Thursday, February 12, 2009

Working Smarter, Not Harder as a Freelance Writer

"I have to lower my rates to compete in today's market."

"I should bid low early on and raise my rates later when I have a bigger portfolio."

"I have to take low-paying gigs, because they're the only gigs I can find and I need money right now!"

Have you ever said any of these things to yourself in your freelance writing career? Has anyone else ever tried to convince you of these things? If they did, they'd be offering terrible advice.

I see many freelance writers (especially freelance Web writers) who live by the above "rules." I also watch as most of them continuously struggle to make ends meet. They have to take one low-paying writing job after another with a constantly full schedule just to earn enough to scrape by.

You don't have to live like that!

The real key to successful freelance writing is knowing how to work smarter, not harder. You've heard it before, but what exactly does it mean as a freelancer?

Here's an example:

A freelance writer (let's call her Sally) currently charges $10 per article writing Web content for clients. She can only work 40 hours per week, and to stay on top of things like marketing (get more clients), looking for gigs, and other administrative duties she can only bill out 30 hours per week.

Now let's say that Sally's a generally strong writer. She devotes plenty of time to research whether digging up statistics online or conducting interviews. On average, let's say it takes Sally one hour to write a fairly decent article. That means Sally is only able to earn $300 per week.

She can't get by on that. Even though Sally is in a two-income household, she really needs to be bringing in something closer to $900 per week (thinking about current times, let's say her spouse was laid off from work, and now she has to be the sole provider in the interim).

Uh oh. What's Sally to do?

She can do two things: work harder, or work smarter. Here's what each would look like:

Working Harder

Sally needs to triple her weekly income. Her instincts tell her that she'll therefore need to work harder--basically she'll have to triple her productivity.

She has to write three articles per hour, rather than one. Either that, or Sally has to find a way to increase her billable hours each week (working "overtime" or slacking on some administrative duties to squeeze in more billable time perhaps).

But wait. There's more. This also means Sally will have to attract three times as many clients (or three times as much work from existing clients). We therefore know she can't cut back on her marketing time. Let's also say she has other commitments she can't get out of, making overtime unrealistic.

Given the situation, the only way Sally can "work harder" is to keep working those 30 billable hours, but cram in more articles per hour.

Rather than writing 30 articles per week, she now has to write 90 articles per week. Because she can't devote as much time to research, she now writes her articles from fairly generic Web-based research alone.

Sally is able to eventually make her income goal, but her article quality has suffered and she's on the verge of completely burning out--not sustainable.

Working Smarter

Now let's assume Sally decides to "work smarter" to triple her income.

She knows what she needs to earn ($900 per week). She knows her writing quality exceeds that of most other writers in her current rate range. She has a solid portfolio built up. She refuses to burn herself out, and takes a smarter approach.

Sally re-calculates the rates she needs to charge. She knows she needs a bare minimum of $30 per article at the existing work load.

She's also smart enough to know she won't keep all of her current clients at that increase, and that she'll have to start marketing her services to a different, higher-paying market. She also knows it's very unlikely she'll have a full work schedule quickly. Therefore she decides to charge $50 per average article she writes.

At $50 per article, Sally has to write only 18 articles per week. Yes, she knows it will be harder to attract clients at her new rate, but the good news is that she doesn't have to attract as many to reach her income goal (18 articles versus the 90 she would have to secure and write at her previous rates). She'll also have nearly twice as much time to work on each article (allowing her to do more thorough research to even better justify the new rates, or she'll have several hours more per week to devote to marketing to attract those higher-paying clients.

Less time working, but earning more money--this is "working smarter."

The idea of working smart is to earn as much as you can doing as little as you can. Sounds simple, right?
That's not to say you can pull a higher rate out of thin air though. You must be able to justify those rates based on your education, experience, or other value you can offer to the specific market you want to target.

See what you can do to start working smarter in your own freelance writing career. If you currently work for $10 per article like Sally, find a publication advertising higher rates and pitch them. You may be surprised to find they do think you're worth more.

If you find yourself with free time, spend some of it writing a report, e-book, blog, or something else that can earn you money on the side. If a client isn't paying for your billable time, you should still consider it "billable." Just work for yourself on some money-making task, even if the income won't be immediate. It's better to do that than sit around waiting for more clients, and in time you may even find you can earn more that way.

We get into freelance writing because of its numerous perks. Don't end up hating what you love to do because you find yourself burning out to get by. Always look for ways to work smarter, not harder, and you'll find that you may even love your work more than before.

About the Author
Jennifer Mattern is a freelance business writer and blogger behind and She is also the author of the Web Writer’s Guide e-book, designed to help freelance writers launch a successful Web writing career.
Save $10 on the Web Writer’s Guide e-book by entering discount code “kimberly” (without the quotes) over the next 30 days!


Jennifer Mattern said...


Thanks so much for agreeing to be a host on my blog tour. :)

Looking back over my post, I think it's important to note that even though I chose one specific version of "working harder," they all tend to eventually lead to the same results - unsustainable working conditions and burnout. Many writers just assume they can keep working longer hours, and they won't have to sacrifice quality. While it's true you can do that for a while and be okay, it's one of the easiest ways to end up hating your job over the long haul.

Kimberly Ben said...

Jennifer, I really apreciate you sharing your knowledge. I hope that this information helps others who want to start their own freelance writing business or need need help setting rates.

Tgis information is extremely valuable. When I first started freelencing my business took off quickly and I eneded up almost completely burning out. I was really begining to resent all the work, so I knew something had to give. I raised my rates and started marketing my services more. I'm making some other changes right now after reading your ebook.

I hope others will take advantage of the discounted price. Thanks again!:)

HotWebTopics said...

Excellent article Jennifer, and thanks for bringing it to us Kimberly.

The one thing I'd second in the article is setting up different streams of income (eg, publishing an ebook, doing online seminars, etc.).

I'm at the point now where I can almost quit freelance writing b/c of my "side streams of income." This allows me to pick and choose -- for the most part -- the types of projects I take on. And that feels good.

Good luck with the book Jennifer. Seems like a very valuable resource (I read Kimberly's review of it last week).


Kimberly Ben said...

Hi Yuwanda,

I agree completely! Jennifer discusses this very topic a section about this her ebook. As a matter of fact, I am working on a couple of residual income projects myself. I think both of you ladies have done such a good job of providing guides for new freelancers, there is certainly nothing I can add there.;-)

I'm working on a couple of blogs and other projects that I hope to launch very soon.

Jennifer Mattern said...

"I'm at the point now where I can almost quit freelance writing b/c of my "side streams of income." This allows me to pick and choose -- for the most part -- the types of projects I take on. And that feels good."

It definitely does. Sometimes I wish we could give newer writers a taste of what that feels like just so they fully understand what they're striving for.

And good luck on going full time with the "side projects." I'm actually in a similar boat--in the process of moving from full-time client work to full-time "writing for myself." Blogs and e-books are the bulk of that for me personally at the moment, but I'm also pushing into other areas to try to diversify a bit further. Precious little delights me more than getting to reap the rewards of my own work - getting to control how it's distributed, have my byline there, and earn continuously. I sincerely hope every freelancer takes on at least one new revenue stream just to get a feel for the possibilities out there.

Devon Ellington said...

Right on, Jennifer!

Also, when you get stuck in writing the $10/pop bits, that's your reputation -- cheap, not quality. The clips usually aren't the kind of thing you can use in a portfolio to get a higher paying job.

I've said this a million times -- you're better off taking on a charity pro bono and getting great clips that will catapult you to the $50/article and up jobs on the quality of the work.

High quantity, low quality mill writers hurt everyone in this profession, not just themselves. They demean themselves and the profession in which we work so hard and love so much.

Kathryn said...

Thanks for the post - it definitely made me feel better about the idea of charging more for my articles. I'm a firm believer in the work smarter - I just don't always succeed at the idea.

Jennifer Mattern said...

Devon - I've been known to say the same. Too bad more people don't listen I suppose. :)

In nearly every case, a writer would be better off doing a volunteer project for a recognizable (and respectable) non-profit to build a portfolio piece than taking on a free gig with someone more directly in their target market (especially compared to the low-paying markets you're mentioning).

I actually have an entire post that I'll likely repurpose and expand into a short free report on this subject (building the portfolio even without experience, and the role free gigs can play). If anyone's interested, they can find that here:

Kathryn - I'm always glad to hear any writer say they're more comfortable considering raising their rates (when they can back them up of course). As a matter of fact, today's post at is an interview with a writer who used to charge as little as $.005 - .02 per word. While she's not charging a fortune now, she very significantly increased her rates to get out of the spammy content market, and she has some good things to say about the experience that I hope other writers in that situation might find inspiring.

Lori said...

Oh my. It's like Jennifer was inside my head! My post on my blog today sort of echoes the same thing - stop marketing out of desperation and start spending quality time looking for quality work.

I couldn't agree more. I took on a project once upon a time that was gawd-awful long, paid nowhere near what it should've, and tied me up for months. The money I lost because I was wasting time on it made me change my ways from that point on. If the terms aren't acceptable, neither is the work. No exceptions!

Jennifer Mattern said...

Another way I like to look at it is this:

Currently I charge $200 per 500-word article.

When a writer comes to me justify taking $5 for a similar-length piece, I tell them "Look, I'd rather earn $1000 writing five articles than 200 of them - period."

Sometimes I find that kind of comparison helps them. Thinking about "five articles" helps to clear up why it's not a big deal if there aren't as many people paying those rates - you don't need to find that many who are. Even if they could only land 20 articles per month, they'd be earning 4 times as much and writing 10 times fewer articles. Heck, even if they only moved to $20 per article, they could cut their writing time by 75%, devoting that time to finding better clients.

The quality of life difference is the biggest benefit of viewing (and acting on) things that way. So far I've yet to meet a single writer who took the advice to work smarter, earning more for less, who wasn't happier for it.

Jennifer Mattern said...

I just wanted to post a quick reminder for those interested in the $10 discount on the Web Writer's Guide e-book. The code given in this post will only be valid through this Saturday (March 14th). :)

Kimberly Ben said...

Thanks for the reminder, Jennifer. I hope those who read this blog and are contemplating web writing will take advantage of this discount.

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