6 Things Every Freelance Writer Must Know in 2021

What a freelancer must know to excel at the job in 2021

Guy reading a Space Encyclopedia

Freelance writing is a weird profession. It has no diploma or master you can attain in order to call yourself a writer. It’s much like an art, as a painter or sculptor, but it has no academia that can teach you to be a freelance writer. A general writer, or a journalist, yes. But a freelance writer must know a distinct set of skills to be called so.

It is not just about writing. It is mostly about writing a good, error-free, engaging and well-researched piece. But not only.

As a profession, the required skills change all the time and what made you a great freelance writer in 2015 is not enough anymore. As all other things connected with the new media, the evolution required to keep the pace and remain relevant is fast.

The biggest pitfall for aspiring freelance writers is to stick to their comfort zones. That will guarantee you to become “outdated” as a professional in a handful of years. Don’t do that.

Instead, focus on improving your skills all the time. Not writing skills, beware. That’s obvious. Skills, in general.

Over the years of working as a content writer I’ve realized what is required from a freelancer, even expected from. These are my 6 things every freelancer must know in 2021 (and probably well beyond that) to succeed in this industry.

1. Adapt to the tone

Over the years, hopefully many and fruitful, of your career, you’ll work on many projects. Various companies, magazines, newspapers and what not, all with their different requirements and objectives. You’ll probably also write in many niches, not just what you chose at the beginning (or later). Unless you’re very lucky and specialise in a very profitable niche from day 1, and one that keeps being lucrative for decades on, you must write in over than one topic, possibly a dozen or more.

Therefore, adaptability is key in this profession. A freelance writer must know how to adapt to the tone and objectives of the client, and have the skills to write exactly as requested. A magazine about sailing will have a different tone than one that talks about sailing vacations. The former will require you a technical article, because its readers are people who own or plan to own a sailboat, and want to know the specifics of each boat. The latter publication will more probably ask you to write in a more informal, evocative, simpler to read and way less technical tone, as the audience will be more families and couples looking for a weekend getaway on a boat and won’t be interested in the different types of keels and whether the genoa is easy enough to unfurl.

Agreeing on the scope and tone with the client
Agreeing on the scope and tone with the client

It’s just an example. Even within the same niche, a client will ask of you all the range of possible tones and depth of a content piece. More so if you will be a freelance writer that deals in multiple niches, encompassing a wide array of publications, with vastly diverse objectives and audiences.

Therefore, focusing on the requirements and deeply understanding what a client requires is a must know skill for a freelance writer in 2021. Learn to be flexible. Reading all the publications within your niche’s industry, trying to understand the reason behind the use of some words and why a piece was written with a tone instead of another. That will help you to quickly understand how to write for your clients.

And, obviously, practice writing.

2. Basic SEO

No, you don’t need to know all the internals of Google Analytics (btw, this a very good glossary of all the common Analytics' terms), the keyword volumes of every text you write, or how not to have blocking content in your HTML page. That helps, obviously, but it is unnecessary unless you want to have a side gig as a technical SEO consultant.

What instead a freelance writer must know is basic SEO that most closely pertains to the content. That includes, but it is not limited to:

Keyword density Meta descriptions Basic keyword research Interlinking content Basic SEO content strategy

And so on. Nothing too technical, nor anything that involves coding or installing anything. Only what it is within the realm of you as a content writer.

Many will suggest optimizing for Yoast (a Wordpress plugin for SEO) or to use tools like Moz or Ahrefs to know what you need to change in your content to make it SEO-friendly. I would say: don’t focus on any specific tool, learn how in general the Google algorithm works, the relevance, navigability and density of your content, and optimize according to that. A browser and a word processor will be more than enough for this.

Nothing against using external tools to help you, but each operates in a slightly different way, and what seems well optimized in one may be only barely so in another. Don’t rely too much on automated tools, they are good at giving you lots of data and some, opinionated, advice. Learn instead to think with your brain and the data you can collect simply by querying a search engine.

3. Image editing skills

I know, image editing sounds like something outside of the scope of a proper writer. We deal with words, images are a whole different ballpark after all.

Thing is, most clients think otherwise. Articles without images are unthinkable nowadays, and even if most clients won’t ask you to add images yourself, you’d be better ready to do so.

A night picture edited from RAW with Lightroom. Probably not what most clients will ask you to do as a content writer
A night picture edited from RAW with Lightroom. Probably not what most clients will ask you to do as a content writer

As with SEO, you don’t need to be a Photoshop master. Nobody is going to ask you to change people’s faces or remove whole parts of a photograph as a content writer. But a freelance writer must know in 2021 the basics of image editing.

Things like filtering the photo (Photoshop, Canva and even Gimp will be enough), reducing the size of the images (no 9Mb pngs…), cutting them and knowing where to find free ones will be all you will need to be a successful freelance writer in 2021 and beyond.

Leave the most demanding editing tasks to proper designers and Photoshop experts. Charge for the time spent researching and editing the pictures that go along with your articles, though. Time is money. Sites like Unsplash, Pexels, Flickr, Canva and even Google Images are your friends.

Besides, read what I use for this and other content writing jobs to get an idea of how much you should know and inspire yourself to start as a freelance writer.

4. Learn to edit

Sure, tools like Grammarly, ProWritingAid and your normal spell checker may seem enough, and for some low budget clients they may be, but if you want to shine as a freelance writer, you must know how to be an excellent editor of yourself.

Grammar mistakes aside, that those checkers will have hopefully caught, you need to know how to balance the information you are putting in your content. When to increase something and reduce something else.

Being critical of your own work is a skill that takes time to develop. At first we as content writers are usually too wary of our value as writers, while with time we can become complacent and forget to edit, thoroughly. This is normal. Being unsure of one’s skills in a new profession and then becoming too confident is typical of many people, in many industries.

Learn to check how every piece of writing you produce sounds, how it “flows”, what are the information that you’re conveying and if those match what your client requested. Learn to attune your voice with the client’s, and simplify your words accordingly.

Sometimes you will feel like you’re butchering your own art. Been there, trust me. Be a butcher anyway, a client is not paying you to show your skills but is paying you to use your skills to convey a message, their message. Not yours.

Edit the hell of every piece you produce.

5. It’s their message, not your voice

Plenty of content writers start in this area thinking that they have a specific “voice”, a wonderful personality to pour into their texts, and that clients will love it.

Probably the client's message shouldn't be that loud but it should clearly come across
Probably the client’s message shouldn’t be that loud but it should clearly come across

Guess what? Most clients won’t give a rat’s ass about a 25-year-old freelance writer with 2 months of experience. They chose you to communicate with their customers/visitors, not to show off your skills.

They need the job done, not pay you to show the world how good a writer you are. That will be for later, much later, if you manage to become one of the recognised voices in your industry. Few will, and surely not immediately.

So hold off your “voice”, unless otherwise requested by a client. Read the client’s requirements, learn to identify what they actually want (they often aren’t able to clearly express this), and put their message into words. That’s your skill that as a freelance writer you must know how to do in 2021. And ever and ever, most probably.

6. Know the client’s industry

If you are a copywriter and not just a ghostwriter (what’s the difference? See here), you need to know the industry of your clients very well. This not only to write more accurate, informative and pleasurable copy that converts, but to know what the mindset of their target customers is.

In order to write content that will drive prospects towards your client’s page, knowing what are the most common necessities, issues, trends, market’s reports is vital to not be one of the countless “I wrote a top 10 round up of products and got paid” freelance writers out there. Trust me, there are a lot of them.

Researching the client's industry is a necessary step to stand out among the crowd of copycat writers
Researching the client’s industry is a necessary step to stand out among the crowd of copycat writers

As a copywriter you need to make your client’s products or services shine, not just be informative. You need to know competitors, consumers’ needs and what not in order to write CTA (call to action) that convert.

Keep up to date with the changes and challenges in your niches’ industries. Read magazines and blogs. Participate in forums, or frequent a few subreddits. Be aware of what’s happening within your niches, and your clients will be happy to return to you with more work as a knowledgeable freelance writer.

This is a requirement for any year and surely also for 2021.

Final remarks

Those in the freelance writing business since a few years might have already known all these points of advice. Hopefully, every freelance content writer will have learned them all, eventually.

If you haven’t, get ready to do, all the six of them. You’re making a disservice to your clients in not focusing on improving your skills, not just towards yourself. Learning to adapt yourself to the client’s needs, basic SEO and image editing skills and being a better editor of yourself are truly the basic things every freelancer must know in 2021 and onward.

As any master of the craft can attest, the learning never ends.

Feel free to leave a comment below to let me know if you believe a different skill should be required to know in 2021. Or not. Or one more than the six I have expounded in the article.

Gianluca Fiore
Gianluca Fiore
Content Writer

Content writer, SEO consultant, avid traveler, coffee aficionado and all around nice guy