A stack of 4 core skills are key to success as a freelance writer. Mastering them unlocks huge opportunities.
I landed my first paid writing gig when I was 14. I had a paper route, and one day the local Indian restaurant invited me in, made me a chai tea, and asked how to get a leaflet into the newspaper. In the end I wrote the leaflet, got it printed, and distributed. I think I made £50 on the deal. Or, about 17 weeks of delivering newspapers!
“The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody.”Tweet
Fast forward two and a half decades, and I’ve been making a professional living as a writer for most of that time. I’ve written for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, The Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon magazine and freelanced for major London ad agencies. I’ve published dozens of short stories, won Arts Council grants for fiction writing, lectured at a half dozen universities, published research with Oxford University Press, and studied with Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman at the Clarion writers workshop. But that all grew from writing ad-copy for a leaflet.
Over the course of my pro career I’ve seen the writing industries transformed by technology. The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody. And when I have a lot of deadlines, it sometimes feels like I’m writing them all! Businesses all over the world have a huge hunger for words, which has created whole new areas of work for writers. Right now I have clients in Bangalore, Idaho, Paris, Cornwall, Singapore and Shenzen. And this is a quiet month!
The gig economy, and freelance sites like Upwork and Fiverr, have opened up a global marketplace for writing services. At the time of writing I am in the top 5 “Pro Writers” on Fiverr, and in the top one or two percent of writers by hourly earnings on Upwork. The clients I have worked with via sites like Fiverr include Blue Chip corporations, tiny mom & pop businesses, famed entrepreneurs and hard working YouTube celebrities.
The most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.Tweet
The recent Payoneer report into freelance earnings recorded an average income of $19 per hour for writers. But that average disguises a gulf in earnings between two very different groups of writers.
“Content writers” churn out dozens of blog posts a day, usually to promote websites via Google search, and often earn little more than minimum wage for their efforts. But the days when Google algorithms could be gamed by high volumes of low quality content are long gone. Businesses are learning quickly that the most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.
I call the second group Full Stack writers. These writers have a wide and deep skillset that allows them to deliver, not generic “content”, but high quality writing that people actually want to read. Writing with the potential to go viral in the short term, and to create a highly engaging online identity in the longterm.
Full Stack writers command hourly rates of $70 to $100 as a baseline, and are in increasingly high demand as the competition for attention online intensifies.
What skills define a Full Stack writer?
When I’m asked how I built a successful freelance writing career, the answer is rarely what people expect. I can’t suggest any special marketing tricks. I don’t know any underhand ways to hack the system, and I have used no gimmick promotions. I won’t tell you to give away your work for “exposure” or to build a portfolio. In the immortal words of Samuel Johnson:
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”Samuel Johnson
Anyone working in startups and software development will be familiar with the idea of the “full stack developer”, a coder with a “stack” of skills that allow them to deliver complex projects single handed. The full stack developer is agile, and essential for small and medium sized enterprises innovating at high speed.
Full stack writers fulfil a very similar role, as a jack-of-all-trades; part journalist, part marketer, with the skills of a copywriter, a screenwriter, and a little dash of the poet, all rolled into one.
It’s my experience that success as a freelance writer rests on a “stack” of three foundational skills. These skills aren’t new, they have been known for thousands of years. But today they seem to have been almost forgotten. They’re rarely taught at schools or colleges, and many struggling professional writers don’t know them at all.
Mastering this trinity unlocks the path to a fourth skill that is, in my experience, the most valuable skill you as a writer can master.
Words and sentences. Whatever you are writing, from an advertising slogan to an epic fantasy novel, it’s made from these two building blocks. The better you know how to use them, the more effective your writing will be.
“The simplest and most powerful way to get ahead of the competition as a writer is to build your grammar skills.”Tweet
It might sound blockheaded to suggest that writers learn to spell! But sadly, many writers offering professional services don’t have a clear grasp of grammar. Instead they rely on their “instinctual” understanding of how language works.
If you’re trying to complete complex writing tasks, on deadline and to a budget IE the work that a professional writer does, day in and day out, instincts alone won’t cut it. You need to consciously understand the rules of grammar.
Consider a typical entry level writing task. You’re asked to rewrite a 500 word blog post to improve its readability. And by the way, the client needs it back in 30 minutes. If you know your grammar you can rewrite sentences so that the subject and predicate are clearly linked, reorder run-on phrases into clear cumulative sentences, eliminate unneeded adjectives, and a host of other solutions. You’ll be enjoying your coffee break while the “instinctual” writer is still struggling their way through the first paragraph.
The simplest and most powerful way to get ahead of the competition as a writer is to build your grammar skills. Train yourself in word selection and sentence structure with resources like Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style, Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon, or the most famous short guide to grammar, The Elements of Style.
Writing is thinking, and good writing grows from clear thinking. While it’s rarely in the job description, the skill that will keep you most in demand with clients is the clear expression of thoughts, in a logical progression, as words on a page. Because, believe it or not, most people find this extremely difficult.
Writing is thinking, and good writing grows from clear thinking.Tweet
A major client in 2014 paid me almost 20% of my income in that year to produce a 3000 word document about their business. The unspoken job was working with the company founder and CEO to clearly define their business vision. I put many hours into logically organising all the concepts being expressed…and less than a day actually writing the finished document.
The simplest way to think about logic is as “information flow”. For a reader to understand any piece of writing, it has to introduce a clear idea, then develop the idea systematically towards a conclusion. If ideas come in an illogical or contradictory order, the reader will quickly become confused, then stop reading.
For instance, if this short essay had begun with a detailed description of logic, but only explained halfway through that logic was a useful skill for writers, this would be a failure of information flow.
Studying logic will allow you to identify and avoid common logical fallacies, produce writing that is consistent IE avoids internal contradictions, and to turn out complete arguments that convince the reader. To see logic used brilliantly, look at the work of science writers like Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.
Among my long term clients is a senior executive for a large international corporation. A major part of this client’s work is public speaking, either within the company or at events and conferences.
The client knows what they want to say, but wants to find the best ways to say it. The skills I use to help this client go beyond grammar and logic. As a speechwriter, the main skill I employ is rhetoric.
Put simply, rhetoric is the skill of using words to persuade. Something that humans have been doing for almost as long as we have been speaking.
In the city states of ancient Athens and Rome, over two thousand years ago, giving speeches was an essential part of public life for high born nobles. Speeches were so powerful they could topple kings and even start wars, as Shakespeare well knew:
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;William Shakespeare.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”
Mark Anthony’s speech at the funeral of Julius Caesar is, as written by Shakespeare, a litany of rhetorical devices. It weaves together ethos, pathos and logos – the three pillars of rhetoric – so adeptly that, while claiming to be against Caesar, Mark Anthony actually incites a riot in his memory. Such is the power of rhetoric!
In the modern era we experience profoundly powerful rhetoric in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and twisted but no less powerful rhetoric in the public pronouncements of Donald Trump. But the uses of rhetoric today go far beyond speech making.
Newspaper articles, television advertisements and viral tweets all employ the same techniques of rhetoric. And the Full Stack writer with a commend of rhetoric can turn their hand to all of these and much more.
The fourth skill the Full Stack writer must master.
Together, grammar, logic and rhetoric formed the “trivium” of the classical liberal arts, as they were taught throughout the Western world for thousands of years.
Name any great writer before the twentieth century – Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen – they would certainly have been taught the trivium.
But today these foundational skills are rarely taught, replaced by more “technical” education…which is why so many people struggle to express themselves in writing.
With the skills of grammar, logic and rhetoric at your command, you can complete almost any freelance writing task. Ad copy, blog posts, feature articles, news reporting, brand identities, white papers, landing pages. There is really no end to the number of highly paid writing tasks that mastering the trivium will open up to you. For many writers, this is enough.
In a classical liberal arts education, the trivium were the gateway to even higher level skills – music, arithmetic, and astronomy among them.
Today the trivium unlocks many more advanced skills. Advanced research, technical writing and more all grow from knowing the trivium. And a fourth skill that, in my experience, is the most valuable skill a freelance writer can offer.
Grammar can make our meaning clear, logic can make it complete, and rhetoric can make it convincing. Only story can make our meaning real.
When I began to build courses for writers, I made storytelling my first focus. After years of professional writing, and a three year stint as course director in creative writing at the University of Leicester, I knew that story is the most powerful single skillset any writer can develop.
Grammar can make our meaning clear, logic can make it complete, and rhetoric can make it convincing. Only story can make our meaning real.Tweet
How many hours a day do you spend reading novels? Watching HBO box sets? Lost in an epic MARVEL superhero movie? How much time do you spend lost in stories?
Story does something quite amazing. For the time we’re immersed in a story, it can seem almost real to us. We are the protagonist of the story, and we experience the events of the story as they unfold. As research into psychology and neuroscience have shown, our brain thinks in stories.
Story isn’t a mystery. Every story that is loved and that has lasted through time relies on 7 basic elements to create its immersive effect. Understanding this “rhetoric of story” can help you tell stories about any subject, at any length, in any medium.
For the Full Stack writer, storytelling is the skill that clients are hungriest for. My most loyal clients come back time and again because I help them tell great stories; about their business, about their products and brands, about their charitable causes, about their own lives.
Storytelling is, in my experience, the most powerful and valuable skillset today’s Full Stack writer can develop.
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