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The Nuts and Bolts of a Web Content Writing Business

Last week, I shared with you what an average day in my life looks like.  And while I’m sure you found that just fascinating (as fascinating as the daily doings of somebody who loves naps can be!), what I felt was missing from the article was a description of how I got to this point in my career in the first place.

So today, I want to take you behind the scenes of my web content writing business and show you how web content writing businesses operate.  If you’ve never heard of web content writing as a career choice before, read on – this article will clarify how web writers work and how they make money.

Let’s get started!

At a basic level, all web content writing businesses – and honestly, all freelance writing businesses in general – can be boiled down to four basic steps:

  • Find clients
  • Get assignments
  • Do the work
  • Get paid

Repeat the cycle enough times using the detailed descriptions found below, and you’ll make enough money to turn web content writing into a full-time career!

Find clients

As you might expect, the first step in running a web content writing business is to find the people – aka, “clients” – who will pay you to write.  If you aren’t getting paid, you aren’t a professional writer – you’re a hobby writer.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I assume you’re on this site because you want to use your writing skills to either make more money or to increase your personal freedom.

Anyways…  As a web content writer, your clients will be – naturally – people who own or manage websites.  These clients can come from a number of sources, including:

  • Professional bloggers who need help producing ghostwritten content for their own websites or for their promotional needs.
  • Affiliate or niche site owners whose skills like in website promotion – not content creation.
  • Fortune 500 and other “real world” businesses that run customer-facing blogs on their websites.
  • Marketing agencies that manage the websites of several different businesses.
  • Pretty much any other type of website, ever.

Personally, I’ve written for all of these different types of clients and more, although my favorites are the marketing agencies.  Not only do these clients tend to have a steady stream of new customers of their own (which means steady work for me as a writer), the customers they work with change regularly, which keeps things from getting boring or repetitive for me.

To find these clients, I recommend a couple of different strategies:

  • Apply to listings on writing-specific job boards like ProBlogger and BloggingPro.  The listings found on these websites tend to pay more than other types of clients (including content mills, customers found via freelance portal websites, etc).
  • Ask current clients for referrals.  The web isn’t really that big of a place, so it’s not uncommon to find a web content writing client who has at least a few other contacts who need ghostwritten work created.
  • Talk about your business in the real world.  Nothing gets a conversation going like saying, “I’m a writer,” when people ask, “What do you do?”  Use these interactions to put out word that you’re looking to help businesses and individuals write content for their websites.
  • Reach out directly to the people you’d like to work with.  After you’ve worked with a few customers, figure out which ones you liked working with the most and why you preferred these clients over others.  Then, use the profile you’ve created to identify similar potential customers and email them directly to make your services known.

Finally, once you’ve identified a few potential job listings or clients, you’ll need to apply or submit sample materials to be considered for current or future ghostwriting projects.  A few of the things that’ll make this process easier include:

  • Samples of your writing style.  These are a “must have,” so if you’ve only done ghostwritten work in the past (which can’t be shared with potential clients due to copyright restrictions), put together a few additional samples that showcase your unique writing voice. Publish them on your own blog, or submit them as guest posts so that prospective clients can read live samples, rather than Word doc or PDF attachments.
  • A professional website that promotes your writing business.
  • Referrals from past clients (if possible) that talk about how awesome you are.
  • A well-written pitch letter that discusses why a client should hire you and that’s free from errors.  Seriously, you wouldn’t believe how many pitch letters I’ve seen that are so riddled with mistakes that it’s no wonder the senders can’t find work!

I’ll discuss writing a good pitch in more detail in future posts, but for now, it’s enough for you to know that any contact you have with potential clients should feature only top-quality writing.

Get assignments

Now, let’s assume you’ve identified the type of client you want to work with, found a potential customer match and got hired based on the strength of your application materials.  Congratulations!  It’s time to get down to business…

The first step in your new client relationship is to get your assignments.  Depending on the clients you’re working with, the specific types of writing you may be doing include:

  • Blog post writing
  • Guest post writing
  • Report writing
  • Email marketing series writing
  • eBook writing
  • Sales copy writing

Currently, about 95% of the work I do involves blog posts and guest posts, though I do occasionally take on larger projects to keep things exciting.  Your experiences may differ, but believe me when I say that the bulk of the available web content writing projects out there involve one of these two formats.

In addition, these projects may be given on a one-off basis or an ongoing basis.  Communications with your client will reveal whether they’re looking for a single project (for example, a set of five ghostwritten blog posts) or ongoing work (as in, five blog posts per week on an indefinite basis).  You may even find clients who have enough work to either give you full-time writing assignments or take you on as a full-time company employee (as I’ve done in the past with the marketing agency Single Grain).

Project details from your client should also reveal what exactly he or she expects from your writing work.  If the following elements aren’t covered in your assignment descriptions, be sure to ask before you get so far ahead in the project that it’s a pain in the ass to go back and change things.

  • What type of tone should be used?
  • Who is the content being written for?  Your word choices may be very different if you’re writing for a group of teenagers, for instance, versus a group of scientific professionals.
  • How advanced should the subject matter be?
  • How long should the content be?
  • Do you need to source any images for the content?
  • Do you need to include a certain number of internal or external links for the content?
  • What is the deadline for the project?

Believe me – it’s far better to be sure you understand exactly what’s expected of you before you begin writing than to guess what the client is expecting.

Do the work

Once you’ve got your assignments straightened out, the fun part begins.  It’s time to start writing!

Since you should have a pretty solid understanding of what the final project should look like based on communications with your client, the writing part itself shouldn’t be too difficult.  However, you’ll want to keep the following guidelines in mind to increase your chances of nailing the project on your first attempt (which is pretty darn important for securing future assignments):

  • Research thoroughly.  Don’t be that guy who posts a bunch of crap to the internet!  Incorrect assertions in your writing damage both your reputation and your client’s, so double check your sources before citing statistics or facts in your articles.
  • Proofread the next day.  Conversational writing is tricky – what works in spoken language doesn’t always translate to the screen.  For this reason, I find it most effective to write an article one day and then read it out loud the next to catch any clunky phrases or goofy wordings.
  • Deliver your work on time.  Your customers are counting on you to produce content according to the terms of your assignment.  Don’t screw them over (and take your reputation for professionalism down at the same time) by turning in content late or failing to respond to client requests for updates.

Get paid

Throughout the process of negotiating assignments with your clients, you’ve probably already covered a few of the following elements:

  • The specific rate you’ll be paid (based on a per-word or per-project basis)
  • How you’ll be paid (most web content writing is paid via Paypal, though I’ve occasionally accepted business checks or other online payment processors)
  • What steps you need to take to be paid (do you need to submit an invoice, notify a particular person or just request payment via Paypal?)
  • When you’ll be paid (once your work is completed, once it’s been published, etc)

So if you’re working with legitimate clients (and you are working with legitimate clients, aren’t you??), the payment part of the web content writing process should proceed smoothly.  Basically, you finish your writing, and you get paid according to the specific terms of your project agreement.

That said, one of the biggest concerns many new writers have is what they’ll do if a client screws them over out of a payment.  In my experience, I’ve found this fear to be overblown (I’ve only been stiffed out of a single, less than $100 project over six years in the industry), but this could be due to a number of different practices I’ve put into place:

  • Screen your clients!  Trust your gut to figure out whether you’re working with legitimate business owners who value the work you produce or scam artists who will take your work and run with it.  If you aren’t sure, start with small projects that minimize your loss until you build up trust with your new clients.
  • Require down payments from new clients.  Whenever I work with a new client, I require an upfront down payment of 50% of the estimated project cost before work begins (for instance, if I’ll be doing two posts per week, I’ll require payment for half of one month’s worth of content – in this case, four articles).  Don’t be afraid to ask this – it’s a standard industry procedure that demonstrates how seriously you take your business and your writing assignments.
  • Get signed project agreements from clients if you’re still uncomfortable.  Use a tool like HelloSign to make things easy. If you can, have a lawyer draft a template project agreement that protects your interest. At the very least, if this is out of your price range, have a lawyer review any template agreements you find online. While having some contract is generally better than no contract, the last thing you want is to be stuck with an agreement that doesn’t protect you if things go south.

If you do wind up being stiffed out of payment for your services, it’s up to you whether to pursue legal action to recoup payment.  If the loss is small (and, assuming you’re protecting yourself appropriately, they should be), it’s almost never worth the time and cost associated with pursuing small claims court action.  Yes, it’s frustrating to let non-paying clients go unpunished, but you’re almost always better off working on growing your business in other ways than wasting time chasing down legal cases that might not pan out in your favor anyways.

But again, this is a situation you shouldn’t ever have to face, as long as you work with good clients and implement practices that protect your business.

And that – in a nutshell – is what a web content writing business looks like.  Once you’ve gone through a few of these basic cycles, you can work on growing your business by either:

  • Increasing your rate (by upping your per-word/per-article rate or seeking out work from clients and/or writing styles that pay more), or
  • Increasing your capacity (by writing faster or adding writers to your team so that you can take on more clients).

The possibilities are really endless.  Since I started my business in 2007, I’ve done pretty much everything from handling a few blog post clients on a part-time basis, to running an agency with a team writers working underneath me, to working full-time for a former freelance client who hired me on as an employee.

There’s plenty of work out there, so it’s up to you to go out and get it.

And, of course, if you have any questions about the content covered in this post, please feel free to ask them in the comments area below.  I’ve been in the field long enough that it’s hard to remember what it looks like to new writers, so please don’t hesitate to ask if there’s anything I can clarify for you.

 

15 Comments

  1. Ampi Castano

    Excellent advice. I have written quite a lot, unfortunately, I don’t currently have any samples–long story. I am starting from scratch, so I can use all the help I can get.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for reading, Ampi 🙂 Putting together writing samples can be tricky, but it looks like you’ve already got a great resource started with the blog on your business website. Keep building that up and you’ll soon have something to show to potential clients that demonstrates your writing skills and professionalism.

      Best of luck with your new business!

  2. sheila

    Hi Sarah,

    Great site! I would like to try and get a few part-time gigs writing guest posts or posts for creativity and the personal development arena. Could you suggest a site that would post these jobs? I’m off to get your 100 sites freebie : )

    1. Hi Sheila,

      I don’t know of any sites that accept guest posts on these topics off the top of my head (although there might be a few in the 100 sites list that I’m forgetting). For those niches, your best bet will probably be to search job posting boards for sites or bloggers in these fields that are looking for help ghostwriting blogs.

      Best of luck to you!

  3. A lot of good info here. Like you said, there’s plenty of work out there, and a lot of different options for going out to get it.

  4. What a comprehensive post! A good suggestion for people to get their articles published for portfolios right away is by creating an account on hubpages and submitting articles there. They key of course is to get feedback from others already on that site and any willing volunteers to make sure your work is killer. When I literally first started that’s what I did and ended up landing my first client that way!

    1. Sarah – Glad to hear you enjoyed the post! As for the portfolio pieces, I’d argue that having them on your own blog or writer’s website blog is a better choice than Hubspot (lets you retain rights for the content and demonstrates authority to clients). But really, whatever it takes people to get going on the process of applying for writing gigs is good too 🙂

  5. Sandy Aptecker

    Sarah, I’m tired hearing from you how easy it is to get clients that pay well. I would like to know some of them. I’m still writing for Textbroker because I figure $4-5 is worth more than nothing. I tried your suggestions re job boards but could find no one. I know I’m a good writer, and I’m certainly experienced, but I am having a terrible time finding good clients. I will still try, hoping to get lucky. Thanks. Sandy

    1. Sandy – Maybe easy is the wrong word, but there’s definitely well-paying work out there. Have you thought about approaching sites you’d like to work with directly? Trying different types of job board follow-up messages to see what clients respond to? Beefing up your portfolio and work samples so that clients see immediately that you’ll be a good fit for their needs? I hope things turn around for you, but keep in mind that any time you spend writing Textbroker articles is time that could be better spent positioning yourself to find better clients.

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