The Skills You Need to
Write Professionally Online
How many of us have lived in a time when the phrase “I’m a writer” really meant anything? Between the decline of print, the rise of digital, the “nichification” of different mediums and topics, the rise of zines and access to independent publication methods and a seemingly infinite number of other factors, writing is as varied as it could possibly be.
This can be slightly tiresome to untangle if you’re trying to explain your hobby, but it is a make or break for those that are looking to make writing their profession. Unfortunately, as much as writing is a vague umbrella term for a variety of different professions and skillsets, that’s not always made clear in the professional world, and the road to success can be far vaguer than one may initially expect.
With all that said, we’re also at a time when digital writing has never been more valuable. Search engine algorithms are finding new ways to prioritise high quality, educated writing all the time, and there is a wide array of avenues for writers to make it in the world of blogging and digital marketing. So, to bring this full circle, if being a digital writer comes with a unique set of skills when compared to other contemporary writing disciplines, what is needed to do it professionally?
As a digital content specialist specialising in blogging for businesses, I have had the pleasure of working both as a freelance copywriter and as the manager and editor of freelance writing teams. So, I thought it would be good to break down some of the skills that are going to prove essential if you want to make it as a professional digital writer. Let’s get started!
The Virtues of Versatility
As writers, there is always going to be something that initially draws you to the art form. For some, it will be the aspiration of being a journalist, detailing the world as it is through your own unique lens of truth. For others, it may be the pull of being a critic, allowing your opinions of art, fashion, or culture at large to shape the zeitgeist while showcasing hidden gems to a wider audience.
One should always have a relatively clear image of what they aspire to as a means of driving them forward to improve their craft. However, it becomes a problem when that particular niche is the only thing a writer is willing to engage with in pursuit of their goal. The reality of writing is that there are millions of individuals all looking to make a name for themselves, and even the best at their craft will find it difficult to rise past a certain threshold of success if they limit what they are willing to do in the early stages of their digital career.
This isn’t to say you should work for free or debase your artistry by any means. Rather, you must simply accept that there is going to be a high barrier to entry when looking for reliable work in your niche, and you will need as much proof of your mettle and skills as possible if you want publications and businesses to give you a second glance. So, early on, try to familiarise yourself with as many writing disciplines and subjects as possible, and do what you can to get work in as many fields of writing as you can.
Writing reviews for culture sites, reporting news publications, blogging for businesses; each of these will inevitably come with their own skill sets, and in turn, their own benefits for you as a writer gaining experience and authority. So, even if you have a particular goal in mind, do what you can to explore all avenues when making a name for yourself; your writing and future employers will thank you for it.
The Tightrope of Tone
Whilst you will certainly find a wide array of part-time and full-time jobs for writers in the digital space, many of us end up being a little more nomadic in our approach to writing online. Writing is essentially the poster child for the freelancing revolution, and writers will often find themselves bouncing between various publications to ensure that their workload remains steady and their portfolio continues to grow in varied ways. Unfortunately for some writers, this can prove difficult, especially for those who have only ever really written for themselves.
There are a number of reasons for this, but I would say the main stumbling block is tone. The tone, or voice of a piece, is the way in which a writer speaks to a reader through their work. It’s the vernacular used, and how the evocative power of a turn of phrase or a choice of synonym can shift the energy of any given article in the eyes of a reader. Regardless of intention, every writer will invariably have a tone of how they naturally write. Whilst I, for example, tend to fall into using more archaic language and ample alliterations when trying to convey a point, others will gravitate towards a more formal or floral approach, inevitably shaping the experience of their readers in the process.
This only becomes a problem when you’re writing for means that are not your own. Companies will have a tone, publications will have a certain tone, and even search engines will be looking for certain terminology when looking for ways to place your work algorithmically in the rankings. Knowing how to code-switch and adapt to different styles of writing is vital to a writer’s career and is something that needs to be worked on early on if you hope to be prolific in any field of writing.
The ABCs of SEO & PPC
Though it may be the silliest of my subheadings, this is certainly the topic that is most unique to digital writing, and the one that feels most at odds with the artistic spirit. SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and PPC (Pay-Per-Click) are two forms of digital marketing that make up the foundations of online visibility. So, if you’re someone that wants their work to be found by potential readers, or you’re working for a company that wants the work you’ve done for them to be found, it’s important that you at least understand the fundamentals.
The role of writers in PPC is relatively limited, but it is good to familiarise yourself with the methodology and practise things like writing under character constraints (e.g. a PPC header title can only be 30 characters long and a description is 90 characters) in case it comes up in your field of work. Alternatively, SEO and digital writing have an incredibly symbiotic relationship, and therefore, search engine optimisation will likely be an invaluable tool regardless of your specific writing profession:
Search Engine Optimisation for Writers
The internet is, in its simplest form, content connected by links. From a search engine’s perspective, as it cannot actually read images for anything resembling helpful information on its own, the internet is just various forms of writing connected together through hyperlinks which it is trying to form into usable information about what should rank for what search queries. This means that to understand how to rank on Google, you need to understand what factors it’s looking for, and in turn, how to cater to those factors. This difficulty is that these factors are changing all the time, but there are some things to consider which have stayed relatively standard over the past several years of algorithm updates:
Aim to produce high-quality content above all else; search engines only want to display the best
Research what keywords or phrases you want to rank for and find ones that people are actually searching
Longer tends to be better, so generally aim to flesh out your pieces with relevant and engaging information
If you are linking an article back to a website through a keyword for SEO purposes, make sure it’s not the only link in the article. It looks spammy and doesn’t provide as much value to the reader
Try to ensure, where it makes sense, that your keyword or a variant of it exists in your heading
Make sure to use header tags such as H2 tags to show your subheadings, as this will help search engines understand your overarching points.
There are essentially hundreds of possible SEO tips and tricks to learn, but hopefully, this gives you an initial idea of what to look out for.
Writers are required to have a far broader digital skillset than ever before in our current day and age, and as many publications struggle to maintain financial stability, only those who can stand out from the crowds will succeed. However, if you can stay versatile, understand the tone and needs of your clients, and familiarise yourself with the wider world of digital, you will already be ahead of the majority. So, good luck, and never give up hope that you can make your singular mark on the digital landscape.
About the Author
Nathan Elly is the branch manager for Digital Next, a digital marketing agency based in Melbourne, Australia. When he isn’t busy optimizing web marketing campaigns, you can find him supporting his favourite football team or enjoying a friendly game of futsal.