Can You Find Freelance Writing Success Without Selling Out?

There are many types of freelance writing success, and only you can determine what exactly that means for you. But no matter what your definition of success is, there are plenty of ways to get there. And it's important to know that you don't have sell out to make that happen.

What Does it Mean for a Freelance Writer to Sell Out?

Selling out is when you put money before your personal and professional ethics. It's when you do things you aren't truly comfortable with simply because you're being paid to do it. For example:

  • You accept payment to write a positive product review when you don't actually like the product.
  • You write in a niche that you consider unethical (for example, you might not feel right writing for a gambling site if you or a loved one faced gambling addiction).
  • You go beyond writing to become almost more of a spokesperson for a client, getting paid to exploit your own network or audience (such as being paid to say how a great a company is without disclosing that financial relationship fully).
  • You write for clients who have done something you consider unethical (maybe they were involved in an environmental disaster for example), and you wouldn't normally want to be associated with them. (This happened to me last year, and I made the decision to walk away.)

What might be selling out for one writer is perfectly acceptable to another. The real hint that you're selling out is your own comfort level. If you feel uncomfortable or if you feel like you have to hide that work from others, you might be selling out as a writer. But you don't have to.

Avoid Selling Out and Still Make Money

You can turn some of these situations into profitable opportunities without leaving your comfort zone. Here's how:

  • When you hear from a prospect in a niche that violates your professional ethics, refer that gig to a colleague who does cover that niche. The more gigs you refer to other writers, the more likely it is they'll think of you when they have gigs to refer -- possibly gigs more in line with your interests. Remember, just because you aren't comfortable with a topic, it doesn't mean colleagues won't be.
  • Always use a company's products or services before you publish a favorable review in an attempt to make affiliate sales or earn from it in other ways. It keeps you honest with your readers, and they respect that. You'll make more affiliate sales, and more money, when your readers know they can trust you to help them make buying decisions.
  • Always disclose financial relationships to your readers. Again, it goes back to trust. You won't make money with sponsors or advertisers if you don't have an audience for them to reach. And losing your audience's trust is the fastest way to lose your audience.
  • Make sure your writer platform appeals to the type of clients you actually want to work for. When you attract clients that satisfy your professional goals and ethics, you can make plenty of money without even feeling the temptation to sell out.

Remember, selling out as a writer is what happens when you'll do anything for money, even when it violates your own standards. We all need to make money. We're in business after all. But we can make that money (and good money at that) while still being true to ourselves and our readers.

Have you ever taken on a project where you felt you might be selling out? If a client were to do something completely contrary to your ethical standards, would you be able to walk away? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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18 thoughts on “Can You Find Freelance Writing Success Without Selling Out?”

  1. Jenn, this is a very important topic, one that has been on my mind in recent weeks.

    Some ethics situations a gray, but I think others are more black and white. For example, some freelance writers work for websites that provide essays and term papers for college students. I taught college for several years. Any student who turned in a paper he or she didn’t write got an F in the course. In many colleges and universities such a student can also be expelled.

    And some bloggers publish guest posts by those same essay writing companies.

    • I mentioned my thoughts on essays in response to Sharon’s comment (my apologies for not seeing yours came through first). But you highlight that issue I have. I just don’t buy the “it’s only a tool” garbage some of those writers spew. You have little to no control over how your writing is used once you deliver it to a client. And if you’re providing something that even has a chance to be used in that questionable of a manner, I think you need to take a hard look at yourself and your business. We can’t wear blinders just to make a buck. I’d hate to be teaching these days given how easy it’s become to get essays like these. Is it (hopefully) also easier to catch them?

  2. Great topic, Jenn. I love your solutions for staying true to yourself while helping someone else. Sometimes it can take a while to work out where the boundary lies. For example, early on in my freelance career (when I could have done with the money) I turned down the “opportunity” to work for an essay factory. Like John, I was a college professor and didn’t feel right about enabling others to cheat. Recently, that’s extended to turning down guest post pitches from writers who promote those sites.

    • Thanks Sharon.

      It sounds like you made the right call for you with the essay gig. That’s another one of those “untouchable” niches for me. I can make a nice living without helping unethical students cheat. The only thing worse (imo) is the writer who does it and then tries to justify it by saying the essays they write are only going to be used as research tools. When you have to pretend to be that naive and weave an excuse for why you shouldn’t be ashamed of the work you do, that’s a pretty good sign you should be doing something else.

  3. Love the topic, Jenn. One of the most fascinating courses for me in college was one on ethics. It really opened my eyes to how different our views are. Factors, such as culture, make a difference. So, I appreciate that you point out that just because it’s not in your comfort zone doesn’t mean someone else is comfortable writing for that niche.

    With a specialty in health care, there are a lot of gray areas (as John describes) , at least for me. For example, I turned down a project promoting a product as a “cure for cancer.” I offered to provide referrals, but never heard from the business again.

    We freelance because we want more control over our decisions. What could be more important than staying true to ourselves? Great post, Jenn.

    • I can’t imagine some of the crazy things you probably see in the health niche Cathy. Good for you for not taking on companies with unsubstantiated claims you aren’t comfortable getting behind. I’d be terrified that my words might convince someone to try something harmful. Yikes.

  4. You absolutely can find success without selling out. As a copywriter, if it is blatantly evident and inarguable that a company or its product/service is peddling death (tobacco), I decline to write for them. Many large (and small) companies do things behind the scenes where if we knew about it, we’d be appalled. Those you can’t do anyting about. But, if I know you’re committing an act that goes against my principles, I can’t sleep at night, so I have to kiss that project and potential revenue good-bye.

    • Good point Stacey. We can’t know everything every one of our clients does. The key is doing at least some basic background research before signing on and being prepared to walk if you discover an issue along the way.

  5. I’ve gotten caught a couple of times with academic guest posts… twice I think. No more! It wasn’t deliberate, just stupidity on my part.

    I turn down ghostwriting books for certain dogmatic folks.

    It’s a topic worth thinking deeply about.

  6. Hi Jenn,

    How timely! Last week, I finished teaching the Junior Achievement Business Ethics course to high school students.

    Like Anne, I was approached with academic writing projects early on in my writing career. I too make a mistake because I was new to freelance writing. Luckily, I wised up. I said the following to the kids in my JA class, “Don’t ask me to write an essay or paper because it won’t happen.”

    I won’t accept a project that doesn’t ‘feel’ right to me. It’s not worth it. Besides, if I accept a project because of the money, that means I don’t believe in me and my writing ability. It would also show that I have a ‘lack or limited’ mindset. I have no desire to put that type of energy out into the universe. 🙂

    • That’s a great way to look at it Amandah. You know what? We all make some mistakes as we figure things out early on, and sometimes it takes trying things to find out what pushes our comfort zone. At least you figured that out early on. 🙂

  7. Hi,

    Great post! I guess this issue its most writers especially the newbies, Writing on a topic you are really passionate about gives a whole lot different output rather than writing on a topic you are not comfortable with.

  8. Disclosure is a big one for me. I know a few writers who pimp themselves out as spokespeople for this company or that client and never mention their affiliation. One person in particular is always touting an association — she never once mentions she teaches and sells books through them. How can you not bring that up in the year or so you’ve been raving about them?

    I think it’s equally reprehensible to convince your followers that they HAVE to spend money with you in order to be successful. I’ve seen that happen a few times, and it’s just low-life behavior.

    I had a project presented to me once that would mean I’d have to put aside my own personal beliefs to write about this guy’s suspicions. He felt he was the target of a gang of would-be murderers. He had no proof. I won’t write anything based on someone’s suspicions unless it’s fiction.

    • Wow. That project sure sounds like a trip. Sounds like you made a good call.

      I have serious issues with disclosure too. I don’t see as many problems in this niche as I did in the social media industry previously, but it does still happen. And it’s a shame. Disclosure really isn’t that complicated.


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