One Big Reason Why Commercial Writing Pays Better and Resists “Off-Shoring” (and Why this Other Kind of Writing Doesn’t…)

by Peter Bowerman on November 8, 2011

Okay, possibly just a “mental gymnastics” piece, but you be the judge…;)

Read an interesting book recently: Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink (author of Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind). While some of the stuff was a bit obvious (e.g.; money/prestige/titles doesn’t motivate everyone…no kidding), Pink does have a way of spawning mini-epiphanies.

Not to mention that a few things he shared had me exclaim (in the immortal words of Johnny Carson), “I did NOT know that!” Allow me a quick digression…

Most of us are aware that Wikipedia is an “open-source” undertaking, meaning it’s built, updated and revised solely by volunteers – just regular folks like you and me, when the mood strikes us, and, needless to say, for no pay.

But did you know that the browser Firefox (150 million users); the server software platform Linux (running 25% of all corporate servers); and the web-server program Apache (used by 52% of all corporate web servers), are all open-source as well? All volunteer efforts, with no money changing hands? Who knew? (everyone but me, perhaps?)

Pink shared this to illustrate that “intrinsic motivation” – doing something just for the challenge, creative expression, and reward of solving problems – can be a powerful driver for humans, and far more effective, after a certain point, than money, prestige or awards.

Enough “gee-whiz” facts…

One point he made had something click in place for me, and had me realize something about this commercial writing field of ours, as well as other arenas of so-called “writing” (that may not really be writing at all). He notes that jobs/tasks fall into two categories: algorithmic and heuristic, explaining:

An algorithmic task is one in which you follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion. That is, there’s an algorithm for solving it. A heuristic task is the opposite. Precisely because no algorithm exists for it, you have to experiment with possibilities and devise a novel solution. Working as a grocery checkout clerk is mostly algorithmic. You pretty much do the same thing over and over in a certain way. Creating an ad campaign is mostly heuristic. You have to come up with something new.

Think about jobs/tasks that get “offshored” reasonably successfully: computer programming, software development, database management, accounting, other technical processes, etc. All algorithmic tasks that follow a set path. Heuristic tasks – with no fixed set of instructions or set processes – are far harder to outsource to offshore practitioners. And writing is one of those things.

Most writing. Certainly the kind of writing we do – projects that entail original and critical thinking, not to mention facility with English as a native tongue – isn’t leaving our shores anytime soon for some sweatshop garret in Bangalore, Karachi or Manila.

But, there is one arena of writing that has been offshored, though, to a large extent, without ever actually leaving our shores. Of course, I’m talking about writing for content mills (e.g.; Demand Studios, eHow, Suite101, etc.): 500-700-word keyword-rich articles cranked out by legions of “writers” for rates hovering around $5-$10 a pop (or less; keep reading…).

Why does it pay so poorly? Because there are countless people with the same minimal skills necessary to produce such pieces (making it “commoditized” writing). And why is that? Because writing these pieces entails an easy-to-follow formula, making it one of the few algorithmic writing tasks out there.

Why is it formulaic? Because the quality of the writing doesn’t matter. The articles are just a framework to hold keywords, which are there to engage the search engines and drive traffic to the site, where, in turn, the goal is to have visitors click other links on the page. So, when the writing doesn’t matter, it can indeed get offshored for peanuts.

Exhibit A: I just got an email from a frustrated writer who’d gotten an email promo from this outfit. Their home page trumpets: “Get articles written for as low as $2.00 an article.” Can you say algorithmic? I rest my case.

Heck, given that, let’s not even call it writing. How about word-arranging? Definitely a more accurate description. Or as my frustrated writer friend enlightened me, the term to describe the process is actually called “spinning,” and in many cases, is actually done by computer (and scarily well in some cases). So, yes, there is definitely skill involved. As she put it, “You try writing a 400-word article with the phrase ‘mesothelioma diagnosis’ at a density of 6.25%.” I get it, and…

Given that its practitioners approach their task in terms of “How many pieces can I crank out in a day?” if that isn’t a piecework mentality – part and parcel of many algorithmic tasks – I’m not sure what would be.

No doubt, having what they do be called “word-arranging” will make me pretty unpopular with those folks working in the content mill realm, and truly believing that what they’re doing is, in fact, writing. Well, tough. If you think you’re a true writer, then quit screwing around in that algorithmic writing sub-basement and move up to more heuristic writing tasks – where your creative fulfillment and earnings can only rise, if for no other reason than you’ve got less competition for what you’re able to do.

After all, how could you offshore what we do? Certainly with projects where the goal is a specific, measurable response, and hence, must be crafted just so (e.g.; direct mail, landing-page copy, direct response, sale promotions, etc.), offshoring won’t work. When the bottom line is on the line, you can’t afford to do it on the cheap.

But even projects with softer metrics (e.g.; case studies, white papers, sales sheets, brochures, etc). where the goal is educating, brand awareness, image-building, impressions, etc., I’m still not seeing how offshoring would work. Yes, budget constraints could have a company seek out lower-priced resources, but the stronger and more focused your skills, the less likely they’ll be able to get what they need from cheaper writers (i.e., they may be able to write, but often run screaming from even the whiff of “marketing.” All the better for us…).

Of course, my foundational assumption is that, for most of the good clients we work with, or want to work with, the writing itself matters very much. If we get to a point where it doesn’t, all bets are off. Though, if that happens, I suspect that’ll be the least of our problems.

So, the more heuristic the writing task (i.e., the more creativity and original thinking involved), the less likely that task can be offshored (to a foreign or domestic shore…), the more in demand competent practitioners will be, and the higher rates they’ll command. Not saying it’s easy (it’s not), but if the alternative is slaving away for peanuts, then I say, taking the time to hone your skills in order to set yourself apart is worth the investment.

Was this just a useless mental exercise or am I on to something here? ;)

Have you thought about writing in these terms (algorithmic vs. heuristic) before?

Have you successfully transitioned from a more algorithmic writing career to a more heuristic one, and if so, can you share a bit of your story?

Any epiphanies of your own from this discussion?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

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{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily Suess November 8, 2011 at 11:53 am

I know precisely what you mean. More than once I’ve had a client say something like, “I have a new website, now I need copy. The design team was from the Philippines, but I’m not comfortable with non-native speakers writing for our audience.” I’ve never thought about it in these specific terms before, but it makes perfect sense now that it’s in this context.

If someone contacts me saying they need 25 articles–5 originals spun 5 ways–I cringe. These people must see content production as an entirely algorithmic task, but still synonymous with “writing.” They’re saying “anyone can do what we want” and paying low wages because it’s so easy. I’m saying, “Not everyone can do what I do,” while they scoff at my fees.

Understanding doesn’t change my business model, but it does give me some perspective. And makes me a little less angry about the whole $1.00 per 500 words thing. They’re not trying to insult anyone necessarily, they’re just okay with crap or “word-arranging” as you put it.

Clayton November 8, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Great post, Peter.
Now I feel better about never bothering to pursue some of those regular-work-for-a-pittance websites.

I do feel myself plugging and chugging a bit when I write proposals for one of my regular clients, though. My rationalization is thus: the proposal is for the same client, for the same type of project, basically just in a different location. They don’t want to pay me to write a new one each time, and they’ve had success with the “formula” I’ve concocted for them.

In my other jobs, though, I thoroughly enjoy my hand-written brainstorming sessions, where I actually turn my back on my computer – I can almost hear my laptop pouting in the corner – and scribble down just about every idea that comes to mind that seems remotely relevant to the story. Then I group ideas into different “angles”, or steps in the story and summarize each section or paragraph.

Only then do I return to the keyboard to expound upon the ideas harvested in my analog mind-map.

William Reynolds November 8, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Don’t forget the huge extra value of actually knowing your writer. Outsourced writing jobs generally go out to whoever grabs the assignment first, so you might have a dozen different people writing a dozen different assignments — without actually enjoying a relationship with any of them. That relationship is part of what my clients are paying for when they contact me with a job. I’m not just writing; I’m also advising, brainstorming, explaining, interviewing, and generally interacting. When you maintain a real relationship with your clients, they’re getting a lot more than a bunch of words — they’re getting YOU.

Alan Stamm November 8, 2011 at 2:33 pm

I see your point, Peter, and raise this one:

Experienced, skilled commercial writers also benefit from onshore outsourcing by PR firms, ad agencies and corporations with marketing content creators. We’re reliable, cost-effective “solution providers” (yes, I sip their Kool-Aid) able to — in your words — “devise a novel solution” and effectively handle “projects that entail original and critical thinking.”

That means we can position ourselves as preferred provider (yum, tasty Kool-Aid) alternatives to in-house writers who’re native English speakers but not necessarily able to turn objectives into compelling copy. I work with agencies that assign some writing (releases, newsletters, social media) to account supervisors and use independent commercial writers for web content, brochures, white papers, op-eds and trade publication submissions.

In other words, what you said: “The more heuristic the writing task, . . . the more in demand competent practitioners will be” — even when word arrangers are on site and on the payroll.

Lastly, please reassure us you don’t use algorithmic or heuristic in casual conversation. That’s a flavor of Kool-Aid none of us should quaff too often, professor.

Holly November 8, 2011 at 8:58 pm

I did work for one of the sites you mentioned when trying to re-start my career after the mommy years. I had been a commercial writer before, then out of the job market for 17 years. But after about 15 articles, I fizzled out because the pay was almost nothing, for all the hours I put in.

It was worth it for that time because I learned about keywords and content management software and finding and uploading photos for the articles, all new skills I had never had to use in the 90s.

I still get a check for $5 or $10 every other month or so for the residual ad income, which is nice play money in my PayPal account.

But meanwhile, I had to quit that gig and move on to better paying jobs.

Katherine Andes November 8, 2011 at 10:18 pm

I loved your line: they may be able to write, but often run screaming from even the whiff of “marketing.”

I had a friend who was writing for About.com. They were informational pieces about a subject he knew well. He was a good writer and is. But he doesn’t have marketing chops. He enjoyed the practice and getting a byline.

So I think the lesson here is that there is more money in copy that sells, as opposed to informational pieces. I was hired once by a client to do informational pieces at my full-rate. Once.

Peter Wise November 9, 2011 at 5:31 am

I think a lot of the ‘heuristic’ value doesn’t always come in the writing, but in the strategic thinking.

Algorithmics writer will simply knock out an article stuffed with the keywords they are told to include.

A heuristic one will question the need for a set keyword density, will do their own keyword research and suggest better ones, will write the page so it’s attractive to potential customers not just search engines, will suggest other ways of optimising the page, will suggest new pages or a different approach to current pages, will look at the site as a whole and in the long term, will look at the whole marketing mix, and so on.

The trick, of course, is not just being able to do it, but persuading the client of the value of it. After a while you get to work out which ones it’s worth talking to and which ones it isn’t.

Robert Roth November 9, 2011 at 7:45 am

Very well presented. We definitely need a new term for article writers. But context also plays a part here. I’ve been a freelance copywriter for more than 20 years. My “drive” has propelled me from writing announcer-read radio spots for $50 to working with big agencies, international design firms and Fortune 500 companies.

I don’t think you can do that today. It’s either ad school or the content farm . It’s really “Content Prison,” as it would take massive amounts of energy to break out. And don’t forget the clients. The less enlightened they are, the less they are able to understand your value proposition.

I became a a freelance copywriter when the ad agency I worked for dissolved. It was a scary time. But the potential to earn more money kept me going, From my perspective, article writing doesn’t offer that. Nor does it provide the opportunity to add relevant work to your portfolio.

Lori November 9, 2011 at 9:12 am

Peter, if I weren’t married already, I’d marry you. LOL

First off, congratulations on being able to work a Johnny Carson quote into your post. Well done. :)

Well-stated post, sir. I suspect there will be some argument from content mill folks who do think they’re writing and not keyword stuffing. I would also wager that some of those writers are indeed doing their utmost to present a quality piece of writing every time. It’s just that it’s not necessary given the algorithmic nature of the job.

You hit on what I think is a key point – the client’s perception of the end product. If the writing matters, the price reflects that. If the writing is an SEO formula, anyone willing to pimp themselves out to write these things for five bucks a pop will do. It is a formula. And that’s where I went “Oh, wait.”

In general, I think many writing projects come with some type of formula. For example, articles are written somewhat formulaic, at least with some magazines. Present the problem, identify the key players, show the impact on the reader, offer up solutions. The difference is in the focus perhaps. These articles focus on content. Content farm articles focus on keywords. Something more to chew on, eh?

And maybe in that same sense, the articles are also heuristic. There is something new being presented, and the end result is to appeal to the readers and show them the value of the magazine or online publication. A stretch, but maybe I’m not getting the concepts.

To your point on why some of the more heuristic writing isn’t offshored: I think the reason could lie in the cultural differences. To write for American corporations, you have to understand the cultures (both corporate and American cultures) from a business perspective and an advertising perspective. You have to talk to the clients, get a feel for how they speak, think, operate, and you have to understand their audience enough to get that message out in the most effective way. Try doing that from Singapore. It can be done, but it would require a ton of knowledge on this culture.

Likewise writing for a company in Singapore from the US. I had a client project last month from an American client based in Singapore. He wanted to present an article to their local newspaper. He explained that the “news” isn’t like our news. Facts don’t matter, as he put it, and if you’re not repeating how special the company is (four times in 500 words), they’re not going to believe you. Yet try that here…

Cathy Miller November 9, 2011 at 9:38 am

Love this post, Peter. BTW-you are not alone in not knowing that Firefox et al was volunteer work. :-)

As I read the descriptions of algorithmic versus heuristic, what popped into my mind was how companies try to turn customer service into an algorithmic exercise, when it should be heuristic. And that’s not necessarily confined to offshored customer service.

You’re right – the same could be said about certain kinds of writing. When you try to force writing into strictly an algorithmic formula (like they try with customer service), what you get is canned, uninspiring content.

I’m all for structure in writing, but the unique is what makes it your own. It’s like taking the frame of a house and building it into a home with your personal, inspired touch.

Can’t wait to go back and read all the other comments. Thanks, Peter.

Peter Bowerman November 9, 2011 at 10:23 am

Okay, so maybe this post wasn’t just some tedious mental exercise after all… In the immortal words (I’m in an “immortal-words-quoting” mood, apparently…) of Hannibal Smith (from “The A-Team” series), “I love it when a plan comes together…” ;)

Seriously, thanks to all who weighed in so far. Nice to see some light bulbs go on – always the goal. Yeah, Econ 101 dictates that if the rates they’re willing to pay are abysmally low, it’s because, 1) there are plenty of others with that same skill, and 2) the writing really doesn’t have to be all that good.

And if you find yourself there (or happily, in the case of some of you, found yourself there once, but no longer), even if you ARE actually doing some real writing, the setting negates the value of that writing. Sure, they’ll take your good writing, but they don’t need it to be that good, and hence, won’t pay for it. Then, you are truly throwing pearls before swine.

I loved several of your comments about how the heuristic work we do often does have a formula. Very true. But, it’s a formula on a higher level, and one that still requires independent and original thinking within the context of that formula. Take a simple example…

Say I’m doing a tri-fold brochure for a client. Yes, there is a formula I use, but I still have to have the marketing chops to know which questions to ask to get the source material I need and frame that material, and craft that material in just the right way, and with just the right tone, and make it engaging, to boot, so that brochure works. And that marketing experience I – and most all of you – have, allows me to do all that as second nature, without even thinking about.

And it’s precisely because it does feel like second nature that we think of the process as a formula. We’ve done it so many times before. But, could someone with little or none of that marketing background/experience be able to duplicate our efforts and get the same result? No. They couldn’t. And that’s what separates us from all bargain-basement writers.

Heck, most of our clients – supposedly smart, business-savvy and strategic in their thinking – get marketing wrong! How can a garden-variety freelance writer with none of that background or skill set expect to get it right?

And of course, what sets the higher-paid writers in our field from the rest isn’t just marketing background. Often, it’s just darn good writing skills married to those marketing chops – a pretty potent combo. Or, as Peter points out above, it’s doing that same project as a content-mill writer would, but adding so much more value to it, that it ceases to be the same skill set altogether.

And great point, William, about the value inherent in clients knowing their writers. It’s often the relationships that lead to the best work. And I’d go a step further – it’s the writer knowing the client, and the client’s company, really well. The longer you work for a company, the more you know their business, and ergo, the more valuable you become to that client. AND, the less likely they’ll be to go anywhere else at that point.

And thanks Alan (as always, nice to get your contributions), right you are. Thank goodness for “onshore offshoring” in the form of middleman clients reaching out to talented freelancers. And that’s the key – talented freelancers. Sure, a small agency in a small market would be less demanding of their freelance talent than their bigger and larger-market counterparts, but in either case, the freelancer in question would still have to know what they’re doing.

I love going to listen to live jazz. There’s one club that holds an open jazz jam every Tuesday night, where any musician can come and do his/her thing (Twain’s in Decatur for you Atlanta locals). It’s orchestrated by a local star trumpeter/band leader, Joe Gransden, a prince of a guy, who during the course of the night, will swap out singers, pianists, drummers, bassists, and those playing sax, flute, trumpet, guitar, congos, and more.

And I’m always amazed at this: even though few of these people have ever played together, they create beautiful music – because they all have some fundamental musical expertise. They all know the musical rules, so it allows them to collaborate, seemingly effortlessly. Same thing with us. We know the rules of our game, and hence we’re good enough to create something of quality and value when hired by quality clients/agencies. And that’s something that a regular writer can’t hope to do.

And thanks, Alan for checking on whether I use “algorithmic” and “heuristic” in conversation. Hmmm. Wonder if that’s why I always end up alone at cocktail parties (always starts out so promising, until they start walking away…) ;)

Thanks for the input, Robert, though I must respectfully disagree. I don’t think the only options for writers starting out are ad school or the content farms. I think real talent and drive will still rise to the top, with or without ad school, and know there are still plenty of clients out there who get it. Is it as easy as it once was? Perhaps not, but my rap is that it’s never been easy, just do-able.

Lori, thanks for the faux-marriage proposal. Nice to know I still got it (or my words do anyway!) ;) And great ideas you bring up, not only about formula (addressed above) but the difficulty of outsourcing American writing to a sweatshop somewhere. I’ve always felt that was the #1 reason it couldn’t be done: the lack of cultural familiarity. Not just in what they don’t know about our culture, but in writing in a way that those in our culture will resonate with. Even if you’re bi-lingual, not having English as a native language will prevent you from writing with the level of nuance and subtlety only SOME (as discussed) native speakers will bring to the table.

Didn’t mean to write another book! Gotta get some work done here (work that not just anyone could do…;)

PB

Joseph Ratliff November 9, 2011 at 10:54 am

If all you want is words so Google can see it…I’m not your guy…

…but if you want creative expression that gets quantifiable results or profits for your business (and the strategic thinking that goes with it), then let’s talk.

Some business owners haven’t seen the difference yet, IMO they are under the misguided impression that all they need are words for the Internet. But some business owners DO get it, and this is why we get paid MUCH better as commercial writers. I’m of the school that more and more business owners, CEO’s, and such will come around and begin to understand that even the simplest forms of writing (e.g. the article for online content purposes) could use our touch, and be worth our fees.

Here’s to hoping :)

Joseph Ratliff November 9, 2011 at 10:56 am

Dang it… I meant “all you want are words” above. This is why I produce rough drafts first, LOL :)

Jake P November 10, 2011 at 9:38 am

Great post and wonderful discussion. “Drive” is in my Amazon queue, and I’m going to bump it up.

I still remember the first time a graphic designer used the expression “layout grout” in my first magazine editing job. Call it an epiphany for a newly minted English major. I actually thought it was pretty funny, and faked being offended. But it was a reality check that there’s a subsection—even within the creative world—that looks at the words as secondary to design. You are never going to convince them otherwise, so don’t bother. Much better to take the time and effort to find those who value it highly.

I believe that the formulaic/second nature aspect comes down to where you are in the four stages of competence (i.e., from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence). And by my reckoning, your writing skills and business/marketing/sales skills will likely reach the higher levels at different times. By the time they’re both at Level 4, you’re second nature across the board.

Star November 10, 2011 at 11:13 am

You lost me a few times, but basically, I think you are noticing that the whole pay structure has taken a downward rachet (was going to say dump, but how declasse). Even Demand is cutting back now and the word arrangers have to scramble–supposedly some committed suicide or said they would or something. But plenty of “writers” also don’t mind making Huffington richer by writing for exposure for their books–the whole thing is in play. Check your mail–I almost never see a 5-part package anymore–it’s all postcards. Yes, business people should want the best–the most persuasive, the testable and good-testing, but many people can’t buy creative services these days. The worst example is undercapitalized startups-we will pay when we get ads…well, you need good writing to get ads. Oh, I am sure I am being grumpy again…

AHCreative November 10, 2011 at 1:58 pm

I am now a freelance travel writer and journalist but I never felt so disgusted as when I had to create article spins for an agency – my last fulltime job. I couldn’t simply put text on the page – I thought too much about what I was writing. I researched it. I cared about it. I got in trouble for not putting it out fast enough. It wasn’t all bad — at least now I understand Bartleby.
I am having a crisis of what to do with the rest of my life because I have 5 years of commercial web writing experience and never want to touch an article spin or write something called “linkbait” again. I would rather write the back of shampoo bottles because sometimes at least, someone (probably a future copywriter) will read it.

Star November 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm

As for the cocktail conversation, I could see “heuristic” in a New Yorker cart0on–unfortunately never see myself in one.

Julie November 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm

I am new to this blog and am happy to be here.

As a writer who has spent 15 years on her craft, I’ve encountered all kinds of clients. On one particular occasion, I caught myself getting sucked in to a 30 minute phone session with a prospect who was happy to pick my marketing brain for as long as I would let him. When I realized what he was up to, I changed the conversation abruptly, and requested that he book a consultation with me. At that point, he declared that “he really didnt think he’d be needing a writer”–to which I replied, “ok, then best of luck to you”. Sure enough he called me back a month later, asking for my help again. This time I quoted an even higher fee–and as I suspected, he never called back.

That incident taught me about honoring the value that we, as writers, bring to our client’s bottom line. And it taught me never to back down on what I felt was my fair market value. At this point, I no longer waste my time on the tire kickers. Instead, I focus on the clients who understand the power of great copy–and are more than willing to pay appropriately for it.

-Julie Herckenrath

Star November 11, 2011 at 10:04 am

Totally agree, Julie! We can’t let this atmosphere beat us down to where we sell out completely. I turned down Reuters assignments–$125 for two-source health stories! Pathetic. I also did two stories for a rich, prominent Native American website–on my pitches–and THEN they said, “Oh, we better send the contract.” AFTER! I had an email agreement on three stories–never did the third. The contract was horrible and they were adamant. They did pay–and when they said–for the two, which made me wish even more that they hadn’t been awful. I have learned that springing the contract later is becoming a deal now.

Julie November 11, 2011 at 11:37 am

I think we should always have a contract in place before we write a single word.
I too have been burned by clients who suddenly change the scope of the deal, and then refuse to pay your agreed upon price.

Make sure your contract outlines the provision for a “change fee”- to protect yourself from unscrupulous clients.
Its an ongoing learning process…

Star November 11, 2011 at 11:55 am

I have been at this 33 yrs. I have been burned with contracts and without. When they said do the stories and here is what we pay–to me that was a contract or at least a neat time to say, oh, you will need to sign the attached contract. That was not said. Soooo…. If I offer to do the contract, in other instances, that just takes more of my time and it’s unpaid… So contracts–yes, it’s good to have a good one–that is where I come out. You are right–it’s a learning experience and a new thing to learn comes up almost every time.

Michael Scully November 16, 2011 at 8:25 am

At my former employer (corporate law firm) I heard a partner say, referring (presumably) to a lawyer on the other side of a transaction: “That guy has a checklist for a brain.”

I don’t think he meant it as a compliment.

Lloyd Lemons November 16, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Thank you, Peter. I enjoyed your post. I’ve never been an algorithmic writer. I now know that I’ve always been a heuristic writer, although I have worried what the piecework oriented, word-arrangers are doing to the marketplace. I’ve come across way too many people who are quite happy churning out article after article for $3-5 per. And when you look around at all of the lame, insipid, go-no-where websites, it’s obvious that many are buying this crap. It’s a little scary. But it means that real writers must remain focused on intelligent marketing of their services.

Julie November 16, 2011 at 3:32 pm

I agree with you Lloyd. I am so pleased to see you in this forum!
I met you many years ago in Phoenix, and you were the first one to inspire me in my copywriting journey. I will always be grateful to you for that.
Yes, I agree that the marketplace has become over crowded with poorly written articles that speak more to search engines than they do to actual prospects. I am not a huge fan of article marketing for this very reason.
It is far better to stand out with solid writing that is informed, intelligent and based upon proven direct marketing principles.

Peter Bowerman November 16, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Thanks Lloyd and Julie, for weighing in!

And I need to say this: what’s going in that world (i.e. $3-$5 articles) has nothing to do with our world, and shouldn’t be a concern of ours. It’d be like the top-of-the-line steak place in your town fretting over the fact that McDonald’s is selling burgers for $2. Obviously, McD’s isn’t even on their radar. Their audience is completely different, just like the audience/market for our services is nothing like the audience/market for $3-$5 articles. I’m sure you guys know all that, but it sounded like you might have been going down the road of projecting what’s happening in that realm to ours and they couldn’t be further apart…

PB

Julie November 16, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Thanks Peter.

I believe most of us are aware of the audiences we serve–and realize that article spinning is not the way we choose to serve them-but thanks for making the distinction.

Star November 16, 2011 at 4:13 pm

I beg to differ, Peter. This $3-$5 crap has totally altered even the legitimate website and mag landscape. I have had large trades tell me they read “the ads” and don’t have to pay “New York prices,” as one put it, anymore. I have had existing clients say their normal feature is now $200 less than last year. The whole perceived value of writing is going down, in my opinion. Writers are asked to pursue “alternate revenue streams.” Are you seeing a lot of 5-part mail packages these days? I do not think these “realms” are airtight–there is bleed!

Star November 16, 2011 at 4:14 pm

At very least, writers are advised not to call what we do writing anymore. Branding, marketing, positioning, consulting…etc. are better.

Peter Bowerman November 16, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I hear you, Star, but the mag world isn’t my world, or the world of most commercial freelancers. No question, magazine writing has gone through a catastrophic bloodletting the past few years – even the trades. And I’m not going to sit here and say our world of straight commercial freelancing has been unscathed – I’d be a moron if I did.

But, as this post explores, there are arenas of writing that just aren’t easily “commoditized,” like other arenas of writing have been, because the skills are so specific. The freelance writing world in general may never return to its glory days, but there will always be a need and a demand for skills not easily found on every job board out there.

Do I think that favors niche writers more than generalists? Probably so, but generalists with strong writing skills and marketing chops will still get traction. Are those jobs everywhere? Absolutely not. They take a lot of digging. But I keep coming back to this: yes, there’s more competition today, but so many writers trying to get established don’t have (and have an aversion to) the marketing chops.

And every company in this country, large and small, has to keep marketing if they want to stay afloat. And they can’t get what they need from just any writer.

PB

Star November 16, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Yes–no argument–40% of time marketing.

Melzetta "Mele" Williams November 18, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Peter, with this post, you’ve demonstrated that writing an insightful post is most certainly NOT algorithmic!

To build a successful sub-specialty in branded web series script writing, I had to learn how to write a sitcom script. I was surprised to learn that sitcom and feature film script writing is somewhat heuristic.

I took a class taught by a hugely successful Hollywood sitcom writer. She shared the “formula” for writing a successful sitcom script, and told us to watch several episodes of our favorite shows so that we could see how the formula was applied.

I discovered that sitcom writers are geniuses! I recognized the heuristic approach in each of the many shows I watched, yet still enjoyed a great story, while laughing my head off.

So Peter, you were spot on when you said that the heuristic writing we do is “a formula on a higher level, and one that still requires independent and original thinking within the context of that formula.” Couldn’t have said it better!

Star November 19, 2011 at 10:28 am

Interesting. Yes, back in my screenwriting days (well, my screenwriting 15 yrs), some people tried sitcoms. The weird part is your calling card script has to be from a diff show–not the one you are pitching to. Also many found they really needed to be in LA for this, but could get away with not being for movie screenwriting. I had one studio option on a reg script–and co-produced a short I wrote that won a Telly–and we went to the Film Market every yr–but this did not turn out to be an alternate revenue stream. I envy you on how much fun it is, though. And, yes, though there is a formula, it takes a lot of heuristic smarts to do it.

Peter Bowerman November 19, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Thanks, Mele!

Julie November 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Can anyone recommend their favourite pricing guide or pricing strategy?

I need to know the professional rates for standard direct mail pieces.(sales letter, emails etc)

I consider myself a solid intermediate writer.

All feedback is appreciated.

Melzetta "Mele" Williams November 23, 2011 at 5:46 pm

I’m not one to go back to review my blog posts looking for errors to cure, but for some reason I did so this time and discovered a glaring mistake.

I said: I recognized the heuristic approach in each of the many shows I watched, yet still enjoyed a great story, while laughing my head off.

I meant to say I recognized the formulaic approach in each of the many shows I watched, yet still enjoyed a great story, while laughing my head off.

Whew! Now, I can sleep!

Susan Payton November 30, 2011 at 11:55 am

I can’t tell you how many writing jobs I see go into great detail about what they want, and I’m following along, interested, only to end with “my budget is $75 for 100 articles.” They completely devalue what we do, and they cause potential clients to question why I charge so much! (I do have an answer, but they don’t often want to hear it).

I hadn’t thought of it in these terms, but now I will! Thanks for the great post!

Peter Bowerman November 30, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Thanks Susan, and glad you found the post useful…

And I hear what you’re saying, AND…;) This is a big hot button issue for me. Two things…

First, you say,”they completely devalue what we do.” Actually, it’s not what “we” do; few if any weighing in on this blog come within miles of job postings like these; as far as we’re concerned, it’s a whole other planet.

But more importantly, the “they” you’re referring to? The clients who post crazy-low-paying gigs may seem to be the ones devaluing what writers do, but where do they get their cues to post such gigs? Think they come up with these ridiculous figures (and yes, $75 for 100 articles is about as bad as I’ve seen) on their own? No, they take their cues from writers.

They price their jobs (usually in the category of “garden-variety pathetic”: $5-10 per article) low because, all you have to do is visit job posting sites, and see a whole pile of writers responding to these ads, with various and sundry versions of, “I’ll do it for that!” “I’ll do it for less!” “Pick me! I’ll do it for half that!” If you were the client, what would YOU do? Respond to the market.

But again, we come back full circle to this post. When the skills are algorithmic, a ton of people have them, and hence, the rates are low. And if, in fact, the skills you have, are beyond the algorithmic level, then quit looking at those postings and find opportunities (and you will rarely, if ever, find them on job sites) that value those skills that set you apart from the masses.

I promise I’m not picking on you – I’m really talking to anyone who is in this boat. Thanks for weighing in!

PB

Star November 30, 2011 at 1:56 pm

… all you have to do is visit job posting sites, and see a whole pile of writers responding to these ads, with various and sundry versions of, “I’ll do it for that!” “I’ll do it for less!” “Pick me! I’ll do it for half that!” If you were the client, what would YOU do? Respond to the market.

First this is bid sites–the rush to the bottom. Elance etc. Second, writers are taking this stuff, which has kept it low, but it started with many many articles to webmasters on how to make money on AdSense–by hiring writers who don’t “cost much.” The writers aren’t helping, but they didn’t start it. The bid site crap bled into Craigs–and the Craigs rates gradually were noticed by the big boys–the large trades or even consumer mags… I also have been approached on commercial work for insulting rates–you say that isn’t the case, this work has not been affected, so I was unlucky, I guess. I do think writing is devalued now…we are fighting the good fight, though, many of us. I notice blog work is going up a little to $50 or more an entry–this used to be five bucks…so let’s see if the bleed works in a positive direction.

Peter Bowerman November 30, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Hey Star,

Always appreciate your perspective! And no, I never said it wasn’t happening at all in our field. In fact, I think I said, I’d be a moron if I said our field had gone unscathed. But again, you’re talking about magazines, which absolutely have been hit REALLY hard, so I have no problem believing what you say at all.

And yes, there is no doubt spillover into straight commercial freelancing as well, as you share from personal experience, but again, to the extent that we can find jobs requiring those heuristic skills NOT easily duplicated by thousands of other writers, we won’t be as affected.

I just have to wonder whether those offering insulting rates to commercial writers can indeed find any number of writers to deliver what they need for those rates, or are just sniffing the air, and hoping to capitalize on the general downward trend in “general freelance writing” rates, but will wake up once they go through a few who can’t get the work they need done, done to their satisfaction. We shall see…

PB

Star November 30, 2011 at 3:07 pm

I don’t think mag rates are the only ones sagging due to the influx of horrible SEO rates–I think it has seeped to all rates and feelings about writers. Sure, having unique skills makes you worth more, theoretically, but the clients may not always see it that way. Some will take “good enough.” And it’s not all magazines as you keep saying, Peter–it’s web copywriting–that’s commercial, right? I have prospects now who say, “I know our rates suck” or “I know this is abysmal” (quote from one last week). Another one tried the “we are a nonprofit” deal on me and I am so jaded I laughed, “Well, I try to be FOR profit.”

Julie November 30, 2011 at 3:18 pm

When a prospect zeros in on price right away–it is a huge red flag for me, as it tells me that he/she does not “get” the true value of great copy–and likely will be a pain to work with.

No thanks. I’ll pass.

I would rather have a few quality clients than a bunch of cheap ones.

Alex Bramwell December 1, 2011 at 3:31 am

All hail Google Panda for knocking back the article spinners and giving power back to writers who produce quality content. The internet is moving the right way at the moment and good writing is only going to get more valuable. Never publish anything that you are not proud of (or use a pseudonym) as Google is watching everything we do!

Star December 1, 2011 at 9:54 am

That google move knocked many Demand writers back into the market to muddy the waters, apply for stuff, freak out employers with 1000 applications, etc….that’s how I look at it…will the old economy or rates ever return? Who knows… As Peter and Julie say, all we can do is stand tall, walk stuff that is not to our liking, and learn to love the ramen.

Peter Bowerman December 1, 2011 at 11:56 am

Totally agree, Alex,

Google did what had to happen eventually. And think about why they did it. I mean, we all know the events, but what they did was a direct reflection of this unavoidable fact: content matters to readers. And if people are going to have any confidence in the sites they visit – AND the search engines they use to find those sites – then what they read when they get there is important.

All of which is good news. Yeah, Star, all those Demand “writers” got tossed back in the pool, and some of them will suck it up and do what they have to do to learn to be real writers who write real and valuable content, and most others won’t. Why? Because they were never really writers in the first place. They just found something they could do at home that involved moving words around that paid a little better than flipping burgers, but without the commute (I can hear the howls already…;)

And there will probably be a shakeup for a while, as clients who need GOOD content will try to get it from those kinds of writers for those crummy wages, but since content HAS to matter now, chances are, they’re not going to get what they need for $5 or $10 an article. And if they do the math and realize that, over the long-term, an investment of $50 or $100 in something of higher quality returns far more than that, then they’ll shift their thinking.

But, I think a far more likely scenario is that many of those content mills will just fade away. Their entire business model was built on the idea that because search engines were, essentially “dumb,” and would just reliably respond to predictable patterns, they could make money by writing according to those patterns. And that game is over. It’s like whole specialties of tax law that spring up because of a loophole in the law, and which vanish as soon as that loophole closes.

All of which is a sideshow to what WE do as commercial writers, since few of us want to write an article for even $50 unless it takes us 30-60 minutes to do it. But all in all, these trends are positive ones that can’t help but raise rates.

Got a blog post proposal yesterday about article marketing. And while it wasn’t really a fit for this blog, it got me thinking. He was talking to people who buy content from writers and telling them that, in order to be unique, memorable and to stay in people’s minds, you couldn’t get that requisite level of quality for $5 or $10. You had to really write something, well, unique and memorable, and that was going to cost you a lot more.

And yes, we can all smile and say, well, “duhhhhhh……” but within the context of the events of the past few years, in a perverse sort of way, it’s a good message. The more things change, etc, etc. It’s going to be a rough few years, no question, but what Google did forcibly raised standards, and while content-mill writing is an arena peripheral to the commercial writing mainstream, the ripple effects in shifting perceptions about writing and the value of writing can’t but help all of us.

Enough navel-gazing… Back to work… ;)

PB

Star December 5, 2011 at 3:04 pm

http://www.vistaprint.com/vp/ns/splash/splash_postcards.aspx?GP=12%2f5%2f2011+2%3a59%3a49+PM&GPS=2270695732&GNF=1&GPLSID=

Want to have some fun–get the 100 free postcards…helps you decide what you do these days…fun designs…I used part of one design and imported an image–this cost me $2.49. The whole thing–resisting all their upsells–was under nine bucks for 100 cards. You do pay shipping. Hey–entertainment.

Peter Bowerman December 30, 2011 at 8:06 am

Check this out! This post snagged a slot on the “Best Articles for Writers 2011″ list compiled by commercial freelancer Carol Tice – one of just 15. And I assert the commenting is just as much a part of that accolade as the original post, so this honor is for all of us!

Guess we’re doing something right! Sincere thanks and appreciation for all your brilliant contributions to TWFW Blog this year, and I look forward to more exploration and discovery in 2012!

Have a happy, safe and well-fed new year!

PB

Joseph Putnam December 30, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Hi Peter,

When I read your book as a new, aspiring, freelance commercial writer, I had this same thought, I realized that the value of becoming an FCW is that it’s a task that can’t be offshored since it requires the skill of a native English speaker. Programming can be offshored; writing cannot.

So yes, you’re definitely on to something here.

jk January 7, 2012 at 12:00 pm

“Or as my frustrated writer friend enlightened me, the term to describe the process is actually called “spinning,” and in many cases, is actually done by computer (and scarily well in some cases)”

Are you really scared? I wouldn’t be. Spinner software takes something that already exists, and makes it slightly worse; it does not create anything new. I don’t thing anyone has invented software that can actually write something worth reading. There is software that generates poetry and other things, but writing English is still reserved for that Aristocracy of native English speakers who grew up watching (and living) American sitcoms and reality TV. No Klackistan-generated content will ever compare, and if you are a real writer/editor, you can tell the difference in about a sentence. Stringing words together correctly and beautifully will only be accomplished by machines after they reverse-engineer the brain, which will occur after nanotechnology evolves. By then we will all be dead, or immortal.

Joseph Ratliff January 7, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Hey PB,

I came back to this post from a fellow WA native’s blog (Carol Tice).

Wow man, looks like you lit a fire! :)

Now, a little note about why commercial writing pays better (and isn’t on the decline or anything IMO)…

Take a closer look at who you work for as a FLCW… and then analyze, are those types of companies growing their businesses or aren’t they?

If the answer is “No” you need to re-evaluate who you’re working for ;)

If the answer is “Yes”, you’re probably getting the fees you deserve as a FLCW.

This doesn’t apply in all cases, but if you “trend this out” I bet you’ll discover at least one reason you are or aren’t getting paid what you would like as a writer.

Peter Bowerman January 9, 2012 at 10:21 am

Thanks JK, for the clarification! I wasn’t really scared, but was impressed with the quality of the “spun” content. BUT, I didn’t realize that it was just a derivative of an existing piece of writing. And if the original was actually…”hand-written” by a writer and was decent, then the spun version would show some bright spots as well.

And thank for both Josephs for weighing in. JP, glad you found it useful. And yes, no matter how fluent a non-native English speaker IS in English, for the kinds of well-paying work we should be going after, it won’t be good enough. Sure, companies may try, as many did with off-shored customer service, only to 1) pull it back to the states when they saw the problems; 2) keep it in place, but have US-based folks if people asked for them (which I always do); or 3) see their reputation suffer as their customers don’t get their problems resolved quickly and expeditiously.

And with writing, it’d be even more important as it’s the messaging you’re putting out to the world. No, I sleep pretty well at night. And thanks JR (as always) for the insight. Hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but worth pondering… ;)

PB

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