Freelance Writers: Why It's Better to "Work Smarter"

Just a quick thought / question for you today:

Why is it that so many freelance writers can't seem to grasp the concept of working smarter, not harder? Sometimes when I talk to writers or read other freelance writing blogs I feel like I'm going insane -- like this is an alien concept or something.

To summarize: in business it's always better to work smarter rather than harder. That means it's better to earn more by doing less than to have to do more work to earn the same amount of money.

This is the backbone of the content mill / residual income site debate for example (spent a good chunk of my morning reading a few posts on the subject, hence this post). Yet it's an aspect too often ignored. If you can earn $2000 per month churning out 200 articles a month or you can earn the same by writing 20 (requiring a similar time investment), then you choose to write 20. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. That's smart business. Anything else is just completely nonsensical from that business perspective.

If you're a hobby writer, write as much as you want for as little as you want. No one cares what token pay you're earning but you. But (as I mentioned in a comment elsewhere this morning) freelancing is not a hobby. It's a business. It's not the same as other forms of small business in that it's also more of a lifestyle, but bottom line is that it's still a business. You can write and not be running a freelance business. That's fine and dandy. But if you run a freelance business, then get smart about it instead of continually making excuses for why you're not earning more or trying to encourage others to follow suit irresponsibly (as far too many bloggers have been doing lately, forgetting that when they write about freelancing they're writing about and giving advice about... you guessed it... BUSINESS!).


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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17 thoughts on “Freelance Writers: Why It's Better to "Work Smarter"”

  1. After I was (ahem) put back in my place, I got a little dose of that particular irritation. I was beat out of a book-editing job that I quoted at several thousand dollars by a six-hundred dollar quote. A full-length novel, completely edited for a lot less than a thousand dollars. I wasn’t terribly disappointed because it was totally out of my genre and something I would have taken purely for the amount of money. However, a benevolent soul put it to me from another perspective, that we don’t know how bad that person needed that few hundred dollars or why. That’s completely true, I guess. I just hate to see someone sell themselves so short. And I hate for clients to start getting the idea that we are all willing (or should be) to work for such low pay. This is a little bit of a tangent from the last topic I was referring to, but it definitely falls into the category of making it worth your time and effort.

  2. I guess another way to look at it is that the writer might be completely new. On the surface, $600 might have seemed like a lot, and they really didn’t understand how much work would be involved. If that’s the case, at least the project might serve as a much-needed wakeup call so they value their services a bit differently in the future — a learning experience I guess.

  3. I think some creative people almost resent the idea that it should be looked at as a business. I get that, I want to wear cool scarves, clunky shoes and be drunk all day like any artist…but I need money to do that.

    • Exactly. If I could fiddle around w/ fiction all day I would. Hell, if I could spend all day writing music or painting I would. I’m a creatively-driven person, and those are the kinds of things I love to do. But without the freelance aspect of my writing to pay the bills and give me discretionary income, I couldn’t do those things at all. When I wish I could be off screwing around w/ something else I look back at what it was like when I worked a 9-5 job I hated in the nonprofit sector, an hour and a half commute each way, and how it felt to be so drained when I got home that I could barely hold a conversation w/ my then-fiance nonetheless feel any creative juices flowing. I was a friggin zombie. Then the business side of freelance writing… well… it doesn’t seem so bad.

  4. “I want to wear cool scarves, clunky shoes and be drunk all day like any artist…but I need money to do that.”

    Love it! Thanks for the laugh.

  5. Why is it so hard for some bloggers to grasp we’re not idiots? The tough love thing is only appealing to you. All the anger and condescension directed at writers you think are too dumb to understand how your way works is getting old. You’re not empowering us you’re talking down to us.

    Most of us are aware of our options. We don’t need for writers like you to shake your head, sigh, and wonder why we just don’t get it. We DO get it, we don’t wish to be like you. We grasp but many times it’s easier said than done. Because we don’t have the same “standards” as you doesn’t mean we have no business sense. It’s insulting for you to assume otherwise.

    Stop acting as if we’re kids who need to be chastised for making the wrong decision. It’s our decision. Maybe we’ve seen what it’s like up there on that high horse and decided the view is better down here.

    • Melis,

      1. In the future, comments of yours will not be approved if they do not adhere to the comment policy. Read it if you want to comment here again.

      2. The tough love style does in fact work — as quite a lot of folks have come back thanking me for the wake up call when they use the advice to move from shit gigs to something far better.

      3. No blogger’s style is for everyone. If you don’t like mine, then you’re very welcome to leave and go find other bloggers that suit your style. I don’t try to appeal to everyone, and I’ll never apologize for that. This blog isn’t targeting writers who choose to make excuses and justify why they made a less-than-optimal business decision to accept lower pay. It’s targeting those who want something better — those who are willing to learn about the business side and work their asses off to get out of the low pay rut. Those who want warm and fuzzy will find many other bloggers willing to oblige.

      4. And you’d be surprised by how many writers do NOT know their options. How do I know this? Because not only do I deal with these same questions and displays of shock when they hear how much they can actually earn, but I used to work in recruiting writers for some of these crap gigs and networks (I’ve been on both sides of the fence, drank the Kool-Aid, and was one of the lucky ones that came to their senses). Many writers in fact think they’re lucky to get a penny per word these days because they don’t understand target marketing or have enough business sense to do the research before jumping in.

      So if my blog isn’t for you, well, that’s fine. I hope you find one that is.

  6. I think the problem with many writers is lack of confidence. I know this because I am one of them. I know there are gigs out there that pay way better and if I could snag a few, my health would be greatly improved along with my checkbook.

    But I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ll land a great copywriting gig and then I’ll do a lousy job. I wish I could find a paying internship where I could still work at home. Then I’d get some guidance and feedback to now I’m doing it right first.

    But Jenn, I do want you to know that reading your posts is motivating. After visiting here I always tell myself, “Just do it!” The problem is I am so swamped with just paying the bills I have very little time to branch out. Sort of a catch 22. 🙁

  7. “But Jenn, I do want you to know that reading your posts is motivating. After visiting here I always tell myself, “Just do it!” The problem is I am so swamped with just paying the bills I have very little time to branch out. Sort of a catch 22.”

    You’re exactly the kind of writer AFW does target. You’re far from alone. Lots of the writers I talk to have gotten themselves into that same situation where they want more out of their careers but they’re either not sure where to start of they’re so busy cramming in the lower-paying gigs that there’s no time left for pursuing better markets.

    Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution. And it’s probably going to suck during that first month or so of real change. You have to suck up the extra hours to do some planning and market research (the 30 day marketing bootcamp at has some tips on that and there’s a marketing plan template that can help in our downloads section here linked at the top of the blog). It’s time-consuming to transition, but I’ve never met a writer who’s gone through it and regretted it.

    It really is one of those things where you just have to stop making excuses and do it. All of us occasionally have some fear or doubts. But the more you target and land those better gigs, the more confidence you’ll learn to have too. It won’t necessarily be fear-free, but at least it will be well-compensated fear for a change. 😉

  8. If everyone were to follow your business model, every car manufacturer would “work smarter” and only produce limos and sports cars, since it “requires a similar time investment” to produce a $8,000 Renault and a $400,000 Lamborghini.

    Contrary to popular belief, there are ifs, ands and buts. The Internet needs both $0.01/word and $1.00/word content. Penny-per-word writers focus on a different share of the market, which is big enough for us to make a decent profit without having to compete with you, “big fish”.

    • Products and services are two entirely different games. If anything, the automotive industry pioneered “working smarter” with Ford’s introduction of assembly line construction. Products have other underlying factors (R&D, materials, distribution chains, etc.), and can’t be separated by time investment. Freelance services can. You have a very finite asset being sold — your time (which we’ve covered more extensively in other posts). You either maximize that time and work productively or you don’t.

      It’s not about whether someone wants to write $20 articles, $200 articles, or $2000 articles. No matter what market you’re in, working smarter is good business. It’s the difference between taking on a $20 article that you can write in 30 minutes based on your experience and taking on a $20 article that will involve hours of research. One is working smart. One is not. The same applies to higher paying markets. There are writers who get paid $1.00 per word who still don’t “work smart” — that $1.00 per word doesn’t go very far if they’re required to invest weeks into research, interviews, travel, photography, etc. If you can earn more money by investing the same time (when time is your primary asset as a freelancer), then it’s bad business to not even try to do that. That’s why productivity is important. It’s why setting the right rates for you is important. It’s why valuing your services and your time (if you want others to) is important.

      Smart service-oriented business is when you earn as much as you can (or you simply earn your target income) with as little time investment as possible. Those who churn out dozens of articles a month for extremely low pay aren’t doing that. If they’re hobby writers and doing it for fun, then that’s absolutely fine. But as I said before, freelancing isn’t a hobby — it’s a business. And people either have business sense or they don’t (fortunately it’s something that can be developed).

  9. There is demand for .01/ per word content, of course. There’s also a demand for crack whores, but that doesn’t mean your goal should be to become one.

    Look, if you are happy with your work at $5 to $10 an hour, that’s awesome–but why in the world would you get angry at posts like these? It makes no sense unless they make your logic feel threatened, in which case you have bigger problems to think about.

  10. I should be working right now, but rather, I’m perusing blogs (guess who will be working this weekend).

    I’ve just posting to reiterate a point that Jennifer made. I’m also a new freelancer (9 months and I am still swimming, hopefully not drowning). It is also taking me a while to learn the ropes, and I will admit if I don’t fill up all the available hours at the rate that I want, I will take a lower paying gig sometimes ($40 per hour or something like that but the work is also interesting to me).

    Anyway, in the first few months, I had a client who threw me lots and lots of work. They also paid me a bit lower than industry standards. In the beginning I thoght it was great, but after a while I realized – why am I so tired (working round the clock) and after a month of working like a crazy person, earned perhaps $5 K a month? I eventually put more effort into finding more clients. Trust me, they are out there (everywhere). I replaced the former low paying client with people who pay the rates I want. Now I earn a lot more…working much fewer hours (and have time to sit back, look for more clients, think about how I can improve my business, etc.). I also let the former client go (yes, I fired them). Best thing I ever did.

    In retrospect, I realized that with a low paying client I had to work round the clock and meet their conditions. It doesn’t have to be like that.

    I will also be honest and say now when I tell clients my rates, half walk away – but I still get gigs. The new gigs are far more interesting projects (to me). It is just another way of doing things – works for me, I wish I had thought about this in the first few months of my business rather than working like that for 6 months. Ugh.

  11. This comment is for Kathleen —

    Just throw yourself out there and email lots and lots of businesses. Ask to see a copy or a sample of the type of writing they like (it really differs from company to company). I also give people a revision if they don’t like it.

    You know what? Believe it or not if you 1) turn it in on time, 2) are very responsive (reply to their emails and communicate immediately), and 3) just do a good job, they will probably be happy and have you do work for them over and over again. Anyone can write, seriously, it isn’t rocket science but it’s fun. Read over whatever you write a few times, edit it and use the model they give you. People will give you a chance if you use this model (and specific feedback).

    Good luck – just send out those emails, by the way. They are not going to remember the email if they don’t work with you, and if they do — go for it, there is your chance. Good luck.

  12. Thanks both of you for the encouragement. 🙂 Wolf Shadow, as I read your first post I thought “wow, I’m really doing something wrong!” You are that successful after nine months. I have been writing for the web for three years! I really need to get it together. 🙂

    Jenn, I plan to implement your boot camp posts as soon as I can. I have to get through the insanity of this month and then maybe next month I can focus on bigger and better things. 🙂 I was so excited when you announced the boot camp. I’m sure not going to let them go to waste. 🙂

  13. “There is demand for .01/ per word content, of course. There’s also a demand for crack whores, but that doesn’t mean your goal should be to become one.”

    Thanks for the laugh.

    Honestly, I think some people don’t understand the “work smarter” part of things because they’re just not smart – not in the sense of networking and marketing to get paid more money for their work.

    The fact of the matter is that no freelancer in the US can survive on penny-per-word articles alone. Most of those who start off at low rates either wise up and start charging more or they end up quitting freelancing all together for something that can pay the bills.


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