I’m a Hack Writer Who Writes 5000 Words/Day for $20/Hour

“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.

Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer and ghostwriter, and is the only member of the band Hello, The Future!

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17 Comments / Post A Comment

honey cowl (#1,510)

Very interesting! I currently freelance, though I’ve just gotten started and am hoping not to have to do it for too long. This is fascinating.

John C. Calhoun (#4,775)

Something I always wonder when I read stories like these is: “ghostwritten blog post”? Really? I get the technical writing stuff, but are we talking about junk content here? That is, 5,000 words per day is a monumental amount of writing, and I can’t imagine much of that is thoughtful. And on top of that, I don’t know anyone who would be happy doing that for a living; even if they could do it, there would be existential issues. All the candidates I know have gotten corporate jobs where they write 2,000 words per day about stuff they’re at least mildly interested in, or they do other things and write completely on the side. I guess what I’m saying is, I wonder about the toll this job takes, and why Nicole has chosen this path rather than a more conventional job-with-benefits-while-I-do-projects-on-the-side path.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@John C. Calhoun I’ve done some “junk content” writing and it was always interesting and a challenge — learning about new topics, working in keywords the client wants, etc. It’s interesting to me that this strikes you as a particularly toll-taking job.

moreadventurous (#4,956)

@John C. Calhoun I’ve also done “junk content” writing. The only issue I really had with it was that I worked for a specific industry rather than freelancing for a number of topics. Writing about that one topic got really old really quickly, but it was cool to do research on the random things nonetheless.

sea ermine (#122)

Rather than doing a complete, could you maybe look for jobs in communications, such as for a university or some marketing organization? It would still be writing stuff all day long but with more stability/benefits.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@sea ermine replied downthread; tl:dr, I have done that work as well.

NoReally (#45)

That is not hack. That is enviably awesome.

Ellie (#62)

@NoReally I think it’s kind of depressing. I wouldn’t want to contribute to the proliferation of drivel on the internet. I get that it’s a good way to pay the bills with the skills you already possess, though.

Fantastic! Captivating glimpse into the gears and cogs of a hidden profession. I want to read more things like this where real people break it down. How did you get into this kind of work?

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Lily Hudson@facebook replied downthread :)

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

Working backwards:

@Lily Hudson@facebook: I got into this kind of work first accidentally, then specifically. Like you note, it is a hidden profession. I got my first job by browsing Reddit and reading a “how do you make money” thread, and then following the posters’ suggestions.

I just answered a question on my Tumblr re: how do you find these freelancing jobs: hang out on forums with other writers, for starters.

@Sea Ermine: I used to work for a non-profit in various administrative capacities, including copy-editing and proofreading publications. That job is not precisely “writing things all day long,” but it was enjoyable. I’d count that type of work in my “best-case retraining” scenario.

@John C Calhoun: There’s loads of research indicating that self-employment is equally, if not more, secure than conventional employment with benefits. And every job has its grunt bits. I’m going to avoid delving into existential issues — I assume you’re asking “why do I not feel like a horrible person for writing about hair and compound interest?”

Also I am tickled that no one has yet mentioned the Proclaimers earworm I left in the last paragraph.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@HelloTheFuture People won’t see your responses unless they just come back to look at the post — you may want to respond individually in order that we get email alerts.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@aetataureate Good to know. Thanks!

sea ermine (#122)

@HelloTheFuture Thanks so much for responding to me! That’s interesting to know, I wonder if there are any specific positions with a stronger writing focus than others? I know the university I work at has it’s own Magazine, and the department that handles that as well as anything written that comes out, from the website, to pamphlets, to what gets sent to students to convince them to apply. I’d think something like that would have more of a writing focus than other areas, but I’m sure there are still non-writing elements to it.

I have a question about ghostwriting, have you ever ghostwritten any books or just articles? I ask because I don’t know if the time commitment of a book might bring in more money/add stability if you manage to get some sort of contract with a publisher (ex. ghostwriting an entire series). I’m not a writer though so these are just guesses!

Ralph Haygood (#5,297)

If you’re good at using language precisely, you’d probably be good at programming computers. It’s easy to make much more than $38,000 a year at it, as I do. There’s no need to go back to school for it, either; there are plenty of online resources, and many of them are free. If you want some kind of certification, you can get that online too. To be sure, most of the available work is far from thrilling. However, I’d say it beats writing about the ten best celebrity wedding dresses. Even if you’ve never thought of yourself as a “geek” or “nerd” or whatever, consider programming. Contrary to what many people suppose, it really isn’t very hard, provided you have the capacity to concentrate on a task and pay attention to details.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Ralph Haygood Earlier this year I took Ruby School, until I got to the lesson where they were all “and this will build upon your knowledge of Python…” and since I had no knowledge of Python, I stopped. Used to muck around in BASIC when I was a kid. What would you recommend re: entry languages?

sea ermine (#122)

@HelloTheFuture I am not a programmer but I’m in the process of making a career change into programming and so I’ve been learning new languages and talking to lots of people about the best ways to teach myself.

I’m still at the basics but I would recommend CodeAcademy.com as it assumes you start out without already knowing a language, and you can work through the tutorials at your own pace (they have html, css, python, ruby, jquery, and javascript). I’d also recommend this fantastic book. I know it says ‘for teens’ in the cover but the reason I recommend it is because it is not language specific, it instead teaches you the concepts behind languages (giving examples in different languages as well as making comparisons to everyday things like roads and animals). It’s really helped me grasp new things.

I’d also recommend, once you’ve gone through the book and the tutorials to maybe take an intro class or two at a local community college (I’m starting that next semester and I was told it can help a lot, and helps to make sure you aren’t just practicing mistakes).

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