3 Freelance Writing Trends to Avoid in 2016

What I’m listening to: Sweet Jane by Lou Reed

Maybe it’s the new calendar that brings out the crazy freelance writing advice I’ve seen lately. I’m not talking about the usual weird advice, such as how you must do this or you never should do that, or my all-time biggest pet peeve: “Freelance writing is dead” or some equally ridiculous pronouncement. (The latest one I saw said “Investigative journalism is dead” — tell that to The Atlantic.)

I’m talking about bloggers, forum posters, you name it, who attempt to push us in one direction because “They say the old way is dead.” Who “they” are remains a mystery. That vague reference to a mythical “they” is reason enough for me to dismiss anyone’s advice. Give me facts or stop bothering me.

I won’t say the trends aren’t real — most of them are, and they have some basis in fact. That to me is the dangerous part. People tend to believe because it seems logical or it can be proven to be some sort of trend.

That doesn’t mean it fits with our writing or with our freelance clients’ needs. Trends don’t apply to everyone or every situation. I’m not going to stop writing the way my clients want me to write because of someone’s untested observation made on a blog or forum.

And they’re not going to stop spewing blanket advice, either.

So here are three I’ve seen lately that stand out as trends that, if adopted verbatim, could cause a sizable hit to the freelance writer’s bottom line:

Long-form blog posts. It’s funny how quickly minds change. Just a few years ago, freelance writers everywhere were touting the short-form blog post. Guess what? These same proponents are now going on about how long-form is the only way to drive real traffic (and you know me — I think absolutes are a clear sign of bandwagon jumpers). Blog posts should be as long as they need to be. If freelance writers start cramming content in just to meet some arbitrary length requirement (set by whom, exactly?), the message suffers.

Avoiding ghostwriting work. Oh, yes they said it. Freelance writers who think we’ll write ourselves into an empty corner believe ghostwriting doesn’t pay well and can’t be used as a clip. Wrong on both counts — ghostwriting has been some of my most lucrative work. Also, as long as you redact the client’s name/identifying, show a small part of the piece, and ask for permission to use it as a clip only, you’re able to claim the experience. It’s okay also to let the prospective writing client know you’re unable to share due to NDA concerns. I’ve done it, and it’s been fine.

Allowing yourself to be pushed into a niche. Do niche writers make more money? That depends on the writer, doesn’t it? I know plenty of generalists who absolute rock the freelance writing career. I know also a number of niche writers who simply can’t get their shit together. Ignore the “You must have a niche” or worse, the “You must have a micro-niche” pushers. Have one if you want one. You won’t succeed if you don’t like it.

Writers, what trends have you seen that have left you shaking your head?
What examples can you give of trends that are worth looking into?

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  • Meryl K. Evans January 18, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    Amen on the long-form posts! I've stopped reading blogs that have gone from standard length to guide-length blog posts. Guide posts are good — but not for EVERY single post. They're also not scannable because each item (say a list of 5 ways to do something) takes up more than a page that I can't find item 2 because each item has its own sub-bullets.

    Unfortunately, search engines love 'em.

  • Cathy Miller January 18, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    Meryl and I had the same reaction to long-form posts. It's Meryl's last statement, Unfortunately, search engines love 'em that I think is the reason for this latest absolute. Anything to get the attention of the almighty search engine. 😉

  • Damaria Senne January 18, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Hi Lori

    I've also noticed that long form is back. Some days I just end up scanning the posts, even when the intro sounds interesting.

    Another trend is bashing list articles. I keep hearing "Listicles" are dead or even or even, listicles are a complete waste of space written by people who refuse to apply their minds. And the world keeps turning…

  • Lori Widmer January 18, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    Meryl, Cathy and Damaria — right there is the reason those long-form posts exist. And it tends to be one more reason why I don't like them. If you're writing to please the search engine gods, where is your reader's interests? First? Second? Fifth?

    A skilled writer could pull off the long-form post while focusing the content on the reader, but at what point do readers stop reading?

    Meryl, I have the same reaction you do — I stop reading, stop following, stop paying attention. Yes, long-post posters, Google may love you, but your readers and followers are jumping ship.

    Cathy, exactly. Popularity is based on what — content? Clicks? I'm all for a good search engine return, but I don't think sacrificing quality for it is something I want to do.

    Damaria, I no longer bother to even scan them. Hey, list articles are there for a reason — people love to read lists. At least that trend had the reader in mind! Funny that people are pronouncing these dead, as well.

  • Paula Hendrickson January 18, 2016 at 5:22 pm

    Ever get the sense that some of these "experts" are really just trying to steer the competition away from what they're doing?

    Anyone who writes only long-form posts or only short-form posts is missing the point that too much of any one thing is boring. Readers crave a little variety, so why be afraid to mix it up a bit? Personally, if I see a long post, at best I'll skim it unless it's for some craft project I want to try.

    I'm one of those writers who has a niche but also has a few side niches and still does some general writing. Again, too much of any one thing gets boring.

  • Lori Widmer January 18, 2016 at 7:37 pm

    Paula, you've hit on exactly what's wrong with this kind of advice — it ignores what the audience wants. Where I see this as an epic fail is on recipe blogs. I'm not reading those extra 2,000 words. I'm skipping down to the recipe itself.

    I like how you define what you do — niche with side niches. True!

  • KeriLynn Engel January 18, 2016 at 8:04 pm

    Great conversation on long-form posts, I totally agree with the comments here!

    I'm kind of a generalist when it comes to industry – I specialize more in format (blogging, web content – mostly online stuff). Maybe I'd make more money if I was an expert on some complex industry, but I think I'd be bored outta my mind. Thanks to being a generalist, I've learned a bit about golfing, fishing, iPads, Maca root, log homes, nonprofit advocacy, the Arizona wine industry, forestry in Patagonia, and lots of other random topics. It's awesome because I'm a very curious person who loves learning new things and gets bored easily, so it keeps my job from becoming monotonous.

    Most of my clients don't actually need an industry expert – just someone who's quick to understand & good at translating jargon for a general audience. If they do need an expert, I'm happy to refer (like I recently did with you, Lori – thanks!).

  • Anne Wayman January 19, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    one of the things I like about ebooks and online writing is it can be just as long or as short as needed… I avoid demands for long or short length post when job shopping… samples of what they like are much more helpful… links to posts like that.

  • Meryl K. Evans January 19, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    Unfortunately, some of these long-form posters share data showing that long-form posts get results: more traffic and longer time-spent on page. Hard to argue that although I did try in a similar post on the topic.

  • Jennifer Mattern January 20, 2016 at 3:38 am

    You have some good examples here Lori.

    I know you know my thoughts on this long-form blog post obsession. It's short-sighted, driven by what are usually very misleading statistics (or the poor interpretations of them), and anyone who's been in the web publishing business for a significant amount of time knows your content shouldn't all fit a single mold.

    That's short-sighted, is likely to hurt your business in the long run (such as when Google changes its algorithm again), and is generally only supported by the smarmy marketing types (SEO folks, marketers, and some writers — all of whom profit when these things change again and those same clients have to hire them again to update or write new content for the new "rules" rather than building a well-balanced content strategy from the start).

    You can see an example of the kind of nonsense stats people are spreading in this post on my forum where Lori, a few other folks, and I were talking about this issue recently:


    As for ghostwriting work, who in their right mind would say it doesn't pay well?? It often pays much better than bylined work. And if you're not charging a premium for giving up your byline, you can and should. Why leave money on the table like that? Ghostwriting offers an added benefit to the client, not generally the writer.

    I do have to disagree on the specialist / generalist thing. Specialists can always charge more because they bring more to the table.

    Whether they do or not is another story. And I agree, having a specialty isn't a guarantee of success. You have to have the skills and knowledge to back it up, you have to charge what that specialized knowledge is worth, and you have to know how to find clients who actually need a writer in your specialty area.

    That's where some go wrong — they try to sell higher-priced specialized services to clients who really only need a generalist (and that's all they want to pay for).

    That doesn't mean generalists are never paid well. But in my experience most writers who do well while calling themselves "generalists" aren't true generalists — people who will write absolutely anything as long as they're paid for it.

    Many simply don't choose to specialize in a niche or industry. Instead they specialize in a type of writing or a specific client type (like small local businesses). Or they might have a few specialties and call themselves generalists because they think being a specialist means you can only do one thing (which thankfully isn't true).

    But overall, good message here about being careful about what advice you take. I wish we didn't have to keep reminding people about that, but over the last few years it's shocking what's passed as "good" advice in the freelance writing community, from newbies thinking they're qualified to teach classes on having a successful career to these types of folks who teach to the trends without understanding the fundamentals.

  • Jennifer Mattern January 20, 2016 at 3:52 am


    Another example they often throw around (and the one covered in the link from my last comment) is increased social media shares for long-form content. I think I debunked that reasonably well there so I won't again here. The stats just don't add up.

    One poster even tried arguing that 3000+ words didn't equal much of a time commitment and that sites like Cracked.com do it all the time and get lots of social media shares.

    When I checked their last 10 posts or so being promoted, not one of them actually came near that word count. Some were little more than a brief intro followed by a stream of pictures — in other words, a well-balanced mix of content types. But most people won't bother putting in the time to fact-check things like that. They see it, and they simply believe it.

    I think the real problem is that people can't (or won't) think critically. They blindly follow a source and don't think for themselves.

    Bloggers who focus on search engines are chasing their tails. They'll always be at risk while those with balanced content strategies don't get tossed about nearly as much in rankings. The longer-content trend started because Google wanted more focus on quality. But stuffing posts with more words doesn't equal quality.

    Search engine spam hasn't stopped as a result. It just looks different. And the worst offenders are simply updating the same old BS posts that offered no value so they're longer (and often still not adding value). The trick as writers is making sure our clients understand things like that. If we jump on every trend with them, we're being irresponsible. And I don't know about anyone else, but I don't want to be responsible for a client losing visitors and money because we were short-sighted.

  • Lori Widmer January 20, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    Very good point, Anne. Agreed– and another reason why long-form posting just for the sake of long-form posting makes little sense in the long run.

    Meryl, it depends. Yes, Google may love the longer posts (more keywords, I suspect), but I'm sure not reading them. I guess it's one of those skim-and-read situations.

    Jenn, this whole conversation started on that post in your forum, and you made a strong case (one that impressed me) about why long-form post data is a good bit of BS. It's as you say — blind following of unproven sources.

    I have to thank you for bringing the idea up originally. It made me start digging, and what I found didn't surprise me much. The advice is being repeated on this particular issue, and there's no evidence anyone is presenting to back this idea up.

  • Meryl K. Evans January 22, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Jenn, thanks for sharing your findings. Totally agree on the data aspect. When I plan to quote a statistic, I locate the original source. It's amazing how many sites publish bad statistic and they all eventually point to the same source.

    Here's a famous example: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." It's attributed to IBM's Thomas Watson. IBM addresses it in their FAQ on page 25: http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/documents/pdf/faq.pdf

  • Lori Widmer January 22, 2016 at 6:41 pm

    Love that example, Meryl! Who knew? 🙂