Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Taking the "Free" Out of Freelance

Thanks to The Irreverent Freelancer for finding this interesting article in the LA Times about freelance writing--specifically how the wages for freelancers have been spiraling down and down recently.

The article discusses how publications--on the web but also in print--have been slashing their budgets for writing, asking for shorter and more superficial coverage of topics, and using language designed to get people to write for free--promises of "exposure" and an opportunity to "expand your brand." It documents how publications that pay $2 or $3 a word are hard to find these days, and freelance writers who used to make about $70,000 per year are now struggling to bring in half that. Is this what freelance writing has come to?

The thing is, there are two different types of freelance writers: freelance journalists and copywriters. Both are often referred to as "freelance writers" and sometimes they're lumped together, although their working situations and the types of writing they do are very different. And from where I sit, the situation seems a bit more dire for freelance journalists, because they rely on the news industry--which is changing drastically. Print circulations are going down, newspaper advertising is going down in favor of websites like Craigslist which are largely free, and websites are going up--even blog sites that don't pay their writers or pay them a pittance.

For copywriters, the situation is a bit different. We dictate what we make--in most cases, the client doesn't set the price. We're dependent on businesses, sometimes businesses in very lucrative niches, for income--not newspapers that are rapidly losing circulation and revenue. And we have something to sell besides our writing ability--which, although it's a valuable skill in my opinion, is somewhat harder to justify getting highly paid for when everyone and their mother thinks they could be a writer if only they could find the time to finish that novel. If you have something else to differentiate you, like a software or sales background or marketing expertise, clients are often willing to pay for that.

However, websites like Elance definitely set the pay bar low for copywriters as well as freelance journalists--go there if you want to get paid $50 to write someone's 10-page brochure. And I see ads all the time from a creative staffing company I belong to for freelance copywriters needed by top ad agencies--working at wages of $30 or $40 an hour. Not so great, although I bet it's better than the wages a lot of freelance journalists are seeing.

What do you think? Is the situation more dire for journalists than copywriters? Or are we both in trouble?


Unknown said...

I think the fundamental shift in where the jobs are (like that terminology? I've been writing resumes all day!) means that copywriters are sitting pretty. Journalists can make the transition if they accept, like I did, that traditional media sources are losing ground.

I think the article is a little late to the dance, actually. It was about the time it appeared that I started to see clients returning because cheap didn't get them what they wanted. And I've seen clients calling, asking the price, and accepting the price. It's cyclical. The idea is to ride the sweet spot as long as we can. :)

Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

I think you may be on to something here. Somehow I've managed to survive the recession with very little pain. I have to work a bit harder these days to obtain the clients, but I haven't had to cut my rates. I've never written for newspapers or magazines, so I can't speak from that angle, but I don't think copywriting, as a viable profession, is dying. In fact, I'm seeing the same thing as Lori--clients coming to me once again instead of the other way around.

D.T. Pennington said...

Thanks to the internet and "instant publishing", the amount of people who consider themselves writers have gone up drastically. While I may not like jobs that pay $5 an article, there are writers out there who will happily snatch it up.

I've edited for publications that have taken articles straight from content mills instead of finding writers to put something together for them. The difference is night and day. Most of the writing that ends up on sites like or is usually sub par, written for search engines, and is difficult to read, much less edit.

I agree with Lori, eventually everyone comes around: better pay usually means better writing.



Jennifer Williamson said...

@Lori: Oh yes, I recognize the terminology! I think you have a good point that this has been going on a long time--and it surprises me that there's less mention of it in the more established news outlets (blogs, of course, are more on top of it). I know you do a lot more magazine writing than I do--and it's good to hear you're not taking big pay cuts despite what this article says.

@Kathy: I have noticed a little shift, mainly at the beginning of 2009, that my regulars were ordering less. But lately things have been picking up again, especially late 2009 and into 2010 so far, and I've gotten a fair number of new clients and semi-regulars coming back in the past few months.

@DT--absolutely true, and you can definitely spot which websites spend money on their content and copy and which don't. I think that as the web fills up with written clutter, it's the ones with real valuable content that will stand out in the search engines--because it's those that people will come back to. I think as the Internet ages good writing will become more valuable, not less.

Eileen said...

The freelancers that I see struggling the most are those that write editorial (articles for magazines and websites). This has not been my experience; I only write sales copy in a specialized field. While 2009 was slow for me, 2010 so far has been a record-shattering year. I'm away on a mini-vacation this weekend, and I have put in about 8 hours of work since yesterday evening just so I can keep up. I'll have to put in at least 4 hours tomorrow, and I'll have to work on the plane ride home. Nobody is balking at my price, which is at the high end of the scale. Meanwhile, one of my best writing buddies who writes editorial just had to get a day job because she couldn't bring in the business.

Issa said...

There is just a paradigm shift out there when it comes to work... and it affects us all, writers and non-writers alike. I believe that being a freelance writer has definitely its pros and cons, yet you can still make that 'elevator pitch' as to why someone should pay you more than anyone else. Just my $ .002