Podcast 5: Why does EVERYONE Want to be a Writer?

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In this episode of the HomeWorkingClub podcast, we tackle a question that’s been bothering us for a couple of years now: Why does everyone want to be a writer?

When we surveyed HomeWorkingClub readers, freelance writing was the number one thing people said they were interested in, so the question is – what exactly is the appeal?

In this podcast we look at the genuine pros and cons of freelance writing, and discuss whether it’s really as desirable a career as people think.

Will you still like the idea of being a writer by the time you’ve finished listening (or reading)? You’ll have to find out for yourself. 

A full transcript is available, as usual.

Included in this podcast:

  • Why is writing so popular (0:48)
  • What IS writing, and what is it really like (2:25)
  • What skills do you need? (5:03) 
  • What should you write about? (6:50)
  • Are you good enough? (10:00)
  • What are clients looking for? (11:20)
  • How to get started if you want to be a writer (14:50)
  • A little on bylines and ghost writing (21:06)

Supplementary Links and Information

Full Transcription

Some repeat words or unclear passages have been edited to enhance readability.

ALEX: Welcome to the HomeWorkingClub podcast. I’m Alex.

BEN: And I’m Ben.

ALEX: How are you today Ben?

BEN: I’m all right. It’s not that sunny today but is good enough for me.

ALEX: The classic British weather check before the podcast starts!

Today we are talking about “Why does everybody want to be a writer?” The number one thing that you get emails about Ben, isn’t it?

BEN: It is. I was quite surprised when I first set up HomeWorkingClub.

I send out an email when anyone joins the mailing list for the newsletter and, yes, everyone was saying “I want to get into freelance writing.” I thought, “Well, there are so many different sorts of freelancing that you can do.” I was quite taken aback by how many people writing is the thing for.

It was further backed up when I ran a survey in late 2018, asking what kind of work people were most interested in doing. 70% of people said writing and 41% said blogging.

Clearly a lot of people who read HomeWorkingClub are interested in doing writing and so that’s what we’re talking about.

ALEX: So we’re going to cover, first and foremost, what we mean by writing. Then we’re going to look at how you can get into it if it IS for you.

But we also look at some alternatives. Working from home and freelancing doesn’t necessarily mean being a writer. Although, obviously, quite a lot of the stuff on HomeWorkingClub is related to that, because that’s what people want to hear about.

So, ordinarily, on these podcasts, I will ask you to pretend I’m an idiot, and you then explain what we’re talking about.

But I think I’ve got a fairly good idea about what writing is because…this is probably the heart of it, isn’t it? We all are, to a certain extent, able to write. And it’s probably the first thing when we look at working from home: “Well, I can write. I can write stuff.”

What do we mean, for the purposes of this podcast, when we talk about writing?

BEN: Okay. What I don’t mean is fiction writing, just to make that clear… creative fiction writing.

ALEX: We’re not going to work out how to write the new “50 Shades of Grey?”

BEN: No, we’re not. Although that was self-published and did make E. L. James, I think it was, an incredible amount of money. But no, we’re not going to talk to you about that today. Although we will probably do a podcast about self-publishing in the future, because that is something I know a lot of people are interested in.

Writing, for the purposes of the podcast, could mean many things, but generally sort of business-related. So, writing blog content for company websites, writing press releases, or even quite a lot of entry-level workers write product descriptions and stuff like that. I certainly paid my dues writing lots of product descriptions in the early days of my writing career!

ALEX: So we’re talking very much that it’s… I think you said, for you, writing is more like school homework than typing away on the typewriter.

BEN: Yeah, it certainly was in the early days. I think that’s something that always kind of made me wonder when I realised so many people wanted to do writing work. I thought, “Well, I wonder what people actually imagine it’s like.”

I know you, Alex, wrote a column for a local newspaper. I think that, for me, would be like a dream writing job. You can be humorous. You can talk about what you want to talk about.

But a lot of writing work I’ve done has been nothing like that!

ALEX: Yeah, I mean, the big difference between the writing work you do and my column was that I didn’t get paid for it!

BEN: Well, I guess there is that! And I suppose that’s what comes with it. That’s why I make this kind of school homework analogy.

One particular job that always stands out in my memory, in the early days of my writing career, was writing over 10,000 words of website content for a company who worked in pallets and waste management. Now, writing 10,000 words about pallets… I think that that does qualify as paying my dues! I spent several days on that project and I don’t think I banked more than a few hundred dollars for it.

I think in the early days of a writing career, you’re going to be doing an awful lot writing that isn’t about anything you’re remotely interested in.

ALEX: Yeah, some of it is interesting and some of it isn’t. I mean, you talk a lot about pallets and waste management at parties now.

BEN: Well, I got quite into it!

That was hard work. It was a hard slog. And I think a lot of the time you’re writing to very specific requirements. You might have to incorporate certain keywords, have a very specific writing style, and that kind of thing.

That’s where the homework analogy comes in. It’s like… did you enjoy, when you were at school, having to write 1,000 words on a topic that you weren’t that inspired about? Because, in reality, you are going to find yourself doing a lot of that in the early days.

I think the longer you stick with it, you can find yourself… sometimes I am writing about subjects I’m genuinely passionate about and that does really feel like living the dream. When you think, “I’m actually getting paid for this! I would almost be doing this for fun. I’d be happily doing this for fun and I’m getting money for it.”

I think there’s just quite a significant gap between getting your first few writing gigs and that becoming the reality for you.

ALEX: I suppose…Let’s go into that, because I think the key thing we’re talking about here is… it is work, it IS a job. There are a certain set of skills. I think if you’re looking at getting into it for the first time… If you’re not aware of the specific style of writing…

What do you actually need to look out for?

BEN: So, it’s things like how you add value to yourself for a client.

For example, if you know about the Associated Press style guide. That will say, just a random example, that numbers from one to nine you write out as letters, and then anything above that you do as numbers, and whether you capitalise titles, and things like that. Obviously, the more you get into it, you learn more stuff like that.

Also, a lot of writing work isn’t just about submitting a Microsoft Word file.

ALEX: Right.

BEN: It can often be of benefit to a client if you know the WordPress platform, and you know how to incorporate images in your writing, and you know how to deal with headings correctly, and tables of contents, maybe even bits of HTML and stuff like that.

These things can vary from client to client. But actually just sitting there being inspired and thinking, “I’m just going to let the words flow.” That’s some of it, but it’s far from all of it.

ALEX: “I’m going to write the great American novel on pallets and waste management.” I know, you’re not John Steinbeck sat there writing about these kinds of things.

So, I suppose, is that the skill really…having that technical knowledge? And there’s a huge amount of technical knowledge to writing, isn’t there?

BEN: Yeah, there’s the technical knowledge of the craft of writing itself, like writing in active voice and not passive voice. Things like that, which I’m not going to go into the technicalities of now because I struggle to explain them and it’s very, very dull…

But, also, if you have specialist knowledge of any particular thing. Like, for example, I’m a techie at heart. So in the early days of my writing, I did a lot of writing about technology and cybersecurity, and stuff like that. But it doesn’t have to be tech. It could be medical stuff. It could be scientific stuff, personal finance, mortgages, anything like that.

So anything that you’re kind of specialist in, obviously that gives you an advantage. You can find clients who are specifically looking for that kind of information to be written about.

ALEX: Is that more a case, though, that you will have an idea of who the audience is for that more than actually being able to write with expertise?

BEN: I think it’s a bit of both.

I think if, for example, you’re a personal finance website and you’re wanting to write an article about mortgages…If you used to be a mortgage advisor and you’re trying to get into writing, that’s a pretty nice step into the writing world, because you’re going to be having to do far less research than someone who knows nothing about mortgages.

And you’re going to be far more attractive a proposition to the client, as a writer, if you have already got that subject knowledge.

You find yourself getting into a position where you realise that it is good to specialise in something. It’s good to either be a personal finance writer, or a travel writer, or a mortgages writer, or an Apple Mac technology writer, or something like that.

Which can feel like a bit of a shame at times because you think, “Well, I know about a whole bunch of different things.”

ALEX: Yeah.

BEN: Where the money really is, is to go and specialise in a certain thing and become a known name writing about specific things.

ALEX: But I suppose that brings us onto another thing. As we say, it’s a really popular area for people to look at, they want to become a writer, but you don’t necessarily just have to look at writing if you want to be a freelancer.

BEN: Well, no. As I say, I was very surprised that 70% of my readers were more interested in writing than anything else.

There’s an article on the website, that I’ll put in the show notes, with 52 different online jobs. I mean, there’s design, website design, logo design, programming, podcasting. One of the most in-demand skills right now is video editing and video production because everyone’s moving into video.

So, if you’re just thinking “I want to work from home” and the thing that springs to your mind is “Well, maybe I should be a writer then?” don’t assume that’s the only thing there is, because there are dozens and dozens of other options.

ALEX: Of course, you don’t have to just do one thing. You can do a bit of writing, a bit of video editing. If you are actually changing what you do, you might find that you’ve got a particular talent or facility for one medium rather than other.

BEN: Yeah, very much so. And one thing I do encourage… I’m very much in favour of starting blogs. Obviously, HomeWorkingClub is a blog of sorts. I’ve had plenty of other blogs in the past and other blogs that I’ve written, both of my own and for other people.

Blogging is a whole different topic but, obviously, it is a good place to be able to write about something that you’re truly interested in and truly passionate about. And maybe one day make some money from as well.

ALEX: We will get back to this!

Those who’ve listened to our other podcasts and read some of the stuff… we always talk about paying your dues. We always talk about hard work and particularly if you’re looking at writing jobs. You’re not going to get the big money early on necessarily. You’re not going to necessarily be able to command a huge fee for your writing and perhaps you’re not going to be able to write about what you want.

BEN: Exactly. And I think also, this will perhaps come across a little bit harsh, but you do actually have to be good at it as well.

What makes you think you should be a writer? I think that’s something it is important to ask yourself. Have lots of people said, “Oh, you should write a book. You really should write. You’ve really got a gift for this.” Have lots of people? Other than your mum…

There is a skill to it. I think perhaps some people… yeah, I’ll be honest… I think that perhaps some people do overestimate their capability for it.

There’s so much competition out there, you do have to be good and stand out. There was a time 10 years ago when the Internet was getting filled with very generic, very repetitive content and it doesn’t work that way anymore. Websites that don’t have really good, really high-quality content just don’t go anywhere on Google anymore.

There’s an enormous amount of writing work, but there’s not good money or good work for average writers anymore.

ALEX: I think that’s a really, really good point.

I think, going back to what you said earlier on, what the clients are looking for is they’re looking for somebody that can write effectively to a brief. They want what they want. That content has to be bang on. It has to serve their purposes so it has to have the keywords, it has to be in the style they want it to be, it has to be on topic… you can’t do massive flourishes.

I think from one job to the next you find yourself writing very different styles, very different types of things.

BEN: Yeah, and it’s having an ability to switch between those.

I have several regular writing clients, and I have to remember even just basic things like: for that client I have to write in UK English, which I call proper English. US English is obviously spelt differently…

ALEX: We don’t own the language anymore!

BEN: I know!

ALEX: It belongs to the world now.

BEN: Probably best not to go down that particular rabbit hole!

A lot of my writing I have to do in American English and so I actually have my spellcheck in Word not underline as wrong either the US or the UK spelling anymore, and I do it for myself. But I have to remember each time whether I’m writing for a UK client or a US client, so that I get the spellings right – and even things like trash can versus dustbins and stuff like that.

But then some want short sentences, short paragraphs.

If you’re doing more academic writing it may be introducing an idea at the start of a paragraph and then exploring it, then concluding it at the end. And that’s something I see a lot from academic people with a lot of university education. They’ve written dissertations and stuff like that. They write in a very academic way, which isn’t the same way that you would really write for the Web.

I think they say that you write for a 12 or 13-year-old’s English comprehension when you’re writing for the web. So much more snappy sentences, much shorter paragraphs, and stuff like that.

So the ability to kind of change your writing style on the fly between what different clients want. Sometimes these briefs and those lists of requirements can be pages and pages long, and you kind of have to internalise what every client wants.

You’ll find the first article you write for a client will take hours and hours, and then after you have written for that client for a long time it just becomes lodged in your memory how you work. You’re like, “Right, I’m writing for that one now. And they want this, this and this.” It becomes a lot more automatic.

ALEX: We’ve spent the first bit of this discussing why it’s not for everybody… but actually, I think if you are convinced that you’ve got the skills, you are convinced that it is for you… and I think both of us have done… you’ve done a lot more of this than I have… if you are able to do this then it is brilliant work!

You can do it in your own time, you can do it wherever suits you and, actually, the more you do it, the better you get and the easier it gets.

BEN: I think so. We were chatting earlier, actually, and I said I look back at articles I wrote as recently as six months ago and think, “Oh God, that’s dreadful!” It is a craft that you refine as you go.

Some of that is just that the style that people like to read has changed. I’ve mentioned short paragraph, short sentences. That’s kind of the way a lot of web writing is these days. That’s evolved, really, in the last five years.

ALEX: Do you think that’s more to do with people… I suppose the web has changed where people are reading… more on mobile devices rather than on big screens and that kind of thing?

BEN: I think that definitely plays a part. I think people’s attention spans are very short as well. So, people tend to scan an article before they will decide whether they’re actually going to commit their time to reading it.

I sometimes think that when I’ve invested a huge amount of time and thousands of words for HomeWorkingClub… I think, “A lot of people are literally reading the first sentence and using that to determine whether they’re going to read the rest of the article or not.”

ALEX: And I suppose that goes back to the point of… if what you’re thinking of getting out of writing is… you’re not going to get a readership that’s going to pore over every word and go, “What a beautifully constructed sentence that is.”

BEN: Yeah, exactly. It’s not the Pulitzer Prize.

A lot of this web writing is a lot more formulaic and a lot more around keywords and designed to pull search traffic in. Some of it, let’s face it, is pretty dull.

ALEX: Is there a Pulitzer for waste management and pallets?

BEN: I don’t believe there is.

ALEX: Well, I’m sure if there was you’d be up for it!

Let’s go on to the point… I suppose we’ve talked more cons than pros at this stage.

BEN: We have a bit.

ALEX: So, I’ve decided I want to be a writer. I’ve decided that this is how I’m going to make some money working from home. What do I do?

BEN: I would try and find a sweet spot, which is something that you know about.

When I first started writing what I looked for was…I’d been doing IT support work for well over 10 years and IT consultancy as well… so I looked for technical work. So, I ended up reviewing software and stuff like that.

And do you know what? I’d just moved to a foreign country, a warm country. For that passion project, I had my moving to Portugal blog. That was wonderful writing. That was the kind of dream writing that I was doing.

The bread and butter stuff, to actually make money from, I had to pull on my expertise and actually start to write about tech.

ALEX: Yeah.

BEN: And so, yes, to get your first jobs…

What can you write about? What do you know about that other people don’t know about to the level that you do? Not only will you find it easier to find the work, you’ll also find that work a lot easier to actually do. So, what do you know about that other people don’t know about?

Then, rather than just scanning through pages and pages of writing gigs on Upwork or other similar websites, actually search for the stuff you know about. And then you’re far more likely to get those jobs.

ALEX: That’s a really good point. I think the other thing… even if it is your passion, it’s something you’re interested in…

I remember I had a job years ago reviewing computer games for a newspaper. I was an occasional contributor. I thought, “This is brilliant! This is the perfect job. I get to play computer games, write about them, and then get paid for it.” Although, not a great deal.

The problem with that was that I wasn’t just playing the brand new top of the line computer games because that was all being reviewed by somebody else. I was playing some real rubbish. So I had to spend several hours playing a game enough to write about it and then spend a large amount of time writing about it without actually saying “This was rubbish. Don’t bother.” because that doesn’t make good copy.

So actually you can find, even if you’re in an area that you’re passionate about and brilliant at, a lot of the work is not enjoyable. It is work.

BEN: Yeah. It can get quite repetitive as well.

I’ve worked for a site that reviewed every single anti-virus product for Windows computers, and it was quite interesting. The bit about that that I found most interesting was actually working out the template for how each review was going to work, how we were going to test the software properly, and all this kind of stuff. But, I have to admit, by the time you’re up to sort of product 16, it does get quite samey!

Also, just an interesting point that you made with things like computer games, music, movies… There are lots of web sites where people will write about this stuff in enormous detail. If you think on Rotten Tomatoes how long a review people will leave, without getting any money for it.

So you do find, unless you’re lucky enough to be a fully-fledged entertainment journalist, there are certain niches… especially around entertainment, computer gaming, that kind of stuff…There isn’t that much money in certain things like that, unfortunately.

ALEX: I suppose that goes back to the tip. You look at people reviewing films on Rotten Tomatoes. They’re very much writing that for themselves rather than for the person reading it.

That comes back to the skill of writing.

However exciting you may find pallets and waste management, if that’s your area, it’s not going to be that exciting to everyone reading. They don’t want to read a huge amount on whatever you’re interested in, they want to get to the point.

So, find an area that you have some talent or knowledge in, or some interest. What else do you do? How do you, practically, go about finding writing work?

BEN: Well, there are plenty of different websites, and I’ll share a link in the show notes to a couple of articles where I’ve written about different places to look.

Upwork, which is a big freelancing platform that I’m sure most of you will have heard of… loads and loads of writing jobs on there. All kinds of levels.

I mean, there are certain specialised things like writing press releases… a very distinct skill, because you’re trying to get things picked up by journalists and put in newspapers. And also sales copywriting, which is copywriting purely based around trying to get people to buy things. So, a lot of psychology involved in that. Both press releases and sales copywriting are very lucrative areas of writing.

So, have a look on Upwork. Have a look on Problogger Jobs, FreelanceWritingGigs.com…I’ll put that in the show notes. Scan through all of these sites and just find things that, as I say, fit in with your interests ,and try and find that sweet spot between something that you’d like to write about and something that a client’s willing to pay you to write about.

You’re not going to find that sweet spot all the time. But, like I said, you do sometimes.

One of the jobs I once picked up as a result of searching for Portugal when I lived in Portugal was writing for thetrainline.com. I actually did a trip up to Lisbon on the train just so I could document the train experience and what it was like travelling on the train, taking pictures of the carriages and stuff like that.

And I thought, “You know what? I’m travelling across a warm country, seeing all these amazing views out the window. I’m getting paid for this!”

That was one of those “living the dream” moments! But I think you’ve got to expect to take the rough with the smooth. Even for me now… some of the stuff I’m writing I’m thoroughly enjoying, other articles are just pure grind.

ALEX: And we won’t go into detail as to which is which!

BEN: No!

ALEX: I guess another point is: How often when you’re writing will it be your by-line on it? Or will it just be anonymous copy from the company that you’re working for?

BEN: It depends. I think, in the early stages of a writing career you’ll find yourself ghostwriting and stuff quite a lot, especially if you go near the content mills. I mean, content mills would need a podcast of their own…….

That’s kind of the remnants of writing the real kind of bulk, fairly low-quality copy… quite repetitive stuff. That would quite often be ghostwritten.

Even at a high level, sometimes you’re asked to ghostwrite stuff, but generally, Google believes a lot in the authority of the person writing an article. So, for example, on medical websites, if you’re a qualified doctor they’re almost buying the fact that they’re getting your by-line, as much as they’re buying the content that you’re writing.

So, you do find… other than what I would call the beginner, entry-level stuff… generally you would expect it to be under your own by-line. And obviously, that then allows you to build up your portfolio and have more work to show off to other potential clients.

ALEX: And that goes in if you’re looking for work on these platforms… making sure that you’ve got a really solid resume, that you’ve got that pitch. Because it’s very competitive, isn’t it?

BEN: Yes it is.

I imagine there are some people thinking, “Well, I haven’t got a resume. I haven’t got clips. I haven’t got portfolio samples.” Again, we’ve got an article on that that I’ll put in the show notes, so – long show notes again for this podcast.

There are ways and means around that. You could approach not-for-profit organisations and offer to do writing for them. Do writing for free. Have your own blog. Put together really good content.

I wouldn’t suggest you fill an online writing portfolio with stuff that’s on your own site or sites. But two or three examples of your very best work on your own sites… no problem with including those at all.

ALEX: Excellent stuff. So, quick recap through where we’ve been so far: It is a very competitive market. It is not necessarily for everybody.

But, if you have decided that it is for you, that you’ve got some area of expertise, some demonstration of your writing skill, and perhaps some technical knowledge that will help you get through… then, what you need to do is make sure that you can get that all into one area. That’s your first writing task, to a certain extent, making sure you can actually get a decent resume.

Then you could find yourself looking at places like Upwork and PeoplePerHour.

BEN: Upwork, PeoplePerHour, and then things like Problogger Jobs. Far fewer jobs on Problogger Jobs but it is a site I always nudge people towards… link in the show notes.

The reason I like Problogger Jobs is they charge, I think currently it’s $70, for a client to advertise on there, so you don’t tend to get time-wasting clients. The fact that the clients have had to put their hand in their pocket to actually advertise usually means they mean business. So you don’t have to filter out quite so many scams and low paying clients.

ALEX: So, in summary, Ben. Is it worth being a writer?

BEN: It is if that’s what you really want to do. I think that’s how I would summarise it.

If you just want to be a writer because you’re thinking, “I really want to do something working from home and I can’t really think of anything”… maybe have a look at the link I’ll put up for the 52 online jobs because there are so many other things that you can do. So many other things!

If it still appeals… having listened to all of this… and none of what I’ve said about it feeling a bit like school homework sometimes has put you off. Go for it!

ALEX: Excellent stuff. So there we go.

First of all, work out if it’s for you. It can be a bit dull and there’s lots of competition, but there is plenty of work out there.

There is absolutely no substitute for, as we always say, paying your dues and working hard.

BEN: Absolutely.

ALEX: Anything more you want to add, Ben?

BEN: No, I don’t think so.

ALEX: Excellent stuff.

Well, thank you very much for listening and please do, if you enjoyed the podcast, like, subscribe, and share it with friends. And, if you’re so motivated, you could get some writing practice and write a review for us. It does help other people find the podcast. And if it’s a positive review, it makes us feel warm and fluffy.

BEN: Yeah. I’ve heard that writing good, positive reviews is more gratifying.

ALEX: Yeah, get that positive mindset. That’s a good, first, practical lesson. Go and write a positive review of this podcast.

BEN: I think we’ve plugged that enough now.

ALEX: Yeah. We can’t pay you for it… we literally aren’t allowed to!

Thank you very much for listening and I hope to speak to you next time.

BEN: Thank you.

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