How to Find Online Writing Assignments

By: Steve Outing Despite the growth of the Web into a viable commercial publishing medium, and the increasing quantity of serious writing available online, the Internet still has a long way to go before it will feed an army of freelance writers. For now, online-savvy freelancers may get some of their income from writing for Web publishers, but print work of necessity pays most of the bills.

Yet the new medium is poised to take off and eventually become a major market for writers and editors, says Amy Gahran, a freelance journalist and editor who has begun devoting part of her time to furthering the market for online writing and educating writers about opportunities and techniques.

Last week, Boulder, Colorado-based Gahran launched a new Web site, Contentious, which is aimed at educating writers and editors about online writing, and developing the start of a community of individuals who choose to create content for the digital medium.

Gahran, who is turning her own career more toward online clients and trying to depend less on print, says the site "seems to have struck a chord in people," and her e-mail box is busy with inquiries from people wanting to know how to get online writing work and where to look.

Success story

Well-paying online writing assignments are fairly rare today, but they do exist. In the first monthly edition of the Contentious Web-zine, Gahran interviews Bill Belleville, a freelancer who's done some ambitious and well-paying features for the Discovery Channel Online. In one of Belleville's most ambitious online works, he filed more than 20 dispatches from the Galapagos Islands, each between 800 and 1,200 words and crafted into an ongoing interactive storybook presentation about his trip accompanying a group of research scientists. For a Cuba assignment, he filed 14 dispatches over a month.

Alas, the majority of online writing assignments are not that glamorous, nor well paying. "You're lucky if you can get paid at all for some online stuff," says Gahran. She's suggested online content projects to potential Web publishers, only to have them say they liked the idea but would only be able to pay on the order of $100 per month. "I've had more than one" organization suggest compensation in that range, she says. She respectfully declined the offers.

Partly, this is because many Web publishers have technology backgrounds and aren't experienced in the world of content creation, and don't realize how time-consuming and costly good writing can be. Because many new Web publishers have long roots in the Internet, they remain influenced by an "information wants to be free" mentality.

Traditional news organizations typically don't fit that description, but the majority of established news companies that have launched online ventures rely foremost on existing staff, so freelance online opportunities can be sparse. Newspapers in particular tend to pay poorly for freelancing, and that seems to be carrying over to newspaper Web site writing.

Gahran says it's a major challenge finding online writing work today, partly because there's a dearth of online writing resources and directories. She says she's found her online clients mostly by searching for and contacting Web sites that produce quality content on topic areas where she has expertise. Send a note to the editor or webmaster, she suggests, and ask if they use writing from outsiders -- and suggest a project. It's "painstaking" to find appropriate sites that are good prospects, she says.

Sometimes, a Web site may not know its needs. "Remember, these types of outfits don't always know they're in the market for freelance content development," says Gahran. "The key to breaking many of these markets seems to be having the fortitude to create your own opportunities: to raise the concept of writing/editing work with the organization behind the Web site (or other project), to come up with a plan as to how that original content could be implemented, and then to actually do the work. That's a lot more front-end development work than, say, just writing a query letter and following up on it."

Tried and true media

Web sites of traditional news organizations are a more obvious place to start looking for online writing jobs. Sites like Discovery Channel Online hire freelancers, and even the New York Times On the Web has some online-only writers for its CyberTimes section.

Also, there's a thriving community of online-only "e-zines" and Web niche news services. A site like iVillage: the Women's Network is a good place to look for freelance online work. A growing group of parenting Web sites, such as ParentSoup, use outside content creators. And there's a decent market on sports Web sites for essays, says Gahran. Other examples of sites worth investigating for freelance online writing, she advises: NetMarquee; the HotWired; CNet; MSNBC; Motley Fool; and Oncolink (a cancer resource site).

Think creatively

But to succeed as an online writer, you have to think more broadly -- both in terms of where you look and type of writing. Gahran, for example, is working as a writer for Indra's Net, a Boulder Internet service provider that plans to start providing original content for an e-zine called "Mountain Standard."

New types of publishing businesses are being formed all the time in the Internet environment, and some may present writing opportunities for freelancers. Services like Infobeat send out personalized news and information by e-mail, not the Web, and that could be the type of company to present with a new content proposal, for example.

Gahran says also to look past the traditional news and feature writing, because the Internet presents opportunities for other types of authorship. A colleague of Gahran's, for example, writes "backgrounder" articles for the cancer information Web site produced by Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. That site sometimes hires professional writers to produce content.

This kind of niche writing for Web sites is likely to represent a booming business for freelance writers in the coming years, Gahran believes. Science writing for the Web should be particularly lucrative, and other niches will open up for writers over time, she predicts. Because the Web "is many small markets, not one big market," Gahran thinks that broad-content sites such as Microsoft's Slate e-zine will struggle, but niche Web players have a good chance -- and thus represent the best opportunities for freelance online writers and editors. "Think niche," she says.

Of course, there's a lot of garbage on the Web, so writer beware. Gahran suggests looking carefully at a site before approaching its editor or webmaster. Much "content" on Web sites is thinly disguised marketing, so avoid such sites if that's not the kind of writing you want to do. But on the other hand, it can be worth approaching sites that could benefit from the use of professional writers. Many sites haven't even thought about using outside writers, so suggest it.

Don't put all you eggs ...

Today there are very few freelance writers working solely in the online medium, but their ranks will of course grow over time as the online writing market grows. Gahran advises writers not to get too dependent on any one online client, because the Web publishing environment is inherently unstable. "Web sites come and go. They change their strategies. ... Your project very well may be pulled out from under you," she warns. It's risky to invest a lot of energy into a single Web client, so balance yourself out with some stable print clients, too, until the Web environment offers more abundant opportunities.

Gahran herself follows that advice, earning most of her living from an established print freelancing business. She's quick to point out that even though she's setting herself up to assist the online writing community, she's no expert yet. The field is too new to have "experts."

Contact: Amy Gahran,


From an interesting discussion about writers' rights taking place on the Online-News Internet list:

"Publishers are free to demand that freelancers enter into omnibus non-compete contracts. Indeed, freelancers can sign contracts that bind them to indentured servitude or slavery. But this doesn't mean that such contracts will necessarily withstand a court. Publishers who use omnibus non-compete contracts had better know that they wield double-edged swords whose sharp negotiating can harm them as much as the freelance writer. If such a contract gets called into review before a court, the publisher could find himself facing a judge who interprets the publisher's demand for an omnibus non-compete to mean that the freelancer is now no longer an independent contractor. This could mean that the publisher has inherently hired the freelance writer as a dependent contractor, part-time, or full-time employee and now owes that writer benefits, pensions, overtime pay, and other entitlements of this new employment status."
-- New media consultant Vin Crosbie,
President, Digital Deliverance

URLs in classifieds

Following my column about some newspapers prohibiting Web addresses (URLs) in their printed classifieds, I heard from Patrick Boyle, president of

"I know your column mentioned this, but the easiest answer for newspapers is to charge extra for including a URL in classified or other advertising. To forbid them is silly. Customers want to do it, so give them the service. Just charge for it! A business shouldn't turn away business. They should create the service to meet the demand of their advertisers. Otherwise their advertisers have one more reason to go elsewhere. ...

"On our site, listings are free for the Realtors. That includes an e-mail hot link. But if the Realtor wants a URL listed, that costs extra. (That's) very standard practice in our space."


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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