freelance writers
Storytelling Communications

When Freelance Writers’ Work Doesn’t Go Viral: A Recovery Guide

6 Minute Read

Have you ever marveled at some of the junk that goes viral? On one hand, you love the drama. I’m with you there—I can’t rip my eyes away from many of the trending stories each day. On the other hand, you wonder: how do some messages get the attention they do when the communicators are so silly, sloppy, or basic?

A few years ago, I wrote something that should have catapulted me to world domination overnight. I hit Submit and sighed a deep, satisfying breath. All good freelance writers know that sigh, the one where you’re already calculating the influence your masterpiece will achieve. I felt great. This one would go viral.

The morning after the piece was published, I woke up and groggily checked my phone. Rubbed my eyes. Checked it again. This couldn’t be right. Seven views? Seven?! Surely there was a technical glitch. But as the days dragged on, I realized I had a flop on my hands.

Thankfully I’ve learned a lot since that episode, and many of my pieces have taken off. Clients have learned to expect an on-time delivery of punchy content that both makes a point and leaves readers wanting more. I didn’t achieve world domination, but I am in demand. And no, it’s not a social media strategy or paid amplification that did it, and there are no shortcuts. Here are a handful of the technical tricks I use to strengthen my work.

Start with an Angle

The best points of all time were made in a sentence or two. The Duke of Wellington, after defeating Napoleon’s French army, attended a public reception hailing him as victor. There a group of conquered French generals publicly and scornfully turned their backs on the Duke. But he wasn’t concerned.”I’ve seen their backs before,” he retorted. The man said volumes about the war, his win, and how he (and others) were coping with the outcome—in a single sentence. In short, he had an angle. He had a message. Writing is torture when you have a contract, a topic, and even a well-qualified assignment . . . but nothing new to say. To cure this, I recommend mind mapping.

Ditch the Outline for Mind Maps

Don’t spend another moment staring at a blinking cursor. Grab a piece of paper, write your assignment’s keyword in the center of the page, and circle it. Set a timer, write every word that comes to mind wherever you’d like on the paper, and connect the words with one another as associations appear. If you’d like, Mind Maptake your mind mapping digital with a brainstorming app. I use InkFlow because it combines type with free-form handwriting, doodles, and clip art on crafty backgrounds like crumpled parchment or graphing paper.

Best of all, it’s mobile.

Yes, your inner critic will accuse you of wasting time with doodling, but remember the alternative is staring at a blank screen until you sweat blood. Best of all, your angle will emerge. “As you draw your mind map, here’s what will happen,” wrote Daphne Gray-Grant, author of 8 ½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. “You’ll reach a point when you think, ‘Ah ha, now I know what I want to say,’ or ‘I really need to write now.'”

Organize Your Points

You can write now, which will be a relief instead of a chore. When you get stuck, don’t lament your loss of momentum. Instead, take this opportunity to organize your communications. Tim Urban, the creative mastermind behind Wait But Why, says the structure of his conversational posts is what draws millions of viewers to camp out on his site, not prose. Now that you have a few thoughts down on paper, arrange them for impact. As you organize, consider Urban’s next favorite bit of advice: incorporate pictures.

Tim Urban of teaches marketers and freelance writers the importance of imagery in brand storytelling.

Lots of pictures.

Tim Urban of teaches marketers and freelance writers the importance of imagery in brand storytelling.

Use Images to Inspire Yourself

Photos aren’t just for social media. In fact, I’d say social is alive today because of visuals, not the other way around. So when you’re writing and organizing, don’t be afraid to take a detour into your favorite license-free photography pool. Shop for your feature image at this point, and reap the extra benefit of gleaning new inspiration. Brainstorming powerful images is the perfect way to get your words moving again.

Image attribution: Torbakhopper

Image attribution: Torbakhopper

Reorganize Your Points

Once your rough draft is assembled, drag and drop entire sections just to see your readers’ journey take a different route. Don’t let the clunky, jerky progression scare you into staying conservative here. After all, that’s what smooth transitions are for.

Emphasize the Problem

Finally, here comes the fun part. I always start the editing process with a twist. I go back and reread my work, resisting the temptation to fix typos, and instead look for places to inject more negativity. I add conflict, emphasize hurt, and highlight risk. Do you want to see it in action? Read this article again, and see how many times you can spot a reference to common freelance writing problems.

White papers can be an especially rich soil to grow tension. In one of their recent white papers, Marketo and B2B Marketing embraced their readers’ problem. “Mud sticks,” the intro reads. And it’s true: the financial services and insurance industries need to regain the trust lost by other brands that have gone before and blown it. The smart brands (and their freelance writers) speak openly about the industry’s setbacks without discouraging readers. A white paper (or other long-form content) is, by far, the best place to dissect a problem at length, building thirst for the solution you propose.

Use These Sneaky Tricks

The above suggestions will change the foundation of your writing, and that’s what gives select freelance writers a future. On the other hand, the following tricks are those I employ to add pizzazz, make an emotional connection, and leave an impression. I consider these dirty tricks, only because they’re too effective to be innocent. They’re the easiest to implement and make the most noticeable difference:

  • Eliminate passive voice.
  • Add a story. Or six. Megan Doyle at Portland State University explained how narrative psychology makes the difference between an article that flops and one that takes flight.
  • Alternate short sentences with long ones. Do the same with paragraphs.
  • Read classic English literature. If you want your writing to elevate others, this is the most time-consuming (and enjoyable) way to make it happen.
  • Vary first and second person. Talking about me can grab attention. Turning it to you can solve problems. Between the two lies that elusive buzzword: “engagement.”

Rise above the desire to go viral, and endeavor to connect instead. Each of my recommendations takes time and energy, yes, but you’ll know the investment produces returns. That’s because good writing can both deliver a product and push clients and their readers to new intellectual territory.

Subscribe to the Content Standard

Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and Philips currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences daily. As a consultant, she combines simple change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's wild gig economy. For more, visit

Recommended for you