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Online Freelance Writing: Are You Willing to “Do Content”?

One of the realities of online freelance writing is this: If you want to be able to make a lot of money faster, you need to be willing to get involved with content marketing.

I feel torn about what I do a lot. Recently, the buzzing in my head was increased by something I read on Medium. A journalist was lamenting the fact that many potential clients just want her to “do content”, rather than engage in any sort of real journalism. In order to quiet her own conscience, this is what she wrote (after making the case that providing content was in no way journalism):

As for me, I’ve decided I’m done being part of the problem. I will never again pen a “thought leadership” piece or a corporate blog post.

As someone who writes for money, I’ve chosen a different path, even though I have training as a journalist, and I used to write for newspapers. The reality, as I’ve often pointed out, is that there is a blurring line between journalism and content marketing, and the practically-minded online freelancer knows that making a living sometimes means coming down off that journalism pedestal to “do content.”

online freelance writing

While it would be nice to always do investigative reporting and break amazing stories, the reality is that most publications don’t have the budget for that. In fact, even before the rise of the Internet, news was moving more toward infotainment, and reporting budgets were being slashed. This is because real reporting is expensive, and when your media is run by large corporations looking to profit, every division — including news — is expected to be profitable. In the heyday of reporting and investigative journalism (think Edward R. Murrow), the news divisions of networks were kept separate from other areas, and usually operated at a loss, with profits from other divisions covering costs. Now, though, news — such as it is — is expected to pay the bills.

With the rise of the Internet, it’s more about information dissemination and drawing traffic than it is anything else. And that means there’s plenty of work in online freelance writing. If you are willing to “do content”, there is an almost-endless stream of work, and it’s possible to support yourself to some degree as an online freelancer.

Online Freelance Writing: What are You Willing to Do?

The writer of the Medium piece has serious issues with her past as a ghostwriter. And to some degree, I can understand that. As she points out, “thought leaders” and other non-paid contributors to sites like Forbes and Entrepreneur are happy to have a respected platform to build their legitimacy. So, even though they don’t get paid, they are happy to pay a ghostwriter to express their ideas. I’ve seen what I’ve written — but with the name of someone else attached — appear on sites ranging from MSN Money to Business Insider to Forbes to Entrepreneur to the Wall Street Journal. It’s sometimes depressing to know that my name wouldn’t warrant a second look from some of these publications; they’d never accept something from me if I pitched it to them. After all, I’m a nobody.

But, on the other hand, Forbes wouldn’t pay me very much if I sent them something written as myself. A thought leader, on the other hand, is willing to pay me amounts of money I’m ashamed to acknowledge to ghostwrite something that he or she isn’t even getting paid for — except in bragging rights.

And that brings me to the whole idea of selling out. When it comes to online freelance writing, what are you willing to do? As someone trained as a journalist, I am sometimes disappointed in myself for accepting some of the gigs I do. Sure, I use the interviewing skills I learned, and I often write in what I’m told is an “authoritative” voice. However, even when my piece features an expert, and is full of good information, I can’t kid myself: It’s content marketing tricked out with some of the trappings of journalism.

But, ultimately, I’m very practical about the whole thing. I provide what I consider to be good information, and I try to make sure that the information I provide is accurate. I talk to people with decent credentials. The fact of the matter is that earning money for my family’s survival (and so that I can enjoy myself a little bit, too) is more important to me than writing hard-hitting investigative pieces. I’d rather write the hard-hitting investigative pieces, but no one wants to hire me to do it — and I wouldn’t make nearly as much money if they did.

Online freelance writing, for those who want to make a living, requires getting to know yourself and what you are willing to do. It means understanding that you might have to “do content” if you don’t have the name recognition or following or long-time history in the journalism business to command high enough rates to make a living off two or three well-reported long-form pieces a month.

It’s not always pretty, and it’s not always something I’m proud of, but it pays the bills. And my stuff gets into the Wall Street Journal, even if I don’t get the byline.


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