Content Crafters is an interview series where we de-construct the tools, tips, and tactics that top bloggers use to get so much work done. you’ll walk away in mere minutes with actionable takeaways you can try out right away. Let’s dive in!
Colin Newcomer is a freelance writer based in Hanoi, Vietnam (though originally from Pennsylvania).
He focuses on WordPress blogs and has bylines in top WordPress publications like ThemeIsle, WPKube, Elegant Themes, and Grammarly.
He stumbled into internet marketing when he turned 15, managing Facebook ad campaigns with $800 daily ad spend.
Soon after, he started a graphic t-shirt blog that generated over $1 million in gross affiliate sales.
In Hanoi, he worked at Cốc Cốc, a Vietnamese search engine with over 21 million users, where he got a firsthand look at the inside of an AdWords-like product.
How did you get into writing professionally?
I was already living in Vietnam when I started freelancing, so my job opportunities were a little more limited than most people.
I actually did have a “real” job here, working at the Vietnamese equivalent of Google. But I wasn’t happy with the work that I was doing, so I started looking for alternatives.
I stumbled into a job post looking for a WordPress writer. I’d had my own blogs, and I knew a lot about WordPress. But other than that, I had no professional experience. Before I applied, I basically just researched how to write a good pitch. Then I got the gig.
From that first gig, I started getting work via my byline, and I also got another couple gigs via cold pitches.
Pretty soon I was making more money freelancing in the evenings than I was at my day job, which is when I decided to go full time with it.
One of the great things about starting off in a country with a very low cost of living is that the stakes are very low. I was never going to starve if I couldn’t find work, so I was able to make the jump without any stress.
Why did you choose to freelance as opposed to working in a content position in-house?
There a couple of reasons…
First off, there’s the simple one – money.
It would be hard to find an in-house position with the same earning potential as freelancing. Also, living abroad mitigates many of the disadvantages of freelancing. For example, health care costs are nothing in Vietnam, whereas USA-based freelancers have a huge health insurance burden if they want to go freelance.
Then, there’s the independence.
When you work in-house, you’re operating under the “employer:employee” relationship. But if you’re doing freelancing right, you should have a “business:business” dynamic where you’re on equal footing.
Basically, you can’t fire your boss if they’re a pain to work with, but you can always fire a tough client.
Regarding the freelance life, what challenges do you believe are underrepresented or aren’t talked about often enough?
When you start having conversations with your Google Home just to have someone to talk to…yeah, that’s not a good sign.
You have to go out of your way to find social stimulation, which can also be tough if your partner works a traditional job. When my girlfriend gets home at the end of the day, she just wants to relax and be alone. But I’ve been sitting around the house all day, so I can’t wait to get out.
Is it weird living and working abroad? What’s been the biggest/most surprising change? Coolest part of Hanoi in your opinion?
Once you’ve been abroad for a few years, it doesn’t feel like living abroad anymore – it just feels like…living.
For example, Vietnamese traffic is objectively insane. But at this point, it’s just “traffic” (I also ride a scooter everywhere – which was weird, but now I love).
Once you settle in a place, you’re going to find the same routines, you’ll have little things that annoy you, etc. Honestly, it’s weirder going back to the USA at this point.
The best part of Hanoi is the lakes. There are lakes everywhere around the city, both big and small. My apartment is right by a lake that’s 10 miles around…right in the middle of the city.
It makes for some awesome views, and some much needed calm in the chaos that is the rest of Hanoi.
What are the benefits of freelancing that you believe are underrated?
This might be an odd answer, but here’s the biggest thing I love about freelancing:
Being able to do stuff when everyone else is at work.
No rush hour traffic. No lines at the grocery store. No waiting for the squat rack at the gym.
It’s…glorious. And I don’t think I could ever go back to working a fixed schedule.
It’s also great being able to scale your hours up or down depending on how much money you want to make. As long as you keep your expenses low and have enough work, you can always scale up or down as needed. If I didn’t live somewhere so cheap, I probably wouldn’t have that view, though!
What’s the biggest mistake most content writers make when creating a piece of content? How would you do it differently?
They don’t think about who’s going to actually read the article. You can take the same topic and write it ten different ways depending on who’s going to be reading it.
If you don’t get your audience, you’re not going to do a good job on the piece.
That’s usually the only question I ask most prospective clients – “who’s going to be reading the article?”
Once you know that, you should naturally adjust the rest of the piece to match that audience.
For example, if I’m writing a post for power WordPress users, I’m not going to spend 5 paragraphs explaining some basic WordPress feature. I’ll just gloss over it and get to the more technical stuff.
On the other hand, if I’m writing for beginners, I would still take the time to explain all the basic concepts.
How do you get most of your freelance business? You have a solid online presence with your blog and many bylines, so do you ever need to use outbound tactics, or is pretty much everything organic at this point?
I’m not sure if I’m normal, but I’ve done very little outbound work to grow my freelancing. Almost all of my work has come to me via my byline, and that’s been true since pretty early on. I only got about three or four clients via cold emails/job posts, and then everything else came from snowballing bylines.
This is the big benefit of choosing a tight niche for your freelancing business. Once you become an expert in your niche, businesses in that niche will actively seek you out which makes life pretty easy.
If you’re a generalist, no one is going to go looking for you, which forces you to go out and find work.
How did you choose your niche (why do you specialize in WordPress)?
WordPress hit the trifecta for me:
- It’s something that I know a lot about, which lets me write authoritatively on the subject.
- There’s a huge audience because WordPress powers over 31% of the Internet
- There are lots of people who need help with content because there are so many small theme and plugin shops.
It also has a nice barrier to entry, which lowers the competition from other writers. There are so many interconnected concepts with WordPress that it’s hard for a generalist to do a good job.
How do you think about differentiating content for a competitive topic? For example, if you’re planning to publish something like “wordpress for beginners,” how do you assure that the piece will stand out from the crowd and be successful?
I just try to make it more helpful. That’s kind of broad, but it’s an important distinction because “helpful” is not necessarily “longer” or “more research”.
When you read the other pieces you’re trying to beat, find any weak points where you think your target audience won’t benefit. Sometimes this is someone rambling on for 10 paragraphs on a topic that could be 1 paragraph. Or sometimes it’s someone glossing over a topic that really does deserve 5 paragraphs.
So yeah – I don’t really have a set process – it’s just about getting in the mind of the people you’re trying to connect with and creating something that will be more helpful for them.
Any weird productivity tips for your personal productivity? How do you manage your own time and workflow?
Track your time, even if you don’t bill hourly. It forces you to account for your time and be more focused.
Even though most of my work is project based, I track my time religiously, and I only track time where I’m actively working. For example, if I tab over to Reddit for two minutes, I always stop the timer.
There are two benefits to that level time tracking.
First, when you see the timer ticking away, you have to focus because otherwise you’re being dishonest (remember – you only track time that you’re actively working!).
Second, it shows you how much of your “work day” is wasted. For example, even if I “work” from 9 am to 5 pm, I normally only get 5 or 6 hours of actual work done in that time (which is still good – I think the average office worker is under 2 hours!).
Gimme 3 tips to improve my own writing? (Or rather, tips in general that any writer can use to improve their craft)
1. Have a voice. Sure, some people might hate the voice that you write with, but others will love it. You’re better off making a specific group of people love your writing rather than making everyone feel meh.
2. Longer is not always better. While in-depth is great, some writers get this weird idea that a higher word count is more impressive. You’re not trying to hit a word count for your high school English class. If you can communicate the same ideas in a short package, that’s almost always better. The only way to get this done is editing. Once you understand this, you’ll find that it’s actually more difficult to write shorter content than it is longer content.
3. Don’t write a high school essay intro. When you write your intro, start talking directly to your audience right away. Again – you’re not writing high school essays. This post should be required reading for every writer.
Oh, and I’ll give you a bonus weird one:
Watch stand up comics and pay attention to how they talk. Standups are basically like professional storytellers. And while it may seem weird, I think it’s improved my writing to see how they speak to keep audience members engaged. Plus, it’s an excuse to watch standup!
Additional Notes and Commentary
Hi! It’s your editor again. This section is for those who want to dive deeper on individual points. I’ll expand here on some of the answers above and give you more details on any tools, processes, or resources that were mentioned in the interview
On Choosing a Niche…
This is a topic that’s come up again and again. When building a career as a freelance writer, it really helps to focus on a specific niche.
Colin has made a name for himself in the WordPress space. If you think “WordPress writer,” you think Colin. This is good. When it comes time to hire a writer, clients are going to think of Colin and reach out, and he’s going to have the edge over a more general freelancer.
As he explains it, “ff you’re a generalist, no one is going to go looking for you, which forces you to go out and find work.”
Another skill that’s come up frequently – Emma Brudner, Sophia Bernazzani, Kaleigh Moore have all mentioned it – is empathy. If you’re going to be a good content writer, you need to have empathy. You need to be able to feel your readers’ challenges and answer them accordingly.
As Colin said, “it’s just about getting in the mind of the people you’re trying to connect with and creating something that will be more helpful for them.”
While the concept is simple, the execution is incredibly difficult, and this ability is what separates the good writers from the great writers.
On Time Tracking..
Colin has an interesting productivity tip: track your working time, even if you’re not billing by time.
This is something I haven’t done, but should. I’ve intuitively noted that some days are more productive than others, and it’s probably because some days I spend more time on Reddit, but without tracking actively, I don’t actually know.
I’m going to start trying this out. A few tools I’ve found to help out with tracking: