How to Find Your Niche as a Freelance Writer

Three years ago, I thought becoming a freelancer was the most terrifying and gutsy career choice I’d likely ever make. I’d just been laid off from the marketing department at Powell’s Books, and my severance and unemployment benefits gave me a six-month window to either get a business off the ground or become…I don’t know, homeless? I tried not to get too hung up on the many things that could go wrong.

So, I went for it. I put myself out there as a writer and editor and took any gig that came my way. I was all over the place, writing and editing any type of marketing material or book manuscript for any client in any industry. I was not choosy—I was like a raccoon in a dumpster. If raccoons rootled around in dumpsters full of writing projects…?

Anyway, I was making it! Mostly. I was paying my bills at least, which seemed like a feat.

But There Were Two Problems.

Problem #1:
Holy shit, was I spread thin. Because I was taking on “any” writing project for “any” type of client, I felt like I was constantly back at square one—learning new industries, figuring out scope and cost for radically different types of projects; juggling the varying levels of intensity inherent in different projects and clients. My tasks were so different and varied that I could find no way to templatize or replicate any of my business processes or services.

Plus, it was hard to be constantly switching gears—here I’m copyediting a self-help book. Now I’m out schmoozing at a networking event. Next I’m consulting, or writing web content. People wanted me to write their resumes. Or tutor their kids in English. And as a result, my brain was fried, my thinking fragmented. After two years, I felt like I was becoming a “Jill of all trades and a master of none”—which then led to me guiltily asking myself, “Do I have any business putting myself out there as a specialist when really I feel like…a dabbler?”

Problem #2:
I was doing too much work I didn’t love. Being a freelancer is challenging on a lot of levels, but one of the big selling points is that you get to choose your gigs. Yay, choice! But by saying yes to everything, I found myself working on projects that I wasn’t passionate about. Why?? If I was just going to take a bunch of marketing projects I didn’t love, then why not just get a full-time job and take home a sweet salary? Yes, I’d made some major lifestyle gains as a freelancer—no alarm clock! No boss! No pants! But those gains paled in comparison to the dread and boredom I felt working on…well, dreadful and boring projects.

ENOUGH. Time to Find a Niche.

So, what is a niche, anyway? I think you can break it out in at least three different ways:
1) a particular industry,
2) a particular type of writing project, or
3) a particular type of client.

For example, “I only work on projects for the sportswear industry,” or “I only write white papers,” or “I only work with creative agencies.” (And if the word “only” sounds limiting, I invite you to shift your perspective; while it does mean that you’ve narrowed the breadth of your work, there’s no limit to the depth you can achieve.)

So, How to Find Your Niche? Read on, yo.

Step 1:
Identify your strengths and passions. If you’ve been freelancing for a while, think back to the standout projects that really felt good. Why did they feel good? Ideally, these are the projects that fulfill an emotional need—whether that’s to be creative or challenged, or to work for a cause that’s close to your heart. But they must also be the projects that fulfill your bank account. If you’re to successfully find your niche, you must walk the fine line between following your heart and accepting the fact that you’re still bitch to the almighty dollar.

For me, my niche is books, specifically personal development and fiction titles. I’ve been a lifelong bookworm, so this is a natural fit for me. When I’m writing or editing a book or coaching an author, I feel like I’m in my power zone: I’m confident that I know what I’m doing, that I’m charging high enough rates to support myself, and that there’s honest-to-God true value for my client. Frequently when I’m working with an author or a manuscript, I have a surreal moment where I think, “Wow, I get paid to do this. This is my job.” Mind blown. If you have moments like that, pay attention to them—they’ll help you hone in on your niche.

Step 2:
Tell people about your new niche. Seriously, tell everyone—friends, family, fellow writers, networking partners. Shout it from the rooftops of Facebook! Rewrite your own marketing content. The more specific you are, and the more widely you spread the news, the more quickly people will think of YOU for that particular type of project.

Step 3:
Identify referral partners to whom you can pass along the non-niche work. When you find your niche, you find yourself saying “no” more frequently. This can be a bummer. But, honestly, this is a great opportunity to be giving. Luckily for me, I have a great community of writers who all have their areas of strength. So when someone approaches me with a project outside of my niche, I have a simple script: “I mainly work on book projects these days, but you should totally talk to so-and-so. They do fantastic work.” This is an all-around win. I don’t have to say “no,” I help my writer buddies find work, and I’ve told the client what types of work I DO want, so hopefully they’ll think of me when it comes up.

Step 4:
Stay strong! Transitions suck. My first year in my niche was…rough. It was both terrifying and exhilarating to refer away potential clients to my writer buddies. And there were definitely times when I felt like I’d exhausted my network and was wracking my brain to figure out where to find my next book client. Sometimes I despaired over my decision and regretted rewriting all my marketing copy. But I had some major wins, too—I contracted with Timber Press to co-write Mosaic Garden Projects, and a local business consultant hired me to co-write her book, Project Sponsorship. It took a little over a year before I felt really solid in my niche, but I’m glad I stayed strong.

Step 5: Rake in the millions. Admittedly, I’m still waiting for this part. I’ll update this post when it happens. Stay tuned. 🙂

6 Ways to Successfully Manage Inbound Prospects

Reposted from the blog of Enlighten Writing with permission from Mahesh Raj Mohan.

Inbound marketing is a powerful way to grow your business, especially if you’re a freelance copywriter. I was thrilled when my first prospective customer found me after I’d written a blog post. It happened when I was two months into my nascent freelance writing career. My prospective client and I scheduled a call, we hit it off, and worked together for the next couple of months. That content is still in my copywriting portfolio.

Of course, there are caveats to an inbound marketing strategy. Peter Bowerman (the Well-Fed Writer) has mentioned that inbound marketing can bring in many “tire kickers” and even “lowballers,” and he’s not wrong. There are several steps, however, that you can take so the prospects visiting your blog or website will become lifelong clients. Creating your ideal client profile is helpful, and so is determining what type of content marketing your prospects need by doing some targeted research.

Here’s what to do next:

  1. The prospect will have many questions. How long have been a freelance writer? Are you full-time, or part-time? Do you have experience with the prospect’s industry? What is your rate? The questions may be overwhelming, but the conversation will be instrumental in determining if the prospect is the right fit.
  2. If the prospect becomes argumentative about your rate, then classify the person as a “lowballer” and move on. These folks tend to want quality work at a low cost (to them).
  3. If the initial contact ends ambiguously (e.g. no firm decision to hire you), then determine if you want to follow-up. We live in an age of e-mail glut, and because writers tend to be conscientious; we don’t want to spam anyone. But remember that the prospect sought you out, and sometimes people just get busy. So send a follow-up e-mail a few days after the initial contact. I always write, “Just checking in. Did you still need help with [insert content]?” If you never hear from the prospect again, even after a polite follow-up e-mail (or two), then classify the prospect as someone not ready to buy. The prospect may come back later on, when s/he is ready.
  4. If the prospective client agrees to your rate and you’ve had a good follow-up conversation (via e-mail, phone, or video conferencing), then clearly define expectations and write up a contract. If all of this goes smoothly, then congratulations, you just won an inbound client! Go you! (I usually take a deposit upfront for new clients.)
  5. The next step is easy. In the immortal words of Mad Men‘s Fred Rumsen: “Do the work, Don.”
  6. After the project’s (successful) completion, be sure to ask for a testimonial. Periodically check in on your client, and see how the content is working, and if s/he needs follow-up work or help finding other service providers. This strategy can lead to multiple projects with a happy client who understands how you work, and knows the quality that will result from your collaboration.

This blog post is a new offering from my site. About once a month, I plan to write a blog post chronicling an aspect of freelance writing or editing. Feel free to comment and weigh in on your own experiences.

Have you classified your inbound prospects? What are your strategies?

Networking is Not Selling

The books on this subject are many, so I’ll just give you a few key things to keep in mind about networking.

Networking and selling are different

When you network, you’re meeting people and giving them the opportunity to meet you. You’re literally building your network of contacts by nurturing a long-lasting relationships, and learning what they do and helping them understand what it is you do. Selling would be focused primarily on getting money from someone over the short-term.

Here’s what the difference between networking and selling sounds like:


“Hi, I’m Amber and I’m a freelance copywriter. If you or anyone you know needs a website, brochure, or press release written, just have them give me a call. Here’s my card!”


Amber: “Hi, I’m Amber. I’m a freelance copywriter.” (Stop)
Dave: “Oh, a writer, huh? What kinds of things do you write?” (Stop)
Amber: “Well, I mostly write marketing content for businesses, like websites, brochures, and social media content. I love being able to work with so many different kinds of writing. Right now I’m working on a website for a naturopath. What do you do?” (Stop)

See the difference? The first example is a scripted speech, while the second is a dialogue, a conversation. That’s what you want. Just talk to people. Relax. Chat. Be curious about them and what they do.

Better even than talking about what you do is listening to others talk about what they do. Be curious about everyone you meet and ask questions about them and their work. People are more likely to hire or work with someone they like over someone with the perfect experience.

For example, I recently met with a prospective client who had a very specific kind of writing he was looking for. I had done some relevant work, but not an extensive amount. By the end of the informational interview, we were geeking out about Sci-Fi books and our favorite characters from the Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R Tolkien. By the end of the 45 minutes (which was only supposed to be 30 minutes) he said he wanted me working on the next project that came in the door.

If you’re not likeable or can’t stand small talk, you might have trouble with networking, and helping people get to know you and vice versa. Be honest with yourself about your limitations and find ways to manage them. Maybe you do better in small gatherings, or perhaps you need to partner with someone who does better at small talk, so you can just do your work.

As freelancers, being known and liked is key to our success. The best advice I can give is to practice, practice, practice. You’ll learn by doing. I promise.

View Copywriting From 3 Different Angles [VIDEO]

Streamed live on April 24, 2014, I was interviewed by Nick Mendez of the Mathys+Potestio Creative Party, on the subject of copywriting.

My fellow panelists included veteran copywriter and strategist Jaye Davis, and aspiring copywriter Page Jensen-Slattengren. Here’s the 32-minute interview that’ll help you view copywriting from three different angles.

4 Things You Need to Know About Networking

A lot of freelancers I’ve met are terrified of networking. Probably because they’re introverts and the idea of 1) attending an event filled with strangers, and 2) being expected to talk to these people and sell themselves is completely beyond their comfort zone.

Before you freak out any further, keep these four things in mind about networking:

1) Attend as many events as are relevant to you

The more you put yourself out there, the more you get back in return. No one can hire you if they don’t know you exist. Below is a list of organizations and groups that put on events, offer excellent member resources and provide regular networking opportunities. Some of these organizations are (inter)national, but most of those listed are located in the Portland-Metro area. More than likely you’ll find similar organizations all over the place once you start looking for them:

2) Your friends are your friends

In order to find the highest quality events in your area, I would recommend asking everyone in your local network for networking event recommendations. Where do they go? What events and strategies have they found to be useful? Explore everything and see what works for you.

3) Networking isn’t limited to networking events

Networking opportunities don’t have to be called “networking events” in order for you to network. Going to a wedding is an opportunity to meet new people and share what it is you do with others. So is talking to the person in front of you in the checkout line, or striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the plane. Every time you’re around people is a potential networking opportunity. You don’t have to network at every opportunity…but you could!

4) Stay in touch with your new connections

Similar to the prospective clients you’ve cold-called, stay in contact with relevant contacts you meet at these events. Always get a card from them and follow-up with a LinkedIn invitation the day after the event, or a “It was nice meeting you” email.

For those contacts that I want to work with, in this email I’ll also ask them if they’d like to get together for coffee in the next week or two. That way I get to know them, they get to know me, and the next time they need a copywriter, I’ll be top-of-mind. And vice versa when I meet someone who needs what that new connection does.

I understand that getting out there can be hard, but your business depends on you doing it. And you don’t have to do it alone! Ask a friend or colleague to go to an event with you so you have at least that person to stick close to.

What networking events do you go to in Portland? How have you overcome your discomfort with networking?