For better or worse, the digital age has made us all writers. Today’s blog entry? Meticulously crafted. Yesterday’s tweet? Timely and provocative. Your latest Instagram post starring your cat? “The purrr-fect way to say Fri-Yay” according to Aimee673. All the aforementioned were conceived for digital, in your brain, using words and pictures to tell a story and were designed to provoke engagement from an online audience. But when it comes to getting paid for your digital content and breaking into a new career (or side gig), it pays to get a full snapshot of the pursuits that await writers online. Places where the prose-worthy can ply their skills, make some money and add value to the digital space where, historically, content is mighty and attention spans flighty.
But what are these digital writing jobs specifically and how can you crack them as a job seeker? If your dream is to put words to pixels, copy to content, and to see your name in screen-generated light, here’s a digital content writing guide to help your search.
1. Digital news / content sites: Places to get published
Print may be suffering a prolonged death at the hands of disappearing ad dollars, but every news outlet that matters has migrated their content online at this point, both to complement their print pubs and in other cases, to live exclusively.
But as some things change, others stay the same – that is, you can still pitch stories to sites where you don’t necessarily have to be a full-time editor to write for them. Whether you aspire to be a “Guest Contributor” or “Editor-at-Large,” there are many freelance-friendly publishing outlets where you can set out to make your mark. My advice? Visit the sites you like and scan the footer to see if there are editorial guidelines posted. Even better, a directory that can guide you straight to an editor. Then, pitch your idea in a quick, powerful and poignant way so they feel compelled to respond. You’ll want to know the brand, type of content and editorial standards for what they publish first – as this will dramatically increase your chances at getting a response.
Personally, I love Slate’s approach on this topic as they’ve published their “How to Pitch Slate” guidelines for all to see. Not only is it a funny, thoughtful and informative plea, but it puts their editors’ email addresses out there so you can target your query to the right person. Just one example of a place where you can land a writing assignment. So, make your pitch… and make it good!
2. Social media: Publish, participate and promote
Ever since Friendster became the first social media site to matter, the world has morphed into one shaped by followers, posts, handles, hashtags, likes, shares, tweets and retweets. A social-first world. I only mention it because the words “publish” and “promote” have become synonymous in many ways for writers – and not all of them comfortable – if you want to be seen.
As for digital content, you’re going to want to understand that every word you put online – be it an original post, comment, or retweet – is part of the searchable world online. So you’ll be best served to understand the lingo, what appears where, and to get an overall handle on your digital footprint if you want jobs such as “Copywriter/Social Media” and “Community Manager” to fall into your wheelhouse. An engaged social following doesn’t hurt either. After all, these people are your first-responder fan base, so play to them. For social media jobs, hiring managers and talent recruiters expect you to talk the talk, if you want to walk the walk.
To do this, you’ll want to know how to:
1) Skillfully construct a post worthy of its social channel and not something that feels overly self-promotional or like an announcement that you, in fact, are not hip to the ways of digital world.
2) Engage in the kind of social etiquette that makes you not just a perceptive participant, but a worthy contributor. For tone purposes, think thoughtful and positive, not negative and troll-y.
And whatever you do, don’t do something diabolical once you land the gig that has the potential to get you fired before you deplane in South Africa.
Nobody wants that.
3. Original video: The future of writing will be seen and heard
The beauty of the Internet is its equal-opportunity-for-all-stance. (See: net neutrality.) That is, video content creation is everything, and everywhere, and the cream has a way of rising to the top. Just ask everyone on social media.
Why do I mention it? Because “writing for the web” can cross any platform, any screen. For instance, you could be an influencer who starts a YouTube channel that essentially becomes a “hit show” online, garnering you millions of subscribers or even a branded content deal. Or you could be an influencer/gamer like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins who streams his Fortnite sessions live to his 4 million followers on Twitch to the tune of $6 million a year. If you don’t like Fortnite, watching gamers game may seem like watching paint dry, but it just so happens to be a top genre in the world of online video right now, viewed by millions every day.
The reason I bring all this up is because writers are creative people, and creative people find creative ways to deliver their message so it breaks through the clutter. Regardless of what you create in the world of content, there are all sorts of ways to get noticed, earn ad dollars for your work, and potentially even get hired by a brand or outlet to shill a product. It doesn’t have to be a typical “writing” role per yesterday’s standards, but short-form content with a POV that makes its rounds across the InterWebs.
The world’s changed. Big brands have a history of chasing relevance at every turn, so they need people who understand how to stay appealing to the 13-34 demo. Always. So, figure that out as well as any other touch points for where there’s a need for online video content and the message you have to offer. Write that up and shoot it. I guarantee if it’s good, you’ll be an asset to somebody.
4. Think visually: Know how to insert, embed and inspire
Great writing has always been about the skillful use of words to paint pictures in people’s minds. But when it comes to writing on the digital side, you’re going to want to actually provide those pictures. Reason being: Nobody reads that much online. Surprise. Here’s my favorite article on the topic. Attentions spans are fleeting so knowing how to think visually and use images, GIFs, memes, and the aforementioned strategic video approach to break up text and keep your audience’s eyes from glazing over.
For every 250 words of text, try to have a compelling visual to push your storytelling strategy along. It will keep your audience scrolling and ultimately, they’ll repay with you with a more complete read that transcends just your article lead.
Like this one.
(Editor’s note: Of course, the appropriate use of visuals depends on the subject matter, audience, and brand guidelines. The use of GIFs and memes also can come across as amateurish, annoying fodder from a hack. There was an allowance of three for this post… just to make a point… And even then it’s pushing it. They clash with our branded graphics. And don’t you already want to make Jim Carrey go away?)
5. The future is now: Writing for A.I. and other emerging technologies
Given the pervasiveness of digital personal assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Microsft Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Google Home, it’s easy to assume that these robots have a mind of their own. Not so much. These know-it-alls have writing teams behind them, with writers envisioning the proper responses to a legion of voice-search requests such as “Alexa, tell me a joke” and “Siri, what is your favorite song?”
I recently interviewed the lead writer from the Microsoft Cortana team so you can hear firsthand what it’s like to write for an AI-ntelligent machine. It involves a writer’s room full of playwrights, poets, and screenwriters, a deep multicultural sensitivity and apparently, a lot of laughter. Sound like an interesting area to break into? Well, according to this article in AdWeek, a study done by Gartner says, “Bots or virtual assistants will command 20 percent of user interaction with smartphones by 2019.” And with global spending on AI estimated to hit $46 billion by the year 2020, it’s safe to say jobs in this area are set to explode.
6. Be a specialist: Find a niche and make it your job
As a writer, it may pay to be a generalist and have the ability to cover multiple topics, for multiple clients, in a range of industries. But what about when the needs of a position are so rigid that they (and your potential future client) really just need an ace to come in and crush the assignment without the time for any sort of learning curve? Sound like something you’d be good at?
Well, lucky for your future employment prospects in digital, there are a slew of areas that could get you hired if you tack on the word “expert” around your name… and mean it. Sure, it may be more exciting to shift gears as a generalist, but it could give you an edge to specialize. Areas such as technical writer, food writer, wealth management and institutional finance writer – even the most vanilla-sounding-niche-in-the-world, writer of white papers – are all niches with the word “specialist” assigned to them.
It’s true, finding jobs such as grant writer may be harder to come by, but I’m willing to bet decent bitcoin that when they do show up, you’ll be better positioned to land that gig if you’re highly knowledgeable in that niche, as a specialist, with samples to show.
7. I SEO you: Being knowledgeable about search engines, never a bad idea
Speaking of specializing, this one merits a mention not so much because “SEO writer” jobs themselves are burning up job boards – but more because it pays to know good SEO if you’re a writer in any discipline. As long as digital content exists, there will always be a need to understand how to make it bubble up and rank high on Google (and other search engines). And whereas the role of SEO specialist is a job in-and-of-itself depending on a company’s size and budget, it only adds value to your sell as a writer if you understand how to optimize your content’s rank and position by way of quality control, strategic keywords and possessing a foundational knowledge of UX. In that realm, an ebook like this one can help give you a crash course in understanding trends and how the ever-evolving state of SEO affects the content you’re creating everyday.
8. Podcasting: Call it radio 2.0
Throw a rock and I guarantee you’ll hit someone who’s devoured a podcast in the last month. (Actually, don’t throw a rock, bad idea.) The free-wheeling nature of the Internet lends itself to all sorts of innovation, and the podcast as a storytelling device is one of its best new byproducts. From the binge-worthy ‘Serial’ to ‘WTF with Marc Maron‘, there’s a ravenous population of listeners downloading podcasts on all sorts of newfangled topics. And brands are investing in podcasts to develop future bonds with their customers and clients in mobile-friendly ways, so consider it a great place to bone up if you want to break in as a writer in an emerging area that translates well to storytelling.
Want to give it a shot? Here’s a good place to start.
9. But first, brand yourself
As mentioned previously, the best thing about digital content is that it makes us all writers. We can publish instantaneously – be it your personal website, a blog post (like this one), a video, or a provocative Facebook post about a dog that needs adopting. Whether you like it or not, each of these is part of “your brand” as a writer and how prospective employers will think about you. The good news? Nobody had to employ you to put any of the aforementioned snapshots of how you think out into the world.
In this realm, ClearVoice offers resourceful tools that help you do everything from publish your portfolio to land freelance jobs with companies/clients in new areas, niche or otherwise. An online portfolio such as this one is a great way to put yourself out there, to show off work samples and position them in a way that represents who your brand is as a writer or artist. You can even publish pieces on elegant publishing platforms with little-to-no-barrier-to-entry (such as Medium) to show off how well you write. Ultimately, this costs nothing but time as you set up your online persona and position yourself for your first, or next, paying gig.
10. Just do it
Nike once coined the phrase to get you to buy shoes, and now I’m here to say that if you want to break into digital: Just do it. No excuses. No procrastination. No tomorrows. Do it, today. With passion and no fear of rejection. Writing is rewriting and this pursuit is not for the thin-skinned. Having said that, there are great rewards for those who do it…