Although many aspire to write full-time, very few actually make the leap. It is a terrible risk to quit your day job and try to make a living with your writing alone. It takes a lot of prior planning. Here are five ways you can do it without going broke.

When I wake up in the morning, I put on a pot of coffee and turn on some music. I don’t worry about the commute because I don’t have one. I open up my window to get some fresh air, turn on my computer and punch the clock. I’m a full-time freelance writer, and you can be one too.

When I received this assignment from Yahoo, I didn’t know where to start. After all, I was not always a professional writer. For the first 35 years of my life I wasn’t paid a dime for my writing and never saw it in print outside of the school newspaper. Instead, I spent 12 years in the military and worked for The Department of Homeland Security. I spent my entire adult life doing dirty jobs I didn’t like doing in order to combat terrorism. It wasn’t until 2012, when I got a belated college degree, that I stopped and asked myself what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

The answer was obvious. I wanted to be a writer, and that is all that I ever wanted to be. I resolved to do it with the same determination that had helped me survive two wars. I made some mistakes and stumbled along the way, but if you follow the five steps that I have laid out for new freelancers you should be able to make the transition to full-time freelancing much easier than I did.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Although this may seem like antithetical advice, it is important that in your first few months of freelance writing that you maintain full-time employment. This is important because your finances are the last thing that you want to worry about while you are establishing yourself. This is the first and hardest step, and the one most writers do not make it through. During these first few months, prepare to work long hours and kiss entertainment goodbye. While other people are watching prime-time television or going to happy hour, you are going to have to be in front of the keyboard. Writing is your second job now, and you have to be a harsh boss. If you work a 9-5 job, you better be at your desk writing between 6-12 pm.

There are three essential things that you will have to do in these first few months, because you will be faking it until you make it.

Write, Write, Write: No matter what kind of writing you plan to do, produce writing samples based on it. If you want to be a copywriter, find a poorly written piece and rewrite it. If you want to be a fiction writer, write fiction samples. As an unknown writer without credentials you will often be asked for samples of your work. This period of time is when you should generate and polish these samples.

Establish a Social Media Presence: You may have an existing Facebook page or a Twitter feed, but you need to create new accounts just for your writing persona. Yes, that’s right. You are going to create an entirely new person who just coincidentally has your name. Professional, attractive photos are going to be a must and you need to have a Linkedin profile that has the job title “Freelance Writer” or “Independent Writing and Editing Professional.”

Earn Your First Dollar: This may sound like the simplest thing, but you need to earn that first dollar from your writing. I framed mine and hung it above my writing desk so that I can look at it every day. You need that first dollar in order to build your confidence. An easy place to find this first dollar is Crowd-sourcing sites, which always need a high volume of low-quality material. Getting that first sale will be insignificant later, but it will be essential now.

Build Your Online Credibility

This article that you are reading was originally submitted to Yahoo’s Contributor Network, and I was paid for it. This may put you in awe if you have never had anything published, but don’t be too impressed. You can do it too. Although YCN is a thing of the past, many other online outlets see the value of creating platforms where writers can submit their writing and get paid based on the viewership they generate. Writing for these platforms is your first step into the world of writing for private clients. This is where the money is, and where you want to eventually be.

Here are three of the top ways to make the most of pay-per-click sites:

Write in Your Niche: If you want to do a particular kind of writing, focus solely on that. If you want to be a science fiction writer, write articles about science fact or speculative futurism. If you establish specialization and authority on a subject you will multiply your marketability.

Promote Your Writing: This is why it was so important to take a few months to build your social media presence. You need to promote every article that you write on every social service you can find. It needs to be out there with your name on it. Not only will it get you better residual income from the site but when people type your name into a search engine these articles will pop up before your embarrassing college pictures do.

Build an Online Portfolio: Once you have a body of work, you can collate them into an online portfolio that you can present to your clients. Several online services offer these, but Contently is free and presents a very attractive portfolio. In addition, they occasionally hire from this pool of talent.

Get Your First Client

Stop writing for free. You will meet no end of people who will lure you to write for them with promises of exposure, but by now you have exposed yourself enough. Now is the time to get paid real money so you can give your boss notice the same way I did. There are several ways to get your first paying client, but be aware that at first you may not be getting paid much. What is important is that you get a project, do it well and deliver it on time. You alone have the power to determine your rates, and if you please your clients you may be able to ask for higher rates over time.

If you do not know where to start, here are three great sources you can leverage to find your first clients:

Internet Content Mills: Many will warn you away from these, citing their low pay and bad reputation. Fortunately, your reputation is not at stake because all writing you choose to do for the mills will be all but anonymous. Mills have value because establishing yourself with them can give you a source of income when you are between clients or projects. What’s more, many platforms such as Interact Media and Textbroker permit you to set your own rates for direct orders, allowing clients that are impressed with the quality of your work to reorder for a rate that you can both agree on.

Job Bid Sites: These sites include such platforms as Elance, Odesk, Freelancer, and PeoplePerhour and they will be the backbone of your business as you are starting out. Your success or failure on these sites will depend upon your ability to market yourself better than the competition. Trust me, there is plenty of competition. If you had success in building your body of work and your online portfolio you will be primed to catch your first real paying client on these sites. Remember not to bid too low, but rather stay somewhere in the mid-range of their budget. Although these sites favor low bidders, you only want the clients that do not race to the bottom in both price and quality.

Personal Networking: This is where your social networking and Linkedin profile will bear fruit. The most lucrative clients you will find will be people that you know personally or professionally. Find websites in your area of interest, and if they seem to have weak content send them a query letter and offer your services. If you think that you can do better, you probably can. There is a huge demand for written content on the internet, and if you can build a relationship with a website with a constant need for relevant content you will soon find a constant stream of work.

Target Publishers

This is usually the first step any aspiring writer takes, and usually the place where their dream dies. This is only because they put the cart before the horse. However, by this time you are no longer an aspiring writer. You are running a fully functioning writing business. You have your work published and earning residual income. You have an internet presence that may include your own author webpage. You have a list of paying clients that you are regularly writing for to pay your bills. This is the time to start writing those query letters to publishers and making connections with editors. If you start getting rejection letters, you can start pinning them up next to your framed first dollar for motivation.

You can find a wealth of potential publishers in periodicals such as Writers Market. Here are three things you will want to emphasize in your query:

You are an authority in your field: You don’t need a PhD to be an authority. If you want to be a science fiction writer, your exploration of science in your articles puts your best face forward as somebody who knows what they are talking about.

You are previously published: Even if it is only online, it still counts. Drop the names of the online publications that you have worked for. If you have an impressive client that you are proud to have worked for, don’t hesitate to name them.

You are marketable and will make them money: Know the potential profitability of your work and don’t be shy about acknowledging it. If you want to write Young Adult Romance and know that it is selling big, compare your story to the big sellers. The success of your pitch may have nothing to do with any kind of magic quality in your work and more to do with cold, hard, dollars and cents.

Don’t Hesitate To Self-Publish

If you do not have immediate success with potential publishers, realize that they are not the only option. There is no reason for you to waste away like a scorned maiden in a Greek myth, buried in rejection letters. Self-publishing is a huge business where opportunity abounds. Amazon has tilted the field in the favor of the author both with the Kindle and their Kindle Direct Publishing platform. They also have other options to publish in print, such as CreateSpace. You will find the internet full of self-publishing options and never need fear the rejection letter ever again.

Here are three ways to be more successful in self-publishing:

Know Your Audience: Know your audience and where they hangout online. You will need to do all your own marketing, so it is incumbent upon you to know where you can find people who will want to read your work. Talk to them on their social media and message boards the way that you would to a friend, and soon enough they will be excited about what you are writing.

Market Prior To Release: You will want to build a sense of anticipation in your audience. Sneak peeks of covers or other sharable visual content is the best way to get the name of your upcoming work out there. You want to make your release date a big event, even if it is a work you completed years ago.

Start a Kickstarter Campaign: Effectively marketing can get expensive. While you are priming your audience for your book, start a campaign on Kickstarter to offset your marketing costs. This does two things: earning you money to market your work and an opportunity to give away promotional materials to a willing and engaged audience.

These five tips will serve you better than a library full of “how to be a writer” books. The most important part of your journey to be a full-time freelance writer is to have faith in yourself. The money will not come fast and the money will not come easy, but stick to the plan and you too can make a living as a freelance writer.

Originally published on Yahoo! Voices 2/28/2014