If you want to break a leg in the industry these days, it’s important to understand what you need to master, why it’s important and of course, how to go after it. In part one of a five-part series on growing your freelancing skill set, we examine the evolving role of a scribe in the burgeoning world of freelancing.
Little did I know as a starry-eyed seven-year-old that my big ‘ole dreams of becoming a writer would come true. Or that they would look mighty different than the glamorized lifestyle I imagined for myself. When I graduated from high school and set my sights on a journalism degree at a state college, I proudly wrote “Editor in Chief” as my ultimate career goal for myself. I thought about editing the glossy pages, making smart decisions about what story made the cut and didn’t, and of course, dressing-to-the-nines every day.
Fast-forward a decade later, and I spend most of my working days in jeans at some co-working space, headphones on, Spotify streaming, freelancing away for the many publications that always seemed far-fetched. Most of the time I kick off my shoes and go barefoot, and on good days, I log around six articles.
But what I couldn’t have prepared for — and frankly what no one could have predicted — was how the role of a writer would dramatically shift over 10 years. My days of romancing the top-of-the-masthead role are long gone, and now, I’m more focused on building up my content strategy hustle, while also getting through my byline bucket list.
In other words: My full-time job is juggling gigs from a variety of clients, requiring a whole school of skill sets.
Sometimes I’m practicing my reporting chops, other times I’m pulling SEO trends and data, and others, I’m wordsmithing website copy to be more compelling. It’s a rarity these days that anyone is just a writer, since the job description has grown to include a whole host of other marketing and brand-centric responsibilities.
How the gig economy has changed writing
More than ever, companies are seeing the value of freelance writers, as opposed to staffers, according to the vice president of marketing for Budsies and MyPetsies, Frankie Burns. Instead of having your go-to person to scribble every copy need, businesses are utilizing various writers who have specialities spanning across blog writing to API voice scripts — and beyond.
Depending on where you’ve invested your training, Burns says this fundamental shift can be a blessing, or a curse. “The industrious writers of the world that thrive off of independence and autonomy tend to find the gig economy both liberating and fulfilling, whereas the writers that function more comfortably with the support and stability of traditional employers tend to find it personally and economically crippling,” he explains.
I’m lucky to fall in the former category, often balancing content clients with journalism assignments, and a few ghostwriting opportunities as they pop into my inbox. It ebbs and flows, and isn’t what I expected when I decided to become Lois Lane many moons ago. But frankly, as with most things, the unexpected career curve has created a happier and more fruitful income.
1. The changing mediascape: horror movie or lemonade stand?
Entrepreneur and storyteller Janine Just describes this move as a horror movie for media, but a lemonade stand with a line for writers who can keep up. “While it’s scary to see how the publishing industry is changing so quickly, it’s only the pivot to where the next evolution of storytelling will be, and with that, writers are in a fantastic place to capitalize on all of this,” she explains. “Contributing to video scripts, to social campaigns, this is the new norm for a writer to be working on ten projects with deadlines at a time.”
Because there are fewer in-office meetings for writers, part of the transformation has also included the ability to work from home — or write from the Andes Mountains of Ecuador — wherever you choose. Most of the time, Wi-Fi is the only must-have for many millennial writers, especially as they value experiences over salaries or 401Ks. This of course can be a benefit, but one that requests a new level of discipline that former gainfully employed editors are unfamiliar with. As the vice president of technology at 5W PR explains, with flexibility being sought after, writers find they are able to generate more work, while also working remotely on a schedule that suits them. The catch being actually meeting deadline without a top editor staring you down.
2. Ya gotta be an absolute hustler.
Once you can master the balancing act — without becoming an Instagrammable-clown — founding partner of Agency Clear, Andrew Graham, shares there’s never been a better market for go-getting journalists (and content strategist and copywriters) to make a lucrative living. The only caveat? Ya gotta be an absolute hustler. “The gig economy rewards speed and quality, but writing doesn’t scale. So it’s either a matter of outworking everyone else or being more resourceful,” he shares.
After all, you know how the saying goes: With demand comes an overzealous amount of supply. It’s the writer’s role to prove they’re the right fit for the opportunity, time and time again. It isn’t something they taught us in college (and at the risk of sounding trite — at least in my days, anyway)?
3. Digital is still killing print… but not the written word.
When I was in journalism school, most discussions around freelancing revolved around commissioning an article to a newspaper. Or negotiating your rate from a $1/word to $1.50 for a magazine print edition. My campus newspaper was just starting to grow their online presence, so digital writing wasn’t a thing quite yet.
Back then, the concept of selling a few stories a month and living off ramen noodles seemed plausible, but these days, writers capitalize on a brand’s needs to make the money talk. After all, not only is print on its way out, but it’s paying less than it used to. Digital content is ever-growing, but won’t bring home a pretty penny. The income is found in content marketing, SEO strategies and other writing-forward opportunities.
4. And the appetite for content will still drive more demand.
Businesses are catching on to the value of the written word and how it impacts their bottom line—but writers have to ensure they have the training to deliver. “Sophisticated companies are using more marketing budgets for content. Communications agencies are pivoting to selling integrated services, which has content as the foundation for paid, owned, and earned media. Mid-sized and smaller companies are leaning on memorable content for engagement on social channels,” Graham explains. “Whether we’re talking about short-form content or long-form, it all needs to be created by somebody. The appetite for content that helps sell is what’s driving demand.”
5. The pre-digital era allowed writers to be simply good (without marketing themselves).
So how do you prepare and market yourself? By making yourself into the business you, frankly, already are. This doesn’t just mean LLC-ing for your taxes, but polishing your talent and becoming your own greatest fan. “An excellent writer needs to be able to market themselves. If they can’t, the gig economy is harder since it rewards quality and promotion in tandem. The pre-digital era allowed writers to be be simply good writers and they didn’t need to necessarily be able to market,” explains CEO of Zen Media, Shama Hyder.
Perhaps Zach Boyette, the co-founder of GalacticFed.com, a 130+ strong growth marketing agency, explains it best: rather than learning how to write in a single company’s voice, things are more dynamic and fast moving. “Rather than learning how to write in a single company’s voice, writers must learn to be flexible and quickly adapt to a given company’s message and context,” he continues. “With multiple clients and a myopia of topics, being comfortable with change is the name of the game.”
6. One-dimensional writers will limit their potential.
By adapting, and recognizing your areas of improvement. A non-negotiable quality of a writer after all, is having thick skin. And if you can’t tell your Google Analytics from your Google Adwords tool, it’s time to learn. “From bloggers, content writers, authors, to copywriters, writers need to understand how to craft a story so that people will want to engage with it. They have to understand selling copy, SEO, social media and beyond,” explains Martine Volmar, the CEO of Kirani, LLC. “As the ways that we consume content as broadened so as the opportunities to reach people and writers have to understand the landscape in order to be successful. One-dimensional writers will limit their potential.”
Over the next few weeks, we’ll discuss facets of modern writing — from content strategy to SEO and CMS exploration— giving you a 101 guide on the new normal for 2019.