As the economic carnage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, millions of Americans who’d previously felt quite secure in their careers and personal finances are suddenly looking for new ways to make ends meet.
Many are reactivating latent talents or interests that lay dormant in better times. The lists of legitimate ways to make money from home or earn side income while working from home are long and varied. Most of us can find something we’re good at to occupy our time and keep cash flowing until the economy improves.
Freelance writing is one of the most popular side hustles around. With low startup costs and dozens of legitimate online freelance job sites catering in part or whole to freelance writers, it’s easy to break into. Freelancers with prior writing and editing experience, professional credentials or expertise, and fluent prose are all well placed to find steady, decent-paying work.
Pro tip: Have you been thinking about becoming a freelance writer but unsure how to get started? Consider taking an online course that will show you step-by-step how one writer built her freelance writing business to over $200,000 per year.
Setting Your Freelance Writing Rates: Factors to Consider
Early on, all freelancers face a critical choice: how much to charge for their work. This question almost always has more than one answer because some clients can afford to pay more than others and some freelance writing platforms limit writers’ leeway in setting their own rates. But the rates you earn on your first projects bear directly on how much you can charge in the future — affecting the size of future rate increases.
So you must examine the key factors to consider when setting freelance writing rates and understand how to reach higher rates over time without scaring away clients.
The economic value of a given piece of copywriting — and its writer — depends on a multitude of factors. The most important include the quality of your writing, your prior writing experience, your name recognition or status as an influencer (if any), your professional credentials or expertise, and whether you keep the copyright to your work.
None of these factors is immutable, though some are easier to change than others. For example, it’s easier to work on improving the quality of your writing as you gain experience than to put yourself through law school or amass a massive Instagram following. Knowing what these factors are and how they affect freelance writing clients’ hiring decisions puts you in a better position for long-term freelance writing success.
The Quality of Your Writing
Writing quality is difficult to quantify — and to some extent, it’s subjective. That said, it’s undeniably one of the most important factors affecting what freelance writers can charge. Good writing is worth more than mediocre writing, and excellent writing is worth more than either — simple as that.
You’re not the best judge of your writing quality. Ultimately, it’s clients’ opinions that matter since they’re the ones willing to pay (or not) for your work. Rather than wait for clients to decline to hire you or end your working relationship because they’re not satisfied with the quality of your work, plug some of your work into a grammar or writing analysis app. Compare your results with available examples of excellent writing, such as glossy magazine articles.
Analyze My Writing is a useful free tool that assesses factors like overall readability, word density, and passive voice usage. Grammarly is a more robust tool that offers suggestions and corrections to meaningfully improve the quality of your writing. Some freelance writing platforms, such as Textbroker, automatically or manually evaluate writing quality as well, with feedback and tips for improvement from human editors. Play around with these resources and take their recommendations to heart.
Prior Writing & Editing Experience
Like any profession, writing rewards those with prior experience. Writers with extensive bodies of published work or verifiable career experience related to writing and editing generally have less trouble finding clients willing to pay what they’re worth.
If you’re returning to the writing market after some time away, collect your best clips (published or not) and post or link to them on your website, blog, or a free professional portfolio website like Clippings.me. Add any relevant professional experience, such as writing-related jobs or recurring contributorships, to your LinkedIn profile and any freelance website profiles you create.
A total lack of freelance writing experience isn’t the end of the world. All writers begin somewhere. Just be realistic about discerning clients’ willingness to work with unproven freelancers and prepare for lots of unsatisfying, relatively low-paying assignments in the early days.
The Type & Subject Matter of Your Writing
Some types of writing and subject areas pay better than others. Despite the outsize success enjoyed by a small minority of novelists and essayists, writers generally find it challenging to make a living in creative pursuits — whether poetry or prose — than in practical, popular nonfiction domains like personal finance, careers, and business.
Practicality and popularity aren’t the only two variables at work here. A given subject’s marketability also depends on the level of knowledge or expertise needed to create valuable content. Recipe websites are incredibly popular, but because amateurs can easily post cooking content that readers find useful, publishers rarely pay for those contributions. Paying assignments are scarce for entry-level food writers, and the best-paying work often involves working directly with food brands’ marketing departments rather than cooking or dining websites like AllRecipes.com and Eater.
Professional Credentials, Experience, & Subject Matter Expertise
Prior writing or editing experience is extremely helpful for freelance writers hoping to attract clients’ attention and increase pricing leverage early on. Formal professional credentials and verifiable subject matter expertise are even more essential, especially in the absence of a significant body of prior writing. If you have a professional degree or certification — whether that’s a law degree, medical license, or Lean Six Sigma certificate — or relevant career experience in a knowledge-driven field — you can find plenty of clients willing to pay for your work.
If you’re a highly compensated professional, freelance writing most likely isn’t and won’t be your full-time job. But in addition to serving as an excellent source of side income, it could be a boon for your actual career. Any published or publicly available work that underscores your expertise is reassuring for prospective patients, clients, or employers — not to mention your existing clients or bosses (if you have them).
The Strength of Your Personal Brand
Freelance copywriters with professional credentials and objective expertise often leverage their work to advance their personal brands. Often, however, a strong personal brand comes first. If you’re recognized as an expert or influencer on a particular topic and have the social media following or heavily trafficked website to back it up, you represent a premade source of traffic and clicks for publishers and brands.
All other things being equal, it’s much less difficult to break into writing about the subjects you know best and commanding a fair price for your work.
Most freelance writing contracts include a clause assigning copyright to the client. Essentially, copyright assignment gives the client free rein to use the work as they wish — publishing or not publishing, updating, editing, and removing it from the Web as they see fit. Once the writer assigns copyright, they can’t turn around and sell the same work to another client or self-publish without the client’s permission (other than as part of a professional portfolio).
Client-freelancer relationships in which copyright is assigned are commonly known as work-for-hire arrangements. Because they give the client exclusive rights to the finished product, work-for-hire arrangements invariably pay better than arrangements that don’t involve assignment of copyright. Don’t agree to a lower-paying arrangement that doesn’t assign copyright without thinking carefully about what you’d actually do with the rights to the work.
Often, how and how much you’re compensated for your freelance writing go hand in hand. Common compensation structures include but aren’t limited to:
- Per word
- Per word, plus a bonus per unit of traffic (often 1,000 views) to published work
- Per article, post, or assignment with longer or more involved assignments paid at higher multiples
- By the hour (hourly rates are more common for longer assignments and those that involve working closely with clients, such as editing or ghostwriting manuscripts)
- Flat fee or retainer (also more common for longer or more research-intensive assignments, such as compiling a technical manual).
Although every writer-client relationship is different, flat-fee and per-work compensation sometimes results in lower pay per unit of work (such as words or time). Likewise, clients who offer traffic bonuses have leeway to offer lower pay per word in exchange. That isn’t to argue against those types of arrangements — challenging, highly involved flat-fee projects that earn plaudits from clients could be a boon for your writing career. And traffic-based bonuses are liable to increase over time as the relationship continues.
The State of the Labor Market
Like pay in other fields, freelance writing rates are highly dependent on the laws of supply and demand. Writers and editors tend to have better pricing power when labor is scarce than when aspiring freelancers flood the market.
Having written my way through a full business cycle, I can personally attest to this phenomenon. The writers I knew were much more likely to lowball clients and accept piddling hourly rates in the weak labor market of the late 2000s and early 2010s than in the stretch of full employment that closed out the decade.
Tips to Increase Your Freelance Writing Rates Over Time
Freelance writers don’t have to charge the same rate forever. Follow these well-worn strategies to lay the groundwork for higher freelance writing earnings down the road and to increase your chances of success when you’re ready to request (or demand) a rate increase.
The groundwork mainly consists of creating and optimizing a professional presence online and using it to showcase your work and subject matter expertise. Early on, you must resist the urge to give away work for free. Later, work on your negotiation skills, wean yourself off low-paying freelance platforms in favor of more equitable client relationships, and work toward longer-term projects that support a clearly defined niche or business model.
Keep Your Body of Work Current
Your free online portfolio doesn’t do much good when it’s two years out of date. To ensure clients have an accurate picture of your entire body of work and a better sense of your true value as a writer, make a habit of updating your public portfolio whenever you complete (or a client publishes) an assignment. Save published works to PDF to avoid broken links from your portfolio. And back everything up to your computer and an external hard drive for safekeeping.
Create a Visible Online Presence
Every active professional freelance writer needs a three-pillared online presence:
- Social Media. To start, focus on LinkedIn. Even if freelance writing isn’t your sole profession, your LinkedIn profile should make it plain that you’re a writer in active search of new clients and freelancing relationships. As your writing career progresses and your body of work grows, use other platforms — Twitter, Instagram — to promote published work, announce forthcoming releases, and show off your subject matter expertise.
- Freelance Work and Portfolio Websites. Create and maintain active profiles on freelance work sites that cater to freelance writers, such as Upwork and Freelancer. Even if they’re not your primary source of writing work, they’re visible in Google search and frequented by paying clients looking for writers with the correct skill set.
- Personal Website. Use your website to highlight your value as a writer: your areas of expertise, methods, media, upcoming releases or events, and any past work you’re exceptionally proud of. Update your website’s blog regularly, if only to sustain a perception of expertise and activity.
A well-rounded online presence creates the impression — real or not — that you’re a prolific, highly marketable writer with lots of satisfied clients, an expansive body of work to your name, and some combination of expertise and skill. If you work hard and produce pieces you can be proud of, perception can become reality over time. Meanwhile, leverage it to increase your freelance writing rates.
Pro tip: If you don’t have a personal website started, you can get one up and running quickly through Bluehost. Set up a domain name and hosting for as low as $4 per month.
Demonstrate Subject Matter Expertise
It’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of demonstrating relevant skills and expertise to prospective freelance clients and anyone else whose opinions matter.
It’s not just about keeping your LinkedIn profile up to date. It means:
- Listing all relevant skills and credentials on your LinkedIn profile, including esoteric certifications or recognitions that mean little to amateurs
- Seeking endorsements and informal reviews from past clients on LinkedIn and any freelance work platform profiles
- Using LinkedIn updates to promote published work and demonstrate you understand what you wrote and why it’s relevant
- Posting client testimonials and professional reviews or praise for published work on your website, ideally from sources considered authoritative (such as experts or leaders in the fields you write about)
Resist the Temptation to Give Work Away for Free
When the alternative is forgoing a published byline altogether, giving away work for free makes sense for novice writers. At least it results in a publicly visible example of your work for future clients.
Difficult as it is, especially in the early going, you should avoid freelance writing relationships that condition future paid assignments on your willingness to work for free — even on a single assignment.
Many freelance clients ask new writers to submit one or two original articles to showcase their writing skills and general expertise. You won’t completely avoid this ask, but you’re well within your rights to insist on one of two conditions when it comes:
- That any test submission be compensated at the client’s going rate, even if unpublished.
- That the client accept unpublished samples you’ve already written for this purpose.
Discipline is essential here. Agreeing to work for free from the jump creates the impression among clients — warranted or not — that you’re a pushover. That can adversely affect your negotiating power when the time comes to increase your rates. The client could reason, perhaps correctly, that you’d rather continue working at the same rate (and getting paid) than walking away from the relationship altogether.
Make a Reasonable Ask & Be Prepared to Negotiate
When negotiating a rate increase, you can do two things at once: make a reasonable but ambitious first ask and prepare for at least one further round of negotiation from there.
Don’t preemptively limit your first ask to a rate you’re pretty sure the client will accept rather than get into an extended back-and-forth. The typical client is happy to negotiate and won’t hold an ambitious but reasonable ask against you, especially if you’ve been working together happily for months or years and you make a good case for why you deserve more.
At the same time, asking for way more than your writing is worth (or than the client’s budget can muster) only prolongs the process and can lead to hurt feelings. Think ahead to where you want the negotiation to end up — say, a net increase of 15% over your current rate — and target your first ask accordingly.
Wean Yourself Off Freelance Platforms That Take Big Cuts
For many aspiring freelance writers, prioritizing paying writing gigs over satisfying engagements with the potential to turn into something more, freelance job websites like Upwork and Freelancer represent the path of least resistance. They have abundant work and a steady stream of lenient, inexperienced clients who are easy to work with on a one-off basis.
But competition on these sites is fierce, the pay often insultingly low, and the platforms’ cut of client payments substantial (Upwork’s is 5% to 20% of client payments, depending on job size). Good as they are for exposure — and they are good for exposure — you should wean yourself off them as soon as you’re able and seek out direct client relationships that afford better pricing power.
Collect Testimonials From Satisfied Clients
Continue to collect testimonials from satisfied clients and highlight the most flattering on your website, your clips website (if the format allows), and your LinkedIn profile. Recent testimonials carry more weight with clients than outdated ones.
Work Toward Bigger, Longer-Term Projects
If you aim to make a living as a writer, a long string of insecure contributor relationships and one-off assignments brokered by freelance platforms with low rates can’t be your endgame. A career built around longer-term relationships and bigger projects is one more likely to value your work appropriately and advance your professional standing.
How your stable, successful independent writing career looks depends on your skills and interests. The most successful and satisfied writers I know mostly work within narrow niches or provide very specific services. For example, one professional editor I know supplements his full-time income by ghostwriting vanity memoirs and family histories for prosperous people not notable enough to attract professional biographers. With a wealthy client base and an impressive body of work, he’s basically able to name his price — something all freelancers, skill set notwithstanding, can aspire to.
Freelance writing is not difficult to break into. With dozens of freelance platforms catering to writers and other creatives, getting started is as easy as creating a writer profile and bidding on clients’ projects.
Just don’t expect to earn a full-time living or stop living paycheck to paycheck during your first months as a freelance writer. Without prior experience, you must start on the lowest rungs of the ladder, working for clients with tight budgets and often uninspiring assignments. Building a robust body of work takes time, even for prolific writers.
Keep at it long enough, though, and the picture should improve. You can settle into a productive niche, connect with clients willing to pay you what you’re worth, and feel less urgency to chase lower-paying or unsatisfying work to make ends meet. You’ll also gain the confidence to request a raise when warranted. And so your freelance writing rates, along with your total take-home, will increase.