“They’re like great hacks, in the age-old tradition—you can give them basically any topic and an hour later, they’ll have something smart and interesting to say about it.”
— Dan Kois of Slate, in conversation with Nicole Cliffe of The Toast and Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic for Scratch, describing the type of writers they needed, to keep their fast-paced, continuous-content sites going
That’s me. My name is Nicole Dieker, I’m 32 years old, and I am one of the unsung, invisible hacks of the internet generation. I help fill blogs and news sites and online stores with the new text those sites need every day. Within an hour I can give you the ten best celebrity wedding dresses, or a thousand words on how to get your kids to eat healthy snacks. I can ghostwrite to match your blog’s tone and style, if you need a post in a hurry. I write approximately 5,000 words per day, at various rates that average out to about $20/hour.
I can’t tell you who my clients are. Yes, in part because of the NDAs, but also because my writing, at its best, is supposed to be invisible.
Take, for example, the copy you see when you log on to your bank’s website. 500 words on the importance of compound interest or CD laddering. No byline, of course. That’s the type of stuff I write. More functional than memorable. I’ve done work for dictionaries and catalogs and multiple-choice test questions. I’ve described how to French braid hair, how to reverse French braid hair, how to French twist hair, how to make a sock bun. I’ve written the introductions to probably a hundred recipes:
This delicious upside-down cake will be a delight at your next party or potluck. The moist, buttery texture combines perfectly with the tangy pineapple. For that extra touch, use fresh pineapple instead of canned.
It isn’t particularly hard to write any of this because it’s already obvious how the writing should go. This type of writing is like driving a car to the airport; you already know how to get there, you just need to make sure you follow the rules and don’t crash along the way.
The rules, of course, are what makes or breaks these short pieces, and learning to follow the rules is a key step in becoming an invisible hack writer. Writers like me live in fear of warning-shot demerits for misplaced commas or modifiers; for writing “briskly stir” instead of “stir briskly.” We are paid, in part, for our precision.
I’m also a ghostwriter, which differs from the copywriting in that I can infuse a bit of my own personality (or, in many cases, someone else’s personality) into the writing, and I can use the Oxford comma. I can dig in deep and really explore a topic. There are some very specific technical topics for which many of the search results lead to my articles, even though my name is nowhere near them.
I also make pitches and get placements in my own name. My goal is to continue to increase the number of words out there with my name on them, although I’m not foolish enough to think that means I’ll never have to write another hair-braiding article again. Nor, honestly, would I want to give up that type of copy work. How-to articles and byline-free content seems to be where the money is, these days.
Every week, I post my income on my Tumblr, along with the numbers of articles I write. I’ve been doing that for over a year, because when I started freelancing I knew I wanted to be absolutely clear about how much money I was making and how much work I was doing. (My original freelance gig was as a musician in my one-woman act Hello, The Future! It seemed like a viable business model, and in fact I made over $20K — net, not gross — selling CDs at conventions across the country.)
The average weekly income sorts out to between $650-800, for between 40 and 50 articles. (For simplicity’s sake, I track every finished product as an “article,” whether it’s 250 words describing a hair dryer or a 1,000-word ghostwritten blog post.) This, in combination with the money I still earn playing nerd music, works out to just under what the federal government considers “middle income” for a single person, or $38,000 a year before taxes.
That’s both a lot of money and not a lot of money, and one of the worries I have about this career is that it won’t have a lot of room for growth. After all, this isn’t the type of field in which one regularly negotiates a raise. I also know that even “making it big” in the internet magazine world won’t really help me out financially; even if I get a regular byline on a popular website, I’m still only going to be making around the same money that I am now.
I have a book in my back pocket, like everyone else, but even that is only another piece of work for another sum of money — if, of course, I can find a publisher. So for me, the future looks a bit hazy; I could continue this type of work indefinitely, since I’m good at it and it offers significant flexibility. Having just turned 32, considering a flexible career is important, in the “if I’m ever going to become the primary caretaker of an infant, it’s going to happen in the next five years” sort of way. (I’m just as glad as anyone else that Obamacare happened.)
Or, at some point, I could be forced to retrain. Become something else, which in a best-case scenario means administrative work in an office for $50K/year and in a worst-case scenario means the service economy for $35K/year. I’d rather not do that — honestly, I’d love to wake up every morning and play with words for the rest of my working life — but I don’t know yet how that option will play out.
For now, I’ll write my 5,000 words, and tomorrow, I’ll write 5,000 more.