When It’s OK for Writers toTake $5 Rather Than Writing For Free

by Anne Wayman

penniesEvery now and again some bloggers who write about freelance writing will admonish their audience saying they should never write for low pay. Some even go so far as to suggest a beginning writer is better off writing for free than accepting a gig that only pays $5 or $10 or so.

I disagree.

That doesn’t mean I approve of the so-called content mills, bidding sites, employers who advertise “we want perfection for $5 per 500 words,” etc. I’m sorry they can pay so little and get something written that is apparently good enough. I do notice that these ads tend to repeat, leading me to believe that most of the people responding don’t stick very long, but that’s another topic.

In fact there was a time when I agreed with this philosophy and told writers not to accept such poorly paid gigs.

Then a reader of my blog wrote me and explained how the $2 and $3 articles she was able to dash off made a huge positive difference to her family.



I really don’t know

The truth is I don’t really know how much you should charge for your writing or if the lower paid gigs are going to work for you or not. To think that I do is simple arrogance. When I read that gal’s email I gulped and got off my high horse.

I disagree with the notion that it’s somehow poor form to accept low pay for a writing gig. I disagree that taking a low paying gig drags the price down for the rest of us – it doesn’t. More about that in a moment.

Why low paying gis may work for you

Here are some of the reasons why a low paying writing job even be a good idea:

Getting paid the first time is thrilling, even if it’s for very little. It somehow makes the possibility of earning a living writing seem more doable. Finding a gig that repeatedly pays even a small amount can help build your confidence.

It’s really hard to start at high rates. In fact, I’d say you have to be lucky to be able to get more than $10-$25 per 500 word post in the beginning or more that $10-15 an hour. It happens. Authors do occasionally sell their first novel or non-fiction book for a truly decent advance. New writers have been known to stumble into well paying gigs. And sometimes those new to freelancing know someone who will pay them more than the low rate – they have an ‘in’ in other words. Most of us, however, have to get some credits before we can command higher pay. Sure you can write samples for yourself, but having a two or three you were paid for can also help.




It’s not that hard to move your rate up once you’ve gotten started. Assuming your writing is decent, not perfect, not great, but decent, once you have two or three cheapie articles under your belt you can begin to ask for more. Maybe not from the folks who paid you pennies, but from others. You can begin to set minimums, like no work under $25 per article or even $25 an hour. It takes raising your sites, looking in new places and being willing to ask.

Lower paid gigs may help you move into a new niche. Once you’ve got some credits and are getting better money, you may want to move into a new niche or area of writing. Try your higher rates first, but if you need to, be willing to come down.

Lower pay may be enough for you. You don’t have to feel badly because you choose to work at lower rates. I know several writers who keep their hand in with the lower rates because they know they can always generate a fast hundred bucks or so. Getting paid something may indeed be better than writing for free. And maybe being sure you can bring in low rates makes it worth your time.

Freelance writing is a diverse as those of us who are freelance writers. Sure, you can learn from those of us who have gone before, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t free to do it your way.

What do you say? Have you ever worked for a low fee? Have you found ways to earn more? Does low-paying writing work for you? Let’s talk about it in comments.

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Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by puuikibeach



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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Carmen Rane Hudson August 15, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Thank you for this article! Low pay is honestly where I started–and I was proud as punch. If I’d had to try to plunge into the high rates right away with their longer wait times on getting paid I never would have started. What was important was meeting my bills (I kept expenses low) so I could stay home with the Kiddo.

I appreciate a post about low rates that doesn’t get down on those of us who haven’t quite busted up where we’d like to be. $16 an hour may not be my ideal rate, but…it’s pretty awesome compared to being unemployed and compared to the $10 I used to make at the 8-5 before starting this journey. Stumbling across all the negativity about lower paid writers on other blogs actually made me start to feel like a failure where before I’d felt like a huge success, doing what I loved, staying home, getting paid for it, and still having plenty of free time to do it. It also helps that I write pretty gosh darn fast, which means a per-project rate that might be slave wages for another writer is actually sometimes just fine for me when I count up the hours. That’s not to say I’ll never push for higher paying gigs–I’ve got queries out and one hopeful response–but just that it’s nice to see a perspective that acknowledges the other side of the fence.
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annew August 16, 2013 at 8:05 am

Carmen, the truth is only you can define what you consider success… glad you liked the article.

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Lauren July 21, 2013 at 3:31 am

Great article, Anne!

I’m a longtime lurker, but I think this might be my first comment.

I actually wrote a post that was similar to this back in October – http://littlezotz.com/2012/10/escaping-the-content-mills/ – but it was regarding content mills, which are notorious for low pay. And yet…I never had a problem with them. Many of our fellow bloggers are SUPER down on content mills, but, as you said, everyone needs to start somewhere and it’s very hard for new writers to get high-paying gigs right off the bat.

The content mills gave me confidence (“getting paid for the first time is thrilling”) and it really wasn’t TOO hard to increase my rates once I got on a roll [I went from making $9/hour to $25/hour in less than a year (Though, these days, I prefer to be paid per project rather than per hour)]. I’ve now been writing professionally–as my sole source of income–for three years!

Every writer has to start somewhere–and usually that “somewhere” has low pay. The main thing, to me, is to not STAY working for low pay. Always move forward. Stay positive. Persevere.

But there’s no shame in being a newbie. And I wanted to thank you for writing this for that reason. When I was starting out, I felt horribly ashamed that I had to take on the type of low-paying “no-no” gigs the other respected bloggers admonished. I think it’s great that you’ve essentially given the next generation of newbies permission to BE newbies and to just…get out there and try. :)
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annew July 22, 2013 at 3:51 pm

amen… none of us were born knowing this stuff were we ;)

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Lauren July 22, 2013 at 10:56 pm

Exactly.

It’s part of the growing process. The main thing is to make sure we actually remember to GROW during said process. ;)
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annew July 23, 2013 at 8:25 am

I don’t know, Lauren, I’m not sure growing is optional… we can remember, perhaps, to do it with some grace.

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Amandahblackwell July 17, 2013 at 6:53 pm

When I began freelance writing, my writing rates were not anywhere near what they are today. Why? Because I was newbie. I bid on gigs, searched Craigslist (sometimes I still do), etc.

I think if you’re starting out, it’s not a bad idea to write for a low fee, especially if you’re working full-time. You’ll be able to build a decent portfolio and then you can raise your rates. If you attract clients, you can eventually quit your day job.

Writing for free isn’t a bad idea if you’re writing for quality websites/blogs. I think it’s a good idea to balance/manage your time and pick and choose writing projects.
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Tracy July 17, 2013 at 10:22 am

This is very timely for me. I have been a journalist for 10 years (half of that time full-time reporting, and the last five years as a freelancer). I earn professional rates. However, yesterday I was asked to write for free for a blog. I wrote back and asked if they would consider paying me to write on a scheduled, frequent basis. I can’t justify using my time to write a weekly blog for free for a corporate site. However, I will consider a lower rate than I typically demand because I am interested in the work for other reasons. But I’m not doing it for free.

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Marjorie McAtee July 17, 2013 at 11:00 am

I wouldn’t do that for free either.
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annew July 17, 2013 at 12:17 pm

And yet, as Tracy indicates, there might be a reason do write it for less than usual. Fun facts!

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annew July 17, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Good for you, Tracy – for thinking it through, setting a boundary, and being willing to consider less because of other benefits. Let us know what happens.

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