Writing Talent and Success as a Freelancer

carson-brackneyHave you ever wondered about the back story when you see ho-hum articles in great publications?  Have you ever scratched your head trying to figure out how someone who clearly lacks your level of talent is out-earning you?

I’d like to think that I’m a half-decent writer.  People don’t often insult my writing and some even say they like it.  That could stem from a combination my good luck and their good manners, though.  I know that I string together sentences better than most people, I can churn out a quickie keyword article that’s better than 99.76% of what one usually encounters and that I can pen some ass-kicking sales copy when I really, really, really work hard.

But am I a good writer?  Who knows?  I have my moments, but I can’t say that makes me a truly great writer.

I do know that GMAC hasn’t repossessed the car and that my kids have clothes that fit.  I know that I manage to indulge my love of a good medium-rare porterhouse a little more often than is necessary.  I don’t get a queasy feeling when they run my card or check for groceries through the little scanner thing at the store.  We take a vacation.  We keep a few billion channels worth of cable television.  We cover prescriptions and co-pays, never really worry about next month and occasionally spoil ourselves and our children with things that no one really needs.  The numbers are, quite frankly, pretty good.

That means I’m a “professional.”  I make a living and most of that living is either a direct offshoot of my writing or stems from things I’ve learned as a writer.

I also know that isn’t really evidence of writing talent.

I know that many of you are very good writers.  I know that some of you think you’re good, even if you’re not.  Some of you may not be sure if you’re any good but you’re making a wholehearted effort to get better.

And that’s why it pains me to share one other thing that I do know.

Your ability to write well may have very little to do with whether or not you’re going to make any money in this racket.

We all like to talk about quality, skill and art.  We sell it to clients.  We pride ourselves on the fact that we don’t produce crap and we have this little part of us that believes that our talents with words will be the reason we succeed.

I don’t think that’s really true, though.  Writing talent is a plus, but it isn‘t necessarily a key determinant of success.

Even if your words are lightning from the mountaintop, you can’t count on them escorting you to the bank with regular deposits.

There’s a quality threshold one must meet, of course.  You can’t hope to make a mint if you write like a D+ junior high English student.  You need to have a basic command of things.  You need to be good enough, but not necessarily good.

Beyond that, talent is gravy.

Every once in awhile, someone will tell you that they hired you because they just love the way you write.  More often than not, they’ll tell you that they appreciate your quick responses, your ability to meet deadlines, your understanding of their needs, your ability to accurately communicate the appropriate message or something else that has very little to do with that glorious, poetic third paragraph.

You don’t even get any of that feedback if you don’t first roll up your sleeves and figure out a good way to find work.  You don’t get any of it unless you actually make a habit of doing the work after you do secure it.  No one can love your responsiveness if you don’t respond.  No one can love your punctuality if you’re late.

I’ve asked scores of people who regularly pay for freelance writing in a number of different markets about this.  “What makes you happy?  What do you want?”

Great writing usually shows up on their lists but it rarely snags the top position.  In some cases, it doesn’t show up at all–and that’s true of serious clients with money to spend, not just low-ballers looking for good bulk deals.

Maybe the quality of the writing is subliminally influencing their decision making and they’re just not aware of the way it toys with their subconscious minds.  That’s a pleasant thought for those who do consider themselves exceptional writers.  However, I’m willing to bet that most buyers will opt for more workmanlike text from a reliable, consistent, business-smart provider than they will for a unpredictable genius.

I’m not saying that you should stop refining your craft.  Being a literary bad-ass can only help you.  Plus, creating truly wonderful stuff brings its own intrinsic rewards.  When you’re good and it’s obvious, you have something to sell that others don’t.

Just don’t assume that your talent will pay off on its own.  As much as we might like to see ourselves as cousins in the family of fine artists, freelance writing is, first and foremost, business.  Your professional development in areas unrelated to the avoidance of split infinitives and dangling participles will have a massive impact on your ability to make a living.

That means you need to spend time understanding client motivations and needs.  You need to get a handle on the time management thing.  Become a marketing wizard.  Learn how to speak your clients’ language.  Develop efficient systems.  Explore new developments.  Master new technologies.  Own the business side of this whole thing.

Being an expert writer is awesome.  Being an expert in the business of freelance writing pays the bills.

I could be wrong.  It happens.  I was fairly convinced that Bert Blyleven would make the Hall of Fame before Jim Rice  and that cherry Dr. Pepper would actually taste good, after all.  What do you think?  Is great writing talent of secondary importance when it comes to making a living or is it a trump card?






12 responses
  1. Jodee Avatar

    Talent + a few bucks will get you a beverage at the local coffee shop. (Be prepared to pay more if you are going to Starbucks.) Some basic talent and a good work ethic can take you anywhere you want to go. Showing up and doing the work is what the client is going to remember, not necessarily the fact that you are a wizard of words.
    .-= Jodee´s last blog ..How to Use Discussion Forums for Writers to Find Freelance Writing Jobs =-.

  2. Rupa Avatar

    Thank you, Carson, for this lovely post. This is true not just in writing but in every line of work. Look around. It’s not always the people who top their class or who win all the awards that are financially successful, happy or even considered the best at their game. As you say, although there is a basic quality and performance threshold one has to live up to, beyond that, it’s a question of being at the right place at the right time, saying the right things, making contacts, being able to market oneself well to land the lucrative gigs, having what I like to call a ‘likeable’ personality(would a client prefer a top class, grouchy, arrogant writer or an above average, open-minded, pleasant-mannered one?) and above everything else – having a positive attitude towards work and life in general. Great writing may speak for itself, but, if it’s not accompanied by these other elements, it probably won’t bring in the desired results. Skill is important, but the whole package is what really counts. Also, skills can be learnt and developed – provided one has the right attitude, willingness to learn and humility to accept one’s weaknesses.

    Congrats on your latest gig here and welcome!

    1. Carson Brackney Avatar

      Thanks for the welcome. I think it will be fun to hook up with the FWJ audience once a week and I’m looking forward to it.

      Your comment about humility is great. I like to think I have a solid idea of “how things work,” but I try to keep an open mind and I’m willing to adjust course when someone/something persuades me to believe that I may be on the right track. Those who are convinced that they have a monopoly on the truth or who know THE way often struggle or reach plateaus because they’re unwilling to explore new ideas or to admit that there may be something new to learn.
      .-= Carson Brackney´s last blog ..The Lawrence of Arabia Guide to Online Freelance Writing Success =-.

  3. loupaun Avatar

    I agree that most clients are going to find business competence at least as important as writing competence — often, more important! That’s the area I focus on when I am trying to improve as a freelancer. It makes the difference between a comfortable hourly rate and a poor one.

    In my other writing life, I am a fine writer. When I reach the point in a book where I want readers to feel strong emotion, they do; some tell me that they cry. Some go out of their way to track down my contact information to tell me how much my books have meant to them. This is, of course gratifying. It is not, however, particularly lucrative! Large amounts of time and energy are required to produce this sort of writing.

    I think there is a common element that contributes to success in both fields. “Writers’ jeans” — the sort that are worn in the seat from all the hours spent at the keyboard — really do make a difference.

    1. Carson Brackney Avatar

      You mean people really need to WORK? There goes my dream of sipping pina coladas all day while engaging in delightful banter with other writers!

      You’re right, of course. Putting your backside in the seat and your fingers on the keyboard (or otherwise working) is always the foundation.
      .-= Carson Brackney´s last blog ..Writing Talent and Success… =-.

  4. T.W. Anderson Avatar

    Personally, I could care less about artistic integrity or any of the “artistic” sides of writing, at least when it comes to content writing.

    I’m here to make a paycheck. I do that however I need to. One of the ways I earn a paycheck is by writing content, articles, performing investigative journalism, and writing copy. I also dabble in fiction, although that’s my passion, and not my paycheck.

    I don’t believe you need talent to make a buck. Sure, it helps, but more important than talent is the ability to get out there and push yourself, to have determination, and the chops to make it happen. I know for a fact that I’m not the best writer out there. Furthermore, I’m not out there trying to be. I’m doing what I need to do in order to earn a paycheck. If that means writing about cat litter, I’ll write about cat litter. Or how to punt gnomes. Or design nail-clipping necklaces.

    The vast majority of website content doesn’t require talent. As Carson states, “More often than not, they’ll tell you that they appreciate your quick responses, your ability to meet deadlines, your understanding of their needs, your ability to accurately communicate the appropriate message or something else that has very little to do with that glorious, poetic third paragraph.”

    The emphasis is on quick responses, ability to meet deadlines, your ability to understand the client’s needs, and your ability to accurately communicate what message they want you to impart, none of which has anything to do with pretty poetry that makes the heart-strings quiver.

    Money. That’s why I’m here. I don’t think writing content for places like Demand Studios requires any talent whatsoever beyond the ability to string sentences together and write concise enough for a 14 year old to understand you, yet I can sit there and make 60-75 dollars an hour doing it. Do I care whether or not someone considers me a hack? Nope. I’m racking in fat paychecks doing something that I find as challenging as flipping through the channels deciding what I want to watch tonight. Sure, I have those clients who I put forth significant effort for, but what they are paying me for isn’t my ability to write flowery prose. They are paying me to write clear, concise, complete copy on demand.

    I’m a mercenary. Plain and simple. You tell me what to write, and I’ll write it. You want flowery prose, I’ll give it to you. You want a how-to article on scooping cat boxes, I’m your man. Need an investigative piece on the current political climate in X country? I’ll do the interviews and get you what you need. That’s all that is required.
    .-= T.W. Anderson´s last blog ..Content Writing Experiment Conclusion =-.

    1. Carson Brackney Avatar


      In the context of web content a la DS, etc., you’re probably spot-on. I was thinking in even broader terms when I wrote the post, but the examples you’ve outlined are a perfect example (for better or for worse) of how one can make bank even if they lack extraordinary talent.
      .-= Carson Brackney´s last blog ..Writing Talent and Success… =-.

  5. allena Avatar

    I’m going to be dead honest. Superpower writing is absolutely necessary on that first 1-2 assignments. If the editor is poised over your article with the red pen, and doesn’t have to use it too much, they’re going to keep sending assignments your way. I’ve seen it happen again and again with editors of all content forms (web, magazines, copy). That’s where I ALWAYS put forth two or three solid days of massive effort.
    .-= allena´s last blog ..2010 Then? Accidental Freelancing and the 1099 =-.

    1. Carson Brackney Avatar


      That’s a very good observation and one that probably should’ve been included in the original post. When you’re in a position where a red pen-wielding editor is involved, delivering knockout goodies does have more value than what my post may indicate. I think the overall argument holds water, though. After all, you’re unlikely to be in a position to impress that editor if you’re not taking care of the business side of things in the first place.
      .-= Carson Brackney´s last blog ..The Lawrence of Arabia Guide to Online Freelance Writing Success =-.

  6. Jennifer Gregory Avatar
    Jennifer Gregory

    I totally agree with your post. I also think that determination and Perseverance play a much bigger role than talent in being a successful freelance writer (especially when you are getting started). A friend of mine is a much better writer than I am. I am a good to great writer while she is an excellent writer. However, I have been much more successful at getting published than she has. She has sent off a few things and stopped when she got rejections. I have been consistently been sending things off, getting rejected, and then getting some sales for the past year and a half. I really think that talent is only part of the discussion up to a point. I do think that working hard to create clean copy is important, but that your article is totally dead on.

  7. Stephanie Faris Avatar

    I think, in the end, it’s about reliability. Good, solid writing is a part of that. If I were on the other end of this, hiring writers, the top priority would be to find someone who could handle the job so I didn’t have to worry about it. That means providing good, error-free copy when it’s due (or before that time). I don’t know that anyone’s looking for Shakespeare–but they do want what they’re paying for. I have seen freelancers on Elance who have horribly-written copy in their portfolios, full of typos and sentences that make no sense. They regularly get work…

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