Freelancers: How to Get Started Without Getting Exploited

Starting out in freelance writing is an exciting time. Dreams of typing all day in a sunny coffee shop and nonchalantly telling people you write for a living are seductive. The alternative stereotype is also appealing to many: getting up at noon and working in your pyjamas, perhaps in bed. Surely this career is bordering on perfect.

However starting out is also a time of many fears. Will you be able to make it work? Will it be secure? How will you find clients? Will you manage to pay the bills? What if...?

One fear in particular is that paid work will never materialise. This can lead new freelancers to take on work that is incredibly badly paid, due to a fear that this is the only work available, or that you've “got to start somewhere”. Opportunities to write for mere pennies abound and there can be a great temptation to take up these chances. But is that really a good use of your time and energy?

There are many myths which are commonly used to justify buying, and writing, very cheap articles. They can initially appear to be persuasive, but what if we look at the other side?

MYTH #1: As long as there are people writing articles for $2, a freelancer can never charge a decent hourly wage

FACT: This seems logical, right? There are people writing articles for $2. If I price my articles at $20 or $200 why on earth would anyone hire me?

In reality, it doesn't work like that. There are different markets. The clients who want to pay $2 an article won't pay you $20 for one, that's true enough. Trying to persuade them is fighting a losing battle even if you have worked for them before and they liked your writing. The trick is to find the clients who pay more, who value their writers' time and skills enough to pay them, at the very least, a minimum wage and, ideally, a living wage.

These clients do exist, but you won't find them on sites that pay their writers peanuts, or those which encourage writers to pit themselves against each other for pennies. Look elsewhere, approach businesses or magazines and offer your services. When they ask what your fees are, be prepared to state, with confidence, what you are worth.

MYTH: It's better to earn a small amount than nothing at all

FACT: In the short-term, this looks like it makes sense. At the end of any given day you can have earned $10, or you can have earned nothing. $10 must be the better choice. Then the next day, and the next day, and the next day, there are more $10s and occasional $20s but within weeks you feel like you are going nowhere.

Are you living the dream? Of course not! Instead, you feel trapped, because to keep earning those few dollars, you have to work all the hours you have.

For every hour you spend writing a cheap article, you could be updating your own blog to tempt customers or emailing local businesses to suggest a meeting. You could be marketing your services to clients who pay a decent wage or writing a great article for your portfolio. This may seem scary because there is no immediate money coming in but it is the only way to get decent clients, and work, for the future. Take a deep breath and start to sell yourself. You know you are worth more than this.

MYTH: If I do this work at a low price, it will lead to more, better paid work in the future

FACT: This is highly unlikely. Some people consider their work for low-paid sites as a “teaser”, from where they upsell and bag a generous client. However most of the time the people who pay low prices do not waiver from these fees. And, frankly, they have no need to because there are so many people willing to write for those low prices. Whether that's because they live in a part of the world where the cost of living is low or because they are just starting out and lacking in confidence, there seems at times to be even more sellers than buyers at that level.

Raising your fees, raising expectations and raising your sights is the only way to break out of the $2 article market. Bartering up to $2.50 may seem like a success but it is a hollow victory. That buyer will never pay you $50. Ever.

Some people dismiss cheap article writers as inherently unskilled chancers who produce poor quality, often plagiarised work, but such a vast generalisation is untrue and unfair. There are many good writers amongst them, but if they have any gumption they will be actively seeking ways to climb out of that particular pit after a matter of days or weeks.

And there is unfortunately some very poor quality work associated with these prices. If you fall into the trap of working in this price range you will inevitably be associated with some of the standards that those cheap prices lead to.

Spending every hour of the day writing cheap articles can soon lead to you feeling disillusioned with your new choice of career. Spending at least some of that time promoting your services is the only way to get the kind of work you dreamed of when you imagined what writing for a living could be like.

To build a long-term freelance business, you need to play the long game. Work out how much you want to be paid per hour, work out how long it takes you to research and write, and unapologetically price your services accordingly. Then take a step out of your comfort zone, forget bidding for the projects with tiny recompense and set out to find serious clients who value and appreciate the work you do.

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Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in social media writing. She lives in the north of England.

8 thoughts on “Freelancers: How to Get Started Without Getting Exploited”

  1. One thing worth mentioning is that the higher you price your articles, the more marketing it will take to bring in the work. It’s out there, don’t get me wrong – but you will have to work harder to find it.

    Charging $100 an article may mean you have to spend a lot more time marketing your services as you would charging $25 an article. Essentially, charging a lower rate may allow you to bring in more regular work with less effort, which may be ideal for many writers.

    That doesn’t mean you have to work for $2 an article of course. It might be worth experimenting with different rates until you find something that works for you.

  2. Amen to all of the above! Philippa, great post.

    Ah Greg, you don’t know about fifteen-minute marketing, do you? Actually you can write articles that pay $1,500 and up. And no, you won’t spend more time marketing. You’ll spend less time because you’ve established relationships with the editors.

    I totally agree with you that writers can make much more than $2 an article. And you aren’t entirely off base when you say it takes more time to market at the higher rate. If you’re trying to gain corporate clients, you will spend a little more time establishing yourself with them. But for magazine work, it’s the same amount of time to write a query at the $100 level as it is to write one at the $2,000 level.

  3. Great Post!

    I wish I would have read this when I started out a few years ago.

    To take it a little further, as a writer or an (Entrepreneur) there are 3 stages…

    1. Freelance~ You’re spending your time finding and servicing clients only to repeat the process over and over (In my experience it can be feast or famine)

    2. Producing/Editing~ Here you’re creating or editing the copy that needs to go to the freelancer and staying on top of the writers you have underneath you. (You’re not really writing that much but you’re deeply involved with what’s being written.)

    3. Overseer~ You’re on top of it all, sending your ideas to the producer which then go to the freelance writer and you reap the majority of the financial benefits (At this stage, you’re not really writing all that much anymore, not my favorite)

    Which stage sounds the best for you?

  4. Hi Greg,

    Actually, it’s possible to get the $100 with not much more effort than it takes to get a $25 article. Often, all it takes is asking for the higher (and more reasonable) price when you are contacted.

    Many freelancers cheat themselves by quoting a too low price when the client would have actually been willing to pay more. I’ve even had clients tell me this.

    Remember, if you are writing $25 articles, you will have to write four of them to equal the income of writing one $100 article.

  5. Great post, Phillipa. And I’m with Laura and Lori. I don’t find it takes a lot more marketing to land the better paying gigs.

    I do agree (as many have written), it is far easier to get repeat business from existing clients than it is new business so your investment in building relationships with editors, marketing directors or business owners is one activity that is well worth the effort.

  6. Thanks, folks. The issue of pricing our writing is one of those ongoing issues isn’t it? So many people, when starting out, really don’t know how to avoid the ridiculously low-priced jobs. Beyond that, then I guess it depends on the type of writing you are doing, and who your clients tend to be, as much as anything. Plus confidence – I think confidence is one of the huge issues. Many writers wouldn’t dream of asking for prices that others ask for routinely.

  7. Great piece, Philippa!

    And good replies everyone… And yes, Philippa, while I agree pricing is one of those ongoing issues for freelancers, in the case on the table here, writing articles, I say it’s really more about the arena you’re operating in. When you’re working in a realm where the required skill level is low enough that countless other writers have those same skills (typically the case in the article-writing space), then that writing-buyer has no incentive to pay any more than a low wage.

    But as many point out here, if you believe you have stronger skills than those required at that low level, then find the clients who will pay more. And they’re out there – AND those jobs are not (as noted here) advertised on job sites.

    One other thing to keep in mind: move beyond just “articles.” As long as you stick to only writing articles, you’ll be sticking close to that vast pool of low-skilled practitioners, making it that much harder to press your case that you deserve to paid more.

    In the general commercial field, there are brochures, ads, newsletters, web content, case studies, white papers, and a ton of other project types. Learning to handle a broader base of work will make you more marketable, as there are far fewer writers who can competently execute a wider range of work.


  8. Great post, Philippa, and I agree!

    I do commercial freelance writing for life science companies. Five years ago, a medical communications firm called to ask how much I’d charge per hour to write a white paper.

    I was new and had no idea, so I just quoted my hourly rate for my full-time job. I didn’t take into consideration that that job also came with benefits and a guaranteed 40-hour workload (as well as zero expenses related to running a freelance writing business!) The client actually asked if I was sure, because they’re used to paying at least twice as that. Then I never heard from her again.

    When I began to study freelance commercial writing more, I learned that clients who are used to paying good, commercial rates can sometimes consider freelance writers who charge too low as amateurs.

    Later, when I finally gathered up the courage to charge more — three times what I quoted to that medical communications company — responses ranged from no response (in which case they’re not my target market) to “that’s reasonabl,e” to some attempt to negotiate a slightly lower rate.

    But this happened when I started to write for BUSINESSES. When I was still writing for magazines and online publications that didn’t consider bottom line as a primary focus, the editors usually dictated the rates. Some paid a dollar per word (which is good), but most didn’t.

    Of course, I totally understand if someone doesn’t want to do commercial freelance writing. I have a journalism background and was like that for years. 🙂 In my experience though, I wasn’t able to charge high rates (at least $50 an hour) until I went that route.


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