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Knowing Your Competition as a Nonfiction Writer
Knowing Your Competition as a Nonfiction Writer
Before you bid on a nonfiction writing project and before you begin writing your material, you must review your competition. Without an understanding of your competition, what he or she produces and what his or her editors like, it is not possible for you to know how to position yourself in the world of writing.

Below are some concerns that you will answer when you review your competition. Sniffing out your competition is a worthwhile effort and will yield you knowledge that will help you go forward in becoming a published author. You will also find that the information you glean will help you to sharpen your own presentation and writing style.

I Am Not a Competitor, So Why Compare?

The anti-competition attitude is dominant among Generation X and to some degree Generation Y. Older generations are less likely to subscribe to the idea that they don't need to compete. Regardless of what generation you identify with, you cannot afford to shun the importance of competition. To ignore the competitive element is naive and works to your own detriment.
In the world of nonfiction writing, it is foolishness to think your work is not compared to that of other writers. It is a foolishness to which you cannot afford to subscribe if you plan to be a writer who is taken seriously and paid well. Even in the context and dynamics which currently exist in the U.S. between the Baby Boomer generation and Generation X, where a smaller generation is positioned to serve a more populous generation, nonfiction writers cannot assume that the smaller workforce pool will help to eliminate competition in their field. The same generation that pushed to have control over their reproductive decisions and to have the right to eliminate their own offspring now looks upon Generation X and says, "If you don't compete with one another, we will force you to compete with others abroad."

Yes, it can be argued that the Baby Boomers are not consciously presenting this threat or that it even has anything to do with competition. Such may be the case. But the end result and the ultimate impact on the up and coming generations is that you WILL be forced to compete and it will happen either here or abroad. It is best to simply face it, accept it, and scout out your competition.

Who Are Your Competitors?

In order to compete, you must know who your competitors are and you must understand how to best them in the eyes of your editor or business person. Once you have a clear view of who competes with you for the nonfiction writing that you hope to publish, you can then create a personal strategy for winning influence with your editor or decision maker.

Things to consider when identifying your competitors:

  • Am I a beginning writer? Have I well developed my own style? Do I write in such a way that my reader quickly and easily understands me?
  • How much education do I have, and what is the level of education that other writers in my field possess? Am I willing to return to the schoolhouse in order to sharpen my skills or in order to obtain a degree if my editor requires it?
  • How upset do I get if I don't win a contract? When I do not win a project, do I blame others or do I look at my own presentation for ways to improve it?
  • Have I mistaken the idea of cheapest for competition? How am I qualifying what I offer when assessing my competitive position? Do I guarantee my client or editor a high quality manuscript?
  • What do my competitors do to make themselves stand out to editors and clients? Have I posed as a potential client to get myself into conversations with my competitors so I can find out what they say?
  • If I haven't talked with my competitors, then how will I offer a better writing, a better service, or a better finished product?
  • Just who, indeed, are my competitors? Do they live near me? Do they live in my neighborhood, city, state, or country? Are they full time writers or freelancers who use their writing to create spending money for their kids? Are they educated stay-at-home moms, or professionals who view their nonfiction writing as a second job?
  • Does my competition exude a professional attitude, an all business attitude, an easy going artistic attitude, or what? What is the attitude of the writers that my targeted editor responds to?

Want to learn more? Take an online course in Nonfiction Writing.

What Do Your Competitors Have in Common?

When looking at what your competitors may have in common, it is vital to examine your actual competitors rather than those you imagine as your competitors. How many times have you assessed someone from a distance only to get to know them and discover that you judged them wrongly?

Here are some questions to consider about your competitors:

  • Do they come in early and work late all the time?
  • Do they give the customer what he wants regardless of whether it is a slight imposition on their time?
  • Are they focused on their client or editor and on what he or she wants produced for them?
  • Do they put all other things in a secondary position when trying to please their client or editor?
  • Do their clients continue to use them on a regular basis? Do editors call them month after month for another assignment?
  • Do they give their client a heavy dose of MMFI (Make Me Feel Important)? Are they sensitive to the editor's or client's need to feel important to the writer?
  • Do they get it when it comes to relating to their client or editor? Do they connect the dots between giving and showing their editor or client a heavy dose of respect and gaining repeat assignments?

If your competition does not meet these ideals or exceed in these areas, then you are indeed already ahead in the eyes of your editor or client. Many of these concerns can only be assessed by a personal interaction with your competitors. Although it may seem scary or perhaps rude to feel out your competition by specifically questioning them, it is in your best interest to make the effort to do so.

How Do the Writing Styles of Your Competitors Compare to Yours?

A serious nonfiction writer must have a view of his or her competitor's writing style. What does that mean? Your writing style is the flow of your writing which most accurately reflects your personality or voice. To explain a writer's writing style is a bit challenging because it is such an intangible thing, but in many ways you can get it if you just think personality.

When you read someone's writing on a subject, you get a feel for the person's attitude toward that subject. When you read his writings over time and over many subjects, the part of his writing that transcends attitude is his writing style. Sometimes you can understand the writer's personality after reading one of their writings, but you can almost always understand the writer's personality after reading a collection of their works.
If you were to read a set of writings by someone you had never met, and one day you had the opportunity to meet the writer, then you should be able to know how to talk with that person before meeting them if they have a well developed writing style. For example, in my own company I have a small group of writers and editors who handle the company's inflow of business. Each of those writers has a writing style that pretty accurately reflects their own individual personality. We have a professor, a university president, and an actor/comedian on staff. When reading the writings of the professor and the university president, there is a marked difference in style when compared to the writing style of the actor. Why? Simply put, their chosen professions are a reflection of their personalities just as is their writing styles.
If you read each of their writings side by side, you could pick out the actor without blinking. Why? You would be able to identify the fluidity of his personality, which was primarily developed in the process of and by the nature of his profession. Lining up the writings of these three professionals, you could easily pick out which one among them is the most talkative and which is the least talkative; which is the most conservative and the least conservative; which one will speak to you most straightforwardly and which will speak to you most diplomatically.
In the same way that you as the reader of these writers could identify these traits, your readers will discern your personality from your writing style as well. When looking at your competition, it is good to know how their writing styles differ from yours, where you are similar, and how you may overlap. When you know these things, then you know why your competitors are your competitors rather than your colleagues.
For example, in my own instance with the writers at our publishing house, each of our writers knows they are not competing with one another. Rather they are colleagues amongst themselves. Why and how do they know this? They were chosen to be part of our staff for the diversity they bring to what we can offer to our clients. The professor will be more technical, and she exclusively handles the company's white papers. The actor would struggle to write a white paper. Likewise, the university president has a business edge to him and would struggle if our client needed color or humor, whereas these characteristics are a natural for the actor.
When you look at your competition and their writing styles, you want to look at your similarities as well as your differences. You also need to understand what your client or editor is looking for in his end product. From these pieces of information, you can determine how to respond to your competitors or whether they are in fact colleagues instead of competitors.

What Are Your Competitors Charging? What Are They Paid?

For writers everywhere, the question of what they charge stands juxtaposed to what they are actually paid. Why is that? Simply stated, your competitors are everywhere. Anyone who knows the language can become your competitor if she or he decides to write.
So, when scoping out your competitors, you will want to find out both figures. What do they charge? What do their best clients pay them? There is always a gap between these two figures because a good writer will always write for a little less when she or he knows she or he will receive multiple assignments from the editor or client.

To give you an idea of what you should charge and what you should accept, consider these things in evaluating your own position:

  • What is my education level?
  • Am I writing to an audience at or below my own education level? If not, am I willing to research, research, research and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite?
  • Is this my first writing assignment? My first year as a nonfiction writer?
  • What can I point to when an editor or client asks for writing samples?
  • How persuasive am I when presenting myself as a professional nonfiction writer?
  • If I have never written professionally, then what do I have in my past that I can point to as a natural dovetail to this profession? For example, did I ever serve a company as an in-house ad writer, even just a couple of times, or without the official title? (Hint: Use it as an "old" work sample).

For first time writers, you can expect to be paid pennies for your work. It is not uncommon to spend a number of years on assignments that pay $10 to $50 for the whole deal. It may be a 500 word article that pays $10. Do not be surprised by this type of an offer. Oh, and don't be sloppy about it just because the pay is so little. The only way for a writer to make more money is to become a better writer. There are no shortcuts to better pay in the nonfiction world. If you do a sloppy job as some personal protest to the lousy pay, then you hurt yourself and no one cares about your protest. If you don't like the pay, then don't accept the assignment; it's that simple.

On the flip side, after a few years and a heavy string of work samples to point to, you can make a decent living as a nonfiction writer. Earlier in I said $4 per word is not a realistic pay to expect in the U.S. I will, however, say here that you can regularly earn $0.08 to $0.15 per word writing everyday nonfiction articles and projects once you have some years behind you. You can make even more if you venture into writing books or ghostwriting for others.

When checking out your competitors, try to find out what they are actually paid on their regular assignments. It is very likely the pay will fall into the $0.08 to $0.15 per word range rather than whatever they quote as their rate. But, if they are staying busier than you and writing material that you want to write, then they are your competition and it does you good to never discount their rates.

Apples to Apples, Oranges to Oranges

When you research your competition, be sure to compare apples to apples so to speak. If you talk to someone who is primarily a ghostwriter and you want to make their higher rates, then consider giving up the digest articles for larger, more time consuming efforts.


  1. Generation X. The U.S. population born between 1961 and 1980[1].
  2. Generation Y. The U.S. population born between 1981 and 2000.[2]
  3. Baby Boomers. The U.S. population born between 1941 and 1960.
  4. Writing style. The flow of the writing in a given manuscript.
  5. Flow. Also known as cadence or smoothness.
  6. Voice. The author's personality as reflected by the flow and writing style of the author.

[1] Contrary to popular and widespread ignorance, a generation is defined by a twenty-year period rather than by who was born in pre-war or post-war periods. American marketers who want to shorten a generation actually serve to disenfranchise that generation by alienating a portion of the group. This has the effect of cutting off the generational wisdom and economic power of the group and creates hostile intergenerational attitudes which serve those in power.

[2] Similar to the errors perpetrated toward Generation X, the Millennium Generation is referred to, in part, as those born before the year 2000; in fact, the Millennium Generation should properly be designated as those born between 2001 and 2020.
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