Has your writing income dwindled in recent years? If so, it’s a good bet you’ve been earning much of your money through article writing.
You may have noticed many local newspapers and magazines are shrinking their article wordcounts–and their pay. I meet a lot of sad former staff journalists who’re worried about how they’ll earn in the future.
That’s not an irrational fear, either. A recent study I did of about 250 established freelance writers showed 70 percent of them were article writers. And that article writing was one of their best-paid gigs.
What did that pencil out to, in dollars, this great article-writing pay? Nearly half said they earn under $20,000 a year from writing. Another 20 percent earned $20,000-$30,000. In all, most of these article writers weren’t earning much.
Gah! This makes me hopping mad.
That’s because article writing can be seriously lucrative — it’s the bulk of the work I’ve done as a freelance writer, including years where I earned six figures. But you have to know where to look for better pay.
I’ve got a list of a dozen great-paying opportunities for you to think on below. But before we get there, there are two important things that need to change for you to earn more: Your mindset and your marketing.
Dry your tears and find a niche
The biggest problem I encounter with starving article writers is that they are mourning a bygone world. The heyday of newspapers and print magazines has come and gone.
These writers stay stuck writing for pennies for the same outlets they’ve worked at for years, all while exclaiming, ‘Can you believe how bad rates are now? I can remember when I got $2 a word…wah wah.’
Writers are spending a lot of time on social-media chat boards bemoaning the state of print news and magazines today. And it’s a complete waste of your energy.
Reality check: The print world is undergoing cataclysmic change, and it’s never going back. I think great articles will still be written and wonderful stories told, but increasingly, they’ll be told online.
Process your grief and accept that for now, writing local news stories is not going to feed your family. Now, we can move forward to address the second big obstacle for article writers.
It’s that often you haven’t been working a focused niche. Staff journalists are often general-assignment reporters, taking any and all topics. That’s not a high-earning proposition in freelancing.
You’ll earn much better going forward if you concentrate on 2-3 specific industries or topics. Think back on the types of stories you enjoyed most, or did a lot of. Did you meet a lot of tech-industry CEOs? Write about yacht-building, or strip-mall developers? Follow the money to focus your marketing and land the types of assignments that will pay well.
The big news is, many of those writing assignments won’t be for publications at at all. If you can get your head around re-purposing your article-writing skills to help businesses, you’ll find a serious gold mine of opportunities.
Here’s a rundown on a dozen better-paying approaches that have worked for many of my students. Some of these are projects for businesses and some for publications:
1. Try two thriving magazine types
If you’ve hitched your star to consumer publications, it’s time to diversify. Trade publications such as Ad Age or Builder magazine have been a bright spot in print, thriving thanks to their targeted audience, which still draws advertisers.
If you have an industry you know well, trades tend to pay solid rates and will assign you regularly if they like you. Another winning niche in traditional print is custom publications, company magazines such as Costco Connection or the airline and hospital magazines. You’ll write articles like you always have — it’s just that a company writes your check instead of a publisher.
2. Casablanca it
Have you written once for a great-paying magazine, but it never happened again? Here’s how that happens…
You get an assignment — at last! — from that great national magazine you’ve been targeting. You write and turn it in.
Then, you wait for the editor to drop a new assignment on you…and it never happens.
Instead, don’t turn in an assignment draft without a couple of new idea pitches for your editor. Keep growing the relationship!
There’s more you can do to grow this relationship, too. Have you asked to be introduced to editors at sister publications? Does that magazine have a book division, or do trade-show magazines on the side? Make sure you know all the possible ways you can maximize this connection.
Don’t think of any article-writing assignment as a one-off. Like they say in Casablanca, think of it as the start of a beautiful friendship.
3. Win the numbers (and pay) game
How many queries a month are you sending out, article writers? If the answer isn’t 30 — or more — you’re not pitching enough.
If you want to make publications pay your bills, you need to pitch a lot. Crank up the volume to keep the assignments steady.
Make this even more productive by aiming your queries at top-paying publications. Stop wasting time on ones that pay $100 an article. When I’m laser-focused on getting more article assignments, I take my online Writer’s Market search tool, crank it up to five dollar signs, and send my queries to top payers only.
4. Learn a new skill
I meet many starving writers who focus on writing personal essays. This is a niche that never did pay great. These days, thanks to the many free online platforms for personal stories, personal essays pay little to none.
The real money in article writing is mostly found in reported nonfiction. If you need to learn journalism skills, it’ll be worth your time to do it. A world of better assignments will open up to you, once you understand reporting ethics and build your interview and nonfiction article-writing skills.
5. Try the other journalism
In the past few years, big businesses have taken note of the credibility a magazine conveys — and they’ve decided to skip advertising in consumer pubs and get into the online-publishing game themselves.
It’s called brand journalism, and it pays great. Imagine doing exactly the sort of business reporting you’ve always done, except your check-signer is, say, AmEx or Dell, instead of Meredith or Hearst. In my experience, that’s basically the whole difference.
You can Google lists of companies doing brand journalism projects, and start to get a sense of who the players are. Then, sleuth out editors and pitch them.
I mean, do this only if you like earning $1-$2 per word. Because that’s the sort of rate range many brand-journalism projects carry.
6. Tell a happy story
Once you understand that businesses love writers with article skills, the next logical stop is writing case studies.
These are 1-2 page ‘happy customer’ stories, that explain why a business’s product or service is great and what it’s really like to use it. Case studies help companies sell like crazy — and bylines impress prospects here.
7. Write reports that subtly sell
If you’ve written long, involved articles that used research, check out white papers. These are reports on trends, emerging product features, or challenges an industry faces. (You can Google loads of examples.) They got their name because white papers began as simple typed reports, but most today include graphics.
As with case studies, white papers are an info-marketing sales tool. The sly conclusion of the white paper usually is that the sponsoring company’s solution is the best option. Other than that, this is basically a long, reported article (most white papers run 3-10 pages these days). Your interview experience is a serious asset here.
8. Bigger, better blogging
You may have noticed that 1500-2000 word blog posts are all the rage now. These are often highly similar to writing feature articles — most incorporate interviews and/or research.
The good news is pay rates for writing these for popular sites have been rising. I have coaching students who’re getting $500-$600 a post for repeat work. Beats what the local news pays nowadays, hm?
9. Downloading success
The other hot trend in blogging is content downloads linked within a longform blog post. The download is usually a useful report, guide, or resource list. The difference is, readers will have to put in their email to get this download. It’s basically a lead-generation tool. This isn’t harder to write than a feature story — they’re usually pretty straightforward.
That means your content-download project’s success can be quantified. And that means pay is usually strong for good writers who can come up with tasty download ideas.
10. Now this is special
The kissin’ cousin to the content download and white paper, special reports are another lead-gathering tool. They’re often what companies offer their blog subscribers. I get a bunch of them from the online-marketing blogs I subscribe to — probably you get some, too.
Study them, and then reach out to similar companies you see that don’t have a free report for subscribers. I did some research recently, and was surprised how many nice, mid-sized companies with pro-looking blogs didn’t have a report. Doesn’t look hard to turn up prospects for this. (Subscribe to my blog to see a report example.)
11. Go long (or even longer)
Writing books or e-books is the next natural step for writers with extensive article-writing experience. I know many writers who’re intimidated by moving up to the book-writing level. But books aren’t harder to write than articles — they’re just bigger projects that pay more.
Here’s the secret: Think of each chapter as an article. Stitch them all together and boom, you’ve got a book or e-book.
These projects tend to come through referrals, so start letting your network know you’re looking for thought leaders, CEOs and philanthropists who’ve got a book in them and need help.
12. Information, please
One of the simplest ways to leverage your article writing is to write web pages for businesses. Most pages on a typical site are conveying facts — telling the story of how the company was founded, what it does, announcing news developments at the firm, or relating the bios of the leadership team. In other words, basic storytelling.
I’ve got one coaching student currently bidding an 80-page site rewrite. That should be an $8,000-$16,000 project, depending on complexity and deadline. And all you do is use the basic reporting and storytelling skills you learned as an article writer.
Re-purpose your article writing for $$$
As you can see, article-writing skills are in high demand. Salesy stuff is out of style and info-marketing is big. It’s really the best time ever to be an article writer.
If you’re thinking, ‘But I don’t know how to write case studies, or ghostwrite books!’ that’s OK — you can learn.
These projects pay well (and secret spoiler: They’re fun!). But you’ve got to kick the newspaper and local-mag habit to move up. Hopefully, this list gives you some ideas that’ll help you find better article clients.
Then you can write a happier story about what you get paid.