So you want to be a writer? 3 tips for turning your dream job into a career

About four years into my writing career, I felt extremely unhappy. As much as I enjoyed the comforts of a salaried job, I couldn't picture myself as a cog in a giant machine for the long term. Then a thought crossed my mind. 'What if I became my own boss?' It sounded frightening. Yet, at the same time, it felt exhilarating. I could enjoy the freedom of managing my own schedule, picking up my own clients and working from virtually anywhere. So I drew a deep breath, took a step of faith and forged my own path.

Then came the challenges of figuring out what kind of writing I was cut out for, finding clients who would give me a chance, determining my rates and keeping my writing fresh.

Freelancing is one of the best ways to take your writing career to the next level, but it requires utmost patience and a lot of trial and error. Like any successful business, you don’t build it overnight. But don’t let the lack of structure or income overwhelm you.

Here are some things I've learned on the road.

Explore more than one path

As you start freelancing, keep in mind that this is the best time to get out of your comfort zone and try something new. All my life, I was told that I was a business writer. My sweet spots are 700-word profiles on entrepreneurs with successful startups and 300-word briefs on job numbers, mergers and acquisitions. In all my stories, money does the talking.

But I refused to be boxed in as a business writer. I wanted to see what else was out there. So I accepted multiple writing opportunities in different contexts from editing admissions essays for prospective grad school students to copywriting web content for nonprofits. Through trial and error, I can confidently say I've discovered what makes me happy as a writer. And it has nothing to do with making money talk.

Say 'Yes' before you say, 'No'

When a friend asked me to review her dental school admissions essay, I said, 'Yes,' even though I didn't have any professional experience as an editor. I figured it was a safe place to start exercising an important muscle for all writers. At first, the task felt daunting. She had so many dental care stories and clinical work she wanted to recount in her personal statement, and it all had to fit into 500 words. After six hours of raking through the essay, trimming excess and tightening transitions, it all fell into place.

Then it clicked. I enjoy helping people face the challenges of writing and making the process as enjoyable and rewarding as possible. Yes, it requires a great deal of patience, but I have learned to respect the writing process and work with all types of people. And what makes me all the more passionate about helping people write is when it gets them closer to reaching their dreams. Seeing clients succeed is considered success in my books.

Not only that, but now that I have a proven track record of helping clients get into their dream schools, I can offer editing services for all kinds of students. To cling to what I knew was to plead ignorance. Since then, many anguished student writers have contacted me. I started accepting them as clients and tacking on a reasonable price.

The more you say, 'Yes,' the better chance you have of not leaving money on the table. And even if it's pro bono or low-paid work for a season, those experiences are small deposits that yield the invaluable return of learning what you're capable of as a writer.

Position your business

Once you’ve tapped a variety of opportunities and discovered what about writing makes you passionate, it’s time to position your freelancing business. Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What are my core values? Give your business a personality. Based on the way you conduct yourself, what you stand by and what experiences clients walk away with, people will be able to determine what is the driving force behind your business.
  2. Who is my target audience? You can't win 'em all, right? But if you have a string of customers who consistently knock on your door looking for a specific type of writing expertise, you can narrow down who might be your most promising clients.
  3. What makes my business competitive? A lot of people write well. A lot of people edit well. So what makes your business stand head and shoulders above the others? Do you offer student discounts? Free coaching services for first-time clients? Competitive prices? A money-back guarantee? Just a couple of things to think about.

Then, you want to map out key benefits of your services and what goals and objectives you’ve helped your clients reach. If your customers are satisfied, ask them to write a recommendation on your LinkedIn or a testimonial on your website. You'll want to build a loyal customer base to vouch for you no matter how you position your business.

Besides word of mouth, you'll need to establish your own digital portfolio so you have something you can show potential clients. And don't forget about social media. It's the gateway to new business leads. But be wise about how you leverage it for your business. Sharing content that sounds overly promotional can do more harm than good. People don't want to read gimmicky advertisements. If you're going to post something, make sure it's resourceful and relevant to your readers. Check your stats to see who has viewed and shared your content. Reach out to those who regularly interact with your posts and see if they need your writing expertise. More often than not, they're game.