"Bad Language"

A column about writing in business

How to Make Money Writing for the Web

My company, Articulate Marketing, helps big tech companies communicate better about their products and services. A large part of my work is writing editorial-style content for websites. My credentials are my work for HP, Microsoft, eBay and others.

In the past couple of weeks, several people have asked me for advice about becoming a web copywriter, so here it is.

1. Learn to write well

The first thing is to become a good writer. You can become better by writing more and being mindful while you do it. This means writing at least 1,000 words a day. It also means constantly thinking about how to be a better writer as you do it. Several techniques have worked well for me:

  • Look at good and bad copy on other people's sites and analyze why it works or doesn't work. This is also a good trick to get you started on a new assignment.
  • Apply the techniques of other media, in particular newspaper journalism.
  • Get an independent proofreader. Not only is this a time saver but it can save you from embarrassing typos. I work with Sarah Bee and, mainly, Fullproof. (But not for my blog — I'm too cheap!)
  • Get a writer's bookshelf. I recommend The Pyramid Principle, The Economist Style Guide, Writing to Deadline (also see my 10-minute summary of the book), Stephen King's On Writing (yes, really!) and Strunk and White. Read and inwardly digest.
  • There are some useful online reference sites too.
  • Read good writing. Most web copy is non-fiction prose so I recommend reading good non-fiction prose. The New Yorker, The Economist, Slate, The Atlantic Monthly are all good places to start. Of course, read the trade papers of your target market too.
  • Learn how to concentrate on writing.
  • Do you want to know the short cut to really good writing that rings true for readers? Simple: good interviews with smart people translated into readable prose. That's it. Learn how to interview someone.

2. Know your subject

The secret of making reasonable money at writing is to find a niche and become an expert. Nobody asks for the cheapest brain surgeon. The more expertise you can demonstrate, the less risky the assignment becomes for your client AND the more efficiently you can produce the work. It's a win-win situation.

That doesn't mean you have to stay in one area forever. I started out writing business journalism for magazines like Director and Real Business, then I wrote about aviation and did some cool techie stuff for Wired and Popular Science. It's more a case not trying to take on any job, on any subject.

What to start with? Easy. What are you interested in? What do you know about? What do you like reading about? What are you curious about? Make a list and pick two or three areas to begin with. See what comes up.

Once you have some traction in a given area, look for ways to expand your knowledge. Trade shows are a great way to immerse yourself in a topic. Do lots of interviews with people inside your client — more than you need to — so you find out more about their world. Read the trade press. If you can, try the products or services yourself.

3. Learn to write for the web

The key thing to remember — tattoo it on the inside of your eyelids and never forget it — is that writing for the web is not the same as writing for print. Here are some tips: Avoid PDFs, shorter by about 50 per cent compared to print, free of hype or marketing polyfiller, free of long words and jargon, written for scanning: bullets, highlighting, shorter paragraphs.

4. Market yourself

If you build it, they will NOT come. You have to get out there and tell people about what you do and ask them for their business. The good news is that good online copywriting is a rare, beautiful thing. There is a market. Open doors by asking the question: "Are you happy with the copy on your website?"

  • Get a website and a proper email address. No-one is going to take you seriously as a web writer if you don't know how to do this and rely on a Yahoo! or Google Mail address.
  • Get a professional website. You don't have to spend a lot of money (I built mine for nothing using HTML. It's not perfect but doing it myself shows that I know something about how a website is built.)
  • Get a blog. This is part-showcase, part-playground. Learn to blog like a pro.
  • Learn to say no. Not all work is good work. There are crooks out there who will try to get you to work for peanuts. Just say no. Also, try to avoid busy-work. Stuff that makes you think you're working hard but just doesn't pay well enough to justify itself. Better to spend more time marketing yourself to the right people to get work at the right price. Sometimes copywriting isn't the right answer for clients.
  • Read my 27 proven freelance marketing tips.

5. It's a business, stupid

Never forget that you have to make your income exceed your expenditure and that if you run out of cash and you have bills to pay, you're bankrupt. Along the way, it would be nice to have a roof over your head, food to eat and some toys. In other words, never forget that you're running a business.

  • Work hard. Get up early. Work late. Concentrate. Drink tea.
  • Business plan. You need a proper plan. Mine is typically 2-4 pages and I use it to set goals, benchmark progress and think through potential problems. I update it regularly.
  • Read The Beermat Entrepreneur and Sales on a Beermat. They are simple, easy-to-read guides to starting out on your own. Not everything in them applies to a one-person business but they're best books of their type that I've read.
  • Be clear about your prices. Tell them how much you're worth. Don't wait for them to tell you how much they want to pay. The simple rule for figuring out your daily rate is to work out how much you want to earn and divide by the number of days a year that you are willing to work, after deducting sufficient time for marketing and admin. There are about 240 working days in a year and you'll want to spend about one day a week on non-billable stuff.
  • Big little company. Aim to be a big little company. By this I mean, use technology to give you the same resources as a really big company. For example, LogoWorks can do a Wolff Olins for your brand for as little as $99. TimeBridge can take the place of a diary secretary. See Tools for Writing for more ways to out-big your competitors.
  • Don't be afraid of big companies. Selling to multinationals is easier than you think and often less grief than dealing with smaller companies.
  • Better briefs. Make sure that you have agreed the basics in writing. A detailed brief can avoid a lot of misunderstandings. Nearly every problem project of mine started with an unclear or non-existent brief. Do as I say, not as I do! :-)
  • Traffic management. When you get a job, book the time to do it. Don't miss deadlines. Don't let things fall through the cracks. Time is somewhat elastic when you're self-employed because you can work late or over the weekend, but you can't do two weeks' work in three days. As you become more successful, this kind of traffic management will become increasingly important.
  • Don't hire anyone. Subcontractors are okay but staff need offices, pensions, healthcare and management. Why bother? Believe me, I've done the CEO bit and it's much more fun and much more profitable to stay as a company of one.

6. Other relevant links


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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 9th 2008, 1:55 PM
Comment by: Bruce T.
Well done! Thanks.
Wednesday July 9th 2008, 3:44 PM
Comment by: Rain
Wow, do I need to follow all these links and read this advice. I'm just starting out as a freelance writer, and I can see how much I have to learn at this point in my new illustrious career. Thank you!
Thursday July 10th 2008, 1:18 PM
Comment by: Brett B.
I've been a freelance copywriter for 11 years (worked at ad agencies for 10 years before that), and I couldn't agree more with what Matthew is saying. I'd just add one suggestion on the money front: estimate by the project. Not by the day-rate or hourly. Clients like it because it gives them a solid line item for their budget. And we writers like it because it rewards us for working quickly. Hourly/day-rates create a "blank check" scenario that winds up backfiring in the end. Remember that Seinfeld bit about getting the check in a restaurant after ordering all that food -- "What?! Did I order all this?!" -- the same thing happens when you send a time-based invoice.

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