I wish I had early screenshots of my first website—not Seeing Foxes (my first blog) or WhatsLeftOut.com (my second blog) but my first legit freelance writer website. Perhaps the word “legit” is too generous. Maybe “mewling like a lost kitten with one ear” is more accurate.
The website was not pretty.
This was 2009. I’d just gotten laid off from my job as a copywriter and account executive at a marketing firm. Though I had an inkling of what “nice” websites looked like, I also knew how much the firm charged to build one.
I believed that in order to get a pretty website I had to spend a small fortune.
The problem was, I had $486 in my bank accounts. Combined. No joke.
So I frankensteined together a monstrosity while trying with pluck and a heavy helping of desperation to make the whole freelancing thing work.
I was 27 years old. I did NOT want to ask my parents for money.
I hustled. I wrote band bios and brochure copy—anything to make a buck. I scraped together enough earnings each month to pay my bills.
Ah, the good old days, when those bills were around $1100 a month!
A funny thing happened. Despite the visual horror of my one-eared, Frankenkitten website, I failed forward into a six-figure writing business.
This growth was confusing. Shouldn’t my retina-punishing website have killed my business?
The designers at the agency where I worked were always talking about the danger of ugly websites.
Oh, you mean like this one…
BrightNewt.com in 2011
Now hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that websites don’t matter. A beautiful writer website CAN help you get more leads online.
Eye-catching design, well-written content, and smart content strategy can help you get more email subscribers, more contact form submissions, and more writing clients.
But the truth is, you don’t HAVE TO have a nice freelance writer website. You can live without a beautiful website. You can build your freelance writing business through word of mouth the way I did.
You’ll be making things harder for yourself, for sure, but you can ignore what you’ve read online about what you “have to do” to build a profitable business.
I hate it when people tell me what I HAVE TO do, especially when my own experience disproves that generalization.
Generalizations make my rational brain itch because they are categorically false.
There’s always an exception to the rule, right?
You don’t HAVE TO have a smartphone.
You don’t HAVE TO be on Facebook.
You don’t HAVE TO have a writing portfolio website.
Shoot, you don’t HAVE TO brush your teeth.
You will eventually regret not giving yourself every advantage with your writing business (the same way you’d regret having to wear dentures).
But let’s be clear about one thing: Everything you read in this post is a strong recommendation, not an ultimatum. Beware of generalizations and ultimatums.
Okay. Onward and upward.
I believe 100% that an attractive, effective writer website is a crucial component in a sustainable sales pipeline. Without one, you’ll miss out on good opportunities.
With one, you set yourself up for business longevity and financial success.
You make it possible for people to find you online, start to care about you and your work, entertain the prospect of working with you, and get in contact.
So in this post I will answer questions about freelance writer sites and try to convince you to focus on the most important objective: getting a good enough website (most likely a single page) up as quickly as possible.
Don’t neglect your website. And don’t let it distract you either.
Websites are like houses. They are never finished. The first goal is to get the thing up. Then you can worry about paint colors and landscaping.
You can always iterate later.
We’ll start by answering some basic questions—and clearing the air of bad advice—and then I’ll share a step-by-step process that I recommend you follow.
Note: At 5,800 words this article is chock full of good advice. Be that as it may, some of you may want to skip the TL;DR version and use the cheatsheet instead. Put in your name and email address, and I’ll send you the download link.
If you have just started freelancing, should you create a new writer website right away?
If you are new to freelancing, then I would recommend that you focus on earning your first dollar before you worry about a website.
Ask your friends and family for writing projects.
Post on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Reach out to local businesses and ask to write for them.
Gain experience and gain writing samples.
Put out your shingle, so to speak.
In his memoir Papa Hemingway A. E. Hotchner shares a piece of advice that Hemingway apparently gave to actress Marlene Dietrich: “Don’t do what you sincerely don’t want to do. Never confuse movement with action.”
Prioritize action, not movement.
Landing your first clients is the action. Putting up a website right away is the movement.
Your early clients will, most likely, be people you already know, so you don’t need a website to sell to them. You simply need to start a conversation.
In a month or two, once you’ve got several writing samples, you can put up a first draft of a client-focused freelance writing website that explains your services.
At that point you will have several success stories and testimonials, and you can use some of the money from your early clients to pay for the website.
(Note: If you’ve already got a blog, go ahead and put a link to your freelance writer website in the main navigation.)
Why is having a good freelance writer website important in the first place?
Your website illustrates your legitimacy as a professional. If you write for a living, the writing on your website will prove that you know your stuff.
The proof is in the pudding. You’re not some fly-by-night shyster who is going to take people’s money and run.
Put yourself in a prospective client’s shoes, one who is a stranger. If you see a basic WordPress theme and a mostly unfinished website, would you want to entrust your brand messaging and content to that person?
Do you want someone who looks like they got sucked up in a tornado to cut your hair?
Prove your legitimacy by being one step ahead of your clients, not one step behind. In the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king.
Can you use your Facebook page or LinkedIn profile in lieu of a writer website?
Even if you have taken the time to fill out your social profiles, I would still recommend putting up a writing portfolio website.
At this point in human history people are familiar with websites. We know how to navigate them and find the information we seek.
Like email addresses and bank accounts, websites have become a basic requirement of business. You wouldn’t show up to a business event without pants. And when people check you out online, you don’t want to get caught with your pants down.
Having a website is non-negotiable—that is, after you’ve made your first buck.
With the loads of inexpensive WordPress themes available, it’s not like websites are super expensive. For example, I use the Divi theme from Elegant Themes (affiliate link) for most of my clients’ websites. It costs $89 per year or $249 for lifetime access.
Divi’s drag-and-drop builder makes the process of “designing” your website pretty straightforward—even if you’re not a tech whiz.
“But wait! There’s more!” (In his best infomercial voice…)
We’re writers. We don’t have to sit around and wait for somebody else to fill out the design with words. We can create our own content in an afternoon.
Back to the question at hand…
Unlike social profiles, websites also help you out with the following:
SEO – People probably won’t find your Facebook page if they search for “Atlanta copywriter,” but they might stumble across your website.
Portfolio – It is difficult to display writing samples on Facebook and LinkedIn. Websites, however, make showcasing your work and talent quite easy.
Blog – Teaching what you know is harder on Facebook where posts quickly get buried.
Selling – We all take it for granted that websites exist to educate and sell. Not so with Facebook, which is primarily a social network. On Facebook you have to pay to access your own fans! But if you put up an email opt-in form on your website, you can later email those people for free.
Specific pages on a well-structured writing portfolio website, including services, portfolio, and your bio, help your prospects make more informed purchasing decisions.
A good website removes friction from the buying process.
What is the single biggest mistake that most writers make with their websites?
Many writers’ websites have a fatal flaw: They are confusing. They add friction rather than remove it.
A number of different factors can make a website confusing to navigate:
Visual Clutter – Hodgepodge design and layout cause pieces of content to compete against each other for the visitor’s attention.
Lack of Negative Space – More is not more. Negative space brings balance to all the elements on a web page and places special emphasis on more important elements. For example, if you’ve got a headline, short paragraph, and a bright call-to-action button surrounded in a field of white pixels, where will people’s eyes naturally go? The bright button.
No Calls-to-Action – You tell people stuff, but you don’t tell them what you want them to do next so that they can solve their own problems. I once would have agreed with Elna Cain that you should put your call-to-action above the fold.
But then I stumbled across this Kissmetrics post from Bnonn Tennant, which explains why the fold is a red herring and the strength of the copy is more important than the placement of the call-to-action:
“Higher conversion rates have nothing to do with whether the button is above the fold, and everything to do with whether the button is below the right amount of good copy.”
Strong Copy – Mediocre copy translates into fewer leads. Great copy… well, you get the point. If you need to brush up on what makes good copy, then read Joanna Wiebe’s post on great home page copy.
Competing Calls-to-Action – Subscribe to my e-newsletter! Watch my video! Contact me! Keep reading! Learn more! Like my Facebook page! Um… all of those are good things. But which is most important? Your call-to-action should be the single most important action you want people to take while on your site. Pick one goal, and back your content strategy out of it.
Sloppy Formatting – Headers, subheaders, bullet-point lists, types, inconsistent punctuation, images that look off… Your clients want you to look after the minute details. Lead by example.
Information Overload – More is not more. The goal of your website is to motivate people to get in touch with you. Then, you can keep educating them and build a relationship. Pare down your content or restructure it so that you’re taking web visitors on a journey, not turning a firehose on them.
Muddy Messaging – You may have more than one target audience. I do. My freelance writing niche is SaaS companies and tech consultants. Wunderbar writes for them, but I also coach other freelancers and writers. Rather than cram all of that information into one website, which would muddy the messaging for both target markets, I put up two different websites.
By all means sell services to more than one target market. But recognize that as soon as you use one website to try to speak to the needs of disparate groups of people, you run the risk of confusing everyone.
In marketing and messaging simplicity is power.
Draw on the power of ones:
One niche or target audience
One ideal client avatar or buyer profile
One painful problem you solve
One solution for that problem
Should your writer website be separate from your blog?
You’ll notice that some freelance writers have professional websites completely separate from their personal blogs. Others combine the two.
If you’re just getting started, you might be wondering which approach to take. Should you sell your writing services straight from your blog?
Or should you pick a new domain name and create a standalone website?
As with most topics in freelancing, you will find a wide range of opinions.
So I will give you the most frustrating advice possible: Do what works best for your business. I try to take my own advice and draw on the power of ones.
I maintain two separate websites because each site has different positioning and supports a different goal.
On my personal blog, AustinLChurch.com, I help freelance writers build profitable businesses they love. I do that by publishing free content weekly and by selling training products and coaching services.
WunderbarWorks.com focuses on SaaS companies and tech consultants who want to use blogging and content marketing to get more customers.
WunderbarWorks.com is, in essence, a digital brochure with a questionnaire that prospects can fill out. I haven’t yet made blogging on that site a priority for two reasons:
Most of my clients come through referral, and
My long-term goal is for product sales and coaching to eclipse client work.
That’s why I want to focus all of my audience-building efforts on AustinLChurch.com.
Client work pays my bills right now, but over the coming months, I will continue to build my reputation as a thought leader and expert freelance writer, create more training products, and do more speaking engagements.
That being said, attaching your blog to your professional writer website (or vice versa) offers a number of benefits:
Send all web traffic to one place
Reduce hosting and maintenance costs
Use your blog as part (or all) of your portfolio
Use your blog to answer frequently asked questions or write about client success stories or specific services that require in-depth explanations without cluttering up your main navigation; you can cross-link to blog posts.
The nice thing about an active blog is that it IS a portfolio piece.
A lot of your best work will be the writing you do for yourself. Without the restrictions that come with staying consistent with clients’ brands, you have more creative and stylistic freedom.
You can show off those mad writing skills.
You may find it difficult to follow your fancy and write in your niche—that is, writing posts with hopes of attracting clients to your website. But you may also get inquiries because someone stumbled across one of your posts, liked your style, and asked to hire you.
That has happened to me more than once and explains my addiction to content marketing.
This will only work if you’re not treating your blog as an online journal (where you publish posts about your personal life) or as a creative writing portfolio (where you’re sharing fiction and poetry).
The right course of action depends on your target market or audience and your goals. That’s why there is no one right recommendation for everyone.
Lead with likability. Follow with expertise. That is, once it comes time to deliver, always come in on time and on budget. Dazzle with your responsiveness. Profanity, of course, is optional.
Just be sure to default to respect for all people—even if their idea of propriety or respectability chafes you.
Should you pick a brand name or just stick with your name?
My name is Austin Church. Duh. You know that already.
Why did I decide to include my middle initial, “L,” like a pedantic scholar who wants you to know just how important and serious he is?
Well, my parents picked a name for me before the Internet existed, and now my name competes with hundreds of churches in Austin, Texas, in search results. Go figure.
Way back when, I had to make clearly earth-shattering decisions about stuff like my Twitter handle and primary domains.
I had a prescient moment where I decide to include my middle initial as a slight differentiator and make it a wee bit easier down the road for people who might actually be looking for me and my writing.
Over the past two years, I have been more intentional about developing my personal brand because I want to build an audience for my writing (personal, not business stuff) and to do more speaking engagements.
By 2020, 50% of the U.S. workforce will do some type of freelance work. By then, I will have over a decade of freelancing experience. My business will, most likely, transition from helping clients to helping other freelancers thrive in the Gig Economy.
Based on my goals, having two brands makes sense for me. My personal brand that uses my name revolves around writing, coaching, speaking, and products. My client-facing brand, Wunderbar, encapsulates marketing, consulting, and client work.
I’ve even got a couple more brands in my business roadmap. For example, I plan to roll my coaching products for freelance writers out from underneath AustinLChurch.com into a standalone brand.
As you think about brand names, I encourage you to consider the following factors:
Would you ever sell your business? If yes, don’t use your name. Choose a different word or phrase. Boy, was I glad I had chosen the name “Bright Newt” when someone wanted to buy the brand off of me in April 2015.
Would you ever sell other services or products? If yes, don’t use your name. I recommend selling other people’s services—e.g., design, video, photography, development—in tandem with your writing services. And again, arbitrage is easier if your-name-as-brand doesn’t create the impression that you will personally fulfill each piece of each project.
Will your business ever grow beyond you? Would you ever hire subcontractors or employees? If yes, don’t use your name. You’ll have more explaining to do with clients who thought that when they contract with your company, they were getting you as an individual, not your team in aggregate.
Is your name easy to remember and spell? I broke all my branding rules when I chose “Wunderbar,” which most people mispronounce and misspell. Beyond words from foreign languages, I remember somewhere that Chris Guillebeau said if he had it to do all over again, he wouldn’t build his brand around his name. But he has done just fine for himself. So listen to my advice. Or ignore it. But recognize that the branding choices you make now can simplify or complicate your life two years from now.
Is your name really common and therefore hard to differentiate?
Does your brand name give you a memorable story to tell? Both Bright Newt and Wunderbar have created opportunities for me to sell without selling. A natural question for people to ask is, “How did you come up with the name”? They ask me to tell them about my business! Using your name as your brand doesn’t do that.
Does your brand name give you the freedom to grow in new (and perhaps unforeseen) directions?
Some of these considerations are also why I recommend not including the writing-specific words in your brand: freelance writer, writing, blogger, words, copywriting, content, and content strategist. Should you decide to expand your services beyond writing later, your brand name will be confusing.
On the other hand, if you’re hoping to capture organic search traffic in your local market by targeting specific keywords—for example, Knoxvillewriter.com—then ignore that advice. One of my first websites—neededwriter.com—existed solely to capture traffic and generate inquiries using SEO.
If push comes to shove, you can always rebrand your freelance writing business. At the end of the day, no one really cares what you name your business.
So you see, with picking a name, there are NO hard and fast rules. Your brand will always be in flux, changing from one year to the next as your freelancing business evolves.
Your website will change with your brand. Mine certainly has. It underwent a major design change three times in five years.
How do you decide what domain to pick?
.Com domains are the best.
Because .com domains have been around a long time. Search engines give them authority, which influences search rankings, and because .com domains are ubiquitous, they are easy to remember.
If you can’t get YourBusinessName.com, then add another short word on the front or back.
For example, Wunderbar.com wasn’t available, so I registered WunderbarWorks.com.
Here are some other words you could add to your domain in order to get that preferred .com extension:
Your best bet is to type in your name on LeanDomainSearch.com and generate dozens, if not hundreds, of options in the blink of an eye.
What content should you put on your website? What pages belong in your site map?
You need to populate your website with the right content without overwhelming your visitors. Avoid information overload. Strive for clarity.
You can bring clarity to your website’s navigation in three specific ways:
Consolidate pages in order to limit the number of links in your main navigation, which typically goes at the top of the page on desktop or under a menu icon on mobile.
Give these links obvious titles. I’d recommend against trying to be clever with your micro copy. For example, use “Portfolio” or “Work” instead of “Success Stories.” Use “Services” instead of “How We Help Clients.” You can always cross-link out to other pages and blog posts where you explain your business and services in more detail.
Here are must-have pages for every freelance writer website:
Home – Who you are, what you do, what makes you and your services special, what you want people to do next
Portfolio (or Blog)
Services – What clients hire you to do and the benefits that your involvement delivers
About – Your story, background, education, and interests, as well as the story behind your business
Contact – The best way to get in touch with you and what happens after people get in touch with you
Here are optional pages:
Clients – You can also combine the Portfolio and Clients pages.
Testimonials – Though you can create a dedicated Testimonials page, I think testimonials are more effective if you spread them out across various pages rather than lumping them all into one. For example, if you wrote emails for a high-converting drip campaign for a client, then include that specific testimonial on your Services page underneath the Email Campaigns section.
Resume/Experience – You can also eliminate this page by listing your accomplishments and experience on your About page.
Photo gallery of your decorative spoon collection (all 50 states!)
As time goes by, you’ll be tempted to add more and more pages.
If at all possible, do not add those links to your main navigation. Sure, you can add them to drop-down menus, but I still think you’re better off keeping your nav uncluttered.
The last thing you want to do is induce analysis paralysis because you give web visitors too many choices of where to go and what to read next.
What should you include in your freelance writer bio?
Certain lessons from childhood run deep. We learn early that it’s not good manners to brag. So when it comes time to write about ourselves, we underplay our accomplishments.
We’re professional writers, yet the About pages on our websites end up reading like obituaries.
What about that trip to Nepal you took? What about that novel you published?
Or your competing loves, barbecue and baking?
By all means, avoid being a braggart. Just don’t forget to sprinkle in some seasoning. Add some little-known facts about yourself to your bio, and let your passion for your work shine through.
I have never published my rates on my website. I prefer for people to fill out the contact form first.
Even the people who cannot afford my services can still send me referrals or change their minds and find more money.
Also, I ask every new client to walk down the same narrow corridor. I give them two choices: a paid, formal Roadmapping session or my minimum engagement. The minimum engagement I only offer as a last resort if they already seem convinced that they need just writing, not consulting.
I think it advantageous to discuss both of these productized services in an email conversation where I am earning trust with prospects.
Other writers do publish their pricing on their websites. They preemptively weed out web visitors who can’t afford their services. (Note: Your “Services” page is the obvious place to put your rates.)
Where does that leave you?
I don’t think there’s a wrong decision here. I’ve never had anyone complain about not being able to find my rates online, and at the same time, I can see how publishing your rates can be a filter.
If you decide to not publish your rates, you can use Get a Quote as your call-to-action. That will be the next logical step for many prospects.
How do you come up with keywords for your freelance writer website?
Keywords are important because if you use them strategically in your web content, you can get inquiries through your contact form.
You already know how Google works: People use keywords and phrases to search for information—for example, “Knoxville copywriter.”
I once used Market Samurai, and Google’s free Keyword Planner tool to research keywords.
But in 2016, Google officially started limiting data for AdWords users with “lower monthly spend.” If you’re using the Keyword Planner tool with your free AdWords account, you won’t see the average monthly searches data for each keyword.
The Keyword Planner also now groups the search volume data for many similar keyword variants.
For example, if you tried to get data for “Chicago freelance writer,” the tool would try to tell you that no one searches for that keyword.
That simply is NOT true.
The best SEO specialists have resorted to Plan B—using a combination of different tools to get a clear idea of monthly search volume and competition for exact keywords, not a bucket of variants.
My advice? Find an SEO specialist on Upwork.com with lots of recent 5 star reviews, and pay him or her to do keyword research for you.
One of my old clients was fond of saying that part of being smart is knowing what you’re dumb at. Unless you have tons of time on your hands to learn keyword research and sift through hundreds of them, the smart move is to pay an expert.
Check out this video that shows the step-by-step process I use to find talented freelancers on Upwork.com…
Once you’ve got your list, focus on 3-4 keywords for which you want to rank in your local market. Target those specific keywords on various pages on your website.
Get inside the minds of people performing those searches, and craft copy that speaks directly to their pain points and needs.
Launch quickly. Perfect slowly.
Most freelancers overthink their websites the same way they overthink the names of their businesses.
The key is speed, people.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. A great website won’t be either.
My advice? Launch a simple freelance writing website as quickly as you can. You can always add to it later, and a half-finished website can’t generate leads for you!
So let’s get down to brass tacks.
What content management system should you choose?
I use WordPress for all of my websites and my clients’ websites as well. Some people swear by Squarespace, and Craft CMS is another robust Content Management System (CMS) that many of my developer friends love.
Go with WordPress for now.
Precisely one bazillion web developers know how to work with WordPress, and thousands of videos and tutorials can help you problem-solve on your own, if need be.
What WordPress theme should you pick?
You might be tempted to go with a basic WordPress theme like this one.
Don’t. When people check you out online, you want to be looking good, right?
You don’t have to have a custom design theme to come across as legitimate, but you do want to ensure that anyone who sees your site knows you’re the real deal.
Divi’s drag-and-drop builder makes the process of “designing” your website pretty straightforward—even if you’re not a tech whiz.
Word to the wise: Don’t spend more than a half hour looking at themes. Your goal is to get your one-page website live, not burn up your day perusing pretty demos. Believe me, finding “the right” WordPress theme can become a huge time suck.
Find “good enough,” and rest assured you can always change your theme later once you cross off more important tasks.
Once you pick a theme, you should be able to knock out the other details quickly.
Hosting – You will need hosting for your website. An inexpensive hosting company like Bluehost offers one-click installation for WordPress and accounts, starting at $3.95/month. Flywheel hosts all of my websites. It is more on the premium side and offers free site backups and SSL certificates. Pick a reputable hosting company and move on.
Set-Up – If I were you, I’d find a freelancer on Upwork, and pay him or her to set up a one-page WordPress website for you. (Go back and watch the video embedded above.)
Or, if you’d rather take the DIY approach, do a quick Google search and find instructions for setting up WordPress with your specific hosting company.
Logo – You can get an inexpensive logo from 99Designs. Or, you could barter with a designer friend: a logo in exchange for 8-10 pages of web content. You could also trade ghost writing for a couple of blog posts for business card design and help with picking one or two fonts for you.
Brand Colors – Coolors can generate a nice color palette for your brand.