What Is a Freelance Writer?

Definition & Examples of a Freelance Writer

Man typing freelance work on a computer

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A freelance writer is a self-employed person who writes articles, ad copy, or other types of content for a living. They may write for news outlets, periodicals, companies, or other clients.

Freelance writing can deal with virtually any subject in any field or industry, making freelance writers a diverse group of people with a wide range of interests. Learn more about what freelance writing is and what it takes to get into the profession.

What Is a Freelance Writer?

The word "freelance" comes from medieval times when a knight or mercenary would sell their services to any lord willing to pay. Hence, he was a "free lance." Today's freelance writers may not be armed with swords, but they do sell their skills with words to anyone in need of some help.

Freelance writers compose journalistic articles, email newsletters, Facebook posts, company white papers, and any other content that demands precision with words.

Companies (both large and small) will hire freelance writers and have them come into the office every day, even though they're not full-time or part-time employees. On the other hand, a local or national newspaper may designate you a freelance writer if you contribute more than three articles. Meanwhile, freelance communities at some of the larger digital job boards seem to talk almost solely about magazine queries and submissions in relation to freelance writing gigs, either one time or ongoing.

How Freelance Writing Works

Freelance writers typically work for a company or individual on a contractual basis. These contractual positions don't necessarily need to have a formal contract in place (although that's probably in your best interest as a writer). Occasionally, you may be able to land a large contract with one client—writing a marketing campaign full-time for three months for one company, for instance. More often, though, freelancers will work with many clients or publications at once.

What these positions (often called gigs) do have in common is that they are project-based work. The assignment is for a piece (or batch of pieces) of writing that must be completed by a previously set time and an assignment that has a clearly set goal. Once the project is complete, the freelance operative either moves on to the next project in the queue or has to wait for their next assignment.

As a self-employed writer, you also have to become adept at running your business. That means tracking your work (whether in hours or on a project basis), billing clients, collecting payments, tracking expenses, and setting aside money to pay taxes.

Types of Freelance Writers

One of the benefits of being a freelancer, especially if you are the type that gets bored easily, is that it offers a lot of variety. There are many different kinds of freelance writing, such as:

  • Business writing: HR documents, company memos, training manuals, stories for trade publications, etc.
  • Technical writing: Detailed instructions, operations manuals, user manuals, assembly instructions, etc.
  • Academic writing: Articles, essays, or reports for academic journals, textbooks, or class materials
  • Marketing and sales copywriting: Email campaigns, social media posts, product pages, sales sheets, ad scripts, etc.
  • News writing: Articles for print or online, scripts for news broadcasts, feature stories for magazines, etc.
  • Social commentary or op-ed writing: Essays, opinion pieces, analysis of social issues and trends
  • Public relations writing: Press releases, speeches, public statements, etc.
  • Writing for the websites: Blog articles, product pages, company about pages, etc.
  • Ghostwriting: Writing for another person under their name (this can apply to many of the above types of writing)

If you like the digital landscape, you can become proficient at creating copy for websites because most web designers are not good writers. On the other hand, some freelancers focus solely on writing for magazines, anthologies, or newspapers, while others write grants and proposals for nonprofits.

Once you dive into the world of freelance writing, you'll begin to get a good sense of your strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Knowing where your skills and interests intersect will enable you to target the jobs that best showcase your abilities and offer you the most opportunities. 

How Much Do Freelance Writers Get Paid?

One of the beauties of freelance writing is the freedom to set your rates and strive for a salary that fits your lifestyle. Of course, these rates are driven by market demand, which can vary quite a bit by industry. The rate you can reasonably charge also depends on your experience. If you're starting from scratch, expect to do some work for free and then build up your rates as you improve your skills and deepen your knowledge within a specific niche.

According to the Editorial Freelancers Association, typical rates for freelance writing range from $40 to $100 per hour, or between 20 cents and 95 cents per word. In general, copywriting and subjects or genres that require more in-depth or technical knowledge will command higher rates.

One of the biggest challenges for a new freelance writer is figuring out how to charge for their work. Jobs are usually charged by the word, by the hour, or on a per-project basis. The best choice may depend on your own style and experience, the type of work, and the client relationship.

The Pros and Cons of Freelance Writing

One of the perks of being a freelance writer is that you often have the opportunity to work from home or from a beach in the Bahamas. The benefit of not being restricted and confined to an office, however, comes with the downside of not knowing when you'll get your next assignment and not being able to budget your finances accordingly.

How to Become a Freelance Writer

Freelance writers come all types of educational and professional backgrounds. Some have journalism, English, or marketing degrees. Others find their way into it by becoming an expert in another field and starting to write for trade publications. What matters is that you have a firm grasp of language, enjoy working with words, and are driven and self-motivated enough to chase after work. You can learn much of the rest along the way.

A freelance writer often has to hustle to land clients or assignments. One way to get gigs is to respond to requests for proposals (RFPs) by laying out how you plan to meet the needs of your potential client and a breakdown of your charges and time required to finish the project. Another is to come up with story ideas for local newspapers or magazines and pitch those ideas to editors along with an explanation of how you would write the story.

Once you have done some work, you need to start building a portfolio that you can use to show potential editors or clients what you have done. A resume may come in handy at times, but your portfolio is your most important tool for landing new jobs.

Key Takeaways

  • Freelance writers make a living writing various types of content for a wide range of purposes, from news stories to ad copy.
  • Pay rates for freelance writing vary widely based on the type of writing, the industry, and the writer's experience.
  • Freelance writers can have a wide range of interests and come from many backgrounds.
  • To have success as a freelance writer, you need to have a strong grasp of language, enjoy working with it, and be driven to seek out work.