Why Some Freelance Writers Earn Big Bucks While Most Slave for Peanuts

Well-paid freelance writerDo you sometimes feel like an easily replaceable cog in the vast wheel that is the freelance writing marketplace?

If so, you’re not alone.

With all the $5 or $10-a-post writing gigs online, it’s easy to feel writing has simply become a cheap activity — and that clients don’t appreciate the work you do.

Here’s one email I got recently that perfectly sums up the problem many writers face:

“The thing I struggle with is that I am unable to land a gig where the client really values what I do. Since the clients I worked with have a number of writers on the rolls, they always treat each writer as just another disposable commodity. Which is worrying, because it means they will drop me any time they want.

“So how I do go about building a relationship where I’m not just another writer?”–Ryan

Great question! That’s exactly what you want to do if you’re going to become a successful, well-paid freelance writer. Here are seven ways to get there:

 

1. Learn to qualify prospects

First off, to get paid well, you have to find companies that have serious money available to pay you. They’re successful.

In general, they sell a real product or service in the real world. And they’ve been around a few years.

Realize that most Craigslist advertisers, and most online platforms promising you great “opportunities,” simply aren’t the client you want. Yes, it’s so easy to sign up for those…but you’ll be caught in the disposable-commodity trap.

You get better clients by researching prospects, identifying good ones — or finding magazines that pay good rates — and proactively marketing to them.

When you contact these prospects, they’ll be looking to build relationships with good writers, because they’re doing *real* business, not waiting for ad-clicks on a website. They don’t have time to be constantly auditioning new writers.

2. Avoid the masses

I have yet to see an online platform with hundreds of writers working for it that pays well. There is no such business model.

The presence of many writers working for a single client creates an atmosphere that devalues our skills. It’s also often impossible to build a relationship, because the work is done through an anonymous platform where you may not even know the end client’s identity.

Any ad you see from a place gushing about how they’re hiring dozens of writers and have *loads* or work for you, be wary. In my experience, that’s code for “I pay crap, and think of writers as Kleenex I can quickly use up and discard.”

Set phasers to ignore, and move on to find successful companies to work for.

3. Meet live humans

Getting out and talking to prospects in person is a great way to find better clients. Even if it’s a small business with a small marketing budget, I think they’re less likely to pay you a shockingly low wage when you’ve met face-to-face. It’s also a great way to build meaningful relationships with contacts who might do more than hire you — they might recommend and refer you.

4. Build authority

One of the most accessible ways writers can start from scratch and begin earning well is to grab attention online, through their own blog or guest posting for big blogs.

Write on topics that will show your writing expertise to best advantage. I can tell you, the best-paying clients I’ve gotten in recent years all approached me after seeing my writing on popular blogs. That includes both of my traditional print book contracts. Good clients are doing online searches to find the right writer, because it saves them a ton of time over placing an ad or asking around.

When the client approaches you, they’re dying to build a relationship with you. They’ve decided you are the writer they simply must have for their project.

5. Specialize in a topic

Another way to build authority that reliably works is to choose a topic area and keep writing on it. The more you research and write on a topic, the more sophisticated your knowledge becomes. That allows you to move up to bigger, better-paying clients over time.

This is exactly how I went from writing for an alternative city paper to a business weekly to a regional business monthly magazine, to Entrepreneur and Forbes. I chugged along covering startups, franchising, and business finance, building my source list and learning more, until I could command top magazine rates for my stories.

6. Know a product

If there is a type of product you enjoy learning about, this can be a great way to build expertise. Maybe it’s apps, software-as-a-service, oil drilling, or jewelry-making. When you’ve written about one, start marketing your services to other companies that sell a similar thing.

In any complex industry, finding good writers is a nightmare for companies. And they don’t have time to teach anybody the fine points. If you know their product, they are thrilled to find you and pay you well to stick around.

7. Sell value instead of hours

This requires a massive mindshift — but if you do it, you can earn a lot more.

Writers tend to have a wage-slave, starvation mentality. Many tell me they’re happy to get $17 an hour for writing or editing, because they imagine they can squeak by on that…and are worried they’ll be out of a gig if they ask for professional rates.

Now, flip this equation over. If you write for businesses especially, stop basing what you charge on your life circumstances, past pay rates you’ve earned at your day jobs, or the total of your monthly bills.

Instead, think of the value you’re delivering to the client. Will the sales page or brochure or Web copy you’re writing enable that client to bring in $100,000 more business? You deserve a cut of that. Considered this way, a $5,000 fee is peanuts compared to all that new revenue for the client — and that’s how you pitch it in your proposal.

Selling value instead of hours is the approach that builds great client relationships, and puts freelance writers into the six-figure annual earning category.

How have you found better pay as a freelance writer? Leave a comment and tell us your approach.

 

 

 

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49 comments on “Why Some Freelance Writers Earn Big Bucks While Most Slave for Peanuts
  1. Angela says:

    One thing I’ve discovered is that sometimes you just ask for it. A client approached me (yay!) and asked what I would charge to completely rewrite his article. It was in broken English, but there was a lot of material to work with. It took me a good 10 minutes to hit send after I asked for a price that I thought was fair, but also well above what I’ve been charging in the past. I landed the gig and he didn’t even balk at the price. If you work hard and you have material to show your skills, you can usually land better paying gigs a lot easier than you think!

  2. Kyanna says:

    Carol,

    I have silently been reading your website for some time now. I got into freelance writing a while back and things have not been encouraging. The great thing is that you always have something useful and innovative to add to the conversation. I have learned a lot about writing from you. This post answered some really big questions I’ve had for a long time. Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to share this information with us.
    Kyanna recently posted…He Popped the QuestionMy Profile

  3. Waqas Masood says:

    VERY RELEVANT tips for freelance writers, Carol!

    As I’ve enjoyed reading your thought-provoking write-ups, I’d like to add here that you can’t ignore the potential of a client asking for a cheap rate in the first instance. Who knows, that becomes the sources of 5 figure or 6 figure earnings.

    In my personal view, whenever you’re dealing with a new client knocking at your writing desk, you’ve to make him/her realize that you KNOW HIS/HER BUSINESS and “Suggestions/Recommendations” in the first phase of negotiation could really enthuse your prospective client.

    And yes, I’d second you about guest blogging and this is what I’m seriously thinking to start now. Would you like to suggest me any prime forum from where I should start my guest blogging?

    Again, thanks for your brilliant tips.
    Waqas Masood recently posted…Book Review of β€œAgency Rules: Never An Easy Day At Office by Khalid Muhammad”My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Waqas, I have to disagree on your first point — I think cheap clients tend to stay cheap. It’s hard to move up a lot when you start very low.

      I also try not to hand out too many free tips in my initial meeting — one or two is fine, but beyond there, you’re sort of doing free consulting.

      As far as guest blogging, you can check this resource of sites that pay for blog posts: http://www.makealivingwriting.com/140-websites-that-pay-writers-updated-2014/

      Where to guest for depends a lot on the topics you know, and the types of writing you want to do. Ideally, you want to guest post somewhere your ideal client reads.

      • Angela says:

        I have to agree with Carol on this one. I have a client that I enjoy working with who constantly claims they are looking for ways to pay me more but it NEVER happens. It’s been several years and I’m starting to replace my income from that job with other clients, so pretty soon I’m going to have let my lower paying client go because I can’t wait around for them to “find the money,” to pay more.

  4. Carol, another huge problem I’ve found with low-paying clients is that it takes so much time to earn anything at those low rates, you never have any time to grow your business! One you drop those low paying markets, you suddenly have more time in your schedule to improve your skills, market your business, and seek out the clients who will actually pay you what you’re worth.
    Katharine Paljug recently posted…Happy Thanksgiving!My Profile

  5. Mark Lilly says:

    Great post, Carol. I’ve been torn lately over several of the topics you covered here. I especially like #7… breaking the hourly wage mentality is tough after working that way for so many years.
    Mark Lilly recently posted…Why You Should Outsource SEO Content WritingMy Profile

  6. I know this is covered in a few of your books and posts, but I’m still struggling with getting those first few clients.

    The online platforms are tempting at this stage because you’re prone to rationalizing with thoughts of, “Well, I could use it to improve my portfolio,” or, “Maybe I should use these to gain more experience before pitching a ‘real’ client.”

    Despite the feelings of inadequacy, inexperience, and uncertainty, though, I refuse to get sucked into them. This post reaffirms that decision, and keeps the temptation at bay – thanks for that.

    I *do* plan on pitching a few guest posts to more popular blogs (*cough* Like yours! *cough*) to build my credentials a bit. In the meantime, I plan to keep working on my own blogs, study the ones I admire and want to guest post on, and avoid the junk content mills!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Read my guidelines before pitching: http://www.makealivingwriting.com/why-i-pay-writers

      You’d be surprised how many people don’t bother, even though I now have a sidebar banner that goes right to them.

      The problem with that mill rationalization is that writing for those platforms DOESN’T build your portfolio, and DOESN’T give you any relevant experience for pitching good-paying clients. It’s sort of like rocking in a rocking chair — you feel like you’re doing something, but you’re not really moving forward.

      • I’ll definitely re-read your guidelines and your books several times before I try because otherwise I won’t be feeling worthy, haha!

        I can understand it’s no good to do content mill blogging, and I can see more clearly how to avoid them thanks to helpful books and blogs like yours. (Seriously not trying to brown nose – it’s a fact.) But what about other content like white papers, direct-mail packages, or ads? Do you start out pitching higher-end clients on those, even if you’ve never done one? That’s what I get nervous about. :/

  7. 8. Cultivate long-term repeat clients

    Many writers are more concerned with introducing themselves to every market/job provider on a 500+-item list than with cultivating real relationships with clients they could count on for regular callbacks or long-term contracts. A publisher may pay $50 or even $500 per article, but you haven’t achieved even minimal success in terms of *full-time* writing until you’re consistently earning at least $3,000 a month; and if you take the “sell one article to each publisher on the market” approach, that could add up to 2-4 hours a day spent on queries alone, every work day month after month for years, just to bring in the minimum amount needed to pay the rent and food bills. Add in time for the assignments you do get, maintaining a website and blog plus social networking accounts, and handling the basic office stuff, and you wind up with an awfully low per-hour rate.

    Compare that with the writer who has two or three clients on contract for a year’s worth of $2,000/month work, a half dozen publishers who work with her regularly enough to know it’s safe to accept article proposals on the basis of a one-sentence description, and a handful of corporate contacts who think of her first when a project comes up–and who needs to do only 2-4 hours a week of marketing and networking to keep the pipeline open. Not only does the per-hour rate for total work hours multiply exponentially, but this writer has less trouble with the feast-or-famine cycle because she has a much clearer picture of who is likely to want what for how much each month.
    Katherine Swarts recently posted…7 Blessings We Forget to Thank God ForMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on, Katherine — I’ve always focused on ongoing work from editors I’ve cultivated relationships with, rather than trying to be published in 100 different magazines, and it brought a lot of stability to my income and my freelance career.

  8. James Sowers says:

    Carol,

    I really enjoyed this piece and everything I’ve read on your blog so far.

    “2. Avoid the masses

    I have yet to see an online platform with hundreds of writers working for it that pays well. There is no such business model.”

    This is similar to the problem I’m tackling. Don’t worry, there aren’t any links here, but I would love to hear your thoughts if you have a moment.

    Basically, my plan is to create an invite-only list/community of about 500 -1,000 freelance writers to start. This list is completely free to join and each applicant, invitee, or referral will be vetted by me to make sure they are both experienced and serious about taking on new clients.

    Members will receive regular emails with writing gigs that are curated from numerous sources. These don’t include content mills and will all offer a decent per word or hourly wage. Again, they are vetted by me, not collected using some web scraping application. I’m searching for these gigs anyways, so I figured I might as well share the wealth.

    In my experience, marketing and lead generation is a huge pain point for writers. When they have tons of work to do, they don’t have time to market their services. When they stop marketing, there’s no follow-on work for them once they finish their current projects. They throw all their time and effort at marketing for a week or two, after which they have another glut of work. This cycle then repeats multiple times throughout the year with vastly different results.

    My aim is to effectively enable writers to outsource their lead generation. Gigs are curated and delivered right to your inbox. All you have to do is pitch and close. You work directly with the client (not in a third party environment) and engage in all of your normal contracting/negotiation/payment processes. Clients get the utility of putting their projects in front of a group of talented writers (read: no need to filter through 100 applications from ESL providers or novice writers still cutting their teeth) and the writers get the convenience of hands-free lead generation. Sounds like a win/win to me.

    Again, I would welcome feedback (via comments here) from anyone on the idea. After all, you and your readership are pretty much in my target demographic.

    Thanks! I’m always looking forward to your next post.

    • Carol Tice says:

      James, I think that’s called Morning Coffee. Or FlexJobs.

      As with any business startup, you should ask yourself if there’s a market need that’s not being filled. I think there are many lead curators out there — and I also get pitched regularly by firms offering to do marketing for me. What would be innovative, new, or more useful. And who’s your client here, the prospects?

      Also, if your community is free, and you’re curating existing listings from all over…what is the business model? How would you sustain that?

      You may not be aware that I pay a job board manager to curate an elite better-gig list for Freelance Writers Den members…and she’d tell you, this is not a quick or easy assignment. It’s a lot of hours, each week.

      I’m able to get a lot of exclusive listings at this point, because prospects know that because my people pay to participate, they are all serious about their freelance careers. I wouldn’t think offering it free but vetting your member list would impress prospects in the same way, that your list is one they should put a job listing on. Because we have a paid membership, I’ve also been able to cut exclusive deals with FlexJobs and other boards to spotlight some of their best writer gigs to my members in exchange for a link to their site.

      Just some thoughts about that idea. I’d hate to see you put a lot of effort into launching a free community, if you’re trying to find enough freelance gigs to sustain yourself. It would be great to have a volunteer do that, but I worry that it would really impact your income.

      • James Sowers says:

        Carol,

        I tried to post a follow-up stating that I noticed you had this built into Freelance Writer’s Den. It didn’t go through right away and I didn’t want to refresh the page and end up posting several times. I’m still working through your site and apologize if this seemed self-serving or competitive. I didn’t know that existed when I wrote the comment.

        I was getting a bit long-winded, so I didn’t want to touch on monetization just yet. But, since you asked…

        The idea at the moment is for clients to pay for listings. They can pay a one-time fee to list the job for 30-days or until it is filled. There would also be an option to pay a one-time fee to receive a curated list of writers who specialize in the type of project and/or subject matter, but only if the position is filled.

        This models seems intuitive because clients tend to be companies with healthy budgets whereas my preliminary research has shown that writers can be tight-fisted with their hard-earned cash.

        I wasn’t aware of Morning Coffee or FlexJobs, but I’ll be sure to check them out. FlexJobs seems to fall into the category of “saving writers the time investment of searching multiple boards and vetting gigs themselves.”

        I never thought this was a novel idea. I assumed there were other options out there, but I don’t think the niche is saturated yet, especially when resources like Freelance Writer’s Den are full. Maybe my service could be the place that they turn?

        I really appreciate your feedback. I think if I move forward I would use the lean startup approach. It would begin as a simple email newsletter and evolve into something larger only if it gained traction. I’m a sidepreneur that takes on freelance writing gigs and builds small projects in my free time. The risk is low and it seems like a fun project in an area I’m interested in. I’ll keep doing research.

        Thanks again!

        • Carol Tice says:

          No problem, James — it’s just that I’ve been covering startups as a beat reporter for 20 years, so when you tell me your startup idea, my instinct is to poke holes in it. πŸ˜‰

          Best of luck getting prospects to pay for access to such a small list. I think the paid-ad model only works in a scenario like ProBlogger, where you have a huge audience and big traffic to promise those advertisers.

          Because of the structure of my community, I probably *could* charge for ads, but have chosen not to, because I want to encourage listings, and consider it a member perk.

  9. Rob S says:

    I read something recently that came as a revelation to me. A guy started by going for high paying gigs because he thought he would have less competition for the jobs because others would be afraid to try for them. He didn’t know what to ask for, so he didn’t mention rates. He was offered far more than he would have asked for.

    When you think about it, no matter what our excuses may be, fear is what holds us back, isn’t it?
    Rob S recently posted…Overcoming Fear Part One: Freelance WritingMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      That’s why I always tell writers to try to get the client to name a figure before you say anything — often, that figure could be twice what you were thinking, or more.

      • Penny Hawes says:

        I’ve found this useful just in the last couple of weeks, Carol. I remembered you advising us to ask what a client had budgeted. Helps a lot, as does asking questions about what the client is looking to accomplish with your work. That allows the client realize the value himself, without you having to do as much “selling”.
        Penny Hawes recently posted…Horse Sense, Book Learning and the Perfect Fruit SaladMy Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          Great point — if you hate pressuring prospects, just ask, “What’s the goal of this project — what’s the result we hope to get here?” That spotlights the value.

  10. Great article Carol.

    I think it’s something freelance writers can’t hear enough. Once I made the decision to stop clinging desperately to the low-paying gigs, I actually found it far easier, faster and more satisfying to land much better clients. Once you’ve made the mental switch, you’ll never look back and your value grows, as you have the time to get to know and really deliver for each client – and keep working with them.

    • Carol Tice says:

      It’s true — once you accept that Craigslist ad gigs/bid sites etc are never going to give you the income you want and start treating it like a business, everything changes.

      That’s why I’m excited to have Freelance Business Bootcamp turned into an e-book now, so more writers can get these business basics into their heads and lay the groundwork to really earn.

  11. Shane Hall says:

    Awesome article. I’m currently transitioning out of the content mill situation by getting clients and building relationships so this is perfect for me.
    Shane Hall recently posted…Black Friday Special: A Year of Unlimited Premium ThemesMy Profile

  12. Julia says:

    All good stuff! I’m listening and keeping all these informative tidbits in my hard drive as I’ll be needing them soon. Moreover, I’m not sure how many in here has a mentality like mine. Sorta, “Oh, I’m new, there are tons who are better than me, who have been in the field a lot longer than me, who are more educated than me, blah, blah” I’m afraid to ask for a raise because I’m just a starting nobody.
    Thanks for the post.

  13. Angie Mansfield says:

    +1 to specializing in a topic — I used to think writing about marketing and ecommerce would be hugely boring. Now those seem to have become my area of expertise, through no fault of my own; they’re just what clients keep hiring me to write about. And the more I write about them, the more I get paid for them. Nice how that works out. πŸ˜‰

  14. Carol – thank you! It seems like you post something reminding us that we can command value we deserve just as we are about to fall into the five-dollar-despair.

    I am just starting out but seem to struggle with small biz clients. I thought I had landed the perfect one just this last Monday. However, after the great initial meeting where she shook hands on hiring me, she never responded to my follow up (which included an agreement I told her was coming) – nor subsequent follow ups.

    It seems to me like small biz folks ultimately never have any budget, and I spend time luring them in, explaining the value of marketing, etc. – but then they want me to work for bartering, or very little, or drop out completely…AND, while I’d be OK working for little while I build my portfolio, because they don’t pay, they don’t treat it like work – thus leaving me with a lot of time spent and nothing for my portfolio. Any tips, or is this a longer topic?

    Thanks, best, Ivana

    • Carol Tice says:

      First off, don’t write them off yet — small business owners get busy sometimes and it could take a while to get a response.

      If you’re just building samples, you might try proposing pro bono work — business owners are usually pretty excited to get that. Once you have a few samples, as you’ve guessed, you’ll want to start looking at bigger businesses to pitch. They’re the ones that can really pay.

  15. I’ve found regional magazines a great resource. Most pay a decent mid-range rate and they usually don’t ask for a lot of revisions. One of my best outlets right now is a free cattle and farming magazine I picked up at my local feed store buying dog food. But I agree β€” building relationships is key. I plan to send all my editors holiday cards this year.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I found that with my local city magazine, too, Leslie — they loved my stuff, and I got to write on some great social-justice topics I didn’t have any other outlet for.

  16. Daryl George says:

    I’ll admit that it’s deceptively easy to fall into the “low paying gig” trap, having been there myself.

    The reason why most writers flock to the low paying gigs is that it’s far easier to identify (and get) clients through mass platforms like Elance or Odesk, or through online job listings, than to research and pitch other clients.

    The higher paying gigs often (not always) require extensive experience that most beginning/intermediate freelancers have.

    Of course, I fully support the opinion that freelancers should still do the research and chase the higher paying gigs anyway!
    Daryl George recently posted…7 Ways for Freelance Writers to Separate Themselves from the PackMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’d challenge the idea that higher paying gigs require extensive experience — because it’s not hard to find small-business clients that could pay more than mill rates or the typical revshare pennies you’d get. I think even starting out, if you’ll prospect for your own clients, you could earn more than on bid sites.

      • Steph Weber says:

        I agree, Carol. I’ve been hired by a few small business clients, in industries with which I wasn’t entirely familiar. I had a base knowledge and then just researched my little heart out! And I asked a LOT of questions.

        I used to think asking questions would make me look unprofessional, but I’ve learned it’s actually the complete opposite. It shows initiative, curiosity, and determination – that you want to learn more about the company and their offerings.
        Steph Weber recently posted…Is It Time to F5 Your Perspective?My Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          You got it, Steph! I ask a bazillion questions — sometimes I’m even sorta disorganized and send dozens of emails, each with one question! But it’s better to do that and turn in a first draft they love, in my view.

          One thing I love is to take gigs in dorky niches that they can’t possibly expect me to already know about — just did a business plan for a washing-machine company, for instance. Then you can just ask away, and they think it’s routine. πŸ˜‰

  17. Building relationships takes time. It takes time for a client to decide to hire me, and then to trust me. Those are two different trust decisions. Today a client told me the ebook I ghost-wrote for him was not quite what he had in mind. (He knows his instructions were not thorough.) He asked if I thought it could be saved, or whether we should scrap it and move on to the next project. I want to complete the ebook project to his satisfaction because I know that’s how I’m building the trust relationship. It never ends, really. So I told him, “Sure, I can fix it.” That is how I would want a ghost writer to treat me, so that’s how I treat my clients.

  18. Nur Costa says:

    That was a very useful post Carol. Well, as usual πŸ™‚
    Thanks for sharing and doing what you do.

    I always enjoy reading your posts. It was about time I left a comment πŸ˜€

    Regards
    Nur Costa recently posted…Everything in life is so ephemeralMy Profile

  19. Williesha says:

    These are awesome tips. For me, it’s very easy to ignore and weed out the crap gigs. But it’s still tough to find clients who truly need your services. Hence why the Den is super important. And I now finally have a copy of the Writers Market where I can get a good base of publications to start.

    And of course I’m having a bit of an identity crisis balancing writing gigs and virtual assistance ones.
    Williesha recently posted…12 (More) Blogging Lessons After Year Two (Part 2!)My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Willi, my experience is those two are tough to juggle — you have to watch out that writing clients don’t hear you’re also a VA, because it seems to place you immediately into a low-rate category.

  20. Jane says:

    A very important topic to discuss Carol! Most freelance writers strangle to professional death because of how incapable they are to pitch it correctly. As you say if one focusses on pitching about the value they deliver instead of the mere outcome of the project (like the word count), it is not hard to get well paid.

    At the same time, while we research about the company’s or clients’ success in terms of the money they have and how long they have been around, we should also be aware that they will research about the freelance writers too! So it is important to showcase authority and credibility.

    All wonderful points Carol πŸ™‚ I’m sharing this!
    Jane recently posted…10 On-page search engine optimization tips that still matterMy Profile

    • Thank you for the continual encouragement: To value yourself and your work! Keep repeating it, because I need to hear it! I just turned down a job that I thought would end up paying peanuts in the long run due to the potentially long hours doing something I really didn’t want to do. I didn’t think it would be fair to either of use to have me frustrated!

      So now I’m going to have to start “pounding the pavement” myself to secure other clients. And I’m starting this week! My husband and I have designed our logo and are excitedly moving forward in our website planning, marketing and client hunting. (Thanks again for the timely, motivational kick!)

      Andrea Arthur Owan (The Ingenium Communicator Group)
      Andrea Arthur Owan recently posted…Seeing Your Premature Infant for the First TimeMy Profile

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