Seven years ago this spring, I was a freshly minted single mom building a new life for myself and my daughter amidst the wreckage of a less-than-amicable divorce. I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep things afloat financially, but I knew I didn’t want to return to my old agency life of sixty-hour weeks and around-the-clock meetings. Having spent the first three years of her life at home with my little girl, I was determined to find a way to work as an independent freelancer.
Through the serendipitous inquiries of several acquaintances, I managed to land a couple of long-term, freelance project management gigs. I snapped up the chance to generate some semi-regular income working remotely; but – although I was (very) grateful for the opportunities – I knew that, ultimately, I didn’t want to build my business around project management. I wanted to write.
This is the story of how I became a self-supporting freelance writer and content marketer.
Before I tell this story, I feel I should note, as Ann Patchett does in her wonderful book, The Getaway Car, that “This isn’t an instruction booklet. This is an account of what I did and what has worked for me.” Still, I hope that it might prove useful to you in your journey.
My Very First Freelance Writing Gigs
I had no idea how I was going to break into freelance writing. It was something I’d thought about for years, but had never actively pursued because I was afraid to fail. I had become quite adept at making excuses to keep me from putting my ego at risk. And then, suddenly there I was – nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up. It was definitely one of those now-or-never moments.
I caught a small break early on when the editors of a start-up mommy blog site called Maya’s Mom invited me to become a paid contributor. I had been “live journaling” on their community site about my divorce and had gained a respectable following amidst their audience. I was thrilled to get a paycheck, no matter how modest, for my writing.
While I was learning the ropes of mommy blogging, I kept working the project management gigs, but my small victory with Maya’s Mom gave me the confidence to let my project management clients know that I was available for copywriting work as well. Soon I was doing small writing projects for them, too.
Step #1: Always Say “YES”
It took me about eight months to pivot my business from being 90% project management and 10% writing to being 80% writing and 20% project management. Not too long after that, I gave up the project management altogether. It was pretty sweet, I can tell you, being able to say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t do project management anymore, but I’d be happy to refer you to a colleague of mine. By the way, do you have any copywriting needs?”
The trick, I found, to forcing this professional metamorphosis was learning to say one, little word: Yes.
Whenever someone asked me if I could do something writing-related, I said, “Yes!” I suppose you could say I employed the age-old strategy – “fake it ’til you make it.” I offered my services with confidence, and then I hit the Internet to figure out how to do the thing I’d been hired to do.
The confidence I gained from my initial foray into paid writing via Maya’s Mom was something I leaned on again and again as I took my wobbly first steps into copywriting. The little start-up site was eventually bought by Johnson & Johnson and became their industry-leading mom blog on BabyCenter. Happily, the editorial team at BabyCenter chose to keep me on, and I became a regular bloggers. Though it was often only tangentially related to the copywriting jobs I was pursuing, I worked that one professional writing credit for all it was worth.
Step #2: Study
We are so fortunate to live in a time when there is an almost unlimited amount of information freely available via the Internet. You can learn just about any skill simply by hitting the web and reading everything you can get your hands on. This is exactly what I did.
I also bought several books about the freelance writing business, and read them cover to cover. I paid attention. I took notes. I got my geek on.
Sometimes, this immersion into the world of freelance copywriting was a bit overwhelming. It didn’t take me long to realize how much I didn’t know. It was easy to feel inadequate. But, I tried to remember that even when I felt like a complete novice compared to the experts I was studying, I already knew more than the people who were my potential clients.
Step #3: Make Friends
A couple of years into my freelance journey, I shelled out a few bucks to take an online course about writing white papers. The educational value of the course was fair to moderate. I never did end up writing too many traditional white papers, BUT I did meet many other professional and aspiring freelance writers. Most importantly, I met five particular B2B (business-to-business) copywriters who would help me grow both my confidence and my business.
Together, the six of us founded a collaborative blog called Savvy B2B Marketing. For several years, we blogged together about the ins and outs and constant evolution of B2B copywriting, social media, and content marketing. Since each member of the team had her own unique background and skills, the experience was like a very in-the-trenches course about every aspect of the business. We traded stories, tips, and secrets. We supported each other with referrals, advice, and encouragement. Meeting and working with these smart, kind women was – without question – one of the most important and enjoyable parts of my professional journey. Though we no longer meet regularly, we still keep in touch. In fact, I “see” one of them – Wendy – all the time here on Live to Write – Write to Live.
You can hear the full “Savvy Story,” as told by all the “Savvy Sisters,” in a podcast hosted by Monica Magnetti.
During the Savvy Era, I also had the pleasure of meeting another writer who (although she’d never accept the praise) would become a pivotal force in my career. We met at an impromptu brunch meet-up hosted by the freelance writer Peter Bowerman. Kate, one of the Savvy Sisters, had heard about the event via Bowerman’s newsletter, I think, and she and I decided to attend.
While it was something of a thrill to meet Bowerman (I’d read all his books on how to become a freelance writer … more about those in part two of this series), the best part of the day was definitely meeting another copywriter named Heidi LaFleche (aka: The Worry Free Writer). We sat next to each other, and I couldn’t help noticing her Hello Kitty watch and cool manicure (one pinky nail was painted a different color than the rest of her nails). We struck up a conversation, and the rest – as they say – is history. Over the years, Heidi generously made introductions to several people in her network who then became my clients. Through referrals and repeat work, those introductions became the bedrock of my business. Even today, I can still trace many of my clients back to that lovely Sunday morning, sipping mimosas on a deck in Newburyport.
Step #4: Do a GREAT Job
I have many people to thank for helping me meet and land first-time clients, but once those connections were made, I knew it was up to me to prove I deserved them.
As a freelance writer of any kind, your reputation is your currency. You have to deliver the goods. Every time. On time. Sometimes, especially in the beginning, this means giving up some other things (nights out, weekends, sleep) in order to make the magic happen. But, believe me, the payoff is worth the effort.
In my experience, though delivering great copy is a given, it’s at least as important to deliver a great experience. The people who hire content marketers need well-written content, but they want the process to be easy, stress-free, and even fun. Bad customer service is a pet peeve of mine. I am easily annoyed (and sometimes incensed) by sloppy service, negligent customer relations, and lackadaisical delivery. Because of this, I am extra sensitive about making sure my clients are happy, and I believe it’s one of the main reasons they come back for more.
It is much easier and less expensive (in terms of marketing dollars and effort) to make a sale to an existing customer, than it is to land a new customer. Treating your customers like gold is the best investment you can make in your business. Happy customers come back for more, and – if you’re lucky – will share your name with other people in need of the services you offer. I do very little to market my business. I’ve never cold-called anyone or bought paid advertising. My business is built almost entirely on referrals and repeat business. It’s a model I recommend highly.
Step #5: Deliver More than “Just” Copy
As a content marketer, you will be expected to deliver more than just the words on the page. Your clients will look to you for advice about which kinds of content make sense for their brand, how to promote that content, and how to engage their audience. They will lean on you for guidance about how to create a better customer experience through content, and how to stretch their content marketing dollars as efficiently and effectively as possible.
To provide this kind of strategic support, you need to go back to Step #2: Study. Content marketing is a vibrant and ever-evolving area of expertise. Though the term and practice have become mainstream, the field is always growing and evolving. This can be daunting at first, but it also provides valuable opportunities for you to shape your business around specific kinds of expertise and projects.
I am always learning, and always refining the types of services I provide to my clients. In addition to content development, I also offer in-depth brand messaging services, content audits, content planning, and also content editing and mentoring. I love that the breadth of the content marketing landscape gives me almost countless options when it comes to the kinds of work I do.
So, that’s my story … at least, it’s my story so far.
In Part Two of this series, I’ll share some more hands-on advice about the seven tactical things to consider as you get started in content marketing: getting the lay of the land, finding critical resources, getting into a good writer’s mindset, positioning your business in the market, finding customers, identifying best business practices, and dealing with finances.
Until then, here are a few posts that are appropriate companion reading:
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.