Monday, May 31, 2010

What kind of writer are you?

OK, so you're a freelance writer. What does that mean? Or, more importantly, what does that mean for you?

Thanks largely to the Internet, there is no shortage of opportunities to make money writing these days. Job-oriented newsletters arrive in thousands of in-boxes each morning, like dessert carts rolling up to restaurant tables. On-line newsletters and magazines have proliferated, even as their more traditional print cousins have been decimated by the economy.

The drawback, of course, is that competition has also been accelerated. It isn't just the newly laid-off newspaper and magazine writers who have been hurled into the mix, but people out of work in other areas who always thought they could make a living writing if only they had the opportunity.

Against this backdrop, it's more important than ever for writers to take inventory of their skills and schedules to determine where they might fit in. If you approach freelance writing as a hobby, it will probably play out like most hobbies -- enjoyable, perhaps, but costing you more money than you bring in.

Some things to consider ...

1. How fast can you write? This has nothing to do with ability -- some of the greatest writers of our time have been excruciatingly slow. It does, however, have to do with the sort of jobs you might want to accept.

I hear a lot of complaints from writers these days about markets offering $10 for an article. If you examine the situation further, however, you realize that not all of these people are philosophical descendants of Ebenezer Scrooge -- some have simply started their projects on a shoestring and can't afford to pay any more.

Either way, it's your choice. But here's where speed comes in. If you can knock out two or three of these little articles in an hour, that's $20-$30 an hour. If they require much in the way of research, or a phone call or two, your return on that investment of time shrinks dramatically. If it would take you an hour for each, your time could probably be better spent elsewhere.

Moreover, if you are a person who takes considerable pride in your writing, these "content mill" jobs will only leave you frustrated and empty. Best to leave them alone.

2. What are you an expert in? If you raise Dobermans, that makes you an expert on Dobermans. If you're struggling with a particular disease or physical ailment, that's another area of expertise. If you grew up in Terre Haute, IN, you're a Terre Haute expert. Given that, you might consider starting a blog on "your" subject, working the search engines and blog-ranking sites, and pulling in traffic. That could lead to advertising on your blog, or freelance opportunities elsewhere.

3. How much time do you have? Like everything else, freelancing will reward you in direct proportion to the amount of effort you can put into it. If you already have two jobs, attempting to freelance on top of that will only cause you more stress.

4. How good are you? You need to find someone without an agenda who can give you an honest and informed critique on your writing (do you know any English professors or journalists?). You wouldn't try to join the PGA golf tour if you couldn't break 100, so see where your current ability level might guide you. This doesn't mean there isn't always room for improvement.

5. Can you prove it? Writing is a very democratic profession. Generally, the people who hire you don't care about your college degree, ethnicity, haircut or sexual preference. They do, however, want to see examples of your writing. Again, starting a blog is a good way to generate that, even if you're not getting published "outside." If you do work for someone else and they seem pleased with it, make sure and ask them for a referral.

Here are just a few of the job possibilities for writers today, with upsides and downsides:

1. Content mill writer. Upside: Easy work, for the most part, and something you can arrange around your schedule. Downside: The pay stinks.

2. Magazine writing. Upside: More money, much more satisfying in terms of creative accomplishment. Downside: There are a lot more potential magazine writers than there is article space, so be prepared for a lot of dead ends.

3. Website writing. Upside: The bar is generally set lower, and you don't have to be as economical with your prose. Downside: The people who run Websites are generally not William Randolph Hearsts -- don't expect to get paid a lot.

4. Technical writing. Upside: Since this is a much more specialized field, the money gets even better. Downside: You can't fake this. You're either a tekkie or you're not.

5. Newspaper writing. A lot of newspapers are using freelance "stringers" these days, usually to cover local government or sports events. Upside: The money isn't bad, but it's sporadic. Downside: These gigs tend to come at the last minute, so you have to be flexible.

6. Book writing. Upside: This is a golden age for writers willing to self-publish, because the options are almost limitless. Downside: Given the diminishing ranks of traditional publishers, the "find an agent, get published, get rich" dream has become even harder to achieve.

7. Resume writing. Upside: You can make a lot of money doing this. Downside: It's boring.

8. Copy editing. Upside: This seems to be the fastest growing writing job field, and there are jobs aplenty. Downside: The pay is all over the map, and the work can be tedious for a creative person.

9. Book editing. Upside: Also a lot of opportunities. Downside: This is extremely labor intensive, and it's hard to find clients who will pay enough to be worth the trouble.