I consider myself to be a part of today’s new breed of freelance writers. I can’t make a living writing features or ghost writing books, but I can make a living writing a gratuitous amount of newsletters, blog posts, landing pages, “About Us” pages, sales emails, and general web copy of virtually every conceivable type. It’s not ideal, but it beats the available alternatives while I work toward bigger and more interesting projects.
Before you covet the writing days of old, consider how past freelancer tendencies stack up against today’s.
Snail mail vs. email
Old freelancers: In the past, freelancers had to deal with the hassle and cost of printing snail mail pitches, paying for postage, mailing them out, then waiting marginally longer to probably never hear from editors as their letters rotted in “slush piles.” On the plus side, people probably thought out what they said significantly more when this was standard procedure.
New freelancers: It’s a rarity to find an outlet you still have to pitch by snail mail (Harper’s is the only one that comes to mind). Now you can instantly mass-email your lame, poorly researched article idea to dozens of magazines at once and definitely never hear back from them. But hey, it was free!
Old freelancers: Consider how hard it was for freelancers of yester-millennium to find a publication they wanted to write for — they actually had to read. Crazy, but back in the day writers sent work to the publications they read regularly, making their ideas more relevant and aligned with said publication’s philosophies. Those looking to sell their ideas were also much more limited; an East Coast writer had no idea what the market was like in California, as the only resources were local vendors with a set inventory, or possibly print indices of national publications. Midwest and Dustbowl-area writers probably just didn’t have careers.
New freelancers: Now with a few keystrokes, we can find media companies from all around the world that may or may not pay us, allowing people from anywhere to contribute to American media. We can peruse a site for half a minute and get a vague idea about what a company publishes and purchases, then pitch to them instantly. Rather than getting ideas based on what we already read, now writers can come up with an idea and search for a large, semi-relevant pool of potential buyers.
Old freelancers: The number of paying venues was greater for old-school freelancers, potentially leading to a much more open market for writing. When print was king, there were not only more magazines, but greater revenue to spread to writers, meaning higher-paying gigs and more of them.
New freelancers: Thanks to the internet, like basically every industry, publication platforms are utterly oversaturated. Why would people want to pay for a subscription to a magazine when they can find hundreds of free blogs and websites with similar content? Less money coming in equals fewer paying platforms able to stay afloat and lower budgets overall. Now anyone with basic English skills can get published.
Old freelancers: With more slots available for features, it was more common for writers to take on large-scale freelancing jobs, which paid bigger bucks for lots of words (this report claims freelancers could make $1/word in 1990; according to this online inflation calculator, that’d be about $1.73/word today). Writers could pay rent with one piece, which is pretty astounding.
New freelancers: Slate.com has published a couple pieces outlining how absurdly stunted online reader attention-spans have become (here’s the followup). I’ll save you the effort (since, statistically, you won’t read the articles anyway), and say those who read articles to the end are in the minority. People don’t want to read 5,000-word features, they want tweets. Writing gigs of feature caliber are rapidly becoming obsolete. Thanks to this, writers are lucky if they can pay their internet bill with one gig to keep these low-scale jobs coming.
Number of gigs
Old freelancers: Since pay was greater for large jobs, professionals could write fewer pieces to keep an income. Columnists for big name outlets still get this treatment today, but freelancers could make a living with a few gigs per month and spend the rest of their time researching and revising. Old-school freelancers expecting this today are appalled by the prospect of being paid $25 for an article — but they still admit to being short on work.
New freelancers: Now there’s just no time — for writers to be picky, or for publishers to create well-crafted products. Most places just want lots of content right now to keep their ADD readers (and advertising revenue) coming. When I started writing for Matador, I got $25 for 1,200 words, and I was just happy to get anything for writing something I cared about. I’ve subsisted on $4 jobs exclusively and made as much as $450 for one piece (a rarity). The new generation of freelancers take those small gigs, crank out 5 pieces to make $125 in a day, and still have enough cash to go buy a mountain bike after paying their rent.
I should note these distinctions won’t hold true for all freelancers. This report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, found that as recently as 2010, the average salary of a freelancer was over $55k. Many of you (including me) aren’t at that level in the industry yet. Still, tendencies in web reading and writing alike are shifting constantly. The internet truly has evolved the world in every way, and those unwilling to adapt along with it are liable to go figuratively extinct.