Writers: Stop undervaluing your work.

thLast spring I turned down a writing job that would have paid $450. The piece would have been long but not particularly hard to do, as I’d covered the topic before. In fact, I did a pretty good outline in several back-and-forth e-mails with the editor.

(Note to self: Don’t do that again. Ask what the job pays before you do anything else – and especially before you spend half an hour of your day e-mailing back and forth.)

Some of you are probably thinking, “Is she nuts? She turned down an easy $450?”

But that’s not really what I turned down.

I turned down a guy who wanted me to produce the article right away, and for less than one-fourth my current rate. There would have been additional time spent dealing with edits and probably a fact-checker, too. At that time I was still writing for MSN Money and also working on a couple of women’s magazine pieces.

The old me would have jumped at the chance, and stayed up late to finish it, and chatted cheerfully with the checker. I would have waited the usual “payment 30 days after publication” time frame, which often means “at the end of the month that the article comes out they will start to process your payment.”

(Since this was a quarterly magazine, the payment would likely have been processed at the end of the quarter.)

I’m not willing to do that any longer, because I’m in a different place in my writing career. All you other writers out there shouldn’t be selling yourselves short either. Even if you’re just beginning you should be mighty, mighty careful about writing for little or, worse, for nothing.

Why buy a cow….

Back in 2011 Google’s “Panda” algorithm shut down a lot of “content farms,” i.e., companies that sometimes paid about a dollar an article. But plenty of places still pay $25 or $50 per post.

That is, if they pay at all. Several times a week I get queries from people who want to write for me for free. I know that those articles would probably be fairly slapdash and larded with affiliate links. But sometimes other personal finance bloggers – especially the beginners – offer to write something for nothing, for the “exposure.”

You know what? People die of exposure.

Sarah Gilbert of Get Rich Slowly wrote about why she sometimes works for free. What I inferred is that she’s in a slightly better place than a lot of writers and can afford to do work that jibes with her personal values. She’s also apparently making connections that could pay off in terms of networking for eventual paying gigs.

Those and her other reasons are good ones – in theory. The problem with theory is that it’s, well, theoretical. Suppose the connections don’t pay off? Suppose she (or you, or I) continues to burn the midnight oil for free?

Understand: If a nonprofit whose mission I truly admired asked me to write something for its website I might do it – but only after I checked to see what its head honchos were earning. Why should the higher-ups get decent salaries while volunteers do it for love?

And I can think of some reasons to write for free:

  • You truly believe it will lead to paying work.
  • You’re trading posts with other bloggers (both of you get fresh viewpoints that way).
  • You’re repaying favors. I owe a couple of free posts myself. (Will, J. Money: Be patient, guys. I haven’t forgotten.)
  • You’re really, really anxious to get your name/your site out there and you have a day job/enough work to keep the lights on.

But remember what our moms said about free milk and the cow? I think I speak for all of us here when I say, “Moo.”

Consenting to be underpaid

Big companies don’t get to be big companies by giving money away. I shudder to think how long I wrote for one site at the initial rate quoted. Plenty of people would have been happy to write for that company and at that pay grade. But one day I suddenly thought, “What am I doing, writing for so little?”

I wrote a carefully crafted letter explaining why I was worth more and could not do any more assignments at the current rate. The editor agreed with all my points, then made a counteroffer: an additional 4 cents per word. (See “big companies,” above.)

Ultimately we came to terms – less money than I usually get, but worth it because any time I publish there I get a nice spike in readership on my own website. Yet I’m still kicking my own ass that I wrote that long for that little, that indeed I felt I was “lucky” to get the assignments.

What I should have been thinking is that they were lucky to get me. For years I’ve been struggling with self-doubt and imposter syndrome. I believe a lot of women undervalue their abilities – and, hence, their work – in this way.

Not that it’s limited to women. A guy friend who had the chance to edit a very specialized textbook told me he planned to ask for $25 an hour. My response: “Ask for $100.”

No way! he said. They’ll show me the door!

“Ask for $75, then.” He demurred, saying he might ask for $50 but that it still sounded high.

“Trust me: Ask for $75. They can always beat you back down to $50.”

So he asked for $75 an hour and they instantly said, “Sold!” What they were probably thinking was, “Yahoo! We thought we’d have to pay $150!”

Knowing our worth

My friend should have asked for $125, because he might have been able to get $100. But he didn’t have a clear idea of his own worth.

Plenty of us don’t, especially as regards writing for the Internet. Anxious new (and not-so-new) writers, desperate for traffic, will write for free. Freelancers, especially those without day jobs, will write for a few bucks. When I warned a fellow writer that Site X would pay no more than 16 cents a word if she didn’t stand up for herself, her response was “I’d be thrilled to get 16 cents.” Apparently it’s 16 cents more than what she’s getting right now.

The result? Far too often, Internet writing is as shallow as a saucer of water. When the paycheck is only $25, who can devote even an hour to research? If you’ve got two articles to finish before the school bus shows, can you afford to focus very long on readability or advice that goes beyond superficial platitudes?

One freelance ad actually contained the phrase, “Ideally, content should make sense.” The job was to string together a bunch of SEO-friendly phrases into an “article” for one of those sites that exists simply to draw traffic (and, hence, ad revenue). The site owner didn’t much care about the writing, only the result. No doubt someone took the job — but what do you want to bet that the payment was less than $25? Less than $15? Less than $5?

Low salaries (or no salaries) lead to poor quality. Everyone loses.

No regrets

Now that Microsoft has shown all its writers the door, am I sorry I didn’t take that $450 gig? Not really. As noted, the paycheck would have caused considerable stress that I could ill-afford, given that I was already up to my hairline in deadline. At the time it was smarter not to add to the workload. (See “Strategic pizza” for more on this.)

If the job came up tomorrow, would I accept it? That depends.

First I’d propose higher payment, for the reasons outlined above. If the editor wouldn’t budge, I might take it — but only if he would give me at least until early November to turn in the work. That’s because I’m trying to take some time off before attending (and speaking at) the Financial Blogger Conference in mid-October; after that I want a little time to decompress and mull over any connections/plans I make at FinCon.

Here’s what I won’t do: Add to the problem of low wages, which in turn leads to low-quality writing and stressed-out workers. I can’t be part of that.

Maybe I’ll live to regret this stance, especially if the industry continues to morph into a mostly-free-content model. Maybe one day soon I’ll be stumping for $50 blog-post gigs. I hope not.

Websites are comfortable publishing junk because they figure the readers don’t care. Maybe the readers really don’t. Maybe they don’t know the difference between decent writing and crappy content, or maybe they feel that since they’re not paying for it they shouldn’t expect quality.

I once heard an Internet savant named Wil Reynolds discuss how to build a profitable site without “polluting the web,” i.e., doing shoddy work. He talked about considering the Internet a long-term asset and making sure that our work adds value to that asset. Too many companies view it as, well, a cash cow — and they’re not willing to pay for the milk.

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  1. Thank You !!! Well said & well done. Unfortunately this is true in many other careers too. Planning on passing your post on to a few struggling writers who might pay more attention to someone who is in the business.

  2. Donna,

    Reading your posts is part of my morning ritual. Why do you think that is? Because you don’t write crap and you take the time to read through your work before posting so it’s not full of simple mistakes. So believe me when I say that readers do care. I always read your posts in my email and say to myself that I’m going to respond later in the day when I find the time but I never find the time so after reading this I had to stop eating my cereal and respond to let you know that you have long time followers for a reason. Of course you know that though so I guess this is directed to the other writers who don’t know their worth. I only have a handful of blogs that I read on a consistent basis and that’s because of the QUALITY of their work.

    • Donna Freedman

      Thank you so much for the kind words…I’m so glad someone notices that I work to put a little effort into even what we used newspaper folk used to call I quick-and-dirty articles.
      I’d like to give people a reason to come back.

  3. Not just 16cents/word, but a cap at $176/article!

    I’m also worth more than that.

    • Donna Freedman

      You are!

      • I don’t think people realize that high quality writing goes for more than that. (In an old article, Scalzi says he doesn’t do copy for less than 20 cents/word… that’s before inflation.) Which might explain why there’s so much drek out there…

        • Of course…. we write for free (really, for the conversation) on our blog. But that’s a hobby and we’re not super careful about things like editing and craft. If we ever do monetize we’ll have to step that up.

          • Donna Freedman

            I already like the articles on your site. Not sure how much improving you could actually do.

  4. Believe me, Donna, it’s not just writers that are consistently underpaid. In virtually every job you have an employer who is trying to get the most for the least. The expectation is to pay minimum wage and expect top-notch people and effort. I’ve found it to be true whether it’s a large corporation with a multi-millionaire CEO or a smaller business with the boss raking off most the profits to support lifestyle and hobbies (ask me how I know!) Those same employers complain constantly about the poor quality of their workers and/or that they can’t keep good people. You get what you pay for.

    • Donna Freedman

      Agreed. If your employees see you making 50 times as much as they get and harrumphing about how we all have to tighten our belts in the current economy, well, morale just nosedives. Some of my friends in the newspaper industry haven’t gotten raises or have gotten only 1% raises for 10 years. Funny how the corporate owners don’t announce that they’re taking pay cuts/refusing bonuses.

  5. Huh…I just wrote two 350 word posts for others for $20 and $50. Apparently, I should have gone for more. Oops.

    • Donna Freedman

      Unfortunately, pricing is often what the market will bear. If you ask for more, the client might say “OK” — but he might also say “No, that’s the going rate; I can get lots of people who will write 350 words for $20.”
      Believe me: He can. He might get crappy writing, but he can get a spaceholder’s worth of content (ugh) for $20 or less. Sigh.

  6. Jesus, yes!!!!

    You validated to me why I turned down a gig for “exposure” and then for $100 from a HUGE financial company that is very well known. I shake my head when I see people who I know and respect writing for this company because I know that their work is undervalued.

    With plenty of $25 writers out there it unfortunately gives others the impression that an article that you take 2 days researching then writing and editing multiple times before submitting it for publication and payment is worth, well, $25. I call bullshit. Long articles take time to research and fact check yourself before writing and submitting.

    I wish that I was so proficient that I could bang out 5 articles a day, but that’s just not me. I have decided that quality is better than quantity when it comes to work that I do for others.

    Have people balked at my rate? Yes. Have I missed the money? Yes. Am I happy that I say no? Yes. It is the same for people who wish to advertise on my site. I say “no” to 90% of the pitches because they just don’t work for my site or we can not agree to terms.

    It’s up to each of us to determine what we are worth, but I find that too many of us far undervalue our work. Maybe we all need to “lean in”?

    • Donna Freedman

      I understand why people work for much, much less: because they think that’s the going rate, because they’re anxious to get noticed, because they’re unemployed and $25 is better than nothing.
      But as Wil Reynolds said, we need to think in terms of creating a long-term asset — whether that’s the Internet itself or our worth as writers.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  7. To add my voice to the wail, I was briefly a free lance writer about 30 years ago. The pay was pathetic. I remember turning in a piece about a John Belushi impersonator. The editor liked it but thought I should have actually gone to the nightclub to see his act. She was paying $25 for the article. All I could think of was, “Are you kidding me?”

  8. “What I should have been thinking is that they were lucky to get me.”-I think this should be your next tattoo! I’m sure there is a groupon out there to get it cheaper. My dentist told me he went sky-diving on a groupon. Sounded risky but he was there to tell the story.

    • Donna Freedman

      It would have to be my first tattoo — and I would have to be without a pulse when it was applied (i.e., over my cold, dead body). But thanks for the vote of confidence.
      Fortunately your dentist didn’t take advantage of the really special skydiving deal: “First lesson free — no strings attached!” 😉

  9. My husband has always thought working for minimum wage is an okay thing. Of course, he has never had to do so except for hobby work. I suspect his tune would change if he was in survival mode.

    I think people can way undervalue you if they are used to getting you cheap. There is a massage therapist in our area working for about half the going rate. Annoying as I will not do so. I am too old to sell my hands cheap which are only good for a few more years of massage. My experience has been that people don’t really appreciate you or treat you well if you work too cheap. Sure held true in my garage band days. Hold out for what you are worth.

    The only “free” service I am finding that is truly appreciated is my volunteer fire department work. People really, really need you when you show up. And I suspect they think you are getting paid.

    Hang in there and keep marketing yourself and networking. Good luck.

    • Donna Freedman

      As someone who grew up in a rural area with a volunteer fire department, I thank you for your service. Saaaa-lute!

  10. Every writer needs to read this. I wanted to write for others but found there rules to stringent for myself. I have OCD and need to be able to go at my own pace yet still be professional and I have found the perfect mix.

  11. If we all stick together we are more likely to get what we want is the point I am getting.

    • Donna Freedman

      Strength in numbers, so to speak…Of course, more and more “content” is being written by people from other countries via microjob and freelance sites.
      One woman I know answered an ad to ghostwrite a book for a payment of $500. What she said, however, is that she wouldn’t do it for $500 and that paying so little would mean an inferior product. Turns out that the person who placed the ad didn’t have any idea what to offer and plucked “$500” out of the air; the freelancer’s letter was so convincing that she ended up getting hired at the amount she chose.
      That story gives me hope.

  12. I had an internet friend who was married to an influential radio personality in CA. With his backing she was going to start an ezine about frugality, using content from her own select few writers. She wanted me to write for free and get paid later per click. That did not suit me at all since I was newly unemployed, having back problems that had me going to job interviews with a horrendous limp. Plus, I just could neither sit nor stand long enough to work a full day.

    She paid me $10 for each 500-word article now with a quarter a click later when the ezine happened. She tried to get me to write for a dime a click. Several published novelist friends and I were talking. (I live in a county where Romance novelists abound!) They were horrified at the deal I made and contract signed. When I have 2000 people read an article on my blog now over a few months, I would have earned $510 for the article…eventually.

    She would have brought in more people than that to the ezine. I had to keep people clicking on my articles. The job had potential. But, the ezine never happened. So, I have lost those articles, learned a lesson, made a bit of money, and can actually rewrite all the content for my blog. I just cannot use those articles online anywhere but the ideas are mine to use on the internet. In print they are mine.

    You may think that “bit of money” was nothing. However, with a new job that suited me and was doable with my back injury, the money made life more pleasant for the time I wrote for her. I suppose I sold myself short. However, the exercise of writing 20 short 500-word articles each month about chickens or frugality was good for me. Oh well. Right now, I don’t have to please anyone when I write.

    Was a quarter a click good or usual?

  13. THANK YOU!!!!

    O’course, it’s spitting into the wind…that no one will pay the slightest bit of attention to this excellent advice is the reason those of us who are professionals with track records as working journalists can’t make a decent living as independent writers and editors.

    This phenomenon happens in editing, too. Just the other day at a Linked-In discussion board for alleged editorial professionals, several people were going on about signing with off-shore outfits that hire people to proofread, copyedit, and even content edit the work (often third-rate) of ESL writers. Such groups pay Third-World rates and advertise heavily in the U.S.

    We at The Copyeditor’s Desk tried contracting with one of the largest of these businesses. We each ended up working, after all the goats were counted, for LESS THAN MINIMUM WAGE.

    So it goes. I can’t compete with that kind of thing. Really, I’m better off teaching adjunct for $2400/section/semester, which also comes to about minimum wage but at least is reliable pay.

    Right now one of my clients, who did agree to pay a fair rate, stopped responding after I sent him a bill for a month’s worth of work (probably fell over with cardiac arrest).

    I’m seriously thinking about closing down my business and de-incorporating. I can’t work for minimum wage or less, and I certainly can’t work for free.

    Really, folks. If you want a hobby, please take up needlepoint!

    • Donna Freedman

      Yep. Everyone thinks he can write because everyone can write, i.e., can put words on paper (or on a screen). But that doesn’t mean he can write.
      It’s like any other skill in that you can improve with practice. But that skill is worth money. Not everyone agrees, obviously, because they don’t know the difference between good and not-so-good writing.
      Put another way: Anyone can self-publish a book these days. It might even sell some copies. But it won’t sell consistently if people don’t recommend it to others — and if it puts me to sleep and makes me wish I had my money back, I’m not going to hand-sell it to other victims.
      I’ll be in Phoenix for the holidays. Maybe we should have another writers’ meet-and-greet? Whining about the perfidies of publishing can be a lot of fun.

  14. So true!
    Its up to each one of us to stand up and bring back the dignity and (money) into writing. Globalisation and the intenet means that more work will be outsourced and at insanely low rates and theres probably little we can do to counter that but we do need to perpetuate a view that for greater value and quality in writng employers/companies do need to part with higher sums. Quality is probably what I would call our fighting chance, that and never compromising on what we think we are worth.

  15. So then how does one get started? I would have done some freelance writing on textbroker which works out to much less than minimum wage, but where else should an unknown start and command a decent salary?

    • Donna Freedman

      Good question. I have no single, easy answer. Entire books/websites are devoted to the subject. What’s essential, I think, is having a solid network of other writers — you share tips and also job leads.
      How to develop that? Any way you can: writers’ groups (virtual or local), LinkedIn, going to conferences, visiting freelance writing job boards. (Note: Do not pay for job leads or “editing” — there are plenty of scams out there, but there are also plenty of sites where other writers help one another. One site I can recommend is Preditors & Editors, http://pred-ed.com/.)
      I started simply by writing things and sending them to publications I found in the Writers’ Market yearbook. It didn’t hurt a bit that I was already writing (for a newspaper) and thus was able to show that (a) I knew some of the basics and (b) I was able to work with editors.
      Here’s the sticky issue: You need to have been published to show potential employers that you can do the work. How do you get clips? See the above, I guess. If you maintain a personal website you could always include a few URLs of your best work to a potential employer.
      Yep, that sounds messy. It is: Even people who come out of school with a degree in creative writing/English/journalism often won’t be accepted because they have no clips, but they have no opportunity to get clips unless someone accepts them. Keep trying, though. Everyone has to start somewhere.


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