If you’re looking for a side hustle that you can do from anywhere — wearing pajamas, if you like — write for a living. Thousands of corporations, publications and blogs need well-written content. Dozens of online platforms have sprung up to connect those clients with the writers and editors willing and able to serve them.
The catch? With little barrier to entry, competition among writers can be stiff. Further, some the online platforms purporting to help writers actually just exploit them, offering pennies per word and few guarantees that the writer will even get that in the end.
“When I first started out, I spent a lot of time looking for jobs on Upwork and Mechanical Turk,” says Lindsay VanSomeren, 31, a freelancer and blogger at GoScienceFinance. “I never found anything there that paid rates I’d be willing to write for.”
Beware content mills
Indeed, Mechanical Turk often pays a little as a penny per “task.” And while the tasks are sometimes simple, others could take hours. A number of additional sites, including The Content Authority, NewsCastic, Text Broker and CopyWriterToday are content mills, designed to churn out cheap copy, paying writers only a few pennies per word.
And, while Upwork, a site that allows freelancers to advertise their services in a broad range of categories, can offer reasonable pay for certain jobs, writing generally is not among them. This site allows freelancers from all over the world to “bid” on projects, and the lowest bidder often gets the work. That can drive rates into the basement.
On the other hand, writers rave about Contently, which connects writers with businesses needing content for their websites and brochures. Payment is almost immediate. Skyword is similarly popular among writers, though some maintain it neither pays as fast nor as generously. However, writers do have greater ability to negotiate their pay on Skyword than they do on Contently. Meanwhile, getting pieces published on Cracked or through the Washington Post Talent Network can be both economically and professionally rewarding.
Still, writers need a game plan to be successful. Here are suggestions from a half-dozen writers, most of whom report earning six-figure annual incomes.
When R.J. Weiss first started writing on Upwork, his experience mirrored that of others. Competition drove prices down to loss-leader levels, he says. However, he quickly realized that he could make more if he developed a niche.
At the time, there was a lot of attention being paid to website landing pages. He decided to advertise himself as the guy who could make the content on that landing page sing — and he eventually learned the coding required to make pages look and operate well too. By the time he exited Upwork to focus on his own business — TheWaystoWealth — he was charging $100 an hour.
“If you stick with work that a lot of other people can do, it’s tough to make a living,” he says. “But if you develop a niche in a growing area, you can do really well.”
Developing a specialty is helpful in other ways, too. VanSomeren says that she can write more quickly and authoritatively because she has immersed herself in the details of her specialty, personal finance. Now, she says she can write a 1,000-word article on a familiar topic in as little as a few hours.
Since she typically charges more than $350 per story, that can allow her to earn $700 a day, putting her annual income neatly into the six-figure range.
When you specialize, your name also becomes familiar to clients in that niche, so you don’t need to do as much trolling for new work, says Roger Wohlner, a financial planner turned financial writer.
“I don’t market myself much,” says Wohlner, who has a blog at TheChicagoFinancialPlanner.
A good way to highlight your writing ability and your particular niche is to launch a blog.
“It shows people that you can string a few words together,” says Wohlner. “And it brings in a few clients.”
Most of the online writing sites also allow you to link to your blog, which can help you develop clients outside of the platforms.
Joining writing groups — both online and off — can help in a variety of ways, too. For instance, talking to other writers about writing technique and going to writing workshops can help hone your craft. Additionally, writers tend to be collegial enough to refer extra work, or work that doesn’t fit their own specialty, to other writers that they know.
“I’m part of the ASJA [American Society of Journalists and Authors]. I went to their conference last year and ended up meeting an editor who is now a regular client,” says Sarah Li Cain, who blogs at BeyondTheDollar. “I’ve also networked with other freelance writers, and we refer work to each other.”
It takes times to build up these relationships. But it’s worth it, she says. Once you have a client who likes your work, you’re often able to network through them too, getting referrals to more clients.
Research and cold call
However, one of the most effective ways to find work is to do research to determine what companies and publications regularly write on topics that you’re familiar with and then approach those potential clients directly.
“My success has always been from cold calling and cold emailing,” Li Cain adds. “I’ve looked at what companies have a budget for marketing or already have existing blogging platforms with contributors and pitch that way.”
Few editors respond right away to cold calls — even when you’re cold-calling on clients who regularly buy the type of writing you’re good at. Successful writers learn to keep pitching and avoid taking rejection personally.
“I’ve only had a small handful of people who have responded the first time I made contact,” says Li Cain. “It’s part a numbers game [the more pitches you send, the more likely someone will respond] and part following up.”
Adds VanSomeren, “Especially when you are starting out, you are going to send a lot of emails to a lot of people and a lot of them are never going to respond to you. But you only need a few people to say yes. Just a few potential clients will start your career.”