Friday, September 19, 2008

My Message to $5 Article Writers

I went over to Web Writing Info the other day and saw an interesting post--It's Okay to Start Low, where Courtney admits she started as a $5-an-article writer.

I got my start article writing, too. I liked it because it wasn't salesy and I really wasn't comfortable with the idea of selling when I first started out. I charged $15-$20 an article off the bat. I just couldn't stomach charging $3-$5 for what I knew would be an hour job, or longer--I've never been able to churn out articles consistently in under an hour, although it happens sometimes when I'm really focused. I thought that if I was going to get paid that little, I might as well do it for free--because I sure wasn't doing it for the money.

I've always thought that people who work for that little were probably coming from other countries where the cost of living was lower, and they could afford to undercut writers in the States. But (and maybe I'm the last person surprised by this) it seems a lot of really fantastic English-as-a-first-language writers are doing the same thing. If this is you, I'm not going to berate you with accusations that you're ruining the copywriting industry or anything like that. But I would like to see you earning more--I feel you deserve it--and I have a few things to say.

You DO deserve more. I think a lot of people get started charging low because they feel they're inexperienced and don't deserve more. But anyone who can research well, not make grammar and spelling mistakes, and string together coherent sentences deserves more than $3-$5 an hour. People who work at McDonalds get paid more. The minimum wage is more. You're an educated, skilled worker, probably with a college degree, and you didn't go through college to get paid less than minimum wage on anything. You are offering a service that someone else can't do--and you deserve to be paid a fair and realistic price for your skills.

Writing is a job. I think a lot of people fall into the trap of getting paid less because they get all precious about writing. They feel honored and flattered that anyone would pay them anything at all to write. But let me tell you, what you're writing isn't glamorous. It's not going to make you famous. It's not even that creative. You're writing articles that are basically grist for the search engine mill. You're not writing poetry or memoir or the great American novel. People may insist that they "have to" write; that they'd do it even if they weren't getting paid. And maybe that's true if you're a poet or a novelist. But would you really write fifty 500-word articles around the keyword "diamond engagement rings" because you felt the call of the muses? No. You wouldn't. The kind of writing you're doing is a job, not an inspiration-fest. Even if you're treating it like a hobby, it's better to get paid more than less for it.

Ask for more and you'll get it. Believe me, this is true. I started out working on Elance, where people regularly pay less than a penny per word. I was asking $25 and $30 per article--and getting it. You can do it too. If you don't believe me, give it two weeks. Quote a price you'd like to get paid for an hour's worth of work to everyone who asks. I'll bet you'll get a few takers. If you don't, you're looking in the wrong place.

Your market isn't paying? Find another one. Now here's the key. You don't want to be working with affilliate marketers. In my experience, this is the group that expects to pay dirt for articles. However, getting a few professional SEO firms as clients isn't a bad idea. These folks tend to pay more because they can then turn around and charge their clients for it--and they're regular work. Right now I do ongoing article writing work for several top SEO firms and I charge $45 an article and higher. If you're not getting any leads when you charge more, it's not because you're charging too much. It's because you're in the wrong market. Check out this post I did on clients who will pay good rates for the same articles you'd write for $5 elsewhere.

If you're getting paid $5 per article, believe me--you can get paid more. Just ask for it. If the client balks, there are all kinds of things to say to justify your prices: that you do high quality, well-researched work; that their articles are a projection of them and need to make a good impression; and that great writing will make their articles stand out from a sea of sludge, among other things. And guess what? They'll all be true.


Anonymous said...

You may not want to say it, but I will. If you take a hundredth of what a story is worth, you make it thinkable, then employers offer it, then they expect it.

Jennifer Williamson said...

I think it's true that you set client expectations with the prices you offer. But it also works the other way. Set higher prices, and justify those prices--and employers will expect that, too.

Anonymous said...

My advice to writers struggling with low fees is to justify to clients why you deserve more. What else can you bring to the table beyond your words?

You could explain to them that the internet presents unique challenges in building trust and that your writing helps promote their credibility and expertise.

There's more to writing than just hammering out words, but unfortunately some clients are unaware of what it is.

Unknown said...

..."they get all precious about writing"

I can't stop laughing! That's hysterical AND true! And a number of pseudo-employers are banking on it.

The lowest I ever made for an article was $50. It was my first, and I was published in a still-pretty-famous magazine. Would I have gone lower? Come to think of it, I did. I worked for the local newspaper. $15 an article (250 words). But in that case, I was gaining credible clips and a reputation among other newspapers, which worked well when I moved up to another one. That's SO much different than "clips" from the $4-an-article crowd. It's a little more credible to have a printed byline from a reliable source than from someone who just paid you to churn out 200 articles last month.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Matt: This is indeed the key to getting more. But I've found that I rarely have to justify my prices. I state a price and I get it, if the client likes my samples and is savvy enough to know the value of good writing.

@Lori: The whole preciousness issue is a big reason why writers and other creatives are often low-paid. It's like a disease, in my opinion. The day you wake up and realize that what you're doing is a valuable skill that's worth money is the day employers treat you with respect.

And you're absolutely right--article mill "clips" have NO credibility. If you want to work for next to nothing, work for a company that can put your sample in a nifty graphic design or for a local paper that will at least give you a little credibility.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, has made writing online articles largely a commodity service. My advice is to seek writing assignments where the quality of your copy can translate directly into significant revenue for the client -- e.g., landing pages, e-mail marketing campaigns, direct mail packages. If your type of copy does not generate tangible ROI, it is increasingly difficult to command a premium price for it. Exceptions? Of course.

Jennifer Williamson said...

That's definitely true--it's why I'm making the shift away from educational writing and toward web copy. Those online articles can sell, though--I recently did a mini article-marketing campaign for my own business and have landed quite a few clients through it. But I can see how the ROI can be difficult to track, and it's tougher to sell yourself as a high earning writer in that market.

Samar Owais said...

I have to say I'm guilty of being a $5 article writer. I'm a brand new freelance writer and I wasn't getting work so I wrote for $5. It was way better than the $1 or $3 per article offered in the market was my justification.

But I managed to write only one article for $5. And there was no satisfaction. I didn't feel like I'd done a good job and frankly the $5 didnt make it worth it. Since then I haven't even applied to jobs that pay $5 per article and also haven't found a gig. But that's okay, I'd rather wait than write for peanuts.

Rebecca Laffar-Smith said...

I've written for less! In fact, the first article I ever got paid for got me 10 cents! I thought it was absolutely phenomenal! For the first time in my life I'd been PAID to write. But when the bills are stacking up around you there comes a time where being a dime-a-dozen writer just doesn't cut it.

I love the point you make that just being an educated English-first-language writer makes you worth more than minimum wage.

It's also important to know that it takes HARD WORK to get those good paying gigs but it's HARDER WORK to earn as much writing for shrapnel. You can earn $5 for 500 words, 10 times, or $50 for 500 words once. Which would you rather do? Which would take more time?

Would you write 10, 500 word articles in a week to earn $50 or spend a week landing a single 500 word gig that paid $50?

In other good news, the more often you get the higher paying work the more often it comes. It might take you a month to land that first gig, but you'll get two the next month, four the next etc. If you're working for those $5 gigs you might get 10 the first month, and 10 the second, and 10 the third because all your time is spent on the writing, instead of the hunting.

Having said that, if you're spinning your wheels with time to spare and just WANT to write, then writing for less still has potential to gain you more in the future. :-)

Maybe it comes down to balance, and valuing yourself.

Anonymous said...

Woah...$5 an article?! Seriously? Thats what some people get for online journalism?
I've done a couple of print freelance articles for £300 an article, ok one of which involved being in at a race in Switzerland, but I was already there and it was half a days work(fun) but seriously if you are only getting $5 an article maybe you should either switch to print or change your line of work!
Good luck either way...

Nifty Trader said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.