Friday, 16 October 2009

How to be a freelance writer for the web

A work colleague asked if I'd help out a friend of hers who's looking for work as a freelance writer but hasn't been getting anywhere. She's got experience of writing for television, but that's all. I was trying to analyse what's worked for me, although my working life has now been so long and complicated that I'm not sure I'm a good eaxmple. But here's what I said - I'd be interested to hear your feedback, especially if you're a writer yourself (Ruth, Phil, Clare; Iona, Nadia?).

I think there a few things to consider. You need to demonstrate your ability; make sure you have the core skills; develop specialities; make professional connections; give it time; and keep your standards high.

One is simply how you show that you're any good. Do you have samples of work? Can you point to a website and say what bits you wrote? Have you got your own site? I set myself up with WordPress and it was dead easy and got into search rankings very quickly. (By the way, how are you at search optimisation for copy? Do you know your stuff there? You will need to.) It's here if you want to look - I didn't really get it finished, but got a few pieces of work up there.

Can you get involved in any projects that would give you a chance to show off? Again, I've done two quick and easy sites for friends; I can't code at all so used iWeb on the Mac. They're not great examples, as they wrote their copy and I just edited it, but I did help them work out what they wanted to say, and can be a part of the job too. These are and

And I also run a music festival and wrote the site for - an interesting example (argh, it's so out of date) as it has lots of complicated info that needs to be put in sensible order: every concert has to have a time, a place, tickets prices, contact details. This is more about information design - is that an area you're interested in? Do you think you're better at writing instructional copy, or marketing material? Can you think of snappy headlines for banners? I think it's probably about defining your strengths, but also knowing the basics - search optimisation, or SEO, is vital, as is knowing how online copy is different from printed copy: have you read Jakob Nielsen? Steve Krug?

Think about subjects you know about, and companies who might need people to write about them. For example, I've done lots of stuff for financial services, and sometimes if I've applied for an ISA online or something similar, if there's a space to comment I'll tell the company how bad the copy was - if I was looking for work I'd take that further.

The other thing is to make connections. Use Facebook and tell all your friends what kind of work you're looking for. And join LinkedIn and fill in all your details there too. There are lots of people advertising work there. You could try signing up for mailing lists too - both lists of online writers and editors, and mailing lists of job vacancies. Researching all this is part of the kind of thing that writers often have to do - you'll often just get a bare description, say for a Microsoft site, and have to go and dig out enough info to be able to say something meaningful, so you need to be good at finding stuff online.

My other advice is to give it a bit of time. I got made redundant in March, did all the things I've described, and got my first freelance work though an ex-colleague in July. There's a definite timelag.

Lastly, I'd say, be really scrupulous all the time. All the writers and editors I know have hugely high standards, and I think freelances have to be really professional. Typos in emails - even just emails to someone like me - will be a real turn-off. (NOTE that this was of course a dangerous thing to say, as naturally there was a typo in my email to her - though of course she wasn't a potential referee or employer...) As a writer you're on duty all the time. For example, I went back and changed my first sentence to make it a summary of the content here, as it's such a long email. If I was really keen, I'd put in subheadings. You've got to show you know what you're doing.

Oh, and just a usability thing - it would be better to have an email address that matches your name, so if someone wants you they can find you really easily. Yours is a lot to type!

That was it. Having written it, I'm struck by how specialised online copy-writing has got - you need to know quite a lot about how websites work to write really good copy. In fact, I'm now working with a group of people who are immensely articulate and literate, but their writing is absolutely 'offline': copy for emails that runs to two or three pages. Not that brevity is *my* strong point, I hasten to add. But then I am writing this for fun. So there!


Anonymous said...

I LOVE my website, in case you need any references...

Iona xxx

Beck said...

This was for someone else so I don't, but thank you! Didn't you write your site's copy, though? I think I just commented and mentioned usability issues. There, I'm cleverer than I think if I convinced you I'd done the lot!

Anonymous said...

Beck, when you are going to write some more entries? Love, Iona xxx

Beck said...

It's lovely that someone cares - I'm just very pushed for time right now!

Anonymous said...

Beck, your blog has stopped! And I want more! Iona xxx

Trenton Garmon said...

Bless you're heart. You are an extremely confused individual.