I was contacted recently by freelance writer, Steve Koch, with some questions that might be on the mind of other new freelancers. He agreed to let me publish my responses on the blog so hopefully other readers with similar questions will benefit.
"I have some general questions about getting started as a freelance writer. I have gone to the usual attempts (elance, helium etc.) and have become more frustrated than anything else. I have had articles published and created/edited newsletters for non-profits, but I can't seem to break into any freelance jobs that will pay something besides - 'nice job.'"
- In looking at job openings I see the words 'copy' and 'content'. I believe 'copy' relates to advertising, marketing, selling etc., but I'm not sure what 'content' is. Can you explain what the terms mean and how they differ?
- There are many sites looking to take advantage of beginners either by offering jobs that pay little or do not fulfill their promises or offer magical courses/lessons to help you break into the field. What are some of the things to look for to avoid being scammed?
- What is the best way to break through and get your first paying writing job? While not looking to pay the mortgage with the first job and understanding that every step allows us to progress toward our goals I'd like to be sure I am looking to scale the right ladder."
Copywriting vs Content Writing
Leaving the journalistic definition of "copy" aside, here is how I usually explain the difference:
When you write content, your goal is to inform, educate, or entertain. Most articles and blog posts would fall into this category.
When someone is looking for a copywriter, on the other hand, they expect you to write something that can influence the reader or drive them to action. For example, with sales copy your goal is to convert readers into buyers. With PR copy, your goal might be to influence readers by either reinforcing or changing opinions about an issue or an organization.
Some clients honestly don't know the difference. That's why you'll often see the terms used interchangably in ads for freelance writing jobs. But for those clients who do understand the difference, it can be important. While there is certainly overlap between content writing and copywriting (think a PR feature that uses content as a tool to influence readers, or a blog post that includes a call to action within it), sometimes clients are looking for specific skills. For example, if they want someone with direct sales experience, they might advertise for a copywriter expecting that (whereas someone with only content writing experience might not be qualified).
When it comes to job ads, my suggestion is to simply take things in context. If they ask for a copywriter, but they want you to write how-to articles for their blog, content writing experience is probably what they're looking for. If they say they want a content writer but they want you to write a sales letter, you'll probably need experience writing direct marketing copy.
Freelance Scams: Warning Signs
When it comes to people and companies trying to scam freelance writers, here are a few warning signs that would send me running:
- You're asked to pay for anything. If it's a legitimate gig, you should be the one getting paid.
- The company or person advertising the gig says there is little pay now, but you'll either get great "exposure" or there will be more work to come. No no-name site without a working budget is going to give you much exposure. And you don't want more work where that came from anyway.
- If the ad specifically solicits work at home moms or students, that generally means they're trying to appeal to people they feel they can exploit.
- As for those offering courses, if they seem to spend more time worrying about the upsell and cramming more products, services, and memberships down your throat than they spend actually helping you, I wouldn't pay them a dime. Always look for testimonials, and try to get some from people you know and trust. If the only person actively praising something is the creator, that's a red flag.
The Fastest Way to Land Your First Freelance Writing Job
While I'm a big fan of what I call "query-free freelancing" (building your writer platform and network in a way that gigs come to you instead of the other way around), this is a case where I fully support direct pitching.
The fastest way to get a paying writing job is to identify some companies, websites, or publications that you'd like to write for and then directly pitch them with your story ideas or services. It might seem intimidating when you're brand new, but remember, the worst they can do is say "no." And that's okay. It just means you haven't found the right fit yet.
Keep pitching until someone bites. And in the meantime, start building your platform and network now so prospects will have an easier time finding you later.
Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She began writing for clients in 1999 and started her first blog in 2004.
She owns 3 Beat Media - a publishing and client services company which operates All Indie Writers as well as several other websites and blogs including The Busy Author's Guide and BizAmmo. Jenn comes from a background in online PR and social media consulting, having owned a small PR firm for several years before choosing to pursue a full-time writing and publishing career.
Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names in the areas of children's fiction, mysteries, and horror fiction. Jenn is an active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and currently serves as the organization's Assistant Coordinator of Promotions and Social Media.
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