When I started freelancing in 2009, I remember reading about all the predictions. Forbes shouted, "By the year 2020 more than half of U.S. workers will be freelancing!" Other predictions centered around the global gig economy, where the numbers were supposed to be around 35 percent.
As it turns out, Forbes was wrong. By this time last year U.S. freelancers accounted for 57 percent of the US workforce. In India, one in four workers freelances. Here are some global numbers.
The good and bad about these numbers is the same: clients are realizing the benefits of hiring freelancers versus full time employees who expect paid sick days, paid holidays and health insurance. And rates will vary drastically and they're not always dependent upon experience or expertise. Sometimes rates are overinflated and sometimes clients try and get what I call, "the mostest for the leastest."
So where does that leave you—the newbie or new to a particular industry—unsure what to charge?
If you belong to any writing groups (online or IRL), what to charge is a source of endless debate and the cause of many rifts. I won't offer specific advice about what to charge because articles abound with meticulous breakdowns of how to arrive on that magic number. Most of them are flawed (in my opinion) in their assumptions, and no two situations is the same. I will say this: Don't compare your insides to other people's outsides. Only you know what you ultimately need to make and how you can achieve that magic number. Beyond that, I think we have to see this the same way we view working in the brick & mortar world.
My blog isn't about how to arrive at this number but more about how prospective clients see you and how to sell yourself to get the rate you want. I want to also make a few points that are not often talked about in these articles.
When I started freelancing, I had zero experience doing content writing. In my first freelancing blog, I wrote about how I got into freelancing. I mentioned that I'd had no experience and how honest I was with my first client. I even went so far as to tell this prospect I had no writing samples and that I would stay up all night to learn how to do content writing. I was so confident I could write an article for the web (despite needing to learn) because I am self-taught with everything I've ever learned.
What I should have charged for that first gig wasn't left for me to decide. The prospect said she was willing to pay $50 for five travel articles of 500+ words each. At $10 a piece, while not an amazing rate, it would still represent my first paid writing gig. I was so excited when the client loved them, I posted all over my Facebook wall that I was, "a paid writer, by golly!" I was actually far more excited than my lack of enthusiasm let on. I had achieved something both my late parents (writers) told me wasn't possible.
And I've been chasing that high ever since.
Working Out That Writing Muscle
We have to start somewhere. Whether you're coming out of college and have decided to forgo working in the "real world" or you had a mid-life crisis (as did I) and needed to reinvent yourself, you have to start somewhere. And sometimes you have to go back to that place. Starting with low rates isn't—or shouldn't be—a source of shame.
When I compare my first articles to what I write today, it's night and day. I started out being a Jill of all writing trades. You threw a topic at me, whether I knew about the subject or not, I'd write about it. The advantage to this approach is that I didn't limit myself or my earning potential.
I received a book as a present from a relative of mine who is a writer and editor. She's also a freelancer and is at the top of her game. Two years ago she was working on a fulfilling project: editing a documentary (Katharine is also one of the co-producers).
This year it won big at several indie film festivals. While she was in college she took many unpaid internships and her biggest advice to me when I started freelancing was, "Sarah, before you get too big for your britches, work out that writing muscle. Think of writing as being equal parts talent and mechanics. Learn to shed the need to bleed all over the page. Be raw, but learn to say in 500 words what you're currently saying in 1500. Be concise ... in your flashes of brilliance." She continued, "even if you have to take a string of low-paying gigs to do this, it'll be worth it. In fact, better to work out that muscle on a bunch of low-paying work. Most importantly, don't be ashamed of taking low-paying work. Believe me, it pays off. Maybe not right away but it will."
She gave me a book called The Artist's Way Workbook by Julia Cameron. I followed every suggestion to the letter. As it suggested, I wrote a minimum of 200 words a day—whether I had a client gig that day or not. I bled all over the page, over and over and over agin. It changed my life. Why? It had me focusing more on the craft of writing versus making money.
Another book that was given to me by a client was Bird by Bird by The Vampires Chronicles author Anne Lamott. I didn't get as much value from it, perhaps because I'd already read The Artist's Way.
Once I started seeing and believing in the value I provide, along with ways to continually improve upon that value, it was a natural progression to start charging more. And a word of caution on this: don't compare your insides to other people's outsides. (Yeah, I like that expression.) We have no clue what people really charge. I see threads in my online writing groups from women bragging they don't get out of bed for less than x amount of money.
I'm not necessarily doubting them but saying we don't know if they close doors that could lead to other amazing opportunities or if they spend more time marketing themselves than actually writing. We just don't know.
I personally like to keep a bunch of lower-paying work in my pocket for those times when the higher-paying work isn't available.
Chasing the High
One disadvantage I learned immediately to seeking and being paid well for my writing is that it becomes a drug and a high I need to keep chasing.
I recently started doing bylined writing after years of doing content writing alone. I found a niche I really liked and pitched away. My very first pitch to Big Buds was accepted. I was paid very well—north of $700. I loved working with the editor and I pitched several more topics and all were accepted. Next thing I'm writing for two or three a month for them. Life was great! With each article accepted I felt like a goddess (is that what Katharine meant by getting too big for my britches?). I was riding a high and assumed it was high-paying gigs from here on out.
Pfft! Oh how silly that was.
I was asked to cover a cannabis conference on Puerto Rico (where I live). I pitched all the cannabis publications topics based on the conference. All of them were accepted. Whew, right?
None of them pays as well as Big Buds. Each provides value and each is highly respected in the marijuana industry, but I reached the top of the heap (in terms of pay) out of the gate. I could have declined to write for the others but decided that was just silliness. I did negotiate with all of them (having been published in Big Buds helped immensely) and so I feel better about sending them articles. In all honesty, I probably would have accepted the gigs even if they hadn't agreed to pay me more. Why?
Because the more you write, the better you get and the more you can continue charging for your writing. Charging higher rates doesn't happen in a vacuum. And it keeps us all grounded and not chasing the high. We need to remember the other reason we fell into writing. While making money is important, we also do this because we love it. We do it because we believe our writing is not only of value to ourselves but to others reading what we write. If you're writing solely for the money, I honestly believe you're selling your passion short.
So stop chasing the high and get back to the reasons you are a writer.
If there is one thing I hate more than anything about freelancing it's the people who make others feel badly for charging and/or accepting lower rates. Along with not comparing our insides to other people's outsides, never make others feel worthless by telling them they're not charging enough.
I hear this argument all the time, "If you charge x, this makes it more difficult for me to charge y." Bullshit!
If prospective clients don't get it (that quality writing costs money), fuck them and move on. But if you have a client who simply can't afford the rates you want but you love the work, I personally wouldn't throw it away. If the content is quick and easy to write, and you enjoy it, do it!
What you charge has no impact on me. There are plenty of freelancers who don't know their value or just think they can compete on price. They're not your competition, but neither is the snob who turns their nose up at lower-paying work. You are your competition.
We have no idea what others' circumstances are, that's a) and b) it's actually wise to take both high- and low-paying work. When high-paying work dries up (client or editor leaves the company they were with for years, companies fold, new editors come in and clean house, whatever), if you only have high-paying work and it's gone, how will you feed yourself?
Apart from that, we all have to start out somewhere. There's absolutely no reason to make others feel badly for being a beginner. Instead, why not encourage new writers by suggesting tools to help improve their writing, which in turn will help them command higher rates? But please don't become one of those who bitches for the sake of bitching. Either help bring us all up or sit down and shut up. That's my feeling.
When I told Katharine (who is just six months younger than I am and who's been at this since the early 1990s) I had decided to start writing at 42 years old, she could have discouraged me. She could have made fun of me because I was getting 2 cents a word when I started. Instead she gave me a book and advice that changed my life.
Be Katharine. The next time someone asks you what to charge or how to raise your rates, tell them to work out that writing muscle, get really good at writing and then set out to provide value to clients and readers.
The rates will follow. I promise.
Photo credit: Praytino