The two biggest mistakes most freelance writers make

And neither has much to do with writing skill…



All freelance writers make their fair share of embarrassing blunders, especially in the beginning of their careers. It’s a normal part of the learning process. Some writers waste months writing for free for their non-profitable blog when they could be focusing on pursuing high-paying clients instead. Some spend a year or more writing for content mills or bidding sites before realising they’re looking for a living in all the wrong places. Others spend lots of money on assorted books, seminars and expensive ‘Freelance Writing Success’ courses that don’t really help them earn.


Anyone who has ever written for money can list dozens of things they wish they’d done differently in the beginning. Once you’ve been diddled by a non-payer, you quickly acquire the habit of asking for a deposit up front. Once you’ve been admonished for ‘chunky copy’, you soon learn to break up paragraphs into more digestible segments. And once you’ve had a bad experience with handshake agreements, you get everything in writing with every client from then on.


Cordoba azur laptop 8
My ‘office’ at the Azur Real Hotel in Cordoba, Argentina (2016). One of the best things about freelance writing is that you can do it from anywhere – as long as you have paying clients and reliable Wi-Fi.


Are you charging enough?


I believe undercharging is the second-biggest mistake new freelancers make, especially those who have just clawed their way out of content mills and low-paying writer boards. Writing fluff articles for four cents a word doesn’t do a budding writer’s self-esteem much good, so it can be a psychological hurdle to jump from that to charging a professional rate for a professional job.


The first decision to make about setting your fees is to determine your MAR:  Minimum Acceptable Rate. This is the least amount of money you’re prepared to accept for what you do. Whether you choose an hourly rate, a per-word rate or a flat fee is up to you – but you need to draw a line in the sand and stick to it.


Your minimum rate is what you charge for the most basic writing jobs. For more difficult projects, you’ll charge more because of the extra work and time involved.


Many new writers set their rates too low because they’re not confident about their experience levels. They succumb to the idea that you must ‘pay your dues’ and ‘work your way up from the bottom’. This is flummery. Charge what you think you’re worth while keeping an eye on what other freelancers with similar skills are charging.


My first-ever client paid me 13 cents a word because that’s what we negotiated. My second-ever client paid me 18 cents a word because that’s what I said my fee was. Every client since has paid me at least 25 cents a word because that was the minimum rate listed on my website for most writing jobs. I charge more for white papers, annual reports, case studies, direct response copywriting and a few other things.


elephant and sitatungas
Professional writing funds three different types of overseas journeys for me: normal holidays (when I sometimes write), digital nomad experiences (when I always write) and serious river expeditions (when I leave the laptop at home). This is central Gabon, West Africa, where I filmed forest elephants, sitatunga antelope and a python big enough to swallow me whole.


Working out your minimum rate involves factoring in your personal overheads (what it costs you to house, transport and feed yourself, etc.) and business overheads (what it costs you to do business). Luckily, freelance writing is a very low-overhead business. If you already own a home PC or laptop, you’re 95 per cent there.


The next question is how many hours a week you want to write. Is this a hobby or a full-time career? In my first financial year as a freelance writer, I earned $36,000 – but I only worked eight months that year. In my second year I earned around $60,000, but once again took a lot of time off to travel.


Work out what you must do to earn your target amount each year. For example, let’s say you decide to set your minimum rate at 20 cents a word. You want to spend a couple of months wandering around Europe after you’ve completed 10 months of solid work. You only want to write 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. Let’s also assume that at your normal pace, you churn out around 2000 words in 6 hours, including all research and editing. As long as you have consistent work, you’ll make $400 per day or $2000 per week. Therefore, ten months should give you an annual income of $88,000.


Sounds great, right? The problem with these calculations, of course, is that they don’t take into account the inevitable dry spells, when you’re still figuring it all out and not earning that much. This is why steady, long-term clients are worth their weight in gold when you’re a professional writer. They bring a measure of predictability to an otherwise patchy income stream.


It takes some writers a long time to break out of the habit of underselling their services. Some never do. Don’t be one of them. Make sure you’re paid what you’re worth from the get-go.


Canada Ecstall 1
Taking a break during my month-long solo exploration of the upper Ecstall River in British Columbia. I saw several black bears on the other side of the river here (that’s where all the berries were). Alas, this beautiful weather didn’t last – 5 days of torrential, flooding rains were just around the corner….


The crucial habit that matters as much as your writing ability


Why is it that so many exceptional freelance writers struggle to make a good living from their craft while less gifted wordsmiths have no trouble earning big dollars? The answer comes down to how (and how much) they’re marketing their writing businesses.


In my eBook The Jet-setting Copywriter, I go into detail about how I went from zero clients to earning over $7000 per month in my first 6 months of serious freelancing, as well as the techniques I use to get high-paying clients. I’m a big believer in targeting specific industries that pay more and I favour a proactive and aggressive approach to drumming up new business.


Every writer must learn which prospecting techniques work best for them. It’s different for everybody. I’ve had great success with cold emailing. Others might prefer cold calling, networking, snail-mail letters of introduction, approaching Linkedin contacts or other methods. It all boils down to finding out what works for you – and then to keep doing it.


So what do I consider the #1 biggest mistake made by freelance writers today? That’s easy: half-hearted marketing of their writing business. Most writers’ income streams are very cyclical. On a graph, they would show up as a wavy line with impressive highs and depressing lows but not much steadiness in between.


This feast or famine cycle occurs for a simple reason – when we’re loaded up with work, we tend to stop all our marketing efforts. Then when the current batch of work slows down or stops completely, we find ourselves with little or no income and must frantically start marketing again. And up and down the income yo-yo goes.


I often hear writers say something like this: “I’ve got a client who’s offering me less than my going rate and it’s not really the kind of writing I enjoy, but I’ve got bills to pay. Should I go ahead and take it?” If you were to question these writers further, you would discover they all have one thing in common – they’re living ‘client-to-client’. In other words, instead of having a constant and reliable stream of clients booked at least a month or two ahead, their sporadic marketing efforts have left them without options. They have to grab the only client on their radar.


Sound familiar? It happened to me in my early days too, but it doesn’t happen to me anymore. Here’s what I did to change everything around (and it’s so simple you might want to kick yourself): once I figured out exactly how much self-marketing activity I needed to do to sustain my income goals, I DOUBLED IT.


Now you’re probably asking yourself: “Hey wait – if I do twice as much self-marketing as I need to, won’t I end up with more work than I can possibly handle?” No, you won’t –  what happens instead is that you end up with twice as many writing opportunities, which in turn means you can be far more selective about the ones you take on. You can accept much more satisfying work and leave the lower-paying, painful stuff to someone else.


Having a larger pool of clients to choose from gives you more choices and lets you create a more constant income stream without the ‘famine’ part of the cycle. A common characteristic of most well-paid writers is that they turn down a lot more work than they accept. If a client really wants them, they may have to wait in line.


And you know what? Clients prefer to hire busy writers. A steady workload tells them you’re an in-demand writer, not a desperate one.


My rustic accommodation at Glover’s Reef off the coast of Belize. I left the laptop at home for this trip and snorkeled with sharks and barracudas instead.


I’m certainly not advocating taking on more work than you can manage – that’s stressful, unsustainable and unfair to your clients, who are paying good money for your very best work and deserve nothing less. What I’m saying is that writers need to continue to market themselves even when they’re super-busy in order to ensure a steady supply of future work. Most writers don’t do this and it comes back to bite them later, especially if they’ve been putting all their eggs in one (client) basket.


These days, I try to keep at least 4 or 5 quality, high-paying clients on the go at once so I never run out of work. Because of this, I’m not tempted to take on projects that don’t fit in with my financial and professional goals.


By doubling your marketing efforts, you’ll find that those exhilarating highs and dismal lows in your income stream soon even out into a steadier income. This ‘double the marketing’ method has worked quite well for me and it can work for you too.


Consistent prospecting for new work is about more than just keeping a steady stream of clients coming your way. It’s also about freedom, leverage, confidence and peace of mind. Continually marketing yourself – even when you feel it isn’t strictly necessary – is like having an insurance policy that covers you against the unexpected. When a big project suddenly gets cancelled, when a client decides to move their copywriting in-house or when some other unpleasant surprise hits, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got a backup plan firmly in place. This puts you in control of your own destiny.



7 Comments on “The two biggest mistakes most freelance writers make

  1. Thanks for your article. Great advice. I’m new to freelance copywriting. After a couple of days looking through the online jobs boards/bidding sites, I quickly realised that there’s very often going to be someone who is willing to undercut you or wants you to work for a low wage. It’s good to read that there are clients out there who will pay a fair price for copywriting services. As you say, it seems to be important to target the right companies in the first place and to keep your marketing efforts going so that you can eventually be picky about what work to accept

  2. Whoa those are the things I just realized a few weeks ago. Now and again I am still tempted to bid or look out for offers at the content mills. Thanks to your article, I won’t.

  3. This is a great post. Thank you! I am guilty of slowing down my marketing/promoting when I am busy with client work. You have inspired me to up the anti

  4. I have read a lot of articles about freelancing, but yours are the best by far. You have a no-nonsense and honest style that I really admire. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

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