How a Simple Triangle Helps You Get the Best Freelance Jobs

Get the Best Freelance Jobs with this Simple Triangle. Makealivingwriting.com.Note: Ever wonder how to find the best freelance jobs? I know I did. But it’s not as hard to find them as you might think. When you understand the classic business concept I wrote about in this post five years ago, you’ll know how to score the best freelance jobs based on three simple things. —Carol.

In my late teens, I had the good fortune to blunder onto a concept that would help me become a well-paid freelance writer later on.

I was working as a secretary at MGM studios in Culver City, Calif. My boss asked me to take something over to the editing room of one of the productions.

Inside the edit booth, amongst the strips of film, sheafs of notations and other production clutter, was an aged, coffee-stained, clearly much-xeroxed flier. It was hanging from a nail and blowing a bit in the air-conditioned indoor breeze, which probably helped catch my eye.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but years later this simple flier would later help me find some of the best freelance jobs around. Let me explain the concept:

Inside the edit booth, the flier I noticed was dominated by a large triangle. Its three points were labeled, “Good,” “Fast,” and “Cheap.”

At the bottom were the instructions: “Pick any two.”

Next to this slogan, a couple of jelly-bean shaped cartoon guys were splitting their sides laughing. From one issued a thought balloon with the classic question of all contractors: “You want it when?”

Find the best freelance jobs with the Project Triangle

I didn’t know it then, but I had discovered a famous business concept known as the Quality Triangle (also the Project Triangle).

Besides good-fast-cheap, it is often stated as in the illustration above — money (or cost), time, and quality. It’s a concept that can help you understand:

3 basic parameters of every freelance project:

  • How much time are they giving you?
  • What do they want to pay?
  • And how terrific of a job do you have to do?

Answer these three basic questions, and you’ll know what to charge. But there’s one more thing you need to know about the Project Triangle to find the best freelance clients.

It’s a basic business principle that all three facets of the triangle do not go together, as that flier so succinctly stated. Or they shouldn’t, from the freelancer’s point of view.

Here’s how to apply this formula:

If a client wants it good and fast, it won’t be cheap.

If they want it fast and cheap, it won’t be top quality.

If they want it good and cheap, it cannot happen fast.

When you evaluate a freelance writing gig, consider this trio of factors. It should help you see whether it’s time to charge a premium, or whether this might be a situation where you could offer a bargain price.

How I applied the Triangle

When you use the Project Triangle, you’ll discover a number of different combinations of “Good,” “Fast,” and “Cheap,” that will help you find great clients. Here are a couple examples:

  • Cheap + Good. I recently wrote a print book for cheap. Obviously, it had to turn out very well and be my best work. But I was given nearly a year in which to write the book. So cheap and good were achieved, but slowly.
  • Good + Fast. I once was asked to crank out a large number of blog posts on arcane business-finance topics, in a big hurry. I was paid my biggest blogging fee ever, $300 a post. Good and fast were achieved, but it didn’t come cheap.
  • If a client gets all three points of the triangle, then the freelancer gets screwed.

Learn to recognize when to charge premium rates

When I opened my first freelance business, typing scripts, I got a lot of lazy screenwriters who’d finish their draft the night before their deadline.

Then, they’d want me to type it overnight at the regular rate. But I wouldn’t do it unless they paid double.

“Your emergency is my opportunity,” was my motto. And still is today, in freelance writing.

If you take rush work at regular rates, you’re letting a client turn their problem into your problem. You are violating the rules of the Quality Triangle, to your detriment.

Fast, cheap, good: Which type of freelancer are you?

I think every freelancer ends up positioning themselves primarily in one aspect of this triangle, based on what they enjoy doing.

  • Fast. Some of us are “fast” writers — we enjoy riding to the rescue on rush work and the feeling of accomplishment that comes from doing the seemingly impossible on short notice. Others hate crises.
  • Cheap. Some love to crank out a ton of stuff and prefer a volume of work at lower rates to feast or famine with premium projects.
  • Good. Looking at my work, I feel my prime emphasis is on “good.” At this point, many clients come tell me they feel like only I could do this assignment for them — and they’re crushed if I’m not available.

Use this simple triangle to move up and earn more

I went through a period where I was the queen of (well-paid) rush work, but now I don’t want that stress in my life. Focusing on the best freelance jobs leads you away from cheap rates and toward better pay, which is why I’m still, always, looking for ways to learn more and improve my writing.

What kind of freelance writer are you? Let’s discuss on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Freelance Writers Den: Learn how to grow your income.

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48 comments on “How a Simple Triangle Helps You Get the Best Freelance Jobs
  1. Kris Emery says:

    Good is non-negotiable in my mind, so there are only two movable factors for me. The work all has to be done sometime, so I choose to go fast and charge for it. I’m impatient by nature, so it works for me to do it that way!

    I like to wow my clients and exceed their expectations, beyond even what they expect at a higher price. Although I find, the more people are willing to pay, the more they understand the value they’re getting by working with me.
    Kris Emery recently posted…What It’s Really Like To Be A Location Independent Freelance Writer: Part 1 Auckland to KLMy Profile

  2. “If a client gets all three points of the triangle, then the freelancer just got screwed.” –It took me a while to learn this lesson. I used to feel that I HAD to be fast, good, AND cheap or else the client won’t come back.

    Fortunately, reading your blog and following other high-paid writers helped me graduate from that way of thinking. Now, when a client wants something done well needs it ASAP, I charge a rush fee.

  3. Otiti says:

    YES! This triangle makes sooo much sense to me. Now I know why I priced my first ever 1:1 skits the way I did; I’m good and fast, but I’m not cheap. At least, not for a newbie I’m not.

    I know I’ll raise my prices once I get some clients and they marvel over my work. Why yes, I AM that confident! 😀

    Thanks for this refresher course, Carol! I can always count on you for solid writing advice. 🙂
    Otiti recently posted…3 Truths From a Hospital BedMy Profile

  4. Hi Carol,

    When I read your posts I hear things like doors slamming and windows opening. Best line: When the client gets all three points the writer just got screwed.

    The triangle ought to be a required tattoo for writers to show clients to make sure everyone is on the same page.

    I’ll start with a sharpie.

    Thanks,

    David
    David Gillaspie recently posted…Michael Graves ShowerMy Profile

  5. I’m usually good + fast. Sometimes I’m happy to be good + cheap instead. The only one I won’t do is fast + cheap, because I don’t like to be rushed without a good reason (i.e. extra money!).

    I made a little Venn diagram of this situation the other day–if anyone wants to take a look, it’s here.
    Sophie Lizard recently posted…7 Winning Ways to End Your Pitch, Query or LOIMy Profile

  6. I feel lucky to share this ancient cultural Greek and European heritage of ours, but I have to admit that you folks in the US have a solid business/management/get-the-job-done culture — and, no, I’m not implying that this is all you’ve got!

    I like learning this business stuff, it helps me re-orientate my freelance strategy and goals; it shows me ways to be more effective (first of all, for myself). Sometimes, it only reminds me of what I already know or should know, but it always helps me push some more steps in the right direction.

    I must say, Carol, I open your email notifications first (ok, after I look for my customers’ emails), even if I don’t have time for any other email/blog post in the day.
    Helene Poulakou recently posted…Top 10 Greek Mythology Stories updated Fri Jun 14 2013 11:46 pm EDTMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, flattered to be top of your queue, Helene! Glad you enjoyed this post. I love the quality triangle, in case you can’t tell. 😉

  7. Rohi Shetty says:

    Hi Carol,
    Great post as usual. I loved that phrase, “Your emergency is my opportunity.”

    At present, I would prefer to be fast to beat back the demon of perfectionism.

    Two more aspects in addition to time, money and quality are enjoyment and learning.

    If I enjoy doing the assignment and could learn something that I want to learn while doing it, I may be happy and willing to take a lower price.
    Rohi Shetty recently posted…My Ten Favorite Humorous QuotationsMy Profile

  8. I’d rather be exceptionally good, moderately expensive, and fast-by-my-own-definition. The “good” is uncompromising (I am an incurable thoroughness freak), but I’d hate to be SO cheap I was earning less than $20,000 a year, or SO fast that I had to make quick schedule adjustments more than once a month.

    I think I prefer the wording “Money-Time-Quality,” or perhaps “Economy-Efficiency-Quality.” “Fast and cheap” has its share of negative connotations.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think this is the problem most writers have — we don’t really know how to suck. We can’t stand it. So offers to do a bunch of fast cruddy work dirt cheap aren’t appealing. Instead we take the offer but then do really good work, and end up with a horrid hourly rate.

  9. Love this!

    I typically go for good and fast. I don’t mind turning work around quickly, and I definitely prefer to write for quality rather than quantity.
    Jeffrey Trull recently posted…8 Business Blogging Mistakes To Fix NowMy Profile

  10. Bonnie says:

    This is extremely helpful, and certainly for a long-term vision. I’m fairly new to the freelance writing world (hence the blog link since I’m still working on my website), so I’m willing to write for a little less to get some clips. But I need to remember that I can’t always stay in this mentality. I know myself well enough to say that I prefer to focus on good over fast, and I don’t like cheap at all. What I haven’t yet figured out is how to turn what I’m doing now into an upward slope of improved pricing that corresponds to quality and experience. I’ll just have to keep this post in mind as I go along. Thanks so much for the helpful pointers.

  11. I, too, am good, and I can also be fast, though it’s not my preferred M.O. Like Julie, I prefer to allow myself the time to research, write and revise. It’s definitely a balancing act, but I feel like I’m learning a bit more about the process every day. 🙂

  12. Erica says:

    I. Love. This. And will be printing this out.

    When I started freelancing (which I still do on the side), I tried to be everything to any client who hired me. I didn’t know any better.

    Now I do. Now I aim for quality. Clients who want perfect, fast and cheap can go elsewhere.
    Erica recently posted…Writing in the stormMy Profile

  13. “What type are you?” I like that you end with this question. My primary focus, too, is on “good” since I refuse to do “cheap” (thanks mostly to your encouraging posts) and I also work a full-time job in addition to freelancing, so “fast” isn’t always possible. Excellent post; love the way you start by setting the scene!

  14. Julie says:

    Thanks so much for the validation. I believe in doing quality work which means I research, revise and rewrite. I often feel I should be writing more quickly but it takes time to do all this and have a life.
    While I still want to increase my productivity, I now realize that I have made the choice not to produce shoddy work. You made me feel a lot better about what I do.

    Julie

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, glad I could help! I also love to be the cut-above quality provider. You do still want to go as fast as you can, but I think the writing quality is our true point of differentiation that leads to more gigs.

  15. Hi Carol,

    I have been following your blog for a while and I love it! It is interesting that you brought up this concept today; it was only on Saturday that I ran across it and was contemplating about it.

    Thanks for bringing some clarity here.

    Cheers!
    Tasia Gonsalves-Barriero recently posted…How Good Are You At Building Relationships?My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ha! Funny coincidence. But this triangle does pop up everywhere. I Googled images of it as I was researching what it is officially called, and saw just dozens and dozens.

  16. Jawad Khan says:

    Aah the good old project triangle….Being a project manager previously, its great to see a freelancer use it.

    And you’re absolutely right, if one of the three factors changes, the other two are bound to change.

    But I guess it the term “cheap” is relative to the experience of the freelancer. “Cheap” might not be as low for a newbie than it is for seasoned pro.
    Jawad Khan recently posted…10 Reasons Why Your Company Website Needs a BlogMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I agree with that Jawad — low price is definitely relative. But cheap for you, whatever that is, shouldn’t go with great work done fast.

  17. Coco says:

    I love this triangle- thanks for sharing it.

    I had a client a few months ago who needed several interview-heavy articles within two weeks. Though nervous about it, I called it a rush job and charged accordingly, which turned out to be a winning move, as my mom subsequently had a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery. So there I was, toting my laptop all over two different hospitals, very glad that I wasn’t working for pennies amidst the craziness. Wow, was I glad I had my backbone with me when negotiating that price.

    I learned that, if life has to be perfect in order for a rate to be good, then I’d better make that rate a little higher. Freelancers are working around everyday life, but even working in an office, there are countless interruptions that need to be built in. Rarely does a person get to work nose-to-the-grindstone and uninterrupted for long, so we writers need to realize that if we are going to be amping up our adrenaline and ignoring all put this one project, then that pretty much says which two sides of the triangle we’re using.

    On a light note, the work triangle reminds me of the “dating triangle” that someone showed me. Right above “Pick any two,” it says: Sane- Attractive- Single. This one cracks me up!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Har — love your dating version! Makes me glad I’m not dating. 😉

      But you bring up a GREAT point about thinking realistically about how long it will take to do projects. I think this is probably the #1 mistake new writers make. You bid it based on what you imagine, but you’re forgetting about LIFE. And about clients who may turn out to be sociopaths. Or nit-picky. Or whatever. ALWAYS takes longer than ya think it will.

  18. Cathie Ericson says:

    I have worked in agencies all my life so have seen this triangle many times. And it is so true.

    I like your assessment that sometimes you’re different things. I’m usually the good and fast; never fast and cheap.

    I have a couple clients for whom I’m good and cheap; but it’s my choice. I like them; they are good “bylines” for my area of work…and I’ve parlayed them into new and better work..the crowning touch is that they are incredibly easy to work for.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Cathie, you bring up what I almost think of as a fourth point — easy to work with.

      Some clients are just a joy and love everything you do. They never ask for rewrites. And that’s something else to factor into the equation when you set rates. Though I tend to charge those clients top rates as well, at this point. Because I’m like a L’Oreal commercial…I’ve realized I’m worth it. 😉

      • Cathie says:

        Yes I am! And I should add…it’s cheap compared to lots of other gigs…but still “fair” so that’s why I feel ok.!

  19. Great post, and I have been at all three of the points and just now figuring out that you cannot do all three. I am at the place where quality is what matters so trying to find the clients who understand that and can pay the price. Content mills are a good place to learn but they require more time then you realize and you may be working for fifty cents an hours because if you are like me you believe in quality. Not a winning source of income. Thanks for sharing the triangle illustration.
    Terri Forehand recently posted…New Image, New Goals, and so much more…..My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      That’s so true, Terri — I’ve heard from so many writers who confessed to me that they spend hours on their mill clips because they want them to be really, really good, and be good samples for them. What a mistake!

      Mills’ bad reputation means mill clips are never great portfolio pieces, no matter how much time you invest. Have to give the mills cheap and fast and not good, or it doesn’t make any sense.

      The few people I know who earn well on mills crank those pieces out like mad, 6 or 8 of them an hour. They’re not triple-checking everything.

  20. “If a client gets all three points of the triangle, then the freelancer just got screwed.” Soooo good! Love this line. Too many new writers try to deliver on all points of the triangle, and that’s just hurting yourself.
    Jessica Flory recently posted…The Secrets of Getting Romantic Tension into Your NovelMy Profile

  21. Cathy Plum says:

    Hi Carol,
    What a great piece. Freelancers need to say no to crap pay and short deadlines. No is a great word, and it leads to better paying clients with more lead time. I officially went rogue last March from my low-paying, part time job. In a week, I had two clients. 15 months later, I have three (one remained) and an offer to work hours at home & in the office — at my writer’s rate, which I accepted. I have turned down a few gigs only to be replaced by better ones! Time, Money, Quality. Pick two. Awesome!
    Always writing,
    Cathy

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for sharing your great story of building your business, Cathy. I also find that turning down cruddy gigs seems to leave an opening in the universe that sends a better gig my way.

      When those screenwriters used to ask me to do a letter-perfect typing job overnight at my normal rate I’d say, “No, that would turn your problem into MY problem.” Working for cheap on quality rush work just means you transferred the client’s problem — “I don’t have the budget to pay rush rates but I want a rush job!” — into YOUR problem. Now, you’re being underpaid and overworked.

      I soon learned never to let that happen.

  22. That is the problem with me and the content mills. I am all about quality and time, so I sacrifice money. People who like volume and speed can get a sort-of decent rate on them, but I end up making about $3 an hour. When I was using the content mills to learn the ropes of freelancing, I was fine with it as I was grateful to get paid practice. Now I just get resentful!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on — when you give good and fast for cheap, you feel exploited. And the Quality Triangle demonstrates why.

      Good for you for moving beyond the ‘paid practice’ attitude and looking for better clients!

  23. Laurence says:

    Hi Carol,

    I always do “good” work, regardless of the time frame. But I quote a time frame that fits in with what I am doing at the time. IF I do get a client who is desperate for their work to be done within a faster time frame than I could normally do it, then I do increase the price. I do believe your triangle formula. I like to control my pace and tend to add extra time into my turnaround time anyway. That helps me in case I have problems with other work or health issues (frequent).
    Laurence recently posted…Is This Post Rite Or R Their Mistakss?My Profile

  24. Florante says:

    Hi Carol,

    Thank you for a such a great info.
    The quality triangle you’ve presented is a very handy and quick assessment tool in pricing. In my early days as a freelancer, the triangle I have usually drawn are those that are fast, good quality but cheap. And I guess that is a common path for those who are still building up their reputation, still navigating the learning curves and sometimes, just utterly clueless.

    Today, I can say, that I can command a much higher fee by making sure that I don’t compete base on price but on quality. Not even base on location, as some would almost ask for a free service just because you are from a country like the Philippines.

    Florante
    Florante recently posted…Is Your Office Killing Your Productivity?My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Yes! You. Don’t. Want. To. Compete. On. Price.

      That is the massive revelation that will change your freelance earnings. You don’t want to try to be the low-price leader of freelancing. You want to offer uniqueness and quality so you can earn well.

      • Lucy Smith says:

        Like the piece of advice I was recently given: “Always aim for the high end. Because in the mainstream, there will always be some schmuck who does what you do for less money.”
        Lucy Smith recently posted…Golden HomesMy Profile

  25. Willi Morris says:

    I can’t remember for the life of me where I’ve seen this, but it’s great!

    I’m “good” 🙂 And you’re right – you can’t get all 3 out of me at once.

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