There are millions of professional freelance writers across the globe. These are people who make their careers out of writing words for a living and selling those words to others. And to anyone working seriously in the writing profession, I would pose this question: Do you want to be valued as a professional, or do you want to be a commodity?
Content mills have portrayed writing as a laughable field requiring few skills, and only the basic ability to complete a sentence. The consequence of these mills is the perpetuation of the idea that writing is not worth paying for, and the false belief that it can be done by anyone who speaks English. If you don't believe me do a quick search on a site like Elance or Craigslist. You will find people offering (and expecting) to pay a measly $10 for a 500 word article, or maybe $100 for a 20,000 word manuscript. Or people who expect a robust, SEO optimized website with 20+ pages of content for the "fair" rate of $300 for the project.
Do the math on this (as all freelance writers have) and you will find that it's less than minimum wage. In fact, in some cases you're talking about making a dollar or two an hour. What's worse is you will find people actually accepting this pittance and performing the work, but then struggling to buy a loaf of bread and then bemoaning their circumstances.
Do you have to work for those rates in order to survive and thrive in a freelance marketplace? Is this the only way to compete? Many newbie (and some established) freelancers come from a place of fear. Fear that nobody will hire them, fear that they can't compete, or fear that their skills aren't good enough. And their answer to this question would likely be, "Well that's what I see out there, so that's what I have to take."
My answer is an emphatic and forceful, "No."
Knowing your worth as a writer means running your operation like the professional business that it is. You are offering a service to a person or company, and that service is often worth substantial money once it is put into place. The return can be enormous. And when you run your writing operation like a business - maintaining top notch customer service, providing error-free copy that meets deadlines, and really partnering with your clients to meet their needs - for you to not insist that those businesses pass a fair share of that ROI onto you is devaluing your profession. And yourself. Because the fact is, good writing makes businesses money. Period.
Knowing your worth as a writer means being firm with your rates and demanding compensation that is fair. It means requiring that potential clients pay you as the professional you are. Will it be harder to find work this way? Yes. But which would you rather be? The content writer working 10 hours a day, churning out lackluster content (because you simply don't have time to make it good), struggling to buy groceries, and building a portfolio of lackluster samples? Or the professional writer spending 4 hours a day with a handful of clients, writing stellar content that pays your bills and brings in hard cash for their business, and building your network and future opportunities in the time you aren't wasting writing for $2/hour?
Always remember that serious clients will recognize the value you provide and will pay you accordingly. You choose what type of writer you want to be. It's all up to you. I choose to be a professional. What's your choice?
I was recently negotiating with a prospect who was trying to start a company and he wanted some web copy created. His first request was this: "I want you to write a 200 word marketing piece for me based on the product description I give you." If you got that request from a prospect, how would you respond?
Well, here is how I responded. I politely said that I do not do work for free, although I do provide a free 30 minute consultation and I will happily send him some proprietary writing samples that are very similar to what he is wanting. I said that I also have testimonials and an extensive portfolio, and that this was all I could offer. I said that if he wanted a free writing sample then it would be best to look elsewhere, as I have sufficient samples to more than showcase my abilities.
He accepted the samples and agreed to continue with the consultation, during which he asked me to include in the project quote two random web pages with an undetermined definition or scope. I said that because those pages were undefined, how about we work with the pages that are defined and I can give him a quote, and once he defines the other two pages we can go from there.
He agreed, I created a quote that clearly outlined the 6 pages of content and how many revisions were included, and sent it off. The next day he declined the quote and said that he was uninterested, as the price was fine but in his opinion I was not willing to work with him. Was I surprised? Not really.
So I sat back and thought about these types of requests and what they mean, because honestly most of my prospects are large clients and do not conduct business this way. And what everything boiled down to was this: because I didn't provide free work or agree to a set price for work that had not been scoped yet, I was labeled as a bad businessperson.
And what I would say to that accusation is that it's actually the opposite. If you're a good businessperson, you value your time. You have sufficient samples to show your skills and you have people to vouch for the quality of your work. And you don't work for free. And similarly, you don't expect others to work for free.
That would be like going to a job interview where they tell you that while they appreciate that you have great experience and samples, they want you to create some marketing collateral for them before they will consider hiring you. And it's on some products that currently do not have any marketing content. So this honestly means that they can turn around and sell the free work you perform for them. And if they were really shady, they could bring people in for "interviews" and slowly get all of their marketing work done this way for free.
That doesn't sound ethical to me. Does it sound ethical to you? So why expect a freelancer or consultant to do the same thing?
Which brings me to my final thought on the subject, which is whether or not there are any situations where I would write for free. The answer? Maybe. Working on spec is much more normal for publications and books. And if I had a prospect that I was really interested in and I didn't have relevant work samples that fairly illustrated my abilities, then yes maybe I'd write something. But it would only be a few sentences or a paragraph. I'm not going to write a 200-300 word document for them. If I was being considered for an instructional design project, and they asked me to provide feedback on some scenarios and how I would design them (and it was clearly a "test" and not materials yet to be developed), yes I would do that to an extent. But beyond those things, my working for free stops there.
So let me ask you. Do you write for free? What are your thoughts on the subject?
When you hear the word "technical writer" what comes to mind? Computers? Engineering? Complicated subjects? I want to challenge the writing world: have you considered the idea that a technical writer can be the best resource for all of your communications projects? Let me explain why.
Technical writers are skilled at creating clear, concise text that translates complicated ideas into simple ones. This skill is great for areas like computer software, manuals, engineering documents, and other communications that need to be clear and to the point. This is a given.
But what it's also great for is a wide range of communications, the most obvious of which is training materials. Training is a close cousin to end user documentation; it's just a different format. Really good training materials have not only stellar instructional design behind them, but also clear language. What if your design and ideas are great but your text comes out muddy? How will that affect your learners? Wouldn't technical writing skills be helpful in this scenario?
So let's take this a step further. Would you hire a technical writer to create your marketing or web communications? Maybe? Maybe not?
It may seem counter-intuitive to put a technical writer in this role, but in order for marketing or web copy to sell it has to grab attention quickly. This means not rambling. This means making sense to a wide audience. This means getting to the point, but in a creative and catchy way.
Now here's where things get squishy.
Have you ever seen marketing text with a bunch of flowing, embellished words that honestly aren't coherent and don't really get to the point? This is a classic case of "attempting to be creative and catchy, but in the process completely erasing any semblance of quality content" syndrome. When I was employed as a technical writer, I would often fix the work of the marketing communications person for this very reason. And honestly in the end I wound up completely taking over, because as a technical writer I was just able to create something much more effective.
So when you're looking around for writing help, think about the technical writer. And not just for technical projects - but for a wide range of projects. Their unique skills can sometimes be advantageous to your communications endeavors, if you just take the time to find one who has a bit of a creative bug in their arsenal.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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