Freelance writing is a bit of an oddball profession. Most people think they can do it, that they are good writers out of the box. But they don’t know anything about SEO, image use, or craft.
Make no mistake — there is a craft to being a freelance writer that you can’t just intuit. But the good news is that it’s a craft that can be learned.
So where do you learn?
A Digital Blue Collar Job
There’s no formal training for the position, and no college degree you can get for writing anything from product descriptions to press releases to viral listicles.
It’s true that you can take college courses on copywriting, and they may even be required for some degree programs (journalism, marketing, etc.).
There are a handful of SEO and copywriting experts that sell training programs, but it’s hard to know whether you’ll be getting your money’s worth when you’re staring at a landing page promising a lucrative career working for yourself for $50-$100.
Freelance writers come from a variety of unique backgrounds. Some of our best freelancers are stay-at-home moms, college students, or young professionals in marketing, journalism, and PR just looking for extra cash.
It’s easy to get into freelance writing, but to truly be competitive in the landscape, get the higher-paying jobs, keep clients consistently happy, and make a true profession of it long-term, it takes skills.
There’s such a craft to it, I’d go so far as to call it a trade — a blue collar job for the digital world.
The biggest pitfall for aspiring freelance writers is to stick to their comfort zones.
We’re not saying you shouldn’t leave room for the gigs you think you’d enjoy the most. But assuming you have bills to pay, there’s a lot of good-paying work out there. It might not set your soul on fire, but there’s plenty of it to keep you busy.
But to truly be able to take on as much work as you can, you need to know the craft.
To help, we’ve put together 6 competencies every digital writer needs to know to be successful in 2018, and beyond. If you can master these 6 skills, you’ll have a lot more success in your career.
We touched on this in our 5 Tips to Write Highly-Engaging Blog Posts in 2018 article.
It should go without saying, but different pieces of content have different requirements. Whether it’s a news story, a press release, a product description, or a good old-fashioned viral listicle, each has its own formula and good writers master all of them.
You might think of yourself as a lifestyle blogger, but can you write sales copy?
Do you know how to incorporate calls to action in your copy to keep a reader interested?
Do you know the differences between a press release headline and a title for an article about cat GIFs?
A good way to learn what works is to practice mindfulness whenever you read a new piece of copy. If you’re reading news stories, think about how the information is organized.
What about the title made you want to click?
How much information is revealed in the first 50-100 words?
If you’re looking for an apartment, what details do you need to see in a description? If you’re reading an article on BuzzFeed, how is the tone different from an article on The Atlantic?
2. Basic Knowledge Of SEO
Whether you want to write product descriptions for prescription drugs or listicles offering advice on love and relationships, every single article published online needs to incorporate up-to-date SEO practices and keywords relevant to the client or topic.
Writers should know how to incorporate a client’s keywords into a piece to help it rank, which keywords to organically weave into the piece based on the client’s industry, what meta descriptions are, and how to write copy that passes the SEO Yoast readability test with flying colors.
Some clients may have a style guide or require certain keywords in their copy, but don’t assume your client knows anything about SEO — they might not.
It’s your job to be the expert!
You should know enough SEO to be able to make a basic focus keyword recommendation and know which supporting keywords to insert into the text.
3. Basic Knowledge Of Fair Use
We see a lot of applicants that want to focus on copy and not worry about images. But increasingly, freelance writers are being asked by clients in every industry to come prepared with some basic image literacy.
This often includes a solid understanding of fair use. Fair use is a gray, murky nightmare, but there are some very clear no-nos every writer should know.
Additionally, every writer should know where to find high-quality fair use images (e.g., Unsplash, Pexels, Pixabay) and how to attribute limited-license images from Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.
Knowing whether or not you can use screenshots or fun images like memes is also a plus.
4. Image Editing Skills
Along with a solid understanding of fair use, every freelance writer needs to learn a bit about image editing. Aside from an ability to eyeball high-quality images and crop them down to a client’s desired size, extra competencies in image manipulation are increasingly a plus.
If you know how to Photoshop custom images for your clients, that certainly can’t hurt. But even writers who are allergic to Photoshop can learn some basic tricks and use free online tools like Pixlr or Fotor to add blurred borders to images or create attractive collages.
5. Be Your Own Editor
Your client might not have a lot of direction for the assignment they’re asking you to write, but they will absolutely know good content when they see it.
Don’t assume a client is happy to pay you and make their own extensive edits to your work. They expect a complete, easy-to-read, informative, and nigh-flawless piece of content from you, and frankly, they’re entitled to it.
Learn how to think critically about the copy you’ve written — what needs to be cut, what needs to be fact-checked, what needs more information to back it up, and whether or not you’ve consistently used the Oxford comma.
When clients ask for revisions (and believe me, they will), be a professional and incorporate their changes instead of getting your feelings hurt over rejected content.
You and your client are collaborators; they hired you because they need help getting their message out there — it’s their message, so make sure they get what they want.
6. Ditch Your ‘Voice’
The most common pitfall of every “good” writer (read: sarcasm) I’ve ever known or interviewed is that they think injecting a lot of personality in their writing means they are a good writer. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Clients aren’t hiring you for your personality!
They need a job done, and so many writers rely on their hot take or sense of humor at the expense of basics like the format, readability, and fact-checking.
You need to understand the client’s audience and what appeals to them.
You need to write short, easy-to-read sentences that can pass a readability test. Like this.
You need to organize relevant information proficiently.
You need to incorporate SEO keywords. If you have a unique voice on top of all that, it’s a bonus, but it’s never the client’s focus.
I’ve seen many blog posts on how to become a freelance writer say that at the end of the day, a client is hiring you for your voice. Between you, me, and the wall, this is terrible advice.
Your client is hiring a professional tradesperson who can help them get their message across in an informative, easy-to-read piece of content.
If you want to become a freelance writer, hopefully, this article was helpful. It’s true that anyone can become a freelance writer, but every successful freelance writer boasts a mastery of these skills.
If you want to keep this conversation going, feel free to leave us a comment below or connect with me on LinkedIn.