Do you feel like today’s freelance writing marketplace is just too difficult to break into? Too competitive for you to move up and earn well?
Well, I disagree. In fact, I believe there’s never been a better time to be a freelance writer.
You might be thinking: How can I say such a thing, in this era of the terrible economy (actually in steady recovery since late 2009)? When the Internet has put writers in competition with everyone who’s ever slung a sentence together anywhere on the globe? And when there are so many shocking low-priced gigs on offer?
For a perspective-setter, let’s contrast the freelance writing scene of today with that of the pre-Internet era. That’s the time period when I first broke into freelance writing, so I’ve got painful firsthand experience with how it used to be.
No, I’m not going to regale you with tales of how I walked three miles through the snow to turn in my articles to my editor. Mostly because I lived in California when I broke in.
But being a freelance writer was definitely a far more difficult process than it is today. Here are some of the ways life has gotten better for freelance writers:
Shoe leather vs Internet research
Then: When I wanted to find new magazines to write for, I got in my car and drove to the library. There, I headed for the reference section, where I could hunt for interesting publications in the Gale Guide. Long hours of leafing through Gale’s tissue-thin pages and hand-jotting contact information ensued.
Researching businesses was usually limited to companies you knew in your town, or read about in your local business journal. Or you could head back to the library and go through their publication archives. I have literally combed through the library’s stacks of phone books from other major cities to find phone numbers or addresses for businesses in other towns. Talk about a time-killer.
Now: Fire up your computer and tap the online edition of The Writer’s Market for instant updates on newly updated listings. Quickly sort by topic or which publications pay the best, and you’re in business.
Want to write for businesses? Your market research is sitting on your desktop — hit the Internet, compare local business’s websites, find the worst ones, and pitch. Or quickly look up major companies anywhere in the world and find contact information in a minute flat. Boom, you’re done.
In-person events vs social media
Then: Want to meet other writers or potential clients? Head on down to your local Chamber of Commerce and spend all night pressing the flesh — and more time the next day following up. More in-person meetings with prospects followed.
Now: Don’t have time to get out? No problem. Your writer website and LinkedIn profile can call out your areas of specialization and help the Internet send you prospective clients, 24/7. Join a few LinkedIn groups, or a writer community to make more connections. Tweet an editor an idea. Take a Skype call with a prospect and quickly nail down an agreement.
Editor gatekeeping vs online publishing
Then: Nothing got published without an editor’s blessing, and the number of publications was fairly finite. You submitted to editors and prayed. They were a hurdle you had to vault in order to become published.
Now: If you strike out with print publications, you can turn to the growing number of paying online markets. Not having any luck getting your ideas out there? Start up a blog and use it as a writing sample, or tap a content mill or bidding site such as Elance to find clients if you’re short on marketing time. Sure, rates might not be the greatest, but you can at least get clips fairly easily.
Outside control vs self-publishing
Then: As a writer, you either got a staff job or hustled freelance gigs. Getting a print book contract was another huge gatekeeping exercise with a few print publishers pulling all the strings.
You had one boss or many. But either way, your ability to earn was in someone else’s hands.
Now: Want to diversify your income and achieve independence? Build a website, draw an audience, and self-publish your own e-books on Amazon with the touch of a button.
SASE and xeroxes vs instant response
Then: Want to send a query letter to a magazine? This laborious process involved heading to Kinko’s to get copies of my print articles, purchasing big envelopes and small ones for that return rejection letter than often came, and then composing my query. Then the best part: Waiting three months or so to find out if the editor was interested in your work.
Now: For the vast majority of publications, you can email off your query with links to your online clips. Often, get a response within an hour, or a week. Cost: Free.
In-person meetings vs online meetings
Then: Businesses and magazines mostly worked with local writers because of how difficult and expensive it was to meet in person otherwise. If you had out-of-town corporate clients or magazines, you got on a plane or drove to meetings, killing days worth of productive writing time.
Now: Go after clients anywhere in the world, because you can meet virtually. Hop on Skype to chat, or use Basecamp or Google Drive to collaborate instantly on evolving drafts.
Stuck at home vs write from anywhere
Then: In the pre-mobile era, being out of town was a nail-biter. Who was emailing me? Who had called? Would my editor hear my voicemail and get my hotel fax number to send me the revisions she had?
Now: Mobile phones go with us everywhere and bring the Internet along. Use online tools such as GoToMyPC to tap into that desktop at home from your hotel’s business center, or bring your laptop and file a story before you even get home. On a recent trip, I helped an editor meet a print magazine deadline with edits I did while at the airport and in a cab.
Credentials required vs wide-open market
Then: In all my 12 years as a staff writer, I was always the one freak who was a college dropout. Everyone else seemed to have gone to Columbia or Medill. Or at least had an English degree.
Now: Then came blogging, and the ability for writers to prove their mettle without sitting through stultifying courses on the history of journalism. These days, I find, nobody cares if you learned your craft at Columbia or under a freeway overpass or from writing 1,000 blog posts on your personal blog. It’s a snap to show what you’ve got, and write your way to the sort of markets you want.
Writing conferences vs online training
Then: Want to learn about emerging issues in the world of freelance writing or take a class to improve your article-writing craft? You could buy a print book at a bookstore and try to suss things out on your own. Or maybe take a college extension class that would take months of in-person class time. Or you could invest hundreds to fly to a writer conference. Spend several days marooned away from your computer.
Now: Free online trainings abound! (Like the first session of Article Writing Masterclass that I made free to all comers in April 2014.)
For more, take a paid, in-depth course you can view online as your schedule permits — and review whenever you like for a refresher. Get instructor feedback without having to go anywhere via live Q&A calls and support forums.
Personally, I’d give anything to have become a freelance writer now compared with what a slog it was back then.
One thing hasn’t changed, though — you need the confidence to put yourself out there in a competitive marketplace. But there are so many more types of writing and ways to earn today. For anyone who’s got the moxie, it’s the Golden Age for freelance writers.
Do you think it’s easier or harder to be a freelance writer now? Leave a comment and let us know.