Why I’ve Stopped Describing Myself As A “Freelance Writer” To Prospective Clients
Professionally, I’m Putting ‘Writer’ Behind My Other Trump Cards — For Good Reason. Why I Think The ‘Writer’ Label Can Be An Impediment To Taking On Serious Work.
To most of my professional network, and friends, I’m “Daniel the writer — who likes tech.”
And though some of you may know me only digitally, it’s been that way for quite a while.
Back when I was a law student, living in Ireland, I founded a news website to cover ongoings on my local campus, University College Cork (Cork Student News).
It mushroomed until it became the second most visited student website in the country (this was back in those halcyon days when not everything was on the internet). I sold the domain when I realized that while I did have many dreams for my future, none of them involved being a grown-up university news magnate.
The news site, however, had a pivotal impact upon the later direction of my career.
I realized, belatedly, that my passion was for creativity and storytelling and not learning about the nuances of Irish case law. I loved interviewing even when it only meant speaking to a local politician about their views on an impending conferring fee. I loved writing and sitting down at a desk to hem my thoughts out — like I’m doing now. I loved, too, the technical aspects of learning about audio and video and how to use these formats to enrich the written word. I became immersed.
As tends to happen with passions, what started as a sidebar increasingly became a real thing. I spent my first summer in university interning at IrishCentral.com, an Irish-American news website. I was sent on assignment to cover an Irish dancing contest in Orlando, Florida (no, really). And hung out in Irish-American bars in the Yonkers on similar pretexts. The first field use my first voice recorder saw was recording a speech given by Brian Cowen, a former prime minister of Ireland, while on a state visit to New York.
I clicked with Niall O’Dowd and admired how a scrappy small team of Irish expats and locals managed to both keep the generational Irish-American community feel connected to the “homeland” while also serving as an informational source for those more fresh off the boat. The internship provided a great hands-on overview of professional news production (Irish Central also publishes a print paper and a magazine). More importantly, it provided encouragement to keep veering in this new direction.
The momentum continued when I came back to Ireland. Through doing some post-internship reporting for Irish Central, and thus being eligible for a press card, I managed to receive admission to the press pool covering the first state visit of a British monarch to Ireland. The real one replete with stringers for the Wall Street Journal and undercover bodyguards who told you they were freelancing too (they just looked like they could bench press the podium). It all seemed a lot more interesting than trying to remember whether Donoghue or Stevenson drunk that ill-fated bottle of ginger beer.
I went on to study journalism in the UK as a postgrad student which allowed me to make the acquaintance of a visiting student from the US who affirmed that we were “cursed to be good writers.” We got back to drinking warm ale as journalism students are wont to do during their off-hours. I didn’t think anything about the remark. Ten years later, I think I finally get him.
I came back to Ireland to write my thesis but ended up taking my first job running marketing communications for a startup.
I left that job to move to Israel for no other reason than I felt that it was the right thing to do (if you want my whole take on that, watch the YouTube clip below).
After a brief and inglorious stint as an Amazon customer service associate (my visa date to Israel got changed; I’d already quit my job), I finally hopped on a plane with about 40 KG worth of luggage in tow. And now I’m writing this post from an apartment in Jerusalem.
I briefly attempted to rejoin the journalistic fold (although unlisted on my formal resume, I spent my first summer here copy-editing for the Jerusalem Post). Then, during a moment of mental sobriety, I determined that unless I developed a real taste for Ramen it was probably unviable to continue in journalism over the long term. Career-wise, I picked up where I left off running marketing communications for another startup. Some time later, I decided to part ways with my hitherto employer in order to “freelance,” having gathered enough clients on the side. Three years and some small iterations later, that’s roughly where I find myself today.
My Bitter Conclusion: For Most Professionals, Freelance Writing Simply Isn’t The Best Space To Be In
I’ve been writing, professionally, for more than a decade. During the course of that time, you could say that I’ve written many things for many different people. Maybe that should be next party intro. It sounds suitably cryptic (I like cryptic). Some of those “things” have included:
- Advertorials on behalf of government agencies trying to sell Americans on visiting Irish islands.
- A resolution granting honorary citizenship of a city (not really a “thing”, but whatever) to a famous author.
- Conference speeches for startup CEOs. Speeches for mayors.
- A clickbait article on what one’s best options for microwaving a burger might be once the munchies kicked in. The website tanked in a few months (this was one of my first “freelance content marketing clients.”)
- A pseudonymous book that went out of its way to offend its intended readership as a wacky publishing experiment. I pick up some small royalties from Amazon. I dream of both doing more extensive bylined publishing and of writing something much closer to my heart through the pseudonym device.
- Scripts for marketing videos.
- A couple of books accredited to other people.
- Way too many press releases, blog posts, white papers, and other manifestations of content marketing to possibly even try to remember. Seriously. Hundreds? Thousands? I’ve never counted.
- Geeky how-tos for how to most efficiently backup a Linux server. Thought pieces for Entrepreneur. Other journalistic output. The kind of hobby writing you’re reading now.
I’ve been named as one of the top cybersecurity writers “out there” by a magazine in the space. One of the top SaaS writers too. I’ve paid my rent and bought some cool tech toys. I haven’t set foot in an office as a full time salaried staffer for three years. That’s more than I expected.
I’ve also shared just about everything I’ve learned about freelance writing here on Medium as a way of open-sourcing what I’ve learned and trying to help others navigate these sometimes choppy waters.
Open Sourcing Isn’t Just For Code — The Value Of Sharing Know-How Even When (Almost) Nobody Is…
Why I Believe In Posting About Obscure Topics That I Know Few People Care About
I receive the odd email of thanks and it’s satisfying to know that what I’ve written there has helped people trying to figure it all out.
So it’s nice to have helped. But I think I’m just about done with branding myself as a writer. At least as a commercial one.
If You Want To Capture The Extent Of The Value You Bring To Your Clients, Writing’s Typically A Pretty Bad Way To Go About Doing That
The problem with doing an awful lot of writing is that your reputation as a “writer” becomes so deeply entrenched that it becomes an uphill battle to shift out of that mold. A career straitjacket of sorts. If you already have a foreboding that writing’s going to be a difficult trajectory, then that’s something worth keeping in mind.
But why might you want to shift gears in the first place? Let me keep going and I’ll get there.
I’ve talked here about the value of inbound marketing. I stand by all that verbiage. It really works and writing about that (as intended) has landed me work (thereby further demonstrating that it works!)
But (to state the obvious) how you brand yourself matters immensely.
These days, I receive a somewhat steady stream of inbound queries. Last week Germany. The previous week Singapore. They both wanted a writer.
Pick up referrals? Open up the email and you’ll see the dreaded first line: “I’d like to introduce you to Daniel, a writer we’ve worked with.” Burn the email!
For those really interested, I could explain that a lot of the things I’ve done professionally (and do for clients at the present) actually have nothing to do with writing — say, setting up marketing automation funnels for one (lest you need a reminder, I’m geeky). That about half my clients last year weren’t writing clients but rather marketing communications clients — and that writing is only typically a component of that.
But that’s not what a busy agency account manager wants to here. They need a box ticked. That’s nice. But stop confusing us. We need somebody to write our blog posts. You’re a writer, no? We can offer $300 for that post.
The problem? That’s no longer the type of work I want to be taking on. I’ve graduated and aspire towards greater accomplishments than following your prescription (I mean, brief). And I’d imagine that most long term content marketers (or however you wish to self-describe) will end up feeling that way too. Perhaps within just a few years.
Problem 2? Cohesive branding can be surprisingly difficult to budge. Particularly when you’ve done things like write guides on how to brief those dreaded entities called … freelance writers (the ‘FW’s from hereonin).
How to Brief Freelance Writers Like a Pro
On any given week, I receive anywhere a number of briefs for pieces of writing from clients. On any given day, my home…
So what’s with all the heartache?
Well, here’s the central problem with writing and being a writer. The elephant in the middle of the idea of making this work as a long term career.
Writers are massively undervalued. In fact, even finding spaces that will actually pay you to write isn’t even that easy. So if you’re an undervalued content marketer, you can at least take solace in the fact that you made it to the second rung.
Journalism is tanking (or has tanked) and so many writers have wound up on the “dark side” of comms.
Don’t get me wrong. You can make a reasonable living doing those careers in-house (I did!). But most of the difficulties I’m describing here relate to attempting to graft what you’ve learned in journalism onto the world of freelance writing. These are the dark areas on the Doppler that you’ll want to navigate around.
Rate pressure is, in my view, the central problem. It’s a pernicious erosive force beating away at the freelance writing community and their ability to keep what they do viable. And it doesn’t square at all with the notion that good writing requires good pay.
Is The Freelance Writing Market Actually Getting Worse For Writers?
Some more observations:
Not only do I not see this trend going anywhere. I see it taking on problematic new contours.
Let’s take the technology sector.
Those who don’t work in the industry assume that everything touched by technology is golden. Don’t get me wrong (again)— there’s absolutely lots of money to be made by interacting with the space. But here’s what I’ve also learned. The level you engage at makes an enormous difference — actually it flips the whole thing on its head. Sorry to be so Machiavellian. But I’ve got rent to pay and I don’t particularly like Ramen.
A few months ago I was speaking to one of the leading tech websites based in the US about writing some evergreen articles for them. I liked the thought of the byline. But I couldn’t bring myself to write for the compensation. About $100 per article. I won’t name some of the other rates I’ve been paid. It typically made less than content marketing.
I have relatively deep knowledge about a few specific areas in tech that are really borne out of personal experimentation and interest. Linux. Backups. I’ve had clients in just about all these spaces- and more. The overarching freelancing drumbeat is to niche down. Make supply and demand work in your favor. But even here one encounters the same troublesome dynamics I alluded to above.
In a globalized freelancing marketplace, one in which Upwork is always only one click away, even being able to write about relatively obscure topics doesn’t necessarily command a premium. Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed companies making increasingly odd demands, many of which have even seemed outlandish. I’ve been unable to meet some of them. But I also wonder who they find after their quest? And how the compensation being offered might entice them to take on the gig.
“We need a writer with deep experience writing about Dev-Ops and who has great samples to share preferably from a global brand. But we also need somebody who’s done some work with clients in Asia.”
“Perhaps before we go any further take a look at my rates card.”
“What’s this!? Our budget is about $100 per piece.”
Earlier this year, I dealt with a company which had just raised $10M+ funding rounds attempting to haggle $100 off a writing project. It was a catalyst moment that prompted another valuable conversation with another marketer: what’s up with this? How can this be? What’s going on?
My friend had answers — or at least opinions. In his view, writing simply isn’t regarded as “higher order” work and I hate to say this but I agree entirely. My opinion is what I’m trying to get across in this post. Sadly it’s mostly this: in an industry that grossly undervalues writers and often treats them dismally too, to get ahead, don’t be a writer. You can still write. But tweak what you do. And how you describe it.
Done With Being The Writer Guy (Or Gal)? Here Are Some Alternative Paths And Labels
Writing has always been what I’ve enjoyed doing — although my job titles have stated that I managed marketing communications on behalf of clients. These fields, for what it’s worth, involve lots of writing (for PR, that depends a little upon what you do).
Marketing Communications (MarCom): What We Actually Do Within Marketing Teams
There are career guide descriptions of what marketing communications professionals do. But here’s how I’ve experienced…
The trick I’ve found is to talk about this without drawing much attention to … you know …. that time you took to your keyboard to actually hem out a press release. Don’t speak of that ghastly activity that begins with ‘w’ and ends in ‘-ing’. That’s peasant work!
Tell them about how you took the company’s messaging and solidified it into a press release and who you worked with and what the process was and how you identified pitching targets and what kind of coverage you achieved and how these “slammed” their KPIs. Just don’t discuss the ‘d’ word (the drafting).
I can’t tell you that I’ve uncovered the secret to career success yet.
Or even to making it in self-employment as an independent/self-employed marketer.
But I can tell you that shifting my business — and how I lead conversations — away from my writing experience and onto how I, say, advised a company to rearchitect its messaging has had a vastly positive impact so far.
Different conversations. Different numbers. Different clients who even relate to me differently. Better and more productive working experiences. They may involve writing projects. But it seems that so long as they’re not framed around it and I’m not introduced to the client as the “content writer” (note: please don’t ever call me that; I had a call recently where I was intro-d using that dreaded combo and I was tempted to abort). The outcomes are vastly different as well as the line items clients are happy to sign off on for the invoice.
And honestly: while it represents progress for me, it also makes me a little bit sad.
Understanding messaging is integral to corporate writing.
Writers — even those who haven’t had direct experience doing anything else — are often in a good position to make intelligent suggestions about both that and other aspects of branding and communications.
The thinkers of the marketing world commonly execute. But whether you place emphasis on the thinking that you did (strategy) or the execution (writing) has a massive influence on how you’re paid.
Far too many in the marketing world — both in agencies and in-house at companies — see freelance writers as the occupiers of the lowest rung on the totem pole. The mere executors there to follow instructions.
A branding consultant or PR consultant or generalist strategist might comfortably make a few thousand dollars plotting out the key messaging targets for a series of blog posts (or far more than this). But the writer is liable to face pushback if he points out that $200 isn’t a viable budget for a blog post. It’s what’s left over from the actual process we ascribed value to that produced the vision for what we’re trying to communicate. We just need you to execute these bullet points. If you could throw in a discount that would be even better.
It’s true that this dynamic is worse in some parts of the world than others — at least that’s what I’ve encountered. But I’ve also noticed certain commonalities that transcend geographical divisions.
I would love to say that us writers should bond together to try to change this. But honestly, I think it’s too late for that. The ship has sailed. The industry may not have quite capsized yet but it’s become so difficult to survive in that it’s become exhausting to attempt to do so. And thankless.
We’ve got a few fall-guys for this state of affairs.
Low barriers to entry.
The fact that anybody can call themselves a writer and that in an era when many clients think that SEO is just about hitting keywords a sizable chunk of the market couldn’t really care less about quality.
Fall guy two: other writers.
There will always be somebody willing to write for less or who will play the volume game to their financial success (low rate, high volume; common niche, SEO work). But for true writers, this kind of paradigm towards success is anathema. If that’s what writing has become — or the only way to make it work — then perhaps it’s time to do more. And rebrand accordingly. We didn’t get into writing to do this (SEO post about microwaving burgers, I’m absolutely looking at you).
Speaking of that, this summer I finally began the slow process of rebranding myself. The process is tedious and slow and I do it in fits and spurts between actual work. By the way, this piece isn’t part of the effort. This is for other writers navigating the same changes.
The good news is that I’ve started. It’s a deliberate process. And it represents the fact that my long term outlook for freelance writing isn’t rosey. We need to branch out. And if the world doesn’t see much value in what we do, we need to find other ways to show what we know we’re capable of.
I may still love writing — it’s why I feel drawn to do things like write out this blog post even though I’m technically supposed to be done with work for the day.
But I have more of my career ahead of me than behind.
I’m not going to spend it fighting an industry that seems to be rife with exploitation and under-pay. That would be a waste of potential. I have bigger dreams than changing how marketers perceive writers and better things to do than push back on asks to discount my rate than $100.
There are glimmers of light on the other side of this process.
I love when clients understand the value I can bring to their businesses as a marketing communications consultant and send me briefs — I mean projects — that allow me to shine where I can.
It’s the kind of thing I’ve been doing quietly for years. But I bought into the idea that specialization is king and that (in my conversations, in my marketing) I should play up my writing experience and downplay the other things I do and have done. In retrospect, that was probably a very big mistake.
One other result of this process?
If a client asks me whether I’m taking on new clients or whether I’m interested in a referral I have to make what probably seems like an unusual request.
Please don’t mention anything about writing, good sir or madam. If you absolutely must then please reserve it for the last paragraph
In fact, please don’t use the word ‘writer’. You can mention that I did some good writing for you but don’t call me a writer.
And under absolutely no circumstance ever use ‘content’ and ‘writer’ in juxtaposition because that makes me sound like I’ll write yer old blog post for $20 while watching late night TV and sipping Ramen out of a plastic bowl (plastic … the bowl absolutely has to be plastic). Yuck!
Leave ‘freelance’ off the email if you can, too.
Please and thank you.
It’s better communications, you know.
Maybe I’m a marketer after all.