You’ve probably heard about SEO—search engine optimization. If not, the (very basic) description is that it’s a set of evolving best practices to “optimize” your web presence (usually at least your website) so that it ranks higher on search engine results based on “your” key words or phrases. For example, if you own a dog grooming business in Dallas, one of your key phrases is probably “dog grooming Dallas”. Potential customers Google (since Google is the most popular search engine in the US) “dog grooming Dallas” and you want to show up as high on the Google search results as possible. Studies have shown most people only check out the first few links of a search, and most people never look beyond the first page of search results.
However, being an SEO writer is just one of many skillsets an SEO agency or self-described expert should have. There are many aspects to SEO from finding and analyzing keywords to making a website mobile ready, responsive design, page load speed management and so on.
That being said, “Content is king” is the rally key of many SEO pros. Without good, organic, high quality written content with natural keyword placement, SEO just can’t happen.
No Jack of All Trades Will Do
It would be great if you could hire a single person to “do all your SEO”, but that person doesn’t exist. There are creative aspects to SEO, technical aspects, and plenty of mingling in between. It’s very unlikely that you’ll find a high quality SEO writer who’s also an SEO professional who can make your site mobile ready. Those are two very different skill sets—and SEO requires many more than just those two!
Hiring an “SEO Writer” is also different from hiring other types of writers, even including Web Content Writers. SEO writers have a gift of taking keywords and phrases and fitting them seamlessly into quality content. There is an ideal “keyword density” for SEO text that SEO writers can achieve.
The great news for SEO writers, or a writer who wants to become one, is that there is serious job security. Every single business and person with an online presence wants or needs higher SEO rankings. Plus, “their” SEO keywords are always changing. This means virtually endless work that needs to be updated on a regular basis.
And they said you’d never get a writing job with that English degree!
This blog isn’t about Kimye. Cue either relief or disappointment (but if you really need your Kardashian fix, check out Hollywood Life).
Here’s the thing about clickbait: You kind of need to do it, because otherwise even the best content won’t get as many clicks, as much exposure, or as many shares. That being said, there’s a big gray area when it comes to clickbait. There’s sensationalism, and then there’s marketing standard highlighting. Obviously if you choose a title like, “Kim Kardashian Releases New Sex Tape” and the content is jibberish, a sales pitch for a hair transplant company, or features a clip of Kim K. talking about her efforts to get pregnant again in her new season, you’re not just committing libel. You’re also seriously taking “clickbait” too far.
It’s a catch-22 because your clients (and your SEO rankings) want your headlines to draw people in. Unfortunately, in an era where news is reported in real-time and the idea of breaking a story has pretty much died, how can you come out on top? Yes, you need a catchy headline with SEO elements, but what else? Getting someone to click on a link is just part of the process. If you’re offering up offensive clickbait, you’re also going to get a slew of bouncebacks. Ultimately, your SEO won’t improve from such a shortcut.
Walking the Line
Writing great headlines and titles have a lot of “rules” or best practices. You want it short and sweet enough that it won’t get cropped in search results (both on major search engines and on whatever website the story is being hosted on). For awhile people loved lists, even dubbing them listicles. Now a lot of people hate them, so you have a 50/50 split. You also need to create or curate images that are high quality, have SEO elements themselves, and won’t get you into trouble (copyright infringement, anyone?).
Unfortunately for those looking for a shortcut, they simply don’t exist. You might experience short term gains with clickbait and other gray hat tricks (since some clickbait strategies aren’t quite blackhat), but it won’t last forever.
Plus, the average content consumer is getting savvier with clickbait, and they know how to identify it and what it’s called. If you get “caught” by one viewer, your credibility and reputation may get marred. Leave the hyperbole to your fiction pieces. It’s a world where news happens and is reported nearly simultaneously, so it’s not a race to be first or the most outlandish. It’s a competition to see who can offer the best, most thorough, fact checked, edited content with (legal) complementary images.
When I was in graduate school (for writing, of course), the department head shared a story of when he used to make big bucks ghost writing books. His anecdote went something like this: “Well before ‘vanity publishing’ was a household phrase, ghost writers were scraping in lofty incomes playing to egos. As a ghost writer, I would always ask the client to meet me in a public place like a small coffee shop. I got there early and set up at a window. My fees for ghost writing a book were the same as the cost of their car. Every time, clients would show up in something like a new 5-series BMW. If they’re willing to spend $50,000 on a car, they won’t think twice about spending $50,000 to immortalize themselves.”
Today, ghost writing isn’t just for books (although that’s still a huge market!). There are ghost writers for blogs, articles, white papers and even social media posts. The majority of my income comes from ghost writing. That’s why I have very few live links featuring my genuine byline—and that’s perfectly fine with me. However, what I find interesting is that, apparently, it’s not acceptable to a lot of writers.
When I’m first negotiating with a new client, the trepidation in their (written) voice is nearly palpable when it comes to bylines. They’re almost always apologetic that my real name won’t be used. Sometimes I’ve even been asked to create a fake bio for pseudonyms (“Larry” was my favorite) and I write as Larrys, Evelyns, Joes and Barbaras. Personally, I don’t care. I’m not getting paid or sought out for my name. I’m getting paid for what I deliver.
When a client pays me for a product or service, the end result is theirs to do with as they wish. This isn’t like writing or publishing poetry, which is what I consider my passion project. The work I get paid for on a daily basis isn’t “my baby” because, quite frankly, I’ve sold that baby to someone else. I was simply a surrogate.
Is Ghosting for You?
Unfortunately, not all writers are ready to “give up the ghost” and they prioritize having their name attached to their work. There are a myriad of reasons for this, and none of them are wrong. Maybe they’re attached to their work and can’t bear to let someone else take credit for it. Maybe they’re trying to build their reputation as an expert in search engine optimization, social media, or circus training. Maybe they just don’t think the fees they’re getting paid are worth the value of their words.
However, bear in mind that (much like contracting), you can probably get more money if you let a client use their name (or whatever name they like). What’s more important to you—the income or the credit? It could vary from piece to piece and client to client, but until you’re a thought leader in XYZ field, your worth is likely higher for your writing rather than your name.
As a writer, I find it much more challenging when a client requests “evergreen” content rather than news-related, trending, seasonal or anything other type of content with a short shelf life. However, the term “evergreen” is a bit of a misnomer—kind of like the namesake. Even evergreen trees will eventually fall, whether from disease, natural disasters, logging or lack of nourishment. Nothing lasts forever while remaining relevant, and the written word is no exception. But that doesn’t mean writing evergreen content is pointless.
As a rule, evergreen content should last as long as possible while remaining helpful, entertaining or both. For example, one of my clients that especially likes the evergreen approach is an endodontist (dental surgical specialist). When it comes down to it, the approaches, tools and strategies for dental surgery are “rooted” (couldn’t help it!) in tried and tested approaches. A root canal is a root canal, even if the latest YAG lasers make the process faster and more efficient.
There will always be demand for evergreen content because basic 101, proven best strategies, and “best of” pieces will always have a place in content marketing.
Make it Easier on Yourself
What helps make content “evergreen” in the digital era is the fact that “forever” isn’t quite as long as you think. The odds of a website today holding true for over ten years with largely the same content and layout is slim to none. Businesses close, they get sold, they get re-branded and the owners want an overhaul of the website. This means that evergreen content you’re writing likely has an intended lifespan of one to five years. That’s a much more feasible goal than forever.
However, you never really know when a website could stick. When writing evergreen content, avoid citations that will date the content. If there is a bunch of links or mentions of 2015 throughout the article, how’s that going to look in 2016—or 2018? The only time dates should be included is when they’re already settled in the past, such as the year the first porcelain veneer was created (it was 1928 for those gearing up for trivia night).
If you’re a writer asked to pen evergreen content, steer clear of breaking news, trending items, or just about anything that will date your piece. This is a time to cover the basics, provide a refresher course on the subject, or delve a little into history. Get as much information as you can from the client, because they might have a very different idea of “basic” pruning, home staging, re-upholstering, or whatever other niche they may be in than you do. Your best source of information with evergreen content is, well, the source. Make use of it so you and the client will be happy with the results.
I’ll admit it—up until a couple of years ago, I depended heavily on Craigslist for writing gigs. I dabbled in some other sites as well, but CL remained a staple in my writing bid diet. In fact, it’s where I found my very first freelance gig (which showed me you really can make a decent living as a writer!). However, the underbelly of CL is also well known, but don’t think it’s the only platform where you’ll get crazy clients, non-paying clients, and clients who think writers are automatically also graphic designers, website developers and basket weavers.
Luckily, I’m now at the point where I’m not accepting new clients (and the most recent ones all came from existing client referrals). However, I know that one day I’ll be back on CL bidding on projects and sending writing samples for new gigs and contracts. That’s the nature of writing for a living. I’ve learned a thing or two in my years of CL work and can spot a red flag like a pro now.
Here are some of the most common to watch out for as a writer looking for honest work:
“You’ll be the first batch of writers to get paid when the website starts making money!”
If you’re a professional writer, that means you get paid for your work. Period. It’s not contingent on whether your client makes money, their website makes money, or what their financial situation is. This is like agreeing to ghost write a book and hoping it’ll sell, making the author millions. That’s not how it’s done.
“No ridiculously high bids!”
Trust me, the definition of low, high, mediocre, fair, and any other word to describe your project rate is highly subjective. It depends on your experience, speed and going rate. If a poster already seems angry about potentially paying a “high price” for a writer, don’t even bother. They might as well say, “I’d prefer a volunteer writer, but will pay you half a penny per word if I really have to.”
“Get in on the ground floor!”
No, thank you. See number one for this blazing red flag.
“Send me a free writing sample and I might contact you.”
In some instances, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for a sample. However, 99 percent of the time, this should be a paid sample (perhaps not at your going rate, but at least to prove the gig is legitimate). There have been times when I’ve drafted a quick sample for free, but it’s always an intro paragraph or other content that can’t really be used for anything besides a sample. Otherwise, you’re providing free labor.
There’s a picture/logo
I’m sure there are exceptions, but every time there’s a photo/logo on a job ad, the pay has been subpar. I’ve often found these are either really young startups that don’t have the budget to pay professional rates or an enterprise that wants to pay hourly rates (always charge per word/project). In my experience, these posts are always a waste of time.
“Mah grammers bad so i gotta hire a writer asap!!!!”
This isn’t what the ad usually says, of course, but if it’s not professionally written, don’t expect a professional experience. On a related note, if an exclamation is used in the job posting, get ready to deal with a rollercoaster of a client. The red flag should start waving even stronger if they offer a strangely high rate that just doesn’t mesh with the lack of professional presentation.
“Go fill out this online application that’s 20 pages long.”
This can be one of two things: A “test” to see how serious you are or just a means of collecting applications for data usage, reporting, and the like. As a full-time writer, I don’t have the time to jump through those hoops. I’m sure sometimes this approach could work out, but you’d better be pretty certain you’ll get the gig (a perfectly alignment of their demand and your supply) and you should know for a fact that the pay is high before you waste your time.
“Call Billy Bob at…”
You don’t want Billy Bob to have your number. Plus, if someone’s hiring a writer, don’t they want to see their writing chops first (like with an intro email)? I’m all for phone or video “meetings”, but not from the get-go.
“Let me tell you about this horrible experience with another writer…”
You’re not a therapist. If someone’s been burned by another contractor or professional, they shouldn’t be airing their dirty laundry for all to see. This is the same as getting into a relationship with someone who just broke up with their cheating spouse last weekend. You’ll be the one dealing with the fallout.
“I need a writer for something. I’m not really sure what. Let’s collaborate!”
Unless you’re also a consultant, steer clear of these. A client should know exactly what they want from a writer (ahem, it’s writing). Your time is worth money, not just you’re writing. Clients who want to talk, scheme, plan and dream don’t realize that every minute of yours they’re using is your money wasted. They don’t mean any harm, but they’re a leech you can’t afford.
These are just a few to avoid if you want to streamline your writing career and business. Most importantly, trust your gut. It’s always right.
As an entrepreneur, small business owner, freelancer-writer-who’s-actually-making-money, where your business is established (or where your permanent residency is) matters. A lot. In the US, there are various pros and cons state by state. There are a few states with zero income tax at all—which means you only pay federal tax (not state). This can make or break a small business, especially when you compare the nine percent income tax in Oregon to the zero percent in Washington State (for those of you not in the Pacific Northwest, Portland, Ore. and Vancouver, Wash. are just a few minutes away. It’s also why my residency is in Washington).
There are other states like Nevada and Delaware that offer the same zero-tax allure. However, it’s not just income tax rates (or lack thereof) to consider. The “richer” a state is, the more support for entrepreneurs you’re likely to find. California, even with Silicon Valley hanging on for dear life, is a notoriously broke state with high income taxes. The cost of living in startup-rich areas is also through the roof. Then there’s the sales taxes (as an Oregonian, I have to toot our “no sales tax” status here).
Planting Business Roots
I’m just using California as an example, and this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider the Golden State for your startup. Maybe it’s necessary that your tech-based startup is close to some of the best talent in the industry. Perhaps your partner is finishing a graduate program, has a geo-based job they adore, or you’re committed to taking care of an aging parent. Where you establish your business/residency should be a priority—but it’s not the only one.
However, for the entrepreneurs with few strings and commitments, there’s also the option of moving abroad. I personally have enjoyed “foreign income exemption” three times in my life while living in the UK, South Korea and Costa Rica. This is a means of legally avoiding the majority of federal taxes and income taxes via becoming an ex-pat. Of course, there are rules.
Traveling Abroad? Try Living Abroad!
The US has agreements with a number of countries in order to avoid doubly taxing American business owners. The idea is that you pay taxes in your adopted country (the rates, means of doing so, regulations and details are up to you and your CPA to figure out), which takes the place of most US federal taxes.
By being outside the US 330+ days per year, it doesn’t matter if you live abroad and 100 percent of your clients are in the US. You’re considered an ex-pat with residency in another country, and the only federal taxes you have to pay are Social Security and Medicare (there’s absolutely no getting around these) up to a certain point.
Nothing Certain in Life but Death and Ta—Actually, Just Death
There’s a cap on how much of your total income is exempt with this maneuver, but in 2014 it was $94,500. That’s a pretty big chunk of your income to avoid the majority of taxes. Plus, play your cards right and you can find a country that’s paradise to you with seriously low cost of living. With the influx of virtual offices, you can earn an American salary (with US clients) while taking advantage of a cost of living on par with what your parents recall from their childhood.
No matter where you establish your business and/or residency, don’t let convenience dictate what you do. Do the research, consider the possibilities, and work with a reputable CPA to map out the best plan for you.
As writers, we’re cloaked in stigmas, myths, stereotypes and clichés—and like it or not, it’s our responsibility to dispel them, break them, and project a professional image that counteracts negative connotations. I’ve personally known some writers who used their profession or hobby to excuse alcohol/drug abuse, not supporting themselves financially, or as a dictation of their moods (They got published? They’re flying high. They got a rejection letter? It’s going to suck to be around them for the next two weeks).
I’m not saying I’m immune to this, either. “Writers have issues.” “Writers need inspiration to work.” “Writers are moody.” It’s kind of like blaming your Zodiac sign on a personality trait, characteristic, or bad behavior—when you can shift the blame to something beyond yourself, it’s pretty easy to indulge guilt-free.
Here are some of the classic writer stereotypes out there and why they need to go:
Writers are alcoholics
Some of them are. There are also architects, teachers, full-time parents, police officers and CEOs who are alcoholics. There are even complete books focusing on the relationship between writers and alcohol(ism). However, alcoholism is a disorder (sometimes genetic) that anyone can potentially struggle with. Regardless of whether statistics show writers are more likely to abuse alcohol than other types of profession, that doesn’t make it an excuse.
I’ve personally had people tell me, “You should try writing drunk!” The stereotype that writers are drunks who do their best work under the influence is a dangerous, seemingly accepted idea. Luckily for me, the few times I’ve tried writing after a glass of whiskey (let alone being drunk!), the result was total garbage.
Writers are depressed/suicidal
You can point to Sylvia Plath, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain or a slew of other greats to back up this point. However, depression is becoming a more and more common diagnosis—some say because more people are seeking help and there are better avenues for a diagnosis. Few professions beyond writing encourage people to put their innermost feelings naked on the table for the public to peruse, tear apart, and read into.
Depression is a chemical imbalance that may require medical intervention. It’s not feeding your creativity or writing chops, so don’t think treating it will make you a worse writer.
Writers are broke
Some certainly are, and there are also broke attorneys, executives, and even movie stars. Your college degree and/or profession won’t dictate your earnings—your ambition will. With a BA in English and a master’s in writing, I was asked one of two questions during my studies: 1) So, you’re going to teach? or 2) What kind of job can you get with that degree? (Don’t get me wrong—teaching is an extremely challenging profession but I have no interest in it or talent with it!).
Fortunately for writers, we’re in the digital era where every single business is realizing they need professional writers. It’s no longer an indulgence or optional. Certain types of writers, like those who specialize in SEO, can earn six-figure salaries. Others go on to start their own content writing business and breach the million dollar mark. Still others are adamant that they’ll make it big selling a screenplay and barely break the $20,000 mark every year while living off their spouse. Success and failure hinges on what you do with your talents, not your talents themselves.
Writers sleep around
All type of people sleep around—and it’s getting easier and easier with apps like Tinder and hookup sites like Adult Friend Finder or Grindr. This doesn’t mean all people sleep around of course, or that there’s anything wrong with a lot of sex/sex partners if safety and honesty is part of the picture. However, there’s not one “type” of profession that’s more prone to infidelity than another.
But here’s the thing: Writers like to (surprise!) write about their life. Their passion. What enrages them and turns them on. Simply put, writers are more likely to share their sexual stories with the world than, say, a plumber. Unless of course said plumber regularly stars in “I’m here to clean your pipes” type of films.
What are some writer stereotypes you’ve encountered?
Some people have really strong opinions about New Year’s resolutions—kind of like the Oxford comma, Valentine’s Day, or the best way to make a grilled cheese sandwich (it’s with that really cheap, sliced, fake American cheese in case you’re wondering). For me, the New Year can be used as a reminder for getting back on track, re-approaching goals that haven’t been achieved yet, or simply an excuse to reflect (after all, you’re probably not able to do much else in that holiday food-induced coma). Call them reminders, resolutions, or anything else you like. As writers, I think there are a few things we should commit to focusing on year-round.
Obviously, these “reminder-lutions” are very specific to me as a writer, but I hope you can use some of them, too. Modify them, advance them, use them as a springboard or count yourself lucky if you’ve already achieved them. Here’s to a fruitful, word-filled year!
The more eyes, the better
Our brains are so incredibly savvy that we self-correct, fill in the blanks, and do anything else possible to “fix” a typo in our heads—without actually doing it on paper. In my experience, writers and editors are complementary professionals, but from very different camps. You’re probably a better writer than editor, or vice versa. However, when it’s your piece on the chopping block, there’s no such thing as too many eyes on the paper (or too many editors).
Publishing isn’t validation
Getting published doesn’t actually validate your worth as a writer. Neither does winning a Pulitzer, or having more bylines than anyone else. You’ve heard it before—a lot of the world’s “great writers” were turned down numerous times. Consider this: In the world of literature (or blogging, or anything else writing-centric), exposure, publishing, re-posts and the like are what many people think makes someone a “real writer”.
The opposite is true in music. An artist who’s in the Top 40 or a pop (ahem, popular) artist is often seen as a sellout who doesn’t make “real music”. The “real music” is in the underground. If that same perspective was embraced for writers, think of all those underdog, unpublished, struggling, broke “real writers” we’d be celebrating!
If validation is your driving force as a writer, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Write because you have to, you want to, you have something to say and written words are your medium of choice.
SEO isn’t going anywhere, so learn to love it
If your writing appears online, SEO matters. Learn to follow the best practices, love them, and use them as a tool for getting your pieces seen. The purpose of SEO is to connect readers with the best, most relevant content they’re searching for. SEO isn’t out to get you. If that means proper keyword placement and density, so be it. A good writer will be able to create organic, SEO-rich content without losing any of their style or value. Rise to the challenge.
Accept that some people won’t like your writing (or you)
There’s no such thing as writing (or a person) that appeals to everyone. You’ll get rejected (sometimes numerous times) and have some harsh criticism tossed your way. Writers need to have thick skin for self-preservation, but unfortunately many sensitive types are attracted to writing. Don’t get me wrong, sensitivity is a highly desirable trait that has many upsides, but it can also make you vulnerable to some severe self-esteem blows.
I have two experiences to share with you. I published my first book of poems in 2014, “The Last Exotic Petting Zoo”, via a traditional print press. One of the poems included was previously published in a poetry journal. However, it was rejected by another journal first—complete with a lengthy “criticism” (around 1,000 words in length) that wasn’t criticism at all, but rather an attack. The piece was called “clichéd”, “weak”, “disappointing” and other unhelpful things with no direction on bettering it. This particular poem was later nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and included in the book. Not everyone will love what you write, but know the difference between constructive criticism and someone taking things out on you.
The other example was with a past client. Each writer had an editor (although we never “mixed” and none of us even knew the names of our editors—the projects all passed through an internal system). By mistake, my editor accidentally emailed me as well as the managers/owners of the company with a long list of why she didn’t like me as a person (not my writing). It started out, “Jessica just isn’t likable”.
The reminder-lution? Stay professional. Work on thickening your skin while preserving the good stuff about being sensitive. And remember that if a remark is more attack than constructive, it’s about them—not you or your writing.
You don’t have to be a stereotype
All great writers are drunks. Depressed. Suicidal or self-harming. Self-involved to a narcissistic level. Sex starved or unable to be in a healthy, committed relationship. The stereotypes about writers run rampant—and everyone has their demons or struggles. I’ve had friends tell me “You should try writing drunk.” Luckily (for my liver and life in general), I’m a terrible writer when I drink. You don’t have to be self-destructive, have a torrid past, or have dangerous vices in order to be a fantastic writer. Material is all around you, so there’s no need to create a surplus.
These are my reminder-lutions for 2015 and beyond. How are you going to be a better writer in the next year?
Working from home and running your own business is worlds away from being allowed to telecommute as a permanent employee. There are a lot of myths about it, rumors swirling, and envious glances when you can make that 10am spin class that nobody else can swing. Is it a dream come true? When I think back to my own days of the daily grind as a worker bee, definitely. I haven’t worn slacks, a suit, or hosiery in years. However, that doesn’t mean working from the couch is always glitters and unicorns, either.
Of course, every small business owner, entrepreneur, and telecommuter will have a different experience. Here are a few of my daily realities—for better or worse:
The whole yoga pants/work on the couch thing is true
I actually do work from a couch (sorry, ergonomics) in yoga pants most days. In my defense, I’m also a certified yoga teacher and practice on a regular basis. I just don’t get into the whole home office thing. Working from a desk and in an “office chair” just makes it feel too much like I’m working for someone else. Perhaps it was all those years of conditioning that turned me off “an office” for good.
There’s no such thing as an alarm
The only time I set an alarm is when I have an early morning flight. Otherwise, I’m naturally a morning person, complete with pepperings of insomnia from time to time. My work day usually starts between 5 and 6am and ends around 4 or 5pm.
Yes, the TV’s on
However, it’s on mute and it’s more for “company” than anything else. Seeing flickers of people and colors peripherally keeps me out of tunnel vision. Plus, I know I should be done with Client X’s work of the day by the time Frasier segues to How I Met Your Mother. And if I don’t have Client Y’x stuff done by the time Grey’s Anatomy is over? I’ll be pulling double duty that day.
There’s no such thing as leaving work at the office
Even if I had an actual office, this wouldn’t be the case. I have clients around the world. My contact in Thailand regularly sends me requests during her normal work hours, which is the middle of the night for me. When you have a backlog of requests nagging at you on a weekend and you have some down time, it’s easy to think you’re “getting ahead” by squeezing in just a few more articles. In three weeks, I’ll be taking three weeks off (forced without Wi-Fi thanks to rural India). It will be the first time I don’t work for more than one day, consecutively, in five years.
I set my own schedule (for the most part)
Of course there are deadlines, but here’s the thing: Writers are notoriously flaky (I know, I’ve gone through a laundry list when hiring them myself). That means clients often give me way more time than necessary. Thus, I work when I like, can take any gym class I want, shop in the middle of a weekday, and never have an issue squeezing in appointments.
In the end, there are pros and cons just like any work situation. I don’t miss the commute, the “having” to get ready every day, or the staring contest with the clock when you’re working by the hour. However, the work from home lifestyle isn’t “easy”, either—luckily for me, I just happen to be cut out for it. It’s about finding the best environment, career path, and work style for you (and if yoga pants fit into the picture, that’s all the better).