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From Writer to Content Provider

by Marcia Yudkin

As a regular user of the web or even as a writer for online magazines, you may not have picked up on a trend I've noticed from my contacts with web entrepreneurs. Increasingly, those who aim at selling big on the Net understand that attractive prices, huge inventories and responsive online ordering aren't enough to spark fantastic traffic.

They call the missing ingredient "content" and crave its power to inspire repeat visits. They lack the skills to generate "content" themselves, though, and who's in an ideal position to satisfy this craving? Us. Writers. If we seize the opportunity.

What is "Content"?

To do business with web entrepreneurs, many of whom have millions of dollars in venture capital to spend, it helps to speak their language. They aren't usually thinking in terms of hiring writers or of commissioning articles. To them, "content" is reading material or information of value to their target market. To us, the best content comes from writers. But their first impulse may be to look for experts who write, rather than writers who know a lot. The latter can do the job much better, I believe. To make that case, and pursue this kind of work, you should first understand the range of material and formats that may fall under the heading of "content."

  • Reviews. Travel and regional sites often hire people to review and recommend restaurants, tourist attractions or fishing spots. In fact, though, anything that can be bought can be reviewed. Jennie Phipps had an assignment for a web site to pick 10 stocks in the media business and write 100 words on each. Using the knowledge she had as a regular contributor to Editor & Publisher, she completed the assignment in one hour. "Five hundred dollars an hour isn't bad," she says.

  • Web digests. Numerous sites, such as and niche sites on topics like space or alternative health, pay "guides" to produce lists of recommended resources available on the web. If you're already scouting the Net regularly for resources, this can represent an easy extra stream of income.

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  • Q&A. A friend of mine who didn't want her name used answers questions about her profession at, a job-hunting site. She negotiated a monthly fee of $600 and estimates the work requires 8 to 12 hours a month. "It's like being Ann Landers," she says.

  • Newsletters/e-zines. I'm in the process of negotiating with two clients to write a weekly or monthly chunk of content that they distribute by email to their in-house list. One client wants a pithy, entertaining case study and the other a lengthier how-to piece. In both cases my work will serve as the "read-me" anchor for promotional offers that immediately follow.

  • Serial sagas. A regional wedding site pays someone to post monthly installments about the trials and tribulations of preparing for her wedding. I believe this represents a type of opportunity that freelance writers can exploit to a much greater extent than I've seen so far.

  • Opinion columns. A site focused on self-employment told me they were seeking "edgy" columnists with a personal voice -- obviously, so that readers would return often to see what else so-and-so had to say.

  • Interactive material. For, a site where students can learn about careers, Anne Kymalainen writes a package of material that includes not only a main article and an interview of someone in a profession but also a communication problem and solution involving the profession and a related math problem and solution. Similarly, you could be hired to produce topic-specific trivia quizzes or insider crossword puzzles.

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  • Traditional articles. A site aiming to become the biggest in its industry hired me to write 12 educational articles and collect 20 others loosely related to the purpose its products fulfill. The fee I negotiated corresponded to about $1 a word for my work, with the work involved in collecting and securing permissions for the others thrown into the deal as a sweetener.

  • Adaptations. Many organizations have an inventory of material that needs to be reconfigured for the web. For Time-Life Medical, Joe Mullich adapted the text of videos for the web. Similarly, for Emory University Amy Stone rewrote the texts of continuing education medical courses for web use.

Skills a Content Provider Needs

The more established a web site is, or the closer its connection to a print magazine or news business, the more likely it is to be set up with experienced editors who hire writers and report to business managers. However, with startups where you deal directly with web entrepreneurs, the following capacities serve you well.

  • Fast, dependable turnaround. Things move so fast on the web that the ability to post content quickly often gives sites a solid business advantage. Correspondingly, being able to put together something in a day that other writers might labor over for a week can give you an edge.

  • Ability to edit yourself. This skill might not top the list of desiderata in the entrepreneur's head, but once you point it out, he or she usually understands the benefit -- readable, respectable content without having to hire another layer of management.

  • Understanding of rights issues. As an experienced freelancer, you probably know more about copyright and the dynamics of permissions than the entrepreneur. The business owners I've dealt with had a reasonable attitude toward rights and were willing to negotiate something fair to both sides, unlike some online editors who wouldn't budge from demanding all rights. The more knowledgeable you are here, the better deal you might be able to cut for yourself.

  • Solid business skills. An absolute requirement: knowing how to negotiate an agreement, how to increase your odds of getting paid and how to dun a slow-paying company. With the web site for which I wrote 12 articles, I requested partial payment in advance and didn't deliver any work until I had that first payment in hand.

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  • Ability to locate and negotiate reuse of resources. Being web-savvy and already knowing lots about what's on the Net may make you valuable to a web site. Also, explain to the entrepreneur that as a writer, you're better positioned to solicit or negotiate the use of work from other writers than they are.

  • Web-friendly writing style. Shorter paragraphs and clearer, shorter sentences are de rigueur when people read your work on screen.

  • Inventory of material. When someone needs content fast, your backlog of previously published, still-interesting work on a web site's topic may make you mighty attractive for a package deal of new and old material.

  • Drawing power. If you've been writing regularly and visibly for a particular market, argue that you already have a liked or trusted name within that world. This may enable you to command higher fees or to secure perks like a live link to a web site where you promote your books and for-hire services.

  • Ability to suggest more work for yourself. For your own benefit, learn about the entrepreneur's big plans and suggest additional ways you can contribute.

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Cautions for Dealing with Web Businesses

Three aspects of writing for web businesses harbor special risks: getting paid, negotiating rights and the sanity of the process. Again, you may find dealing with online media pretty much the same as dealing with newspapers or magazines. But the newer the business and the less it thinks of itself as a news service or magazine, the greater the chances that those you're dealing with may turn tail on you, with the situation getting nasty.

Jennie Phipps got burned a few times by startup sites that didn't pay as promised. One company never paid $2,000 it owed her when venture capital money the site was expecting didn't come through. Similarly, a startup travel site commissioned two pieces, one for $500 and the other for $400, but never paid for her work. "I had a contract," she says, "but I probably should have written only the first piece and waited till I got paid to write the second."

Phipps subsequently did exactly that with a gig reviewing financial sites. "I did ten reviews, then stopped and said I'd do more when I got paid. A few days later I got the check." Several other sites she writes for pay right on time, with one even routinely overnighting her the monthly check. "It's important not to get in too deep," she advises. Just as magazines often test-drive writers with short assignments, you might want to test a web site's solvency with a small job first, or even ask for partial payment up front, as I did.

It's essential to move cautiously with respect to rights online as well. The self-employment site that asked me to do a column insisted on buying all rights, and I turned them down when I couldn't move them off that position. This would have enabled them to reuse my work in any other medium, resell it at will or even syndicate it to other web sites as they pleased.

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Caitlin Kelly was either luckier or more skillful than I was in negotiating just all web rights for a regular gig with a web site. She kept all non-web rights. The standard contract for points toward another negotiation option: For the first 90 days they buy the exclusive right to publish, distribute and license your work, and afterwards they retain the non-exclusive right to do so.

Some freelancers say they've agreed to all rights because the assignments involve short pieces that they wouldn't ordinarily be able to sell elsewhere anyway. Online, as elsewhere under U.S. law, no one acquires all rights from you unless you sign a contract to that effect.

A final hazard in working with startup or expanding web businesses is the disorganization factor, which can get extreme. One freelancer who didn't want to be identified found a site in her area of expertise, wrote an email detailing her qualifications and five minutes later got a return email from a manager who said he recognized her byline.

"I got hired to write for them full-time from my home across the country," the freelancer says. "But then they hardly sent me any work to do. The site started with $25 million and then got $25 million more, and I think they were afraid of not having enough writing staff to fill the site. I flew across the country to meet with them and they seemed flaky and clueless, and after a few months of this they changed me to a freelance status."

Jennie Phipps has had both smooth and frustrating experiences in contributing to web sites, but overall, of the folks she deals with, "none have a whole boatload of experience." Other writers describe uploading glitches, communication problems with online managers and scatterbrained staff.

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Finding Opportunities

Of eight freelance writers I surveyed who'd contributed to web sites (including myself), the four methods by which they'd lined up assignments were these:

1. Answering online ads. Enterprising freelancers search out and respond to ads for staff writers as well as those clearly for one-off assignments. In some cases, they convinced executives who thought they needed an employee that someone living elsewhere could get the job done. 

2. Referrals from friends or editors. So long as people you work for and with have a positive impression of you, the more writing you do, the more likely you are to be recommended when someone is asking around for a content provider. Be nice, leave doors open behind you and make sure people who know you know what you most like to do.

3. Emailing those who run promising-looking web sites. If you do this, get right to the point with what you're proposing and your qualifications. Don't attach a formal resume. URLs for relevant clips can help, though.

4. Being contacted by someone who saw the writer's work. My best online client got in touch out of the blue because he saw my work posted at The more online venues that include an email link along with your work, the more likely such opportunities become.

A fifth method I recommend is networking with Internet-savvy business owners and describing yourself as "a content provider." I believe this will get the right people thinking about hiring you, in lucrative arrangements. Please let me know if it works for you!

Copyright 2001 Marcia Yudkin. All rights reserved.  


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