Today I'd like to answer a series of questions sent to me by Matt on a webmaster forum I frequent, where I often talk about freelance writing issues. I hope my advice to Matt helps other new freelance writers out there. I've broken his message into several parts to make things easier.
Note: Where you see references to "DP" we're talking about the DigitalPoint forums.
I need your help if you can help me. I feel like the past 2.5 years I've been spending online as a "freelance writer" have been a complete waste of time and a literal failure. I've always gone for advertising in the Content Creation section of DP and have basically been paid crap-money for writing general SEO keyword articles. When I started writing those types of articles in late-2006 I actually didn't realize there were other places or markets I could go to that would pay me more for writing. Heck, I just realized several months ago that you could earn $50+ for a single article, but most of that money comes in specializing in article topics, right?
You're not alone. Many writers who initially start off targeting the webmaster community with SEO Web content writing services have the same problem. They turn to the jobs they see advertised in those specific communities, and allow those ads (and comments from buyers in that specific market) to influence how they view freelance writing in general. While it's understandable to assume what you see all the time publicly represents the market, when it comes to freelancing, that's rarely the case.
While, yes, I'm sure it's disappointing to have spent that much time pursuing markets you may not be happy with, don't consider it a waste of time. At the very least you learned what not to. So let me start with this bit of advice: stop wasting your time in the DP content creation section. Want to use it effectively? Put up a single ad there, link to it from your signature, and then contribute to discussions (rather than the marketplace).
You'll find more, higher-paying, writing jobs from forums and similar communities by showcasing your knowledge in your specialty area than you will with simple self-promotion. That should be an afterthought. Make them trust you and like what you have to say, and have the link in your signature where they can go to find more. Better yet, forget the ad altogether and link to your professional site instead--save the ads for short-term sales.
So for the past 2.5 years I've been working part-time as a freelance writer not being able to devote myself full-time to it because of commitments to college, family, and so forth. But now the time has come when I'm getting ready to graduate (Bachelor of Arts in Psychology) and finding myself in a position where I'm going to be actually needing more money to support myself and my family. I can write well and have written for numerous clients here on DP and elsewhere (from Craigslist and other various places, but all still writing the same type of keyword-SEO articles). I could write confidently in the psychology and mental health field as possible areas to specialize my writing and that's what I'd like to do.
The problem is-- where do I begin? I read through that whole 11+ page thread just yesterday about cheap writers and so forth. There's a wealth of information in that thread, but where do I begin to even look for clients that will pay decent money for well written articles in the psychology/mental health field?
The good news: health-oriented fields tend to pay well.
The bad news: in order to get those high-paying medical / health gigs, it helps to have your Ph.D. or MD, and years of experience over a psychology degree.
If you plan to stick to basic educational Web content (which doesn't have to equal solely search engine fodder), you can probably find decent gigs (paying at least the $50 per article you mentioned). Where to begin though? Well, that's tough.
There's no single "right" way to begin (or change) a freelance writing career. I would suggest considering the following though:
- Get a professional website set up if you don't have one yet. Publish your rates (doing that, especially as a Web content writer, stops the low-budget clients from wasting your time). If you have portfolio samples that you're allowed to include--not ghostwritten with full rights to the client, unless they give you permission--post them (or link to them). Only post portfolio samples that you feel represent the pay rates you're asking for. Include an "about" page where you can detail your credentials as well, to make up for the lack of samples if there's nothing to show yet.
- Set up a niche blog in your specialty area. This is especially important if you don't feel those past SEO content samples would justify the rates you're hoping to charge. A blog allows you to create regular fresh samples you can easily link to, and at any quality level you'd like.
- Since you've already started building a presence in the DP forums, figure out how your specialty may apply to potential buyers there. Remember the forum consists of much more than webmasters looking for cheap ad-supported content. It's also frequented by business owners and professionals from much larger organizations who come to learn about Internet marketing, SEO, improving their company's website, etc. They may only post if they have specific questions, but if you're getting your name out there they'll still find you. So for example, if you wanted to write higher-end SEO content, you might post about the value of that kind of writing in the SEO forum there. Or if you wanted to focus on professional blogging in that niche, you might post in the blogging forum.
In addition, I don't really have that much of a portfolio other than the crap-keyword-filled SEO articles that really aren't valued by anyone. I do have several articles written in the general psychology and mental health topics over at Associated Content that I've written over the previous two years. I also have academic papers that I could turn into articles or put up on a website if I were to create one that showcased my services and sample articles. I obviously also have the fact that I'm graduating with a B.A. in Psychology, which probably bolsters my authority in the field.
I know not everyone agrees with me on this, but I don't consider Associated Content to be portfolio-worthy in any way if you're trying to earn higher rates. Remember that AC is nothing more than a single client, and their pay is pitiful and on par with that of the cheap content clients. Choose portfolio samples from multiple clients, and if you don't have them, start with a blog like I mentioned previously. Another option that may work well for you considering your specialty area would be to offer free services for portfolio pieces. I would never suggest doing that for a member of your typical target market (it sets a bad precedent, and in most cases the value is minimal unless the client would be exceptionally well-known). Instead, look for a reputable nonprofit organization in the niche. Then it's not only a good way to get a portfolio piece, but it's good PR for your business as well.
But are there even any markets that pay for psychology and mental health articles? I wouldn't know the first thing about where to find them. You mentioned in the thread about underground writing markets here at DP-- I had no clue they even existed!
DP is just one marketplace. Look beyond it. Never limit yourself to just one (or a few) potential places or ways to find clients. You write SEO content, so build your website and use those SEO skills to create your own copy and content that will rank your site well and bring in traffic from prospective clients. Start that blog. Take part in discussions rather than just advertising in the forums. Look for forums in the health fields - you may find doctors, for example, who need content for their own websites.
It's not an immediate process, so it's good that you're thinking about it even a little bit before graduating. Getting on these things aggressively now will put you in a much better position a month from now, and it continually gets better over time. But remember you can't be lax about it. It's going to be toughest early on, but that's when it's most important to focus on that platform. Other people aren't yet building your visibility for you, so you need to do it yourself.
That's how you break into "underground" markets. You build visibility. You build and work to maintain a positive public image. And you make yourself accessible. For you specifically, I'd really suggest focusing on making a presence in health communities. That's likely your best bet for Web writing gigs with higher-budget clients within your niche.