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Writing for the Web: 5 Essential Tips

The growing digitization of publishing, along with the poor economy, has resulted in numerous layoffs and closures across newspapers and magazines in recent years. With the demise of traditional publishing outlets, more writers and editors – including myself – are finding work online as web content creators.

Whether you want to pursue a career as a freelance writer for online publications, or find a full-time writing gig with an employer who will hire you remotely, writing for the web can be an excellent way to earn a living as a writer in this new economic climate. However, even established authors can have difficulty translating their success to the online realm. New and experienced writers alike should consider the following essentials when getting started with writing and editing for the web.

1. Be patient

As with any career, it takes a lot of hard work to start earning a respectable income. Such is especially the case with freelance writing online. Consider the fact that you’re not only competing for jobs with people in your immediate area, but with people across the country – and in some cases, people across the world.

At the same time, you need to build your writing portfolio to get hired for freelance assignments or full-time online work. Accordingly, you shouldn’t expect to make much money when you first start writing for the web. Depending on your current level of experience, you may even have to do some unpaid work to earn some valuable publishing credentials that will get you hired.

When I first started writing for the web on a freelance basis, I was producing content for a so-called content mill – a.k.a. a web content publisher that produces TONS of articles, primarily for advertising purposes, by hiring hundreds or even thousands writers for very low wages. I was making $7.50 to $15 per article that would take me at least 2 hours to research write – and I live in California where the cost of living is high. (This was also one of the higher-paying “mills,” by the way.)

On the bright side, if you can afford to stick it out long enough to develop a solid portfolio that displays your mastery of the written word, you can start commanding higher rates and attracting better clients – while some online publishers don’t care much about quality, those who do are willing to pay for it.

2. Don’t become too reliant on one gig

This is another mistake I made early on in my freelance career. As a freelancer, you are essentially a contractor, and the publications, companies or individuals who pay you for your services are your clients. Therefore, no matter how much regular work you’re getting from them right now, they have no obligation to give you work in the future.

For this reason, it’s best to diversify as much as possible, even if it, again, means doing some unpaid work, such as starting your own blog, or submitting articles to non-paying sites in order continue building your portfolio while you work at your primary gig. The more you put yourself out there, the more visible and professional you will appear to potential clients.

Besides various online job boards, freelance writers and editors can also find work using “job-bidding” sites like Elance, Guru.com and oDesk. Keep in mind that, as with freelancing in general, you’ll probably have to complete a lot of low-paying gigs on these sites before you can start commanding higher rates. A lot of writing blogs will tell you to avoid such sites entirely, but I can tell you first-hand that it is possible to find good-paying work from reputable clients using these platforms.

3. Be willing to do things differently than how you’re used to

Depending on your background, you may be used to writing and editing a certain way, whether it’s editing in AP style or writing lengthy editorials that capture your sardonic wit. While such skills will still be of use to you as when it comes to working online, you have to keep in mind writing for the web is very different from writing for a magazine or newspaper.

For one, many online publishers want search engine-optimized content. The SEO process involves incorporating targeted keywords into your content so that people searching Google are more likely to find it. Whether you write advertising copy or movie reviews, you will probably have to learn some SEO basics if you want to write for the web.

Also note that unlike magazine or newspaper articles, web content style usually differs from that of traditional periodicals, being more succinct and to-the-point, with short, no-frills paragraphs. This doesn’t mean your writing has to be lifeless and robotic – you just need to learn how to master this concise, web-friendly style.

Finally, if you’ve never freelanced before, you must also understand that most online publishers are looking for you to perform very specific work for them – not for you to write about whatever strikes your fancy or for you to refuse to use the serial comma because that’s not how you were trained. In this highly competitive marketplace, you have to be willing to accommodate the specific editorial demands of each client.

4. Make no mistakes

This, of course, is impossible. Nevertheless, whether you’re a writer or an editor, you must consistently strive for it. Your work has to be flawless for you to get the job in the first place, and it can’t be sloppy if you expect to keep it.

This is especially true of editors, for whom making even a relatively minor grammatical mistake or oversight can be highly embarrassing (I’m again speaking from first-hand knowledge, unfortunately), but it is also true of writers, as many online publishers expect you to edit your own work.

So, how do you eliminate errors from your writing? Take your time. Read your work over, and over again. If you’re not sure whether something is correct or not, consult a trusted reference. Although a trained eye that always catches every single error is something that only comes with time and experience, every writer can drastically reduce their number of sloppy mistakes by simply devoting more careful attention to their work.

5. Enjoy yourself

Before I started freelancing, I had a “regular” job writing and editing for a trade publication. Although I enjoyed many aspects of the job, the subject matter bored me, and I began to feel like I was not a “real” writer because I had no control over what I wrote about. Once I entered the world of freelancing, I was amazed to find that there were people out there who would hire me to do work that was actually … interesting!

As mentioned, you always need to write to the needs of your employer or client; that said, you don’t want to lose the creative spark that made you want to be a writer in the first place. If you feel stuck in a rut writing technical articles all day, remember that it isn’t the only gig out there. Look for opportunities to write about music, or travel, or whatever it is that most interests you.

Finally, enjoy the freedom you have as a freelance or work-from-home writer. Writing for the web allows you to work from anywhere in the world, for example. Always wanted to go to India? Imagine how well you could live there for a few months with the modest income you make writing for the web in the U.S.!

Working from home gives you the opportunity to arrange your day how it bests suits you, whether you like to take a nap in the early afternoon or you do your best work late at night. Of course, being a writer takes a lot of discipline, but once you find your groove, you’ll be able to get more done, more comfortably and in less time than you would if you were working under someone else’s constraints.

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