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

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 beΒ muchΒ 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

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 writingΒ 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


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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