launching a digital content career for writers

Digital Advice for Writers: Tips for Transitioning to A Digital Content Career

Before I became a digital content creator, I worked as a professional writer for over a decade.

I transitioned my career path from a newspaper reporter in 2005, back when most people working in the digital space were techies. Before iPhone and Twitter existed and “YouTube University” taught us how to do everything.

So much has changed, but one thing is constant: the skills that make you a good writer are a perfect fit for a career in digital content.

In this post, I’ll show you how to become a content creator using the skills you already have.

There’s more opportunity than ever to make a living as a content creator, content strategist, digital media specialist or content producer, which brings me to my first tip.

Tip #1 Writing is not called writing anymore, it’s called content.

This may be an obvious one, but I’ll share a quick story to explain why I bring it up:

When I searched for my first “web” job all those years ago, I was pretty naive. I thought that, as a writer, I had a strong resume for a wanna-be web content writer.

After all, I had written under daily deadline pressure for 15 years. I had published thousands of articles that carried my byline in a large, metropolitan daily newspaper.

And there were lots of job postings that seemed perfect for me. Positions that described writing for web pages and online magazines.

But I wasn’t getting any bites.

I started to notice something about these job listings. The word content was used. A lot. The job descriptions sought writers, but they didn’t call it that.

So I replaced “writing” with “content” on my resume.

And just like that, I got noticed. Within a week of updating my resume, I had several interviews and lots of interest. In two weeks, I had my first digital gig.

Nothing about me changed during that time – except for a word on my resume.

That taught me my first big lesson about working in the digital space.

Keywords matter. A lot.

Tip #2: Don’t be scared off by SEO.

SEO is intimidating, but you can start small. Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio

Search Engine Optimization are three words that have struck fear in the heart of many talented writers.

Friend, fear not! A little knowledge can go a long way, and you can start small, with keywords.

Before we begin, it might make you feel better to know that NOBODY except for Google completely understands SEO.

That’s because SEO is all about trying to figure out what kind of content Google likes. And Google is the only one who knows for sure. Google doesn’t tell anyone else because this is Google’s secret sauce.

See? All of a sudden, you’re not so clueless.

And how about this feather in your cap:

If you’re a good writer, you’re already better than most SEO experts out there, without knowing anything about SEO. Because Google rewards good writing.

AND, here’s the fun part: you can take your writing a step further with some simple strategies to make your content easier for Google to understand. This is called optimization.

That’s all SEO is: giving your content a good shot at being found in Google searches.

You can start with keywords.

The hard truth about digital content is that it can be fantastic but if no one finds it, it will never be read.

That’s where keywords come in.

Keywords connect your masterpiece with the universe of people searching for things on Google.

Since Day 1, Google’s whole business has depended on keywords.

You might be thinking now, “OK, this all sounds good, but what the heck are keywords?”

They are words. Really! That’s all. Just as writing is called content; words in the parlance of the digital world are keywords.

What the first Google search page looked like.Source: Google

Google was founded in 1998 (1998!) and to this day maintains keywords are the heart of its business:

The most basic signal that information is relevant is when a webpage contains the same keywords as your search query. If those keywords appear on the page, or if they appear in the headings or body of the text, the information is more likely to be relevant.

‘”How Search Algorithms work” – Google

Learning a little about how to use keywords strategically to make that connection happen is time well spent. There are simple strategies that will pay big dividends if you learn them.

Here’s a real-world example of why it pays to optimize your content:

My last full-time job was at a global law firm that produced a ton of content. When I left, the firm’s website had over 25,000 pages.

And Google Analytics told me that people didn’t read most of them.

Why?

The lawyers didn’t optimize their content with keywords. And they wrote like lawyers, which Google doesn’t love.

Some of those lawyers billed $1,000 an hour. And yet they spent hours and hours creating content no one read.

So, give your writing its best shot: spend some time at YouTube University learning about keywords. Check out Google’s SEO Starter guide. And Google “keyword research” to find thousands of helpful articles that teach you how to use them.

There’s a lot more to SEO than keywords, of course. But keywords are the building blocks and understanding how they work builds a great foundation for digital content.

Tip #3 You don’t need to know how to code.

You don’t have to code to be a digital content rockstar. Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio

Coding, or the fear of it, has prevented many talented writers from moving their careers online and making better money for doing the same job.

Newspaper reporters in particular suffered when the internet came in and eliminated their jobs because reporters weren’t often the ones getting the new internet jobs.

Why? Because they weren’t qualified?

Heck to the no!

The skills that reporters and other professional writers have are a match made in internet heaven. The ability to present information accurately and concisely is what the internet, and newspapers, are all about.

So why did so many reporters languish at newspapers instead of jumping into the digital space?

Many members of the media never tried for those jobs because they assumed that to write for websites you had to know how to code.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you don’t.

I don’t know how to code, and I’m glad I don’t have to because that would make me an unhappy blogger.

Writers write words. Coders write code. Each is a profession in its own right.

Right now you’re reading an article on a website made entirely by me. See? You can even build a whole website without knowing how to code.

Now for a little more about those words…

Tip #4 Less is more.

Photo credit: Prateek Katyal

Writing for the digital space requires a strict economy of words, just as newspapers do.

The modern attention span is built for brevity.

If you’re not schooled as a journalist and you want to build a digital career, your content will be helped by thinking like a reporter.

In the words of my favorite journalism professor:

“Be as specific as possible, as soon as possible.”

And:

“If you see an adjective, kill it.”

There’s no room for fluff on the internet.

Fluff doesn’t make a good impression. When users get a whiff of it, they tend to bolt quickly like a thief in the night.

Rumor has it that Google’s own algorithms penalize webpages with too much fluff.

Also, when you write for the web, make your paragraphs short. Your content should be scannable. Remember people will be looking at it on all different screens, including some that are pretty small.

Increase the size of your text and shorten those graphs, as we used to say at the paper. Your readers will reward you by sticking around longer.

Tip #5: Do learn photo-editing basics. Don’t buy an expensive camera.

Photos don’t need to be perfectly descriptive to add interest to your content. Photo credit: Matthew Henry

Whereas you don’t need to learn code to build a promising digital content career, you’re not totally off the hook with having to learn a few new things.

Photo editing tops the list of the skills you’ll need to work as a content creator.

Visuals are an important element of each and every web page. You don’t have to have the perfect picture, but you should make sure the picture is the right size so it will display properly and load quickly on the page. Those two things make up 75 percent of my photo editing duties.

I don’t have the eye of a professional photographer, and I definitely don’t have a nice camera. Many times, I use photos that I didn’t even take myself (like the one just above).

But I understand the importance of visuals and can get by with a few tricks of the trade.

Here are my top three:

  1. Resizing. Adjust your photos so they fit on your page. Change the dpi (dots per inch) to between 72 and 96 for faster loading.
  2. Cropping. This is especially important for social postings because the shape of your photo or video differs depending on the social channel. For example, YouTube videos should be shot in landscape, while Instagram pictures display properly in portrait mode. You can repurpose your photos and videos for different social channels by cropping them.
  3. Filters. A quick way to “edit” a photo. Filters make your pictures look good without having to mess with lots of settings.

Tip #6: You don’t have to know how to do things anymore. You just need the right software.

Photo credit: Austin Chan

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the things you don’t know how to do in the fast-changing digital world.

Like building a website, creating a podcast, editing videos, selling products online, and processing transactions.

I do all of those things, and I don’t know how to do any of those things.

Wait, what?

Software does them for me.

Here’s a post with my favorite digital tools. (The cool part? Most of them are free.)

You know that expression “there’s an app for that”?

Replace app with software and you’re off to the races. For anything you want to create, there is software to do it for you.

All you need to do is learn to use the tool and apply your brilliant, creative mind to it.

A little extra piece of advice: there is a lot of software out there, and software shopping can be like going window shopping and coming home with bags of clothes you don’t need.

Try not to get swept away by all the cool tools, and the tantalizing promises that they will change your life.

Spend some time reading reviews and recommendations. Many platforms will give you a free trial. Try before you buy and find what works for you.

You can also ask me! Drop a comment below or shoot me an email, I’d be glad to give you a steer if I can.

Tip #7 Use Google Analytics

Google Analytics gives you a good look at how your content is performing. Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio

Google Analytics is the best tool on the internet.

Every business, whether a one-woman blog or a global conglomerate, uses it. It’s free and if you’re a writer, you need to make friends with it.

Google Analytics tells you how your content is performing. Not in an embarrassing, shout-it-out loud kind of way … more like a dear, old friend who pulls you aside and lets you know your zipper is down kind of way.

It whispers in your ear, politely explaining how your writing is performing (or not) with a dashboard full of data only you will see.

I gotta admit that much of that data I hardly ever look at. Data scientists would feel differently, but knowing what browsers people use and where they live doesn’t make my content better.

We writers aren’t data scientists. Just as you don’t know how to code, you don’t need to understand everything in Google Analytics.

But there are a few metrics that can help your digital career tremendously.

Three key metrics to get to know in Google Analytics:

1. Time on page

Remember those lawyers whose web copy no one read? Knowing how long people spend on your pages is the most important metric to me, as a writer, in Google Analytics.

The better your page, the more time users will spend on it.

If you put a long, legal opinion on a web page and Google says people are spending just five seconds on that page, it means no one is reading it.

Sorry lawyers.

On the other hand, if you create an awesome piece of content, you will be rewarded with longer time-on-page averages.

Oh, and psssst: Google loves pages that people spend a lot of time on. You will be rewarded again because when Google sees that people love your page, it will start showing your page in search results.

Then even more people will read it.

See how this works?

2. Bounce rate

Bounce rate is another juicy metric.

It tells you when users bolt from your website by tracking the exact page they are on when they leave.

If a web page has a high bounce rate, it means it drove most people away – not just from that particular page, but from the whole website. Sigh.

In general, writers want to create web pages with a low bounce rate.

There are exceptions: for example, single-purpose landing pages meant to do one thing – like signing you up for an offer – are designed to be one-and-done.

But the job of most pages will be to get you engaged with the content.

A high bounce rate tells you there’s something about the page that isn’t clicking with users. A low one lets you know the page is doing its job, providing valuable information and, even better, asking its readers to pull up a chair and stay awhile and check out more pages on your website.

3. Medium/source

Google Analytics also tells you how people found your web page.

This is information is golden. It lets you know where your readership is hanging out and what channels could be good for promoting your content.

I’m always fascinated by what I see here. This is a metric that can vary according to the page.

The great big internet works in mysterious ways, but the connections are made a little clearer by studying this metric.

Tip #8 Readers are called users, and here’s why that’s important

For my final tip, I’ll finish where I started, with some vernacular from the digital space.

You may have noticed throughout this post I refer to readers as users.

This is another term that might seem like a new word for something that’s been around forever.

But users are more than readers because in the digital space there is interaction. Books tell stories and give us information. Websites do that too, and so much more.

We have the ability to buy things, send emails, watch videos, write reviews, and post comments on blogs and media websites. Just to name a few things.

The internet is built for action.

Content that performs well in the digital space helps users complete an action.

Think about the last time you thought to yourself: “I’m going to cozy up to the internet and read a nice story.”

Yeah, we don’t really do that. (Thankfully we still have books!)

Now think about the last time you wanted to do something online: sign your kid up for baseball, download a movie on Netflix or buy a snow shovel on Amazon.

How many times has the content on a product page convinced you to buy a product? That’s content doing its job.

Or, maybe you read a helpful blog post and signed up for emails to get updates on new blog posts? Or watched a YouTube video and then fixed your car?

Again, rock on, content.

Nothing but blue skies ahead for writers! Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro

The opportunities for content creators in the digital space are endless. If you’re a writer, it’s just a matter of taking advantage of them.

Looking back on my 30+ years making a living with content, I’m glad I was young and fearless and tried new things when I had no idea what I was doing. And then kept doing that, over and over.

If you aspire to a digital career, I hope that you found a little inspiration here. And if you didn’t – Google Analytics will let me know. 😉

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