The Biggest Freelance Writing Niche Nearly All Writers Ignore

A freelance writer discovers a huge marketHave you ever wished you could land a really big freelance writing client? Well, as it happens, there is a truly enormous user of freelancers out there.

It’s a client most freelance writers never even think about pitching.

This client generates reams of written materials every year, on dozens of different topics.

Who is this giant client? It’s government. The U.S. federal government most of all, but state, county, city, and other local governments, too.

Wherever you live, there is government, unless it’s on the moon or Antarctica or something. This is a global opportunity — and the topics range including the environment, agriculture, physical and mental health, technology, weaponry, and computer security.

To many freelancers, the idea of trying to bid on government contracts is intimidating. But the size of this market makes it worth learning how it’s done.

Forget the Fortune 500 — think of the U.S.A. as the Fortune 1.

A recent New York Times analysis of federal contracting found the value of federal contracts offered in the last fiscal year fell to only $460 billion. Boo hoo! Still the most ginormous client for freelancers on the planet.

Government contracts have many advantages. They tend to be big and often cover many months. A fat government contract can be your ticket to months or even years of financial security as a freelancer.

Yet most writers don’t go near this niche. There are three reasons why most freelancers don’t consider government work:

1. The mystery of getting gigs

Baffled as to how to freelance for the Feds? Here’s how it works: When governments want to hire non-employees to do work for them, they define a project and create a contract for it. The agency then announces the contract and a timeframe in which freelancers or business owners can bid, describing the project and its deadline.

Laws require that contracts be competitively bid to save the taxpayers money and avoid corruption. As a result, often the winner will be offering the lowest price, but qualifications also figure into decisions. The government reviews the bids, selects a winner, and awards the contract work to that applicant.

There! Now you know.

2. Red tape phobia

As with all things government, getting hired as a freelancer requires you to go through a process. I won’t lie — it’s a fairly involved process in which you fill out a bunch of forms so you can become a registered government contractor. That makes you qualified to bid on government contracts.

You can learn to do this process — it is not rocket science, folks. About.com freelance writing expert Allena Tapia created a handy guide to becoming a federal contractor that walks you through the steps. She wrote it after she went through the process herself.

When it comes to state and local government, call their department of business development, enterprise services, or similar office, and ask how you register to bid. The process will be similar to registering for federal contracts. If you’ve ever worked in local government, your best starting point is to ask around in departments where you previously worked.

Access to information is usually easy — I see my state puts out a biweekly bulletin with info on their contracts.

Now we’ve solved this one as well.

3. Sheer terror

You may feel out of your league here — after all, it’s just little old you vs the Department of Defense or Ecology or National Institutes of Health!

But here’s the thing: These federal agencies hire writers. If you have an interest and experience in a topic that an agency focuses on, it might as well be you.

If you are a former government worker, you have a natural “in” with your knowledge of how bureaucracy works.

Are you a former military member, or soon to be transitioning out? Atten-hut!

DOD is one of the biggest contractors of all the agencies, and that goes for all the other military-related agencies, too. You know the lingo, so you’d be a natural for these gigs. Prior public service is a strong factor in your favor applying for government gigs.

At one point I got on a list to see local opportunities at military bases in my region, and I can tell you there was a steady stream of communications work going up for bid.

Improving your odds

If your knees are knocking, consider an approach that will allow you to skip the qualifying process: Find out who in your area is getting government work, and hook up with them. They will have already qualified to bid on contracts. Be their subcontractor, and you can let them take care of the paperwork and worrying about how much to bid.

Think it would be hard to suss out who’s getting the contracts? Actually, the Internets have solved this with sites such as FedBizOpps.gov, which show upcoming and completed contracts.

You can check out winners of recent contracts online to get a list of prospects. Likely, there are advertising/marketing agencies snapping up some of that work near you.

I know more than one writer who’s made buttloads subbing for a marketing firm that does work for one of the federal agencies.

You might also consider becoming a virtual agency for bidding purposes, by banding together with a few other writers you know to bid as a group for a large contract.

My contracting story

As it happens, I have had one government client. It was a great experience and I’d happily do it again.

If you think all government contracts get tons of bids and you’d never get the contract, let me disabuse you.

Same if you think you need a lot of knowledge of their particular topic, or previous government experience.

I had none of the above when I was approached by a regional transit agency that hadn’t been able to interest anyone in rewriting their annual reports. They wanted outside eyes and a more conversational writing style, which their in-house team couldn’t seem to deliver.

They begged me to find a few more writers to bid against me, so they would have a competitive process and fulfill their requirements.

Why did they want me? They were familiar with my experience writing for the local business journal, and just wanted a clear communicator who understood how an organization operates. That’s it.

Their main focus: They needed two 200-page annual reports translated into English from the transit-ese jargon they usually speak.

(Many states have mandates now that everything they issue must be written in plain English, not inscrutable government-speak. Can you say “golden opportunity for freelancers”?)

The transit agency held my hand and walked me through every page of their application. I think the other writers I sent them mostly declined to bid — too busy.

I ran my bid amount by several writer friends, who thought I was too low. I came up to $13,000, which they quickly accepted.

Due to their short deadline, I subbed out half the work to another business writer. We did one day on site at the agency’s headquarters in our century-old, beautifully restored downtown train station, and then went home to do followup phone interviews and writing. Did one round of revisions, the end. We worked maybe six weeks on the whole project.

To sum up, if checking the usual online job ads hasn’t paid off for you, consider hitting the government opportunity websites. They could open the door to a whole different arena of good-paying writing gigs.

Ever worked on a government contract? Leave a comment and tell us how you got in the door.

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38 comments on “The Biggest Freelance Writing Niche Nearly All Writers Ignore
  1. Bill Dougherty says:

    I’m bilingual in English/French, 80 years old but in good shape (mind included) and long experience in using and teaching both languages. I would like to find paid activity in which I could use either language. Any suggestions?

  2. Paolo says:

    You’re so right! This is one opportunity I never thought of. Speaking of background related experience, what would definitely help me here is I currently work for the local government as a project coordinator for almost 13 years where public service is mandatory. The only thing that dissuades me is many and most references in this article point to American government agencies. I am based here in Canada, so I figure my chances of landing any freelance work with the American government are pretty slim (please disabuse me here as mentioned in your article and prove me wrong). Otherwise I could start looking around for federal agencies up here.
    Thank-you this is helpful advice.

  3. Hi Carol:

    I started my writing career working in government, so I’m a big fan. One of the benefits of working with a government agency is government agencies tend to have wide depth, touching a variety of issues, so the work can be quite interesting. Later, after I’d left working full time in government, I did do some contract writing work on a more local level (on the county level). That work was quite enjoyable because it was on a cutting-edge alternative energy issue, so I really enjoyed it.

    You are right that government is a huge untapped market for freelancers.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi John — I just found this in the spam, so sorry about that!

      And thanks for spotlighting how varied and interesting the work can be…I think people don’t realize all the topics government agencies take on. You think, “I hate bureaucracy (or government)”…but you could be writing about alternative energy, creative land management, groundbreaking drug treatments or health breakthroughs, fascinating scientific advances…lotsa cool stuff.

  4. Razwana says:

    Carol – your advice on writing for the government applies across the pond too. Red tape, weird requirements, no imagination … all this can apply to the UK government too ! Now, to see if they would entertain copywriters ….

  5. EG Moore says:

    This article has me uber excited! I just applied for a DUN and am looking forward to getting some gov’t work! Thanks!

  6. Emelia says:

    Thanks for the advice Carol. A friend of mine (who is not even a writer) advised me to submit my business details to government database here in South Africa so that I can bid for (content creation) tenders. The process is a bit long because you have to submit tax clearance certificates, business profile and complete a lot forms. I am still in the process of fixing my business documentations so that i can start submitting my details to government departments. If it can work for other businesses who have already started, i believe it can work for anyone. I just don’t understand why i didn’t think of this sooner. I guess that’s why blogs like yours are needful. Thanks for always provoking us!

    • Carol Tice says:

      You’re right Emelia, the process usually is pretty involved. Which means most writers won’t bother to go through it, and the pool of writers who can bid on the government work is much smaller. 😉

  7. Tom Crawford says:

    I think this is a great strategy, Carol. Do you know if opportunities to write for the U.S. government are open to writers outside America? I will check myself, but wondered if you had a quick answer. Many thanks

  8. Carol — Great post. I write about government procurement, but never bid on any gov’t contracts. Talk about not practicing what I’ve been preaching! Thanks for being an awesome resource, teacher and mentor for freelance writers.

  9. Love this idea! Like others, I’ve thought about it but never followed through.

    From 1991-95, I worked in the GPO Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. All the bookstores closed in 2003 except the one in DC. Even back then, I thought about writing for the GPO. Their books include guidebooks used by the National Parks services, the most current ADA info, native histories and so much more, as well as the more “boring” things that most of us think of. Alas, I didn’t follow up the impulse. (Imagine where I’d be if I had!)

    I’m definitely going to look into this now – especially since I can look into more than the GPO! (Just an FYI: The Gov’ts buyable books are now online and the free/low-cost site in Pueblo, CO still exists.)

  10. Brilliant idea. I’m in. I’ve considered this before but never saw it through. We freelancers definitely meet the small biz definition, and some of us are woman-owned. Veteran-owned gets even more preference. I might have to ask my dad to become my business partner!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Yeah — right on, I didn’t even get into qualifying as a woman-owned business, which can help you get in as agencies have quotas to fill of minority/women/veteran owned businesses.

  11. Mayre Press says:

    Worked as a freelancer for my local municipality in the late 1980s. Did a 12-year stint as a full-time employee for the city and lost my job in 2009. Was unsuccessful in getting freelance assignments (they’d rather use interns from the local university). However, my alderman was impressed with my writing skills and hired me in 2012 to be her communications manager. It translates to about 20-30 hours per month, but it’s a steady gig that supplements my part-time income as a synagogue administrator. Here’s the Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/9thWardEvanston. Reach out to local politicians and see if they need help. In many communities, serving as an alderman or village trustee is a part-time job (in addition to their full-time work) and the elected official is swamped. They need help communicating with their constituents. Go for it!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Mayre — just found this, your link made your comment go in spam.

      But wanted to show it to folks. Thanks for spotlighting yet another angle on government-related writing opportunities!

  12. Sorilbran says:

    What a fantastic idea! You know, I’ve half-thought about this market once or twice. When I did, I was so new to freelancing, I didn’t even know what services I could legitimately offer. Fast forward four years and I am ready! And in a market like Atlanta, where I hang my hat, there have to be tons of profitable, INTERESTING (isn’t that the one that always gets left out?) opportunities available for a gal like me.

    Thank you.

  13. Thanks for the tip, Carol. You even gave us the link to the about.com guide, so there’s no excuse not to check it out.

  14. I’ve thought about this but most of the contract positions I’ve come across require you to be a US citizen (which I am not). I may have to look deeper at possible local and state positions, though.

  15. Amel says:

    One of the best gigs I ever scored was for a government agency, but the job came through a sub-contractor. You mentioned sub-contracting several times in your post, and in my experience many government projects are big enough to require a team to handle them. I think we had at least 8 people working on our particular project, if not more. For this reason, I think it might be common for big marketing firms and agencies to win the bids and then sub-contract the work out to freelancers. The volume of work might be way too much for one person to handle alone. I have not really explored whether there are many opportunities out there for freelancers who work on their own, but your transit agency experience shows that it is definitely worth looking into.

  16. Thanks for the great — and complete — information. Just like the other people commenting, I wouldn’t have thought of it or known how to do it.
    Diane

  17. Great information for USA freelance writers – do you have a link for Canadians?
    Thanks

    • Carol Tice says:

      Have to say I don’t, but I’m betting there are similar websites and federal contracting opportunities in nearly every country!

      Every government is looking at ways to save money, and hiring contractors instead of employees who get those fat federal benefits is a big way they can save. Obama gave every agency mandates to contract and outsource more when he came in, and they all have targets they have to reach…I think given the global struggling economy, many governments are likely thinking along the same lines.

      If your province or national level is a bust, try city, county, or other local/regional units of government.

      • Thanks Carol. I did find one site but there was one post on it…
        I will keep trying as freelancing is my goal
        Thank you
        Mandy

        • Carol Tice says:

          Did you check out FedBizOpps? That’s the big federal one. I also just saw an email the other day from AmericaJob.com – I signed up with them one time and have a saved search there, so they send me listings — just sent me a half-dozen.

  18. Marcie says:

    I’ve thought about it but ditched the thought since my city and state are very political. In my mind, you have to be related to or know someone in order to move through the process. However, I will think bigger by going to the federal government. Thanks for opening my eyes to yet another overlooked opportunity.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think the contracting side is less politically tainted than the full-time jobs side — so don’t count your local government out. There are a lot of rules that govern how contracts are assigned to prevent graft and insider dealings — I think they’re more constrained in this area than in full-time hiring.

      And remember there are plenty of agencies that aren’t all that political anyway. I worked for transit. For example. It sort of rolls along no matter which party is in power.

  19. Rohi Shetty says:

    Thanks, Carol, great example!

    I’ll check out the government websites here.

    As usual, brilliant title.

    I dropped everything else to check out this mystery niche.

  20. BrendaS says:

    I’m new to your list and motivated to take a stab at doing this on my own.

    As it happens, I freelanced for a small business government contractor for about a year. It was all on the job training, but with the help of an outside mentor I learned quite a lot about the bidding process and how to decipher government-speak.

    My job, by the way, started as a proposal editor (really, translating tired language into more reader friendly work). They kept giving me better titles and more responsibilities but no more pay. LOL, I stopped being impressed with titles back in the 80’s!

    If you’re a technical writer there’s no shortage of proposal writing work in my area (DC). FedBizOpps is a great site but I never thought looking at recently awarded contracts for prospects.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    Cheers

    • Carol Tice says:

      My pleasure!

      I think anyone who has experience either as a staffer or previously contracting for government who needs more income is crazy not to at least get qualified to bid and start cruising the listings. Takes like 5 minutes a day to scan those at most.

      I think government rates aren’t the highest out there — I think I was at $60 an hour for my contract, vs my usual $95 or more — but it’s often a big block of work, which to me can make it worthwhile. Less marketing you have to do.

      Hope you have success looking at government — sounds like you’re well-positioned for it with your past experience.

  21. Fantastic post. I had never even thought out the government. And if I had I would have been too intimidated. But now, I’m going to give it a shot. Thank you!