The Evolution of the Freelance Writing Industry: 10 Years of Positive Changes

The Evolution of the Freelance Writing Industry Part 1

All Freelance Writing has served the freelance writing community for ten years now. And what a journey it's been!

Not only has this site changed significantly, going through two re-brandings -- from to to, but the industry itself has changed quite a bit in that time.

Some of those changes are good. Some, not so much. And lately we've even seen trends that some of us thought died off years ago re-emerge with fancy new names and most of the same old problems.

Let's take a look back at the last ten years. How have things gotten better for freelance writers? How have they gotten worse? And where are we going next?

Today I'd like to share some of my thoughts with you on the more positive changes in the freelance writing community.

I should note that my focus here largely revolves around business writing and online writing, such as blogging. If you have insights into other specialties like magazine writing, writing for trades, technical writing, etc., I'd love it if you would leave a comment to share your thoughts on changes in those areas.

The Replacement of Penny-Per-Word Freelance Writing Markets

This blog originally launched in 2006 as as a group blog. The idea was for five writers to challenge themselves and document their progress.

One of the biggest industry issues we covered then was the problem of bottom-of-the-barrel markets. I'm not even talking about content mill rates here.

Back then, the rates you scoff at now would have been seen as a gift by many new web writers (though I wouldn't have agreed with them).

We talked about $5.00 articles which were all the rage, and how freelancers could do better by targeting different markets.

The situation got worse before it got better. We saw $1.00 article offers increasingly ("penny-per-word" gigs).

And then, to my astonishment at the time, I started seeing more and more buyers offering $.001 per word (yes, that's one tenth of one penny per-word).

It was insane. It was laughable. It was a result of a push for more, more, more when it came to web content.

Much of that content was regurgitated, keyword-stuffed drivel. Blame Google. If they didn't rank that garbage well at the time, it wouldn't have happened.

Thankfully that nosediving trend reversed itself a few years after. I'd say "thank Google" in this case, but they've caused plenty of new problems along the way, so, nah.

Are these ultra-crappy gigs still around? Sure they are. But they no longer dominate even low-level marketplaces the way they used to.

Where new writers would be offered $1-5 as a starting rate per article in the past, we quickly saw an increase in sites offering $25 (still insanely low, but a drastic improvement if you weren't familiar with things at their lowest).

The intro-level market feels like slightly less of a cesspool.

Along with the rising bottom-of-the-barrel rates, we've also seen better advertised freelance writing gigs in general.

These days it's not uncommon to see blogging gigs, for example, advertised at rates of $50, $100, and even more per post. It's still a far cry from what you'll find on the private market, especially for business blogging jobs, but overall I've seen better web writing opportunities made available to freelancers.

An Ever-Expanding Pool of Markets

One of the best things about freelance writing over the last decade is the number of new markets available (keeping in mind we're talking about things like copywriting and online writing; magazine writing is not my specialty, so don't cry about how this isn't true because print writing rates or gigs have gone to hell; tell us about it in the comments instead).

The reasons for this ever-growing number of freelance writing opportunities?

  • New websites and blogs launch every day.
  • New companies keep launching, and they need copywriters.
  • International businesses want to break into new markets and hire local writers in those markets.
  • The heavy emphasis on "content marketing" (really just a buzz word for tools and tactics hijacked from other areas of marketing, and largely PR) means there's still plenty of the "more, more, more" mentality when it comes to content, even though there's a higher value placed on quality than previously.
  • Google changes their algorithm all the damn time, leaving companies scrambling for new copy or edits to existing content.

There is a near never ending supply of freelance writing jobs these days. And good ones at that. Can't find any? Then maybe:

  • You're targeting the wrong markets (in which case, use my free target market worksheet to get you back on track);
  • You don't have an adequate USP (unique selling proposition) to appeal to those better clients (in which case, read my guide on creating effective USPs for freelance writers);
  • You aren't trying hard enough (in which case, let me cry you a river... now grow up and do the work; that's the only way you'll succeed in the freelance game).

These markets are out there. It's not an issue of supply and demand. It's often an issue of obscurity.

It's not always in a client's best interest to advertise gigs. They get bombarded with huge numbers of applications, often from unqualified writers.

Looking to hire freelance writers? Browse professional profiles in the freelance writer directory. (Or if you just want to prove me wrong and advertise a great freelance writing gig, post a job ad.)

That's why the best freelance writing jobs are rarely advertised. You need to find them. And sometimes the best freelance writing clients are the ones who don't even realize they need you yet. Get out there and show them why they do!

The Rise and Fall of Content Mills

OK. OK. Because we're only talking about positive changes in the freelance writing industry today, technically I only care about the fall of content mills.

This still makes me giddy.

Content mills (formerly called "content networks" and later re-named "content farms" -- because slapping new buzzwords on things is totally the "in" thing to do) are the pet peeve of all pet peeves for me.

If, somehow, you're not familiar with them, content mills were basically sites that hired massive numbers of writers (sometimes just called "content creators") to write equally massive amounts of content. The quality was often questionable.

Sometimes they published this content on their own ad-supported sites. Sometimes they acted as a middleman, selling it to more legit-sounding publications. Sometimes they did both.

The worst part of content mills from a freelance writing perspective was the low pay. Some paid writers based on pageviews. Others paid residual earnings based on ad share. Some paid low flat fees, such as $15 per article.

And some couldn't make up their damn minds, changing entire pay schemes after writers had already contributed dozens (or hundreds) of articles.

These weren't even seen as credible clips by many editors, meaning this content often wouldn't serve as a step up to something better. Even when it might, there were far better ways to get your foot in the door in the freelance writing world.

Other than for hobbyists (who aren't my concern here -- this site is for writers building businesses of their own), they've never had much of a place.

You may have noticed me talking about content mills in past tense. Technically they still exist. But they shouldn't. If we all ignore them really hard together, maybe that wish will come true!

There was practically a crusade against content mills here over the years when this was still a group blog. More specifically, we:

Yolander Prinzel even ran a series where she put these sites to the test and reported on their earnings potential. (And she was both fair and far kinder to mills than I was -- which is surprising if you know Yo.)

Let's be real for a moment. A lot of the content put out by content mill writers was bad. It was often useless. It could be repetitive. Much of that content was terribly-written, poorly fact-checked, and comical in its absurdity.

It was only a matter of time before Google was forced to act. After all, their supposed interest was in promoting high quality, authoritative content, not shallow nonsense that added little to no value to the web.

Were there decent writers working for these places? Sure. Did I feel bad that those decent writers were occasionally ridiculed and accused of writing third-rate content? Maybe a smidge.

But that sympathy only went so far. Why? If you don't want to be associated with the worst writing on the web, then damn well don't associate your work with some of the worst writing on the web!

Well, eventually Google did act (around 2011 if my memory serves me right; it might not -- Yep!). Google's Panda update went after these sorts of mass-content-producing sites putting out material that didn't really inform or offer value to readers.

Shortly before this, Google started letting people block certain sites from their search results. When this kind of data was factored into their ranking signals (see the previous link for more details), content mills took a hit -- a big one.

The fallout was glorious.

Well, it was glorious unless you were one of the folks who missed the writing on the wall and suddenly found your assignments drying up (in which case I hope the fall of content mills pushed you to pursue better opportunities).

Those are three of the most positive changes that come to mind when I think about the freelance writing industry and community over the last decade. How about you? Tell us what positive changes you've seen as a freelance writer over the years in the comments below. (And hang on to those negative stories. We'll get there a bit later this month!)

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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4 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Freelance Writing Industry: 10 Years of Positive Changes”

  1. I love this look back, Jenn. I remember how shocked I was when I entered the freelance industry 8 years ago to learn about content mills. I never heard of them, and, yes, I even completed an application for one. I was accepted but never wrote a thing for them when I saw how ludicrous the pay was – not to mention the topics!

    What I have seen change is the slow acceptance of the benefit of content writing (or whatever the term du jour is) by some really “traditional” industries . And even more positive – the recognition of the value of quality writing.

    • That’s another great point you bring up Cathy — the situation for freelancers can still vary quite a bit from one industry to the next. And everyone can hear a bit more about your industry in tomorrow’s roundtable podcast — still not sure how I ever fell in with a bunch of insurance experts. 😉

      And I agree completely. Companies seem to need less convincing now than even just a few years ago about the importance of high quality content. A part of that trend has been more clients asking for all-out content strategies rather than just “content.” As a PR-type who always operated that way, it’s been a delightful change to see. 🙂

  2. The changes I’ve seen have largely been due to changes I’ve made: moving away from lower-paying gigs, changing my approach to marketing, learning to pitch, and to interview, and most importantly, choosing a specialty in a market where there is money and demand.

    Now that I’ve read this look back, I think my own freelance career has mirrored the larger trends to some degree. I did some content mill work, and took some jobs for $25 a post. I think the changes you list are an accurate depiction of what’s happened in the industry.

    • Thanks for weighing in Dava. 🙂 You bring up an excellent point in that we all control the projection of our own careers; they’re not dictated by broader industry changes. No matter what’s happening in the broader community, we never have to settle if we’re willing to learn and put in the work.


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