Hey, Freelancers: Know Your Worth

I originally posted this on my old blog, Ellipsis, over 3 years ago. I think it's time to share again, as it is still totally apt. If you're a new graduate, or new to the freelance world, it can be so hard to get those first few clients. But don't be tempted to sell yourself short! 

Ever since I started freelance writing, I have struggled with charging a reasonable rate. What is my writing worth? What is my experience worth? I recently started using Elance and oDesk, and I've been shocked by the amount of writing that clients request... and how little they want to pay for it! 

There are a multitude of freelance writing platforms out there. Unfortunately, they all have their pitfalls. The number one problem with all freelance writing boards, especially Elance and oDesk, is their pricing. Since clients are allowed to charge whatever they want, with no standards being required by the websites themselves, the prices end up being shockingly, well, low. If you're a business in need of writing, it seems great. But if you're a writer in need of income, it sucks. 

It's not uncommon on Elance or oDesk to see ads for 10-100 articles for barely over $20. 10 articles is a lot for $20. 100 articles is ridiculous. As well, I recently saw an add offering $1 for every 300 words, and they wanted 10 600-word articles. Let's see, that evens out to about $20. Not worth it. I've received messages after applying to jobs asking if I'll take $10-20 for a 500-word article. There is no nice way to say "no, actually, my writing is worth more than that." Because, honestly, how do they know? 

Writing is the single most important part of any business. It really is. How businesses communicate and represent themselves, how they manage their reputation and how they present their knowledge as community leaders is incredibly important, especially in the age of ZMOT. Some businesses seem to be pretty slow on the uptake though. They want the benefits of content, of social media marketing and of blogging, without having to pay for it. Maybe because it's a trend, they don't think it has any real value. It also seems to hinge on the fact that writing is "easy"--we do it every day, don't we?  

Except, it's not. 

It's hard work to write an article for a company. It's hard work to do all the research necessary, to ask the right questions, to understand their community, to understand their customers, to find the write words, to tailor the language to their audience. It takes time and patience and practice. It's worth more than a penny per word. And it's definitely worth more than $20 for 500-words!

For new writers -- students just out of college or people like me, who have a lot of writing experience but not a lot of experience being paid for it -- can easily get conned into charging too little. "Well, I am new," we say to ourselves, applying to receptionist jobs and trying to scoop up freelance jobs offering $1.50 an hour. That's not fair though. If you paid for a degree -- in Journalism, Creative Writing, English, or anything else -- you've proven yourself as a writer. You've earned your degree. Therefore, you have earned your right to charge what you think your writing is worth. You might not be able to charge the highest rates quite yet, but you deserve more than minimum wage for writing.  

So, what is your writing worth? 

I charge $35 an hour for freelance projects under a certain number of words. For longer pieces, I charge a base price of $250 and then $25 per hour on top of that $250. It sounds like a lot, right? It's really not, though. For high quality writing, for the right words, the right image, the right phrases, it's worth it. If a business understands and acknowledges that writing is worth more than pennies -- if they understand that their business's reputation and place in the market is dependent on writing -- it's worth it. I have a lot of experience writing. I've written for businesses, for magazines, for academics, for social media accounts. I've written articles, bylines, ebooks, Tweets, Facebook posts, and FAQs. I've written blog posts and wish lists and everything in between. I'm a writer. It's what I do. My writing is worth a certain amount and I'm not embarrassed to say that I charge accordingly. 

It's easy to think, "Well, I can take those low prices and just write a lot." It's really easy to think that. But if you're writing a 500-word article for $20, how many do you need to write to make a mortgage payment or to pay your rent? If you're rent is as low as $500 a month, you'd have to write 25 articles. But remember, you have to pay taxes on all your income through freelance. So reserve about 20% for future taxes. Then you'd need to write about 30 articles to make your rent payment alongside saving to pay those taxes. How long does a 500-word article take to write? Let's say it takes you between 3 hours per article. That's 90 hours just to make your rent. Are you planning on sleeping? What about eating? What about all your other bills? The average full-time worker works about 160 hours a month. That's a lot. So you'll be working half that much just to pay one bill. Add in car payments, insurance, power and water bills, student loan payments... Possible? Maybe. Enjoyable? No. 

The bottom line is this: to be a freelance writer, it's more powerful to have personal connections. It's nice to have oDesk and Elance as back ups. My number one tactic is to email local businesses and try to network and get my name out there as a freelance writer. By being friendly, by networking and following local businesses on Twitter, I find I'm more able to make genuine connections and find businesses that are willing to pay for quality writing. 

What does this mean for someone who is just trying to get into freelance writing? 

  1. Don't depend on freelance writing boards! 
  2. Make connections in your local community. Email PR firms, attend networking group meetings, and get some business cards printed. 
  3. Set a rate and stick to it. It might not be the highest rate, but base it off your experience and what you need to survive.