Reader Question: Moving Beyond Penny Per Word Writing Gigs

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on August 21, 2012 in Freelance Writing Business
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I recently received the below questions from a fellow freelance writer, LeeOnna Sanchez. She wants to know how she can grow her career beyond the penny per word freelance writing gigs she's been finding on forums and bidding sites. Let's help her out.

I am a freelance writer; started about 3 1/2 years ago. I don't consider myself to be anything spectacular, but trying to write better. I go to school full time online for Communications and I have been trying to work as a freelance writer full time. I am on Elance and have written for private clients I have found on [the DigitalPoint forums] as well.

Everything is sort of hit and miss, and I was wondering if you could help determine how to become a better writer, and how to better market myself? I am not sure how to make a website let alone how to generate traffic or who to target.

I love writing and want so bad to make a career out of it and make money like so many other people are doing. I don't really expect to make a crazy amount of money, but I'd be happy to make a few thousand a month. I charge $1 per 100 words, and feel like I wouldn't be able to charge more and want to be able to get to that point. Can you help in any way?

I have been looking into maybe getting into affiliate marketing or copy writing, again I have no idea where to even get started or how to learn either item.

I'm really trying to get into writing as a career more than I have been for the last few years. I've bought some books recently and I'm trying to learn as much as I can to help me expand. I'd ideally like to find consistent work rather than working for $1 per 100 words. While it's an OK rate, I've been there for 2 and a half years.

Starting Rates


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Let me start by addressing your current rate. Now I'm not sure where you live. In some countries, a penny per word might not be bad. If that's the case, then that might be a fine starting point for you. But here in the U.S., I'd say that's anything but an "OK rate," even for beginners.

I've seen writers who can barely string sentences together get paid that much. And from what I've seen in just your emails, you're well ahead of that group. You shouldn't be earning as little as they do. To give you a comparison point, my first gig that paid per word paid $.35 per word, and even that is very much on the low end. I generally don't suggest anything less than $.10 per word for someone starting out, and that's only if they desperately need clips and experience.

So start there. Reassess what you think of as an OK rate. An OK rate, as far as I'm concerned, is the bare minimum you need to earn to meet all of your financial obligations and goals. That includes the rent or mortgage, health insurance if you have to buy your own, time off, etc.

We have a free hourly rate calculator (use the advanced version by clicking the link near the top). Use it and figure out exactly what you need to earn on an hourly basis. Then translate that into a per word rate. I suspect it's going to be much higher than a penny per word.

When you calculate these minimum rates, do it as if you were the sole income earner in your household, even if you aren't. That way you know that if you lost the other income stream, you'd be able to make enough independently to live the life you want. In this case, you're doing this full-time. But for those who aren't, I'd also suggest calculating base rates as though they are. This way if they want to go full-time later, they'll already be earning proper rates and targeting the right markets -- no major overhauls necessary.

Self Confidence

You mention that you don't consider yourself to be anything spectacular. Lose that mindset, and lose it quickly. If you think of yourself as just another writer out there, that's how prospects are going to see you too. And you'll never reach your full potential. Figure out what your strong points are and where you rise above the competition. Think about your credentials, and how you can improve them. You can't market yourself effectively unless you're confident in your own abilities. I can't give you that. You need to find that in yourself.

Job Leads

You mention that you land most of your gigs through Elance and the DigitalPoint forums. Forums can be a decent place to find jobs, but only if you know how to target prospects in the right market. Penny per word clients aren't the right market for the vast majority of freelance writers. And they clearly aren't the right market for you.

Your problem moving forward with that forum might be that you've already established yourself as an extremely low cost content producer. It can be tough to change that image once it's set. But it isn't hopeless. Spend more time contributing valuable information and less actively looking for prospects. That's how my own decent clients came from that same forum (some of whom I've been working with for several years straight).

As for Elance, I'm not a fan. I don't believe in bidding sites because by their very nature they're a race to the bottom. The only strategy I would suggest there is to calculate your ideal rates and offer those rates. Never get caught up in underbidding anyone else. But in general, I'd say to steer clear of these sites if you want to get out of low paying markets.

Instead you need to put together a portfolio that appeals to the clients you really want (the ones who can afford to pay you more). You can do that with mock pieces, work you've done for your own business, work you do for nonprofits, etc., assuming you don't have those kinds of samples available already. And then you need to find ways to connect with, or attract, those prospects.

You do that by building your network. Writers often refer work to each other when they can't take on projects.

You do that by building a Web presence. It sounds like you're taking on Web writing. If you can't be found easily on the Web, you aren't showing clients that you can meet their needs. For example, SEO is a big concern for many of them. If your professional site or blog doesn't show up high in rankings, they'll hire the writers who do.

You also do that by pitching the kinds of clients you want to work with. Shoot off an email or make some cold calls if you aren't quite ready to go the query-free route (my own preference). The benefit of this is that you have a lot of control over which prospects find out about you. And you can sell yourself to prospects who weren't even in the market for a writer yet. Sometimes they don't know they need you until you point it out.

In the end, it's a three-prong approach: build your writer platform, build your network, and pitch directly if you want to work with specific clients.

Building a Website


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You said that you aren't sure how to build a website. I think that's going to be vital in your case because you seem focused on Web-based writing, based on where you're getting your gigs.

I suggest building a website on the self-hosted version of WordPress. You would need to register a domain name and get some inexpensive Web hosting (you can get it for less than $10 per month). Then download WordPress or use your host's installation options (it's often built-in to make it super-easy for new users). Here's a tutorial I wrote a while back. While there have been updates to WordPress since then, the basic process hasn't changed. This post uses GoDaddy for the domain name and a Cpanel host for the host (HostGator.com is an example).

If you're setting up a professional site, you might want a static homepage (one that doesn't change like a blog's homepage does). You can do that in WordPress while having a blog built right into the site. Here are directions on doing that, using my own business writing site as an example.

Once you have WordPress installed, you'll want to choose a design (called a theme). Here are some of my favorite places to find them:

When it comes to traffic, just focus on your content and copy first. Make sure your site appeals to the right audience. Make sure you use appropriate keywords to appear in relevant search results (but don't stuff your pages with them). Make sure you post frequently if you have a blog, especially when the site is new. And keep providing information that people want to read.

If you show up high in search results and you give people what they want, traffic comes. People share what they like. You do that directly through social media accounts too (I find that Twitter is a great place to share your blog posts and get conversations going about their topics). Remember that high traffic won't usually come quickly. Just focus on building the best resource that you can.

Changing the Work You Do

You also mentioned that you're thinking about getting into affiliate marketing and copywriting. I'd have to ask if you're considering the changes because you don't like the type of work you do now or if you just don't like the amount of money you earn.

If it's solely about wanting to earn more, you can earn quite a lot more without changing the general type of work you do. You're going to change your market instead. For example, rather than appealing to cheap webmasters looking for low-cost content to fill their sites for ad revenue, you might look for small business or corporate clients who are looking for content for their new niche blogs that keep their customers engaged with their brand.

If you really want to pursue another type of writing, by all means go for it. Just don't feel like it's your only option if money is the primary concern. Here are a few resources where you can learn more about those two options you mentioned.

Affiliate Marketing

Copywriting

Marketing Resources

It sounds like your big issue is marketing -- choosing the right markets and figuring out how to reach them. Fortunately, marketing is something that's easily improved. So I'm going to end this Q&A with a list of resources I think you might find helpful, including past posts on marketing issues that are affecting you and some free tools to help you better plan and manage your marketing efforts in the future.

I hope I covered all of your main questions and concerns, and you'll find much more useful information in the resources included here.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She began writing for clients in 1999 and started her first blog in 2004.

She owns 3 Beat Media - a publishing and client services company which operates All Indie Writers as well as several other websites and blogs including The Busy Author's Guide and BizAmmo. Jenn comes from a background in online PR and social media consulting, having owned a small PR firm for several years before choosing to pursue a full-time writing and publishing career.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names in the areas of children's fiction, mysteries, and horror fiction. Jenn is an active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and currently serves as the organization's Assistant Coordinator of Promotions and Social Media.


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23 Comments

  1. Connie Brentford August 21, 2012 Reply

    Great article for beginners! They often have so little confidence in their value as a freelance writer. Be firm with your rates newbies. You’re worth more but there are always those that will take advantage of your insecurity. You WILL get clients at the higher rate as you market your skills!

    • Jennifer Mattern August 21, 2012 Reply

      Confidence is huge. I mentioned that first $.35 per word gig. I heard about it from a colleague who told me they were paying her $.25 per word. I would have been fine with that (pretty quick piece). But I decided to go for it and ask for more. They didn’t hesitate to pay it. You have to be confident in your own abilities. You have to take chances and ask for what you think you’re worth. And you have to be ready and willing to walk away from gigs that just aren’t right (meaning gigs where you’ll be paid little more than peanuts).

      • Jake P August 21, 2012 Reply

        Totally agree on the confidence angle and taking chances, even if it’s just some of the time. Really, if you’re not occasionally getting rejected — or, if new prospects are agreeing to your estimates without any negotiation — you may have some room for upward mobility.

        Even better, there’s a snowball effect once you get a few clients at a better, living rate; it makes it that much easier to ask a higher price the next time. That’s why referrals are so key, and so preferable (IMHO) to fishing expeditions: The prospect probably already has been tipped off to your approximate rate range by the referrer.

        Great primer, Jenn!

  2. LeeOnna August 21, 2012 Reply

    I thank you so much for responding to me! It really helped me a lot! I would love nothing more than to continue doing what I am doing now, but maybe work more with medical, health, fitness, and beauty writing. Those are my favorite topics to write on, and since I emailed you, i have built a website. I am still trying to determine what to do as far as how to get it ranking, and will look into the resources you provided to help me more!

    I decided to charge $2 per 100 words, and hoping that will help me make more money while still doing what I love. I enjoy writing, and at the same time earnings is important to me. I have a Twitter and a LinkedIn, and I am trying to find people to connect with that are writers or that are in the content business. I bought a few books to help with copywriting as well as improving my writing already, and hope to learn more.

    My time for reading and learning is unfortunately limited because I do go to college full-time and have two little ones and trying to write to make a buck or two a week. This post really made me see that I can make money with writing, and I don’t want to give up yet! I have chugged along for the last 3 1/2 years, and just hope that my luck can turn around.

    • Jennifer Mattern August 21, 2012 Reply

      First of all, congrats on the new website. That’s a big step. :)

      The rankings will come. Don’t stress so much about it that you put rankings before your content. Just remember that you might need to focus on relevant but not-so popular keyword phrases first. For example, pushing for “medical writer” immediately would be difficult because it’s more competitive than say “medical web content writer.”

      I’m just curious. Why did you choose $2 per 100 words? That still seems extremely low to me. From what I’ve seen, you shouldn’t have any problem charging that $.10 per word starting rate. If you really aren’t comfortable with that, I can’t imagine you would need to take anything less than $5.00 per 100 words. But even if you do that, I’d do it with a plan to move up quickly.

      One thing I liked doing when I was in a new market was to have higher official rates and then offer lower sale prices for new customers. It worked extremely well, and clients knew up front that they’d pay more for any future work. Sales are good at bringing in a sudden rush of work from time to time, especially in places like DP.

      Even if you stick with those lower rates in the places where you market now, consider charging much higher rates in another place. You might just be surprised at how willing clients are to pay you more when you look in different places or attract them in different ways. :)

      • LeeOnna August 22, 2012 Reply

        I find that when I bid higher, I get rejected for work. I have had hundreds of people tell me my writing is not work anything more than a penny a word. I don’t think I have ever been paid more in the almost 4 years I have been writing.

        i guess my problem is I do not know how to find the clients willing to pay more. I lack confidence to the max, and i am trying to build it up. I just get so discouraged when I am rejected because my tone is not what they want, or my writing is not detailed enough, or whatever other reason people tend to have towards my writing.

        There is nothing more that I would like than to be paid more. I have such a passion for being successful online and writing that it really makes me feel defeated that maybe this is not the market for me?

  3. Lucy Smith August 21, 2012 Reply

    To be honest, I don’t like the per-word pay model, even though I know that a lot of types of writing pay like this as a matter of course. To me, it destroys the notion that you’re providing anything of value beyond some words on a page. You could be writing award-winning prose or absolute gibberish but you’d still get paid the same, and that doesn’t sit right with me. Especially when you consider how much harder writing short pieces can be.

    At least set a per-word rate that reflects the value you add to your clients – depending on what you’re writing for them, you’re driving traffic to their site, you’re writing an article about a fantastic new product, or you’re giving their customers advice. That has to be worth real money. $2 for 100 words is still rock bottom – to put it in perspective, I have a friend who does charge by the word for some things, and his rate is the equivalent of 60 cents (US) per word. That’s the kind of rate you should be shooting for, and don’t let anyone tell you any different.

    • Jennifer Mattern August 22, 2012 Reply

      I’m with you on per word rates. I always start with hourly rates for goal-setting, and then I convert those to project rates instead. And I make it clear on my site that short copy isn’t necessarily cheaper (such as when I’m asked to come up with slogan suggestions).

      Excellent points on value. It’s much easier to charge professional rates when you really stop and think about all the benefits your writing is bringing to the client.

  4. Amandah August 22, 2012 Reply

    This is an excellent post for those who want to become freelance writers. And it’s a great reminder for ‘seasoned’ freelancer writers who’ve built their businesses. You’ve come a long way!

    A few years ago I opened Guru.com and Elance accounts and quickly realized that most budgets are set at $250 or less. These sites could be good for high school students interested in writing careers. It gives them a chance to develop their negotiation and communication skills. :)

    Confidence is a BIG issue for most freelance writers. Boost your confidence by believing in you and your writing. Also, get rid of the ‘perfection’ attitude. And most importantly… stop comparing yourself to other writers. This one is a major confidence killer.

    Good luck!

  5. Peter Bowerman August 22, 2012 Reply

    Great post, Jenn, (and thanks for the plug to my blog)

    I totally agree with Lucy’s take on the price-per-word paradigm. It’s part and parcel of a “piecework” mentality – a fixture of any assembly line. And that’s no way to foster any self-respect about what you do. How can you proud of what you accomplish as a writer, when it’s about, literally, pennies per word? It becomes all about quantity, not quality.

    The main thing, LeeOnna, is to turn your head in completely new directions. As many on this board know, my arena (and books, ezine, blog, etc) is all about commercial freelancing – writing for companies – and those gigs you WON’T find on job boards. You won’t get there overnight, but just making the decision to shift your sights in a completely different direction is probably THE best thing you can do for yourself. The online sites are a dead end if there ever was one.

    I did a “tough-love” guest post during Lori Widmer’s Writer’s Worth Weeks a few months back that really resonated with a lot of folks. You might find it does for you as well.

    http://www.wordsonpageblog.com/2012/05/writers-worth-two-what-you-dont-deserve.html

    I wish you the best as you move forward!

    PB

    • Lucy Smith August 22, 2012 Reply

      And, of course, the people who will pay you pennies per word won’t value what you do, either!

      I’m like Jenn – I start with an hourly rate and then, based on how long I expect to take (plus at least 20% for overrun), use that to work out a project rate. Charging by the project is the way to go (and I’ve tried both per-word and hourly myself), because a) good clients are used to doing things that way, b) it treats what you do as a service than just stringing words together, and c) it will reflect the value that you add to their business. You’ll feel better about what you do, too!

      And by the way, I’d take out ‘article spinning’ from your experience. Get experience in things like ad copy, case studies, website copy, and sales letters, and show it, because that’s what the clients with the dollars (not the pennies!) will be looking for. Article spinning is nothing more than a form of plagiarism, and it will put people off if they truly understand the value of quality content.

      Best of luck – writing is a fun job :-)

      • Jennifer Mattern August 24, 2012 Reply

        Oh definitely. I missed the spinning reference. Unless the client owns the copyright to the original material, spinning is a derivative work, and therefore copyright infringement. Most I see advertising as spinners or rewriters are violating the rights of actual writers. You don’t want to associate yourself with those groups and put yourself at legal risk if a client gives you content to spin and you can’t adequately prove it’s their own.

  6. Shiromi August 25, 2012 Reply

    Great post, and as always, so inspiring. I started out doing Demand Media-type articles, and although I haven’t been quite as successful as I’d like at consistently getting higher paid work, your articles always remind me to stick with what I believe I’m worth.

    I agree also that sites like Elance are a waste of energy. I briefly used it, and didn’t even consider bidding for low paying work, but even the “high” paying work ended up taking more time and energy because there was always someone willing to work for less.

  7. Ruan Oosthuizen November 28, 2012 Reply

    Hi Jenn,

    This post has inspired me tremendously and opened my eyes in a way I didn’t think with this much lack of sleep was even possible.

    I just joined your forum before reading this post as I am pursuing my passion as a freelance blogger, previously only professional blogger, mostly guest writing and my own sites, without remuneration.

    I was in search of “how to determine your rates as a freelance writer” and my eye caught a post on the forum and I got a bit distracted as I simply had to join before I call it a night. BUT just as I was about to leave for bed I saw this tab in my browser I opened and here it was, a post I can relate to as if it was me in the position. The only difference is, I have never been paid for any blogging I’ve done before, so that would be “getting paid LESS than a penny”?

    I have to admit that through my online research and planning on how I was going to pursue this career and dream of mine as a freelance blogger, I realized that confidence is indeed the number one thing I believe that’s holding freelance writers back from earning what they are worth.

    English is not my first language but man there is just no way in heaven or on earth I’ll write at $2 per 100 words. Jenn, in South Africa if I’d be earning $10 per 100 words, personally me being comfortable writing 600-1200 word articles in 1-1.5 hours – that gives you something between $60 and $120 per hour; that is way more than the average rate here in South Africa. But to be honest, I suddenly feel like my skills and writing ability is worth more in the direction of $20 per 100 words after reading this post!

    Which kind of leaves me a little bit confused although I’m sure it’s nothing a little more digging, studying and calculating can’t take care of. I mean, how do you know what you are really worth?

    I think this is where it comes into “what are you willing to work for” keeping all your expenses and financial goals in mind, rather than “what am I worth” because when you have enough confidence in your writing and you read an article like this; what you thought you were worth and what you actually might be worth in reality are two very different figures, without a doubt.

    I have two challenges at the moment, with one being 10% away from being solved…

    1. What can I charge?
    2. Where do I find clients willing to pay me what I’m worth?

    I feel comfortable ‘testing’ the waters at $10 but I can’t see myself being satisfied with that for very long. I decided to go look on Problogger.net Job Board and see if I can land my first client.

    From what I understand you are not a huge fan of job boards?

    I have bookmarked this page as I have found myself enough interesting reading for the next week with all the resources you gave; thanks a mil for that! Now I’m off to that calculator of yours, maybe it’s the next thing I need :) Sleep can wait just a little longer…

    Take care!
    Ruan
    Ruan Oosthuizen recently posted…Case Study | The Birth Of A Freelance Blogger – Chapter 1 Part 1: “Fertilization”My Profile

    • Jennifer Mattern November 28, 2012 Reply

      Hi Ruan,

      It’s getting pretty late here right now, but I just wanted to let you know that I responded to your question over on the forum earlier this evening. :) I’ll check this over again in the morning and try to address any questions for you that I might have missed. And if it’s okay with you, maybe I’ll turn it into a post for next week so others can benefit and the info won’t get lost in the comments.

    • Jennifer Mattern November 30, 2012 Reply

      Ruan,

      I apologize for the delay. Our server was down most of the day yesterday, so I couldn’t get on here to respond to your comment in more depth.

      The first thing I would suggest is to visit our forum again and see my response to you there. I talked about a tool we have here on the site that can help you determine your rates. :)

      As for confidence, you’re absolutely right. It’s essential in freelancing of any kind, because you have to be able to sell your services and convince clients that you’re the right person for the job.

      When it comes to figuring out what you’re worth, there are a few things you need to consider. First of all, what do you need to earn? Use our calculator to help you figure that out. Once you have that number in front of you, ask yourself if you feel your skills justify that rate. If so, you’re worth at least that much. If not, then freelancing probably isn’t the best idea. It’s not for everyone. I have a feeling you can earn more than the minimum you need in your case.

      You also have to consider your background. Do you bring any special skills or credentials to the table? You’ve written for some high profile blogs. And that helps. Do you have a degree that gives you a unique perspective on your writing? Have you written for someone well-respected in your specialty area? Things like that can justify charging higher rates because your worth is increased in the eyes of buyers.

      To find clients willing to pay what you’re worth, you need to start by figuring out who they are. That’s a case of identifying your target market. The article linked below might help.

      http://allfreelancewriting.com/4-tips-for-better-understanding-your-target-market/

      Once you know who your target market includes, you can figure out the best ways to reach them. On the higher end, freelance writing jobs are rarely advertised publicly. You find them by building a solid professional network, ranking well in search engines so buyers can find you, and by pitching companies or publications you’d love to work for, whether or not there are advertised freelance gigs available. When you focus on building your reputation and visibility, you’re basically building a writer platform. Here are 30 ways you can do that:

      http://allfreelancewriting.com/30-ways-to-build-your-writer-platform/

      Job boards are almost never the best places to find freelance writing gigs. They’re just the easiest way to find them. But the competition is higher (because so many writers take the easy way out and apply for the same gigs). The jobs tend to pay on the low end of the spectrum. And you tend to find gigs listed from the same companies repeatedly rather than getting a broader look at the overall market. It’s up to you to decide what kind of target market you want to work with, and then figure out if they use job boards or find their writers in other ways. In the $10-20 per article range you’ll probably find some gigs on job boards and marketplaces. Much higher than that though, and you’ll hit the range where gigs are very rarely advertised.

      I hope that helps!

  8. susieklein December 16, 2012 Reply

    Wow! What an awesome post for this beginner to land on! It is so full of wonderful information! Thanks so much for writing it Jenn!
    Susie Klein
    http://susieklein.wordpress.com/
    susieklein recently posted…Will Write for Your Christian WebsiteMy Profile

  9. Mark February 4, 2013 Reply

    This is a great introductory piece; it’s exactly what I needed to read. I’m relatively new to content writing, but I’ve noticed that a lot of writers sell themselves far too short. Content bidding sites don’t help either. I’m off to check out the rest of your site now!
    Mark recently posted…Obligatory first postMy Profile

    • Jennifer Mattern February 4, 2013 Reply

      Thanks Mark. I hope you find some more information that helps. :) And feel free to contact me with questions. If we haven’t covered something here before, I’m happy to answer reader questions on the blog. :)

  10. Mark February 5, 2013 Reply

    Thanks Jennifer, I still haven’t made it through all the links on this page :)
    Mark recently posted…Making money as a writer: short storiesMy Profile

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