Content writers need to have three skills:
Content writers spend a lot of their time covering one thesis from many angles. For instance, a content writer working for a freelancing software startup, might write about the lives of the freelancers they work with, profile the company’s clients, and offer advice for companies looking to hire freelancers.
How content writers spend their time:
15% Research: Content writers read and research constantly, and frequent sites and sources they know they can trust. Over time, they memorize a virtual catalog for their industry. Similar to how London cab drivers must commit every city street to memory, writers learn all the companies, blogs, and publications in their industry. (It also probably enlarges the region of their brain tied to memory, as happens with cab drivers.)
5% Pitching: Most content marketing operations have an editor, or at least a manager, who assigns and approves topics. Content writers either pitch or are assigned stories. The upside to pitching is you get to write about topics that interest you. The upside to being assigned stories is you save time.
Pro tip: Every pitch needs a big idea.The world is awash with content marketing. To stand out, your pitch needs a kernel of truth: A personal experience, an exclusive source, or an original idea. This isn’t something you can pluck from a cursory Google search.
50% Writing: At least half of a content writer’s time is spent writing and editing.
20% Strategy: To write successful content, writers need to know their audience and how their audience will interact with their work. If your readers are attention-starved stock brokers, you know to use lots of spaces and to whittle your introductions into irresistible hooks. If you know that your audience has opted into your marketing and wants to receive emails, you know you can skip the introductions and get to the good stuff.
10% Reading: As Stephen King and countless others have said, to be a great writer, you have to read – a lot. Freelancer writer Linsey Knerl stays inspired by reading outside of her genre.
Types of Content Writer
Content writers often describe themselves by the writing formats and vertical(s) they specialize in. For example, a healthcare technical writer or an executive article ghostwriter. They do this for two reasons:
Having a niche helps you find clients. It’s easier to filter through job posting sites.
Having a niche helps clients find you. Marketers and editors looking to hire will have an easier time recognizing that you’re a fit for their team or publication if your niche is in your title.
Common niches and content formats:
Long-form writer: Articles, e-books, guides
Technical writer: User guides, white papers, patents, documentation
Copywriter: Generalist; websites, articles, videos, speeches
Social media writer: Social posts, profiles
Direct response writer: Ads
Common writing verticals:
Technology or software
Most content writers offer some degree of strategy. It helps if they’re familiar with marketing funnels, content matrices, content backlogs, editorial calendars, and buyer journeys, and know which pieces of content are most effective when. If the writer is involved in planning the structure of the marketing program, they might also call themselves a content strategist.
What does a content strategist do?
A content strategist plans, promotes, and measures content. If content marketing is a race, strategists pick the drivers and lay the track. They conduct SEO research to identify keywords, interview customers to learn where they get their news, produce a backlog of ideas, assign pitches, publish articles, and measure the results. Creative content strategists ensure the content performs.
Should you go full-time or freelance?
Each has its own benefits. Freelance offers more flexibility, the opportunity to be pickier about the work you take, and often, higher pay, but finding work as a freelancer can also be stressful if you don’t already have an established network. Full-time work provides freedom of mind, consistent pay, and the opportunity to specialize, but there’s less freedom to constantly reinvent yourself.
Full-time work can be a great springboard for freelance: Most freelancers’ first client is their previous employer. And if you have strategy experience, you can bill yourself as a freelance content strategist and help clients both plan and write.
How to Earn Real Paying Clients
To earn consistent paying clients and work, know what differentiates you from other writers. Do you have deep knowledge in virtual reality technology? Do you have extensive experience testing email headlines? Is your writing fun and massively shareable?
Create a portfolio, website, or social profile that advertises your differentiator, offerings, and examples of past work. Reach out to your network to:
Ask for referrals: Ask colleagues and existing clients if there’s anyone who needs your help. The best thing about referrals is that they work like homing missiles. People only refer you to others who already need your help, and the fact that you come highly recommended shortens the deal cycle.
Conduct cold outreach: When your lead flow falters, reach out to companies who you’re a good fit for. Finding them is as easy as looking at current or past clients’ websites and reaching out to their partners (and possibly, competitors). You can also search for jobs on LinkedIn and reach out to the hiring manager.
Inbound marketing: Build a reputation, social profiles, and a website that attract potential clients, even while you’re busy writing. It takes longer to get that going than outbound sales (battling for SEO terms is a real odyssey), but once it gets going, it takes a lot less work to manage.
Places to look for content writing work
To get your first paying client, look in these places, in this order:
1. Current or past employer
This is the most common route for new freelancers. Your past employer already knows (and hopefully likes) you and respects your work. Find A Way Media’s Co-Founder Chris Gillespie transitioned and gathered experience writing for his previous company’s blog, before striking out on his own.
2. Job sites (LinkedIn, Indeed, etc.)
Search for jobs in your desired industry with titles such as content writer, content manager, in-house writer, content marketing manager, and the like. Job searches are just as relevant for freelancers. Sometimes you’ll be able to see who posted the job. Pay the $30 or so for LinkedIn premium and message that person asking if they’d be open to an experienced freelance contributor.
3. Writer job boards
These are hit or miss. Those that allow you to build a profile and allow brands to search for you are ideal. It’s passive lead flow, as opposed to you having to conduct repetitive searches week after week.
Freelance Writers Den
4. Approach small businesses
Look for small businesses, ideally ones you like and interact with, and ask them if they need help rewriting their website, writing flyers, or sending emails. It’s rarely high-paying, but it’s a way to get your first few projects.
5. Freelancing sites
Generalist freelancing sites are near the bottom of the barrel. They’re oversaturated (16 million freelancers on UpWork alone) and enforce a competitive race to the bottom in terms of pay that makes it tough to demand a living wage. Our recommendation: Create a killer profile on several of the top ones, set your rates high to weed out tire kickers, work 1-2 projects just to build your profile, and then let businesses reach out to you.
6. Content mills
Avoid content mills unless you’re desperate. They farm out content writing jobs from undiscerning brands to freelance writers. The pay is scandalous (just a few cents per word, often as little as $15 per article) and the deadlines are tight. You’re unlikely to produce reputable work under these conditions. Many freelance forums like r/freelanceWriters are filled with sob stories from writers begging to escape content mill purgatory.