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12 signs you're underselling yourself as a writer: it's not just about what should you charge for your writing.

::This post originally ran on my old Medium blog on September 4, 2014. It has been reworked and updated.::

Living the dream of being a freelance writer can also be a nightmare, for there are all kinds of dreams.

Here’s you, writing your living.

Drought or deluge. Either barely scraping by or appalled by the amount of quarterly taxes you have to pay. Enjoying the amount of time you have to pursue your own creative projects or struggling to keep up with client deadlines. Wondering what should you charge for your writing.

It’s easy to get close to hating writing, or at the very least, being so worn out at the end of the day you cannot write your own words for your own projects.

What happened? Where did things go wrong?

A lot of things are at work, but one that’s common when you’re young or just getting started: you’re underselling your freelance writing services.

1. What should you charge for your writing? You haven’t raised your prices in a while.

Are you still using those super-competitive 1990′s prices?

A year or two or five goes by quickly. It’s easy to forget that you need to revisit your pricing and consider upping it to meet current industry levels. You need to make a living in the 21st century, not the 20th. Your prices must reflect that.

You may know this but you hate to inform current clients of price increases because you’re afraid to lose them, or you dread their response.

How do you go about raising prices and setting your minimum acceptable rate? You’ll need information.

  1. If your work is locally tailored, what’s the going rate in your area for what you’re doing? If you’re working in a broad geographical area, what’s the industry rate?

  2. How much money do you need to live?

  3. What are your business expenses?

  4. How much work do you currently have? Is more available?

  5. Knowing your clients, how many do you think will go away after a price raise? How many will stay? Do you mind if some of those clients go away?

Once you know the facts (with #4 being an educated guess), uniformly raise your prices to be competitive and contact all of your clients. Be careful about giving one client a deal and not another; word gets around.

Consider this strange thought: sometimes higher prices bring you into a new bracket of clients and can actually open doors for you that your lower prices would not.

Not to be tacky, but it’s OK to fire some clients. You know who they are.

2. You are overloaded and overwhelmed with work.

You’re working more than you ever did and…making less.

You could write a magazine article for $500 or you could write 25 blog posts for $20. While the magazine article will take hard work, it is one project, one client, one deadline, and one (if you want to think of it this way) headache. 25 blog posts mean 25 deadlines, 25 clients, and a lot more management time as well as topics you need to write about.

It’s your choice: take every little low-priced piece of work that comes your way, or draw a line in the sand as a standard that you won’t go below and stick by it.

And that line? It has to be a livable line, i.e. enough money to live off of with a reasonable amount of time left for enjoying life.

3. Your clients don’t even attempt to negotiate.

We’re not saying you should pick prices that are high enough to make your clients stop breathing when you announce them, but if you notice that your prices don’t even make them pause and try to negotiate, maybe you’re aiming too low.

Negotiation isn’t a sign that someone thinks you’re trying to rip them off and that they need to get your pricing back in line. Instead, it’s a sign that they actually want your product, and are willing to do a little work to see if they can’t get it on their terms. Negotiation is sometimes a sign of someone sticking around, not someone leaving.

Don’t set prices low so as to avoid negotiation. Set them higher to be in a better position for it.

4. You’re satisfied with less money and think exposure will pay the bills.

Well sure, money sounds great.

But if you lower the bar so that “we can only pay you $10 dollars for your magazine article but you’ll get exposure” doesn’t raise alarm bells, you aren’t going to be freelancing for long. You’ll be working a regular job and writing on the side.

Small (or no) payment writing is often tagged with the promise of “exposure.” What is the price of that? Can you put exposure in your savings account?

Evaluate just how valuable exposure is, and if the exposure a client promises can actually benefit you.

  1. Freelance writing will cover many topics. Many of the things you’ll write about will be wholly unrelated to each other, and to you as a writer. Exposure in that one genre won’t mean much in another.

  2. The client’s audience probably doesn’t care about you. Is the audience of this client interested in finding a freelance writer, or are they interested in the topic? If it’s the latter, they don’t care who you are and what you do, and never will. They are the client’s fans, not your fans.

  3. Don’t forget you’re the hired pen. The client needs your output, not you personally. Letting their audience know about your output is a nice ego boost, but it won’t bring much back to you. That sounds harsh, but when you are earning your living, you don’t have time for ego boosts.

Rethink how you think about money. Understand the difference between a pittance and a paycheck.

5. You have yet to equate time with money.

Time = money. You have limited time. You determine what that time is worth.

If you don’t understand this, you’ll never appreciate how those low-priced freelance projects are actually a loss and not real income.

You’ll only make a success out of taking low-paying jobs if you never sleep and have discovered a 30-hour day. For the rest of us, we must look at projects not only in terms of the money but the time it is going to take us to earn that money and if it is worth it.

  1. How much time do you need for your family?

  2. How much time do you need for yourself to recharge?

  3. How much time do you have available if you’re working a part-time job?

It’s all an equation, and you’d better do the calculations because your time is definitely limited. It’d be a shame to trade an hour for $20 when someone else would have given you $60.

If you don’t understand that time equals money, you’ll get to know sleep-deprived exhaustion well, and mistake it for “earning a living.”

6. You don’t think you’re an expert.

The only person who really thinks he’s an expert is a narcissist. Everyone else is hoping no one finds out how unsure they are.

Have you ever thought anything like this: “I’m not good enough to write about that. I don’t know enough. That other writer probably knows more than I do. No one would care what I had to say.”

You think you’re a fraud, an imposter.

In some ways, expertise is a form of confidence, not knowledge. It is always just beyond our reach, and that means we operate one step out of our comfort zone and have to gather the courage and confidence to project a landing on the other side. That’s how you move forward. The “expert” who never moves forward into an area of weakness soon finds his expertise outdated.

Maybe you can’t write detailed magazine articles about brain surgery, but you can grab at those topics you’d never considered that don’t require specialist knowledge. That gap between what you comfortably know, and what you are supposed to produce, is often closed by research, practice, and a proven system involving drafts and editing.

Take the small leaps and become an expert when you stick the landing. That’s how you keep growing as a writer.

7. You prefer to be safe above anything else.

There’s nothing wrong with being safe. Preferring safety above all else, though, means you’ll grab any low-paying job that floats by.

It’s money. You need money. Not having money is scary. It’s safe to take on anything that brings in money. You’d never consider turning down a chance to earn money, you’d never gamble that something bigger and better is out there, because that is most certainly unsafe.

I can’t make promises and say that if you refuse the jobs that are priced too low, refuse the almost-free jobs that promise some form of exposure, that the Big One will land in your lap.

It might not.

That’s why it’s called a gamble: you sometimes take a chance and turn down those safe choices and set yourself up for the larger opportunities.

You’ll never land the Big One if you don’t plan for it, and that planning won’t happen when you’re juggling endless low-paying client jobs.

8. You’re terrified of confrontation.

You’d rather do anything–ANYTHING–than deal with confrontation. But do you know what negotiation is? Confrontation. And you know what asking for a livable rate is? Confrontation. You’re confronting the client’s sincere desire to save money with your sincere desire to make a living.

The best thing to do to get over being afraid of confrontation is to confront. You don’t have to be aggressive, but letting your freelancing work be ruled by a fear of confrontation turns you into a doormat. Oh, how tempting it is for a client to use that fear of confrontation to get you to “write a few extra draft ideas” or “give us some options” or “throw in a few hundred more words” at the last minute before you get paid.

Not all confrontation is anger, but it should be about fairness towards you and the client. And yes, some confrontation might lead to the end of a client account. Accept it and move on.

9. The word “no” has yet to enter your vocabulary.

Saying the word “no” is the only way you’ll keep your sanity, your health, and your abilities. Saying yes to everyone and every project is definitely going to lead to writer burnout and resentment.

No, you don’t have to take every project. No, being desperate is not always a good reason. No, you don’t have time for that project though that doesn’t mean the project isn’t worthwhile for someone else.

And yes, it’s OK to ask to get paid some or all upfront.

10. Your only goal is paying rent.

What kind of goal do you have with your writing? Is it merely to cover this month’s bills, or to pay off debt that controls your life? Hopefully, you have something larger in mind for your life’s work.

While you may not want to write down a comprehensive business plan, it certainly helps you to write down what you want to see happen with your writing, and then give it a timeline.

For example, if you have considerable debt or financial obligations that are driving you to take any and all jobs out of desperation, it might not hurt to get a side job for a while. Put debt reduction on the timeline and plan it out so you have an end goal to look forward to as you move on to the next step.

Your writing should have a bigger goal than keeping you out of the hangman’s noose. Hopefully, you want to achieve something more from your writing, such as being a published author with a book or having a blog with X amount of daily traffic that you can live off of. Until you are out of the grip of financial terror, you won’t even consider such goals and you won’t take any steps to choose clients that can help you reach those goals. You’ll take whatever you can get before the next bill is due.

Your writing deserves to be more than insurance from the debtor’s prison.

11. You are embarrassed to talk about yourself.

Humility is in short supply these days, unfortunately, but when it comes to finding work and promoting yourself to a potential client, you need to be able talk about yourself realistically.

For some people, talking about themselves, and talking themselves up is natural. But for some artists and writers (myself included), talking about your abilities in even mildly positive terms is very challenging because it feels like bragging.

When asked, you don’t have to say “I am the greatest writer ever!” but you should be able to say “I have the experience and I can write this for you.”

If you find yourself quickly getting used to self-promotion, a word of caution: Don’t over-promise and find yourself in a mess later because you actually don’t have the chops to deliver what you promised. The startup ideal of “fake it ‘til you make it” sometimes work, but sometimes crashes and burns in a huge way.

Be honest about what your abilities are. This includes things like:

  • How quickly you can work.

  • How many projects you can manage at once.

  • What topics you are able to write on.

  • Whether you can work with other writers or designers on a project.

  • Technological capabilities.

Do you know how you’d answer if asked any of these? If not, this is a good time to take stock of what you can do and be ready to answer confidently.

Be confident, not cocky, about yourself. There’s no shame in that.

12. You think pricing is the only reason clients come back.

A low price might be the only reason clients come back if their sole goal is saving a buck. (Do you really want those clients?) You forget that amazing service, fantastic writing, hitting deadlines, and an overall slice of awesome will trump cheap every time for clients worth your time.1

When you know you have the skills and the ability to deliver a great product, you can confidently ask for higher rates. And, when you deliver, your clients will have no problem the next time they come back for additional writing services.

Clients who come back, because you have cheap prices, are clients who are going to make your life miserable. They aren’t there because of what you can do, they’re there because of what they plan to do. They’re bean counters and are going to wring every last free drop out of you that they can.

There is a strange inverse connection between the amount a client pays and the noise level they make. Clients that are at the level where they understand legitimate pricing also are professional enough to not bother or micromanage you. They trust your skills, as a professional.

Cheap is cheap.

So the question I ask myself often is the one I’ll ask you: why are you underselling your writing?

Fear? Old habits? Didn’t realize a decade went by and that you should probably give yourself a raise?

If you can identify with three or more of these twelve signs, you need to consider doing a major overhaul of your entire freelance pricing structure, ideology, and approach.

Your writing and your time have value. Don’t undersell yourself.


1 I cannot stress enough how simply meeting deadlines without drama will make you stand out from other writers. I’ve come to discover, both as a copywriter for a startup who worked with guest bloggers, and as a freelance writer with clients who used other writers as well, that meeting deadlines is apparently very rare.


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