I’ve been a freelance writer professionally (that is, for money) since 2010, at first as a way to indulge my passion and to make a little extra on the side while I earned a proper living as a teacher, but later on as my main job.

Two years ago I left teaching and embarked on writing as a full-time career. I say full-time, but realistically it was about putting in full-time hours and getting very little back in terms of earnings. I’ve made many mistakes, but the time I spent building up a portfolio is now slowly beginning to pay dividends.

My background is in teaching and psychology and, not having come from journalism or a related area, I was very naïve about what was realistic. So here is some personal advice on what to do (and not to do).

Make sure you’re already financially secure (and have a plan).

I was okay financially when I gave up my teaching job but my plan was lacking (I didn’t really have one). As a result, I was spending my savings faster than I could earn and things have been tricky financially on a number of occasions. I have had to take on supply teaching roles a couple of times in order to pay the bills, which takes me away from writing.

Build up a portfolio before you go it alone.

I was relatively lucky. I’d written for the Guardian and been published in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) prior to leaving the security of a steady job, so I did have some published work to show off. Many of the pieces I had written were not paying gigs and I realise this is a bone of contention in freelancer circles. If you need content to show off what you can do then my advice is write some articles or blog posts for free, but don’t let people take advantage of your generosity. I have written for the Huffington Post who famously (or infamously) don’t pay writers. The Huff Post does provide exposure, but to date, I’ve received no work linked to the time and effort I put in.

Create a free WordPress blog.

Easy to set up and very flexible. My own site uses WordPress, as does my blog Mindwanderings. You can pay extra for a domain name.

Get a Twitter account.

I was already established on Twitter before I began freelancing with a reasonably healthy Twitter following. Follow lots of people and tweet about relevant topics (I usually tweet about psychology and education), favourite and comment on tweets you like. Other social media platforms can be useful (I use Instagram and Facebook) but Twitter is my go to.

Consider Content Mills, at least in the early days.

I initially resisted these because I thought I could earn more elsewhere – I was wrong. I dip into Copify now and again, even though most of the jobs are dull and very poorly paid. If they don’t pay more then £5 for 300 words I don’t take the job and I usually only accept those over £6. You might find yourself writing a press release or a blog post for a double glazing company, but if it takes you more than an hour to write, you’re probably wasting your time.

Sign up with People Per Hour.

PPH requires you to bid for contracts but you can also post an Hourlie, essentially and advert telling potential clients exactly what you can offer so that they can contact you directly. Hourlies have to be very generic; I tried posting one where I offer a very specific blog post (education, psychology and parenting) but I was told I couldn’t specify a topic. In the end, I simply offer a 300-word blog post for £x.

Expect to work long hours for very little money.

I think this was mu biggest surprise. I can easy send 100 pitches a week and receive nothing back; I worked twelve hour days, seven days a week and failed to earn anything at all. I spent 2016 writing two books and, apart from a small advance, I won’t see any earnings from them until late 2017.

Be cautious of freelancers who tell they are making six figure salaries.

Most of them don’t and those who do earn most of the money from affiliate programs and running courses. For every J.K. Rowling there are thousands of us on less than minimum wage.

Don’t give up.

It’s easier to walk away and get back to the 9 to 5, but much less rewarding. I have much less security now than when I was a teacher and from a financial point of view I can rarely see beyond the next couple of months.

It’s certainly a struggle to go it alone and even with the huge number of websites, blogs and other outlets available, finding writing gigs takes time and effort. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and suspect I’ll make plenty more. I’ll let you know so that you can hopefully avoid them.