How One Freelancer Broke in and Earned Big Writing E-Learning Content

E-learningMy freelance writing career didn’t begin with a bang. In fact, it didn’t take off until I stumbled into the uncharted territory of e-learning.

I honestly didn’t give much thought to writing course materials, because I thought online courses were always written by professors, subject matter experts, or a company’s staff.

I was wrong.

As the e-learning industry grows, corporations are seeking out talented writers with a knack for creativity to help them provide engaging, well-written, and easy-to-understand content.

Depending on the length of a course, the amount of research and writing time needed, and other factors such as client management, a writer can start charging anywhere from $1,200-$5,000 per project, for the writing portion alone.

After all, according to Global Industry Analysts, Inc., corporate training is a $200 billion business — and e-learning is a growing chunk of that. There is definitely money for writers to make in this industry.

For writers interested in diving headfirst into writing e-learning content, here’s how I started from scratch and broke into this niche:

1. Study learning management systems

I had no clue what a learning management system (LMS) was before researching my first company. However, with a quick Google search, I began locating free demos all over the Web, and paid attention to the features and the content writing style.

Once I began sending letters of introduction that included my familiarity with popular e-learning systems such as Articulate Storyline, it made my pitch more attractive.

2. Target the right companies

Although I primarily receive freelance work from my college alumni network, I find other e-learning opportunities through job boards.

I locate the type of companies looking for content developers, do quick research about the company, and pitch to them directly instead of enduring a formal online application process.

3. Write a teaching-centered pitch

I was an English instructor in previous years, but classroom experience is not what most e-learning companies care about.

These companies simply want to know if you can relate complicated or “boring” content to an 8th grader — and make it engaging. (An 8th-grade writing level is standard, by the way.)

4. Create an eye-catching, targeted demo

I’m from the greater Houston area, and here, it’s all about energy. Oil and gas is one of the most lucrative industries we’ve got.

So I created a demo slide in PowerPoint that was modeled after a typical slide in Articulate about chemical leak safety for pitching one local company in the sector. I got the job three days later, and was given the opportunity to develop a course similar to the demo!

5. Find the right person to pitch

I found a direct contact who was looking to hire writers by picking up the phone, calling the human resources department, and asking about the person in charge of content development. However, I know many people who detest talking on the phone.

If that’s you, when researching a company’s staff, look for a content specialist manager or a training department manager. Luckily, many of these people are on LinkedIn.

Although there’s no foolproof method for breaking into any industry, this approach gave me a solid start. In just a few short months, I’ve earned more than $12,000 writing e-learning courses for Fortune 500 companies in the oil and gas field.

Interested in writing for e-learning companies? Ask your questions in the comments.

Ashley Denefield is a Texas-based technical writer and instructional designer. Her freelance writing business specializes in the fusion of technical writing, instructional design, and tons of creativity.

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59 comments on “How One Freelancer Broke in and Earned Big Writing E-Learning Content
  1. Yvette says:

    Hi Ashley,

    Your post about e-learning has really helped to create that “Ah ha” moment that every writer dreams of possessing!

    What type of experience and/or qualifications do you need to break into the virtual learning niche? Will companies ask for previous experience, education, certifications & training to help determine whether you will be a great fit for their company? Or will they base contracting decisions upon the quality and uniqueness of your pitch?

    I’ve taken many courses in dental hygiene, and was only a year away from completing my degree, when I decided not to finish. I’d like to pursue freelance opportunities in the e-course industry, but would hate to think my lacking “that piece of paper” would disqualify me from being able to “break into” this exciting new market.

    Yvette

  2. Yvette says:

    Hi Ashley,

    What’s the typical word count for basic e-learning courses for “little guys” with no previous experience such as those offering “coaching services” just starting out? Is it 10,000 words or is it way more?

    This relates to a prospect who wants me to use a litany of “free” services to create “templates” for her course.

    Thanks for the super awesome blog post! 🙂

    Yvette

  3. Jeneba Wint says:

    Ashley,

    Thank you for writing this post. Very insightful! I am also a tech writer in Houston and I am looking to become totally freelance next year. I am in the oil and gas industry and I am taking courses in ux design next year, so instructional design and training is right up my alley. Is it possible to speak with you offline in more detail and network on this topic. Thanks in advance!

  4. Ashley,
    I enjoyed your post. I haven’t written many learning materials yet, but this is something I’d definitely consider now. Do you write any e-learning courses of your own or is it all for clients?

    Regards,

    Bryan

  5. Holly Genser says:

    Ashley, have you heard anything about writing e-learning courses for universities on a freelance basis?

    They are always advertising here for full-time instructional designers for e-learning here. When I interviewed for one of these positions ten years ago, they did all the work internally. However the number of e-learning courses has exploded.

    I guess it wouldn’t hurt to ask!

  6. Maricar says:

    Hi Ashley,
    Thank you for sharing this with us! What great info! I never even considered this niche, because I always thought you had to be a professor to write e-courses.

    Did you pitch to providers of e-courses, or to companies looking to make their own videos to train their own people? What I’m wondering about is whether corporations pay another company to provide their e-courses, or do it themselves.

    Maricar

  7. Anna Pelletier says:

    Hi Ashley,

    This niche sounds really interesting, but it’s new to me. Would you be able to give a specific short example of some project/concept that you helped to communicate? Thanks!

  8. Hi Gayle,

    It sounds like you would be great in the industry! I’m not sure about the exact statistics on what area is in demand, but I can say from experience corporate training is big. I say go for it!

  9. Thank you for sharing this great opportunity with us. I’m definitely exploring this niche and seeing where it takes me. I’m a web writer and scriptwriter; and I think this niche could also open doors for writing corporate training and online marketing videos. What do you think? What fields do you think are the most in demand for e-learning writers?

  10. Thank you for this wonderful post. It very inspiring and encouraging especially for those who are wanting to work as a freelance writer. I am also a freelancer but not a writer although I tried my hands on it before. I can write but since my academic and professional training is not in writing, I kind of find it hard to write. Your post is an enlightenment.

  11. Justine says:

    Hi Ashley,

    This post was really helpful and inspiring! I love how you break down the steps for us. I’m a part-time ESL teacher and love creating curriculum and activities, so I know I have some skills here.

    How long did it take you to learn the LMS’s?
    Have you ever landed a gig without meeting in person?

    I’m a US citizen living in Spain, and I don’t think Spaniards have quite caught on to this, so maybe I should target US companies?

    My mind is racing. Thanks again for this eye-opening post!

    • Hi Justine,

      I am still learning LMSs companies prefer. I am not an expert, and I definitely want to continue exploring different products to strengthen my knowledge-base.

      With modern technology, you definitely do not have to meet clients in person. Some companies will send the information and you can communicate via phone and email.

      Thanks for commenting!

  12. Nathan Segal says:

    This is interesting and it reminded me of my own success with a software company many years ago, when I created a joint venture with them. I wrote a software manual and branded it to their software. Over time, they sold over 11,000 copies and generated royalties of over $90,000. There are many ways to do well with writing and for me, the best part about that whole deal was having a mentor who guided me to success.

  13. Thank you for the great idea, Ashley. I’ve written online courses for water professionals, but have not used the e-learning software you mention. I definitely want to learn more about that. I’m retiring from my FT career in the water industry in March and want to expand my writing business. Thanks again!

  14. Shahrukh says:

    Hi carol,

    I am about to start my journey into freelancing and was hoping that you could assist. I want to know about price rates and how should i determine my rates when dealing with the customer.

  15. Karin Schwarz says:

    Hi,
    I’m just starting freelancing and it is great for me to read these comments. I can’t wait to read and learn more about freelancing opportunities and hopefully I’ll get started very soon.

  16. Fred says:

    I really needed this post today! I have been struggling with jumping into full-time freelancing for longer than I care to admit and kept blaming my delay on not having a solid writing niche. I have written technical manuals and online learning for 14 years but never considered e-learning as a freelance opportunity. I read your post and the light bulb finally came on – it then flashed brilliant colors and alarms sounded too! Thank you SO much for giving me a niche to explore! I’ve had my ah-ha moment thanks to you!

    • Aww shucks! Thanks for the lovely comments, Fred. I’ve wanted to give up many a time myself, especially in the beginning. However, what helped me when I felt like nothing was working was keeping my eyes and ears open and trying to find an opportunity in anything I could put my hand on.

      14 years as a tech writer is amazing! You will definitely do well in this industry.

  17. Steph Weber says:

    Hi Ashley,

    You’ve just flipped my switch! I take a lot of e-learning courses (continuing education) for a medical certification I have and the content is….well, clunky and dated.

    Thanks for the low down on how this niche operates! I’m jumping on this one 🙂

    • Thanks for commenting Steph!

      You are right about the clunky and outdated courses. I’ve had to revise several courses that were written almost a decade and a half ago. Society, rules, procedures have certainly changed since then.

      You know what else? Being in the e-learning business also makes it easy to get work as an editor and proofreader too. They may like your work to the point that they may assign other duties to keep you busy. You just have to ask.

  18. Totally with you on this, Ashley – writing e-learning courses is fun as well as lucrative! 🙂 I also love working as an instructional content consultant because then I get to spend all day reorganizing info like a giant jigsaw puzzle to find the gaps (and learning a lot of useful stuff as a side effect).

    • Hi there Sophie!

      E-learning courses are definitely fun to write. I especially like when I can give a graphic artist an idea for a learning activity or game because it’s just so cool to see it all come together (and play something you’ve thought up).

      I can certainly identify with organizing information like a jigsaw. I remember when I was given a whole binder full of notes, a manual, powerpoints, and pdf files. People would be surprised how this may overwhelm a company, and they are looking for people to help out with the writing and organizing portion.

  19. I had no idea this was an open market either, I almost started thinking about going back to a content mill (well almost…). I’m definitely going to start researching more about e-learning and how to break into this market.

    • Hi Ahmad,

      Thanks for commenting. The way I’ve struggled in the beginning with the writing business, my mentality now is: ANYthing is fair game. If something can be turned into a way to offer services, I don’t assume it’s a closed or open market, I just go for it.

      Glad to hear that you’re interested in the e-learning field!

  20. Penny B. says:

    Hi Karen,

    I don’t know if you saw this but Carol Tice actually had a blog post with John Soares about writing supplement materials for college textbooks (item writing, guides, test, etc.). Here’s the link: http://www.makealivingwriting.com/great-writing-niches-college-textbook-supplements/

  21. Hi Karen,

    I think your general knowledge of ID would be great for the industry! I’m so anti-application for anything. It seems like people send out hundreds of applications that take forever to complete, and you may not even hear back from a company. However, when you call, leave a voice mail, or send direct emails, it’s harder for someone to deny you when you’re providing something they could potentially use to make their lives (or the company’s life) easier. I’ve found that people are more likely to respond to an email if it is well-written, presents a solution for a potential problem that company may be facing, and there is follow up. You just have to start somewhere!

  22. Thanks for reading and commenting Emelia!

    There is always an opportunity out there, and you may be surprised but many communication departments outsource their work to handle other duties. You will be amazed how far you can go just inquiring about a work opportunity or pitching an idea to a company. It’s kind of like looking for a job, without the application.

  23. Great to hear you’re excited Laura!

    I’ve had a similar experience as you taking training courses and saying, “Who wrote this?” Some courses are written and designed poorly, so a talented writer would fair well in this industry.

    There was one point I heard a manager tell me they tried to cut corners and get their SMEs and engineers to write courses to cut corners. The problem — they knew the material but didn’t know how to communicate the information in an easy-to-understand format for the entry level employees. That’s when they began seeking writers. Writing is a skill, and, despite the content mills, there are companies who still recognize it as being such.

  24. Karen Walcott says:

    Thanks for sharing this Ashley. A few years ago, I started a Master’s degree program in Instructional Design. I didn’t finish it, but I took most of the courses. I think that this would be a great field for me to try to break into. I really like your approach of pitching managers directly instead of completing the application process. I’m going to try that with other fields as well. I’ve also been trying to break into educational writing (item writing, curriculum development, etc.) and I find that filling out online application forms is getting me nowhere. I don’t even get an email. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  25. Hi Allen,

    There are tons of e-learning software on the market, and most of the companies have a preference when you sign on to complete a task. The writer really doesn’t have to worry about inputting information in the software or designing graphics or anything too complicated. However, having a general knowledge of the program like how the questions, activities, or screens are formatted assists the writer with knowing exactly how to effectively communicate the information in a clear but concise manner.

    After the company tells you what software they use, I would do a quick search for the software’s site and become familiar with its basic features. (i.e. https://www.articulate.com/ This site lets you try their software for free and has so many topics on e-learning you could literally buy the software and create your own e-learning business. **and no I’m not affiliated with the company in any way just so you know**)

    From experience, Articulate Storyline is probably the most popular (and my particular favorite because of the cool activities), but I’ve known other companies to prefer Lectora.

  26. Hi Bonita,

    You’re definitely speaking my language with curriculum writing. I actually became curious about e-learning from teaching elementary/secondary students. I had to take these training courses every couple of months for something called safeschools. I would always wonder who wrote the material and I just started looking up different companies and contacted people randomly. There are just too many industries out there looking for quality help. Your experience sounds like it would be perfect for e-learning!

  27. Thanks for commenting Leslie!

    There are so many untapped markets out there still appreciate good writers.

  28. Emelia says:

    Wow Ashley! I’m so glad I made time to read this blog post. There’s a new mine that will start operating in 2015 in my hometown. I’ve been thinking this morning and the past days about what writing opportunities could be available in the mines. I was almost discouraged by the fact that they could be having communication officers who do all their writing. But after reading this blog I really want to give it a try.

    Thanks. That’s why I love this blog!

  29. Laura Kuschel says:

    Hi Ashley,

    I didn’t realize that this was an open market. I’ve taken numerous classes over the years via e-learning and didn’t even think twice about getting into it as a freelance writer. I’m currently working for a hotel and had to take numerous e-learning courses for my training, and I found many spelling and grammatical errors and thought to myself, “I could’ve done a better job of writing this!”. Well, lo and behold, I could do it, too! This has been very inspiring! I’ve always wanted to go into training/teaching in some way or another, and here’s my opportunity! I think I’ll start researching hotels and hospitality companies. You made my day!!

  30. Abby says:

    Great post! I never even thought about doing this, and I have taken instructional design, organizational development, and employee development courses. This is definitely something I am going to pursue!

  31. Allen Taylor says:

    Good post, Ashley.

    How many different learning systems are there and do different niches prefer different systems? How do you find out which system is the best one for a particular niche?

  32. Bonita says:

    Thank you so much for sharing about your success. This definitely sounds like something I could do. I’ve written curriculum for middle and high school students and also policies and procedures for hospitals when I worked as a nurse. This is right up my alley.

  33. This is great information – I had no idea such a field existed. Thanks for sharing your post. This sounds like exactly what I’d be good at!

  34. Thanks for the comment Genevieve!

    I’ve learned over time that this is definitely not fool-proof, and it will take time. However, persistent is key. Persistence and research.

  35. Hi Sabita,

    Thanks for the lovely comment. I’m making a few changes on my site, but it will be back soon!

    As far as the industry, the work is out there. It really just takes some sleuthing and persistence (as with anything else). Training managers are moving more and more toward e-learning because it’s more cost effective than flying a training specialist or a whole team to a particular place to get information. Instead, companies are definitely gravitating to purchasing or creating one program they can use as many times they want. They just need a little help to do it.

  36. Genevieve says:

    This sounds like there could be some value in following your advice. I will definitely check it out. Thank you.

  37. Hi there Carol,

    The course information that I’ve written about ranges and is requested by the company I am working for. Most of the time I’m given jumbled notes from an engineer or manager and am told to polish the material for their reading audience. I’ve written safety training materials on topics like excavation, fire safety, LNG and even HR topics like coaching and counseling in the workplace. It really just depends on what they want me to write.

    I even wrote a course on Chemical Combinations and Properties for Process Operations and I’m so not the chemistry person. It’s all about taking what they give you, communicating with SMEs, and turning their notes into clear, concise, and interesting material. They will handle the rest (graphics, narration, etc). However, it is helpful to be familiar with e-learning software.

  38. Sabita says:

    Hi Ashley,

    It’s so nice to hear about this area. During my early freelance writing days, I always wanted to apply in this niche. Your article worked as a beautiful reminder making me add it as a “freelance idea” to reach business clients.

    How soon your website will be up again. I’m excited to see it.

  39. Penny says:

    Hi Ashley,

    Thank you so much for the article and sharing your experience. Can you please contact me directly via my email?

    Penny B.

  40. Very interesting and timely for me and what I’ve been researching. Tell me, exactly what kinds of things do you teach in these courses?

  41. Hi Katherine!

    You’re definitely right about the medical industry, especially in the Houston area. It’s the largest in the entire world! I just saw a job ad for a training-related position which means there is a potential opportunity for a freelancer to offer their services. It’s about taking a chance, doing some research, and making the pitch.

  42. Sorry; make that “geographical REGION.”

  43. Greetings from a fellow Houstonian, Ashley!

    The medical industry is also a “biggie” around here. It does pay to learn what business fields dominate your preferred geographical reason–or vice versa.