The 12 Undeniable Truths of Freelance Writing

August 22nd, 2009 by Bob Bly

Here are 12 truths governing (as I see it) the state of the freelance writing profession today. Do you agree? Disagree? Are there any you would add to the list?

1?There is a lot of competition. When there it is a lot of competition in a market, it becomes a buyer?s market, which puts downward pressure on the prices you can charge.

2?A lot of your competitors are amateur writers who just want to get published ? and therefore will happily write for free what you want to get paid for.

3?The Internet has accelerated the decline of many types of freelance writing from a profession into a hobby.

4?The scarcer something is, the more you can charge for it. Therefore, you can make more money by writing about subjects that most other amateur and professional writers avoid.

5?Most writers gravitate toward topics they can write off the top of their heads or from quick online research (e.g., leadership); consequently, the pay scales are low.

6?If you choose a topic that is just a little bit technical or complicated or a little less well known (e.g., managing inventory in retail stores), the number of competitors decreases and your fees increase almost exponentially.

7?Clients will initially pay writers decent fees to provide writing in areas that are hot or trendy (e.g., blogging, social networking), but the pay scales quickly plummet when other writers discover the niche and jump into it.

8??Write what you know? is old advice but can give you a huge advantage as a writer ? providing you know something others will pay to read about.

9?Don?t study creative writing or marketing in college; study a subject you can specialize in and write about (e.g., economics, computer science).

10?Getting some real-world experience in the topic you want to write about can greatly enhance your marketability and increase your fees. For instance, if you want to write about precious metals, become an active investor in gold and silver.

11?Any time the client can make more money from what you write for them than they pay you to write it, you can charge high fees. This is why direct response copywriting is so lucrative.

12?Internet information buyers will pay little or no money for content from a writer, but lots of money for content from a recognized expert. So you should take steps to establish yourself as a guru in the subject you write about.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, August 22nd, 2009 at 9:45 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

48 responses about “The 12 Undeniable Truths of Freelance Writing”

  1. Bill Perry said:

    I don’t do any sort of freelance writing, so I wouldn’t say that I’m “qualified” to agree or disagree with your 12 Truths.

    The way I see it, a person like myself could build a freelance business just keeping the 12 Truths in mind, and that would get them to a point of acceptable competency, faster than doing their own trial-and-error “research” in their own businesses.

    I’ve been discovering that with my own personal temperament, I am not that good at long-term writing. I seem to be having more success and fun at doing a “set it and forget it” approach with online content. Whether that’s a multi-page affiliate site, or a niche blog that I have no intent of writing for long-term. Just pre-loading it with content.

  2. Henry said:

    I would disagree with #9 for an obviously biased reason: I majored in Fiction writing.

    All of my writing revolves around story and the guidance I got from experienced fiction writers, storytellers, and journalists in college was worth the tuition.

    I think the rule should be, “Don’t stop learning just because you graduated.”

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  4. GD Jones said:

    # 10 has a typo. Typos are bad for business.

  5. Bob Bly said:

    GD Jones: Thanks for pointing out the typo, though I disagree with your conclusion. And I think you need to read the below:

    http://bly.com/blog/general/why-i-never-give-unsolicited-advice/

  6. Greg said:

    Logic tells me all are true. I do not have enough experience to go beyond that.

    What I can add is that most of the non-internet copywriting I have seen is either being done by amateurs or is amateurish. I am a little shocked by most Directors of Marketing that I speak with, although these are at small companies in my market.

    The two biggest sins I see are no promise of a benefit — just lists of features — and poor calls to action.

    My experience in trying to get Internet related work is that the pay is horrible. I do some work, largely for the experience and to build a portfolio. I recently had one offer of $3 per article in an area that I know something about. The offerer was actually surprised when I turned it down.

  7. Kristi Holl said:

    A surprising number of your truths apply to fiction writing as well. Authors of fiction who are former doctors or lawyers can “write what they know” and produce suspenseful fiction easier than some who just took writing courses in college. Writing for print (books) pays tons better than stories on the Internet. The competition is high, but much of it is made up of writers who, so far, only have a blog or similar writing experience. Interesting thoughts.

    Kristi Holl
    Writer’s First Aid blog

  8. Bob Bly said:

    Kristi: This is what I was going to tell Henry (see #2 above): If you study a subject other than writing, you have something to write about, whether in fiction or nonfiction. If you pursue an MFA, then all you know is writing.

  9. Riya Aarini said:

    Re: #9: I majored in English Literature in college, and I know nothing–but at least I can write well!

  10. Bob Bly said:

    Riya: When I started freelancing as a copywriter, most of my clients were industrial companies. They all were concerned about whether the writer they hired could understand their products, which were technical in nature. When I told them I had a B.S. in engineering, their concern vanished and they hired me instantly. Clients do not view degrees in creative writing or English as a distinguishing factor when hiring writers; whether they should or not is another story.

  11. Kevin B said:

    The current glut of writers is not also driving down fees, it’s also driving down writing standards. No wonder newspaper circulations decrease every year. Their writing is lousy.

  12. Bob Bly said:

    I think the Internet is also a root cause of poor writing. The Internet originated a culture that says everything should be free, especially written content. When you force people to work for low or no pay, you get the least-talented individiuals doing it for an audience that values speed and price over quality.

  13. Yolander Prinzel said:

    I’m going to disagree with #1, and #’s 2 and 3 are the reasons that I disagree. With the onslaught of amateur and hobbyist writers comes a wave of bad work, unprofessional attitudes, missed deadlines, uncaring customer service (actually, many amateurs and hobbyists don’t see the clients as customers), and a dearth of the experience necessary to create truly compelling web copy and content.

    That is not to say that there aren’t exceptions but when this is the rule, many clients come to a professional the second time around and are very happy to pay professional rates. Therefore, many freelancers–even generalists–are able to increase their rates BECAUSE of the competition.

  14. Ken said:

    While I myself would not even consider myself an amateur writer, I completely agree with your suppositions and think that they become more relevant as they go on. For me 8 through 10, studying what you find interesting and writing about that, is the most important lesson here. Your enthusiasm and expertise will show through in your writing, making your work much more valuable.

  15. Genuine Chris Johnson said:

    #12: This is true true true true true.

    Also note: experts can easily be persuaded to be broadcast so they are perceived as experts. This is how I make my living…as an amplifier.

  16. Henry said:

    Writing is a great major and I’m still going to defend it. However, I understand why you recommend against it.

    This is how I look at it…

    Writing is the gun. It’s the mechanism for communication that people see. You want to have the biggest, most powerful, most accurate gun you can get your hands on.

    Specialized knowledge is the ammunition. No matter how big your gun is, you’re not going to accomplish much without the ammo.

    You need them both and you need to work hard to get both. So which one should you get first? You don’t need a degree in writing to learn to write, but it shortcuts the process.

    When I started college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I picked a tool that would be useful in almost every industry. Something I enjoyed doing.

    Since then, as I continue to discover what I like, I gather more and more ammunition.

    After a few years, the title of your degree becomes irrelevant. All that matters is what you’ve done.

    Some of my writing is for the alternative health field. I’ve learned everything I need to know from going to conferences, hanging around Chiropractors, nutritionists, and doctors than I would have by earning a premed degree in college.

    But it’s my experience writing (a skill I honed in college) that allows me to use that knowledge to earn money.

    Am I off base or does that make sense?

  17. Bob Bly said:

    Henry: You can learn writing without majoring in it at colllege. I did. In fact, I never took a single writing course — and I am the author of 75 books.

    But the only way to tell the client you have a B.S. in economics or geology is to earn those degrees in college. The client or publisher will accept you as a writer if you are self-taught; the writing degree does not impress him one iota more. But he will not recognize you as an expert in a subject matter unless you have a degree or work experience in that topic. This is why I consider obtaining an English or marketing major a less-than-optimum investment in college tuition and time spent. If you already have it, fine. But if you are planning college now, I would recommend you choose as I have suggested.

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  19. Kamil said:

    Read a lot. Write a lot.

  20. Lou Wasser said:

    Bob offers sage advice about learning something else in college while studiously avoiding an English major. Also,MFA’s are not what they’re cracked up to be.

    A glorious exception though to the dreamy dead end of a formal writer’s education is the newly developed graduate certification program in nonfiction at CUNY in New York City. I just completed a year there, and am pleased with the results.

    You have to have been already published to gain entry (they’re not hungering for kids fresh out of college). But what they offer is a training by the top senior editors in the country (NY Times, WSJ) rather than academics. It’s a much more practical approach than an MFA program.

    http://web.gc.cuny.edu/writersinstitute/

  21. Andrew said:

    It’s true most buyers take advantage of the building competition. The higher the competition, the lesser rate for writers. Moreover, others always reason out that they don’t have enough budget to pay for their own writers. Why don’t they just write their own articles than hiring someone to write for them?

  22. Bob Bly said:

    Andrew: the reason is that they lack one or more of the following: time, desire, or ability to write articles of the quality they desire. The reason they offer minimal pay is one nor more of the following: (a) they don’t value quality, (b) they don’t believe your quality is superior, or (c) they can buy it for less from your competitors.

  23. TC/Copywriter Underground said:

    #3 is a good observation and a very cogent statement about what’s happened to the middle and low ends of the copywriting market.

    After 23+ years in the marketing biz, I’ve adapted by doing less writing and more consulting & teaching.

    In other words, I’m getting paid for what I know (and can impart) instead of what I write.

    That’s in line with Bob’s suggestion to specialize in a less-crowded niche, though I’m not limited by industry.

  24. Don Marti said:

    It’s a little more complicated than just an expectation for free stuff on the Internet. The biggest problem with writing for online goes back to bad metrics and bad media buying–advertisers throwing away their money buying cheap ads on bad content creates an incentive for publications to run more bad content, cheaper and faster.

    Running high-quality articles makes a publication a great filter to pull out the most qualified buyers. For example, in the b2b IT market, you want to attract the high-expertise IT professional, who has control or strong influence over a meaningful budget. You don’t need the bored helpdesk staffer or “code monkey.” So you have to get your ads to run on an accurate, information-dense article, which is expensive to do right.

    But if you just measure clicks and don’t make the effort to connect the campaign to the results, you end up paying for the cheapest clicks, which are usually either pointless arguments or wrong advice.

  25. Bob Bly said:

    Don: I think the problem is the client views articles as a commodity. He reads that posting lots of content will raise his Google ranking. He does not believe that Google can distinguish between real content and crud. Therefore, he is content to buy crud. When his site ranking doesn’t rise, he thinks he has failed to add enough content, so orders more crude from $5 an article elance writers who give him exactly what he has paid for.

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  29. Steven Rainwater said:

    Hi Bob,

    I agree with your truths to the letter. I am the reluctant poster child for a few of them and am living by some of the others as I reinvent myself.

    My professional background consists of 15 years in distribution and distribution consulting and more than 10 years in marketing and sales. My formal education is in theology, philosophy and apologetics – college and some grad school.

    Since 2004 I have enjoyed a blissful existence writing marketing and PR copy for industrial companies and profile, technical and news articles on many subjects for trade publications. My time split fairly evenly between these two fields, I managed six figures in each year since then and about a half hour nap every afternoon. It is a life I always imagined and work I was made for…I only wished I had not waited until my early 40′s to discover.

    About 1-2 years ago I began to follow some of the reporting from trade media industry experts like Paul Conley who heralded the coming of the new media and decline of opportunity for trade journalists and trade publications in general who were slow to adapt to new business models. While I watched many enterprises come apart, I figured it would never happen to me…after all I am just one guy with great editor and client relationships. How hard could it be to keep busy? If I ever had a lull in work or a space on my calender to fill, it was only a matter of a few e-mails and I had another assignment. My next progression was to start writing books, which I had recently begun.

    Early this year my work shut off like a faucet. Almost overnight I went from earning about $400-$600 per day to earning about that much per week…or less. All of my previous clients had no more work, and a couple of magazines even went out of business within months for lack of ad revenue.

    Concerned but not intimidated (after all I am a retired marketer and sales guy), I figured I would just go after some new clients. So March-May was a marketing frenzy for me. What I found is exactly as you said – the kind of writing I was doing had become a commodity, and the marketplace had completely changed. Holding to my rates of the last 5 years, I was laughed out of most project quotations, and have taken a few trade witing projects at half the fee I usually get.

    At the moment I am working to define that niche you speak of and invent myself to write again. For me, even a bad day working freelance is better than any day in a cubicle, but I am trying to package what I bring to the table and learn to maximize it.

    Any advice from the gallery is highly valued.

    slr

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  31. Bob Bly said:

    Steve Rainwater: think “high tech” instead of industrial, forget trade journals, do both print and web, and develop a specialty in some little niche that is not yet crowded; e.g., marketing B2B on Facebook, etc.

  32. Sarah said:

    “There is a lot of competition. When there it is a lot of competition in a market, it becomes a buyer’s market…”

    This is so true. With so many freelance writers in the market, we are struggling to get the highest paying job, but for most of us, we are simply struggling to get a job, regardless of the payment.

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  35. Sam Reiki said:

    I agree that because of competition, there are so many freelance writers who are offering cheap services to clients. In this way, more experienced writers find it hard to compete with their rates.

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