“You’re a freelance writer, that’s amazing!!”
I hear this a lot but there came a point in 2012, after a year of being a freelance writer for various online websites, all I could muster was a disenchanted shrug.
I’d quit law, travelled the world and decided to try my hand at a new career – freelance writing. I was knocked out by the fact I found work writing for sites online so quickly and in a matter of months had managed to generate enough to live on (in Mexico, at least). So, why wasn’t I waking up with the world’s biggest smile on my face?
Here are 12 reasons freelance writing online may not be the dream job you’d hoped for.
1. Online writing is usually a high-volume, low-pay game
It’s a statistical fact that there are many more opportunities to get published online than in print – travel magazines usually sell only 12 issues a year and newspapers have ever decreasing budgets. Meanwhile millions of pieces of fresh content hit the internet in the same period. Consequently, it is the obvious first step for wannabe freelance writers.
The problem is that writing for the web is most commonly a volume game. With low rates per article, it becomes necessary to churn out several or more articles a day to make the money add up. This presents an issue given there are only 24 hours in a day.
When time is limited and the rate per article is set, the only factor you can alter is your speed…which will inevitably have a direct impact on quality. After only a few months of writing for sites online, I found find myself awake at 3a.m. throwing words at the keyboard without concern just to meet my quota. Unhappy days.
2. Filling the internet with ‘noise’
If I were to hazard a guess I’d say there is more ‘noise’ (irrelevant content) on the web than there is good, quality stuff. This is starting to bother me more and more. Not just because of the time it takes to sift the wheat from the chaff but the potential environmental factors – I recently read a theory that in time we will have so many servers around the world powering away to feed the internet with content that it will have the equivalent environmental impact as running a coal-power station. I don’t know how true that is but the concept is scary stuff. But what scared me more is the fact that as a low-paid online freelance writer, I contributed to that noise.
Most people who will commission new writers to produce content have one purpose in mind – getting traffic to their site and the more fresh content they have, the more potential traffic they gain. This usually means that content quality takes a back seat over volume and ticking the SEO box…
3. SEO: the grim reaper of talent
I hadn’t heard of SEO until I started freelance writing online. It means Search Engine Optimization, if you didn’t know. In practice, that means squeezing pre-selected keywords into your article with a certain density. For example, I once wrote an article about visiting Windsor with the task of getting the keyword ‘Hotel in London’ into the article at 3% density. So, over a 500-word article my allocated keyword had to appear 15 times. An interesting challenge given Windsor is not in London. I did it, but I’m sure you can imagine how badly that article read.
It’s one thing to have another student challenge you to get the words ‘tuxedo’ and ‘carrot’ into your contract law exam paper for fun. It’s quite another to write for SEO. Sure, some level of creativity is required, but it wasn’t the kind of writing creativity I wanted to hone.
4. Article spinning is no better
Article spinning was another new concept I stumbled across, but stumbled across only once.
Feeding directly off the back of the desire for a volume of content, many companies don’t even require an article to be fresh, they just want an old article re-written. That might be fine in theory, but the purpose of article spinning is to make the writing even quicker than writing from scratch so that you churn even more noise out each day. The pay is also a fraction of the already low rates of SEO and generic blog writing.
As well as the downsides of low pay, low quality and no creativity, the spinning game is another game of numbers. Having successfully ‘spun’ i.e. re-written an article, it was sent back to me as unsatisfactory. How, I asked? I’d re-written (i.e. re-ordered) every word. My client had plugged my finished content into a copychecker and determined that there was a string of 7 words that were identical. The computer software had failed my article! With my head in my hands I explained that our relationship would not work. Those 7 words were the name of a published book that was quoted as a source. They couldn’t be changed and if my client couldn’t see that (because he wasn’t checking with his own eyes, just software), I wasn’t prepared to carry on down that ridiculous writing road.
5. You have little control over what you write
The thing I love about writing for my blog is that I get to decide the content. Even writing for newspapers and magazines I pitch ideas that are of interest to me. That is rarely the case with online freelance writing. Yes, I did (and still do) write for clients who want pitches rather than to supplying you with a brief to fulfil, but many clients already have the content ideas they want you to write. I hate skiing so a series of articles on the best resorts around the world was about as much fun for me as birthing a cow (not that I’ve ever done the latter), and not least because I’d never been to most of the resorts….which brings me on to my next point…
6. Writing about places you’ve never been
“What? How can you?” I know. It was a surprise to me, too, that people will accept an article from a person about a place they have never visited, but it happens. A lot. Let’s be clear – I’ve never pretended to my clients I have visited these places and I never wrote those articles in the first person as though I’d been there, but the fundamental idea is wrong. I’ve visited over 51 countries, surely there is enough content in there that I should be able to write about places I’ve been? But more importantly, as a traveller, if I’m researching a location online, I want to read about it from people who have been and can give me the low-down, not the highlights summarised in 30 seconds from Wikitravel. I did it, I’m ashamed of it and I pledge not to do it again.
7. Unanticipated research time
If you haven’t chosen the content (i.e. you’re writing to a brief) and haven’t visited the place, that spells one thing – research. This is perhaps the biggest differentiator between me and people who are able to churn out dozens of articles per day. If I haven’t visited a place, I would do enough research to understand the finer details I might have caught if I had been. The problem is that research takes time and in the high volume, low pay game, time is definitely money, or lack thereof.
8. Volunteer, intern, chance to promote your blog, share of the profits = UNPAID
I receive invitations to write for free everyday. Flattering as that may be, it doesn’t pay my bills or even contribute towards a thali in India. The sad fact is that many start-out writers will work for nothing in order to get work published. I know, I have done it and my advice to any newbie writer is – don’t.
The worse fact is that many exploitative websites expect it – I’m looking at you, Huffington Post, dress it up how you like.
Many people assume that once they have proven themselves, the non-paying client will offer them paid work. That rarely happens. Said client will just pick the next victim off the never ending ‘I’ll write for free to get established” pile. The scales seem to be tipping one way – more unpaid opportunities than paid. And when people stop getting paid, they stop making an effort and start contributing to….yep, the noise on the web.
9. Ghost writing – seeing your words shining under someone else’s name
Ghost writing is, in my view, as bad if not worse than unpaid writing. As a new freelance writer, building a portfolio is crucial and unless you have your name on an article, the piece is as good as useless to you. Yet, many clients don’t want your name on the bill. This is often because they are outsourcing their work when they have too much – out of all my writing experience, the most gutting moments were those when I saw a piece I spent time crafting published under someone else’s name (yes, I knew in advance, but it didn’t sting any less).
10. Not building a portfolio of pride
Having a portfolio of articles provides a firm springboard for getting more work. The problem was that as my volume increased and my quality dropped, so did my inclination to publish my articles on my portfolio website. I had become ashamed of my work, which is never a happy place to be. In all honesty, there were times when I was hoping a piece would be ghost written so it didn’t have my name attached to it.
11. Full days writing online means no pitch time
It takes time to write a good pitch to a magazine or newspaper and even longer to find a publication that might be interested in your story, isn’t syndicated, has a travel section and budget to pay you. As days and months went by, my online freelance writing rocketed in hours and my once-priority of pitching to quality publications dropped further and further down my to-do list as I churned out noise to hit deadlines to gather pay. There was no doubt, I was losing my way…
12. Being a freelance writer online was as far away from my dream travel writing job as it could be
I would imagine that very few wannabe travel writers dream of having their content published on an obscure site online, sandwiched between an article on pottery and how to deal with a verruca. Most hope for the glossy mags, the Sunday supplements or even the local paper.
Caught up in the deadline game, trading low bucks for low quality (I pretended to write, they pretended to pay me), I had become caught up in a job that, although could technically be described as travel writing, was probably as far from what I wanted as it could be. I think I would have preferred to birth cows – and I only have short arms.
Making the change – in hindsight a very lucky break
My enthusiasm for online freelance writing online towards the end of last year and instead of cranking up the efforts to gain more work and money, I started to coast. Living in Mexico, I had enough writing income each month and I’d gotten quicker at writing so I was able to introduce the balance of some beach time. But I was going nowhere, not really.
And then I got a lucky break.
Reaching out, I made a contact at one of the largest publishers in the US and was asked to pitch a proposal for a non-fiction travel book. Nothing came from that opportunity, at least not directly.
Indirectly I had put my online freelance travel writing on hold to focus on the book proposal and in doing so had I broken the content creation cycle. Popping my head above the screen of my keyboard after I’d submitted my book proposal and looking back over my client list to reignite my online work I had a moment of clarity. There were very few clients on my list I enjoyed writing for or produced content I was proud of (this is not to be confused with not liking my clients – they were mainly very nice people).
Time for a fresh challenge
And so I set myself a new challenge, the one I should have set in the first place – to see if I can make it as a travel writer for print publications.
That challenge continues…
I’ll end this post with one of the quotes I try to recall whenever I attempt something new:
Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
If you have any freelance writing tips or have had a similar experience, I’d love to hear from you.