You Want Higher Freelance Writing Rates, But do You Deserve Them?

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on December 8, 2009 in Freelance Writing Business
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Here at All Freelance Writing we talk a lot about freelance writing rates and being paid what you're worth. Our primary mission is to help writers who want to grow and improve their freelance writing careers. But wanting to earn more isn't enough. You have to deserve it.

Feeling that you're worth more is only half of the battle. Don't get me wrong. It's important. You probably won't start commanding higher freelance writing rates if you don't feel that your time is worth more than what you're being paid now. It starts with you. It just doesn't end there.

How can you "deserve" higher freelance writing rates?

It goes back to something else I talk about a lot here -- value. Let's say you got caught up in the extremely low-paying markets at a penny per word or less. You're far from the only one. You probably also aren't the only one who would love to earn more. But many of those writers never will, and they shouldn't.

Extremely low-paying markets are often full of freelance writers who really aren't qualified to write for a living. I'm not talking about new writers who simply made a bad business decision by targeting the wrong markets either. I'm talking about the type that can barely string a few sentences together. Maybe they just swipe content from another site and reword it (copyright infringement in some countries if you don't have a license or the copyright holder's permission). Maybe they know absolutely nothing about the topics they write on, and their articles amount to little more than regurgitated Wikipedia content. These writers are going to struggle to earn more than they currently do, because they don't offer true value to clients with bigger budgets for higher quality work.

Let's hope you don't fall into that group. Here are a few things you can do to demonstrate increased value to clients that will show them you really do deserve to be paid more than rock-bottom rates:

  1. Choose a specialty. -- If you'll write about anything and everything you're less valuable to most businesses paying top dollar for freelance writers. Generalists might thrive in lower-paying markets, but big-budget clients often expect someone who's knowledgeable in their niche or industry, or in the writing style (such as writing effective ad copy targeting a female audience).
  2. Get some reputable clips. -- Here's a newsflash for you: the work you do for a penny per word can make you look like a joke in higher paying markets. You don't want that work representing you. Once you show clients that you're willing to be taken advantage of, why on earth would you think they'd happily fork over the big bucks? Many of these clients won't even look at you if you haven't worked similar jobs on the reputation scale. Don't have any reputable clips you're thrilled to show off? Consider doing some work for a local branch of a well-known nonprofit. It's good PR for your freelance writing business, and a clip from a known organization looks infinitely better in your portfolio than a bunch of cheap content for MFA (made-for-Adsense) sites like content mills and slapped-together niche sites.
  3. Build more credentials. -- Whether you're writing for a penny per word or significantly more, you might have maxed out your earning potential based on your current experience and credentials. Building more credentials is one way to add more value to your work. Let's say you write about small business issues, but your freelance work is the whole of your experience in running a business. That's perfectly fine if you're talking about those types of business issues. It doesn't make you qualified to write for people targeting more traditional small businesses though. They're not the same thing. A certificate in entrepreneurial studies, a business administration degree, or an MBA could certainly help to close the gap.
  4. Evaluate the competition. -- If you want to raise your rates, now is a good time to do a basic SWOT analysis (where you map out your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats when compared to your competition). Doing this lets you see where you stand on the value front compared to competitors, so you'll get a better idea of whether your work is worth more than theirs or not in the eyes of prospective clients. Just make sure you compare yourself to the people you want to compete against rather than the lower-rate writers you're already in competition with.
  5. Create an elevator speech. -- It doesn't matter that you offer greater value than the competition if you don't know how to convey that to potential buyers. An elevator speech is a short description of what you do -- short enough that you could give the pitch on a brief elevator ride. We'll be talking more about elevator pitches tomorrow, and running a contest based on them through the end of this year. Check back then for more information about how to create one.

Remember, it's never enough to think you should be paid more. You not only have to deserve it, but you have to show clients why you deserve it.

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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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15 Comments

  1. Carson Brackney December 8, 2009 Reply

    Nice post, Jennifer. You really touched on part of the puzzle that too often goes ignored.

    I read a lot more “people should pay more” stuff than I do concrete suggestions as to what it takes to justify the better pay rates.

    It’s refreshing to read something that’s less of a rate-whine and more of a wake-up call to those who are dissatisfied with the rates they’re currently receiving.

    • Jennifer Mattern December 8, 2009 Reply

      Thanks Carson.

      I almost wish this post was the first time I’ve said these things. But it’s far from it. We’ve talked about taking responsibility for your own career and earnings, how to find high paying freelance writing jobs, understanding USPs, etc. quite a bit. Hell, I have another whole blog devoted to these issues and helping writers make work come to them instead of the other way around. The problem is that no matter how many times I (or anyone else) says these things, they seem to be soon forgotten. I think the real issue is a lack of effort, not for all freelancers, but far too many. They’ll take responsibility and genuinely try to improve their careers, but if they don’t see results quickly they fall right back into their same old ruts, complaining yet again about their low pay. The Web is great in that it brings a huge number of high paying freelance writing jobs to writers who might have only worked locally or in print before. But the instant gratification aspect sometimes goes a bit too far imo.

      I think another side of the issue (and why I think the rants have a very important place as well) is that there’s a constant influx of new freelance writers. Information is replaced pretty quickly online with whatever people are talking about in the moment, and with the over-emphasis on things like content mills and the penny per word “global marketplace,” many new writers come in thinking these are either the only or the best ways to get started. I see it almost daily in webmaster communities. People are genuinely shocked to find out they can earn not only more money, but a lot more money. A combination of the rants, resulting comments and discussions, and repeating practical advice at least seems to reach some. As long as that continues to happen, I’ll probably keep saying these same things: specialize, network, get a professional site setup, and focus on value, value, value!

      As for the “people should pay more” side, I’ve quit caring about that side of it and focus more on earning more. Those who truly earn it will always have ways to make more money writing, and clients who don’t respect professionals enough to pay them well simply can’t afford what those writers have to offer. If they let themselves be taken advantage of, fall prey to the marketing BS some of them throw out there, etc., then they really only have themselves to blame. You wouldn’t open a bakery, a law firm, or any other kind of small business without conducting market research first (or shouldn’t), and freelancing is no different. That one step would go a long way to having more writers earn what they deserve. But that just brings us back to the instant gratification issue, doesn’t it….

  2. Jake P December 8, 2009 Reply

    Words to live by, JM! There are so many elements that go into pricing beyond the number itself.

    It’s one of the reasons that it’s easier to work with someone who has hired freelancers before at a reasonable rate–they already have an understanding of what the value is.

    Then, you need to prove that you’re worth that figure (or more). In most instances, that’s a lot simpler than dealing with a, um, virgin client. (For some reason, I’m imagining the scene in Wedding Crashers where Vince Vaughan needs to flee the “Stage 5 Clinger”).

  3. Jennifer Mattern December 8, 2009 Reply

    You know Jake, I’m almost ashamed to say I haven’t made time to see that movie yet. Now I’ll have to squeeze it in just so I understand the reference. :)

    You’re right though, “virgin clients” can be much harder to work with up front — the education factor. I’ve found that sometimes it’s really worth while, but occasionally it’s really tough trying to break a new buyer in when they really don’t know what to expect and when (how dare we not give them huge instant sales results? for example). Fortunately though there seems to be growing number of clients who do understand the value freelance writers can provide, and who also understand that value doesn’t always mean a direct impact on the bottom line.

  4. Wendy December 8, 2009 Reply

    I started out with low-paying gigs and a content mill type site, because I followed some writer’s advice that it was the best way to break in to Freelance writing. It turned out to be the worst experience of my life as far as work goes.

    When I decided to try and pitch myself as an independent writer, I found it hard to break free of the low-paying gig experience. The people I was trying to get work from wouldn’t give me a shot because I was using the low paying jobs for experience and they felt that made me a bad risk.

    Long story short, I found other freelance writing blogs that showed me some different tactics to try, so I put them to use and networked with someone who was willing to give me a shot. Things have gotten better from there. I still have a ways to go, but I’m satisfied with the direction it has taken me.

    That’s why I wish I had seen this blog or one like it from the beginning. Things might’ve turned out differently, but I’m glad to see that others have the opportunity to at least see that they may have other options. If they take it or not, is totally up to them.

  5. Carson Brackney December 8, 2009 Reply

    It’s interesting… We seem to agree virtually 100% about the need for writers to justify/earn higher payouts yet I know from experience (circa ’06) that the two of us don’t see eye to eye on all aspects of the low-paying content issue.

    I don’t mention that to pick a fight… I do so because I think it’s a good example of how folks who may not agree on everything regarding the best way(s) to make a living as a writer can still find some common ground.

    And Jake is right x100. Dealing with virgin clients guarantees weirdness, messiness, clinginess, indecisiveness and just about every other annoying -ness possible unless you’re ready to be an educator as well as a service provider. Maybe we should all have a separate rate card for “beginners”.

  6. Jennifer Mattern December 8, 2009 Reply

    @Wendy – Well, I’m glad you found this one now. :)

    @Carson – 2006 was 2006, and things definitely change. I vaguely remember your old blog, but don’t remember any specific debates. That would have been around the time I was either an editor with one of the content mills / networks or shortly after leaving perhaps. Not only did I see the garbage being used to suck in writers but I was a part of it. I drank the Kool-aid. I learned the hard way. And I got the hell out of it. I was a lucky one in that the editing and writing then was just part-time for me while I had a full-time PR firm bringing in the vast majority of the income. Many of the writers with these types of sites now don’t have that same benefit. That past is one of the reasons I’m personally so strongly opinionated about the content mill / low pay issue. I didn’t just experience it first-hand either. I saw not only how the writers working under me did with the network but how quite a few thrived as soon as they left for better things — still keep in touch with a few.

    It’s why I despise content mills and probably always will. It has nothing to do with them not paying enough. It’s the fact that these kinds of sites will feed writers any kind of garbage they can think of to convince them that they’re great for the writer’s career. It’s one thing for hobby writers to write for these sites — absolutely nothing wrong with it. But the sites and their advocates go beyond that. They prey on the new and naive, furthering the myth that this is just how it is writing for the Web and that good rates are somehow “old school” thinking in freelancing. I call bullshit.

    I don’t like seeing people manipulated, and many (although not all) are. I used to really pity the writers who ended up in these situations, watching one after the next begging for ideas to get out and get higher paying work only to find themselves stuck in the rut. But I don’t have time for pity anymore, so I’ve turned my attention to helping those who are willing to get out there and help themselves. I can give them the information. I can encourage them to think critically. But I can’t make anyone apply themselves. That’s where responsibility for one’s own career comes in.

    That’s the gist of where I came from sometime around ’06 and how and why my opinions on the issue are what they are today. In the end, it’s all just basic business sense, and my only regret is that I didn’t apply what I already knew through running my firm to my freelance writing work much earlier and encourage others to do the same.

  7. Rebecca December 9, 2009 Reply

    It took me some time to narrow down my “niche” and business markets, but I did it.

    Freelance writers need to realize and understand that they are in the business of marketing and problem solving; you are not in the business of writing. When you’re asked, “…what do you do?” avoid answering, “…I’m a freelance writer.” If you’re specialty is web copy, create a 30-second elevator pitch around it. This will set distinguish you from other writers.

  8. Jennifer Mattern December 9, 2009 Reply

    Good thoughts Rebecca — that’s exactly what we’ll be talking about more here later this afternoon. :)

  9. Carson Brackney December 9, 2009 Reply

    I think I missed my estimate by a year, Jennifer. You were definitely in the anti-mill camp at the time, lol. I have been considerably more forgiving and, when the circumstances warrant it, approving of the “millwork.”

    Yet here we are, agreeing on something.

    Gotta love it!

  10. Jennifer Matterna December 10, 2009 Reply

    lol OK. Well, then you know why — a lot of experience over the years.

    I don’t have a problem with people disagreeing with me, even about things like content mills where I’m pretty passionate in my opinion. The only time it becomes an issue is when I see supposed professionals convincing new writers that these are the best gigs they can expect because they’re the “wave of the future” and other bullshit because they don’t know how to separate a single market from the overall marketplace. Or better yet, actually discouraging them from thinking for themselves and making critical decisions based on facts rather than hype and false promises (again, coming from someone who’s been not only on the writing side but also the recruiting side knowing damn well what does and doesn’t actually happen for the bulk of writers involved).

    Even though I’m accused of it often enough, I don’t believe I’ve ever said that writers flat out shouldn’t write for content mills. I’ve said quite plainly that they might be perfectly fine and dandy for hobby writers for example and that there’s nothing wrong with that. But writers get enough info from people supposedly interested in helping their careers that’s littered with bad business advice, and my emphasis here is giving them the other side of the story to level that BS before they make decisions of their own.

    I don’t really know where your own posts fall on that spectrum, so I can’t say whether we do or don’t agree on those particular points. Used to love the old blog though – was a sad day when you unloaded it. I didn’t even realize you had another — that’s what you get for giving up the branding. ;)

  11. Jacki Hoyt May 25, 2010 Reply

    I’ve been in marketing for over 15 years. I’ve been writing my whole life, I’m over 40. I’ve just been approached about a freelance gig to write Answers to Questions with a reputable online organization. The problem is, I’m not sure what to charge. From everything I’ve read, there isn’t really a standard — $.25 per word, $200 per page, $5,000 for a white paper, etc. Would it be acceptable to ask for $.25 per word or $50 per article, whichever is greater?

    Thank you for any advice you (or your readers) can offer.

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