"Master Dayton" might be humorous, (I mean if Ph.Ds are called "Doctors," shouldn't MFAs be called "Masters?") but in all seriousness I have made a living freelance writing and after several years I have tons of information I want to share to help out my fellow writers, regardless of age, experience, goals, situation, or background. This blog isn't pretty-but it will help if real freelance writing information is what you want.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Finding Private Freelance Writing Clients

Freelance Writing Work: Finding Private Clients

One of the major parts of building a successful freelance writing career is building a list of private clients. This can be one of the hardest and scariest parts of building a freelance writing career, as well. But private clients often equate to steady work and much higher wages than any other form of writing. There are many, MANY people out there who are willing to pay much higher wages to find one very good and very RELIABLE freelance writer to deal with all of their work.

Many of my private clients pay me double or more what they originally did when I was first hired, because I set myself apart as being talented and completely reliable. The second part is even more important than the first. Average writers who are completely reliable are 10 TIMES more valuable than fantastic writers who may or may not hit deadline. If you can be above average and prove yourself as THE go-to guy (or gal), you can find some excellent pay. I don't have any private clients who pay less than $36 an hour, and on some jobs I get paid as high as $60 to $65 an hour. Even if you don't hit those levels (and early on it will be difficult, especially in this economy), having steady solid work from private clients makes a huge difference and is worth pursuing.

There are a few important rules you need to make sure you hold yourself to before you search for even your first private client.
  1. Always get done before deadline. There is absolutely no exception to this rule. Almost any successful employer or business I worked for agreed that C+ work done on time is ALWAYS better than A+ work delivered even a few hours late. Missing deadlines kills businesses, and great writing won't resurrect them.
  2. Come through in a pinch. Proving that you can deliver on short notice can move you to the top of the list. Two private clients I write for both originally used several freelance writers. Once it became clear I was willing to turn any reasonable project around in 24 hours, I took over ALL the work for both. Sometimes this means you'll get a job at 9 pm and be staying up all night so they have something in the inbox by 10 am the next morning...but this type of coming through not only lets you charge more, it means they'll send all the high paying quick turnaround work to you.
  3. Defend your specialties. Everyone has their specific niches or specialties - those topics or subjects that they know more about than other people. As a writer, you need to know the areas where you can excel, because these niches are the first places you're going to look for new clients. If you're good at a niche, work to become great. Expertise shows.
  4. Be confident. Many writers like the idea of working from home, and part of that can often come from preferring to be one one's own as opposed to having people looking over your shoulders. That being said, finding private clients means practicing some common exercises that many people find hard nowadays: cold calling and pitching. You need to appear confident because when cold calling you're already pitching yourself without any permission and no foot inside the door - which makes it all the more important to come across as confident, professional, and with true value to offer.
  5. Be Prepared. Be prepared, because on cold calls I find my success rate is about 3% - and I have a really good radio-style voice that gives me a little bit of an edge in the "vocally charismatic" arena.
These five rules are critical before even starting the search. The next section, about places and techniques for finding private clients, are based on past experiences I've had. This isn't a step by step guide for a major reason: while I can give general advice and tactics that have worked for me, finding private clients is going to be different for individual people, and changing technology and economic times means that the best ways to find private clients (and the demand for reliable writers) is going to shift and change over time. Everything I'm writing here is true, as far as I know, in my experience from 2005 to 2010. Starting in 2011 and on, who knows?

But those five freelance writing rules for finding private clients still stand. You will get rejected much more than you get accepted, but even a few consistent private clients can make a huge difference. So here is my best advice for finding or increasing your number of private clients.

Use old connections. This is a great piece of advice, and the ideal way to actually get started into freelance writing, if possible. Did you just walk away from a company? Get downsized a few years back, but know they need an online presence? Do you have friends with companies that want to set up websites? Former employers, friends at other companies, or any type of old connection can often be used to find work. You might be surprised how often these connections can lead to work, but only when you ask point blank. My best private clients to date are actually my former employers in Austin, Texas. Just because there was no longer enough work to justify a full time writer on staff didn't mean there wasn't more writing work that had to be done. Those old connections (and their recommending me to friends) leads to thousands of dollars of work a year for me.

Forums. Don't spam online forums, but in many online forums you can offer services or find work even by casually mentioning that you are a writer, especially in niche forums (those forums about topics you are a specialist in) and online marketing forums, who are often ALWAYS looking for talented writers. With the latter you may have to start with a discounted rate to prove yourself, but if you prove your mettle you can pick up some very profitable long term clients.

Start out at auction site. This is how I found many of my earliest clients. Personally I have a lot of experience with Elance.com and Guru.com and can vouch for both, but many writers I know also like oDesk and Rentacoder as well. These sites may not seem like a natural place for finding private clients, but many employers come to these sites looking for quality writers not only for one project, but for several. It's not uncommon to have employers who use Elance or Guru for all their projects to come to you first for any new work, and they're willing to pay extra to have a writer who is consistent and provides quality work. Sometimes all future work is done on the auction sites, I've also had these employers contact me directly and start paying me directly to work for them. That way you save 6-10% on commission fees and you have more private clients who often recommend you to their friends, as well.

Surf websites in "expert niches" and find sites that may want more content. Sometimes I'll stumble on a website by accident while doing research. Sometimes they have a blog but no content, or a really nice site but no content, or a nice set with terrible content. I'm not shy - if the writing sucks I'll offer my superior services for a reasonable professional price. Look around niches you know a lot about and see if you can find a lot of sites that might want contact. You might only get 2-3 responses for every 10 or 20 e-mails you shoot, but even 5 test articles at $15 each is a nice little haul in for a couple hours of querying. Any long term contract you get is bonus. I broke into travel writing this way, and while no one contract was large, there were 4 sites I wrote for who each wanted 15 to 20 articles a month at $15 each - and they were simple, I could do two in an hour, and added up to good grocery money.

Set up your own online presence. If there's one area I should personally do better in, it's this one. You can set up a professional website or blog (or both) to set yourself up online. In addition, while building passive income by writing for sites like HubPages, Squidoo, and Xomba you can talk about yourself in your profile and even offer your services. If nothing else, leave a business e-mail to let clients get a hold of you. Just from HubPages and Squidoo I've been interviewed as an expert in writing, working from home, literature, and history on various radio shows and online radio shows, and was almost in a USA Today story. You will be amazed at the ways people will find you online as long as you have a presence there.

Cold call local companies. This is one of the most intimidating ones on the list, and many people find it hard to believe that calling is better than e-mail now - but cold calling is MORE effective than ever just because of this change. So many people shoot an e-mail when looking for work or asking a question that having the guts to call not only makes you stand out and look more professional, but gives you a better chance of success. You might be surprised how many companies want a freelance writer, or didn't think about it but are willing to give you a shot once you call. If you know anything about SEO to go with freelance writing, your chances of success sky rocket.

Advertise in local papers. And I don't mean online. While I believe in having an online presence and how important that is, I'm not a fan of online ads since people look for cheap work here, and many people look for people to rip off. Many people still swear by Craigslist, and I'm not saying it can't work, but a great way to find local private clients is through local papers. People still look at the want ads or ads offering services, so put yourself out there.

Advertise in trade magazines of your niche. Sometimes it's best to just pitch magazines, but depending on the niche, it might be worth advertising yourself as a professional online writer who specializes in that magazine's niche. Chances are that people who run popular websites in the niche still look through specialty magazines for ideas. An ad for a freelance writer custom made to their niche could easily be too much to resist.

Business cards at coffee houses. Remember all those billboards at Colleges full of fliers and business cards that no one paid attention to? Well there's one place I've found where those actually get read and picked up. Coffee houses. Post up some business cards, or a flier explaining your services, and you might be surprised how often this leads to some good work.

Read the best books on the topic. This is kind of a no-brainer, and don't worry I'll list the ones I feel are the best. If I miss one, feel free to add the information in the comments section.
First, I would strongly recommend Peter Bowerman's book, "The Well Fed Writer." This gives a ton of great information about finding clients, and the cold calling advice is invaluable. I know Bowerman also wrote a sequel to The Well Fed Writer, but I have not read it at this point so I can't personally vouch for it. Once again, if anyone reading this post can give a review good or bad, please include your opinion in the comments section. Robert Bly's two books: "Secrets of a Freelance Writer" and "Getting Started as a Freelance Writer" are both also extremely useful and should be extremely helpful to beginners. I also strongly recommend Jenna Glatzer's "How to Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer." The emphasis here is on magazines, but the chapters on research, marketing, and pitching should be read by everyone who wants to make it as a writer. The reason I recommend these books is because these writers have landed more private clients than I have by far - and the best way to get information is right from the expert's mouth!

Be persistent. It takes time to build a strong client list, but private clients seem to be the most profitable as well and taking the time to build that list will help you on your way to a strong full time income as a freelance writer. Push through the early rejections and over-deliver every time you get a chance to prove yourself.

That's it. That's all the advice I can give about tracking down private clients, and it's what has worked for me. Hopefully this helps all of you, and keep on fighting for that dream. It's worth the long struggle when the hard work pays off and you get paid handsomely to make a living writing.


  1. Thank you for these great articles! Not many people want to share what made them successful, so thank you again.

    I'm just starting my freelance writing/editing career and hope to be up there with you soon.

  2. Hi Zahra,

    Thanks for the kind words and I'm glad you found this article helpful. Those early months freelancing can be really difficult - but keep at it and as you make one freelance writing goal after another you won't ever want to go back. Take care, and thanks again!

  3. Thanks a lot for this. Some stuff I knew could work but didn't want to waste my time on ifs. Knowing someone else succeed is a great motivator, at least for me.

  4. Hi Alex,

    I completely agree. The best motivation I have is from hearing stories of how others have succeeded. It's part of the reason I love listening to the 4HWW on audio book, and also love the comments from others who have taken my advice and have used it to break into the field or even change their lives. Thanks for the comment!

  5. thanks for great article on freelance
    , i was thinking to start as a freelancer hope this info will help me when i ll start work.

  6. Master Dayton, I found your post compelling. I am a freelance copywriter stuck under the thumb of a content mill. I want to branch out and explore the private client market, but I am a little hesitant. How would I set up a payment with a private client? For example, should I request payment in advance for services rendered with a money back guarantee? Or is there any particular system you find that works well for you? Thanks for any advice you may have!

  7. Hi Shae,

    I'm glad you found this post helpful. In response to your question, there are a few ways to deal with payments. If you decide to use a middle man like Guru.com or Elance, then there really isn't an issue as you can use Escrow or the employer will be held to whatever work agreement you write up as a contract.

    I find in general when working with a new client if I mention a 20% kill fee up front, then half the remainder at the half way point of the project and the rest upon completion that they readily agree. This is pretty standard. If I pick up a client through referral I'm pretty laid back on not charging a kill fee because no one wants to cause embarrassment to the business people who went up to bat for them.

    If it's a small assignment like "10 online articles" then often times I'll do the articles before payment, but mention in e-mail or in a contract that if payment isn't rendered in a timely fashion, then the copyright to each article remains with me.

    For press releases I demand half payment up front because that one type of writing has burned me the most.

    Otherwise sometimes you just have to take a chance. I've only been stiffed three times in five years as a writer and one of those times I had a bad feeling that I ignored, and the other the company literally went bankrupt. So while it seems scary, in reality most clients I've found are really good about payment. Even the ones I don't want to work for again have generally paid very promptly.

    Hope that helps. If you have any other questions, just let me know.


    Master Dayton