Whether you write website copy, e-books, magazine articles or blog posts, there’s plenty of competition out there. Upwork, the world’s largest online marketplace, has 12 million registered freelancers and (at the time of writing) 15,861 writing jobs available. Not all 12 million of those freelancers are writers, but enough of them are to ensure that competition for each writing job is fierce. And that’s just on one single site. [Read more…]
A couple of days ago I wondered if it’s OK for freelance writing bloggers to talk like they speak. After all, blogging is a much more casual form of writing than what most of us are used to. While some purists don’t always appreciate a conversational tone when reading the news or learning about vitamin supplements, the truth is, that’s where we’re headed. The Internet has turned writers into bloggers and everything is all so ultra-cas now.
Writing for Short Attention Spans
Look around at your favorite news, medical and even government sites and what do you see? News sites feature more bloggers than journalists. News is no longer a one way show. We can digest and then discuss. We can even counterpoint if we want to – and receive more traffic with our rebuttal than the original post.
We’re told Internet readers have short attention spans and would much rather scan headlines and look for juicy bits than commit to an entire article.
Everyone giving a web writing lesson encourages us to:
- Write short sentences
- Use a conversational tone
- Break up text with sub heads, lists. and bullet points
- Keep it to 500 to 1,000 words
Twenty years ago it wasn’t so easy being a freelance writer. Now? Not so much. Anyone can become published on the web and many of us are even paid for it. The new breed of writers don’t have to have a degree in journalism or mass communications, heck, they don’t have to finish school at all if that’s not how they roll.
I’m not saying all this is a bad thing, but I often pause to consider where we’re headed.
Are we still interested in a formal tone?
I wonder what all this means for writing and writers now and in the future. Is America getting used to casual, short attention span reading? Are we doing the bulk of our reading via smartphone on the morning commute?
Do we trust a conversational tone over a formal tone?
It was announced yesterday that Newsweek is up for sale as newsweeklies lose their influence. We’re now learning what we need to know in 140 characters or less, so who has time for an entire magazine? If our trusted sources can’t be considered influential anymore, what can?
Where are we headed ?
I know there are many of us who still enjoy holding books or newspapers. As loyalists get older and the younger generation finds new methods of reading, paper copies are going to be a thing of the past. Why buy books and magazines when we can listen to them or download them onto electronic readers? Why recycle or dust worn volumes when there’s no need? Even I, the daughter of a librarian, am moving towards more electronic reading and fewer physical copies.
It’s no secret that it’s more difficult to read on a screen, which is why we teach short and sweet web writing now. Does that mean we’re going to be writing more to accommodate laptops, electronic readers and short attention spans? As more “citizen journalists” try their hand at this blogging thing, what will happen to the old school way of writing?
I recently wondered about the future of reading. To be honest, I’m more interested in the future of writing.
What are your thoughts on this? Does our future show a more casual way of reading and writing?
While many FWJ readers may write primarily for print, I know that many others (like me) have businesses built primarily on writing for online markets. This post targets those of us who make a living online, so to speak.
The Big Question
Why do people pay you to write?
Is it because…
- You’re so damn talented?
- They can’t do it themselves?
- You can make the content creation process more efficient?
- Clients love your website and/or pitches?
- You have a special skill or area of expertise?
Those may be reasons why clients choose you over other writers, but people come to the marketplace in the first place for another reason. They think they can use what you produce to turn a profit. They want to make money.
Sometimes I wonder if too many online writers spend way too much effort thinking about how to get work now and how to compete for gigs while spending far too little effort thinking about that bigger, core question. I wonder if many web-based freelancers may be setting themselves up for future struggles because of it, too.
A Change is Gonna Come
That’s not because I foresee a sudden drop in the demand for online content. On the contrary, I think that a variety of new and even lucrative opportunities is on the horizon. However, I do question the longer-term viability of many markets upon which writers are building businesses. I wonder how many writers will survive and/or react as the Internet and the way we use it changes.
In order to protect yourself and your business, it’s important to delve into the reason why demand for writing exists–the profit potential of the output. That means having both a solid understanding of the strategies clients are employing in pursuit of revenue and the greater trends that will undoubtedly force changes to those strategies and to the marketplace as a whole.
For instance, any writer who isn’t thinking about inevitable changes in the nature of search engines is making a mistake. The search engines don’t stand still. Google and its smaller competitors are constantly refining their approaches and there are a number of reasons to believe that they’ll be forced to make some major adjustments in the relatively near future.
Those changes could have a major impact on what are “bread and butter” for many writers. Traditional article marketing and the mass production “content mill” approach will have a difficult time thriving in an improved search environment.
Last week I posted an interview with SEO Kieran Flanagan here at FWJ. He made a point of discussing both the changing face of link acquisition for SEO and the growing role of social media in his business. The days of using 500-word articles at a pre-ordained keyword density level and fueling them with a series of easy-to-acquire, low-grade links is on its way out. At the very least, the writing is on the wall.
At my blog, I recently posted about the less-than-rosy long-term future of low-quality content mill work due to market forces within the search sector and the increasingly untenable hypocrisy of Google in terms of how they’ve “banned” paid links yet are allowing other intentional methods of subverting their search algorithm to have an impact on SERPs.
You don’t need to agree with my perspective to recognize that there’s a lot boiling under the surface in the way people find and use information online. No matter how you think it all might unfold, you can be certain that, in the words of Sam Cooke, “a change is gonna come.”
Preparing for Change
We often talk about the need to spread risk when developing an overall approach to building a freelance writing business. That need is usually expressed in terms of “not putting all of your eggs in one basket.” That’s rock-solid advice–in the short run. In the longer run, it’s just as important to have a sense of what future eggs may look like and if there may be new ways to store them. Hell, the eggs we gather today may be poisonous before too long and we might all be laughing at the antiquated notion of using baskets.
People pay writers because they want to make money. Writers who aren’t sufficiently prepared to transition their talents and to apply them to new contexts aren’t going to be in the best position to help clients make money. Writers who have over-invested in strategies that seem to have a limited lifespan could be setting themselves up for a more difficult future.
That doesn’t mean anyone should abandon any part of his or her business that’s currently producing a nice stream of revenue. Make hay while the sun is shining. However, one should probably do that with an awareness of the need to move on to new markets and new approaches once the limitations of those activities start to become increasingly visible. Otherwise, you might find yourself well behind the curve while other writers profit from being ahead of it.
The Moral to the Story
Continue to focus on being a badass writer who offers the world’s greatest customer service. Continue to work on distinguishing yourself in the marketplace and do everything you can to become the best choice among those who are looking for a writer.
At the same time, look ahead. Make a point of learning more about why potential clients are looking for a writer in the first place and study the hell out of the marketplace and the kind of changes in advertising, search, social media, and all of the other things that are going to force changes in the way people conduct business and information acquisition on the ‘Net.
If you’re going to focus on online markets, be smart, nimble, well-informed and an expert in larger trends.
Happy Easter FWJ crew! If you don’t celebrate Easter then, of course, happy Sunday. It’s been good week in media news:
Where are the Women? – Alicia Shepard asks an all important question about NPR & it’s diversity or lack of in some areas.
A dangerous assignment gone really, really bad -“Paul Raffaele, a top flight freelancer for Smithsonian magazine, was badly injured in a suicide bombing while on assignment in Afghanistan in 2008. Raffaele says the magazine agreed to insure him but he has nothing in writing. The two are now at an impasse. Writer Katie Rolnick tells the story.” Even if you’re not a freelance war journalist, this affects all of us. How many of us have implied agreements with our editors?
Report: Media M&A Continues to Recover; JEGI says Q1 activity up 70+ percent; value more than quadrupled. Freelance magazine writers everywhere just smiled slightly 🙂
Student editors: ‘We stand by our decision to publish controversial opinions’ – “The editorial board at American University’s Eagle — under fire for a column about date rape — says it realizes it has to “take more responsibility for what we publish” and that “until we have a specific policy to do this, The Eagle will be temporarily suspending the publication of all opinion columns.” College papers push boundaries, ask questions, you may not agree with the columnist but it is encouraging to see students taking up the debate and learning the complex world of free press.
*Sources for today’s info:
I’d been thinking about writing this post for next week, but today I was reading through Deb’s job posting for the day and came across an article she linked to: “Driving Rules for Getting to the Point with Your Lede” and thought, “Hmm, that’s a good topic, interesting headline, I wonder who in the network wrote that one…” I clicked the link and realized it was my work. Oops.
Self-flattery aside, I realize I have fallen into a pattern of writing, editing, publishing and forgetting my work. When you first become a professional writer, once you get past the “Whoo hooo!” of seeing your byline, you read and re-read every article, noting every opportunity for improvement. Once you get the hang of it, you start skimming and finally when you have tons of work coming in and going out you scan for obvious errors.
I’m not saying writing for Freelance Writing Jobs is ordinary – it certainly isn’t unless writing for the number website for freelance writers is normal, I’m confessing to falling into a routine that can leave you high-fiving a piece before recognizing it as your own. When’s the last time you’ve read your own work?
Re-reading a piece after it’s been published is important for your self-reflection as a writer. It’s not just about what you can improve on, it’s also useful to discover what you do well. I’m great at adding humor and personality to a piece, which helps people relate to what I’m writing. Knowing my strengths helps me steer toward particular assignments and also helps me recognize when to turn that off because the piece I’m working on needs less personality and straight journalism.
And what about the times you discover the editing process has rendered your piece unrecognizable or worse, wrong? It happens and has happened to me fairly recently. If you don’t check up on your work who is going to tell the editor something’s up? A reader? Yikes!
After you hit send or publish, go back and check it out. You may discover new things about yourself (like you’re a better writer than you thought) and you may find a problem before someone else does!
The other day I wrote “Down with Deb Ng! Headline Writing 101” where I touched on misleading headlines and basic, across the medium rules for writing headlines. The responses are still coming in, many people tuned in to see what dirt I had on Deb and others were ready to jump to her defense – not that she needs it because girlfriend can take care of herself! Anywho, the headline was a success and I got a few emails asking how to write a headline the right way. The parameters change depending on the genre, so today, let’s look at web writing.
Brief is the word
Five words or less – what is the article about? That’s your headline. Search engines, busy readers and feed skimmers only need one glance to decide if they are going to click your link. Your headline can be longer, but readers often translate a wordy headline into a wordy article.
Writing great web headlines has gotten a little more complicated since the rise of social media and microblogging. Headlines not only need to be short for readers skimming search engines for interesting titles, you now have to think about the “Retweet factor” and link sharing. A short headline allows for retweeted or forwarded links, title and commentary.
One sure way to increase your clicks is through lists. I’m not quite sure why people love lists so much, but I know I’m a sucker for those end of the year “Best Rock Songs of…” countdowns and the VH1’s “I Love…” series. Perhaps it’s because lists are direct and can spur debate – what was left out, what should have been ranked higher or lower, etc. They also work well on the web because they are skim-friendly and easily digested. “Three Tips for Killer Web Headlines” is more interesting than “Killer Headlines.” It’s also clear I’m talking about writing a great web headline as opposed to headlines about killers.
Punctuate for Pete’s Sake
I talked about this a little in my last post, but it is worth repeating. In the retweet, Google juice world, using punctuation to make a title brief and clear is one of the best ways to get a reader’s attention. Let’s take a look at a couple of web headlines:
Now insert the missing words and the headlines become long and boring on the eyes: “Weir was snubbed by ice tour and GLAAD upset” or “Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jamie Kennedy have split.” Commas, semi-colons and colons turn long titles into catchy, clickable headlines.
Come across a killer web headline? Post it below!
The other night The Wizard of Oz was on and I watched Dorothy and her crew sing about following the yellow brick road. It was a simple instruction, but it dawned on me the yellow brick road was a terribly convoluted roadway, with twists and turns all over place. Who were the city engineers on that project? Sheesh!
Some ledes are the same way. They are good enough to hook the reader, but take so long to get to the point readers lose interest and turn the page or hit the back button. Here are a few rules of the road:
Red Light – Tickets and Fines
- Five to six paragraphs in and the writer is still introducing the subject. Be advised, more than two introductory paragraphs in a typical magazine article prompts “Are we there yet?” Keep it to one paragraph for most web articles.
- Anecdotes that need explanation. Just like having to explain a joke makes it less funny, having to explain an anecdote kills the momentum of the article.
- Over-hyped statistics. “Ninety-nine percent of women hate men.” That’s a banger of an opening, but after the writer explains 99 percent of women said they hated men who kicked puppies and not all men in general, there’s going to be a large segment of readers ticked off.
Yellow Light – Speed bumps ahead
- Ledes that introduce a difficult concept. If a publication’s readership doesn’t have a firm grasp on the concept go easy on the jargon and take care not to hit the gas on information – slow down.
- Cutesy or goofy puns. When Katie Couric first began hosting the evening news I spent a month cringing at the plentiful puns peppered throughout the newscast. Oh sure my local news hams it up, but I expected more out the national news. Leave the puns for broadcasters unless the audience expects kitschy humor.
Green light – Open road
- A web article with a quick hook and quick delivery. The web isn’t for novelists or Sunday drivers, it’s the Super Highway designed for people who have a fixed destination and need to get there quick.
- A magazine article with an engaging, teasing lede. Magazine readers are invested in the article. They like to sit back and let the scenery unfold before them. Think of Christmas light tours with cars full people who have a lot of time if not the best attention span. Make it interesting so they’ll linger in front of the display.
Ledes are often the most difficult part of writing and article. Its success depends on those first few paragraphs. Get to the point in the lede and keep the reader for the long haul.
Got a suggestion or topic idea for Article Writing? Email me ([email protected]) and put “Article Writing” in the subject line.
In a post a good long while ago, Do you need to be a good writer to be a good blogger, Deb points out that yes, it helps a great deal to know how to write if you’re a blogger.
I agree. Knowing how to write is important. However, I know plenty of excellent writers who don’t get blogging and web writing gigs – writers who are likely better than me. I can write sure, but I’m not one of those genius born to write or die type writers, yet I still get plenty of work.
So, how do I and lots of other writers get blogging and web writing jobs, when many amazing writers are passed over? The people I know who get these jobs (self included) tend to follow some general web writing rules. If a client checks out your work and you’re NOT following these rules you may be passed over for someone who does play by the rules.
Write for the web: Writing for the web is totally different then writing for magazines, college paper, print ad copy, and other writing mediums. The best way to learn how to write for the web is to write for the web – i.e. start a blog. Another good way to learn is to read popular blogs and check out their style. Blog readers aren’t looking for the next great American novel, they’re looking for information, entertainment, newsy clips, and so fourth.
Write casual and personable text: Big fancy words, pages of text (within one post), and a dictating rather than conversational tone sets you apart as someone who doesn’t know how to write for the web. You can connect with readers better when you speak to them, or with them, rather than at them. Plus creating text peppered with jargon, smarty pants research paper college speak, or poetic nonsense is just plain annoying. There’s a place for stuff like this, but a blog isn’t that place. Use words that people understand ALL the time.
Write with a purpose: When you’re writing for the web it can feel a little more slack but you should still write with purpose. I always ask myself the ‘So What’ question and most of the time it makes me a better blogger.
Write with a style that’s all you: Not all bloggers and web writers have a completely unique style, but most have some sort of voice that comes through in their work. Say you have a cooking blog – so what? There are dozens and dozens of cooking blogs out there. What the heck sets you apart from the rest? A good example of a blog with a clear voice is Garden Rant – a typical garden blog, of which there are many, but this blog has a distinct voice. Another blog with a very clear voice is Tremendous News, which is really unfocused topic wise, but you just keep reading because it’s so damn hilarious and the blogger’s voice shines through each post.
Write in a blog or web readable style: The best writing in the world won’t get you a gig if you can’t produce web copy that’s readable. And by readable I mean easy to scan, useful, and somewhat attention grabbing. Bullets are good. Snappy titles rock. Bold print in moderation is good. Hitting enter is super excellent. Clients like to see that you can pull these simple tasks off.
Write with an honest opinion: When blogging for clients it’s typical to cover products and press releases but it’s important to be honest and opinionated. Anyone can write about global warming or a sofa that’s on sale or offer parenting tips. What’s key is your opinion on the topic. What’s your slant? What’s your real take? A good example are blogs where you’ll see 50 product reviews and they all rock. There’s no way that 50 products all rock. If you’re just spitting out what PR folks are selling, without developing your own opinions, it looks fake, seems lame, and people won’t trust that you’re telling the truth.
It’s great if you know how to write, it’s cool if you have a writing degree, but keep in mind that web writing is different. Cultivate your skills as it pertains to this medium if you want to snag gigs.
Coming up soon… why your lack of confidence might be messing with your ability to get gigs, more tips from clients, what bloggers are making money wise, and more.
You tell me – have you adjusted your writing style so that it works for the web?
by Deborah Ng
When I first began writing for the web, it was just as practice. A way to earn money and get my rhythm going while querying magazines. This was about nine years ago, and my fellow web writers all had the same goal. To earn some money, practice writing and gain experience until we break into print. As of this writing, many of the web writers I started out with have had limited print success and they don’t care. Same here.
Once I started writing for the web on a regular basis, I started cutting back on my querying. I had a bite now and then but it didn’t matter. My web clients published quicker and there was none of this “pay on publication” business where the check came six months to a year later. [Read more…]