Ask a Freelancer

Ask a Freelancer: How Do I Compete With Young Writers?

By Nicole Dieker August 5th, 2014

This week, I received two questions that need to be answered together.

I am constructing a website that features college-student-driven content, meaning I want most of the content to be written by college students alongside more established modern journalists. I need quality content, not just random information, which means I need great young writers. How can I pitch and retain great college writers?

—Alma Editor

and

How is a middle-aged freelance writer with experience and credentials supposed to compete realistically in today’s landscape against younger writers willing to take assignments for next to nothing when it comes to pay?

—TheWagger

First, Alma Editor:

If you want great college writers, you can always scout college newspapers, sites like Rookie, and anywhere else college students are writing. Also, remember not all college students are 18-to-21 years old! There are plenty of older college students, so consider making space for them in your publication.

There are a couple of unique obstacles you’re bound to face considering who you’re looking to hire. First, great college writers—the ones who know how to synthesize ideas into stories, not just rehash random information—are going to be hard to find. (There’s a reason why they call immature writing sophomoric.) You will absolutely find good writers if you search long enough because there are many talented college students out there. But many of them won’t have diverse portfolios, experience working with professional editors, or most importantly, the ability to fully commit.

To quote writer and editor Arabelle Sicardi:

“I have also found younger writers to be vastly more unreliable—school obligations push back deadlines. Older and more established writers would be mortified to do so because they recognize the long game and the fact this paycheck could lead to future paychecks which gets the rent paid.”

However, Sicardi also started writing for Teen Vogue when she was a teenager, so remember that when you’re vetting undergraduates.

Which brings us to TheWagger:

The way you compete realistically against younger writers is to compete realistically.

It’s hard to hit mid-career and see wages lowered across the industry. It’s not ideal, but we have to work with the market, figure out how we can write enough pieces to earn our target monthly income within these constraints, and build relationships with clients who value what we do and are willing to pay accordingly.

To be a successful freelancer, you need to have a lot of attributes that are commonly associated with young people:

You need to be fast.

You need to be internet-savvy.

You need to understand contemporary modes of communication.

But just because young people are more likely to know how to land a gig on social media doesn’t mean these skills are exclusive to the young. Playing to our strengths as seasoned veterans means seeking out the publishers who value experience over finding the cheapest possible labor. Editors often say they want proof writers know what they’re pitching in the form of clips, advanced degrees, and other forms of expertise. A kid probably can’t give them that. You can.

I’m turning 33 this year, meaning I’m on the off-ramp from the highway of youth to the suburbs of middle age. I’m also consistently increasing my income by taking on jobs and clients that pay more than previous jobs and clients. Working up the freelance ladder, if you will. But I’ve always told myself not to be too proud to take a lower-paying gig if it would help me make money. Understandably, some freelancers probably disagree. We all want to earn as much as possible, but if the choice is between not working or filling in a gap with a quick blog post for lunch money, I think it’s wise to keep the cashflow flowing. And as you build an even larger portfolio, the goal is to use those quick pieces to get work from clients who pay better.

I am more valuable because I am not a college student. So are you. But we’re only valuable if we know how to work within the environment that we’re given.

That’s why Alma Editor is on the right track when she writes that she wants to hire both young students and experienced writers. I hope she follows my advice to new publications and pays her writers a worthwhile and competitive wage to attract the best talent.

Then, you and I can both pitch her for work.

Nicole Dieker is ready to receive emails from college students telling her that she’s underestimated them. She is also ready to read your advice questions, so please send them to dieker.nicole@gmail.com.

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