Changing focus with freelancing

For the most part, we are expected to get an education, then chuck all of that out the window to work for an employer who will train us with an entirely different skillset, and bestow upon us a schedule, a wage, and whatever benefits don’t cut into their profits. We are supposed to take pride in being worked to death by someone else as they get the glory and the gold. We are in charge of our lives at home, but never at work. Even at home, if the police or some middle-management code enforcer from our HOA shows up, we are also reminded just how in charge of our lives we are.

Whenever someone asks what I do for a living, I provide just enough information to justify my existence in polite society. The short answer I often give is that I write content for websites. This pays the bills and child support. It isn’t much, but it helps me get by. Content mill work.

The long answer about what it means to work for a content mill is that whenever someone Google’s a question or does a search, the search engine pores through the vastness of what is published on the internet, searching for keywords, phrases, and metadata in search of what statistically aligns best with what you were looking for. For every website that Google comes up with, there has probably been someone like me who wrote the copy for that site. There’s a good chance that like me, they don’t even know much about what they wrote. They just included enough key terms and related information (probably ripped off from another website, press release, or general knowledge) to get locked into Google’s tractor beam of relevance to make it to page one of your search results.

The information is secondary to driving web-traffic to the site. That’s why all the medical sites strongly suggest consulting your doctor and all the legal sites say to contact the attorney. It’s a “call to action” but it’s also a get out of jail free card when it comes to liability. It’s called SEO or Search Engine Optimization. A client requests a bunch of keywords to be packed into a blog post so Google looks for it. Length of the article also weighs heavy on whether or not the post lists on page one. There’s a saying that if you ever need to hide a dead body where it will never be found, put it on page two of your Google search results.

As long as the page keeps listing as page one, the customer is happy. I get paid. Not a lot, but I get some money for writing something that sounds convincing enough to a search engine to put on your screen. I’ve written legal posts, medical posts, tourism for places I’ve never been, product descriptions for things I have never held. And the poetic justice of this is really nobody but Google is even reading any of it.

I actually beat myself up quite a bit about that last part. That isn’t to say that the client doesn’t read the posts. They usually read them, put them through their SEO checker, and judge whether or not I’m going to get them placed on page one. Most of the fuss I’ve gotten has been “Needs to used active voice. Change all passive voice to active” because the SEO checkers figured out that Google likes when you are doing something, rather than if something is or isn’t.

There are times I really hate writing this stuff. Especially for law firms. Bloodsucking bastards that they are.

Last night I hit a wall. I struggled for six hours to write one 2000 word post for a law firm. I had three more due by 10pm today. It wasn’t happening. There’s a scene in that movie, Shine, where the main character is playing a Rachmonimov piece and al he hears is the keys hitting wood as he plays the notes. There is no music. Then (spoiler alert), his brain short-circuits and he collapses from the intensity of the experience. But he is no longer playing music, he’s just hitting keys. Last night, that’s how it felt to write another legal post nobody is going to read, and nobody is going to buy for at least another month. But of course, everything is DUE RIGHT NOW. It was just word salad, with a bunch of keywords, active voice, and pandering to a goddamned algorithm for views.

I waved off the other three.

Recently, I’ve been reading about freelancing and how to increase your success in the field. One of the things that keeps coming up is diversifying your income streams. Somehow I feel like writing for content mills is polishing brass on the Titanic. The jobs are coming less frequently and more associated with what makes the algorithms happy, instead of thoughtful, compelling content actual people might read. I’m considering branching out into other media that allows me to write stuff I want to write, stuff I would want to read even, and somehow get paid to do it.

I think it’s the only way that makes sense for the long term when it comes to making a living doing this. So when I give people the short answer of “I write copy for websites” it doesn’t cover what I really do. I am editing a book I wrote, I’m working on establishing myself as a freelance writer, more specifically a travel writer. I’m a published author who needs to do his own marketing and sales but has to figure out how to dedicate more resources like time and money to that whole process.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how traditional publishing is on the way out. Publishers used to help an author edit, produce, publish, and market their works. The writers got paid pretty well for it too. Nowadays, publishing is a mess. If you do get an advance it isn’t that much. The publisher expects the least amount of work to edit and get the book perfect for publication, and once that is done, they expect the writer to do their own marketing. A lot of publishing contracts are given to either celebrities with a fan base (and these tell-all autobiographies are usually ghost-written by some schmuck like me), or are just tag-a-longs with popular intellectual properties/themes/trends that are a sure thing when it comes to making a profit.

When people complain that movies are nothing but remakes, lately the same is true of books. It’s either post-modern rehashes of books we read when we were growing up, or Kirkland brand copies of successful series like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Ad infinitum. You would think it would be easy to just write something like that, but usually a publisher already has someone in mind to write this crap. They usually know them–a friend of a friend, or a family member.

Traditional publishing is circling the drain. Especially with magazines. So, the interesting thing is that the best way to make money is to just do it yourself. Run your own publishing house. I mean, why not if you are going to have to do all the marketing anyway?

So, I’ve been researching other things today. Podcasting. YouTube channels. Monetization. I’ve come to realize that nobody is going to open the gate for me, so I might have to do it myself. We are living in some strange times for this. It used to be that the writing was the horse that pulled the cart of advertising and merchandise. Now it seems to be the other way around. Crazy.

I gotta say too that the learning curve is steep. But it all makes better sense than hoping I can approach things with a dying model of industry as traditional publishing and expect success.