My First Year as a Freelancer Was a Decade Ago and OMFG: A Retrospective

I started freelancing in late 2009, when the recession was eating everyone’s lunch and then scolding them about missing their lunch.

“There’s no such thing as lunch, you slacking moocher,” the recession said. “If you want lunch, maybe you should create some jobs in the lunch industry, you mooching slacker.”

2009: The year everyone understood Atlas Shrugged, even if they didn’t read Atlas Shrugged.

Here’s what life is like in my world, ten years later.

My First Ten Years as a Freelancer_ A Retrospective

Do The Hustle

Ten years ago, freelancer platforms like Upwork and Fiverr were only just getting started. Most people avoided them, because they were inconsistent as heck: The pay was in the fraction of a cent, the available clients were utter shit, and living at the mercy of a digital Limbo competition was no way to survive.

(They haven’t changed, by the way. It’s just that a lot of people no longer avoid them.)

Content mill platforms, however, were a gold mine.

At least, some of them were. AOL’s SEED took nine months to pay me $30. Associated Content never gave me a single lead.

On the other hand, despite the terrible attitudes of its editors and its brutal ratings system, I made half my first year’s freelance income from Demand Studios. Demand paid up to 10 cents a word; if you were really good at writing quickly and meeting their style demands without thinking too much about the drivel you produced, you could make $200 in an hour or two, easily. Which is what I did.

(I never did more than a couple hours of DS work at a time, because the drivel truly was mind-numbing. Check out The Worst of eHow for some stellar examples of total crap Demand Studios produced, or read the forum archives at Demand Studios Sucks for just how badly the site treated its writers.)

Content mills weren’t my only source of income; I picked up several law firm blog clients right out of the gate, and I hung on to several of them until the bottom fell out of mass-produced law firm blogging. In 2009, I was making about 15 cents a word for 300-word, SEO’d posts on generic topics; by 2017, the same content paid about 3 cents a word.

Using Keywords to Keyword Your Keywords While Keywording for Keywords

I started writing before Google Panda launched, and holy hell did it change this industry.

It took a while to sink in. Prior to Panda, the number-one goal of most content was to stuff in sufficient keywords for the search engines to see it. Back in the day, search engine algorithms couldn’t account for factors like the length of a piece, how long people spent actually reading it, its connection to other highly-regarded information, and so on.

Pre-Panda, search engines pretty much only looked for one thing: How many times a certain word or phrase was repeated. Repetition was the engine’s number-one determiner of “relevance.”

As anyone familiar with the Kardashians knows, “relevance” is not equivalent to “quality.”

Panda and its later additions changed that. Google got smarter at determining how humans’ actual Internet behaviors function as indicators of quality, and it started rearranging search engine results accordingly.

Panda and its successors didn’t eliminate content mills, but they did knock the legs out from under content mills. Suddenly, everyone who had come up in this business by dashing off 300-word articles that repeated a specific keyword once every 100 words started seeing their pay rates drop precipitously, from 6 to 10 cents a word in the early 2010s to a penny per word or less today. If you can find one of these gigs for three cents a word, laugh all the way to the bank.

I Can Lead You WITH MY MIND

I haven’t done 300-word keyword-stuffed nonsense content for years. I can’t afford to. Times have changed, and I’ve changed with them.

Today, I’m still making ten to twenty cents a word, and I’m still writing only about eight to 12 hours a week. I’m even writing for law firms. But my business model has moved from quantity to quality.

In 2010, I might have dashed off eight or ten nearly-identical articles for eHow or LegalZoom and called it a day. Today, I spend that same 2-3 hours writing one piece for a SaaS company or a law firm.

I do my research. I cite legitimate sources. I use tools like BuzzSumo to help me determine what parts of industry conversations are not currently being had, and then I have that conversation.

What I do today more closely resembles “thought leadership” than the content mill races of the past. It’s more work. It requires more thought. I’m not convinced that writing for content mills taught me a single thing about how to do the job I have now.

But wow is this more interesting than that was.

Advice (This Is What You Came For, Right?)

I do think it’s harder to make a living as a freelance writer straight out of the gate than it was ten years ago. Back then, you could make decent money with no knowledge of any topic, as long as you could cannibalize anything else you found online and stuff it with the keywords your client demanded.

Today, making a living at this job requires more thought. Getting the types of clients who don’t pay a fraction of a cent does, too. In 2009 all I had to have was a fluent grasp of English and a pulse; today, I have to be able to articulate my specific skill set and explain how it intersects with a client’s industry-specific knowledge and marketing needs.

The advice I’d give new writers today, then, is this:

  • Don’t even bother with content mills or freelancer platforms. Seriously. Skip ’em. The pay isn’t worth the access to clients, and you’ll waste time grinding out mindless works that you could more profitably spend creating a writer website, articulating your value proposition, and finding clients who pay market rates.
  • Craigslist and LinkedIn are your friends. Yes, it takes longer to find jobs you’re equipped to do this way (although sites like Freelance Writing Gigs make it easier by aggregating jobs from Craigslist and similar sources). It’s also where you’re going to find clients who will pay anything like a liveable wage. All my best clients have come from one or the other.
  • Have a second area of expertise. I cannot stress this enough. Your biggest selling point for clients will be that you understand their industry and you can write. While companies are increasingly tolerant of hiring employees with the latter and training them in the former, those who hire freelancers don’t want to train you at all. If they did, they’d be looking for an employee, not a contractor. Know something other than writing, and look for jobs in that topic/industry.
  • Don’t quit your day job. This wasn’t an option in 2009, when so many people (myself included) turned to freelancing because we couldn’t get a day job to begin with. But if you have one, don’t quit it until you can live off 50 percent or less of your freelance income.

As for the industry itself, I think we’ve hit a plateau when it comes to the pace of change in writing demands. Search engine results are much more attuned to what humans find relevant than they were in the past, and what humans find relevant is content that addresses old topics in new ways, with excellent citations, and in sufficient depth to teach the reader something worth knowing. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, so I also don’t see an upheaval like Panda happening again anytime soon.

The next big wave of pressure on freelance writers is most likely going to come from our own current clients. The STEAM revolution is waking up companies and schools alike to the fact that a tech education isn’t enough: Our next generation of coders, scientists and engineers needs to be able to communicate effectively with a wide range of audiences, as well.

As students who got a more rounded education in communication and the humanities start to fill jobs in the STEM sectors, many of us who are making a living as these companies’ communicators are going to feel the pressure from their internal hires. We’ll need to reinvent ourselves again. I have no idea how, but I’ll be there for the ride.


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