At 21, Steven Walling has accomplished what some writers twice his age are still trying to figure out: how to make a living as a digital freelancer.
Despite his youth, Walling took a very old fashioned path to get where he is today. Fresh out of high school, he took whatever paid writing work he could get, then followed his bliss and became so good at what he really loved doing someone paid him to do it.
In Walling’s case, that passion was wikis, the communally edited online encyclopedias. He started contributing to Wikipedia, the mother of all wikis, as a volunteer and became so proficient he turned pro upon landing a steady freelance gig with AboutUs.org, a Portland, Oregon, outfit that aims to create an editable, curated guide to the Web.
In the course of creating a career path, Walling has become a mainstay in Portland’s burgeoning tech scene, a funky brew of computer geeks and creative types, many digital natives like Walling with no technophobias to overcome to feel comfortable working entirely online. Walling helped start started Wiki Wednesday, a monthly user group meeting for wiki enthusiasts, and helps out with WikiProject Oregon and other local wiki groups.
Here’s what he has to say about his career, wikis and what digital natives can teach older freelancers looking to transform their own writing businesses.
What’s your background as a writer?
Most of my experience and training was in creative writing, poetry, short stories, it wasn’t journalistic writing. I was doing traditional freelance performing arts criticism: film, dance, literary, a little bit of food writing. I grew up in Vancouver, (Wash.) and early on freelanced for publications there, then moved across the river to Portland and did theater and film criticism for Willamette Week and a few others publications. I went straight from high school to writing.
You didn’t go to college. How did you get your first assignments?
My brother is also a writer and he was writing for a now defunct alt-weekly in Vancouver. He knew the editor needed freelancers and I had extensive theater knowledge and could write. It was start up and they didn’t want to use Portland writers. I became a regular writer for them. Then I moved into the normal world of pitching editors and writing queries.
How did you get involved with wikis?
A teacher introduced me to Wikipedia in an AP History class. I sort of worked with it as a consumer. Then I saw the ‘Edit’ button and felt the compulsion to do things like add citations. I’ve always been passionate about encyclopedic subjects like history. I’ll read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and become interested in food.
How did you pick what you wanted to write about?
Whatever I wanted, that’s the beauty of Wikipedia. It’s very ad hoc.
Isn’t there already a lot of material?
It depends on the subject. On a Columbia River article, there was material there already, but after having become a wikipedian, I could tell there were gaps in the coverage and it needed citations. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit: on certain topics, articles don’t exist or only have a few sentences that would be easy to improve. Or you care about a subject and you tackle it and build up the quality.
Did anyone check your work?
It’s a constant system of live peer review. Every change on a project is logged in several places. So if you make an edit, the old version and current version are saved in a history you can access easily from that page. There’s also what’s called recent changes stream, where every edit on the site gets logged into a long stream. Wikipedia is a pretty diverse place, it’s not just people interested in writing encyclopedia articles, but mundane tasks like checking for vandalism and checking the stream.
How did your volunteer work lead to paid gigs?
I met AboutUs.org at Wiki Wednesdays. I had no intention of pitching them for a job, I was happy with my regular freelance work. But they had one writer on staff and he was desperate to get someone else in to help. As Wikipedia is to encyclopedia articles, AboutUs wants to be to domain names and websites. So for Google, you’d have editable wiki pages things about Google’s domain, contact info, a summary of what the website is, a tag system to describe it. If you’re familiar with Whois, AboutUs aims to create a what is, a basic, user editable layer that tells you who a website is and what they’re related to. AboutUs is based in Portland and has been around for about 3 years. I joined in December 2007. I was and still am a contract employee, but spending the bulk of my work time writing for them. I have other freelance gigs, but they’re strategic consulting projects that grew out of my wiki work.
What kind of writing do you do?
If you search AboutUs for a website and it doesn’t exist in our system, the system automatically creates a page that becomes an editable wiki page. We have about 14 million pages in our database but only several hundred thousand have been actively edited by people. That’s growing 2,000 or 3,000 every day, minimum. If someone’s interested in having a richer AboutUs page but doesn’t want to learn the wiki technology, they can pay us to write the article and have it featured on the front page of our site one time, which is an SEO benefit. So I write articles about businesses. The articles are a middle ground between a Wikipedia entry and a press release. I also have other more technical duties, patrolling changes and that sort of thing. And I write posts for the company’s blog.
Where do you work?
Anywhere I happen to be, but I mainly work from AboutUs because it’s a pleasant office and even though I’m a contract writer I do a lot of work for them. We have about 30 to 35 full- or part-time employees and probably a half dozen freelancers.
How much do freelancers make for wiki work?
I can’t talk about the exact dollar amount.** AboutUs is different in the sense that we don’t act like a marketplace for freelancers. We don’t take pitches. We tell writers to write rich detailed content that makes the customers happy. They email back and forth with the customer to see if the article meets their needs. SEO is one of those needs but not the only one. We don’t penalize articles based solely on lack of keyword density. **(NOTE: AboutUs pays freelancers per article and not based on traffic; although Walling wouldn’t publicly discuss rates, my take based on his off-the-record comments is that their rates are somewhat to significantly higher than those paid by sites such as Associated Content or Helium. – MVR)
What kind of wiki consulting work do you do?
I work with businesses that have set up a wiki for their internal use and then realize wiki software isn’t just a new technology, it’s a new way of working and that challenges the norms of corporate life and the way people work together. People see the benefit to how it changes work flow – you don’t have to email documents all the time – but it can be slightly jarring. So businesses come to me to learn how to do it better and create a comprehensive strategy for doing that.
What’s your take on Portland’s media business?
Portland has a really vibrant community of freelance designers and programmers and start ups. It’s become much more diverse and we’re deeply interested in cultivating community as a group. There have always been the writer-tech hybrids, but now more writers who wouldn’t be interested in that sort of thing have been pushed by economic reasons into dipping a toe into the tech world. A lot of them out of necessity are developing a digital literacy to move into the next phase of how they’ll work.
What advice do you have for those writers?
Don’t be scared by the technology. Being a digital native made it easier, but I had to hack at it and work and spend my hours doing the legwork like any other job. The deeper I get into this as a creative person, the more I discover what I thought was intimidating wasn’t that hard. HTML or wiki mark up can sound scary to a traditional freelancer. But if you give it a try and are open minded you’ll discover it’s not as intimidating as you thought it would be. Also, it’s easier to grasp a new way of freelancing or writing if you get support from the community. As a freelancer it comes naturally to plug away at something by yourself. But the thing that’s helped me is plugging into this vibrant community and finding mentors who’d taken these steps already. So maybe you’ll have to change the way you’re working, but you won’t be alone.