Nick Schäferhoff began his writing career nearly 10 years ago. Today he is one of the most sought-after content writers in the WordPress space. Nick helps businesses gain traction by improving their search rankings, brand awareness, organic traffic, conversion rates, and revenue. He also specializes in content marketing, content strategy, WordPress consultation, blog training, and web design.
Nick was kind enough to share some of his learnings with us to help aspiring content writers find paid writing jobs.
1. Let’s start with your background…What did you want to be when you were young? And how did you end up becoming a content writer?
Absolutely. So, I am from Germany and I grew up in a relatively small town in the Western part of the country. After moving around in the world a bit and living in different places in my twenties, I am now based in Berlin where I live together with my wife. I also have a university degree in China studies as well as German and English literature, which I don’t really use a lot these days (except for, you know, writing in English).
To be honest, I am not so sure what I wanted to be when I was younger. At some point, I thought I’d open a restaurant (because I like to cook a lot) or become a video game designer or maybe a musician. What’s certain is that I definitely did not have a well-thought-out plan.
Being a bit without direction also played a role in the career path I chose. After graduating from university, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Plus, what I studied hadn’t really prepared me for a particular job or career. In addition, I felt like I wasn’t really cut out for the 9-to-5, so I was looking for alternatives.
I wasn’t sure which direction to go but I knew I wanted to earn money online and do it in a way that would make it possible for me to travel around and work from anywhere. So, the first thing I did was found a startup for vegan sports nutrition. I developed my own protein powder, financed the first run with a $14,000 crowdfunding campaign, and then tried to get it off the ground for the next two years.
It wasn’t very successful (and not very location-independent either) but it gave me a lot of practical experience in how to run a business. Plus, I started doing online marketing, social media, blogging, etc. (because there was nobody else but me in the company) and I noticed I really liked this part. I also learned how to use WordPress to build websites and started doing that for other people on the side a bit.
As a consequence, after I wound down the startup, I got a part-time job as coordinator for all things website and online marketing at a European project. While doing that, I also started freelance writing for different blogs on WordPress and other things that I had learned. When the project ended, this allowed me to work freelance full time, which is what I have been doing ever since.
2. Anyone who wants to build a career in content writing, how do you suggest they get started?
I think the most important thing to do in the beginning is to build a portfolio. It’s much easier to land paid writing jobs if you can point at some existing work as proof that you know what you are talking about. Giving potential job prospects proof of your good work makes it much easier for them to hire you.
The cool thing is that these days, it’s relatively easy to build a portfolio. You can set up your own blog and start writing pretty easily and for little money. Just get a cheap hosting plan and a domain, install WordPress and you are off to the races.
Your own blog is a great training ground to hone your craft and practice writing. Plus, if you install web analytics and webmaster tools, you can even understand how well you are doing. Finally, your own blog can work as an inbound marketing tool so that you have people come to you and ask you to write for them instead of the other way around.
3. Any tips on how to improve one’s writing and job skills?
The only thing that is going to make you a better writer is to study and practice. Look at successful blogs in your niche and learn how they structure their blog posts, convey information, what kind of images they are using, etc.
In addition, read articles on how to become a better writer (there are a lot of excellent blogs on these topics out there) and start putting what you learn into practice. Write for yourself and see what results you can create and improve from there.
As for writing faster, I think the most important thing here is to understand that writing and creating blog posts is a multi-step process. Nobody sits down and churns out a perfect post in one go. Your first sentences don’t even have to be complete, coherent, or grammatically correct, all of that stuff comes later.
I like to break down my writing process into several phases
- Research – Here, I simply collect information and bring it into the right order. That means I just jot down what is important – mostly in incomplete sentences – and just try to build a scaffolding for the post, not write anything yet.
- Drafting – In this phase, I only concentrate on creating a cohesive text. It’s more about volume rather than writing something that is ready for print. If I get stuck somewhere or can’t remember the right word, I often also just leave a placeholder so I can come back to it later. Nobody but me will see it, so it can be really bad, the main focus is simply to create a text.
- Editing – This is really where the blog post comes together. It’s when I pass over the text one more time, work on the phrasing, look up words and synonyms, eliminate repetition, and really polish it up. The goal is to end up with a post that I am comfortable putting my name under. Some people even do several editing passes but I found that one is usually enough for me.
- Visuals – When the text is ready, I start adding visuals to it like screenshots but also embedded videos, social updates, and whatever else makes sense to clarify the content and make it more pleasant to consume. Most of the time, I already mark places where I think visuals will go while writing. That way, I only have to fill them in afterwards. The WordPress image block makes this really easy.
- SEO – The last pass is search engine optimization. This is where I input the focus keyword into my SEO plugin and make sure all the lights are green. Over time, I have had a lot of practice, so I do a lot of SEO automatically while writing. This is just to make sure I have done a good job and that I hit the right keyword density, etc.
4. How did you choose your niche (i.e. WordPress)?
That was more or less a coincidence. As mentioned above, I had been training myself in using WordPress, blogging, and doing online marketing for quite a while because of running a one-man startup. In addition, I knew that there was a lot of demand for this content because of how WordPress was growing and because I had been looking for information about WordPress myself a lot.
As a consequence, it made sense for me to write about this area both from skill as well as an economic point of view. I have also written about other topics (and continue to do so) but WordPress and everything to do with building successful websites is my bread and butter.
5. How did you find your first writing gigs? And any tips on pitching to new clients?
To be honest, for the most part, I only found exactly one client. After they hired me, I focused on doing really good work for them and from there, people actually started approaching me to write for them. It turns out, creating really good content is also a way of marketing yourself and your services.
As for how I got that first client, I basically made a list of topics that I could write about and sent it along with links to my portfolio to show them that I could write (again, stressing the importance of a portfolio). They liked my ideas and things developed from there.
The tip I would give here is, again, to make it easy for potential clients to say yes. Do some legwork beforehand, research what kind of topics would be beneficial for their blog or where they are maybe lacking, send a few titles and short summaries of the posts you plan on writing, and show them that you have the right skills. This eliminates a lot of objections right out of the gate and all they have to say is ok.
6. How did you deal with the initial rejections?
Well, first of all, try to see rejection as a learning experience. Ask yourself what you could have done better and how you can improve your approach for the future.
In addition, I would encourage people to try and get rejected more. It will diminish your fear of it. The more often you get rejected, the less impact it will have on you. You will see that you survive it and that it isn’t personal or dangerous. Once you get over your fear of being rejected, you get a lot braver in how you approach people.
Also, it is better to shoot your shot and fail than to not try at all. In the end, you regret the things that you didn’t do more than those that you did and failed at. Trust me.
7. How do you maintain a good relationship with clients?
A good approach is to underpromise and overdeliver. Go the extra mile in your work and be invested in your clients’ success. I think most of my own progress is based on the fact that I go a bit over the top trying to deliver value. I remember, at some point, my posts were bringing in half the traffic of one of my main client’s blogs (and there were a lot of other writers).
Aside from that, the usual: be clear and forthcoming in your communication. That also means being open about it when you are going to deliver something late (which can happen), owning up to your mistakes, and then doing your best to clean it up.
Furthermore, simply be reliable, reasonable, and a friendly and pleasant person to work with. You’d be surprised to see that that is not a thing you can take for granted.
Case in point, I once worked with a freelance writer who basically stole someone else’s identity. I was very surprised when the work they were doing for me didn’t live up to the portfolio that I had seen on other websites and that I had to ask for a lot of rewrites. It was only when they sent me their PayPal email address for payment that I learned it was some other person who was just using the name of an established WordPress writer. So, I was basically catfished.
When you realize that the bar can be really low for how other people conduct themselves, standing out gets a lot easier.
8. Would you say building a website is necessary for beginners?
I would say a website is not 100% necessary though it definitely helps. It makes it clear that you are serious, especially if you have an email address with your own domain instead of something like a Gmail address (though you don’t need a website for that either, a domain and mail provider is enough).
Case in point: When I work with other writers, I usually care more about the portfolio they send me, which is usually on third-party websites, and not their own web presence. There are some people who I had been working with for years before I even noticed that they did have their own website.
However, having your own site can also be a marketing tool in itself. If you write a prolific blog and advertise your services, it helps people get in touch with you without you pitching them. Plus, you can list your portfolio there, so you are able to send a single link instead of a collection.
In the end, at the very least, I advise you to have something like a brochure website with ways to
contact you. It’s like an online business card and makes things a lot easier. Plus, you have a lot of free tools to create this kind of thing, so why not?
9. How much should freelance writers charge per word?
Phew, that is a good question and something that I have struggled with over the years. I think, in the beginning, I negotiated being paid per article and it wasn’t all that high. It was only after doing it for a while and researching other writers in my niche that I switched to per-word payment.
For beginner writers, I think a rate of between $0.10 and $0.20 a word is appropriate. If you are in a locale where the currency is weaker and USD is worth more to you, you can also start below that and compete on price. However, only do it if it makes sense for you. If you do good work and that’s a rate that the market will support, why would you go lower?
If I remember correctly, I started off with $0.10/word and then moved up successively from there. As an established writer with a proven track record, you can ask for several times more than that though I have found that the ceiling for WordPress-related content is somewhere between $0.30 and $0.40/word.
Obviously, for other content, you can ask for even more. I also do some copywriting, where the rates can be much higher though here you usually agree on a fixed project fee and not a per-word arrangement.
10. When is the right time to increase one’s rate?
The best time to increase your rates is when you are at a point where you get work offers that you could afford to decline. When your order books are full and people still want to work with you, that’s the point at which you can start experimenting with stating higher rates to new clients and see if they will accept them.
Then, once you have a baseline of new clients on the higher rate, you can ask your existing clientele to accommodate the increased rate as well and so on and so forth.
But honestly, if you are working full time and notice that your efforts are not reflected in your income or that you are still struggling to make ends meet, that’s also a sign that you need to raise your rates. If your existing clients are not willing to go along with it, it’s time to bring some new ones on board. Get what you are worth.
11. Do the rates include on-page SEO and drafting?
Personally, my rate includes everything from research overwriting, editing, screenshots, all the way to SEO. It’s just a workflow that I have established and a recipe that has worked well for me (overdeliver, remember?). My rates are also priced accordingly.
I’m also not sure how much sense it makes to divide those things. In the end, the goal is to deliver content that performs well in search engines and with readers and all of the above is what it takes to make that happen. To me, it’s simply part of the process.
Obviously, it depends on the client. If they specifically don’t want certain things from you and that greatly reduces your workload, you might consider reducing your rate. Again, see what makes sense for you.
On the flip side, if you have a client who demands a lot of rewrites and extra work, you might want to price that in somehow or make it clear from the beginning that your rates include one round of rewrites and how much you will charge for successive rounds.
But honestly, I haven’t really encountered that kind of thing a lot in my career that made it necessary to take such measures. But maybe I’m just lucky. I have definitely heard other stories from other freelancers, especially online.
12. Do you use any invoicing software?
Not really aside from PayPal’s invoicing function although I probably should. For the most part, I use OpenOffice to create invoices in PDF form and then send them manually via email. I have different templates saved now depending on where a client is located and that makes creating them rather quick. I also try to cut down on the time it takes by doing all my invoices at once on the first Monday of the month.
13. What is the best way to accept payment?
That really depends on where your clients reside. Over the last years, I have tried to move away from PayPal since their fees are a bit steep and it wasn’t always easy to use their records for tax purposes.
For the most part, I simply ask my clients to pay me via bank transfer. Even with clients outside of the European Union, I found that to be the most cost-effective solution. Banks usually charge a flat fee for accepting foreign transfers and those tend to be cheaper than paying a percentage in PayPal. Of course, this also depends on the amount you are transferring.
Aside from that, a payment service that I have had a very good experience with is Wise (formerly known as TransferWise). Their fees are much more affordable and I use them for clients where bank transfer is not an option.
14. In the freelance writing space, what challenges do you believe aren’t talked about enough?
You need a lot of discipline to make it as a freelance writer. The good thing about working for yourself is that you don’t have a boss and nobody tells you what to do. The bad thing is that you don’t have a boss, nobody tells you what to do, so it’s all up to you. You need to get yourself organized and motivated and do the work that is necessary.
I have been doing this for long enough so that I have processes and routines that work for me and keep me productive, but getting there took a lot of conscious effort.
Plus, don’t underestimate the psychological component. Putting yourself out there, pitching your work, dealing with the insecurity of whether you are going to make it, getting rejected, etc. takes a lot of courage and thick skin and you need to be able to deal with it. There will be self-doubts, second-guessing yourself, setbacks, and growing pains that are uncomfortable to go through. While it gets better over time, in the beginning, that’s often the biggest hurdle and the most common reason why people quit.
15. What tools do you use to manage your own time and workflow?
I use Toggl to track my time and also as a sort of Pomodoro timer since I tend to work in sprints. Evernote is what I use for keeping everything organized and all my important information in one place. I also have a Moleskine calendar that I use for my day-to-day planning and to-do list but that’s it for the most part. I try to keep it lean and uncomplicated.
16. What are some non-fiction books that helped you in your career?
“The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss. This is the book that got me started with the idea of wanting to earn money online and being location-independent. While its advice on online entrepreneurship is no longer really up to date (the Internet has changed a lot since it came out), I still use many of the productivity tips from the book, e.g. only checking my emails twice a day.
“The Education of Millionaires” by Michael Ellsberg, is a book that, despite the title, is pretty down to Earth. It is a collection of interviews with real-life millionaires about how they managed to be successful. The book stresses the importance of informal education, meaning learning skills outside of school, college, etc. Having self-taught myself pretty much everything that I am earning money with, it’s something I am a big fan of. Plus, the book tells you about the most important skills to learn in order to earn money and how to get started.
Finally, there is “The $100 Startup” by Chris Guillebeau. Overall, Chris and his fantastic blog were a big source of inspiration for me at the beginning of my journey (he was on a quest to visit all countries in the world before turning 35 back then, which he did!). He stresses that you can live life the way you want and not the way others want you to and the book gives you a lot of ideas on how to start businesses with little overhead.
I have a few more in mind but these are definitely good places to start.
17. And finally, if you had to go back in time and offer advice to your younger self at the beginning of your writing career, what would you say?
If I could do it all over again, I would start sooner and make the decision to invest in what I want earlier. I spent a lot of time being without direction and only started thinking about what I really wanted for a career when I was at the end of university. I probably could have saved myself some years of floating around and been more successful earlier in life.
Aside from that, I probably would advise myself to start writing for myself earlier. I am currently in the process of growing my own blog and not just working for other people to build myself another leg to stand on. I could have probably done that and been further along the way years earlier as well.
Aside from that, thanks a lot for having me! I hope your readers get a lot out of my answers. If there are any questions or if I can help with anything, please feel free to get in touch via my website or on Twitter or LinkedIn.