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

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.

57 replies
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  1. Joseph Ratliff
    Joseph Ratliff says:

    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.

  2. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    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… 😉


  3. Barbara Saunders
    Barbara Saunders says:

    I’m confused as to why anyone would bother writing an article for $5-10. Frankly I can’t make a living doing that. Twenty articles per day? Not a chance. Even if I could, why would I? I could make more waiting tables for a six-hour shift, and then spending the remaining time writing novels instead of churning out SEO-driven drivel about how to lose that last ten pounds or have a three-hour orgasm.

  4. Chris Riddell
    Chris Riddell says:

    Its interesting the comparison you make between algorithmic and hueristic types. I have been mucking around with eLance, craigslist, constant content and other “writing” sites, and found out exactly what your saying. Too many writers bidding on too few projects, driving rates down to next to nothing. If you want to be a serious writer (and I do) these sites are all a waste of time and not a good source of income. Thanks for confirming what I’ve been discovering!

  5. MarCia
    MarCia says:

    Hi Peter,
    Great article and I believe that explains the incredibly poor writing quality of the writing I regularly see online. I can also tell when a non-English speaker has written an article or product instructions and descriptions. I lived and worked in Japan a few years ago and their use of English in ads for and on certain product was the source of much amusement to native English speaking foreigners.

    I believe I met you a few years ago when I attended a seminar on becoming a freelance commercial writer at a Barnes and Nobles in Fayetteville, GA, a suburb of Atlanta. If you are the same person, I believe you had just written your first book on the subject and I purchased it and had considered trying to get into commercial freelance writing. I had recently been downsized from Delta Airlines and was self-employed as a travel agent at the time.

    I have been told many times by others who happen to read my emails or anything that I write that I should probably pursue writing professionally. I also end up assisting others when I see they are struggling with writing assignments etc. Just tonight I was checking some info on a website for a Jamaican resort and the writing was so atrocious that I decided to correct it for them and send it to them unsolicited 🙂 Afterwards, I recalled being in your seminar but could not remember your name so I Googled commercial writing and remembered your book title and came to this site.

    I’ve written in conjunction with a number of jobs I’ve held. I was an auditor for many years, a public school teacher for a few years and also taught English in Japan for about 3 years. I’m currently an administrative assistant at a college in Atlanta and find myself assisting students and even some professors with proofing, rewording and rewriting of papers etc. I love the environment but after 4 years realize I must have more money and more challenging work, so commercial writing is something I would like to consider. I have since lost your book so perhaps I’ll purchase another copy and review it and do some other research on online.

  6. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks MarCia,

    Good to hear from you again! And yes, that was me at the B&N in Fayetteville all those years ago. Not sure of the exact year, but it was in the early 2000’s (book came out in 2000).

    Thanks for weighing in, and I wish you the best when/if you move forward. I’ve heard similar laments from other teachers. They may enjoy the work, but want more money and more control over their time.

    And yes, I came out with an new edition of the original book a few years back, combining and heavily updating the content of both the original and its companion volume (2005), TWFW: Back for Seconds. Check it out here (where it ships on my dime and you get a pretty meaty ebook bonus). All the best!


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