Last week I reached out to Demand Media Studios (DMS) writers who are upset about the announcement that there will be fewer writing gigs available from the company. Some of these writers are panicked because they aren’t sure where to go from here.

As promised, we’re running a five-post series this week for those writers (and any freelance writers looking for a fresh start). To kick things off let’s talk about different freelance writing paths you might choose.

More importantly, I want to share three types of freelance writing you can move into today — as in right now. Sometimes we get caught up in the traditional image of a freelance writer waiting for responses from magazine queries or hoping for a freelance journalism assignment from a news publication. There are other options, and those other options offer fewer barriers, growing client bases, and potentially higher pay.

I’m a big believer in choosing a specialty as a freelance writer. We’ve talked about this in depth before, so I won’t go into details again. Suffice it to say that specialists are frequently paid much better than generalists who claim they can write about anything under the sun with a bit of research.

You can specialize in niches. Or you can specialize in styles of writing. There’s nothing to say you can only have a single specialty (for example I’m both a professional blogger and a freelance business writer — my freelance blogging work even usually falls under that business writing heading).

If you want to learn more about specialization versus generalization, here are some posts you should check out in our archives first.

Web Content Writing

If you’ve written for content mills like Demand, you’re already familiar with this type of freelance writing. But Web content writing comes in many forms. For example, in addition to mill work you can pursue anything from SEO Web content (for end clients or SEO and Internet marketing firms) to Web-based features (such as writing for online versions of newspapers and magazines).

One of the most common problems I’ve heard about in this specialty area is the lack of high paying advertised gigs. But that’s not a surprise. Here’s the thing. There are countless writers around the world who are willing to work for next to nothing. You’ll find these low paying gigs advertised everywhere from forums to classified sites to freelance marketplaces.

Whenever a high paying gig is published there, it makes sense that many of these writers think it’s their ticket to the big leagues. People apply in droves. And many of those applicants are completely unqualified. Mill work, for example, does not make you qualified for Web features at several hundred dollars a piece in the eyes of many buyers.

Buyers with adequate budgets don’t have the time to sort through this pile of applications. And they know many pros don’t bother checking these sources anyway — skewing their results downward. Instead they frequently find writers through the following ways:

  1. Writers they’ve worked with in the past;
  2. Referrals from people they trust (employees, other contractors, colleagues, etc.);
  3. Search engine results (after searching for writers in a certain specialty area).

If you haven’t worked with high paying clients in the past, you clearly won’t get repeat gigs from them, so the first scenario isn’t going to help. If you want to get gigs from these other sources early on you need to grow your network and make sure you have a professional website ranking highly in search engines (for specific keywords like “health writer” rather than generic keywords like “freelance writer” which are more difficult to rank for anyway).

These are things you should start working on immediately if you want a consistent flow of gigs down the road. But I know you can’t wait around. In the meantime, direct pitching can be more effective than relying on job boards and freelance marketplaces. For example, find a company you love that doesn’t have great Web content yet. They might not realize they could benefit from hiring a writer like you. Email or call them and offer your services. If you don’t like pitching, it will take a bit longer but you can still succeed. Just build your writer platform and network more aggressively from the start.


Blogging is just a specialized form of Web content writing, so what I said in the previous section applies here too. A good way to get started is to launch your own blog. Make that blog in your specialty area, targeting prospects.

For example, if you blog about taxes you might launch a blog targeting accountants. Rather than publishing consumer-level tax information, you write for your target clients — maybe SEO benefits of blogging for an accountant’s site or teaching them how to engage with their own customers through a blog. Teaching is an excellent way to get prospects’ attention. I did this years ago when press release writing was my primary service.

I would teach others how to write and distribute press releases effectively. Because I ran a PR firm at the time (and my degree is in that specialty area), I had knowledge some couldn’t get elsewhere without hiring consultants. By sharing advice freely, clients could see that I knew what I was talking about.

Some would immediately hire me. Others would try to write their own press releases first. Once they realized the amount of work that really goes into specialized writing (and getting the results they want), they would come back and hire me for their next project.

I did that through blogging, forum posting, and writing an e-book. If the type of work you want to do is blogging, you can focus on a niche topic area instead. It’s like a living, breathing portfolio piece and with blog search engines and social media tools, you can get posts in front of the right people much easier these days, even if your blog is new.

Just as important as your blog is in attracting blogging clients, it can be an income source in its own right. You can publish ads for example (although that will be more effective when you have a lot of traffic). You can promote affiliate products and services. If you do, just make sure you’re transparent or you risk hurting your blog’s reputation. You can also use your blog to sell information products like e-books and short reports. You can bring in money that way even before you attract clients looking to hire you as a blogger.

Business Writing / Commercial Writing

Business writing is a fairly broad type of freelance writing. And it’s very much in demand. Whether a business is trying to grow, a new one is launching, or companies need to outsource writing because they can’t afford full-time staff anymore, these gigs are always available. You can approach them the same way you would with Web content writing — build a platform and network for long-term interest and kick things off with direct pitching if you need immediate work.

If you’re not sure what business writing (or commercial writing) includes, here are some examples:

  • white papers
  • email marketing copy
  • website copy
  • sales pages
  • brochures
  • press releases

By no means is this list exhaustive. Businesses need internal communication writers as much as those specializing in external sales copy. You could be asked to write a long annual report or come up with short slogan ideas or brief ad copy. You don’t have to do all of these things. For example, I don’t care for long-form aggressive sales letters, so I don’t offer that service to clients. I specialize in other types of business writing — like business blogging, press releases, and white papers. If you love writing sales copy, you might take the opposite approach. It’s completely up to you.

If you want to transition quickly into client work beyond content mills, direct pitching can be a great option for you. But I know that not all freelance writers are comfortable aggressively marketing themselves. That's fine too. While it's highly effective for some freelancers, there are equally effective ways to land new gigs.

When you build your writer platform and focus on your network, you can take a seemingly more passive approach to finding freelance writing jobs. More appropriately, the jobs find you. The approach is so effective that I intend to publish a book on it next year (it's already drafted). While you won't get new clients tomorrow this way, within several weeks to just a few months you can have more demand for your services than time available. And let me tell you, it's a great feeling to be able to pick and choose the best gigs like that.

Whichever approach feels better for you, the key is that you start today. Don't wait until your current work dries up completely. You can make the transition much smoother if you have a prospect list ready to pitch or a platform already built. So get started on that. It's equally important to move forward with a plan. When you come back tomorrow we'll talk about the basics of market research and planning for freelance writers.