Writers work on all sorts of projects for clients – advertising copy, press releases, romance novels…
Most of the time, these projects aren’t close to the client’s heart. They’re necessary for business or marketing, but they’re not excessively wrapped up with the client’s life and emotions.
Once in a while, though, clients make a personal request – sometimes overly, uncomfortably personal. Dating site bios, pleas to get into a student’s top choice college, letters to banks begging for more time to pay the mortgage.
Those projects are more personal, but only to the client. To the writer, it’s still a job: words that have to turn into sentences that require a format, etc. Also, these assignments don’t become strong client relationships. Even if you become the client’s “personal stuff” writer, how often does that personal stuff come along? Not often, if ever again.
This type of client feels that their importance is your importance. You’re approached with a sort of “we’re in this together” attitude. The expectation is that you’ll accept the project at any cost, literally and figuratively.
When a longstanding client of mine asked me to write a letter that went in-depth about a medical issue he’s ashamed of, I felt that the best response was a professional one. He was obviously uncomfortable with having me do this in the first place, and I thought I was doing him a favor by not drawing more attention to it than necessary. Keeping my distance caused him to abruptly pull the assignment, though. He had wanted me to straddle a line between “don’t make me uncomfortable about this” and “this should be as important to you as it is to me” that I just couldn’t straddle. I couldn’t rearrange my schedule to get it done before my normal turn-around time; I couldn’t give him a price break because the information was difficult for him to share; and I wouldn’t pretend we had a closer relationship than we had simply because he was trusting me with sensitive information.
Boundaries are still important, even when you’re dealing with a topic that makes your client well up with tears. To continue valuing and respecting your clients, you have to keep your distance. Getting wrapped up in a dramatic situation in a way that evokes your emotions or drains your energy means you can’t move forward with a clear head. When it comes to your own work, passion is a phenomenal motivator. But when it comes to helping another person with their priority, clearheadedness and pragmatism serve both of you.
You may also be feeling that thing we’re not supposed to feel: do it yourself. If it’s so important, personal and time-sensitive, and if you’re upset that I’m not as emotionally invested in it as you are, do it yourself. Every time a mother sends me a frantic email because her child is about to miss a deadline for an admissions essay, college paper or letter of recommendation, I think, “Just do it yourself.”
We have to keep a safe distance from our clients and projects to move forward. Personal assignments are important, and many of them are confidential. They need lucidity, which is probably why the person closest to the issue can’t write about it themselves. Our boundaries, processes and workflows don’t fall away because a client has an urgent need, though. Putting yourself first will always result in better work. You’ll turn out focused, polished writing, and you’ll move through your workdays surrounded by better energy than if you had to carry another person’s stress on your shoulders.
When you care about your career, and by extension, your clients, you want to make them happy. You want them to keep coming back so you can keep getting paid. And you want them to like you – most people want to be liked.
So you work for it. You worry about it. You toil and stress and move your own life obligations to meet their needs. You fret over something inconsequential. You lower your expectations while subconsciously raising theirs. You make it a whole thing. You put so much into that one client that the stress practically has its own heartbeat.
Then something happens. They cut their budget. They give you feedback that spits in the face of what you’ve been writing for them for a year (If you didn’t like how I do that, why didn’t you say something 25 articles ago?). They cancel the monthly orders they promised you. They do something that says, “I’m not overly concerned with you.”
All of that pressure was for nothing. Yes, you were paid for your work, you have new clippings for your portfolio. But you didn’t get commitment, dedication, longevity. You didn’t get nearly enough to repay you for how much agony you put into them.
It’s not about the work. The work fits into a box. You know what the project is before you start. You charge for it, you do it within your time limit, you send it off, you put a lid on it.
The real output isn’t the work itself. It’s the time and weight of thinking about it all. How you could be disappointing them. If you’re what they need. Where you’re going wrong. What will happen if you lose them.
Your clients don’t think about you like that, though. They don’t care about you in the same way.
You can see it every time they don’t read an entire email – they only respond to part of what you ask, and you have to send a followup note to get clarity on the rest. You can see it when they forget they had a meeting with you, when you call and they don’t answer because it slipped their mind. You can see it when they pay their invoice two weeks later than promised or when they don’t bother to say, “Hey, this is great!” but instead randomly mention how good of a job you did when you talk to them a year later.
They’re not stressed over you. To them, this is a service – they’re no more strained than you are when you walk into a clothing store and casually ignore the person folding the jeans as they ask if you need help with anything, or when you return those jeans because you simply changed your mind.
What type of energy should go into them, then? After all, you do need clients, happy ones, if you’re going to pay your bills.
There’s a type of effort that won’t suck you dry, give you a headache, leave you with an eye twitch. Be the one who’s responsible and professional. Get all of the information you need so you’re armed with the tools to do the project well. Put your head down and work. Send it in on time. Follow up with an email asking if they’re happy with the result.
Do your part. Don’t do theirs.
Your commitment is to the bigger picture, the notion of supporting yourself, making a living by writing (or whatever your craft may be), having the type of flexible schedule that lets you design your days. The commitment is not to a loop of stress and worry and concern.
You can love your clients and set these boundaries. I love some of my clients. I’m happy to listen to their personal and professional struggles, to make life easier for them so long as it doesn’t make my life harder. When you work for yourself, it’s almost impossible to not wrap emotions up in it all. But when you’re confident that you’re doing things correctly – and if you fix them when you’re not – you can let the dread and tension drop away, no matter how your clients behave.
Low freelance writing rates are a major problem for writers. There are a lot of freelancers who are willing to work for very little, which drags down the average going rate. This means that when a qualified, experienced writer is up for a job, they’re offered an insulting fee.
This sucks. Period.
That said, there are times when a low rate is understandable or when you may accept meager pay. The rest of the time, shake your head and get on with your life.
Here are 9 reasons to get over low freelance writing rates (and learn from it):
1. You’re at the very beginning of your career
Every writer is paid peanuts in the beginning. Expect it. Accept it. Don’t blame anyone. It’s not a fault, it’s the beginning of a career.
You’re going to grow and gain experience. You’re going to report to people who act as your “bosses.” Those people are going to call the shots, especially when you need them to help you build your career.
Remember, this is still a job. You have to start at the bottom. Taking more of a risk than someone with a nine-to-five doesn’t mean you deserve more money right now.
Earning more money as a writer isn’t about confidence. It’s not about not settling. It’s much more specific and measurable: are you good enough to charge more and can you find clients who will pay more? You’ll only get there if you start where you’re supposed to start.
2. YOUR CHOSEN RATE IS ALREADY CRAP
If your current rate is 10 cents a word, you’ve already set a pretty low, pretty-much-garbage rate. I’m sure you have your reasons for doing so.
Now, let’s say a client wants to pay you half that – five cents a word. You cannot believe the gall. Five cents? Five cents?!
What you’re doing right now is complaining about the level of crap you’re paid.
For a 500-word blog post, you’re talking about a difference of $25. Yes, you’re losing $25, but $50 for a 500-word blog post sucks anyway. If you’re annoyed, you should be annoyed with your own rate.
I don’t think it’s fair to bitch and moan about the difference between crummy rates. If you’re accepting crap rate number one, then don’t complain about crap rate number two. Crap is crap.
3. You were hired under shady circumstances
You send a cold email to a random potential client you know little about. They hire you immediately, without even asking for samples.
The red flag is about to hit you across the face.
Always question a client who’s willing to hire you without asking for samples or visiting your website. Unless you wrote a stellar cold email – and you didn’t, because stellar cold emails are tricky to write – question their motives and their budget.
4. You’re working with a middleman
If you work for a marketing agency or another type of middleman, they’re going to take a portion of your earnings. Think of it as the convenience fee you have to pay to get out of dealing with clients.
Like with any client, find out how much you’ll be paid before accepting a project. How much the middleman is making doesn’t matter. You have your rate and they have theirs. The only thing you should concern yourself with is that you’re making your own rate.
Yes, it can sting to find out that the person you’re working for is charging double what you’re actually getting. Take that as a sign that it’s time to raise your rates or to start working directly with clients.
Also, consider this: dealing with clients is a nightmare. I would give someone 50% just to handle my clients, and I don’t even care if that’s way higher than a fair percentage.
5. Your client wants to barter
Revising an invoice for less money is understandable. There are a million reasons why a client may ask you to do this.
There are several ways to lower the cost of a project without screwing yourself over. You can suggest how to get the point across in fewer words. You can exclude one of your free revisions. You can recommend a simpler topic that will take less time to research. You can lower the cost per article if they order a large bundle at one time.
You can also say “no.” No, that’s the minimum I can do this project for. No, I’m not able to slash the price and still deliver quality writing. No, this isn’t worth it to me for a lower price (find a more professional way to word that last one, but you get the point).
You may lose the work, but if it’s so much less money than you should be getting or can live with, it doesn’t matter.
6. There are legit reasons for sticking with the client
Maybe you’re getting experience you otherwise wouldn’t get. Maybe counting on a monthly paycheck is more important than charging a few hundred dollars more. Maybe you’re so used to the topic that you breeze through the work, which means you make an inflated rate per hour. Maybe the client sends a ton of referral work your way.
Sometimes a client’s value goes beyond how much they’re paying you.
7. You’re leading with your emotions
You don’t get an award for sticking it out with a teeny startup that has almost no money to devote to website copy. There’s no gold star for taking on extra work that’s outside the scope of your agreement. Show me the medal for being guilt-tripped into doing next-to-free work for a client who can’t handle their business expenses.
I used to write blog posts for a photographer based in Hawaii. He would call several nights a week to go over “work stuff,” which amounted to him chewing my ear off for over an hour about his life. I not only answered, but I listened, and then I would lower his rate. And then I would complain about it to my boyfriend.
The lesson? Building a working relationship should be different from building a friendship. There isn’t always room for emotion or politeness in business.
You should do the work you’re paid to do, period. If you’re asked to do extra work and you accept and then that client continues to take advantage of you, it’s your fault.
8. Fairness doesn’t matter
Scroll through Reddit posts about freelance writing rates and the word “value” will come up a lot. “This person doesn’t value you or your work. Find a client who values good writing.” Blah blah.
Value is something to consider, certainly. However, judging how much each client does or does not value you or good writing is a waste of time.
Clients don’t pay what they think is fair. They pay what people accept. So long as some writers accept three cents per word, some clients are going to pay that and not a half-cent more.
The question of fairness plays far too large a role in these conversations. Because what happens if you find a rate to be unfair? Number 9 knows.
9. You don’t have to accept the assignment
The problem is so rarely the client who offers the low rate. The real problem is accepting that low rate, getting stuck with a project you can’t stand and losing money while you work on it. Avoid the whole mess by turning it down from the start.
There’s only one reason why I know all this: I’ve made huge mistakes in the past.
I’ve accepted assignments I knew I shouldn’t have because I desperately needed to make a trip to the grocery store. I’ve gotten snippy with a potential client because they weren’t willing to pay even half my rate. And I’ve spent hours complaining about the too-low-to-live-on rate I was making for a project that I willingly took on.
Solid writing deserves a higher rate. There’s no arguing that. But the time you spend obsessing over the clients out there who won’t pay more than 3 cents a word or $12 an hour won’t pad your bank account.
If done correctly, freelance writing is a busy job. Put your head down, do the work and make it great – that’s the best way you can contribute to raising the average freelance writing rate.
There’s a lot to writing, and even more to becoming a business-savvy, successful freelance writer. And that word “success” alone carries so much weight, doesn’t it?
I don’t know what your success looks like. Honestly, I don’t even know what my success is going to look like down the road.
Ten years ago, success meant being able to pay for cocktails with my best friends on Friday night (and Saturday night and most Monday nights and…you get it). Eight years ago, success meant having a few clients to call my own, even if I charged them peanuts. Then, success meant being able to afford backups so I’d never run out of paper towels or soap or batteries.
Today, success means waking up to a job I love every morning and also having the income and freedom to decide if I’m going to work that day or if I’d rather read or hike or go on a mini road trip with my boyfriend. It means having a home office that I love so much that some days I actually crave spending 10 hours there, a cup of coffee next to me and a long list of client articles to write (or a short list of long client articles to write).
And my future success is pulling me toward it quickly – it’s filled with a bright apartment that I’ll decorate with pops of color, a romantic trip to Hawaii that will jumpstart a life filled with romantic trips, a quick flight to Disney World to run in their marathon…
Those successes cost money, and that money can’t be earned by striving for money alone. It has to be accompanied by a willingness to work, by peace and levity, by a specific type of energy that cradles instead of pressing down. It also has to be accompanied by a respect for money – an understanding that money is a reflection of worth. If you’re worth more money, then that’s what you should have – and with it, you’ll do worthwhile things.
Isn’t that an exciting cycle? You work, you earn, then you work better and live better with what you earned, which means you can earn more… It’s almost enough to send my heart bursting through my chest.
Working in your pajamas — or “work pajamas,” as I call them — is great. So is seeing a matinee on a random Tuesday, grocery shopping when the store’s practically empty and never having to ask permission to take an extra-long lunch break. Being self-employed is certainly the lifestyle for me, but sometimes this type of career is frustrating, exhausting and heartbreaking. Here are 10 reasons why self-employment and having a work from home job kinda sucks sometimes.
1. There’s really no such thing as a sick, vacation or personal day.
Except for two days when I was so sick I couldn’t lift my head, 10 days in Costa Rica eight years ago and another 10 days in Scotland last summer, I haven’t had a full day off in a decade. On vacation, I work sporadically, and at least I get to plug away by the pool instead of in my office. It’s possible that I took an entire Christmas Day off once, but I’m not 100% sure. Weekends? They’re the best days to work because everyone else is enjoying their life, which means fewer incoming DMs and emails. When you canalways be working, you feel like you shouldalways be working.
2. You’re the escalation department. And billing. And IT.
I miss the days when a really nasty customer was immediately transferred to my manager so that she could deal with them. Now, the Escalation Department is just a more-stern-yet-still-sorta-sweet version of myself. “Don’t let other people get you down!” is easy to say until you have vicious “professionals” harassing you with character attacks because you dared to send out a bulk email. There’s also no billing department to chase down unpaid invoices, IT manager to un-crash your laptop or housekeeping team to vacuum while you’re at home with a glass of wine.
3. Home is the office and the office is home.
I love my office — it’s comfy and pink, and I kick my feet up on my desk when I’m on a phone call because I’m the boss and I can do that. Once my workday is over, I shut the lights, power down my Mac and spend the rest of the evening in the rest of my apartment. But when you work from home, the office is still always right there, beckoning. If a client calls at 9 p.m. and wants me to “just take a quick look at this link I’m sending over,” I technically can because I work from home. Sometimes I kind of miss leaving my desk behind at 5 p.m. and not having the option to work even if I wanted to.
4. Commutes are underrated.
Every now and then, I’ll get up in the morning, pull myself together and drive somewhere 45 minutes away to get a cup of coffee. The downtime you get when you commute to your office is seriously underrated. I’m amazed that I remember to pay my cable bill, book that spinning class that’s about to expire or pick up laundry detergent when I don’t have those vital few minutes in the morning to clear my head and think about my day.
5. Going online just for fun is a thing of the past.
Almost every time I talk to my mother, she says, “Did you see that hilarious/heartwarming/obnoxious post on Facebook from your brother/kindergarten teacher/cousin?” No. No I did not. By the time I’m finished with work, I’ve already visited a hundred different websites that day. The last thing I want to do is watch that oh-so-funny viral video on YouTube, search Paleo websites for a new recipe or, you got it, scroll through Facebook. I immediately revert to the good ol’ days when the Internet wasn’t at my fingertips. I even say things like, “Please don’t make me look up the name of that song you have stuck in your head. I’m sure it’ll just come to you if you give it time.”
6. Everybody thinks you’re never working even though you’re always working.
When you make your own schedule and work from home, there’s a strange assumption that you’re both never working and always working. Which one you’re doing at that moment coincides with what people need. When someone wants to discuss a work project, they don’t hesitate to call at 9:30 on a Friday night because they figure I’m never off the clock. When that same person needs a midday, wine-fueled lunch because they called in sick to work and want to vent, they assume I’m definitely not working on anything important and I can totally take the afternoon off.
7. People assume you’re dead if you don’t respond ASAP.
I can’t tell you how many times my aunts, cousins, friends and clients have said to me, “I called/texted/emailed you!” Yes, I know. It was 20 minutes ago and I’ve just been living my life since then, doing 20 minutes worth of things that have prevented me from getting back to you immediately. Just because I check my email more often than a normal person, that doesn’t mean I’m at everyone’s beck and call. In order to stay sane during my seven-days-a-week work schedule, I try to compartmentalize my time. Otherwise, I’d be answering emails and phone calls for an entire day without accomplishing anything else.
8. Apparently, anyone can do your job.
One of the most obnoxious moments of my freelance career happened a few years ago when I ran into an annoying guy I know from college. Keep in mind that when he knew me, I had two majors and a 3.85 GPA; I was an English tutor, the Associate Editor of the school paper and a member of student government; and I worked three jobs. That didn’t stop him from saying, “Oh, I saw that you write the nightlife column for the Poughkeepsie Journal now. I thought to myself, ‘I’m glad Lindsay’s finally doing something with herself.’” Then he followed up with, “I was thinking about becoming a freelance writer too. Maybe I’ll do it.”
Yeah. Just do it. There’s nothing to it.
Look, I know I’m not curing cancer. I’m not on my feet for 12-hour shifts in the ER. I don’t have heartbreaking war stories to tell. I get that there are more difficult, exhausting, mentally taxing jobs than mine. But being your own boss and/or a writer is still exceptionally hard, and it’s not something I would suggest to anyone, especially someone who chooses this lifestyle on a whim.
9. A high hourly rate does not equal a bazillion dollars a year.
During a night out researching for my nightlife column years go, an especially pushy restaurant owner asked me several times how much money I made an hour. Finally, I fired back at him: “Fifty!” He quickly shut up. Truthfully, I only made $45 an hour at the time, but that was a major raise from the $15 per hour I made at the beginning of my career and the $30 per hour I made a year or so after. Today, my rates are more than double that, and if you multiplied it by the traditional 40 hours per week, I’d be buying a yacht instead of writing about them (yes, I write about yachts). A freelancer’s hourly rate is how much they make when they’re working billable hours, but the list of things you have to do without pay are endless.
10. When you go somewhere on the weekend, the crowd is completely overwhelming.
Sometimes I reminisce about the days when I didn’t have a near panic attack if Target was overcrowded on the weekend. I’m completely spoiled by being able to work from home on my own schedule and going to the grocery store, gym, movie theater and coffee shop when everyone else is plugging away in their office. One of the best parts of my job is getting everything done when everywhere is empty, and those peaceful afternoons are fantastic…until you can’t handle Thanksgiving dinner with your family because you’re not used to being surrounded by more than three people at a time.