Advice in finding the information you need to become a successful writer

You want to become a freelance writer, and the information available is vast and confusing. Maybe you're feeling overwhelmed with information, don't know where to begin, and wondering how anyone becomes established as a writer online. This article won't tell you how to become a writer in ten easy steps, but it will offer some advice on how to navigate your way around the information offered on this topic. There is no instruction manual, no college degree and no certification that is a simple path to successful writing, but there is a huge amount of information available for new writers. Many websites make money simply by writing on this topic, because it draws so much traffic and interest.


Before I begin, a disclosure as to why I know a little on this topic. I have been writing all my life. By the age of twelve, I considered myself to be “a writer.” In no time at all I had developed my secret writer persona, who would work tirelessly at an old desk with a bottle of gin at her side, neglecting her friends and family to pursue her craft (I doubt I knew if it was gin or whiskey at that age, but at least something stronger than shandy). She poured her heart and soul into her work, gaining worldwide recognition for her brilliant insight and abilities, and gracefully accepted countless literary awards with a calm and sophisticated nonchalance that a twelve year old can only hope to acquire one day. After all, I had read the entire Point Horror collection, and I knew exactly how to use an apostrophe.


Skip forward about twenty years. My writing persona had perfected the gin drinking and friend negligence perfectly. Now all I needed was the worldly recognition. But I quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing, and momentarily contemplated calling my old boss and asking for my old job back.


And after a long weekend in my pajamas, tirelessly researching information online and letting the dishes pile up in the sink, I thought I understood how to begin writing online. But I soon realized that the information out there is vast, hugely varying in quality, and often confusing for new writers. I spent hours looking at the blogs and columns of successful freelance writers, trying to develop a formula for myself. I imagined myself in their shoes, writing for a long list of clients and actually earning a living doing so. Who were these people? What luck or special gifts did they have that enabled them to be in such a position? I was determined to crack the code.


I discovered a sad truth: you can't believe everything you read. Should be a fairly obvious and simple guideline to live by. It was something my cousin warned me about when at the age of 14 I thought I would be able to increase my bust by three inches using a cream advertized in Jackie magazine. But the web has an astonishing ability to curl you up into its warm and fuzzy SEO-optimized tentacles and persuade you that if you simply buy this e-book, or that downloadable manual, you will uncover the secrets to “freelance writing success” and in a matter of days, be up and running as a work-from-home writing entrepreneur.


There are also far more subtle ways to be led down the garden path, in the gray abyss of advice from self-promoters who write simply for SEO traffic and recognition, proclaiming expertise that at second glance is often dubious. The countless articles offering advice on “how to be a freelance writer in 10 steps or less” or “build your writing portfolio in 3 days” grab your attention far more quickly than articles with titles like “freelance writing: the harsh reality.” Often these articles end with a link to a website where you can become a customer of some service or other. Does this mean we should stop relying on such resources for information? Of course not! But here are a few things I learned to ask myself while gleaning the web for information on freelance writing:


  1. Stay organized! You are desperate to learn the skills and tricks of the trade, build your writing portfolio, and begin work as a freelance writer, and there is so much information available...but don't suck it up like a vacuum cleaner gone wild, only later to lose it in the hairballs and dust bugs of your tired and desperate brain. Create folders for your bookmarks and tag sites according to the type of information they offer. Remember which search terms were the most useful to you, and make a note of them.

  2. Be the expert you need. Take on your task of research for you writing career as if you need to spew out the information 24 hours later in an organized and articulate fashion. If nothing else, you can always write an article like this one with your findings and lessons learned, and add it to your portfolio!

  3. If it's a commercial website, take note of the overall feel of the website. Is the author offering genuine advice, or is it simply promotional SEO content to attract traffic to his site? Does the website look like it was designed to communicate information, or to sell? Or both? Good advice very rarely comes from websites that do nothing but promote a product or promise you that your dreams will all come true if you whip out your Visa card. That being said, there are excellent online paid resources for gaining and improving writing skills, and is a good place to search.

  4. Be wary of anyone who says that becoming a freelance writer is quick, simple or easy. It isn't. It may not necessitate living hand to mouth for years as you try to break the market, living on grilled cheese and pencil shavings and moonlighting as a janitor while waiting for clients to offer you jobs and recognize your talents, but it does require endless focus, determination and often rejection as you learn what clients want and will respond to.

  5. Take note of when articles where published. 2009 is ancient history. If you are interested in writing web content (and most of us are these days), this is absolutely essential for valid information. Good content writing became even more relevant when google rolled out its Panda algorithm this year, and many older sites that were relying on purchased backlinks and spam tactics fell to the bottom of google's search results. There are plenty of great resources out there to help you understand why pandas, spiders, robots and crawlers are more than curious zoo animals. 

  6. Focus on sites that offer in-depth knowledge, and skip the blogs offering advice in 200 word snippets. Meaningful information usually requires more than five minutes to communicate, unless you're an army officer.

  7. Don't get disheartened by the harsh reality offered by the real experts. Everyone had to start somewhere, and writers come from all walks of life. A reality check should be a reminder to stay focused, real, and critical; not a kick in the stomach and end to your hopes of earning a living as a writer.

  8. Pay attention to advice from those who understand your niche and interests. There is a plethora of advice on how to earn a great living writing business letters, corporate HR communications and newsletters. Be realistic. If this sounds soul-crushingly dull and more mind-numbing than ice cream in January, it's doubtful that you will ever be an exceptional business writer, and therefore you can skip the articles on how to be successful within this market.

  9. Now I'm going to contradict myself. Keep an open mind. There may be writing niches that you never considered trying to break; allow some time for wandering off the path to learn more along your way, and broaden your mind.

  10. Don't be afraid to reach out for more information and advice. People love to feel like experts, and many people will answer your queries and offer honest and valuable advice more candidly than when writing online articles.

  11. Understand that there are multiple approaches to earning a living as a writer, and authors write from the perspective of one, two, or many. This affects their view on how to begin in the writing world, and will only offer you a partial picture of your options. For example, a blog that focuses on earning residual income from writing will advise you to begin your journey to writing online by submitting articles to countless article databases, and building residual income overtime from the web traffic and advertising revenue that this can create for you. A seasoned ghost writer who relies mostly on word of mouth from a well-established list of clients is unlikely to recommend this, or even know how HubPages earns money for writers, for that matter. Instead she may suggest you begin writing for non-profits, offer Pro Bono work, and gradually build your client base. In reality, both approaches can work beautifully together, and you certainly don't need to work for free to build a portfolio, regardless of your niche.

  12. Find and talk to real people, offline. Sounds incredibly old fashioned, right? A few years ago, I started becoming interested in working as an editor. I spent hours researching this line of work online. Being the Gen X mild Schizoid that I am, I had totally forgotten than I had a neighbor who was an editor, as I never even thought about my neighbors, other than when the suburban gangster next door allowed his pit bull to poop all over my lawn. With trepidation I picked up the phone and called her. Later that day I settled into her armchair with a cup of tea and listened to her talk me through the world of editing, and her honesty and advice helped me understand what I was really trying to accomplish. Her advice didn't come with a recommendation to sign up with an affiliate program, and her forehead didn't have a credit card payment icon for downloading her ebook, so it was far easier to trust her.

  13. Most importantly, talking to a real person reminded me that connections are absolutely essential. Find real, local people who know you and trust you, or who want to offer business to those in their own community. While you may navigate your way around the web as if it's your own living room and pay no attention to the actual locations of anyone anymore, there are plenty of people who prefer to work with local people.

  14. Take advantage of free or paid courses from meaningful resources online. Good writing is never a stagnant process; you simply learn and get better and better, until you get lazy. You can also get feedback from friends, family, and other writers. Regardless, remember that it's an evolution that shouldn't end, and the more receptive you are to instruction early on, the less steep your learning curves will be as you try to please clients (hopefully).

  15. Don't let your research be the end of it. Turn the TV off, sit down in a quiet room and start working. You can be a writer, but you really have to start.