Looking Back on My Year Working as an Underpaid, Undervalued Freelance Writer

At some point, you have to stand up and say, “no more.”

I began my professional writing career “officially” in January of 2016. I had worked as a writer and later an editor for an online magazine for three full years before that, but as an unpaid intern for the majority of that time.

The first time I got paid to write an article, I was a sleep-deprived graduate student drowning in debt with big dreams and not quite enough experience to be considered an ideal candidate for a full-time position as a writer.

At the time, getting a job as a writer was a miracle.

Unfortunately, it’s as trying of an experience as everyone says.

I survived 13 months of working solely as a freelance writer — seven of those months full-time — before I realized how unhappy it made me.

The best way I can explain that statement is with a quote.

As “recovering entrepreneur” Alex Pearlman put it in her essay included in The Hustle Economy:

“The slightest good news can shoot me into a soaring seizure of maniacal self-congratulatory glee… but the slightest bad luck or dropped ball, and I am driven into a state of suicidal melancholy.”

Okay, so, it’s not quite that extreme, at least in my case. But it’s not all that far off for many.

Before I launch into the various sources of my former job dissatisfaction, I want to make something extremely clear.

I adore the clients I am currently working with. They are still my clients because we have managed to form respectful, professional, and worthwhile partnerships. I am grateful to be able to help them grow their businesses and make the writing on their websites look and sound nice.

But I am no longer a full-time freelance writer. Instead, I’m a full-time staff writer for an online company and work with several clients after hours, because I don’t want to abandon them. (Also, student loans.)

I would love to say that I was content with my work as a full-time freelancer — that a new job opportunity just appeared out of nowhere and forced me to make some tough career decisions.

But I would be lying if I told you that. Because it was not a tough decision to all but leave freelancing behind completely. A new job did not just appear out of the blue. After a year doing the best I could to make a living as a freelancer, I realized I couldn’t continue on the way things were. And it’s mostly because I felt it was time to work as a writer in a less toxic environment.

I also want to be clear about one more thing: I am a freelancer working through the Upwork platform. The majority of my experiences related to freelance writing (though not all) are loosely based on using this service to find clients and receive compensation for my work. However, Upwork is not to blame for their clientele. I think Upwork is an amazing place for beginners to get writing experience when they don’t yet have any (this is my own personal opinion). But I am neither here to recommend nor criticize this specific service for any reason. I just want you to be aware that what I’m about to discuss is not directly Upwork’s fault. (If it were, I would have stopped using their service.)

Here’s what I believe every writer needs to experience when it comes to earning cash for their creativity.

At the start, you’re not going to make any money. Nothing you can do about that. Then you’re going to make very little money. Also not much you can do about this. At some point, you’re going to have to demand a decent compensation rate — because by that point, you’re going to be worth far more than people are going to try to get away with offering you.

And here is what I experienced:

For the first six months, I asked for less than I deserved — not because I didn’t deserve it, but because the way platforms like Upwork operate, you really can’t ask for too much money in the beginning or you’re not going to get any work. That’s just how things go, and I didn’t really have a problem with it.

Once I went full-time (about six or so months in), I started charging more for my services.

Some clients were more than willing to pay a reasonable rate. (I am still working with many of those clients many months later.) A select few were wonderful to work with, but business-wise, could not afford to pay me a higher rate. Because I truly believed the experience was worth it for both sides, I agreed to work for a lower rate than I normally would have. (I am still working with both of those clients today.)

And, as to be expected, many clients opted to switch to freelancers who were OK with charging them less for their work. And once I raised my rates, I saw a sharp decline in the amount of clients who were interested in working with me compared to when my rate was half of what is currently listed on my Upwork profile.

I can accept all that. In a community where many overseas freelancers have a lower cost of living compared to mine in the US (and therefore tend to charge much less for their writing services), my higher hourly and project rates aren’t always appealing — and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that.

But there are many aspects of freelance writing I realized I could no longer tolerate. And those reasons are why I decided freelancing full-time wasn’t for me. Maybe none of these things would bother you — and if that’s the case, freelancing might be the best route for you to take to advance your career. But they bothered me — enough to share them with you now.

  1. Non-writers telling me how to write articles. It’s one thing to ask a freelancer to follow a specific style guide when writing — that’s a given for any job, or it should be. It’s another thing completely to assume that someone doesn’t know how to write because they’re a freelance writer and not in your much more important position. I’ve come to assume that most people don’t look at my credentials or how big my writing portfolio is. (And I’m not saying that because I think I’m awesome — I’ve been writing online for four years; I have a lot of samples.) Look, I’m not judging these people for not writing their own content. I really don’t care if they’re even good writers or not. But if they’re going to ask me to do it … trust me to do it right. I promise, I know what I’m doing.
  2. Clients not understanding how much work goes into writing. I once wrote on spec for a prospective client who gave me two hours to write about 1,000 words. That might seem completely doable, until I point out that this was health science-based content. There’s a lot of research and fact-checking involved in even just a first draft. I did the best I could with the two hours I’d been given, but this person literally told me they were “disappointed” in my work. I had to fight the urge to “educate” them on how long it can take to write a near-perfect piece of writing (which is what they apparently expected in just two hours). (For the record, they did still pay me for my “disappointing” work — NEVER write on spec for more than a few hundred words if there’s no money offered to do so.)
  3. People just being horrible and rude. The ongoing problem I’ve had with freelancing is this: because you’re writing on contract, your client really (generally) doesn’t care about you. They’re under no obligation to treat you with any respect whatsoever. They want something written for them, and that’s all they care about. TRUST ME, I KNOW THIS IS THE REAL WORLD AND MOST PEOPLE DON’T CARE ABOUT ME. That’s not the issue (goodness gracious, if I expected every stranger I encountered to be nice to me, I’d legitimately be depressed — I’m not). The issue is that many people take this to mean that you and your work are one in the same. If someone isn’t completely satisfied with your product, whatever the reason, they tend to take it out on you. It’s your fault, sometimes, that pageviews are down (or whatever). And don’t even get me started on the micro-managers — people who hire you to do work for them, but might as well be paying you to sit and watch them do all the work themselves anyway. Only once have I had someone refuse to pay me for a one-hour micro-management session, and it was bad enough that I just let the money go and got out of there as fast as I could. After being yelled at for asking for money I hadn’t apparently earned, that is.

I don’t know what it is that makes some people undervalue freelance writers so much. I’m sure many clients expect to have bad experiences with people before even hiring them, and I suppose I don’t completely blame them for that. But I didn’t earn a master’s degree and spend three years writing for free to be pushed around and paid as little as possible. I (mostly) walked away not because I hated it, but honestly, because I grew out of it. It’s tolerable for awhile, but certainly not forever.

All that being said, please do not let this discourage you from trying your hand at freelance writing. I’ve had plenty of unfavorable experiences — but so has everyone else. I’ve also had, and still have, wonderful experiences with clients who are kind, professional, and genuinely excited to work with me. It takes time to weed through all the nobodies to find the clients that are worth working for, but they’re there. Be patient, and be strong: it’s not all misery and tears.

I tell you all this because I want you to know something important: I am so, so happy doing what I’m doing now. I don’t regret going through what I did to get here. If there’s anything that forces you to have more confidence in yourself and accept your full worth as a creator, it’s someone trying to convince you you’re not worth anything. No matter where I end up, I will always continue to advocate for writers who are feeling undervalued in their work — whether financially or emotionally. Just because I survived it doesn’t mean it’s right. Writing and writing well are two completely different things. Anyone can write. Only those with the right skills, experience, and drive to succeed can write well. And good writers deserve rational compensation for the hours they put into what they do.

No matter what, never forget that just because things might seem dreary now doesn’t mean it’s all misery and tears. There really is a light at the end of the tunnel. I found mine. I didn’t expect to, but it happened. Don’t ever let anyone tell you persistence and believing in yourself isn’t enough. It’s not all you need — but it will get you over the hill and closer to where you truly belong.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

4 thoughts on “Looking Back on My Year Working as an Underpaid, Undervalued Freelance Writer

  1. This blog is interesting. I do agree, writing is a skill, and writers must be paid for the work they put into their articles (essays, etc.). I am an undergraduate student now, I would like to write and be paid for my writing but I am unsure how to go about doing so. Can you suggest me companies that hire?, do these places require writing samples?

    1. It’s a 100 percent guarantee that any writing job you apply for will require samples or spec work of some kind. The companies you apply for depends on the kind of writing you’re interested in doing. I think these articles will really help you (sorry they’re not easier to find – I haven’t quite gotten around to improving the search functionality with my blog’s new design…): https://megdowell.com/2016/09/22/3-things-to-know-before-looking-for-freelance-writing-jobs/
      And also my ongoing series about online publishing: https://megdowell.com/category/lets-get-published-2/

  2. Thank you for a great post. You’re right, many clients don’t realize the amount of effort writers need to put into their content. If it were so easy, why don’t they do it themselves?

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