According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 131,000 individuals in the US who call themselves writers. This was a surprise to me, because I personally know more than that many frustrated novelists! My disbelief was vindicated when other categories of people who write are added. For example, the 118,000 editors who plan and manage content, the 52,000 journalists now employed or freelance, the 58,000 technical writers, and the 274,000 PR specialists who primarily earn their daily bread through a pen and keyboard. Writer.com estimates between 650,000 and one million souls world-wide who write as their principal source of income, but I think that we might easily double that when additional writing-centric roles like technical trainer (writing how-to manuals), proofreader, and translator are added to the list.
The data also point out that the profession is bifurcated. Traditional roles are shrinking, for example, with writer losses at 2% and journalism shrinking by 11%.
On the other hand, new media and digital demands for people-who-can-write continue to grow: PR specialist growth is estimated at 7%, and technical writers are growing by a similar percentage. A recent research report «Web Content Management: Global Markets» introduces its findings this way: “The web content management market is expected to witness high growth during the forecast period. The market is mainly driven by the rising demand for outsourced content writing and the growing trend of web-based marketing.”
Moreover, the report reminds us that word based communication is a growing part of a rapidly expanding communications ecosystem that is feeding the demand for content. Organizations are speaking to customers as never before, and customers are expecting and demanding ever more information on which to make purchases and investments. To feed that increasing demand for the electronic word, we’ve seen the development of a global network of freelance writers, editors and designers, as well as full stack marketing teams.
Writing agencies, networks and marketplaces face a mixed future: a boon, but also a dilemma. On the one hand, it democratizes opportunity, making it more possible for a freelancer’s work to be seen by a larger audience. And, platforms like Patreon offer freelance writers the opportunity to build a subscription business of “patrons” that may provide them with a good income. But, along with the good is the challenge: more writers without equivalent demand growth means that pay is in danger of becoming a race to the bottom. In that scenario the top 10% of writers make 90% of the income. What to do?
These are the issues that led me to ask relevant CEOs and thought leaders the question for this survey:
“What are the key opportunities and challenges facing writing / communications freelancers over the next few years? What advice would you give writing/communications professionals who are considering a move into full-time freelancing?”
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Here’s what our CEOs and thought leaders had to say:
Matt Mottola, Founder VentureL. “30% of our network are writers, and we’ve noticed that their key challenge is differentiating their service. The best have done this by being a go-to partner for content marketing, not just an individual writer. Main advice: connect with others to offer a more diverse offering and be able to scale up production in line with clients demand.”
Scott Galit, CEO Payoneer. “The pandemic created more demand for freelance writers with more opportunities to start and grow their business. However, there’s also more competition, as the freelance workforce has increased. Freelance writers need to expand their customer base in a growing sea of competitors. They can do this by focusing on reviews, cultivating referrals, honing skills, and joining multiple platforms across geographies.”
John Ashton, Director WriteArm. “Good writers are in demand by marketing. The pandemic has forced companies to invest in content for SEO or to establish themselves as leaders. There’s a particular need for specialists, especially in tech, where companies are clamoring for writers who understand what they do and articulate the benefits of their services.”
Nigel Sarbutts, Founder PRCavalry. “The key challenge is finding clients who value your skillsets and the flexibility, resourcefulness and network you bring. The highest value work comes from deep sector knowledge where you are out reach of the race to the bottom of generalised markets. Go deep, go niche and thrive.”
Bryan Pena, Founder Defiant Solutions. “The barriers to entry for freelancers are quite low so it is incredibly difficult for new providers to stand out. The answer is to be clear on your points of differentiation and if possible, focus on becoming hyper specialized within a particular niche industry.”
Sarah Paterson, Founder CommsPeople. “Businesses are moving away from agencies, and towards using freelancers, and this trend will accelerate. For freelancers, the opportunities are huge. The risks will always be there – going out on your own always means you need to be your own sales person. However, companies like CommsPeople help freelancers to find work, which means much lower risk.”
Carolyn Bothwell, Founder Freelance Founders. “More brands and agencies are interested in working with freelance talent but so much of freelancing still relies on referrals, which can be challenging. My advice: surround yourself with a network of people who are already doing your dream jobs.”
Helen Dibble, Managing Director Incredibble.“Employer branding, engagement, well-being and remote working are suddenly under scrutiny, as a changing workforce emerges. Companies are scrambling to get their policies and positioning in line and copywriters are needed beyond the marketing team. HR could be your next big client.”
Matt Dowling, Founder FreelancerClub. “Communicating a brand’s message, striking the right tone that resonates with an audience requires craft and precision. While AI writing assistants are on the rise, these tools are mainly support. A great communicator understands the essence of brand, its values and its mission.”
Shib Mathew, Founder YunoJuno. «The way we communicate is changing faster than ever before. Writing/communications specialists show their value by having a view on where the market is going, being a vocal advocate or critic of that direction and showing how their clients can best adapt in this ever-changing environment.»
Sarah Kebaili, Director MySherpa. “With the explosion of digital projects during the Covid-19 crisis, companies will find it easier to turn to freelancers in the medium and long term. Companies have had to adapt their communication through digital and will increasingly use this medium to promote their offers.
Lara Vandenburg, Founder Publicist.co. “Companies are looking for hyper specialized skills rather than generalists, and freelance talent is better equipped to meet these needs, especially for one-off projects. As a freelancer, while there is greater opportunity, the challenges is differentiating yourself among a growing pool of talent.”
Peter McPartin, Co-founder Indie List. “Be absolutely clear about your sector or area of expertise. Demonstrate that you understand what grabs an audience, especially in a digital-first world. Be able to show a varied body of work and have a unique approach that will help set you apart from the pack.”
Xenios Thrasyvoulou, CEO PeoplePerHour.com and Talentdesk.io. “Have a rate that you are not willing to go under and stick to it. Have written samples ready for all the relevant industries you want to pitch for (and have experience in) to avoid having to do extra unpaid work, and opt for clients who will respect your work and rates.”
What’s the bottom line?
There is a clear and straightforward message from the shared views of our CEO and thought leader panel. I summarize it this way: A wave of demand growth in written communication is driven by more points of communication, and it’s likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Success riding this wave demands planning, preparation, and some degree of foresight for freelance writers to benefit professionally and financially. Our CEOs and thought leaders remind us that the fundamentals of building a business are relevant here as elsewhere: Build your brand. Differentiate your service and client experience. brand. Establish expertise and promote it. Focus. Gain helpful experience in markets and industries that are growing. Ensure a healthy mix of new and old clients. Avoid dependence on one or two sources of income. Grow your network. Hunt in packs. Stay up to date. Don’t give everything away.
Less immediately obvious but equally important: Be smart about the future. Innovations in AI and Machine Learning offer tools that will continue to improve the writing of less confident communicators, and the productivity of more experienced writers. For example, Writer, a startup that’s built an AI writing assistant for business writing, makes real-time content suggestions to employees to create content consistent with company messaging. It’s expected that machines will compete with, or substitute for humans in lower end writing but will primarily help us humans be better writers rather than replace us. As Tom Davenport, a well-known consultant wrote recently in Forbes:
“Writing has been around for several thousand years, and AI as an aid to writing for only a few years. It’s not surprising that we have some way to go in figuring it out. It does appear, however, that human writing will continue for at least a few more decades.”
Last point to consider: Respectfully, only be a freelance writer if you truly like to – or feel compelled to – write. As the great “Papa” Ernest Hemingway said, “We (writers) are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” At another time, he more candidly put it this way, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Viva la revolution!