Clients for your Freelance Writing Business

By: Jo Ann LeQuang

If you would like your writing business to go from sporadic hobby to full-time career (with full-time benefits and income), you need to understand the business of writing. There's nothing more important to your business success than knowing how to get clients. It's a great time to be a writer--but only if you know where to find and how to land clients. If you want to transition your writing life from part-time job to career, here are six proven methods of getting clients.

Getting clients is one of those great mysteries of the writing life. It's a mystery because the writers who can do it rarely talk about it.

And there are a lot of things people believe about this that are just plain wrong.

Here are six ways to get clientssome of which you may not have thought of before. These techniques are appropriate for landing new clients, winning back former clients, and stimulating more business from your regulars.

First, build your network. Networking is one of those things that a lot of people talk about but few people really grasp. For a professional writer, your network is made of the individuals (not the companies, not the industries, not the departments, not the publications) who might hire you. You need to keep tabs on these people. That means holiday cards, occasional e-mails or phone calls, and reminders about your business. I would say that 60% of my business today comes from somebody who knew me (somebody in my network). This is your richest field for business ... mine it!

By the way, people hire writers. Let's say a person at Company A has worked with you for a while when he quits to take a new job at Company B. Guess what? You're now more likely to get your next writing job from Company B than Company A, but if you play your cards right, you may be able to stay on at Company A, too. People are loyal to people; companies are loyal only accidentally.

Second, talk about what you do. Don't become the abominable dinner guest, but make sure you let people know what you do. People know people and believe it or not, there are actually people who are scratching their heads trying to find a writer. Don't belabor the issue, but make sure your friends, neighbors, guests, acquaintances, and mailman know what you do. I once got a year-long gig from a contact my mom made in a bowling alley! (She told one of the bowlers on the other team what I did for a livingand I got a phone call from the other lady's daughter a few days later. She was looking for a very specific type of writer!)

Third, don't overlook sites like e-lance and other places where freelance talent can bid on jobs. True, it's a bazaar on those sites and you will see crazy offers (like "write 100 articles for $12, must be able to complete assignment in three hours") but there are some very respectable businesses that use those sites. Be discerning, but check it out. I use these sites to fill will what I call "dead time," those periods of the year when my business slows down. I've never not made money working these sitesbut you can't bid on every job there. Some of those jobs aren't worth having!

Fourth, develop your own website that promotes your own services. Most creative people do sites that are really online portfolios; that's interesting but I don't think it brings in a lot of work. Instead, use your site to discuss your ideas about writing, your areas of expertise, and those sorts of things. You can always talk samples once a client calls. A year ago, I would not have listed this as a strategy because although I had a website, it did not bring in any business. It now hasI have found a pretty strong new client who came to me on the strength of the website.

(Mostly a website is something that is nice to have to help confirm to your new client that he or she made a good choice. People look at your website, but they don't find writers that way. I think that's changing.)

Fifth, try direct mail. You have to be very clever with this. You need a strong sales letter and you need to send it by first-class mail to a real person. The less is looks like direct mail (a.k.a. junk mail) the more likely it will get through. Put a real stamp on it. Address it to a real person, even by hand. Your letter should pitch your business.

You have to scope out target clients. Find some businesses that might need your services, call to find out who hires freelance writers, and send a letter directly to that person. Call a few days later. This is a tough program because you need to keep after it, but it does work, particularly if you are diligent and target the right folks and have a compelling sales letter. This is the best way to get new clients; in my experience, it works better than cold calling, which I have never had much success with. (Not to mention the fact that it's less fun than going to the dentist.)

Sixth, contact a newspaper and pitch a column. Don't just contact random newspapers, but don't be shy about approaching major papers or local hometown newspapers. Look it over, see what's missing, write up a sample column or two, and pitch it by e-mail or letter directly to the appropriate editor. I got my first major writing job that way (I was a stringer for Variety) and the second time I tried it, I got a job writing a column that is entering its fifth year. This works. Two drawbacks: it usually doesn't pay well and you have to be very careful and make sure you target your offering to the newspaper's needs.

I'm pretty sure you could land yourself a gig as a movie critic or a lifestyle expert or a medical writer. You need to be a matchmaker, though. Don't propose anything unless it seems like a perfect fit for the newspaper.

You may be excited about that last idea but think for a minute. Who needs a low-paying writing job? Well, maybe you do. Regular appearances in an important publication build your credibility as a writer. You can often parlay those writing credits into more lucrative (but less visible) writing jobs in similar industries. Newspapers help fill out your clip files, and sometimes you can re-sell articles or use a body of research to generate similar stories for better-paying magazines or websites.

Writing is a great life, but a lot of it is work, and work is work. Getting clients is not easy for any professional and writers have to do the same amount of chattering, networking, direct mailing, and scouting out opportunities that other people do.

What's amazing to me is that some of these things work really well. Very often, when you do connect with a great long-term client, you'll hear another side to the story. Many businesses dream of finding a reliable, high-quality writer. Right now there are companies and clients wondering how on earth they are ever going to get their brochures and articles and press releases and websites written.

Your job is not "selling" them your services. Your job is really just making sure they know that you're there and ready for assignment.

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