The Unwritten Rules of Freelance Writing

Take your role seriously, or your clients won’t.

I started freelance writing because I didn’t have enough writing experience to get a full-time writing job. I was the stereotypical post-grad millennial who, after six months of not being able to find a job, chose freelancing as a last resort. It ended up teaching me more lessons about work and professionalism than I expected — and eventually led to my first (real) job as a staff writer.

Freelance writing has rules, whether you know them or not. Here are the ones you should know before you launch your career.

Don’t expect to get rich quick

It’s not possible to start out freelancing one month and the next have enough income to pay your bills. If there are exceptions out there, I’ve never heard of them. Freelancing is hard to break into. It took me about six months to go “full time” (meaning I was working the equivalent of 40 hours a week most weeks), and even then, I wasn’t making enough to be able to afford, well, anything. But I knew that going in. I had a plan. Still, even freelancing on top of a full-time writing job barely pays those student loans, but it’s been about 18 months since I first started freelancing — it takes awhile to build up a decent client base and have the experience to be able to charge more per hour. You have to accept going in that you’re going to be making pennies per word at first (not for long, but to start). There’s no other way that I know of to get started.

Never settle for less than you’re worth

You can’t feel guilty for demanding more money unless you don’t deserve it. I worked with a client for a year before I, very politely, started discussing the possibility of working for a better rate. I simply couldn’t afford to do the amount of work they were asking for at that rate anymore. Even though he never agreed to my proposed rate, and we stopped working together, having the confidence to bring it up was extremely important. You can’t undersell yourself, and you can’t agree to work if it’s below what you know you need to charge. It’s not fun letting what seem like amazing opportunities slip away, but you need to make a living — you can’t say yes to everything.

You’re under no obligation to put up with jerkfaces

We’ve all been in situations where we had to keep quiet and put up with terrible people because we couldn’t afford not to. This isn’t the case with freelance writing, even if you’re convinced otherwise. You might think that you need this job or are depending on a relationship with this client, but trust me, there’s always something better (and someone nicer) out there. Personally, I’d rather work for a lower rate with someone I enjoy connecting with than scoring a high rate with a total jerk. Yes, making money, building relationships — it’s all important. But if someone is treating you unfairly, or they’re just a garbage person, walk away. You deserve better.

They don’t mean it when they say “eventually I’ll be able to pay you more”

Don’t fall for the “as our business grows, so will your paycheck” speech. While many clients mean well, and might actually intend to increase your rates as time goes on, this more often than not won’t happen. I’ve actually had clients tell me this (and I believed them) only to eventually have to pause my contract because they couldn’t afford to pay me even the initial rate. I’ve also had plenty of clients end contracts because I asked for higher rates and they very quickly found someone who could work for a lower rate.

The client-freelancer relationship isn’t always friendly

However, that doesn’t mean all your clients will be cold, mean and abusive (if they are, get out). I have some as-needed contracts in which I only communicate with clients as they’re assigning new work to me. I don’t know much about them beyond the publication they work for. They demand, I deliver, they pay me, and that’s that. I also have clients who actively engage in conversation with me as we’re working together on projects. Some clients are warm and inviting; many aren’t. You never know what you’re going to get, so it’s usually best to focus on delivering the best work possible to keep them happy, and nothing more.

You are the expert — act like it

Clients are hiring you to write. Sometimes, that means you have to follow a very strict set of guidelines to give them what they need. However, your client is hiring you as a writer — you know what you’re doing. There are times when asserting your expertise is appropriate, and beneficial. Be mindful of that. Sometimes, it’s OK to give suggestions and feedback without being asked. Some clients won’t appreciate it, but you never know — some will. Through the work that you do, prove that you’re knowledgeable and competent enough to do what you’re doing. I’ve found that if you don’t do this, people are much more likely to push you around, dump more work on your plate without increasing your pay, and treat you with a gross lack of respect. Some people might not agree with me here, but freelance writers are part of the publishing process. Take your role seriously, or your clients won’t.

Sometimes, freelancing is fun. Sometimes, it feels a LOT like work. Take it seriously, but be an enjoyable person to work with, as much as you can. Understand that not all clients are nice, but there are gems. Most importantly, never forget that you’re doing this because you want to be a writer. No matter how tough things get, you chose this. Make the most of every moment.

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.

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23 thoughts on “The Unwritten Rules of Freelance Writing

  1. Not demanding the money you’re worth could also seem to the client that your work could possibly be less than satisfactory. It’s just an impression they could get. Although, when first starting out, yes, keep rates reasonable to low.

    Also working for people on the brasher side, I’d imagine, can be a temptation to finish work for a nicer person first over them. If someone is pushing you around, they’re pro ably not the kind you’re trying to cultivate a relationship or partnership with.

    1. Exactly. I mean, you’re going to work for people who aren’t the easiest to work with no matter what kind of job you have, it’s going to happen. But as much as freelancing is a business, your mental health, your stress levels, that all impacts the quality of work you’re able to deliver. You have to consider what’s best for you sometimes. I say, if it’s possible to get out of an unfavorable partnership with a client, you’re going to be much better off in the long-term even if you lose out on a few paychecks.

  2. Great post! Wonderful advice for freelancers of all experience levels. I certainly appreciate your honesty. Too many people flaunt ways of making thousands a month freelancing — it just ain’t gonna happen when you’re first starting out. And I’m glad you talked about how to handle client relations. Wish I would have known how to be firm with clients when I first started.

    1. Absolutely. When I first started freelancing, I set my hourly rate to minimum wage. Mentioning that to my mom, she immediately looked at me and said, “You’re worth more than that.” I did not believe her. I should have! But I also knew not to set my rates/expectations too high. Finding that middle ground, having the courage to speak up, that’s tough stuff. I actually just published a post on this today, if you want to check it out. :) Making good money freelancing IS possible – it just takes months to years.

      1. At least you set yours to minimum wage! Mine was even lower. That’s why I’m creating a free guide, Freelance Writing 101, for newbie writers who want to get into the industry but aren’t sure where to start. It’s specifically for English majors — I never learned about freelancing in either of my writing degrees. Totally agree, I now make a living off freelancing but I’ve been in the industry for a year so far. Had to take on jobs I didn’t want for too little pay to work my way up. You just have to stay dedicated. I’ll definitely check out that new post!

      2. Ugh, I didn’t get any help with freelancing in my English coursework. Even in our senior career seminar, freelancing was never talked about. Your guide is going to help a lot of poor, lost English majors! haha.

  3. My first project was content writing. The employer sent me an email claiming that I have to pay 32$ USD in order to get started with them and the payment was 5$ per page. And I was kind of confused. He said that the payment is to ensure that i’m going to take the job seriously. Seriously!!

      1. I have never heard of something like that happening! I hope your experience was a rare one! But seriously, that’s a freelancing horror story for keeps. Kudos for standing your ground lol.

  4. Hi Meg,

    Excellent story and advice on freelance writing. I’m currently in the early stages of beginning my journey into freelancing as well. I’m using UpWork to find gigs and projects to keep me busy and some cash flowing. So far so good. We are in very similar shoes =).

    Did you learn different styles/formats of writing in college? I’m at a crossroad now where I’m seeking to learn how to expand my portfolio with articles, newsletters, infographics, and other types of content. Any advice on expanding my skills?

    My plan is to start a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly newsletters (not 100% yet, obviously), and come up with ways to learn these styles of writing on my own and use my blog as a testing platform… thoughts?


    1. This is a really great question! There’s actually a post going up in a few days about this exact thing. But in short, I did a lot of different kinds of writing even before freelancing. I’ve written essays, fiction, news, magazine articles, college was just the right place for me to explore. I think the best way to expand your skill set is to just try a whole bunch of different things. A blog can be whatever you want — even a place where you put all your experimental projects. Then you can create a separate portfolio later where you put your best work of a specific type to show prospective clients/employers. :) I’ll try to remember to send you the link to the new post when it goes live.

  5. Great article! It perfectly describes the life of a freelancer and what they have to face every day. I took up freelance writing some time ago and still struggle with finding clients who will send me assignments on regular basis. Any advice on how to convince clients through emails and phone calls that they “must hire me”? Thanks in advance and all the best.


    1. Hello! Welcome! :) This is a really great question – thanks for bringing this up. (Good questions like this often end up becoming blog posts – so we both win, hehe.)

      I have a few questions that might help steer you in the right direction (until I can put together a full post.)

      – What is your niche? Who are you trying to write for/What are you writing about?
      – What is your expertise? What makes you hirable? What makes you stand out from everyone else competing for the same jobs you’re trying to get consistent work for?
      – What is the agreement between you and the clients you have worked for/ are working for currently? The contract should say you are hired to complete (x) amount of assignments per week/month – at least I hope so! Otherwise, there’s no guarantee you can work consistently, and they aren’t obligated to provide work on a consistent basis.
      – Where are you searching for new clients? How much communication do you have with them before they hire you? If you only want to accept guaranteed work, you should voice that necessity early on in the hiring process.

      If a client cannot guarantee me consistent work, and I don’t already have a steady flow of clients, I move on to someone who can.

      1. Thanks for your answer, Meg! I have put some thought on all these but maybe it’s high time that I wrote down everything on a sheet of paper and set up my goals in a straightforward way. In any way, it will be great if you can write a post on how to write the top-notch email that will get you the job/assignment :) All the best!

    2. And if you’re asking about, for example, how to write a kick-butt email that sells your writing skills in three paragraphs or less – I might be able to help you out with that, too. :)

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