One of the most common complaints I hear from freelance writers is that they’re tired of living from paycheck-to-paycheck. While there is plenty of demand for their writing services, it seems that all too often they get stuck writing for pennies on the word, seriously!
While I write here on the blog, providing writing services for clients is not one of my primary sources of income. So I decided to seek out the advice of some well respected and thriving freelance writers to get their input on this question:
Many people want to make money from their writing — but often get stuck writing for low paying gigs. What can freelancers do to break this cycle and earn more money from their writing?
Here’s what they had to say:
1. Carol Tice – Editor of Make a Living Writing
To earn more, you’ve got to stop looking for writing gigs in the places that mostly pay crummy — Craigslist ads, race-to-the-bottom bid sites like Upwork, content mills like Demand Studios. I call this the Underworld of Freelance Writing. You’re competing with 10,000 other writers for a gig, which drives rates down and makes your odds of success low.
There is the occasional success story on those platforms, but in general, you have to leave this realm and prospect to find your own clients if you want to earn substantially more. The first step is to have a professional-looking writer website. At this point, you can’t be taken seriously as a freelance writer without one.
For magazine gigs, get a copy of The Writer’s Market (recommend the deluxe edition with online support and search capability). For copywriters, identify businesses in your area that appear to be doing well but have poorly done websites, and pitch them directly. If they have an abandoned blog that isn’t being updated, ask if they need help. Find in-person networking opportunities where you can spread the word about your services. Use social media — make sure everyone in your LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter networks knows that you are a freelance writer looking for clients so that they can refer you.
Yes, it is more marketing work, especially at first. But if you want to earn more than pin money with your writing, it’s an essential step to building a successful, diverse business with good-paying clients.
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2. Kristi Hines – Freelance Writer and Professional Blogger
These are my three top suggestions that freelancers can follow to start earning more with their writing.
First, you have to build up some strong writing credits. If people see that you only write at HubPages, Ezine, and similar sites, they will generally assume you have low rates. If you write for larger, well-respected sites in your industry (think Social Media Examiner in the social media space), then they will know you are an authority and will assume you have higher than average rates. It especially helps to have an online portfolio with your latest writing samples that let people know that you offer freelance writing services – see Carol Tice’s 10 Writer Websites That Kick Butt for examples.
Second, you need to avoid advertising your services on sites where customers expect to pay very little. For example, if you have an ad on Fiverr, you’re advertising to people who only want to pay $5. Look at other writer’s listings on the sites you list yourself upon on to see what their average rates are. If everyone else is charging $50 or less per post, and you want to make a minimum of $200, then you’re going to have a tough time competing.
Third, identify yourself as a freelance writer everywhere. This includes social profile bios, author bios on sites you contribute to, your main website, your blog, your hobby websites, your email signature, your forum signature, and so forth. Link to your online writing portfolio/freelance writing services sales page in each of these places as well. I’ve received new client inquiries as a result of my Twitter profile, Facebook page, LinkedIn profile, website, blog, and people who have found my writing on KISSmetrics, Social Media Examiner, and other sites.
As a bonus tip, look for blogs that pay their contributors to fill in for the downtimes in client work. Most of these sites also make great writing credits if you are just starting out.
3. Mary Jaksch – Editor of Write to Done
When you first earn some money through your writing, it’s exciting and elating. However, it possible to get stuck with gigs that pay very little. The good news is, that if you can earn even just a little online, you’ve broken through an important barrier. The chances are that you will earn a lot more in the future!
It’s a good idea to create a professional development plan. It may sound complicated, but it’s really quite easy. For example, you can divide your professional development into three phases: Apprenticeship, Professional Work, and Mastery. Let me show you how that would work.
The first phase, Apprenticeship, is the time you are learning how to write well, how to research possible gigs, and how to create a successful pitch. During this phase, you’ll be building your portfolio so that you can show potential clients how well you write. You’ll also be boosting your confidence.
During the Apprenticeship phase, it’s fine to accept low-paying gigs.
The next phase, Professional Work, means that you are established as a freelancer. Now it’s time to increase your prices to reflect your growing expertise. Once you have worked successfully as a freelancer for a year or so, consider stepping up to the next professional development phase, Mastery.
In the Mastery phase, you should hike your prices considerably as you are now a freelancer of experience and success and can command a fee that is much higher than at the previous level.
Your professional development plan should outline the action steps to get from one level to the next. For example, you might like to consider how many articles you would need to write to fulfill each professional phase, and how long you think it will take you. In this way, you’ve got a clear pathway to success.
4. Heather Robson – Author and Managing Editor, Wealthy Web Writer
The instinct when you’re just starting out as a freelancer is to take anything that comes along, including low-paying, poor quality gigs. You want to be a working writer, and that means getting paid, so you take what comes your way. But those gigs can come at a high price.
First, they become hard to walk away from. They feel like a sure thing, but they crowd out opportunity. Sometimes you have to make time to pursue those better-paying opportunities. The low-paying gigs get in the way. And you can get trapped in a cycle.
Second, they can hurt your writing. Clients offering low pay are often just looking to pad their website. They’re not after high-quality writing, so these gigs don’t push you to become a better writer.
Third, they damage your reputation, especially in today’s world of Internet marketing where Google and other search engines are noting if you’re a credible, authoritative author.
My advice if you’re just getting started is to avoid this cycle in the first place. Take a part-time job that makes ends meet and leaves time for you to build your business on a foundation of high-quality clients. I waited tables part-time while getting my business up and running. The money was decent and the hours were perfect for what I was trying to accomplish. Getting on at a temp agency is another strategy I’ve seen work.
If you’re already caught in a cycle of low-paying gigs, here’s the formula I’d use to break out.
Step 1: Determine what kind of clients you want to write for. What industry are they in? How big are they?
Step 2: With your ideal client in mind, put up a LinkedIn profile that reflects your skills and who you want to work with.
Step 3: Let everyone you know what you are doing and ask for referrals – friends, former colleagues, acquaintances, family, people you know from college… everyone. Don’t be pushy. Just give them a heads up and let them know their referrals are appreciated.
Step 4: Do some research and come up with a list of 25 clients that you would love to land.
Step 5: Approach those clients systematically. My favorite way is time-consuming, but it works. Put together a series of short messages, an introduction, a marketing tip, an industry trend, a writing tip, and a request for a phone meeting with a time you plan to call. Write your messages out by hand in blank note cards and send one a week to each of your clients on the list. Most of them will take your call at the end, and I usually get a 10 percent closing rate when I do this, which means, I walk away from the series with two or three projects if I’m starting with a list of 25.
Step 6: Start weaning yourself off the low-paying clients. If you have more than one, give your smallest one 30 days notice. Keep it amiable, but be firm. Let your others know that you have to cut back on your workload. This will free up time for you to market yourself and take on better projects.
There are lots of other things you can do too. Blogging, attending networking meetings, writing articles for industry publications, social media outside of LinkedIn (LinkedIn is a must!), presenting. But you have to make time to get yourself in front of the right prospects, and that may mean a couple of months of financial uncertainty. It’s terrifying, but also very motivating!
The most important thing is to be persistent in going after the kinds of clients you want. And don’t be afraid to say no to the clients who aren’t a good fit.
If you just can’t break the cycle, go back to the part-time job suggestion. Fire all your low-paying clients, take on a part-time job that covers what they’re paying you, and free up time to lay a better client base for your business.
5. Jennifer Mattern – All Freelance Writing
I’m a big fan of what I refer to as “query-free freelancing.” This is where you build a network and professional presence with a built-in demand for what you have to offer. It involves attracting prospects, getting them to come to you rather than you seeking individual clients or writing gigs.
There are countless tools for doing this, and it’s up to each writer to decide what’s best for them in order to reach their unique target markets. Some examples of things you might focus on are blogging, search engine optimization of your professional website, e-books, e-courses, webinars, social media profiles, guest posting, and speaking engagements.
I’ve seen freelance writers focus on a solid platform and their professional network who fill their schedule with incoming prospects in a few months. And I’ve seen a couple of writers who managed to do that in just two to three weeks. It’s all about the upfront effort you put into building visibility and your authority status in your specialty area.
The challenge when you’re busy with low paying gigs is that you might not feel that you have time for platform-building and effective networking. This is why some writers get caught up browsing job boards and doing little else to find better work. But the fact is, most high-paying writing gigs are never published on those boards. They’re filled when clients search for writers online, get referrals, or when clients receive direct pitches from writers. If they aren’t finding you in at least one of these ways, they probably aren’t going to find you at all.
There are a few things I suggest doing to help ease the transition when you can’t simply drop all of your low paying gigs upfront.
Focus on productivity first.
Salvage as much time as you can during the day and allocate it to marketing to your new, higher-paying target market. Streamline research. Outline if it helps you finish a draft faster. Use a time-tracking app to make sure you aren’t wasting time without realizing it, such as by reading too many blog posts each morning or taking long breaks. You might even want to try something like the Pomodoro technique (I’m personally a big fan), where you work hard for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. After four sets, you take a longer 15-minute break. The frequent breaks coupled with the game-like timed sessions can help you get more work finished without feeling like you’re working any harder.
Make schedule changes.
If you still don’t have enough time to find better-paying gigs, you might have to make a tougher decision: either cut a few of your lower paying projects or decide to put in extra working hours each week for a few weeks to give you the kickstart you need. Just don’t get caught up working extra hours for too long, or you’re at an added risk of burning out.
Make sure you have a specialty.
Specialists are almost always paid more than generalists. High paying writing gigs are often highly paid because clients are compensating you for your expertise even more than your basic writing ability. And no, specialization will not limit your available client base so much that it’s a bad idea. That’s a common myth. Yes, you’ll have fewer clients and available projects. But they will be higher paying projects, so you need to secure fewer of them, and you’ll have less competition for them. In the end, specialization works out in your favor.
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Do your research.
Marketing to high paying clients in your specialty area is not the same as landing low paying gigs. You need to figure out who your target clients actually are, where they are, how they can be most easily reached, how they tend to find their contractors, and what things influence their hiring decisions. Then you need to create a marketing plan custom-tailored to that target market. If you don’t understand the needs of your target clients (or your competition), you won’t be able to market your writing services effectively. The worst mistake a freelancer can make if they want to improve their income is to not have a plan.
Pitch some prospects.
While I’m a supporter of query-free freelancing, your transition might need a different approach early on. While you build your platform for long-term client attraction, also take some time to identify specific websites, publications, or companies you would like to work for. Send out queries. Make some cold calls. The worst they can do is say “no.” In that case, you’ve at least made a new contact, and you might come to mind if their needs change in the future. The best that can happen is that you’ll land a few new clients right out of the gate.
Diversify your revenue streams.
While building your platform, give a bit of extra attention to tools that can bring in revenue of their own. For example, you might sell a short report to prospective clients. These will help you bridge the gap between low paying clients and high paying clients. As they bring in revenue, you’ll have an easier time justifying letting another low paying client go in the pursuit of something better. And these additional revenue streams can soften the blow if you go through the common feast-famine cycle of freelancing.
Will these things move you from low to high paying freelance writing jobs overnight? No. But over time they’ll help you bring in more consistent income at whatever level you hope to earn. During your transition, combining tactics with immediate rewards and those that will help you build lasting demand will give you the best of both worlds. You might just be surprised at how quickly you can have clients coming to you, ready and willing to hire.
Thanks to all of these wonderful women for sharing their insight!
Do you want to make money by freelance writing? What tips do you have for getting good gigs? Drop us a note; we’d love to hear from you! If you enjoyed this post — please share it on your favorite social media site.
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Carol Tice is awesome. The others are new to me. Thanks for introducing them to us.
Holly - The Work at Home Woman
Carol is awesome! Glad you enjoyed the article!