Not Earning Enough as a Freelance Writer? You Have Only Yourself to Blame

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on April 20, 2009 in Freelance Writing Business, Marketing
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I've been a part of an interesting conversation on freelance writing (specifically on the Web) at the DigitalPoint forums recently, and I think it's a topic worth talking about here. In short, it started with a member asking why buyers always seem to be looking for "cheap content" there instead of quality.

Then came calls for us on the forum staff to implement rules or a system to weed out low-paying gigs.

Then came claims that the forum is basically crap for bringing in leads.

Why was this interesting to me? Because the same thing kept happening--writers were blaming everyone but themselves for their failure to earn more money and attract more business. Instead they assumed it was the staff's fault for "allowing" low-paying offers (keep in mind we're talking about a webmaster forum, meaning it's about what they want and not specifically designed to attract professional writers), and then it was the platform that apparently sucked rather than someone simply not knowing how to use it effectively.

This isn't unusual. I see it all the time. People have left comments on this blog to that effect. People email me wanting easy answers. People whine left and right about not earning enough, yet those same people are often the ones not really trying.

Taking Responsibility

The first mistake new writers often make is not bothering to plan the business elements of their freelance writing careers. While freelancing is not the same thing as running a more traditional business, it's a lifestyle with a definite business side to it. If you don't bother to do market research and create a business plan and marketing plan, you don't get to complain later when things aren't working out as you hoped.


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If you aren't happy with the gigs readily presented to you, it's your responsibility to look harder or look elsewhere rather than relying on a single source for job opportunities.

If you aren't getting gigs through a particular community or platform, figure out why. If others are, and they're offering similar services to the same target market you're trying to reach, the problem is with your approach and not with the platform. That said, every community is not for every writer - find the ones that work for you. Testing is vital to successful marketing, and you should always do things that bring the best ROI when possible (why I suggest spending time writing for yourself over accepting very low paying gigs for others).

Writers need to take responsibility for whatever situation they're in. It's easy to do that when you're doing well. But as long as you keep blaming others instead of taking a hard look at yourself, you aren't going to get out of your rut.

Aversion to Work

On top of a lack of planning, it seems that too many freelance writers expect gigs to be handed to them. They expect all of the good gigs out there to be publicly advertised so all they have to do is search job ads and send off queries. That's not the way it works folks.

A huge portion of the overall freelance marketplace is completely "underground." That means work comes to you through referrals. How do you get those referrals? You work your butt off building visibility and a solid professional network. You build a writer platform. Those who do that successfully are the ones who enjoy work coming to them. (I can't tell you the last time I had to go out looking for gigs - when you get to that point, you'll never want to go back).

I suppose what baffles me is that I hear the same things constantly - writers feel they're wasting time and it's the fault of all of the low-paying clients out there littering job boards. Well guess what. Those job boards are tailored to low-paying clients! If you feel that your time is being wasted, then stop wasting your time!

Why is it that some writers are willing to spend hours trolling job boards and sending out queries that may not get a response, but at the same time they'll balk at the idea of launching a blog, writing an e-book, setting up a professional website, taking part in article marketing, writing guest posts, etc.? When I suggest those things, it's not uncommon to hear "When I have the time...." You have the time. We all have the time. If we don't have the time to market our services and improve our careers, we probably don't belong in this game.

The "Make More Money" Plan

If you want to make more money as a writer, you have to show potential clients that you deserve it. Every Joe Schmo feels entitled to higher paying gigs these days (as Yolander Prinzel covered well in the previously mentioned forum discussion). Those who deserve high paying freelance writing work are:

  1. Writers who offer real value to clients (remember that "value" doesn't have anything to do with "cost" in this sense).
  2. Writers who are capable of portraying that value to potential clients. (In other words, it doesn't matter if you can write if you can't demonstrate your abilities and value to prospective clients - remember, solid marketers will generally do better as freelance writers than someone who is only a solid writer).

If you want to earn more, you need to be proactive about it. There is no easy solution to getting high paying freelance writing jobs. That said, it also isn't terribly difficult and it doesn't have to take a long time. Focus on the following:

  1. Rethink Your Target Market - It's far easier to start targeting new clients willing to pay your desired freelance writing rates than it is to convince lower-paying markets to start paying significantly more.
  2. Reevaluate Your Value Proposition - What makes you different than the competition? This is where specialists have the advantage.
  3. Build Your Platform - Your writer platform is simply the built-in audience with a demand for your services. How do you build a platform? Write a blog. Write a book or e-book. Guest post elsewhere. Comment on other blogs. Speak at seminars or conferences. Take part in interviews. Host a podcast. It's all just basic PR folks. To build your platform you simply build your visibility - you need to be "out there" where your potential clients can find you, decide they like what you have to say, and decide to hire you or refer others to you based on that.
  4. Network! - There's no way around it. The single best way to break into the underground writing markets of unadvertised high paying freelance writing jobs is to build a network. Become friendly with other writers and editors, get to know people in your target market even if they're not hiring you now, and play an active role in niche communities.

That's the gist of it. Really! No magic pills. Just basic business sense. Good, old fashioned marketing and public relations work. If you do those things well, it won't be that long before you have higher paying gigs coming to you instead of you constantly having to be on the lookout for them.

Invest the time you would normally spend blaming someone else for your lack of high paying work into the tasks above, and soon enough you'll be able to start thanking yourself for a job well done. Once you get to that point, you'll fully understand why it's so frustrating constantly seeing other writers asking for quick fixes and throwing blame around. And do you know what? I'd bet once you find the right mix for you, you'll never go back to your old ways of job-hunting.

Share your own tips and thoughts in the comments.

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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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12 Comments

  1. Lillie Ammann April 20, 2009 Reply

    Excellent advice, Jennifer. I get almost all my business from referrals. It has taken time and effort to reach this point, but now I have all the work I can handle … and not low-paying jobs.

  2. Jennifer L April 20, 2009 Reply

    Such a good kick in the pants! I know that I’ve landed most of my clients in the past through networking. I need to step it up again, though, because I got sort of lax about networking over the past couple of months while I was finishing up some projects. I needed this pep talk to help get me motivated and moving again…

  3. Jennifer Mattern April 20, 2009 Reply

    Lillie – Most of the higher-earning writers I know say the same thing. It’s referrals that matter most. I suppose that’s why it drives me crazy when newer writers don’t take a hint. I mean some do, but some just really don’t. They look for easy answers. We tell them to start networking. They disappear for a little while (supposedly doing that), and then they come back complaining it didn’t work fast enough or just asking for another quick fix. *sigh* I almost feel bad for them (just almost). I know they’d be far better off a year from now if it would just sink in, and that instead they’ll be lucky to be earning even just a few dollars more per project sticking to the same old failing routine. Oh well.

    Jennifer – Balancing networking, client work, and other projects can certainly be tricky at times. I try to get as much online networking out of the way as possible early in the morning – dealing with forums, blog comments, etc. when I’m going through email anyway. It’s helped to at least keep me at it a bit more. I’m very active on those forums, because I’m a moderator there, but I’d really like to start making more time for writing guest posts and commenting on some of my less regular blog haunts.

  4. Omar April 21, 2009 Reply

    Your right. I’ve been stepping up my game recently. I have no other choice because I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired as the saying goes. I want a larger income and in order to do that, I have to put on my hard hat. It’s not easy but you can’t give up. Even though, its tempting to pack it in.

  5. Excellent article; I’ll be linking to you in tomorrow’s Freelance Writing Week post about what is the “right” pay for a freelance writing assignment. And thank *you* for the linky love :)

  6. Matthew Stibbe April 21, 2009 Reply

    I couldn’t agree more. A Dutch auction where everybody races to the lowest price doesn’t help anyone. Better to figure out what you do well, do it well and charge a fair price for it. Let your competitors take the annoying, lowest bidders. Also, your concept of a ‘writing platform’ is very valid and helpful. In my experience, there’s nothing better than a handful of clients who like your work and keep calling.

  7. Jennifer Mattern April 21, 2009 Reply

    I’m glad to see so many writers agreeing about taking responsibilities for our own income levels. I honestly half-expected some flaming and blaming. Thanks for proving me wrong folks. :)

  8. Kelsey April 29, 2009 Reply

    This is a GREAT article- and all too true! If you are a person that enjoys having ‘pity parties’ then a freelancing career definitely won’t work for you. I look forward to reading the rest of your articles and website.

  9. Michelle Nguyen June 1, 2009 Reply

    This is a great article though it is a bit of a kick in the pants. I am still relatively new to freelancing and sometimes feel a bit downtrodden about the money I’m not earning. I don’t think I’ve been lazy nor have I been blaming others for the work I have not been able to get. This is all a learning process and I’m going to file this away to refer to as needed.

    • Jennifer Mattern June 2, 2009 Reply

      Sometimes it’s easy as freelancers to feel like we’re doing enough, when in reality we really just aren’t. I find a good way to think of it is this: if you were in an office earning your dream salary in a job with incredible perks, and perhaps a somewhat strict supervisor, would they think you’re doing enough? Or would they push you harder? While it’s easy to think of the “no boss” issue as a perk of freelancing, sometimes we can become too comfortable in what we’re doing, and even when we feel like we’re working hard we’re not quite pushing ourselves. And especially in the early phases of freelancing, you have to push, push, push. It can actually be much harder than working for someone else, but at least with freelancing it does get better rather than turn into drudgery. :)

  10. Terry June 24, 2009 Reply

    Great advice! I would add that too many writers sell themselves short. If you have a set rate, stick to it. Too often writers will settle for very low pay just to “get their name out there,” but it doesn’t lead to additional work, or just more low-paying work. If you are good at what you do, charge what you are worth.

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