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The Missing Skill Freelance Writers Need to Land the Good-Paying Gigs

Carol Tice

Do you know why it’s hard for so many new writers to get good-paying gigs?

It has to do with how the bottom rung of the freelance-writing ladder has changed.

Often, writers are missing a step.

For most of the past century, writers who wanted to get started earning money with their scribblings broke into the business one of three ways:

  1. Go to journalism school.
  2. Snag an entry-level post at a newspaper and learn on the job.
  3. Figure it out yourself.

We started at a low rung — an internship or cub-reporter gig at a small daily paper or (in my case) occasional assignments for the local free weekly. From there, we worked our way up to bigger, better-paying places.

There was a basic set of skills to learn — how to report all sides of a story, do interviews, find credible statistics, and weave it all into something compelling to read.

The entry-level writing we did was essentially the same type of writing that the bigger publications wanted, too. So it was fairly easy to move up the ladder over time.

Then came content mills

For the past decade, tens of thousands of aspiring writers have considered mills their training ground.

But now, mill assignments are drying up. With Google’s changes, it’s unclear whether mills will continue to be a viable writing market in future.

And there’s one big problem with writing for mills: The kind of writing you do doesn’t give you the skills you need to move up to better-paying writing.

You don’t find story ideas or do interviews

When you’re pulling headlines from a mill dashboard that some algorithm robot has decided would draw traffic on a topic, and then writing a short piece off a little quick Internet research and your own knowledge, you don’t learn how to develop your own story ideas.

That makes it hard to get an assignment from any newspaper or magazine. Those editors look at your mill clips and don’t think you’ve got what it takes to write for them. They think you haven’t done any interviewing.

They’re not sure you can execute the type of articles they want. So they move on and choose another writer.

There are a few exceptions. Some mill work has ended up in USA Today, for instance. That gives your credibility a boost.

But for the most part, mill work just leads to more mill work.

You’re trapped.

This all came to mind this past week when I was posting a blogging gig I was passing on in the Den. (I do that fairly often, by the way.)

They wanted to pay $100 a post for a business and education writer. What were they looking for?

“Journalism chops required”

And there it was again. That divide. People with journalism training have a shot at the better gigs — even online — and those without have a real hard time.

Funnily, enough, journalism skills also help you break into commercial writing. Do you know what impressed my first business clients?

My reporting experience.

Good reporting shows you can gather information, organize it, and tell a great story. Often, that’s just what businesses want you to do for them.

I’ve learned about the divide between journalism and mill experience firsthand in Freelance Writers Den‘s forums. Writers ask so many questions on journalism basics — how to find people to interview, what to ask them, how to use quotes properly, how to find story ideas, how to structure a reported article.

I’ve also heard lots of questions about journalism ethics issues — whether you can write an article for a magazine about your copywriting client, for instance.

Reporting knowledge is missing

Now I know what you’re thinking: “I don’t have time nor $30,000 to go to Columbia right now, thanks.”

Of course you don’t.

The good news is, now you don’t have to.

Linda Formichelli from the Renegade Writer and I are creating a journalism crash-course that will give you the chops you need to write reported stories in a month flat.

It’s going to cost way less than a year or two at J-school, too.

We’re calling it 4-Week J-School. Because, well, it’s a month long. And it’s designed to give you the journalism knowledge and skills you need to leave $10 blog posts behind and start earning real money.

We’re working on the course materials now, boiling down everything you’d learn in a 2-year journalism program to the vital nuts and bolts you’ve just got to know.

In this class, we’ll throw you into the pool and get you reporting and writing stories, so you leave with at least one sample article in your portfolio.

We’re also gathering information from writers so we can make sure the class delivers exactly what you need.

UPDATE: Since we launched this class, more than 200 writers have benefited from this journalism crash course. If you’re interested in 4-Week J-School, I recommend you get on the J-School waiting list to find out when we’ll offer it again.

What’s the writing skill you’d most like to learn? You can leave a comment and tell us more about it, too.