I caught up with Cierra to chat about how Covid launched her freelance writing business, the best places she recommends to find work online, how to get started as a freelance writer with zero experience, and where she’s currently working from.
Listen to the interview here…
…or read the transcript
Hi Cierra! Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences of being a freelance writer and digital nomad. Really excited to hear about your day-to-day life and how you’re growing your business while you’re traveling around
Cool! So, yeah, my name’s Cierra – I’ve been freelancing for about a year and a half. I’m currently working from Puerto Escondido in Mexico. I’ve been traveling around a lot during the past year, and writing a lot. I’m just starting my writing business, but it’s been really, really cool.
Awesome. And what does freelance writing look like for you right now? Did you come into it from a nine to five?
I feel like my path is kind of different from most writers. So, basically I was teaching English in Vietnam and then COVID happened. And my job was, you know, in jeopardy.
I had a travel blog that I had been writing on about traveling in Southeast Asia, and that blog was my first sample that I sent out to clients. I just used the blog and I was like, well, you know, I have to find another way to make money – because teaching is just not working anymore. It’s not a viable source of income, so I’m just going to try out writing.
I used Facebook groups, like the Cult of Copy Facebook group and a few other ones to basically try and get any writing jobs that I could, in any niche that I could. I really started from the bottom and got really scrappy – I took whatever.
And it basically went from there.
So you weren’t writing for a specific niche or anything at that point?
Yeah. I mean, my first niche I guess was travel, but because of COVID, there wasn’t much travel writing available! That was last April/May when I started.
So, yeah, it was really random. I wrote for a lot of content agencies. And obviously they have clients ranging from lawyers to people who have stuff for your pets. So it was really varied.
What was your first writing job? Do you remember your first project?
It was for a travel site. I forget. It was some kind of search engine where you put in where you’re going and it gives you like, a little review and stuff. Oh no actually – the first one was for a content agency and it was an article on mattresses.
So there was like this character called “Mattress Mack” – he’s a real person. And it’s this company called Mattress back in Houston where I’m from. He does all this stuff in the community. Like when Harvey happened, he opened up his furniture store and people could come in and he gave them food. So basically it was an article comparing him to the Mattress Mack of Ireland or something. It was really weird.
I don’t know why their client wanted it, but it was basically like comparing the two and uh…yeah. I think I got paid like 30 bucks or something at the time, and I never worked with them again. It was just a one-off.
At the time I was really stoked just to get the assignment – and now looking back, I’m like, wow, that was literally nothing. I can’t believe I worked for that little.
It’s still a thrill to get that first project and get paid for like something you wrote! It’s like, who would pay me for that?! But they do, and then it’s like, oh my gosh…this is the start of something. So how did you use that first project to get more work?
I mean that article, I think it was white label, so it didn’t have my name on it. I mostly kept using my travel blog as samples. I put some of the work I was doing into a portfolio, but I guess I still think this way – it’s like, if something doesn’t have your name on it, I feel like it doesn’t carry as much weight. I do sometimes have stuff in my portfolio without the byline, but like, I think in the beginning, I was really conscious of that.
So, yeah, I just kept up with the Facebook groups and kept applying for things until I got more regular work, and clients that were giving me more regular work.
Where are you at now in your business? It’s been about 12 months now since you started?
Now I’m more into gaining bylines – that became really important to me. Maybe it’s an ego thing too, but I just wanted to have my name on my work. And so I really started going after publications.
I’ve written some stuff for Giddy – they’re like a sexual media outlet, which is so interesting to me. And the articles have been so much fun to write. So moving sort of into stuff that’s really exciting. And one of my longest clients that I’ve had since the beginning, I’m still working with.
I started out as a writer with them. And now I sort of do more of like an editing role – checking other writers work and making sure, it’s up to a certain standard. And doing outreach, trying to focus more on projects that pay better and are more interesting.
I still have a long way to go, but it’s this flow, and it’s kind of a slow process for me. My niche is more like the lifestyle, wellness kind of area. So I feel like it is a little bit more challenging. This is like the best niche for me. I’ve written articles for other niches, but I can’t get into it. You know what I mean?
Yeah, I think that’s a good way to go though. I know people say SaaS and things like finance and health are the big money makers, but really at the end of the day, there has to be some enjoyment level. Because you’re not going to do your best work if you don’t care about it, or can’t research it because it bores you to tears. So I think go where your interests are over the long term. Do you still have the travel blog?
So it’s called Young Broke Traveler and it was really like my first attempt, I guess you could call it. The travel niche is super competitive and back then I wasn’t writing for keywords or anything.
It was just like, whatever trips I would go on. And then I would like blog about it. I didn’t really know what I was doing. So like, to go back and try to like re-optimize everything would take a long time and I’m kind of fine leaving. I tried it, it was my first thing, but it didn’t work out.
So I don’t go on it too much. I still use a few things for samples. There’s still some pieces that maybe got a lot of likes or a lot of shares that I use as a sample. But as far as writing on it, no, unfortunately not.
How do you manage working and traveling? You’re trying to grow your business, so there’s a lot of foundational work for you to do in terms of outreach and networking and building your brand and stuff. How does that fit around your travel?
It’s hard. I won’t sugar coat it. It’s hard, but basically I just try to get into a routine.
So wherever I am, I try to start working around the same time, wake up, do some yoga or something, start working around 7.30-8am, and then maybe take a break in the middle of the day for lunch. And then work to 4 or 5. Basically try to make sure wherever you’re staying is has your needs.
For example, I’m in Mexico right now and I can’t work here without air con. Like, it’s just not going to happen! So that’s one example. And I need a good kitchen. I like to cook and it makes me feel more at home, and it helps with that routine, being able to cook.
Getting into a routine and then also staying places that facilitate that routine is how you can make it work.
I totally agree with you. It’s very important to get that routine rolling. How often do you move around? Are you one of the people that moves quite frequently? Or do you try and stay in a place for a month or three months…or six months?
I changed my style of traveling. I guess last year, around October, I was here in Puerto Escondido and I stayed here two weeks. Then I went to Mexico City for a week so it was a lot of moving around and I just could not stay in that routine. It just wasn’t possible.
So then I started staying in places for longer. Now it’s at least a month that I try to stay at somewhere and sometimes more. Earlier this year I was in Nicaragua for about two months in the same Airbnb. So least a month, that’s kind of my minimum.
And how do you find places to stay? You mentioned Airbnb, is that your go-to?
It can be, but it’s gotten really expensive, honestly. The prices have gone up a lot and I feel like I see people saying that on forums too. It’s usually word of mouth, so someone will have stayed there – like the place that I’m at now my friends lived in. The place I stayed in Nicaragua, friends told me about as well.
So maybe that’s not helpful for people that are not at the actual location, but if you want to go somewhere and if you’ve had friends that have traveled there, you can ask them. The best places usually are not online.
It’s definitely cheaper if you can find it offline. On Airbnb it always looks like a great deal. And then you’ll click on a place to book it. And it’s got like $125 extra cleaning fees and service fees!
Yeah. It gets so much. Another thing I did recently was house sitting through the website Trusted Housesitters, where you apply to houses and watch their dogs or cats, whatever the people have, and you stay in their house.
So I did that in Colorado in June. That’s always an option. It’s just less practical obviously because you have to find one that fits where you are and how long you want to stay.
Was it kind of weird just moving into someone’s house with all their stuff there?
It was amazing, honestly! They had a huge, beautiful house, and you had a sweet mountain view. They had a golden retriever and a little dog. And it wasn’t really weird – I mean a little bit, maybe the first day, but after that it was sweet.
Awesome. We looked at Trusted Housesitters early on in our travels, and there were lots of people that had pets like old diabetic cats. You needed to inject them – you know, three times a day. And didn’t know if I wanted to be responsible for that! So it’s great you got some good dogs that were easy care.
They were pretty easy, but I’ve definitely seen those posts of people with goats, chickens, reptiles – like a little farm, basically. A lot of those are in California, they have a farm, and at that point I think they should be paying to have someone take care of all those pets.
So how would you advise someone to get started if they’re thinking about becoming a freelance writer? If you’ve got no experience, or you’ve got no samples. I know you had a blog, so you already had some things laid out. What would you advise someone that wants to be a freelancer so they can travel, but they’ve got literally nothing to start with?
I’d think about if you have any friends that have businesses. Or friends that have businesses. I had a friend who has a bamboo straw business and I was like “Hey, can I write a post for your blog” – nine times out of ten they’re going to be like, yeah, for sure.
That’s one way, just rack your brain and be like “who do I know has a business?”
You don’t need to set up your own website. You can use sites like Medium, write your own posts and then use those as samples. If you want to do more copywriting, then you can make something up that’s for a fake company, like an ad.
So make your own samples. I feel if it’s really what you want to do, figure out a way to make samples. Whether that’s starting you own blog, or writing for friends, or going on Medium. One way or another, just create something and then share it.
What if you’re a bit lacking in confidence? And maybe not sure if you’re a good enough writer? Like, you didn’t go to uni or you don’t have a degree. How do you gauge if you’re a good enough writer – or if you need to learn more, and in what areas? Should you be taking a course? How would you give advice to someone around that?
I would say there’s a lot of Facebook groups. I’m know I talk about Facebook a lot! But it’s just because it’s free and it’s such a good resource. So I would say join a Facebook group, share your work, and ask for people to give you feedback.
I think the Cult of Copy has a critique group. Just find someone that can be a mentor to you,. And hopefully they’re honest and they will tell you, this is or isn’t good. Or leave you notes in your Google doc.
Nathan Collier has a group called the Content Marketing Lounge. I feel like he was a great mentor for me, which I got lucky with. They assign you a mentor – all the new writers get a coach. So he kind of became my coach and i still follow him in his Facebook group and I tell other people about it.
I think just starting joining groups, putting yourself out there for feedback on your work, and being open. Also, if you apply for a bunch of jobs and you keep getting rejected, ask them – “why?” It sounds like really embarrassing, but I did it and I even got jobs that way.
So you’d say “Thank you so much for looking at my application. What can I fix? Because I’m still interested in working with you in the future.”
Be kind of shameless and ask for feedback everywhere you can. Chances are, you’re not going to be super good when you’re starting out – but you can only go up!
So how do you go about raising your rates? You said you started with a $30 post. Did you have some sort of framework ,or some sort of goal that you wanted to reach? And how did you move from there to where you are now?
Again, networking and seeing what other people are charging. I always said to myself “do not work for this little”, but I didn’t really know. And I was willing to take anything. I think my first jobs were around 3 cents a word. It’s not good to accept that, but that’s what I started at.
I was in Write Minds, which is a group by Jacob McMillen. So in that group, the question of rates comes up a lot. I was messaging someone and I.said “Do you really think I could charge 10 cents a word?”
And he was like, at least.
So talking to other people and more experienced writers, and learning from them. Getting comfortable with “this is my baseline, and I can charge that much“.
And then every time you get a new client, ask them for a little bit more. Some people will say no to you, but eventually people will say yes. I feel that, especially as a creative, it’s hard to ask for more money, but to the person you’re asking, it’s not that much.
Then also there’s figuring out, okay, how much do I want to make per month? And dividing that by how much I need to make per hour. I have moved away from the “per word” rate. Everyone said it’s hard charging per word and I didn’t listen – but now I finally get it.
It’s really hard to reach those monthly financial goals if you’re charging per word. per project is much easier. Let’s say I want to make $3,000 a month. Then I need to charge $300 per article. I usually write 10 articles a month. So I have to charge $300 an article – and then it becomes a little bit easier to justify asking for that. Becuase then it’s like “well, that’s what I need to reach my goals“. And if they’re not willing to pay me that, then it doesn’t help me reach my goals.
So do you set financial goals each month for yourself?
Honestly, I’ve kind of gone back and forth. I feel like it’s a really common thing in the writing community. A lot of people set a 10 K per month goal, or at least 8k – basically making a hundred thousand a year. That’s a really common benchmark.
I think that was my goal. But it wasn’t really specific enough. It was just like, I want to make 10 K a month, you know? So then I was stressing on it and… yeah. I feel like I did set income goals in the past, but now it’s become more like, “okay, what do I need” – more than just arbitrarily raising my rates.
Every month I wanted to make a thousand more – that’s kind of what I was doing in the past. But it had no meaning. It’s really kind of…empty. And even when you do meet those goals, it’s like, “okay, now what?”
Did you had to sacrifice any kind of traveling or exploring to make those goals before you thought about having more of a work/life balance like that?
Not really. I mean, it’s definitely more of a day to day basis. I feel like I’ve taught myself to say no to certain things to keep my routine and keep my work up to a certain amount – like, a respectable day’s work. But I don’t really travel to really expensive countries right now.
So no, I haven’t had to make too many sacrifices. If anything, I would rather sacrifice making more money for enjoying my life, you know?
So what’s your biggest challenge at the moment in terms of freelancing and traveling?
I would say my biggest challenge is knowing that, okay, I probably could take on more work. I probably could make more money. But then – do I really want to be working 40 hours a week while I’m traveling? So it’s kind of the emotional or psychological thing of trying not to feel guilty for not having a super full schedule.
I feel that as well. And I know a lot of other people feel the same way. It’s a difficult balance. What have been your favorite countries to work from so far?
Let’s see, I guess it would be easier to say it in terms of cities. Obviously Puerto Escondido if you have air conditioning! It’s amazing. The beach is five minutes away. It’s a really cool vibe with surfers and it’s kind of hippie, but not super hippy. Like, a more relatable hippie kind of vibe. I love a lot. And anything by the beach.
I’ve lived here for a few months and the wifi isn’t very good, it’s a bit spotty, but it’s just so nice being able to take a little break and like go to the beach. So yeah. Anywhere by the beach, I love. Cities aren’t really my thing. I like a small city in the mountains, like San José del Pacifico though. It’s a tiny town in Mexico. And I would just go down the mountain to the little internet cafe and work. It was ideal.
And San Cristobal in Mexico is also really cool. They have a really good coworking space there actually.
And what’s on your list next?
I’m more in a kind of pause as to where I’m traveling. I’m staying in Mexico, but eventually I would like to go to South America. Maybe Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and I’ve been to Columbia already, so maybe like revisiting. Portugal is high on my list, but COVID still is a thing. So it’s not really tempting to travel right now.
Yeah – we’re all in a kind of holding pattern, waiting to see what’s happening and trying to not move around as much as possible. So what’s your #1 piece of advice for a new freelancer? What should you be thinking about if you launch into this brand new lifestyle?
I would say from the beginning, try to get samples. So you’re not just asking for hundreds of dollars for an article or something, with no backing. So maybe take a pause and get good samples.
Don’t sell yourself cheap. Stick up for yourself. It’s hard to ask for fair industry rates, but otherwise it becomes a race to the bottom. And then also – I know it sounds cliche, but focus on relationships. You know, with your first client. Over-deliver and be really nice.Just try to be super, super nice and deliver really, really good work. Then they will probably recommend you or refer you to a friend or someone they know in the industry. And it kind of builds on itself.
Also, have faith that (not to get too woo), but have faith now. If this is really what you want to do, it will work out. One thing will lead to another. There’s going to be months that it gets slower, but just keep pitching and keep believing in yourself. Seriously, I think it’s a beautiful lifestyle and there’s enough work out there for everyone.
Want to follow Cierra on social (or hire her to write for you!) – you can find her here: