In this regular feature, Story Board asks Canadian writers to share a few details about their work habits and their strategies for navigating the ups and downs of freelance life.

 

Toronto writer Ryan Bigge works as a content strategist, consultant and digital copywriter. He’s also a cultural and technology journalist who has won four National Magazine Awards. He took the time to speak with Story Board last week about his career path and the new opportunities that exist for freelance writers in the digital realm.

 

How did you go from journalism to copywriting and content strategy?

I was a freelance journalist for almost a decade. Around 2008-2009, the recession happened and just doing pure freelance journalism was really really difficult without some teaching work or corporate work on the side. So a few people I knew had done copywriting for digital agencies. I did some of that because throughout the years I had done a little bit of copywriting for my friend’s graphic design firm, so I had a bit of a portfolio. And around that time in 2009 I also started looking into content strategy with a friend of mine, Jeff MacIntyre, who was sort of ahead of the curve on that. And he said it takes a lot of the skills that writers and editors have but just transfers it to the digital world of websites and producing content for different advertising agencies and the companies they work for. So I slowly moved into that as well.

 

Can you explain what content strategy is?

A lot of brands have found, whether they realize it or not, that they’ve become publishers. Maybe not like the New York Times, but they are creating a lot of content. And because that’s not something, traditionally, that they’ve always done, they need to figure out some of the things that we take for granted as journalists. Things like planning editorial calendars the same way you might if you were putting together an issue of a magazine or something similar. So it’s planning the content, making sure that whatever articles you’re producing match up with whatever key messages the brand might have. But also, more importantly, that it’s content that’s going to speak to your customers, to your users. So you’re figuring out the best way of speaking to different audiences. And then there’s figuring out who’s going to create the content and edit it. As writers and editors, we know that content is a lot of work. But I think some companies don’t always take that into consideration when they’re planning a significant amount of content.

 

Do you think there’s a big future for freelance writers in these areas that you’re working in?

One of the things I noticed when I did a new media program and then in some of the work I’ve done, is that it drew upon the skill set I had as a journalist. I was just using those skills in slightly different ways. So for example I did a little bit of user testing and that was very similar to how you might interview someone. You want to be asking the right questions, you want to be able to be comfortable enough to be able to let the person answer them — not jump in and interrupt them but let them reveal interesting things as they’re trying to navigate their way through a new digital experience. And obviously the research portion, again, it’s the same skill set you might have as a journalist who’s interviewing someone — watching them in action and looking for those important telling details that are either going to make for the great lead of a story or are going to give you insights about your customers to make a better product or service for them.

 

Do you miss journalism?

As it so happens, I still do a little bit of it. I recently had a piece published in Hazlitt and I just did a piece through the Canadian Writers Group for Applied Arts, which was looking at how different advertising agencies in Canada and their clients have responded to the recession.

I find you always want to be doing a little bit of writing because even when I’m just doing pure consulting there’s always some kind of writing involved in whatever I do. It just may not be 9-5 Monday to Friday constant writing, but you don’t want to let that muscle go.

 

Where do you think the best opportunities are for freelance writers these days?

It really depends what you love to do. I can think of a handful of people I know who have continued to do magazine features and other longstanding types of print journalism with a little bit of online journalism and there are a few of them that still are able to do that. And I know a few people at daily newspapers who are really loving that. I mentor a student usually once a year for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, and I know from talking to those students that the digital courses that they can take… there’s more focus on that now than there was four or five years ago. I think of Ryerson as quite progressive. They will teach you how to be a big-J traditional journalist if you want, but I think their acknowledgement that you need to know how to have these other skills is good.

For me, the other thing that I would like to do is to know a little bit more about analytics in some way. So not to get obsessed with the numbers on every article you publish or anything like that but there is definitely a big stress on figuring out what worked and what didn’t in the ad agency setting and also in some of the online startups like Buzzfeed and publications like that that are very very focussed on numbers. It’s not enough just to write something that’s amazing anymore. You need to have a better sense of the machinery and the numbers behind it and what’s driving traffic and things like that.

 

What do you think the biggest challenges are for freelance writers?

A lot more is being asked of freelance writers these days. I’ve always liked going back to school at regular intervals, and that will continue. I can’t see waking up one morning and saying “that’s it, I know everything” especially if you’re working in the digital world. I think for some people it can be frustrating because you can no longer chart a really clear, clean career path. You do need to stay on top of different trends, but I can see how  you can get to a certain point in your career and get a little grumpy or frustrated about constantly having to learn new things that don’t immediately prove their value.

 

What advice would you offer to someone who’s just starting out as a freelance writer?

Find some people in the industry, in the kind of freelance work you want to do, and offer to buy them coffee or lunch or a beer and ask them how they got to where they are and what skills they have and what are the different things that may not be readily apparent about the work they do.

And also if there’s any kind of meet-up or get together where you can talk to other freelance writers or people doing what you do I find that really invaluable. I mean that’s one of the amazing things about the digital explosion is that it’s so much easier to find other people who love doing what you’re trying to do and to meet up with them. I think that was much more of a challenge when I started.

 

Ryan Bigge’s most recent published work includes a feature in Hazlitt called The Novel and the Future of the Near Future. You can follow him on Twitter at @biggeidea.

 

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