Every day, Angela West does a generous thing for young Canadian writers. She gets up, has her coffee, and spends 15 or 20 minutes gathering job listings from around the web and aggregating them on her own website, Canadian Freelance Writing Jobs. She’s also a freelance writer, who, over the past six years, has built a successful business based on writing search engine optimized web copy for corporate clients. I spoke with her on the phone last week to ask about her business, the reasons behind the service she performs for freelancers, and the opportunities that exist for writers in Canada.
How did you get your start as a freelance writer?
I started out as a webmaster for the first company I worked for out of university and I very quickly found that I enjoyed the web copywriting aspect of it much more than managing the website. Not that I didn’t like managing the website, but [the copywriting] is where my talent was. And at the next company I worked for I ended up writing some web copy for a client and he said “you know I actually pay people a lot more money to do a much worse job than you did with this. You should consider doing it as a full-time thing.” And I found myself working that over in my brain and going “maybe I should be doing this as a full-time business” so I hunkered down and started investigating how to get into it.
As a result of that, I joined PWAC, went to a few networking events there, and basically took any writing gig that I possibly could when I first started out no matter what it paid. I definitely got my start doing lower paid things to build up a portfolio.
I was sort of doing a two-pronged attack on publishing and the corporate copywriting. I wasn’t going full throttle at getting into consumer magazines because my primary interest has always been in the online world. So I really wasn’t making a huge effort to get into print magazines, per se.
But I do think it’s important to diversify, especially if you are doing a lot of work in the corporate world. The nice thing about the publishing world work is that it doesn’t matter how many websites or brochures you write for, companies always think you’re a “real writer” if you have actual publication credits! So that’s the way I view the publication side: it’s a great marketing tool, although there is more money in corporate copywriting.
When did you start www.freelancewritingjobs.ca?
I started that around the same time as I started my writing career because I found I was going to all these websites to look for gigs every day. I thought “well, I might as well publish my list because obviously I’m not going to get every job I apply to and it would be an opportunity for other writers to actually get out there and get gigs of their own.”
I found a lot of the [job aggregation] websites I was looking at didn’t really specialize in Canadians. So the whole raison d’etre of my site was to post gigs that Canadians could apply for. So that’s the value of it. You can easily go to all these sites and find the jobs yourself, but it saves time to come to my site because its all aggregated.
And I’ve never believed in machine aggregation, there are tools out there to do that and some of the writers’ websites out there do that, but I believe in going through every listing and just making sure it’s decent before I put it up. Now “decent” can mean a lot of different things to different people, but to me, I just think “can you make at least minimum wage doing this?” and if the answer is yes, then I post the gig.
So it’s kind of a low bar, and I recognize that, but I’m also looking at it from the point of view of people who are just getting into the industry as opposed to people who have been in it for a number of years.
How has running the site benefited your own business?
I’m not sure how much it actually benefits my own business aside from the networking aspect. I meet other writers through the site and people know that I run it. So it sort of gives me good street cred, as it were. I have had a couple of clients contact me directly through the site through the “find a writer” page or just by finding out who actually ran the site and getting in touch with me.
I had one client who got in touch with me because she thought it was an awesome service and she was looking at putting together an email newsletter for a professional organization and wanted somebody with that sort of attitude, I suppose, to do that work for her. So I guess it’s helped in that way. I believe when you do something good for other people it eventually ends up coming back to you and I have definitely had that experience with the site.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for freelance writers these days?
Oh gosh, there’s so many. I end up talking to a lot of writers through the site who are just starting out and something that’s been really hot in the news lately has been unpaid internships. And I think that’s a huge challenge. Because some of these poor people just starting out are working three or four different unpaid internships just to get a portfolio. And those are jobs that could easily be converted into junior writing positions.
And I think that more enforcement should be put in place. I mean the hope is that that magazines would turn [unpaid internships] into junior writing positions. I would imagine they will just eliminate those positions to start with and then end up having to create junior writing positions once the pressure mounts over time. But I really think that creating more actual jobs at an entry level rather than making people work unpaid internships would benefit the journalism industry as a whole because you’d be raising people who would be proper writers eventually.
That being said, I have no problem with using unpaid interns as part of an educational program. But if they’re not getting any credit for their work in school or any money for their work then what is the real benefit to these people? There’s none, and you’ll end up losing extremely good people to regular jobs because they need to make a living. And they’ll just end up doing writing on the side and maybe eventually abandon it. I think there’s a great opportunity here to actually create some meaningful positions in the industry.
Where do you think the best opportunities for freelance writers are at the moment?
I’m sure there are some on the publishing side, I don’t know that world too well. But I do think there’s an opportunity to break into corporate copywriting as long as you have a few portfolio items under your belt. I get quite a lot of demand for corporate copywriting work, so it’s out there. I think it’s just a question of going out and finding it.
And for me, I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been getting referrals from a) other writers and b) past clients. I think once you get your foot in the door and you start building that sort of base you end up getting work. But getting the foot in the door is definitely the hardest part. So I would just recommend acquiring as many companies as possible and applying for the things that you see on my job site and just trying to get as many credits as you can to attract corporate work.
What advice would you offer somebody just starting out as a freelance writer?
Just try to build up your portfolio as much as possible. And it can be done without working for free. If you absolutely have to, apply for minimal-paying jobs just to get a byline going and a portfolio going. Once you have a reasonable portfolio you can go out and start marketing yourself to agencies and web development companies.
That’s another thing I did when I was just starting out, I called a couple of web design firms and said “hey, I specialize in website copywriting, do you need a copywriter?” And I actually got a pretty good response from that. Quite a few people said “no we don’t really need anybody” or “you don’t have enough experience yet” but it pays to cold call people. It really does.
You’ve got to think of it in terms of being a numbers game, too. If you’re applying for a gig you see on my site, I’ve got about 400-600 users daily and maybe about 100 of them are going to be applying for that job. Whereas if you cold call, you don’t really have any competition unless they already have an in-house copywriter. And sometimes some of these companies have been relying on writers in the past and haven’t been happy with what they’ve been getting. So if you come in and say “hey, I can do this,” they’re usually happy to try you out.
Angela West began designing and implementing websites in 1996 and wrote the content for most of them. In 2008, she opened up her own business, Working Web Copy, to specialize in website copywriting. She’s crafted content for businesses across North America in various industry sectors, including insurance, technology, transportation and telecommunications. Angela has written a number of blog posts and articles on social media and online business strategies for various technology-focused media websites and blogs. She also takes care of social media management for some of her regular clients and is always happy to take on new ones.
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