How One Freelance Writer Increased Her Income Ten-Fold

on February 16, 2009 in Freelance Writing Business
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I've spent a lot of time over the last several years talking to freelance writers earning $.01 per word or even less, trying to encourage them to raise their rates and get out of their rut--the one where they want to raise rates but can't, because there's no time to market to a new client base when you're cramming tons of articles into your week just to get by.


While this story may not be relevant to writers already on the higher end of the spectrum, today I'd like to share a story from one freelance writer who went from accepting gigs at as low as half a cent per word to now having advertised rates as high as $.15 per word. I hope those struggling at rock-bottom rates can find a bit of inspiration here to make changes in their writing careers.

Here's my interview with Writer's Brew blogger and business and finance writer, LaToya Irby:

When did you begin freelance writing, and what type of writing do you take on?

When I first started freelance writing in early 2006, I took on a lot of keyword-spamming type of articles. You know, the writing equivalent of an offshore shoe manufacturer. It wasn’t what I was ultimately looking for, but those jobs were easy to find and paid quickly. At that point, I was just happy that I was getting paid to write.

What did your typical rate structure look like when you started? Why did you choose to start at those rates?

I was making anywhere between $.005 and $.02 per word. That’s what the jobs paid, so that’s what I took. It didn’t occur to me to ask for anything higher.

In hindsight, if you could go back and change anything about the way you started your freelance writing career, what would you do differently?

I would have spent more time learning the freelance writing business, making contact with other writers, and coming up with a clear plan about launching a freelance writing career. I would have chosen a niche and a target market and focused on building a reputation there.

What are your rates like now? How long did it take for you to make the transition from your previous rate structure to your current rates?

My rates are [at least] 4-5 times higher than what they were in the beginning. Of course, I don’t know if the increase [is] that dramatic considering I moved from $.02 per word to $.08 per word over three years. That’s about a 2 cent increase every year. I charge $35/hour for other types of business writing like copywriting, business letters and business proposals. I didn’t offer those services in the beginning.

Was it "easy" to raise rates? Did it pose any difficulties? What was the hardest part about it?

Sure, deciding to increase my rates was the easy part. The hard part was letting go of clients that didn’t want to pay the higher rate and putting in the work to find clients that would pay them. At the time, it was difficult moving out of my comfort zone, but all I really had to do was start looking for clients in other places. That work was vital to my freelance writing success.

What made you decide to increase your rates in the first place? Was it out of necessity (needed to earn more to get by), pride in your work (you knew your time was worth more than what you were charging), or something else?

It was a little of both. When I started freelance writing, I had a corporate job making close to $60,000 a year. There was no way I could match that salary at the writing rates I was accepting. I would have had to write thousands of articles per year. I realized I could write for more during an episode of Sex and the City. Carrie, the main character who writes a column for the New York Post, mentioned getting paid something like $1.25 a word to freelance for Vogue. I thought “She’s making more per a word than I make per article!” That’s a slight exaggeration, but you get it.

How did your then-clients take the news? Did you ease them into it? Did most stay with you? Did you end up targeting a completely different client base?

I let my clients know I would be increasing my rates and gave them a two-month grace period at the current rate. None of them stayed with me. I understood that their business models wouldn’t allow them to make a decent profit and pay me higher rates. So ultimately, I had to target a different type of client.

Many writers express a certain level of fear when it comes to raising rates--did you experience that kind of emotion? What was the scariest part of the process, and how did that fear either motivate you or hold you back in some way?

I was definitely shy about raising my rates. I was new to freelance writing, I didn’t have any writing credits, and I have a Business degree rather than an English or Journalism degree. I thought those things made me look less attractive to “real” clients. It kept me from hiking my rates up to where I really wanted and needed them to be. I thought it would be better to ease my rates up over time, so I started out with a low increase, like how McDonald’s does with their cheeseburger prices. Only, I’m not McDonald’s and I don’t sell cheeseburgers, so it might not have been the wisest plan. I could have set entirely new rates and reestablished myself in a different market. Which is what ultimately happened, it just took longer.

Has raising your rates made you look at the freelancing life any differently? Is it easier to view it as a career path rather than a way to make extra money for example? Or do you find yourself feeling differently about the actual projects you take on now versus those you started with?

Definitely. Last September, I left my corporate job and started freelancing full time. There was absolutely no way that would have happened if I hadn’t raise my rates. It would have happened sooner if I’d been more aggressive at rate increases. Now that I do this full time, I am a lot more selective about the jobs I take on. I have to be. I love writing and I don’t want to start resenting it, so I only take on projects that I like. I have no problem saying no to a job that pays well, but would make me hate myself in the morning.

If you could say one thing to freelance writers who feel they have to offer very low rates to compete and survive, what would you say to them?

You can’t compete and you won’t survive on low rates. There will always be someone out there who will charge less than you. And that market of clients is always trying to figure out how to pay lower rates for writing. So, figure out why you’re afraid to charge what you’re worth and work on solving that problem. If you feel that you need bylined clips, get some. A lot of writers will tell you not to write for free, but if you have to give away one bylined clip to a credible website or publication to increase your rates, I say it’s a worthwhile investment. That was more than one thing, wasn’t it?

I'd like to thank LaToya for taking the time to share her personal experiences with the very low Web content writing rates we often see advertised, and what she did to start breaking away from that market.

If anyone has anything they'd like to add from their own experiences--tips to help newer or underpaid writers take a step in the right direction--I hope you'll share with us here in the comments.

Thanks for sharing!
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14 Comments

  1. Kathleen February 16, 2009 Reply

    This is similar to my story. I started out with very low paying keyword articles like LaToya because I was desperate and just glad to get the weekly paycheck. I am proud to say that two weeks ago I launched my website and started marketing. Business is booming! I am making a much better salary now and I am very happy with the work. I’m not charging 15 cents per word quite yet but when I start getting more clients on a regular basis, I’ll certainly consider it.

  2. Online Writer February 16, 2009 Reply

    I think one aspect of LaToya’s experience that is worth learning from is that it is easy to get some runs on the board early by taking those lower paying jobs. They may not pay well, but if you make sure you use them to get testimonials and referrals then they can be worthwhile.

  3. Jennifer Mattern February 16, 2009 Reply

    I actually have to disagree with that last comment. Extremely low-paying, spam-like content is not worthwhile for testimonials for higher-paying, legitimate writing gigs. If anything, they make the writer a laughing stock to clients within an entirely different market.

    Now, if you’re going from $.02 per word to $.05 per word, you might be able to pull it off. But I hope no one is accepting garbage gigs solely for portfolio pieces. If they are, they’re going about it all wrong.

  4. Sarah February 16, 2009 Reply

    This reminds me of my very first experience in freelance writing. The rate was extremely low (either $1 or less than $1 for 500 words) but at that point, I didn’t dare to ask for a raise, fear of being rejected. Besides, I was in need of work so I accepted all sorts of work regardless of the rate. Today, I am proud to say that I am earning a steady 3 figure income (in USD).

    While having a big portfolio seems like huge success but most of the time clients don’t judge by portfolio. In the end, it is about the work attitude and communication. At least, that is what I experienced.

  5. Jennifer Mattern February 17, 2009 Reply

    I’m sure she won’t. In fact, she already charges more than that in several cases. ;)

    But this has nothing to do with print publications. I’m talking solely Web content here. I have a lot of experience writing for Web publishers, and I can tell you that not one reasonably high-paying client I’ve worked with would take you seriously if you showed them penny-per-word writing. Why? Because that writing nearly always is sub-par by their standards, because clients on that penny-per-word end are looking for something much different than higher-paying clients. Even if that lower-paying client was extremely happy with your work, and you gave them exactly what they asked for, someone paying even just a few cents more per word often expects something entirely different.

    I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions to the rule, but those are few and far between – and no writer serious about “moving up” should ever expect to be one of those exceptions. Exceptions would be things like writing for a large and respected network (which often pay pitiful rates) or doing free projects for a large, known, and respectable nonprofit agency. Writing for your average buyer of cheap Web content does not carry that benefit.

    Re-read LaToya’s third response here, and you’ll see that she anything but says that’s a good way to start. In fact, she says if she knew what she knows now, she would have handled things quite differently. And the point is that with this information increasingly available to new writers, they have no excuse anymore to think that’s a good way to get started – others have gone before them and essentially hold their hand through the process, explaining how to market themselves, how to specialize, and how to network so they never waste months or years at an unsustainable rate. Absolutely no one should be working for less than they can “afford” to charge, which is what these rates often amount to. Assuming it’s just a natural stepping stone actually only demonstrates one thing – that the writer hasn’t bothered thoroughly researching the freelance writing field or properly planning their own career before simply jumping in and hoping for the best.

  6. Online Writer February 17, 2009 Reply

    Would I approach Vanity Fair with seo writing as a portfolio piece? No of course not. Common sense should tell you that. But it’s certainly a good way to build your way up, as Latoya’s story demonstrates. And it ain’t like she’s going to be stopping at 5 cents either.

  7. Jennifer L February 17, 2009 Reply

    That last block quote from LaToya is worth its weight in gold.

  8. Jennifer Mattern February 17, 2009 Reply

    I agree with you completely on that one. I especially hope two of her points there sink in with people in a similar boat:

    1. You need to start by attacking what has you afraid to charge more, and

    2. There’s a difference between free or cheap work for a credible source (like the nonprofit example I gave in my last comment) and simply writing for cheap clients, at least as far as portfolio pieces and being able to raise rates later is concerned.

  9. Jennifer L February 17, 2009 Reply

    Yes, I totally agree. Remember that huge debate a group of people had over at FWJ a couple of months ago about working for super cheap versus working for free? Many people said they think it’s better to build a clip file by writing real articles for a nonprofit newsletter even if you barely earn anything or earn nothing, than it is to dignify the people who want you to churn out 500 words for two bucks.

  10. Online Writer February 18, 2009 Reply

    Well my Mom always told me I was exceptional. ;)

  11. LaToya Irby February 18, 2009 Reply

    I’m so glad that so many people found the interview helpful. I think Kathleen was right on when she said she started a website and began marketing herself. That’s actually one of the first things I did when I decided to increase my rates. I was definitely shy that I didn’t have a lot of clips to go on, so instead I listed some of my clients (the ones that seemed reputable enough and had websites).

    I didn’t talk much about specializing in the interview, but that’s another thing that helped me move forward. It’s a lot easier to target specific clients than general ones.

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