Monday, September 21, 2009

Writing for a Living in the Internet Age

Recently, a friend started a discussion on Facebook about whether this was a good or bad time to begin a career as a professional writer. The question, which referenced both the decline of print media and the proliferation of unpaid bloggers, seemed to contain the assumption that it was not.

It’s an issue that’s ripe for discussion, both because there are valid points on both sides that bear consideration if one is embarking on a writing career and because the insights of the people who see opportunities in today’s market may be useful to anyone who hasn’t yet worked out how to make the most of the changes.

Those changes are sweeping: a shift away from print to online media, international competition that impacts pay scales, the ever-growing volume of free content available online, shifting publishing and distribution models for longer works, and more.

Writers and New Media

Print media is declining. That’s not up for discussion. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that professional writing opportunities are decreasing. The market is changing, and those jobs many think are disappearing have actually just moved out of our lines of vision. The answer may be as simple as looking over your left shoulder or off to the right, rather than staring straight ahead at the spot where the work used to be.

The Decline in Print Media is Matched (or Outmatched) by an Increase in Online Opportunities

The first step toward building a successful writing career in the digital age is understanding the opportunities. The new opportunities aren’t just web-based versions of the old ones. Web writing looks different, and writers must bring new skills to the table, and market themselves effectively by showcasing those skills.

For example, most paid web writing gigs require:

-faster turnaround

-lower word count

-Google-friendly text

-shorter paragraphs

-more visual formatting

Those aren’t difficult changes to make, but they require consciousness of the differences. A web publisher is looking for writers who can create web-friendly copy in a format that works for both search engine spiders and Internet audiences. It’s up to the writer—new or seasoned—to let a publisher know he can produce content that’s competitive in that environment.

This can be a problem for seasoned print writers; someone who has spent years writing feature articles for magazines may have a portfolio full of high-profile clips that simply don’ t reflect the skills a web publisher is looking for. The copy is typically too long and too dense; the paragraphs are probably too long and there are undoubtedly too few headers. Headlines and subheaders aren’t written with search engines in mind, and the visuals have most likely been handled by someone else.

If your name is big enough and your credentials rock-solid, someone will see past that…but if you’re a mid-level writer you should be prepared to prove yourself all over again in a new arena.

Results are Measurable Online

The goal of most paid writing has always been to sell something, whether it’s copies of a magazine or advertising space or a specific product. Online, though, it’s much easier to measure how effective those efforts are, down to the individual article. Whereas a print publisher knows only the number of copies of a particular issue sold and some rough information about the demographics of those purchasers, a web publisher knows exactly how many people opened your article, how long they stuck around, where they went when they left, whether they came back, and who linked back to you.

That means that where you’ve been published is no longer the primary credential; instead, a writer must build and be conversant in his stats. Some writers will have to learn a new language in order to sell themselves: hits, unique visitors, bounce rate, time on page, click-through rate and inbound links. These are the currency in which online value is measured, and if you have no idea what I just said, it’s time to learn.

When You Land the Job, It Won’t be the One You’re Used To

Thus far, we’ve only talked about landing writing jobs in the new world of web-based publishing, but that’s only the first step. Once you get the gig, of course, you have to do the job—and the job is a somewhat different one than most writers are accustomed to. (See, just look at that. I REGULARLY end sentences with prepositions, and I have no trouble getting writing work in this brave new world. Nothing is sacred.) And, of course, pay scales and compensation systems are different, as well. More on all that in future posts; for now, please share your thoughts and experiences on making the switch from print to cyber-publishing.

1 comment:

Bullwinkle said...

As one who never did anything except academic writing, and working for an audit agency,(I'm convinced that audit writing too formulaic to count as "writing".) I haven't technically made a switch. However, I'm still trying to get those audit geeks to write for the web/internal web and I just may die first.