Ten years ago, I was stuck in a 9-to-5 office job at a large public relations firm. The pay was decent but not great, the work was plentiful but not interesting, and the hours were manageable but not flexible. After talking to a couple of friends who had successful freelance writing careers, I became determined to take that route myself. Today, I work half the hours I did in my old job, make twice the money, and get to focus on projects I love. Better yet, I can work anywhere there is Internet and a place to prop up my laptop: at my son’s soccer game, on a cruise ship in the Bahamas, or on the beach in La Jolla. A freelance writing career has given me the financial, personal, and creative freedom I had long dreamed of, but never thought possible.

If you have a way with the written word and want to be your own boss, a freelance writing career may be for you too. However, before you quit your office job or invest in that new word processing software, you should ask yourself these four questions to decide if you are ready to start a freelance writing career.

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Are my writing skills developed enough for a freelance writing career?

Because a freelance writing career offers so much in terms of flexibility and pay, there are many talented writers already in the market. Read the posts on popular blogs, special interest news sites, or even business web pages. You will see crisp, clear, and concise prose on every page. Now look at your own work with an objective eye. How does it compare? Ask a trusted friend the same question. If either of you have any doubts about the quality of your writing, sign up for an online or local writing class. Practice and read until you are certain you can compete with the other freelance writers before setting out on your own.

Do I have a viable business plan?

A freelance writing career may be the ticket to better income and more job satisfaction, but it is in the end a business. And that means, before you get started, you need a business plan – one that includes a realistic assessment of how much money you need to live (including expenditures like health insurance and retirement savings), what markets you will target, what capitol investment you need to make to get started (things like Internet connection, a decent website, computer equipment), what prices you will charge, and how you will advertise your services. The small town in which I live has a nonprofit development association that offers free classes for small businesspeople in everything from using Photoshop to multi-year tax planning. A friend of mine swears by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s SCORE program, which pairs retired successful businesspeople with small business start-ups. SCORE also offers classes in many locations and online training, all free of charge.

To whom am I going sell?

Most people I know with successful freelance writing careers have a few major clients on whom they rely for the bulk of their business and a bevy of other sources (including online freelance writing job sites) that they use to fill in the dead time between big jobs. Before you give up a steady job (and the income and benefits that go with it), you should identify from where the bulk of your freelance writing income will come. Look at your contacts from your current job (or neighborhood), ask friends for recommendations, look on Craigslist or one of the other freelance writing online classified webpages (Constant Content, Elance, iWriter) for ideas. I know many freelance writers who have found their best clients in the most unlikely places, often close to home. One made a freelance writing career of penning personal speeches (for retirements, service club appearances, etc.) for successful businesspeople after helping her neighbor (a nervous father of the groom) with a wedding toast. Another makes a six-figure annual income writing and editing university fundraising appeals after doing the same work pro bono for her alma mater.

Do I have examples of my work ready to go?

It is difficult to get freelance writing jobs without some examples of your work to show clients. If you blog and want to use those pieces, make sure your posts are letter perfect and the topics and tone are similar to what your potential customers want. If you, like me, work in a job that involves writing, save examples of your work product to show clients. If you don’t have any of this sort of experience, then draft up an example of the type of work you want to do as a freelance writer. For example, I landed a client who wanted me to pen letters to the editor about a change in the tax law his company opposed. I got the job by taking an example of a letter the company had published in a small town paper, editing it to make it stronger and clearer, and giving it free of charge to my potential client (my version was picked up a few weeks later in a major national paper). Not only did they hire me to write more such letters, they asked me to rewrite sections of their annual report and several advertising brochures.

The best decision I ever made was to embark on a freelance writing career. I have a good income, great hours, interesting work, and a workplace situated wherever I want. I believe anyone with decent writing skills and some entrepreneurial spirit can have the same. However, like with any major change in employment or business start-up, beginning a freelance writing career requires some care – to make sure that skills are up-to-date, that a business plan is in place, that clients are identified, and that a decent portfolio of writing samples is available. Once you do all that, you’ll be well on your way to a successful and fulfilling career freelancing.