How a Writer Became a Link Builder (And Why That’s Not a Bad Thing)

Five years ago I was a college student aspiring to write about sports for a living. It felt somewhat bold, trying to earn money doing a job I’d happily (and for a few years, did) do for free.

At the time, taking a job at a newspaper was the most favorable route, covering high school football games for a few years before—eventually, hopefully—landing a gig in some big city as a columnist. Unfortunately, thousands like me had the exact same plan, and there were only a few positions available across the country to make that dream come true.

Most of the professors who dedicated themselves to smoothing out my roughest writing-related edges were old school, dedicated to this strategy and this world of on-paper publishing. If I wanted to earn a living writing about sports, according to them, newspapers were the most realistic option.

Sports blogs had yet to make a dent in the financial landscape despite everyone I knew (myself included) turning to their laptops for the most worthwhile text on sports; writing online was a smart alternative, just not a very practical one to support oneself professionally.

After graduating, I spent what feels now like every moment of every day scouring the country for any and all open newspaper jobs. A few months in, I felt like a nose-less bloodhound hunting down a mouse in a 10-acre cornfield. The search was discouraging and fruitless. So, instead, I changed directions. I found a part-time job as a dog walker and filled up the rest of my day working on my very own blog. I wrote and edited it for free, for myself and for anybody who loved professional basketball as much as I do.

The process was constant, fun, difficult, and incredibly rewarding. A few months after launching my site, I began receiving emails from friends, family, and complete strangers. Most were well-wishes, other were helpful suggestions as to how I could make the blog better.

Every once in a while I’d receive an email from some random website barely on the peripheral of what it was I wrote about, trying to sell me an offer: Embed a link to our site in your writing and we’ll send you some money. I didn’t know why this practice was frowned upon, but the whole thing felt dirty. I ignored the first few offers.

(Turning down easy money is a lot harder than it looks, especially when yanking an overweight Neapolitan Mastiff around Boston College’s campus is your main source of income.)

I don’t remember when I first accepted the transaction, or how many “no thank yous” I replied with before succumbing with a “sure,” but I do recall how I felt that first time a random link went up on my blog. It was like I’d punched myself in the face, and that random, forced link was a lingering black eye.

Even though my blog is no longer around, it served as a seed that helped my writing career grow, and today I find myself on the other end of those emails, trying to get blogs to embed links on their sites. But the process is completely different now, one that lacks any shady behavior.

There is no money involved, either; instead, what I offer are (what I hope to be) well-written, educational/entertaining sports columns. Much like when the Indiana Pacers traded George Hill to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard, it’s mutually beneficial, and everybody involved walks away a winner.

When I contact a fellow sports writer and ask if he or she would be interested in publishing my work on their site, the last thing on my mind is planting a link. Instead, I cycle through a series of questions: Will my words spark thought in the reader? Maybe a new idea for another writer to build on? Will the reader be smarter after finishing my article? Will it make him/her angry? Will they be satisfied?

That should be the goal of writing as a whole, but especially writing that appears on the Internet. I know my outlook on link building can be a bit naïve, and I understand the end game.

But if the ultimate price a hosting blog has to pay is having the opportunity to entertain their visitors with content that hopefully enlightens whoever’s reading it, what’s so bad about that?

Michael Pina is the lead writer at Highly Relevant. And in addition to bringing writing skills and sports knowledge to the table, he never fails to impress the team with his impeccable sense of style.

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