When is it okay to take work below industry rates?

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This is a question every freelancer must ask herself at some point, and I’ve asked myself this numerous times over the last decade of freelancing part-time, and at least three times in the last six months of full-time freelancing.

Usually, I stick with industry rates published by the Editorial Freelancers Association. There are several reasons I like these rates:

  1. They’re not ridiculously unaffordable for most clients.
  2. They’re professional rates so that I can afford to live.
  3. They offer a range, so that if it’s work I have more experience in, I know I can ask at the higher end of the range. If it’s work I’m just breaking into, I’ll quote at the lower end of that range.
  4. This rate card updates with changes in the industry, so I know my rates are current.

But, there are some situations when I consider charging less.

Friends & Family Discount

About half of the gigs I’ve gotten in the last few years have been for friends and family members. I know that initially, their intent to work with me is to show their support for my career, even before they know where my strengths are. That, to me, is worth acknowledgment.

Another important element to consider is that friends and family are usually my best ambassadors. They’re the ones who come to me saying, “I met with a professional last week who mentioned wanting to write a book. I gave her your name.” These unsolicited recommendations are worth something to me.

Finally, even if friends or family members can need more hand-holding as clients, there’s a base element of love there. That makes it easier to be frank with them about issues and questions that crop up during the course of the project.

Ongoing Work

I wrote in a previous blog that I spend 20% of my time looking for new projects and clients. If someone can save me some of that time by offering ongoing work, I’ll often consider a discount.

This is a tricky one though because I always want to know that there will be ongoing work. Sometimes that’s not something the client can promise, and so I’m awarding their intent but not their ability to make good on that intent. It’s a risk I take when working for lower rates for this reason, but I think it’s more important to cultivate good will with clients than not to.

Just like with friends and family, happy clients make good ambassadors.

I’m New at It

I’ve only been freelancing for about ten years. That means I’m approaching a middle level in my career, and while I feel that I have extensive skill in some disciplines, I’ve not yet worked as much with others. If I’m new at the type of work the client needs, I will either quote at the low end of the EFA range or below.

Working For Free

Do I ever give up writing for free? Yes. I try not to do it often, but there are two scenarios when it makes sense to me to write pro bono:

  1. When writing for a charity or non-profit. I’ve written multiple times for JuNoWriMo, and I’ve loved every minute of it.
  2. When guest blogging on a site that will provide good exposure.

Here’s the thing about writing for exposure: I don’t like doing it when someone comes to me with a site or publication I’ve never heard of and promises that writing for them will reward me with a byline.

What I don’t mind is when I pitch a guest post to a blog that I’ve followed for months or years, and they accept but don’t pay guest posters with monetary compensation. In other words, if you want someone to write only for exposure, let them come to you.

Final Thoughts

Look, at the end of the day, I like getting paid competitive rates for my work. However, there are times when writing for less or writing for free makes sense. There are times when doing so makes me feel good.

At the end of the day, I say follow your gut…but it doesn’t hurt to have some policies in place (like the amount you discount to friends and family, for example!).

Freelance Life: Where to Find Work

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Last week, I wrote about how often I’m on the hunt for new freelance opportunities. Where do I spend my time looking? This is one of the most frequent questions I’m asked when people learn I’m a freelance writer. I imagine that’s because of a few things:

  • The freelance life can seem glamorous
  • For many, the idea of constantly seeking more work is a foreign notion
  • People are intrigued by how one can make life work without the 9-5

I’m going to talk about each of these and then I’ll share with you some of my best resources for finding freelance work…and some of my worst.

It’s a Glamorous Life

Many people I’ve met see me and think I’m living like Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. They think I work for one to two hours a week and somehow make enough money to afford an apartment, high fashion, and expensive shoes. How they could think this while in the same room is still a mystery (I’m a sweatshirt and leggings/jeans sort of person), but that’s not what I’m here to solve today.

I think for some, freelancing can be a glamorous life, but it’s never that easy. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and some of that effort results in nothing, so it takes the ability to accept losses and pivot into new opportunities. It takes the ability to pretend you don’t have writer’s block, to write even when you don’t feel like the words are coming out in a smooth stream. It takes a heck of a lot more than writing, “I couldn’t help but wonder…” followed by a string of puns (this is how I think of Carrie Bradshaw’s writing in the show).

Freelancing is hard, sometimes thankless work. Aside from the everyday hurdles, there’re the accounting hurdles. You’re self-employed as a freelancer, which for me, means I pay 30% of my income in taxes. I don’t get company-sponsored health insurance or a pension/retirement plan. No stock options or bonuses either. Every dollar I earn has a certain amount of time and energy attached to it; it’s all traceable. The benefit? I don’t have a boss. I don’t have to set an alarm. I can work in my pajamas if I want, early in the morning, in the middle of the day, or late at night. I can work three 12-hour days and take the rest of the week off. I could potentially travel and work from anywhere.

Flexibility. I think this is what people see as glamorous, and this is what they’re interested in. I get it–that’s what drew me too, and despite the difficulties of being a freelancer, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’ve done the 9-5 and felt like I wanted to just let my brains ooze out of my ears (pretty sure that’s anatomically impossible). So I get it–but it’s not what it’s portrayed as in entertainment. Like any job, it’s hard work.

If you want to be a freelancer, be prepared to work your butt off.

Always on the hunt…

For me, working in a 9-5 job was so stifling that I was always looking for another job anyway. The only exception to that was when I worked a 9-1 job and freelanced on the side. The morning job was a writing position, so really it wasn’t that different except I had to get up, get dressed, and get to the office. And even while I worked at that office, I was looking for gigs because that job was only part-time.

So, I’ve been constantly job hunting since about 2008. After a while, I have gotten used to it, but at first, it was tough to work all day and then on top of that, give time over to job/gig/client hunting. The thing to remember about freelancing is that jobs and clients can come and go. Maybe it’s just a temporary gig, or maybe a start-up company can’t keep it going and folds. Whatever the reason, you don’t want to find yourself without any work to do.

This isn’t a “stay with the same company for 30 years and then get a gold watch” kind of lifestyle, though does anyone have that anymore? I feel like in order to make it in this world professionally, you always have to be willing to jump from one situation to another. At least, with freelancing, that’s expected. No one looks at me like I’m a defective worker because I’ve worked with many clients and agencies. No one asks why I “only” worked with someone for six months. They just presume that’s how long the gig was, which would be my answer if they asked.

Because I’m always on the hunt for more work, my list of places I hunt for said work evolves. The list I’m going to give you soon is my current list, but if you’re reading this a year or more from now, who knows? I might have moved on to something else and chances are I’ve written a new blog post about it.

Balancing a Flexible Life

A flexible working life also means a flexible budget. People are often surprised that I can live on a freelance income. Here’s the key: Budgeting. Every month, I track what I spend on everything in my life. Like constant job hunting, this was exhausting at first. But it’s actually become quite freeing because if I have a week when I need to work less so that I can do more schoolwork, I know from my budget if I can move things around.

This is one such week because I have my last MFA deadline of the semester in a few days (not that other deadlines don’t follow).

The point is that in order to survive without a 9-5, I have to know what’s going on with my finances at all times. There are tons of apps out there to help with this, and that’s a topic for another post (look for it later this month). But without budgeting, I’d be lost. It’s also helped me to cut down on unnecessary costs so that I can fit things in like an annual budget for writing contests.

The other piece of this that goes along with constantly looking for new work is that I’m always seeking ways to be more efficient or earn more per hour. Yes, many freelance gigs pay by the word or piece, but I can time how long it takes me to finish an assignment and then know what my hourly rate is. Right now, for example, I’m hovering between $30 and $40 an hour.

That may sound glitzy to some, and it’s more per hour than I’ve ever made in my life up until this point, but keep in mind that more seasoned freelancers make upwards of $150/hour. Also remember that because of my school and teaching commitments, working a 40-hour workweek isn’t possible at this time and that even if I did, 8 of those 40 hours would be devoted to finding new work.

I don’t have a boss or HR department that allows me the chance to negotiate for a raise every year. The way I get a “raise” is to find new, better-paying work, work faster, or charge more for individual clients.

Where to Find Freelance Work and What I Avoid

I’m not new to writing; I’ve been writing professionally for about ten years now. But I am new to considering freelancing my primary source of income, so many of my sources for job hunting are great if you’re just getting started. Admittedly, when I was brand new at this, I worked for content mills.

I really discourage this because even if you’re new, you deserve to make more than a quarter of a penny per word. The only benefits to content mills are that you typically get a broad range of writing assignments for different clients and that it will help you train yourself to meet deadlines.

But you know what? You can find those benefits elsewhere too. So to reiterate, because I don’t think I can say it enough, don’t bother with content mills.

Don’t bother with content mills.

Don’t bother with content mills.

I also steer clear of sites like ODesk and Elance because, in my opinion and experience, most of the jobs posted on sites that encourage bidding wars pay far too little. Another problem is the potential for the theft of your ideas. Many of these sites ask for samples and test articles that are unpaid, and trying to trace who is illegally using your material can be difficult and time-consuming. I have written samples and tests before, but I’ve noticed that the legitimate companies and clients looking for a freelancer will pay something for those tests and samples.

So here’s something to help you remember: If they don’t pay, walk away.

You’re not doing this for free. You’re doing it to make a living. Your time and effort are worth something.

My Job-Hunting Resources

Now that you’ve made it this far (congrats!), I’m happy to provide you with a list of resources that have led to great opportunities for me in the past.

In addition to these resources, my own network has started to provide some interesting opportunities. I take every opportunity I can to tell people (without badgering them) about my work. When they ask me about freelancing with that dewy look in their eye that says they’re imagining I spend all day shopping and gabbing with my friends like Carrie, I tell them about my life and my work. Sometimes they know someone who needs a wordsmith. Sometimes they are the ones who need a wordsmith.

Some Final Words of Wisdom

Don’t give up. If freelancing is what you want to do, it’s going to take a thick skin and a will to succeed. This is my third attempt to make freelancing my primary source of income. The first time, I had no experience. The second time I had some experience, but the U.S. was deep in the worst recession in almost 100 years. Both times I got scared when money got too scarce and I caved and went for the 9-5 job.

Both times I regretted it.

This time, I’ve stuck with it and even though there have been some lean months, and I’ve had to supplement with part-time work here and there, I’ve made it a year so far relying mostly on a freelance income and I’m starting to see some growth.

That’s my final tip for you. If you get nervous about money, take a part-time job if you can swing it. That will allow you the time it takes to keep freelancing. Now I’ve reached a point where I have enough freelance work that I can get by with working about 20 hours a week, which is allowing me to start pitching to magazines and looking for ghostwriting and editing clients, so that I can add to my repertoire different types of work, and really diversify while also–I hope–specializing in a few topics.

A freelance writing career is always growing, always evolving, and that’s one of the things I love most about it, in addition to being able to work in my PJs. So if you think you want to give it a try, do some soul searching first and then start looking for gigs. Don’t be upset if you’re rejected. One of my favorite jobs started with a rejection, and then they needed another writer so they asked me to join the team, and I love it so much that I look forward to new assignments.

Don’t stop writing and don’t stop hunting for more work.

The 80/20 Rule

There are two questions people ask the most about my work as a freelancer: Where do I find gigs and clients, and where do I find the time to find them? In this post, I’m going to talk about the second question–we’ll save the first for next week’s post on freelancing.

I use the 80/20 rule, which originally stipulated that 80% of your output is generated from 20% of your input. When applied in this way, this rule is known as the Pareto principle, named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist. Since then, the rule has been applied in a broader sense to many practices–not just a statistical approach to input and output.

Want to be successful in marketing? Use messaging that blatantly sells 20% of the time. That means if you write a 1,000-word email, you should only allow 200 of those words to be “salesy.” The rest can be used to engage the reader with human interest stories for example. Think of an informercial–most of the time is usually spent showing how someone cannot complete a task without undue difficulty until they use the advertised product at the end.

Want to engage your social media followers? Only 1/5 posts should push your content and products.

Want to maximize your time finding freelance gigs? Spend 20% of it searching and applying for new work–and the other 80% working. Sometimes this means spending an hour and a half each day looking for new gigs; sometimes it means spending a whole day applying and pitching and devoting the other four working days to producing content.

But what if you’re new to freelancing? Should you spend more than 20% of your time searching for work?

No.

There are two reasons to avoid this pitfall, and if I’d known this when I got started, I might have successfully transitioned to full-time freelance writing and editing in fewer than three tries (though the first try was influenced by the 2008 recession, I admittedly had no clue what I was doing when I tried again in 2011).

#1: You want to build good habits.

If you start out looking for gigs and pitching articles 100% of your time, you’ll build that as your work habit. It might become difficult to actually sit down and write once you do get work.

By limiting yourself to spending 20% of your working time looking for new clients and pitching ideas to editors, you establish from the start that you need to spend the rest of the time writing and that you must be efficient in your search for more work.

#2: Just because you don’t have any clients yet doesn’t mean you don’t have work.

Understand what it means to sell the rights to a written work. Understand why you need to use a contract when working with clients and how to get or create one. Build your website and start blogging. Start building your social media platform. What social media networks will you use, what will you post to them, how often, how will you post, how will you measure results, and what are your goals? Create business and marketing plans. Write sample articles, newsletters, white papers, blogs, website content, e-books. Learn about self-publishing, indie publishing, and traditional publishing. Acquire any tools of the trade you’ll need for your work. Make sure that you’re set up ergonomically.

These are just some of the tasks you can take care of during the other 80% of your time.

When you can’t freelance full-time…

Maybe you can’t devote all of your weekly working hours to freelancing just yet, or maybe you prefer to work on your freelance job on the side. That’s fine, and it’s the reason I love the 80/20 rule.

Sometimes because of school and teaching, I can’t devote 40 hours a week to freelance work. Sometimes I can only put in 30. By using a percentage and not a set number of hours, and by having the flexibility to distribute that time each week however necessary, it’s possible for me to meet deadlines while still feeling like I have enough irons in the fire.

Freedom and flexibility are some of the perks of the freelance lifestyle. I learned a lot of what I know the long, hard way–so I hope that in sharing those insights with you, you can enjoy a simpler path to freelance success, whatever that may look like in your life.