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.

All Writers Mess Up, Big Time (How to Earn a Career in Writing, Part 5)



That’s what they told me – that the spec article I’d worked so hard on left them “disappointed.”

I won’t get into how I feel about that choice of phrasing right now (people say things, it’s not personal, blah blah blah). Anyway.

This was a prospective project that was meant to challenge me, yet when I failed to deliver exactly what the client wanted (not always an easy thing to do in the health space), their response stirred something dark and unsettling inside me.

I write to impress. As you can hopefully guess, I don’t always impress. Who does? I’m just a human. I make human-like errors.

We all fail – yes, even me. It really sways your confidence, though, when you almost grab onto that bar you’ve set so high – your fingertips touch it, you almost have it – but you still end up facedown on the ground, red-faced and wanting nothing more than to crawl into a bottomless hole and never emerge.

I was bored. Freelancing hit a mundane patch for me, so I decided to stretch myself a little – thinking, of course, that I could do just fine.

That particular piece of feedback really messed me up. Not for long – not to the point where I considered quitting and settling for a different career path – but doubt is not friendly. It twists things around and makes you feel like you’re doing everything wrong, even when you’re not.

It scared me. Really. I remember thinking, “Are people just lying to me? Am I a terrible writer, and people are just being nice because they don’t want to hurt my feelings?”

I mean, for all I know, that could be true. Ignorance is bliss. I just don’t like doubt being the one thing that forces me to think about potential realities too hard.

Fear and doubt and self-consciousness brought on by negative commentary – these are the most dangerous obstacles for writers. They’re manipulative and suffocating. Bad, bad, bad.

But leave it to film editor Farah Khalid to say exactly what we all need to hear in situations like this:

“Fear can be an indicator of when you need to push yourself harder. When were you last afraid/uncomfortable? Not recently? Well then, are you really growing as an artist?” (Hustle Economy, p. 49)

Oh. OH. So I was on the right track, then? I did a good thing, even though I almost burst into tears because I started having flashbacks about that one time I disappointed my mom in like, middle school?

(Understand, this is the way the brain of an Anxious person works. I know a client’s feedback has actually nothing to do with me personally. I can’t think rationally when I’m Anxious.)

I was nervous about that spec assignment for days. I put it off for over 48 hours, something I never do when I’m writing to impress. It wasn’t that I was in over my head – it was just stretching me beyond what I was used to.

You see, you get too comfortable when you spend too much time at the same level of writing. I write for a few blogs, which, honestly, means they’re not always too picky about how many scientific studies you mention in your posts. I got a little lazy. I got a little cocky, maybe. And when I thought, “I need a challenge,” I sprinted headfirst into a brick wall of shame and disappointment. Awesome.

You can’t grow unless you work harder than you did yesterday. But you also can’t grow unless you fail – and unless you’re willing to look your mistakes in the eye, learn from them and move on.

I probably could have pushed myself a little harder to impress that client. I could have spent more time on that article. I could have asked more questions, could have put what would have felt like excessive effort into a trial assignment (I’d already spent more than two hours on it – more than usual for cases like this). There are plenty of things I could have done differently. The reason we fail is because we remember how much failing hurts – and we, hopefully, don’t continue to make the same mistakes when something like this comes around again.

I messed up. My biggest fear is messing up. So I’m really glad it happened. I’m not saying you should go out there and purposely make mistakes just to learn how to be a better writer – it’s never purposeful. Just don’t get discouraged when things like this happen (because they will).

We think we’re working as hard as we can, right up until it’s suddenly not quite good enough anymore – oops! Failure is a chance to return to your last checkpoint and evaluate whether or not you did everything you could have before you missed the bar. You’ll try again. Maybe you’ll fail a few more times. But you’ll work harder and harder each time, until you succeed. It’s how you earn the title of ‘writer.’ It’s not always fun. But it teaches you a lot about yourself along the way.

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.

5 Rules for a Successful First Year of Freelance Writing

How to succeed in freelancing when you have no idea what you’re doing.

freelance writing

When I started freelancing at the beginning of 2016, I honestly didn’t think it would go anywhere. I decided to try it because my job search was going nowhere, and getting an advanced degree out of state is expensive. I managed to turn what could be considered an act of desperation into a full-time career in less than a year. I’ve learned a lot – and if 2017 is your year to attempt a career in independent writing for the first time, you’re going to need all the advice you can get.

It’s rough. It’s overwhelming, at times. But it is worth it.

Here are my top five rules for succeeding as a first-year freelance writer.

1. Take on more work than you think you can handle

Before I started freelancing, I imagined it would be a lot like how I first thought grad school would be. I figured I could walk on through, do some writing, make some connections, create my own schedule and do work that didn’t stress me out that much. The same way I started my MS program and figured out it was structured, strict and isolating, I started freelancing and realized it was going to be a different kind of challenge than I was used to. So I took on as much work as I could in my first month actively using Upwork, and it was the best decision I could have made for my career.

This might seem illogical – aren’t you supposed to start out slow and ease in? It depends on your situation, but I’m a firm believer in the Diving In Headfirst method. You don’t know how much you can and can’t handle yet. If you’re going to survive in this role, you’re going to have to learn to stretch beyond your perceived limits. Sometimes the consequences will work out in your favor. Sometimes you’ll end up crying at your desk because it feels like too much. You won’t know either way until you test the waters – by jumping in, and swimming over to the shallow end if you’ve gone in too deep.

2. Stick to your niche when possible

When you are first starting out in this business (because, yes, it really is a business – writing is not always fun; making a living is hard), you’re going to be tempted to jump at any and every job offer potential clients throw at you. In some cases, this is a good thing. In others, it isn’t. You should always start freelancing with at least some idea of what you want to write about. Otherwise, it can be overwhelming – and harder to find the right work for you.

At first, you might have to take on some jobs that aren’t directly in your niche of expertise. But once you break into your rightful ‘line of work,’ try to stay there. The only question I’ll ever get about writing men’s fashion articles is, “Why did you do this?” I did it because I really didn’t think I had the option not to. Someone offered to pay me money to write, for the second time in one week, and I said yes. I will probably never write about fashion again, and that’s fine. I had an experience. I’ve moved on.

3. Work with as many long-term clients as you can

It’s a misconception that freelance work is all strictly project-based, especially when it comes to writing. That was what I expected going in. Writing is a little different than some other types of freelancing. If a website hires you as a content creator, for example, they’re probably looking for someone who is going to stick with them. All brands have a very specific editorial process, and it takes awhile even for more experienced writers/editors to adapt to a predetermined workflow.

Working long-term with clients isn’t essential, but it’s a pretty good idea. If you’re using Upwork, you get perks for this – the more money you make with one account, the less they take out as your service fee (e.g., 10 percent instead of 20). But in the grand scheme of things, it’s the benefits of the relationship itself that matter the most. Any advice you read about building up a ‘creative’ career will tell you how important networking is. My philosophy is, you never know. You never know where one connection with a seemingly random blogger, content manager, business owner or editor can lead. You never know what business growth on their end could mean for you. Stick with them. If it starts out smoothly, it’s likely only going to get better from there.

4. Never let someone underpay you

So, about all those men’s fashion articles I wrote … the biggest mistake I ever made as a new freelance writer, I made with the second client I had ever worked with. I was eager to get more experience, and really wasn’t thinking when I agreed to do a preset amount of work for very little money. It was a disaster, and not just because I was underpaid – but I should have demanded more money for the rewrites I was forced to do. And I was too ‘polite’ to make that kind of request.

You have the right to demand higher rates – under the right circumstances (the kind of work, how long you’ve been doing the work, how many hours you have logged, and so on). At six months in, I raised my rates. Very few people thereafter had a problem with that. Those who did, either never responded to my proposals or decided they couldn’t afford me. No hard feelings. You’re doing a job, a job you’re hopefully going to get pretty good at in the first 12 months.

There are three types of clients: those who will pay you a rate that matches your skill level, those who want to pay you a decent rate but can’t (and they are always kindly honest about it) and those who think they can convince you to do work for them for less than they need to pay you (and sometimes they will succeed). I love the ‘middles’ because, if I really want to do work for them, I’m always willing to work for a bit less. You never know what can happen in the long-term if you agree to work with someone early on, who might not be able to pay you well now, but will later. Strong, professional relationships are everything.

5. Learn to adapt to different work/leadership styles – fast

I’ve had clients who give me my assignments once a week, even once a month, and pretty much let me go off and do my thing (bless you). I’ve had clients who messaged me 20 times at 5 a.m. for some reason. And I’ve had clients who graciously fell in the in-between of those two extremes. It’s possible to work with any client who is a clear, efficient communicator – unless you can’t, in which case, it is okay to let them know the work you are doing for them is not for you.

Everyone is different. You’d think, working from the comfort and safety of your own home or office, people couldn’t try looking over your shoulder every minute of every day. Sorry – it still happens. Sometimes clients also disappear as if they never existed, which can be equally frustrating. Prepare to be frustrated. Adapting is possible, and often necessary. If you’re doing work you actually enjoy, it becomes more tolerable. If you can’t adapt – because sometimes, expectations are beyond what you, a person with a life and emotions and dignity, are capable of – get out. It’s okay to say “I can’t.”

I could go on and on – I narrowed it down to the five things I don’t see other people talking about much when giving this kind of advice. If you have more tips to share – or questions about things I have not covered in this post – feel free to leave a comment below. Your voice is important to me. (:

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.

3 Things to Know Before Looking for Freelance Writing Jobs

A few things to know before you start searching.

freelance writing

A career as a freelance writer begins with a proposal. Most likely, you’ll be the one to make contact with a potential client. Before you get to that point, though – before you even start searching for jobs – there are some things you need to be aware of. I’m not talking general, “It takes a lot of time and you’re not always going to have fun” kind of warnings here. I’m talking about writing samples, money and statements of purpose.

Here are a few things you should know before you start your search.

Don’t have writing samples? Don’t bother (yet)

Every single prospective client I have ever sent a proposal to has asked for writing samples, even on Upwork. Social media profiles are great for showcasing you’re active online and are (hopefully) good at communicating with others. But no one – especially someone looking for a writer to help them produce content, often because they’re trying to grow their business and can no longer do it themselves – is going to dig through your online profiles to find your work.

Occasionally, potential clients will ask for two or three samples sent as Word documents. I’m not sure why people still think this is a convenient way to showcase documents online, but you just have to do what they tell you; it’s not that big of a deal. Most of the time, in my proposal (what I like to call a cover letter someone will actually read), I include a link to my online portfolio. It’s literally just a free WordPress site with my name at the top and links to every viewable online article I’ve published under my name. Someone looking at it can click on any of the links and get immediate access to my work at their own convenience. It’s more convenient for everyone. Of course, if you’re going to do something like that, you need writing samples first. That’s where a lot of people, unfortunately, struggle. Usually, simply linking to your blog isn’t specific enough.

How do you get more, or better online samples to put into a portfolio of some kind? Great question: more on that later. Honestly, building up a solid foundation of samples is what takes the longest. The reason I wasn’t able to jump right from a full-time job into freelancing was because I just didn’t have a good enough variety of samples to show off. It took me six months to build my portfolio. I’m looking forward to sharing my insights and suggestions on this topic very soon.

Never agree to work with clients who can’t pay what you’re worth

A month into freelancing, I agreed to write 40 articles for less than $100 total. I hadn’t really earned that much money writing professionally yet, so I was just eager to work with a new client and fill my Upwork profile with more work experience. I had done my research – I knew it was not a rate I should have agreed to even that early on in my career. I figured I could write the articles within a few weeks and move on to something else.

It quickly turned into hours upon hours – several months – of research, submissions and rewrites. Basically, I did a ton of extra work for free. The second that 40th article was approved, I peacefully and respectfully ended the contract. I now reject every job offer that will not pay me a reasonable amount for my time. It’s nothing personal – I spoke back-and-forth with a potential client several times about a project he needed done. He couldn’t afford my rate, and we went our separate ways. Business is business.

There are some jobs out there suited for more inexperienced writers who need to charge lower rates. And there are some clients who, for some reason, just refuse to pay writers an acceptable amount for their work. Those jobs and clients aren’t worth your time. Trust me. In the beginning, you’ll want to jump at any opportunity that comes your way. Be careful, and don’t be afraid to bid for a higher rate (I started out at $0.03/word because I had very little freelancing experience). Especially if you are trying to make a large percentage of your monthly income from writing.

Know your “why”

My freelancing experience might be a little different than yours. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know of at least a few people who started freelance writing as college students to make extra money and get experience. I was too busy in undergrad to do this, plus I was interning for an online magazine, which at the time seemed like a much more valuable opportunity (there are pros and cons to both routes). I didn’t even start freelancing right out of college. I was a year past finishing both of my degrees, and halfway through graduate school, when I signed with my first client.

Many people start out freelancing because they want to make money writing; not everyone knows their preferred niche. Because I had experience with health writing and was halfway through an MS in health communication, I already knew I wanted to write only in the health space. I didn’t find clients that fit my mission right away, because I honestly didn’t really know how to look or find the right clients. All but one of my clients have me write and edit for health-focused websites. I no longer search aimlessly for new jobs: I know exactly what I’m looking for. It took me awhile to get there, but it was worth struggling a little bit before I settled in.

The more confident you are in your preferred genre or niche, the better of an experience you’re going to have, especially in the beginning. Saying you’re a professional writer really doesn’t say much about what you can offer clients. It might take you awhile to figure out what you want to write about, and it’s OK to work with different clients in different niches to help narrow down your focus. When you have a purpose for doing what you do, though, it seems a lot less like work. Sometimes I don’t want to write about dieting. But if an article about dieting is going to help someone change their life, I’m happy to be an indirect motivator.

I don’t need to drag out the obvious – that freelance writing is hard, and going full-time takes months if not years, and it’s certainly not for everyone. If you’re thinking about freelancing, don’t just do it for the money, because, especially at first, it’s not very good money. Build up your collection of writing samples in any way you can. Be smart about the rates you agree to. And have a good reason for doing what you’re doing. At first I did it because I couldn’t get another job, but I’ve found that the experience, and pretty much making a living doing something I’m good at, is definitely worth the 10-hour days.

If you have any other questions about freelance writing, leave them down in the comments. I’ll either link you to a previous post that has the info you’re looking for or chat with you personally (in comments).

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-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.