Being Paid - Settle or Struggle
When I first started freelancing, content mills were my go to. I had zero confidence in myself as a writer, as a storyteller or as a content writer. So, content mills are where I got my start. I didn’t make much, but when review after review came in praising my work, I started to up my prices and look elsewhere for work. I now work full time as a freelance writer in my pajamas, when I want to, but that’s only after I’ve had some rough clients throughout the years.
For example, when I was a fresh freelancer, I took on a client that wanted me to write over 1500 words per piece about coffee, for fifteen dollars per piece. It was through UpWork, a content mill, so I was only allowed to take 12 dollars home, which is an embarrassing rate for a 1500 word article. This went on for quite some time, and I found that the clients that pay the least are often the pickiest. It wasn’t long before I left that client for a larger one who pays me much more, and who appreciates me for how I work. Smaller, low paying clients expect raw perfection from every word you write because they’re spending their money on you. The thing is, they don’t care if you stay or not. There will always be another writer who is willing to work for peanuts. Don’t be that writer. Be a great writer. No one is perfect - you will miss grammatical errors from time to time, and your work will be revised, and you need to be able to accept that as okay. Making mistakes and learning from them is all part of the job - and honestly, if you don’t make some mistakes, you should be worried.
I also didn’t believe people when they told me to cold-email and search on job boards. At the beginning of my freelance adventure, I just didn’t listen. I tried to do my own thing, which was great, but nothing I tried worked. Sometimes you have to remember that you’re naïve, and that other people have traveled further down the writing path than you.
My story is not unique among freelancers. For us, payment is the second most important thing when it comes to writing, second only to providing well-written content. But writing is a risky business, with so many people in need of content and many who aren’t willing to pay what they’re worth. It’s one of the most complicated problems writers face, because there are a lot of different ideas and mixed messages when it comes to being paid properly. From dealing with content mills, to fighting through the muck to find half decent clients, to companies who don’t value writers, it’s a wonder anyone wants to write for a side gig, never mind a living. But they do; if you’re reading this, you may want to as well. So, let’s take a look at the ins and outs of payment in the writing world and figure out where you should stand.
What and How Should You be Paid?
First off, you should know what you can bring to the table. Take into account if you want to charge per word or project, and how much you want to charge. Per word rates should start at least ten cents per word, and you should raise your prices as you gain new clients to ensure you’re always approaching your peak value. You should feel comfortable with raising your rates until there is a lack of people buying from you, then drop it to the closest price that you were still functioning at. If you’re going to charge per project, you should compare rates with other starting freelancers, depending on what kind of content you’re willing to provide to clients. From there, write up a contract, put it on paper, and don’t work with anyone who won’t sign it.
For example, say you’re going to write a sales letter for a company, and you’ve never written a sales letter before in your life. You know how to write sales letters but have never put the knowledge into practice. The low-end freelancers usually pitch is about 450 USD. That may seem like a lot for a brand new writer, but quality writing, knowledge, and a strong instinct for marketing has a high price tag. If a client is not going to pay a notably low rate for the content, they don’t value you, and your time shouldn’t be wasted on writing for them.
And how you get paid is just as important as how much you get paid. There are ways that simply aren’t safe. You should never give out your personal address unless the company is very well known, like Forbes or Times. If you are working for one of these well-known companies, it’s pretty common to set up a direct deposit or a check to your personal address. Direct deposit is actually quite safe as long as you don’t give them all of your personal information, but you should think about using another method that is safer, such as Paypal or Payoneer, which are both amazing. It all depends on what you’re comfortable with, but the most important thing is that you can be sure you’ll get paid. Of course, providing quality content is the most important thing when it comes to handling clients, but you need to also remember you’re writing the quality content to make money, and working for free (or on ‘spec,' which is covered later) gets you nowhere.
Speaking of getting nowhere, a lot of writers think content mills won’t get you anywhere in your career, but is that really the case?
Content Mills – Yay or Nay?
Content Mills are the bane of a writer’s existence; they usually underpay severely. Many, like UpWork and Freelancer, work on a points system, where you spend a specific amount of ‘points’ to apply for a job, which you may not get. You can also work at a content mill like Textbroker or iWriter, where you'll have to fight to grab pieces to write against other writers for a few pennies per word. At most.
There is an upside to some content mills, though, and some can be a great place to start if you’re unsure of yourself or lack confidence in your ability to write great pieces. Textbroker and UpWork, for example, pay through an escrow system, where they take the money you’re owed from the clients. hold it, and deliver it to you once the work is done. Which means you’ll never get stiffed out of payment, though there is sometimes a small fee for working with them. UpWork’s fee, for example, starts at 20% and goes down as you make money through one client to 5% at a minimum.
But, in general, If you’re looking for a long-term gig, especially if you’re confident in your writing abilities, avoid content mills like the plague. Content mills aren’t the place to find legitimate clients that will pay you wonderfully. How do you find the legit clients, then?
Finding legitimate writing clients is terribly difficult from a freelance standpoint. If you can get clients from your old workplace, or find leads through the locations around you, you stand a better chance. If you work on a freelance standpoint with no clients under your belt, it’s not going to be easy to find some.
Writing boards, which is covered next, are a simple way to find them, but the most lucrative method is cold-emailing. Rather than the company looking for writers, you look for a company, find something you can help them with, and pitch yourself and your ideas to the correct marketing professionals for that company. It’s a process of trial and error, filled with rejection, but one that can increase your earnings greatly if done correctly.
What About Writing Boards?
Writing boards, like Problogger, Blogging Jobs, and Freelance, are sweet and sour. They’re where people and companies can post jobs for writers, with other writers vying for those positions. There is much less competition on boards, however, than there are on content mills. In mills, you’re competing against literally hundreds of other writers, most of who don’t look at writing boards as well. The majority of the time, if you stick to your communication guns, you can find some decent starting jobs outside of content mills.
The sour part is sourer than a dead skunk. Writing boards are a great place to get jobs, but they’re also a great place to get scammed. People are itching for places to launch schemes and rob people of their content. Asking for 50% up front for jobs can take care of a lot of possible content scamming. Otherwise, always verify the employer’s name, their information, the company. Find them on Linkedin, Facebook, Google what have you. Some people can feel wrong about hunting down clients like this, but you shouldn’t think about it as invading privacy. Instead, think of it as verifying the legitimacy of the project.
Are Big Companies Safe?
However you’re finding work, you’ll probably be working with a mix of both individual clients and bigger companies. How do those bigger companies compare to the individual clients? Big companies are usually safer. They can be trusted to be on time with their payments and to treat you fairly, but they can’t be trusted blindly. For example, HuffPost is a well-known place to try to get published. They only publish the best stuff, but my sources say they currently don’t pay. At all. So, they’re incredibly picky about what they accept, and your "payment" is to be published by a well-known magazine. That obviously doesn’t pay the bills, so many professional writers avoid this publication and many others that provide such "payment." Publications with such a model shouldn’t be at the forefront of your mind if you’re trying to take yourself seriously, especially as a freelancer.
Some bigger companies believe that they can get away with hurting freelancers, but those places are usually few and far between. Vet them like you would and individual client, or you might run into some issues. If you don’t know something about a prospective big company, ask them in a method you can record, like email or via a recorded phone call in case you need to prove their answer. Even large, famous companies have plenty to lose in a lawsuit. But they also have great lawyers, so you should do as much as you can to protect yourself. Record everything, read your contracts, and seek legal counsel if you need help.
Saying No To Terrible Writing Clients
Both individual clients and large companies can be sketchy, and every freelancer will face a situation where their employers are trying to take advantage of them. What happens when people want you to work for them for almost no pay? It’s pretty easy from a freelance perspective; you just say no. If you’re working for a company though, saying no really isn’t an option. When you work at a company and write for them, you write what you’re told to write. And if you can’t, you’re let go and lose work in the future.
At least with freelancing you can politely inform your potential client that you aren’t interested in working with them. You can tell them that their price doesn’t work for you, or that you don’t have the time in your schedule to work with them. These are two easy and professional methods to turn down a low-paying client. Always trust your feelings when it comes to new clients, and how you feel about what they want to pay you. If you feel as if they’re paying too low for the job that you’re doing, then pitch a higher price. This also works the other way; if you feel as if they’re paying too high, tell them that!
Pro Tip – If a client is proposing to pay too much, the best thing you can do is to tell them! Afterward, give them your regular rate, and you will earn yourself a regular client at the drop of a hat. They will appreciate your honesty and professionalism, and that will be ingrained in the client’s or company’s memory. The next time they need a writer, they will remember their awesome interaction with you and shoot you an email to see if you’re available.
Working on "Spec"
One of the most tell-tale signs of a bad client is when they want you to work on spec. Speculative work ,or working on "spec", is when a client wants you to work on a sample or free piece before agreeing to any contracts. Bad clients will try to get you to work for a discount on the price they initially have you work for, or will try to have you work on commission. Unfortunately, these spec pieces are usually just scams to get free articles. The client will have you write a spec piece just for them to tell you that they aren’t interested in working with you afterward. No other professionals - architects, personal trainers, web designers, ect. - work on spec at all. They work and get paid, so why don’t writers? For some reason, people don’t take writers as seriously as other workers.
Speculative work is extremely common among low-level clients. They think that you must prove yourself to be worthy to them. And you do. You prove yourself worthy through published samples you provide through your portfolio or website. Publish these on places like Medium to validate and solidify your reputation. These samples are meant to show companies your level of expertise in writing, and therefore they should not demand speculative samples from you in the first place. A company or client doing so can be advised of your published samples to reference your writing style, quality, and capability instead of speculative work. All writers should be familiar with how to handle spec work, and the possible scams that can come with them.
Getting Scammed – Losing Content and Cash
We all try our best not to get tricked, but it inevitably happens to some of us. A lot of writers are ashamed of being scammed and often don’t talk about it. When you’re new to freelancing or working with companies, sometimes you don’t know the ropes, and that leads to the wrong people taking interest in you. There are "clients" who will send you documents or PDF’s as files, and when you open them, it’ll launch a keylogger or other viruses such as ransomware. These viruses can affect you in different ways, such as holding your machine for ransom or by logging everything you type to target passwords. These scams can effectively decimate your business in a blink of an eye. You can also be scammed from clients who just want your work, having you write thousands of words a week to just simply not pay you at all. This is why vetting and working as a business is important.
Proper precautions involve setting contracts, never opening files before vetting companies and people, and proposing your own contracts over someone else’s. When it comes to protecting your intellectual rights, there are multiple ways to ensure that your pieces aren’t being used without your permission. You publish them and, if a client doesn’t pay or steals your work for themselves outright, you can publish it yourself to validate your copyright, or at least undermine their SEO results, and declare yourself the proper writer, while revealing them as scammers. You can also take legal action against them, as long as you actually work up that precious contract that’s been mentioned.
Always be on your toes - there are scams all over the world that try to take advantage of freelancers specifically, and being ready for them is the difference between making money and losing everything you’ve tried to build.
So Settle for Less or Struggle for More?
Getting paid can often be like sailing in dangerous waters. From viruses, to scam artists, to bad clients and companies, it sometimes seems impossible to find the right people to work with at the right time.
But you can do a lot to create your own paycheck. As an experienced freelancer and writer, I find it’s always best to stick it out for the big jobs, instead of filling my time with all the little jobs. Sometimes it can feel like you’re working for nothing - you may feel like you’re struggling to make ends meet. However, settling for less to get by won’t, in the long run, make you happier or more financially secure, from either a freelancing or company-based perspective. You may have more jobs, but it’s going to take you multiple clients as a freelancer, or a lot of struggle with your company, to be able to make a solid living.
On the other hand, if you decide to struggle for more money you’ll have a tough time finding good clients, or good companies, but when you do they’ll be worthwhile, pay well, and make you happier in the long run. Following well-known methods, such as cold emailing and reaching out via your own contacts you currently have, gives you an advantage in finding great clients. Learning to protect yourself and vet appropriately will safeguard you from scammers and being underpaid. It’s time to stop settling for less, time to stop writing for pennies and peanuts. It’s time for writers of all capabilities to stand strong and show the customers and clients of this world that, if they want quality work, they must deliver quality pay.
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