Back in kindergarten, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was always “a writer”.
In primary school, I still kept insisting I was going to be a writer, even when told it was not the best career prospect.
In high school, I was writing thousands of words a day. In college, I took the least popular route, and chose to major in English Literature. Then I got an MA. A PhD is also looming in the near future.
But all the while, I kept telling myself and interested parties that I was a writer. Well, once I landed my first digital marketing job, I amended it to “content writer”. As if writers could ever write anything that is not “content”.
Today, I tell people I am a “content marketing manager”. I won’t even use my other job title (which is lead SEO, but which warrants at least a 10-minute intro into digital marketing as reassurance I have not made it up).
In truth, I am writer, editor, proofreader, hand holder and shoulder to cry on, mentor and counselor, and anything my team of writers needs me to be.
Because being a writer is difficult and challenging enough in and of itself. Add to that the stress that comes with freelance writing, and you have all the ingredients for burnout and breakdown right there.
But being a writer is also the best job in the world, if that is what you dream of being. It can also pay exceptionally well, if you are an exceptional writer.
To offer a helping hand and hopefully help you out just a tiny bit, here are some of the things I tell the amazingly talented and creative people I work with every day.
1. Which comes first: the research or the writing?
Gun to my head, I’d say research. But not necessarily.
My best advice is to always read up on the subject you are about to write on, see what others have said before you, and how you can make your piece better before you write anything.
However, I then hear my mentor’s voice in my head, telling me that reading about a book before you read the book can ruin it for you, and rob you of an otherwise original experience.
If you already have your own ideas – write them down first, and then start doing research. But don’t ever skip the research part and just dive in. Even if you are truly an expert on a topic, checking up on what Google thinks is the most relevant content in a certain field can get your mind to work in previously undiscovered ways.
2. To outline or not to outline
I know a lot of amazing writers who don’t ever write an outline. For a 600-word piece, I am known to skip this step as well. But for anything longer than 1000 words: do write one.
It will not only help you stay on point, it will help you organize your thoughts more clearly, making for a better reading experience.
While you are doing your research, write down the facts you want to mention, their sources, and your own ideas about them, be it on actual or virtual paper. Having clearly outlined points to cover will make the writing process just that much easier.
3. Never steal other people’s work
By steal, I mean never “borrow” a sentence or paragraph from someone else by copy/pasting it into your own article. There are tools that will pick up on this, and you will not be hired by the same person again.
I know that some subjects have been redone to death, and there is no way around that, but you can always find a way to say something differently. Don’t be tempted to pass off someone else’s genius as your own. It can cripple your progress forever.
4. Always list or link to your sources
One of the things that puts me out the most when a writer sends in a piece is when they list zero sources. Especially if they quote actual research papers and precise figures.
Sources give your work more credibility, build trust, and ultimately – they help that page (and the page you are trying to promote, if there is one) rank better, which is what we are all looking for.
Depending on the job requirements, you don’t always need to hyperlink your sources. But do list them either at the end of the paragraph, at the end of the article, or however you agree with your employer.
5. Check your facts – twice
While we are discussing references – make sure you only use credible and trustworthy sources. There are several ways to know which source is a good source: this article can help you master that art.
There are certain types of articles that don’t require too much effort regarding sources. For example, a piece about the latest spring trends does not warrant a link back to Cosmopolitan or Vogue.
However, a piece about the latest advancements in cancer treatment does require a medical journal or a reputable website as a source. Preferably, depending on the level of expertise of your target audience, you will also double-check all your facts. If your readers can’t feel they can trust you, they will not come back to read more.
6. Don’t use filler content – ever
I know how tempting it can be to write run-on sentences that don’t actually say anything just to rack up your word count. Especially when the job does not pay well, and you are pretty sure no one will ever read it.
While this is undoubtedly a great way to get some money in – it’s not the best long-term strategy. This kind of work can kill brain cells fast, and dull you into oblivion, apart from the fact that it will also not get you the reputation you want.
The employers you want to get hired by will never hire you for work like that, so just don’t do it.
7. The title will come
If you don’t have a set title, you don’t need to come up with one right away. Having a topic in mind is enough to get you started.
Crafting a great title is half the job – people don’t click on boring ones. But it is often easier to come up with it after you have already written the piece, and you know what it is all about.
Don’t limit yourself with the title right off the bat either – for example, the title of this article right now is “17 Things Content Writers Should Know Before Applying for a Job”. I don’t guarantee that is the title of the article you are reading.
8. If you are stuck, Google it
If you can’t remember a word, a phrase, or a saying – just Google it. Or if you are not a native English speaker, use Google translate. Don’t bang your head against the wall trying to coax the word out of your brain. Google is there to help.
9. Choose a spelling and stick to it
Is eCommerce right? Or is it e-commerce? Or ecommerce?
When a word can be legitimately spelled more ways than one – choose one variation, and stick to it at all times. Especially within a single article. Your proofreader will be very thankful.
10. Teach yourself everything there is to know about keywords
Keywords are what makes digital marketing go round. As a writer, you need to know a lot about them.
If a writing gig does not involve keyword research (and it often won’t), you can still do it and make sure your piece will reach a wider audience. If you are assigned a keyword, you need to know when and how and where and how many times to use it within the article.
While employers will not always give you the landing page a certain keyword should be pointing to, don’t be afraid to ask them about it. It can significantly help you craft a better article, from the SEO standpoint.
11. Don’t write for search engines
And while keywords matter quite a lot, you should never write your piece around them. You are, after all, writing for a living and breathing and thinking audience, not the search engine that is going to rank the page you are just about to write.
With the latest search engine algorithm updates, articles that are better written will rank better than articles that are better optimized.
SEO is a science, an art of its own – learning about it will help your writing immensely, but don’t focus on it more than on your craft.
Sidenote: If you have any questions about keywords, anchor texts and SEO in general, please feel free to ask. I know what I have just said is not enough to cover the subject at all.
12. Know your audience
Different audiences and different pieces of content will require different styles, tones and points of view. Make sure you don’t use one and the same voice for every article. If you know where your article will be published, read some of their previously published work to get a sense for the voice they use.
You can also read the work of the most popular authors in a certain niche or industry, and see what works best for certain audiences.
Sidenote: I am not saying you should emulate someone else. Having a unique and distinct voice is what makes a writer great. But as someone who writes for the web, you will need to learn to adapt that voice to different audiences and purposes.
13. Break it up
An amazing 2000-word article broken up into five paragraphs will never cut it.
People online will rarely read an entire article before skimming through it to see if it’s worth their time. With the millions of pieces of content being produced every day, they can easily move on to the next one.
You have to make it easier for your readers to read through and make the choice of reading the entire piece. Use headings, break paragraphs up, utilize white space to your advantage.
You will rarely be completely satisfied with your work on the first go.
Re-read it at least once, and fix any minor or major errors, amend the style, and so on. If you write an entire piece in one sitting, you will likely have omitted a word here and there, or repeated the same idea more than once. The edit(s) is there to fix that, as well as clarify any point you feel need to be worked on.
Proofreading is not the same as editing.
You edit your message, the content itself, the point you are trying to make and how you make it. You proofread for grammar and spelling mistakes and punctuation.
You should use a tool for this (any tool you trust) – but make sure you also read it yourself, as the machine still can’t catch everything the human eye and brain can.
When proofreading, don’t focus on the meaning and the message – only grammar and spelling.
16. Proofread and edit again
If you have the time, especially if the content is longer and the deadline is not in 30 minutes, repeat the previous two steps once again, preferably with a fresh mind.
The best pieces of content you read have most likely been edited at least a few times, and probably by more than one person. See how you feel about your words after you have moved away from them for at least a few hours.
17. Have an editor – if you can
Having an editor is the best thing a writer can have.
Your editor is ideally a fellow writer, who can point out the best and the weakest points of a piece, someone whose ideas and opinions you trust. My editor is my friend and colleague whom I have worked with for years, and who read everything I write. I also read everything he writes. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I have learned through the process.
You can also give your writing to a member of your target audience, and see how it flies.
18. Know who you are as a person
Do you get stressed out when you are working on more than three articles at the same time? Do you leave everything to the very last possible minute? Do you work better under pressure?
By knowing who you are and how you work, you will be able to handle your workload better, and avoid getting in over your head. Just be honest with yourself.
For example – I know that there are days when I won’t be able to write, and I am fine with that. I can afford not to write for a day or two. But I also know that if I let myself snuggle in that cocoon for more than two days, it will get increasingly hard to get back to it on day four. So on day three, I force myself. And I hate it, but it helps get me through the rut, and I am myself again.
19. Leave your ego out of it
Try to learn how to take into account only the advice and criticism that can help you and make you better, and discard all the rest. There will be people who mean well, but can’t articulate their thoughts well, and it will come off as harsh and negative. Ask yourself: can this help me, can I learn from this, will this make me better? If yes, great. If no – just push it out of your mind. It will take a lot of practice, but you will get there.
20. Learn how to sell yourself
There are thousands of writers just like you looking for work right now. You are unique and have a skillset all your own – but right now, you are the only one who knows that.
If you are going to make it as a freelance writer, you need to learn how to best sell yourself. There are countless articles that can help you do that. While having talent is half the battle won, if you can’t sell it, it will not be enough, however harsh that may sound.
21. Determine your rates and stick to them
Don’t sell yourself short, don’t accept work for less money than you are worth unless it’s an emergency or has great potential.
Again, be honest with yourself, determine a rate, and stick to it. There will be those who refuse you, but you will find a job that will be just right.
As you start out, you may need to keep your rates lower, until you prove yourself and establish a track record. Raise your prices as you gain more experience. Don’t forget to do this as time goes by – the more experience you have, the more you are worth, and your rates should reflect that.
22. Know how to say no
There will come a time when you are approached by a client you would love to work with, but don’t have the time. Saying no is acceptable.
If you really can’t swing it, don’t do it. Your work for your other clients will suffer, and no matter how tempting the job may be, don’t dig yourself into a hole you can’t work with. That is the road to burnout, and burnout is not where you want to be.
A client that likes your work will be ready to take you on for their next project – don’t lose too much sleep over saying no.
I sincerely hope at least one of these tips has helped you write something today. Let me know how you approach writing and writer’s block, how you find clients and why you became a writer in the first place!