The purpose of this blog post is three-fold. For starters, I get a lot of people who ask about what I do for a living. When I tell them I’m a freelance writer, they assume I’m a journalist or poet or something (not that I can get mad about that, really; the title of “writer” is enormously vague as it is). So a big part of this post is to kind of explain what I actually do. Because there’s a lot of people who do what I do and I think a lot of us share the same struggle to establish a professional identity.
Another reason I’m writing this is so I can use it as a reference down the road. Often times, when I do explain in detail what I do for a living, people seem to want to know how they, too, can become a freelance writer. “I could totally do that,” they’ll say. And then I’ll spend half my day walking them through how to get started, only to ask them how it’s going a few weeks later and find that they never followed through with any of my advice. To save time, then, I’ll probably use this post as an opportunity to explain the process that I followed to get where I am now so I have something to refer to down the road.
Finally, I hope this post will provide me with an outlet for the reflection I need on my own career. I realized today that, although I’ve been doing this for going on four years, I’ve rarely taken the time to look back on the progress I’ve made and the process I’ve followed. I think these things are worth examining as I look forward.
How I Stumbled Into Writing as a Career
Flashback to October of 2010: I was finishing up my last season working for Cedar Point and starting my junior year of college at EMU. I was working about 60 hours a week–30-ish at my retail job in Ann Arbor and another 30-ish at Cedar Point on the weekends. Both jobs paid about minimum wage (actually, Cedar Point paid less than minimum wage at the time, and my retail job paid a few cents above minimum wage, so I guess it averaged out).
As soon as the Cedar Point season ended, I found myself with more free time than I knew what to do with. My boyfriend at the time was working a lot of evening shifts at his retail job, so I got bored and started using some of my free time researching ways to make extra money online.
The first website I ever made money with online was Amazon Mechanical Turk (Mturk). I completed random and tedious (but pretty easy) tasks, such as transcribing audio and categorizing images for a few cents per job.
One day, I decided to take on some jobs for a client who wanted articles written on obscure medical conditions. These articles required a great deal of research, but I completed them and was ecstatic at the end of the day when I realized I was averaging $8 an hour completing those assignments. That was $0.35 more per hour than I was making at my retail job! I thought to myself, “how amazing would it be if I could do this kind of work full-time?” Keep in mind that $8 an hour was a lot of money to me as a college student–especially considering the possibility of making that kind of money working from home.
By the beginning of 2011, I was making the majority of my money on Mturk, but I was afraid to quit my stable job in retail because all the freelance work I was doing was for one client. If that client disappeared, I’d have no source of income. I explained the situation to my retail manager and we agreed that I’d stay on the schedule to work one day a week. This way, I could focus on my freelancing without having to give up the security of my “real” job.
By April of 2011, I gained enough confidence in my abilities as a freelancer to quit my retail job completely. By this point, I’d gone from making about $8 an hour to just over $30 an hour.
But I was still writing for just that one client. So when that client suddenly stopped posting work a year later in April of 2012, I learned what’s probably the most important lesson (actually, maybe two lessons) a freelancer can ever learn: you need to diversify. Also, you need to be able to adapt.
Ultimately, the disappearance of that first client ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me, because I was forced to look for more work after that. And I found a lot of it. And it was even better-paying than the work I was doing before!
Working as a freelancer was a lifesaver to me throughout my undergrad. years and it was even more of a lifesaver when I started graduate school. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to start doing it full-time after I finished my Master’s degree in Professional Writing earlier this year. I don’t have any regrets yet.
The Nature of Freelance Writing
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, being a “writer” can mean so many things, so I can’t really get mad at people when they don’t automatically understand what I do based on my title alone. That’s part of why I’ve recently begun referring to myself as both a Freelance Content Author and an SEO Specialist, because I think those two titles much more accurately explain what I do. And since I’m my own boss, why shouldn’t I get to make up my own job title? ;P
While there are freelance opportunities for all different kinds of writing out there, the majority of the writing that I do is for business owners; they have their own websites and blogs that need content that’s relevant to their industries. For example, dentist office’s website needs a landing page and a blog that’s constantly updated with relevant posts (“5 Tips for a Better Dental Checkup,” “How to Choose a Whitening Toothpaste,” etc). You see, it’s this kind of content that boosts a website’s rankings on the search engines.
This is a concept known as search engine optimization (SEO), and it’s a big deal in my field. Search engines like Google have very specific (and ever-changing) algorithms that determine the ranking of websites in their search results. When I first started freelancing in 2010, the algorithms were a lot more lax than they are now. Basically, it was quantity over quality of content that got websites to the tops of the search engine results.
To put it as simply as possible, the more sites on the web that linked to your website, the higher your site would rank in the search engines. And the more relevant keywords you had in your website’s written content, the better. This led to a lot of what’s now known as black-hat SEO; businesses would hire content writers like me (or use article-spinning software) to generate low-quality content (articles and blog posts) that was stuffed with keywords–all in an effort to rank higher in the search engines. We were basically polluting the Internet.
Today, websites can’t really get away with black-hat SEO techniques because the search engine algorithms have changed–a lot. For example, Google’s most recent algorithm update (known as Panda 4.0) favors websites with quality content that’s specialized to suit a particular niche. As a result, websites that had been using tactics like keyword stuffing and article spinning suffered, whereas websites with genuine, quality written content were much better off.
It was actually a Google Panda update in April of 2012 that led to the loss of my one client on Mturk at the time; the work I did for that client was all black-hat SEO. I wrote 150-word articles stuffed with keywords that would boost the site’s SEO . My articles always got accepted, no matter the quality of the content, as long as those keywords were there. Sometimes I would purposely write ridiculously awful articles just to test the system. Nope, they’d always get accepted. All that mattered was that those SEO keywords were there. But when that Panda update rolled out, my black-hat client didn’t stand a chance. Google de-indexed (basically deleted) every article my client ever published. He was out of business.
I anticipate that search engines will only continue to move towards favoring quality over quantity with future updates, which is why I’m really picky about which clients I’ll write for anymore. Fortunately, writing quality content pays a lot more (I’m currently making about 8-10 times more per hour than I did starting out) and is also a lot more rewarding than the work I did when I first began freelancing; I know that people are actually reading and using my content, rather than it only existing for SEO purposes. On any given day, I could write a press release for an orthopedist’s office, a technical brochure for a construction company, a blog post on recognizing signs of depression in a military veteran, and a “how-to” article on brushing a cat’s teeth. No, really–these are all assignments that I took on today.
In a nutshell, the content industry is like 50% writing and 50% SEO knowledge/marketing. While not all the assignments I take on are for SEO purposes, I’d say that the majority of them are. So my challenge as a content author is to not only write something that’s engaging and different from the gazillions of other articles on the Web, but to incorporate respected and more legitimate white-hat SEO techniques into my work in the process.
What You Need to Know About Working as a Freelance Content Writer
Now that I’ve explained (or, at least attempted to explain) the type of work I do, you might be thinking you want to get into the industry, too (or maybe not). If so, there are some things I want you to know and that I’m going to be very blunt about because this kind of work isn’t right for everybody.
Advantages of Freelancing
I’ll start with all the awesome things about working as a freelancer.
For starters, you get to be your own boss. What’s better than that? You can basically set your own schedule, decide how much (or how little) you want to work each day, take time off whenever you want, and never answer to anybody (except your clients…)! This is, by far, the best part of my job. I’m extremely thankful to not be working a traditional 9-5, and not only because I’ve done that before and it bored me, but because I’d never see my partner if that were the case. My boyfriend is a police officer, so his days off fluctuate every week and he’s often working odd hours. I like being able to sync my schedule to his.
On that same note, I also love being able to work from just about anywhere. All I need is my laptop and an Internet connection and I’m good to go. While I do have my own home office now, I love the freedom to be able to work from pretty much anywhere. Earlier this summer, I spent a day working next to the beautiful fountains at Kings Island, and last summer (before I had an office set up), I spent just about every day working on the patio at a local Panera Bread and taking advantage of free coffee refills all day long. Who doesn’t need a change of scenery every once in awhile?
Another cool thing about working as a content writer is that you don’t need a degree (although it definitely pays to have one). All you really need are some decent writing skills and at least one area of expertise, because there are clients looking for written content in just about every industry you could possibly imagine. Whatever you know a lot about (whether it’s gardening or working on cars or underwater basket-weaving), you can bet there’s work out there for you. It’s just a matter of finding it. I will say that having my degree in Professional Writing has probably made it easier for me to find work (and it’s also justification for me to charge more money), but I also know that there are plenty of successful writers out there with high school diplomas.
Working as a freelancer also gives you the freedom to set your own goals. It’s something you can do part-time (as I did throughout college) or focus on as a full-time career. You can make pretty decent money as a freelancer. Like I said, I started off being thrilled to make about $8 an hour, but today I clear anywhere between $50-$110 an hour (more on that in a second).
Finally, for me, working as a freelance writer lets me make a living doing something I actually enjoy. Because the majority of my assignments require a fair amount of research, I’m a walking encyclopedia of random information. I love it. I’ve always loved learning about anything and everything. I’ve also always loved writing. This is the perfect career for me.
Potential Disadvantages of Freelancing
Now that I’ve built up my career by rambling about how amazing it is, let me get real for a second. Because there are some real drawbacks to working as a freelancer–some of which I wasn’t aware of before I started.
First and foremost, TAXES SUCK. SO BAD. When you’re self-employed, you pay more in taxes than you would if you had a “real” job. That’s because, in a traditional W-2 job, your employer would pick up half of your Social Security/Medicare taxes. Unfortunately, when you’re self-employed, you pay 100% of those taxes. It’s called self-employment tax, and it ends up totaling 15.3% of your taxable income each year. This is on top of any Federal/state/city income tax you pay based on your tax bracket as well.
It’s not just the fact that you have to pay more in taxes when you’re self-employed, though. It’s also the fact that you have to pay quarterly throughout the year rather than paying in full come tax time. Rather than setting aside the money to pay your taxes and earning interest on it throughout the year, you get to send a check in to the IRS every three months so they can earn interest on your money instead.
Oh, and even if you don’t make a steady income throughout the year, you’d better estimate your annual income and pay in equal installments each quarter. If you underpay, you get charged an underpayment penalty (on top of interest) when it comes time to file. If you overpay, you’ll get your money back, but not without the Federal government earning interest on your overpayment. Because that’s fair, right?
Okay, enough about taxes because I could go on and on. Another aspect of freelancing that sucks is not getting any benefits. No company insurance, no employer contributions to a retirement fund, no paid vacation…nothing like that. But it’s a sacrifice I’ve come to terms with because, with the decent money I make, I’ll be able to afford my own insurance when the time comes (I’m lucky enough to still be on my mom’s plan) and can also afford to take a fair amount of time off without suffering financially.
Also, there are a lot of pretty great retirement plans out there for self-employed workers. My goal is to open up a retirement account by the time I turn 25, so I have a little bit of time to figure out which one is right for me.
Another potential drawback of working as a freelance content writer is that most of your work will be ghostwritten. This means that once you sell your article to your client, he or she owns all the rights to it. Often times, it gets published under a different name, which means you don’t get to take credit for the work or add it to a portfolio.
This can make it difficult to build a solid reputation as a writer. If you’ve got nothing to show for your work, how can you find new clients? Well, you basically need to have lots of diverse writing samples on hand that you don’t sell. It’s also helpful to find writing gigs that’ll let you keep the rights to your work.
These kinds of jobs are easier to come by than you might think; I just recently landed a writing gig for a local community/news website here in southern Indianapolis. The pay isn’t amazing, but I get to write about local businesses/events (a good excuse to frequent more of the wineries and restaurants nearby) and get published under my own name. The client and I have a written agreement stating that I can use the articles I write in my portfolio/resume/website, which I imagine will only help me secure more work down the road. In this sense, the somewhat low pay is worth it to me. Speaking of websites, you should have one of those, too.
Finally, being successful as a freelance content writer means you’ve got to be extremely self-motivated (this isn’t necessarily a con, but many people will see it as that). After all, even though I’ve been referencing my earnings as hourly earnings, you typically only get paid by the word or by the article. Many clients pay a set price for each word, whereas others will offer a flat rate per article. Very few freelance content writing gigs will pay you explicitly for your time.
This means that when you take a break from writing, you’re no longer getting paid. Contrast this with an hourly or salary job (where you have a least a small amount of downtime most days) and you’ll see why self-motivation is so important. I can spend eight hours in front of my computer each day, but if I allow myself to get distracted from my work, I may as well have only put in four hours.
If you’re serious about being productive as a freelance writer, I recommend downloading the FocusBooster program for your computer; this way, you can set timed work sessions and breaks throughout the day to maintain your focus. It really works. The program is set by default to 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break (also known as the Podomoro Technique), but you can customize it for whatever works for you. I’ve found that 50 minutes of work followed by a 10 minute break is best for me.
Going off the above point, being successful as a content writer means diversifying and setting yourself apart from other writers. It’s an extremely competitive field, and it’s only going to get increasingly competitive, if you ask me. Fortunately, I don’t think the need for online content is going to disappear any time soon, so as long as you can learn how to adapt to the industry and make the case for your value as a writer, you’ll probably never be out of work. Still, you should never put all your eggs in one basket. I was fortunate enough to learn from that mistake when I first started out and didn’t have a ton of financial obligations. Today, I make sure I never have fewer than four big eggs in my basket. And I’m pretty much always looking for new work.
The Bottom Line
Look, this post isn’t all-encompassing by any means. I had originally intended to include a beginner’s guide to getting started in the content-writing industry in this post, but I’m exhausted and starting to think that might be better for a separate post. Not to mention, I can’t help but feel a little hesitant to share all my secrets to success after I’ve worked at building a name for myself in the industry for four years. Still, I feel like this post has helped to shed some light on the type of work people in my field do while also providing some guidance for those considering a career as a freelancer. 🙂