and write content (a word I imagine they say with much disdain).
I had similar misconceptions and worries about content writing once, but they were quelled pretty quickly. You can absolutely make a career of writing content without being a "sellout" or compromising your values. You just have to commit to only writing for companies you like and don't take moral issue with who have high content standards. There are many out there!
In the health niche specifically, I've often found that (good) content writing can be superior to journalistic writing in ways — strong health content writers look at a health topic as a whole and write about new findings against the backdrop of past research, while health journalists often rely on interviews with one or two researchers, who are often very excited about their latest findings or hypotheses and may be prone to making statements that overreach or don't accurately represent the broader field.
Also, content writing is often meant to be evergreen and the people running content sites often excel at SEO. That means health content tends to win in Google, beating out more time-sensitive health news articles, which may only rank in search for a couple of days before they fade into obscurity as they are replaced by the latest click-bait journalistic headlines. When I've seen health journalists look down their noses at content writing on Twitter, I've thought, "Congratulations! You're being paid less money to write less accurate, less useful text that fewer people will read. But I guess at least you get to feel morally superior?"
Of course there are many journalistic health articles that are wonderful and immensely helpful, and I hope to write some of them in the future! But not because I believe journalism or journalists are inherently superior, more knowledgeable, or always adhering to greater ethical standards than content writers at this point in time. There are tiers of quality in both categories of writing.
Also, the lines between journalism and content writing are a little blurrier than many journalists would like to admit. As freelance writers, we are all writing under capitalism and all participating in the same competitive online system that involves vying for clicks and views, mostly from people who are not paying to read what comes up as they search. That means, as fewer and fewer people pay to subscribe to newspapers and magazines, journalistic websites often make much of their money the exact same way content sites do — through advertising, direct product sales, or affiliate link product sales.
And when it comes to health content, there are companies that are extremely rigorous and knowledgeable because it is their area of expertise or in their best interest to have high standards, whereas the editors at journalistic outlets might not have the same knowledge base and experience to adequately fact-check or revise certain pieces of health information. I've found it ironic when health journalists look down on content writing, not realizing that some content sites' standards are so high, they wouldn't even allow those journalists' supposedly superior articles to be used as sources.
Whew, time to reel in my rant and get back to the book review! This book covers a lot, so I'm only going to summarize the three sections I personally found most useful:
Section Two: Finding Clients
Section Four: Making Money
Section Five: Building a Business You Love
This section contains five chapters outlining how to define your niche, find clients, and help clients find you. I cannot emphasize how much the ideas in this section helped me.
When I first started freelance writing, I hesitated to "niche down," as I've heard it called. I chose freelancing partly for the freedom! I thought limiting myself would make my career boring, plus I had no clue what niche I would choose. Since I was just leaving academia, I wanted to write about teaching and higher ed. Since I enjoy eating and going out to eat, I wanted to write about food. Since I enjoy traveling, I wanted to write about travel. I also wanted to learn about topics like art, plants, and personal finance and thought I might as well get paid to do so by taking on projects in these areas.
Lesson learned! Everyone who says you need a niche (or two, or three) is absolutely right. First, it takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to jump from one topic to another every day. That means if you don't choose a niche, your work is going to take longer to complete and you're probably going to feel mentally scattered.
Plus, you're building up your portfolio and pay history within each niche and they don't necessarily translate from one to another, so sticking to one or two niches means you'll make more money over time. Finally, the more you work in a niche, the more you can write from your own knowledge and memory, which is to say, the more you can write quickly, which makes working feel easier and also equals more cash.
I believe you can't find the best clients for you until you decide on your niche(s). Learn from my mistakes here — I floundered around a bit for a good year, experimenting with different niches before recognizing that health is the primary subject I want to focus on.
Gregory does a wonderful job of describing how to dabble in or slowly add more niches without starting from zero, by finding areas of overlap between your current niche and the niche you're curious about. For example, I still harbor desires to write about art, food, and travel, but if or when I pitch those types of articles in the future, I will likely do so through a health-focused lens or at least make them health-adjacent. That way, I'm building on my current portfolio, operating within my area of expertise, and able to justify charging my usual rates.
In this section, Gregory also emphasizes the importance of being ready to market yourself and find new clients at a moment's notice. I appreciated the reminder and gave my website, LinkedIn profile, and resume some freshening up as soon as I finished the book.
Gregory's approach to freelancing can provide feelings of stability and security in a career path that is, by its very nature, fairly unpredictable. She recommends having a few "anchor clients" whom you do ongoing work for, and then taking on other one-off or short-term projects as they come and go.
The benefit of having more clients is that you'll feel less financial damage if one suddenly drops you. The downside of a constant carousel of clients is that a lot of time and effort goes into finding new clients, negotiating pay, getting to know them, and learning their processes, expectations, and writing style, which means, having more clients often means working more slowly and doing more unpaid work.
The key is balance, and I'm glad Gregory emphasizes that a mix of anchor clients and non-anchor clients provides security. I needed the reminder. Currently, I'm not following her advice not to put all your eggs in one basket, aka not to allow more than 25% of your total income to come from one client, but I'm working on that! I understand the importance of diversifying clients and will be looking to take on an additional client or two in the new year.
Building a Business You Love
This section means so much to me. I chose freelance writing as a career for multiple reasons — because I want the work I create to feel meaningful and useful, because I want to enjoy the process of working, and because I require flexibility in my work due to personal chronic illness issues. Still, getting out of the "employee" mindset was tough for me at first. I really had to reframe my thinking, over and over, to remind myself that I am technically a small business owner, and if I don't like how the business is being run, it's up to me to change it.
What does that mean? Gregory talks about only working with clients that you like and that are a good fit, being yourself rather than how you think you're "supposed" to act when interacting with clients, and choosing a mixture of gigs so you have both those that "pay the mortgage" and those that "pay the soul," as she puts it.
I completely agree with this advice. Early on, I tried freelance writing work, both content and otherwise, that I thought I would enjoy, but not all of it panned out.
Example one: One of the first gigs I received paid me $50/hour to write resumes based on information given to me by job seekers. Because I'd really enjoyed teaching college students how to write resumes and cover letters, I thought this would be a perfect fit for me. But…I hated it! I didn't know those faceless people the way I'd known my students, and I always over-thought the phrasing, so the writing took way longer than it should've. I felt bored and restless while working and ended up dropping the client quickly.
Example two: For a while, I ghostwrote for an organization involved with urban planning and public policy — a subject I hold a Master's degree in — and at first I felt thrilled I could meld my past experience and expertise with my current career. Although the work felt meaningful, it took a long time. Like, a looong time. The client often gave me multiple articles to read or videos to watch before I crafted a blog post, but was only willing to pay per word of writing, which meant I wasn't making additional money when I had to spend additional time researching. I noticed myself feeling more and more resentful while doing this unpaid research, so even though I believed in the org's mission and respected everyone at the company, I ultimately stopped working with them.
Third example: At one point, when I was vegan, I was eager to land an ongoing freelance gig writing about veganism. Then, I finally landed one! As we were working out the details, my contact at the publication commented on my "late" reply to his email (a reply sent less than 24 hours after the original message), noting that most of his freelancers reply within an hour or two. I immediately recognized that we weren't a good fit. I try to reply quickly, but I'm a freelancer for a reason — I like independence. Unless an email is urgent or answering quickly is necessary to move things along, I don't see replying the next day as being "late." To me, expecting a 1-2 hour email reply time is expecting a freelancer to act like a full-time employee, and should come with a much higher pay rate. I viewed his comment as a red flag and decided to part ways with the publication before I'd even written one article.
Feeling my way through my freelance career intuitively, by trying out different clients and topics, recognizing what fits my lifestyle, feels enjoyable, and, let's be honest, pays well, has been a good approach. "Building a business I love," as Gregory puts it, is my ultimate reason for being self-employed instead of an employee. I appreciate that she addresses this topic, because many who talk about freelancing get into the technical specifics, but not the mental and emotional side of this career path.
I'd love to hear from the freelancers out there! Do these pieces of advice from Gregory resonate with you? How have you approached building your freelance writing business?