by John Burfitt
12 May 2017
A friend warned me when I first went freelance, ‘This is not a good time to go out on your own’. What I have discovered over the past 23 years, it’s never a good time to go freelance. At times, the work for freelancers can be thin on the ground – never more so than when you first take that leap.
But having survived rather well over two decades of freelance, what I would add these days is it all depends on your approach. When I went freelance in 1994, I was prepared to do anything – magazines, newspapers, copywriting and editing. I was also prepared to chase the work, and pitch ideas like there was no tomorrow to editors, subs, PR directors and TV producers. These days, where much of the work is has indeed changed, with so much now in the digital sphere. But the rules about having to track it down and chase it up have not changed.
To get an insight into where the work is, we asked six of the busiest freelance writers in the business for their insights. Some have been freelance for a while, others are in their early days, but they all responded with the same message – diversity of skills is the essential.
NIGEL BOWEN (www.contentsherpa.com.au)
“As someone with fond memories of working on mags and contributing to the broadsheets, it brings me no joy to make this observation – the traditional, mass-market media is, to use a non-technical term, rooted. Fortuitously, the traditional media’s death spiral has been matched by the blossoming of content marketing. There is hardly a large or even medium-sized business / government department / not-for-profit that now isn’t in the market for good content. So, how do you score these gigs? Pretty much the same way you’ve always done. Do some research, find some content hubs or trade mags you want to write for, then get in touch offering your services and pitching ideas.”
“Despite of what you might have heard, there is still so much work writing for magazines. About 70 percent of my work is in magazines, and it keeps flooding in. A lot of my work is also holiday leave cover, and as I can turn my hand to writing, editing and subbing, it has kept landing me in-house gigs, and I enjoy the diversity of different titles. With print, often the work goes beyond the printed product. So, you might be writing for a magazine, and also working on a digital angle as well. This is why diversity of skills is so crucial. And the rules about pitching have not changed – come up with fresh stories that no one else has covered, rather than a new take on what everyone has already covered. Think beyond the square, do some digging around and come up with a new story that sets the agenda.”
“Custom is where it’s at. Brands are looking for professional storytellers to create quality content, whether it’s news copy for a custom magazine or product placement in an Instagram post. My career in lifestyle publishing spanned 20 years then I made a U-turn to open a workshop, making furniture and specialising in renovating. But I’m also using the same magazine editing skills to make a living by creating everyday content for my social channels, through content strategy, storytelling and influencing. To land the jobs, you need the same skills freelance writers and editors have always had – planning, researching, collaborating, pitching, good writing, self-editing, and the ability to conceive how the reader (or browser) is going to receive the story. If you create imaging, it’s still about good styling and camerawork. It’s just about modern definitions and proof that you can deliver what you promise. Oh, and these days you’re pitching to marketing directors as well as editors.”
“There’s good work to be had writing for magazines, and the key is to understand the audience and tone you’re pitching to. There’s no shortcut here — you have to read the magazines you’re pitching to and come up with original story ideas that suit. I supplement magazine writing with web-based copywriting. Small and medium businesses are also hungry for web content, so it’s worth building relationships with digital marketing agencies that deliver that kind of work. However, make sure these clients are willing to pay market rates. There are a lot of ‘content sweatshops’ that expect you to work for next to nothing.
You need a strong portfolio, so write across a range of topics for different audiences to demonstrate flexibility. Most editors and marketing managers know what they want, and your job is to give it to them. Deliver on the brief, hit your deadlines, be easy to work with and you’ll get plenty of return business. It’s pretty simple, really.”
“It’s all about digital, digital, digital. I began my freelance writing career during the first dot com boom and while newspapers and magazines used to comprise at least 50 percent of my work, these days it’s nil. Besides web copywriting, all the editorial I’ve written in recent years has been for online publications.
From a copywriting perspective, the two big growth areas for me have been content marketing and social media. The growth in content marketing has created lots of opportunities for former journos turned copywriters like myself to write editorial content. For example, I just finished writing an article profiling pioneers in digital communications for King Content. I’ve also ghostwritten leadership pieces for a CEO to publish on LinkedIn. Where’s the work? Content marketing and digital agencies are the obvious places, but businesses of all sizes are creating more online content. And everyone needs good social media these days.”
“I started working as a freelancer last year and felt capable of taking the leap because I was already getting so much copywriting work out of digital content companies and internet marketing services in the form of blogs, guides, listicles, etc. I’ve also found consistent work in the ‘sponsored content’ space. Brands are increasingly on the hunt for ways to get their product / message to the people, but in a way that seems naturally editorial. The best way to land the gigs is by asking around and being available. I’ve found a lot of people commissioning these jobs believe many freelancers wouldn’t want this work – it’s too ‘advertorial.’ But I see it as a simple reality of the current landscape – these brands are going to get their message out there either way, so we may as well help deliver it.”
Just for the record: The best lesson to emerge from these freelancers is about diversity. The broader your skills set, the better your options are. And I agree there is still great work to be had in print. I make a good living writing for a number of magazines – three of which have recorded circ increases over the past year – and have recently started working on two launch titles. In addition, the offers to write digital content keep been coming in thick and fast, so there’s a wealth of options to be had.
The rules to follow are about moving with the times, putting your writing to the test, working across mediums, knowing how to adapt between styles and working with the same mantra – pitch, don’t bitch. The work for freelancers is out there, it’s a matter of being prepared to go after it.
Are you surprised by some of these income streams? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments and how you’re finding it out there these days.