Writing for online markets seems to have gotten a bad reputation. I blame the rise of “content mills” that pay writers a pittance (think $5 or $10 for a feature-length piece). A lot of writers now seem to think that writing for the Web means writing for peanuts, but that generalization is untrue.
In fact, there are thousands of online writing opportunities for freelancers, many of which pay well. It’s knowing how to find and pitch the best potential markets, deliver writing that works well online, and grow initial assignments into ongoing relationships that can set you apart from other writers. Follow these best practices, and soon you’ll be turning pixels into paychecks.
—by Kelly James-Enger
Finding the Best Opportunities Writing for the Web
Recent years have seen an increase in Web-based publications as well as print publications that publish additional content online. Beyond these more obvious markets, consider also that virtually every business with a website needs copy—and lots of it. Countless corporations, nonprofits and even small companies are turning to Web-savvy writers as they look to appeal to consumers through blog posts, articles and other content supplementing their products and services.
So how can you find out which of these lucrative markets are looking for writers like you?
• Tap online resources. Start with sites that offer free access to listings of online writing opportunities:
Then, consider investing in subscriptions to more specialized sites designed for freelancers seeking work. Many newer writers balk when they see listings that require an access fee, but that fee could be qui
ckly nullified by the return on your investment in dollars earned. Here are a few of the best:
- FreelanceSuccess.com. This online weekly newsletter ($99/year) includes a market guide and access to an online community of subscribers for networking.
- FreelanceSwitch.com. This site ($7/month) includes job postings for online writers as well as Web developers and designers.
- Writers-Editors.com. This site includes free content, but for $29/year you also receive a monthly newsletter full of paying markets, many of which are Web-based.
As a general rule, as you sift through job listings in search of the most promising paychecks, streamline
your search by avoiding those that make no mention of money, or ask writers to submit new work
on spec in order to be considered (after all, time is money). “I would certainly say be wary of offers to blog for exposure or to be paid in traffic,” says Katherine Reynolds Lewis, who freelances from Washington, D.C., for Slate.com, Fortune.com, MSN.com and other well-known sites. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Your base rate is X but we’ll pay another $1 for 1,000 page views.’ Generally the ‘traffic bonus’ doesn’t result in much. But there is more and more reputable online work out there.”
Look for posts that specify some level of experience and include a reasonable pay rate. Those rates vary widely, but competitive Web-based markets pay anywhere from $50 to about $500 for a blog post of 500–800 words, and $0.25 to $2/word for articles (the high end of which is on par with the most lucrative glossy print markets). Larger, more established websites tend to pay higher rates, of course, and stories or posts th
at require more research also demand higher pay (or should). If it’s unclear what the site’s rates are, don’t hesitate to send an email requesting rate information, or to discreetly ask another writer who has worked for the market.
That said, when vetting markets, don’t judge the pay rate on the dollar amount alone. “A market that seems like a ‘dud’ to one writer might not to another, because everyone has their own criteria and expected results from a working relationship,” says freelancer Gina Roberts-Grey, who has written for dozens of online markets, including NextAvenue.com and iVillage.com. “I focus on the overall hourly rate and examine what is being offered in an assignment (rate, rights, payment history) and what is required of me to successfully comp
lete the assignment (number of words, number of interviews required, number of hours to pull it together).”
Minneapolis-based health and fitness writer Yael Grauer says she finds it worth her time to write blog posts for as little as $50 if the work involved is minimal. “If it’s a topic that I’m very familiar with and I can do it quickly and it’s easy and [the] editors are low-maintenance, then it’s worth it for me to do similar posts for different [markets] at a low per-word rate,” Grauer says. “I’m still making a good hourly rate.”
• Network online. While listings of freelance opportunities are a great place to start, don’t overlook the importance of networking to locate potential markets. “I haven’t found one sole, surefire, best way to sniff out a new market,” Roberts-Grey says. “Instead, I rely on a combination of market search tricks that include reading the forums of writer networking groups like [the American Society of Journalists and Authors]. I’ve found that to be useful—virtually invaluable—because I can gain firsthand insight from fellow writers whose bylines I recognize and word I trust. Another trusted path to stellar work is editor or writer referrals. Those have proved very useful for getting a foot in the door, because it often puts your name above the others.”
• Connect in person. San Diego–based freelancer Randy Dotinga, who’s written for CSMonitor.com,
Wired.com and Salon.com, emphasizes that even when looking for online work, not all networking should be done from behind your computer screen. He suggests writers attend industry events in their specialties to make more personal connections. “For example, I went to the Association of Health Care Journalists conference a couple of years ago, met an editor and started writing for her website and for another online market.” Even if your legwork doesn’t lead directly to assignments, it can pay off over time: When someone has an opening, you’ll be more likely to hear about it early on instead of being one of many faceless writers who later responds to a job posting. “I’d say 96 percent of my gigs happened because I knew somebody who knew somebody,” Dotinga says.
Appealing to Online Writing Markets
Before you pitch an online market, try to determine what its needs may be. In general, the more content a site puts up, the more it’s likely to need freelancers. Many sites post writers’ guidelines just as print publications do, but if your target market doesn’t, you’ll have to dig a little deeper. Take note of which sections of the site are updated regularly, and browse its blogs to see if outside contributors are maintaining them.
“It’s very similar to looking at the sections of a magazine. Which sections [seem] the easiest to break in?” Lewis says. “I would look at the site, and say, ‘OK, they have six bloggers who write three posts a week, so do they need a blogger on this topic?’ Or, ‘Can I start by getting an introduction to an editor who can tell me what they’re taking?’”
The process of pitching online markets is also similar to that of their print counterparts. You can send a letter of introduction or (better) a query letter proposing a specific article. If you have a personal referral or previous connection to the editor, be sure to mention that in your query. Emphasize any Web writing experience you have. If you’re short on online clips, per se, but maintain a blog or website that shows your ability to write professional Web copy on a consistent basis, go ahead and include a link to it. And play up any relevant background, whether that’s expertise in a topic or prior published work in print. “Give them som
e reason to make them think you know what you’re writing about, and explain why you are the person to write the story—what makes you uniquely qualified,” Dotinga says.
Writing Successfully for the Web
Writing for online publications is a bit different from writing for print. “Online articles tend to be more ‘link-y’ and more timely than print articles,” says Boston-based freelancer Susan Johnston, author of the e-book LinkedIn and Lovin’ It. Don’t just assume that the same kind of writing you’re already doing in print will translate to the Internet. The best way to make money at anything, after all, is to be good at it—so it’s worth it to learn the nuances that are unique to Web writing. With that in mind:
• Write tight. Web articles tend to be shorter and more to the point than print pieces. The majority of online blog posts and articles fall in the 500- to 800-word range, though there are exceptions.
• Use subheads, bullets and numbered lists. Keeping in mind the various devices readers use to access Web content—cell phones, tablets, laptops—always be mindful of how the story will look on the page. This is especially important if you’re writing a longer piece. Make an effort to break the content into shorter sections with clear headings to make it easy for Web readers to browse.
• Make your lead as compelling as possible. “The lead is even more important [than in print] because of the way people read on the Internet,” Grauer says. “Their attention span is 10 seconds long, so it’s even more important to make that first sentence and first paragraph really engaging and to get their attention that way.” Readers who aren’t engaged quickly enough can easily click away from the page—and you don’t want that. In fact, editors of online markets can track not just how many readers clicked on your article, but how long they stayed on the page. You want those numbers working in your favor when it comes time to seek a second assignment.
• Be mindful of the publication’s style. Don’t think that just because a market is online for anyone to see, it doesn’t have a strong voice and direction tailored to appeal to a specific kind of reader. As you’re writing, model your work after what you see on the site or blog already. “Get to know the site’s tone, voice and topics generally covered,” Roberts-Grey says. It’s always a good idea to ask your editor for the market’s style guidelines or for other related tips when you get the assignment.
• Include links to relevant articles or resources. The ability for your article to serve as a one-click resource for further reading is unique to online writing. You don’t want to go overboard with links—after all, they do draw readers off of the page—but if your topic lends itself to including these kinds of resources (links to hotels and restaurants in a travel piece, for example), discuss best practices with your editor up front. As a general rule, Lewis says, “I might include two or three links per story, but no more than one every 200 words. [If possible, make those links] to other stories on the site, which is a professional and thoughtful thing to do.”
• Know a bit about SEO. The savviest online writers implement a basic knowledge of search engine optimization, or SEO, into their work. SEO makes websites more “visible” for search engines by including specific keywords in articles. Rather than peppering your work with random search terms you think will show off your SEO skills, Johnston recommends asking your editor up front if there are certain phrases she wants you to use in the piece to improve its presence in search results. That way, you’ll demonstrate your awareness of the importance of SEO without placing too much emphasis on it. “I always tend to try to focus on the readers first and search engine second,” says Johnston, who writes for Bankrate.com and DailyCandy.com. “I don’t want to position myself as a SEO bot-type quantity writer.”
• Expect tight deadlines. With the immediacy of the Web, you may be expected to write to a very tight deadline, especially if covering a breaking event.
• Track your clips. Set a Google Alert (google.com/alerts) for your name if you haven’t already, Roberts-Grey recommends. That way, you’ll receive an email notification as soon as your byline pops up online. “This helps you capture it for your files,” she says. It’s also good practice to link to the piece on your social networks and wherever else you can. Doing so can grow your readership, drive traffic to the site (a plus if the market is tracking your article’s popularity), build goodwill by showing your editor that you’re happy to cross-promote, and maybe even capture the attention of another online venue.
• Be ready with your next pitch. One of the advantages to writing for online markets is that they tend to need more content than print publications, and more often—so it’s easier to get steady work once you’ve proven yourself. Approach every market as a possible “regular” client from the get-go, demonstrating that you’re fast, reliable and professional. Writers who are ready with a new pitch every time an assignment is completed are often handsomely rewarded. “A lot of the websites I write for regularly don’t want to manage 100 writers,” Johnston says. “They want a small group of writers they know they can count on, and the expectation is that if things go smoothly [at the beginning], they’ll want you to be a regular.”
Making It Pay Off
There are several other advantages to online markets you might not have considered. “I think online markets are a good way for writers to build up their portfolio,” Johnston says. “You don’t have to wait six months or longer to get your clip.”
Online publications can also be less discriminating about assignments than print counterparts. “Onlines need so much more original content than print outlets (for instance, one new article a day versus one per monthly issue) [that] the editors are often more likely to cover a topic that’s recently been addressed, especially if there’s a new news hook or unique angle,” Roberts-Grey says. That gives you a better outlet for time-sensitive ideas and makes it easier to recast topics you’ve written about previously—an efficient strategy for more and faster paychecks.
The bottom line? The idea that you can’t make good money writing for online markets is flawed. “You can
make a living writing for online markets, but it’s a different way to work,” Dotinga says. “You might be doing quick stories that might need two sources that you can whip out in two hours. … You have to be able to work fast and work efficiently.”
True, if you’re a slow writer or researcher, it might not come easily. But the more common hardship comes from settling for markets that pay a pittance instead of holding out for better assignments. Putting the time and effort into appealing to the best Web-based markets is a worthwhile investment. Make it, and you may be surprised to find that online writing can become a valuable part of your freelancing portfolio.
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