Freelance Writer: Know Thyself

Month Four on the murky seas of Words for Money.

I have drifted for days. The skies are gray, but hold no rain, barrels running low. If I have to eat another moldy cracker I may assassinate a seagull.

Yes, the money is getting better. Yes, the jobs are rolling in. But by all that is black and white, I must have a challenge.

I’m learning that, as a freelancer, it isn’t enough to set your standards high and work hard. You have to know yourself:  your strengths, your peeves, your failings. That way you can choose the projects and clients that keep you working happy, and working well.

These are a few things I’ve learned in my short career:

My interest has a limit. And when my interest is spent, writing becomes work, in the most menial sense of the word. You do not want my writing to sound like work, so I will hack and claw and thump at it until it sounds the way it should. But that level of quality comes at a severe cost to my time and sanity. On the other hand…

Challenging projects are interesting projects. When a job requires a ridiculous level of creativity and spunk and precision, I am THERE. You cannot stop me from breaking my head happily against that project until you and I are both thrilled with the results. Once it becomes formulaic and predictable, I am faithfully filling the blanks until the project ends, and then I’m gone.

My favorite part of freelancing is the ever-evolving project list. It takes all kinds to keep me going. I need the steady, big industry neutrals to prepare me for the super nimble startups and their wide array of colors and goals and choices. I need the freedom to flirt with irreverent ad copy when I’m a little too done with those by-the-book web articles. And I need room to course correct, to realize maybe this type of piece is not the best for me, but that one makes me completely school girl giddy.

As a freelance writer, I can move on to the next step with a little more wisdom about what I can handle, and a little more confidence in saying, “Yes, I can write that for you. I would love it.”


How to Write Interesting Content on Boring Subjects

Freelancer Lesson #4:  There are approximately 587 million dull topics in the world. You will have to write about some of them. With love. Or pretend love, at least.

Sometimes the jobs with the steadiest pay and the best rates are the ones that bore you into a coma. That doesn’t mean you should quit, and it definitely doesn’t mean you should lower your standards. In the world of on-line work, your reputation is your lifeline. That means that even an 800-word treatise on the merits of lawn mower maintenance deserves your best writing.

But how do you write your most engaging content, when you don’t even care about the subject? Well…

  1. Pretend. That’s what writers do, right? Put yourself in the shoes of the poor, misguided person who went googling after lawn mower maintenance articles. That person needs to hear what you have to say. They need it to be clear, relevant, well-researched, and most of all, interesting. That way they click right through to that whatchamawhozit your employer is selling. Google rankings go up. And now you’re the content writer he recommends to his hiring friends. Booyah. Hopefully the next buyer wants you to write about something magical, like tap shoes.
  2. Play. Challenge yourself to a little game. It’s called, “Bet I Can Make This Awesome.” Then do it. Fair warning: sometimes this leads to extra research, because it can be difficult to find an awesome angle on a topic you know next to nothing about. But it’s way more fulfilling than BS-ing your way through an article. And if you win, you end up with something awesome for your portfolio. Nothing impresses potential clients more than when they see you make dust into diamonds.
  3. Bank it. Like it or not, this is valuable experience. You will cash it in later, when you’re working on that future best-seller, and your characters are trudging through a desert wasteland, about to fall down dead, and you’re wishing you could join them. All those hours spent trudging through law office blogs will have trained you to follow through and reach the end. Your characters will find the hidden river on the other side and rejoice! And you will be glad you learned to persevere.
  4. Say NO. Some topics are not for you. Plain and simple. For example, let’s say somebody offered me good money to write about something like… oh, I don’t know… the effect of corporate banking policies on the stock market and the global economy. Let’s say they even threw in free research papers for me to peruse and learn and glean from, and let’s say I said, “Heck no.” That would be the right decision, for someone like me, who not only has no interest in such things, but would need approximately six months and a degree in corporate accounting to understand what the heck was happening. Rather than staking my reputation (my lifeline) on an article I have little hope of writing with panache and wit and insight, I would just say, “Thanks for thinking of me,” and walk away. And write about killer tap shoes.
I don't know how to maintain a lawnmower. And I don't care.

I don’t know how to maintain this thing. And I don’t care.

Writing for a Living, Chapter 1

It has been seven weeks since I started writing for money as a freelance contractor on

My soul is still intact.

In the beginning there was this little fear in the back of my head that said, “If you turn writing into a job, you won’t love it anymore.”

And another: “If you write all day for work, you won’t have anything left for the novels/poetry/fiction/etc. that you really should be writing.”

There may have been a tiny bit of truth to those fears, but for the most part, writing for cash has been good for me. A few observations:

1. I’m faster. NaNoWriMo did great things for my speed, but writing for work has boosted my output levels higher than ever, because now, more output equals more pay. Plus I have a better grasp of how long 500-1000 words should take to write. That means I can schedule my writing time more effectively than in the past, and make sure to squeeze in an hour or two for poetry.

2. Variety makes me happy. And there is no shortage of variety in freelancing. So far I’ve written speeches, scripts, financial articles, business blogs, newsletters, eBooks, web copy, and a tearjerker about a stuffed, pink kitty. I love that I never know what’s on my oDesk docket from week to week. There is no opportunity to get bored.

3. Creative people are my favorite employers. Writers, designers, artists, and entrepreneurs all have one thing in common: passion. Their love for their work spills over into what you write for them, and it’s so fun to be a part of their projects, and see the finished results.

4. I’m more confident. There is definitely something to be said for getting paid to write. It’s true that nobody is handing me money for the two novels I have yet to finish. (It might help if I actually mailed a proposal or two at some point, but hey, baby steps!) Even so, there is power in the fact that I no longer have to question whether I have something of value. Yes, I should have known anyway, but when somebody hands you cash in exchange for your talent, it shuts up that little nagging voice that says, “You’re not really good enough.” And building on that…

5. It’s no longer IF, but WHEN. I don’t wonder anymore whether I’ll finish the book, or publish it, or sell it. It’s going to happen. Maybe not the first time, but sometime. The process of applying, winning, wowing, again and again on a small, freelance scale makes me sure that it will happen on a large scale. I feel free to slow down and put the pieces together naturally. No rush. No doubt. Just moving along steadily toward my dream job.