How to Stop Feeling Desperate and Taking the Crappy Writing Gigs

Ever taken a freelance writing gig, and then wish you hadn’t?

Usually, we writers do that for one reason: We feel desperate for money.

You just know this gig is going to suck. The pay is horrid, the client is a nutcase…but you feel like you don’t have a choice.

After all, writers have to eat. And so do their families.

I could easily fill this post with tales of all the weirdo writing gigs I’ve taken over the years to keep the bank account from overdrafting.

Of course, when we do low-paid work, it creates a problem.

It sucks up too many hours and delivers too little pay.

At the end of it, you’re still broke and desperate.

So you feel compelled to hop on the next crummy offer.

And so on.

To quote an Elvis song, you’re caught in a trap.

Breaking the poverty cycle

There is only one way to break this cycle of desperation.

You’ve got to feel less desperate. Then you can walk away from insulting offers and hold out for better ones.

There are only a few ways you can do that:

  • Increase your tolerance for financial uncertainty. I once had a screenwriter friend who worked in TV. In lean times, she would calmly charge every expense including groceries, while continuing to hold out for her next plummy series deal. It never occurred to her to go get a day job. She had perfect faith she’d land another show soon. She simply didn’t worry about money or debt.
  • Lower your nut. Are there expenses you can cut? I ask because I’ve recently managed to pay off a coupla racked credit cards and a car loan and suddenly have like $600 a month less in monthly payments. That’s a chunk of work I don’t have to take! I feel lucky to have read Your Money or Your Life at a formative age, and its financial-management principles have helped me keep costs down for decades. Right now we are a family of five limping along on one very used car and public transit, for instance, because I find cars a poor investment. I have one friend who just moved from a $900-a-month rental to a $400 one that’s actually nicer. Examine your cost structure closely to see if there are places you can cut back. Lower costs mean more money stays in the bank. Then you worry less…and can hold out for a better gig.
  • Take a side job. For some people, it’s mentally healthier to have a steady part-time job that allows them to refuse junk jobs and pick and choose only quality clients. They get a better portfolio and don’t feel the pressure to take every gig. I’ve known writers who pumped gas, stocked grocery shelves at night, taught school, and worked as a bar back to keep their career on track.
  • Work more hours. If you are living lean and don’t want a day job, the other way out is to commit yourself to workaholism to create time for proactively marketing to better clients. Maybe you can send marketing emails at night after kids go to bed, or commit a month of Sundays. See this as a short tunnel you need to get through — a few months of intensive marketing and you’ll likely line up better clients and be out of the squeeze.
  • Create your own products. The other hedge against feeling compelled to do low-paid writing work is to write some ebooks or courses of your own you can sell on the side. This also means more hours short-term, but can pay off in a nice little cushion against desperation in the long haul. Start cultivating those multiple streams of income you’ve always heard are the key to financial security.
  • Drop your worst client. Many writers I know have one client who is really not worth the aggravation, if you figured the hours and pay. Ax this loser and you’ve cut yourself some new time for marketing to quality prospects, with little financial impact.

Hopefully, one of these strategies can help you walk away from lower pay and hold out for writing work you want — work that pays you a living wage.

How have you moved up in pay as a writer? Leave a comment and share your strategy.

 

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33 comments on “How to Stop Feeling Desperate and Taking the Crappy Writing Gigs
  1. Terr says:

    This is a great post to start the week off with! My short term plan is to take a part time phone gig at night as my cushion, so I can work less on crappy stuff during the day and devote more time to well paying gigs. I’m already living lean, so my total focus is on increasing my income.

    It makes sense that writers would take a part-time gig as a financial cushion. Anyone who has a career in the arts usually takes on part-time grunt work, because it’s flexible and no consequence will come to your career if you leave the position behind!

    Learning how to plan a career as a freelance writer has taught me valuable life skills, such as delayed gratification, self-worth assessment, financial planning, sacrificing for the greater good, quickly adapting to and accepting change, and personal accountability. This journey has also taught me to focus on my unique career plans, and that I can’t compare my journey to the journey of someone else working a typical “Corporate America” job.

    Yes, the path I’ve chosen is insecure, but the benefits of reaching my goal far outweigh begging someone for a typical position in exchange for so-called security.

  2. daniel says:

    Ha, Carol,

    It looks as If you were exactly talking about me and this article gave me some deep insights on how to train myself ( inner–man) to refuse low paying writing gigs.

    Thanks so much for this inspirational post– I really appreciate.
    Daniel

  3. Neil says:

    Yes Carol, it is I that you know. even I have to battle the accepting low-pay gigs for the daily need. Having 2 sons in college, it is hard not to face the turmoil of knowing bills are hanging out and have to be dealt with. I currently 2 part-time delivery jobs to help in the grind.
    But, I also know that as long as I stay consistent in moving forward I will exit the cave….remember? ;)
    Right now I am still trying to get my website up and running as one close point of attention.
    So your blog hit home and allows me to stomach the realization of goal setting and tending. (Wow sounds like a blog title.)

    Neil

  4. Rob says:

    I’ve been steadily upping my rates as my client list grows. Along the way, I’ve dropped a couple of poorer paying clients as I’ve found better paying ones. What I haven’t done and probably should do is send out LOIs for much higher paying gigs and see what happens.
    Rob recently posted..Pay rates for freelance writers

    • Carol Tice says:

      Dropping the worst client is so magical…I almost always get another, better client almost immediately. It’s like as soon as you make space for them, the universe sends them over.

  5. Amandah says:

    Taking a day or night job could help your writing career because you never know who you’ll meet. You could meet someone who has a cousin in (fill in the blank industry) who’s looking for a freelance writer. And if you’re a writer who struggles for story ideas, you may discover article ideas just by working your part-time job.

    You may have to cut expenses. Hey! You could always write a best seller on how to cut your expenses and still live the good life. :)
    Amandah recently posted..Exhausted? How to Grow Your Blog without SEO and Social Media

  6. John Soares says:

    For the last 12 or so years I’ve been fortunate enough to have at least several months’ living expenses socked away. This has really helped me to say no to those assignments that either don’t pay well or just drain my energy.

    The key, as you point out Carol, is generating a positive cash flow and start generating savings.

    I also read Your Money or Your Life many years ago and it really helped me to reduce spending and focus on what’s really important. (I don’t agree with the book’s investment advice though.)
    John Soares recently posted..How to Get More Freelance Writing Assignments

    • Carol Tice says:

      With 3 kids and now one of them in college, I’ve really struggled to have the cash emergency fund all the finance experts recommend, John….but I’ve finally started to get that together. I’ve been lazy about it because I’ve always had good access to credit, but obviously that brings interest charges, so I’m doing it right at this point and stockpiling cash.

      I think the cash on hand is better for your mentality of turning down bad gigs, too vs credit.

  7. incognito says:

    How timely. I woke up this morning to a request to write two articles for 1.5 cents a word. My pride wants me to tell that client where to shove it (obviously I wouldn’t) but the state of my bank account is really making me pause.

    • Carol,

      It’s tough to avoid feeling desperate when your outgo exceeds your income, but it’s essential to break the cycle of desperation as you’ve indicated.

      During my career as a mother of four, teacher and writer I’ve engaged all of the strategies you’ve suggested. The first two are critical and enabled me to breathe. Only then could I do the others.

      My favorite now is creating my own products.

      As for crazy-making clients, I’ve gotten better at spotting them from the start and refusing to even turn down that road.

      That’s for continuing to share great tips and strategies.
      Flora Morris Brown recently posted..Are You a Lunatic to Think Your Headlines Should Be Tweet-Worthy?

  8. Anita says:

    Isn’t interesting how what once seemed like a good gig can turn sour over time? Perhaps it is just part of the process of growing as a writer. Perhaps it’s just an off day – or week.
    I am currently wrapping up a project that’s been hard to get excited about. The pay is decent, but certainly at the top of the range. The real challenge is I find I have to frequently redirect my attention back to the task at hand because it’s preferable to wander around on the web rather than doing the work… (Exactly what I’m doing right now.) But it’s time to get back to it. It’s due today.
    Anita recently posted..preschool? no, thank you

  9. Karen Lange says:

    I had to laugh at the last one, “Drop your worst client”. Great advice! My husband, a self employed carpenter, has been doing this for years. It is a little tougher when things are lean, but really, it frees up time for more productive pursuits. My last “worst client” was a content mill that paid better early on versus when I quit writing for them a few years ago. It wasn’t completely without benefits, it taught me how to write faster and how to deal with lousy editors.
    Karen Lange recently posted..Great Goals!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ha! Love how you’ve focused on the takeaway for you. We do all learn something from each crummy job.

      And hear that a lot about the content mills, Karen, that pay is going down. It’s because their business model is failing — they aren’t making a profit despite the low amount they pay you for that article, so they have less and less money to spend commissioning content.

  10. Wonderful post, Carol. It feels tempting to take every writing assignment that comes your way, but really, that may be the thing that is keeping you in a place of desperation, as you pointed out.

    I’ve been there, so I know. I’ve taken on projects I knew would be a headache or projects that were at too low of a rate. I did it because I thought it was better to have the project than not. But I’ve since learned that those low-paying and too time-consuming projects simply aren’t worth it. They end up costing you way more. What I have found, without fail, is that projects that pay too low of a rate for the level of work ALWAYS take more time than you’ve budgeted or planned. And so those projects always cost you more in the end.

    Take into account the PITA — pain-in-the-A — factor of a project. If it’s going to be a PITA project, you have to decline it outright. Or make it worth your while. Give a quote that accounts for the sure pain of the project (the additional time, energy, etc., it’ll take to do it). That’ll send the prospect running (good!) or, if the person decides to hire you anyway, at least you’ll be paid well for the experience.

    I’ve been turning away PITA projects for some time now and I can’t say our business has suffered because of it. At first I got a little nervous about doing it because I thought, “What ARE you doing???” But after doing it a few times, I realized it’s much more efficient than chasing after business that isn’t for me anyway.

    Most of our clients have been great. I work hard to take care of the people who pay me to write their books and other projects and I often go beyond expectation to provide little extras. But getting one PITA client can sap the energy and make you forget about extras because you know they won’t be appreciated or noticed anyway. You want to focus your energy on doing an amazing job, so make every project count.

    Don’t let those bum projects steal the joy you have in writing for a living.
    Monica Carter Tagore recently posted..Lesson for Writers: Forget Writing, Focus on Perception of Value

  11. Taking Carol’s point about dropping bad clients one step further, instead of simply axing them you may consider just putting your rates up.

    This is a great way of finding out who really values your work and who doesn’t.

    Some will, of course, go elsewhere. And good riddance.

    However, some will finally get the message and pay you the going rate.

    And isn’t that fundamentally what you’re looking for?
    Kevin Carlton recently posted..Website marks launch of new SEO copywriting service

  12. George says:

    Hi Carol allow me share my story. I am not a freelancewriter but a blogger and college student. For maintaining my blogging expenses when one blogger contacted me to write posts for his blog i accepted. The pay 5 dollar for a 800 word article. But since i regretted doing that i stopped with the second post. I wanted more and told him that i wouldn’t work for low pay. At the same time i chanced upon your post where you wrote about sites which pay for guest posts including yours. I pitched several of them. A few days earlier i pitched renegadewriter too. Today i had an email from the same person offering me 10 dollar per post where i would’ve to answer the comments too using his id. I simply said that the pay was low even though my pitches have not received any replies. It was easy for me to say no since i am only a college student but even it was hard. All inspired by you. Why aren’t you offering money for guest posts now?

    • Carol Tice says:

      I do pay, George — $50 a post. As you can imagine, it’s pretty competitive. I get a lot of pitches and only run 2-3 guest posts a month. You can see all the details here:

      http://www.makealivingwriting.com/why-i-pay-writers

      Every once in a while I put up my ad banner that features the link to my guidelines, but not that often because enough people seem to already know about it, and I still get a lot of pitches as is.

      At this point, most of the guests I accept are success stories I see in Freelance Writers Den’s forums… and then I ask people if they would do a post about how they found clients/raised rates or whatever success they had.

      FYI George, if you are blogging for pay…you are a freelance writer.

  13. What wonderful ideas! I’m going freelance full-time in a month or two — I’m a relatively established editor, but I’m looking forward to the extra time to break into the writing scene — and I’m actually rather excited about the opportunity to take on a part-time job that I love, if it comes to that. I think I’d be quite happy working at a doggie daycare or grading written exams (both viable options that I’ve never really had the time for working a day job and freelancing on the side). This would keep the money coming in and the stress low.

  14. Hi Carol,

    I’m with you on the car thing. I worked in personal finance and banking for years, and one of the things that always left me shaking my head was looking at the depreciation of vehicles. Ugh – what a horrible investment, especially if you’ve borrowed to purchase it. M 2000 Honda CRV is still on the road with over 270,000 km on it, and with six kids (two in college this year, four in college next year) we will be driving it for a while!

    When I was a financial advisor I suggested every one of my clients have at least six months worth of living expenses saved. Freelancers and small business owners should have closer to a year’s worth of monthly expenses socked away – not just to allow yourself breathing room when you dump crummy clients, but also in case of your own illness, or the job loss of a spouse if you are married and depend on that income.

    One way for freelance writers to jumpstart their savings is to start with the very first better-paying client you get. How much more will you earn compared to the guy you just cut loose? $50? $100? Divide it in three. Save one third, use a third to pay down credit card or other debt, and treat yourself with the remaining amount, even if its just enough for a new book or magazine. After all, you deserve a reward for being pro-active!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Yeah, that’s one of the techniques from Your Money or Your Life — as your pay expands, don’t expand your lifestyle. Take the extra money and save it. Sort of painless way to start socking it away.

  15. Debra Stang says:

    I just had an old client call me and offer me the rates I used to write for – $5.00 for 500 words.

    I couldn’t believe I had once put up with that.

    Just imagine the smile on my face as I emailed back that I had no availability and that my rates had gone up *very* significantly.

    Debra
    Debra Stang recently posted..What Every Writer Needs – 13 Quotes about Rejection

  16. Erica says:

    I love this post!

    I’m a new freelance copywriter but recently had to turn down a PIA client. He wanted to pay 50% up front and the rest “when [he] became profitable. Like [his] financial backers.”

    Seriously? I am not a financial backer. Nor do I work for free.

    Again, great post. I’m bookmarkin’ this one.

    Erica
    Erica recently posted..The Most Important Voice to Ignore

  17. For me, “Create your own products” is the best advice in this post and I’m seriously planning to create some info products; to test the waters, I might start with tiny ones.

    A few months back I took a gig for writing a highly technical user manual for network administrators (about a topic I had no idea of). The client was willing to pay $450 for this 2000 word document which was many times my normal price. Being an ex-IT-Pro, I though I’ll handle it, but unfortunately there wasn’t a single word about this topic on the web. Disappointed, I went to my local library, still couldn’t find anything useful; called a couple of classmates and colleagues, to no avail. And after wasting several hours, I email the client and told him this was beyond my capacity. He was kind enough to understand my situation but I ended up wasting a lot of time. I wish I had never taken it!
    Ali | Writers Blog recently posted..What Neil Gaiman Wants The Modern Freelance Writers To Do (Video)

    • Carol Tice says:

      Any time the topic is “I have no idea of,” I pass. I need to have at least a vague clue of where I’d find that info, those experts, or I’m not going near it. As you found, you’re just letting yourself in for big timewasting.

      My usual clue is if they start using jargon that I don’t know the meaning of…it’s time to run. If I understand it, I’m going to be OK. We need to speak the same language to work together!

  18. A friend of mine pointed out to me when I started writing that poverty is a mindset. If you have this way of thinking that you have to just take whatever falls on your plate because you can’t do any better, you’ll just keep on going in circles. I was really thankful that she pointed that out to me early on in my career. It allowed me to set my way of thinking by recognizing my talent and what it’s really worth. It’s saved me from a lot of heartaches.

    I love your advice on lowering your nut. Just because you are earning a bit more doesn’t mean that you have the right to spend more. Living beneath your means can be more challenging, but it will definitely keep you from becoming desperate in terms of finding writing jobs.
    Adeline Yuboco recently posted..An Intimate Affair with Spanish Wine at the ASEAN Merchants Launch

  19. I did this early in attempting the writing part of my career. Got into one of those things were I got paid a penny a word for 30 articles or at least 400 words each. In the middle of it all I did my calculations and realized I was making $2.37 an hour because it was a topic I didn’t know and, well, it was a penny a word! Never did that again, but felt it was a major learning situation.
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted..First 7 Steps To Small Business Blogging

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