A Word on Worth

“The freelance writer is a person who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.”

—Robert Benchley

Joanna Trollope said, “Writers who last, the writers whose writing is indeed their monument, not only have an essential benevolence, a fundamental affection for the human race, but also, more uncomfortably, possess a hefty dose of humility”.

I wish this were truer in the world of those who want to hire a writer. Who depend on a freelancer to make dreams happen or meet a deadline, or who want your words to be their words, want their name on the product and who need you, the writer, to get them out of a jam? Sadly, not so.

Six months ago I took a huge leap in my life into the world of Freelance Writing: Highly competitive and a marketing marathon. But I lucked out. I had a unique marketing approach, had published for myself and had a twist to my work in that I had 30 years as a psychologist under my belt and that created a bit of a niche for me. I did copious research on what to charge for a given job and created a middle-of-the-road approach. This was not easy since as a therapist I made $150 and hour. But I was determined to do what I love and the money would follow. Within 24 hours I had my first job offer. Here was my first historical inquiry for ghostwriting a book:

“I have a million dollar story that takes place over 40 years, on 3 continents, will have a sequel, includes famous people in Hollywood, should be made into a movie and I need the entire book done in two months, 300 pages and I can pay you $250 for the whole job. Do you want it?”

I fell out of my chair. Figured this guy was simply pulling my leg until more requests for jobs came in with the same sort of focus: No money for lots of hard innovative, creative blood sweating work. This was my introduction to the world of freelance writing.

My second job offer was from a young group of entrepreneurs who wanted to capitalize on the energy amassing from the book 50 Shades of Grey. They wanted to generate a few full-time writers to write erotic stories to be made into cheap paperbacks. The wanted to pay $.08 cents per…page…I chocked. That must have been a typo but it wasn’t. I would rather work at a car wash wiping down Escalades.

Freelancers have freedom, yes. But they inherit an industry that is much like working building the pyramids. In the world of “internet freelancing” the basic understanding is “get a writer for as cheaply as possible”. No concern for quality. And the reason that hundreds of ‘wanna-be-writers’ flock to signing up for the sites that help them bid on writing jobs is simply this: They have no idea what they are worth and will simply bid on a ten page job and accept a measly, insulting, self-esteem-crushing $25 for their hard work being someone else’s muse. I am here to say to these writers, “WTF are you thinking?” And I know the answer: It’s all about self-worth.

This question “what am I worth” follows us through life in one form or another. We start with the most obvious reason for asking it, which is all about love: Am I worth loving, am I worth knowing, am I worth that gift you are giving me, that smile, that compliment. Then the second string of brutal questions float to the surface of our self concept: Am I good enough, will they like me, will I be rejected? And our perception of the competition being better than us, has us downgrading our dreams, our skill set, and our earnings. In creeps resentment, exhaustion, and the death of inspiration.

Once these questions become a staple of our self-concept, self-worth then gets all tied up with money. Worth becomes all about the dollar. When we take our first waitressing job and see that the guy who ate two breakfasts the size of Texas simply left a dollar and change as a tip we take it personally all too often. Most of us first think to ourselves “Did I give bad service?” before we arrive at the most obvious reason: He’s a cheapskate!!

So, what does self-worth this have to do with writing and what does it have to do with those of us who freelance write, ghostwrite, and generally write for other people or who long to write for a living? Well, it has to do with the issue every artist collides with which: “how much am I worth, what do I charge for a story, for my ideas and my writing?” This question is not only difficult to answer if you don’t believe in yourself, but it is even harder to answer if you are in a growing industry that does not value your craft. The world of the freelancer is currently built on a lack of respect for the writer and his or her craft. But the old adage says: People cannot get away with what they get away with unless we let them.

Self-esteem commands more money and gets it. This is a trustworthy equation. But just as real is the other, more dominant equation: Low self-esteem does not command money and many times you do not get the job or the sale. This truth is another Murphy’s Law: Anything that can happen will. I would add to this, “anything that can happen will and it will reflect what you believe every time, especially about yourself”.

So, let’s say you do some painstaking therapy on self-worth, you forgive your teachers or your country for creating beliefs about what perfect and enough is, or a belief that you should write like Hemingway and Sylvia Plath before you can show your writing to anyone, or paint like Chagall before any of your paintings see the light of day. But what happens if you slog your way through falling in love with yourself, loving the art of writing or self-employment and when you finally are out there as a writer and a creator, you find that the world does not have a reference for the worth of your craft? Now that is where new questions come in.

As a freelance writer, which includes writing for others, ghostwriting, writing articles, blogs and web copy there is a general understanding of what to charge. Most freelancers either charge by the hour, the word or the project. The going rate by the word is from $.25 per word if you’re a new and budding writer to $2.00 a word if you are the ghostwriter for the stars or for Clive Cussler as a bestselling author who needs to crank out a novel a year. And a given page of original writing is 300 words, an article is about 1500 words and a full-fledged book is on the average of 65,000 words. So you do the math and see how this shakes out. It looks pretty good in the long run doesn’t it? But there is a kink.

Have you noticed that some of the most important jobs in the world are under-valued and under-paid? Childcare specialists and grade school teachers are at the top of my list for underpaid and in fact two of the most important jobs on the planet. Artists, writers, potters, builders, and fine craftsmen and those who make our lives more interesting and beautiful follow a close second. But, if my web designer fixes some code on my website for a hundred dollars a blink, if my plumber unsticks my toilet handle, or if my lawyer gets me out of a jam, I could empty my bank account. This is now the world of the freelance writer: Underpaid and underappreciated. And we can thank the internet, for those sites promising you a lucrative writing career and who charge you to bid on a job prospect for this growing issue of lack of value for a writer. But in the end we the writers are who sets our own value and should pick and choose who we write for.

There are dozens of sites springing up for getting freelance writing gigs. Outsource and Elance are clearing houses for people needing to find and hire a writer but not before you have to jump in with all the other freelancers and outbid the project to get the job. It is like Russian roulette. Bidding is how it works and you can be the most amazing writer but there is always a twenty-year-old who hardly can write who will outbid you every single time and in the end, for almost all those doing the hiring, money is the object not quality, not originality, not experience. It is all about ‘how cheap can I get the job done?’ (Maybe that is why there is very little good writing out there) Duh.

So, today I got a request for a three-article project for a woman’s business blog. That comes to about nine pages of original writing that needed research in order to write the articles. Although this is not the kind of writing I do, I read her terms and they went like this:

“I need three articles written by tomorrow by 12:00 NOON. The topics are dry cleaning, dryer vent maintenance, and fireplace parts. I can pay $20 for all 3. Contact me to get information.”

Can you even spell slave labor? That comes out to about one penny a word. And words are precious commodities.  But people answer these job requests and crank out something in the middle of the night and submit for their hefty $20 that you hope will be paid on time or at all. What are people thinking? Oh I said that already.

Writing is an art-form, freelance writing is even harder in that you have to get inside the head of another person especially to ghostwrite 250 pages. But, like so many of the arts people want something for nearly nothing. More people will by poster art at Marshall’s than invest in original works.

In the art world when I was selling paintings I was frequently asked to lower the price on an original oil painting, asked to make a deal, asked if the artist could change the painting and add red. The same things happen for writers. We are frequently asked to prostitute ourselves, be less of who we are, write less, write faster, change and change and change copy till the person that hired you in the first place is now happy. This can be a form of prostitution. Writing is a skill that is worth good money and even greater appreciation.

So I wrote the woman who wanted three articles in less than 24 hours, I wrote the man who wanted an entire screenplay for $80, I wrote the person who wanted ten blog entries for $250 total and simply said: “Are you nuts”. They did not reply.

Marketing yourself as a freelance writer first starts with knowing how much you are worth and sticking to it. Learning how to market yourself and not fall into the internet bidding frenzy that will have you wearing shackles and never being able to get up for glass of water and in the end will erode every bit of self-esteem you have fought so hard to retain.

As for me, I take the risk. I ask for what I want only after I am certain how much I am worth. I show them amazing writing that I am proud of. I am prompt, original, a great listener and can interpret what they want and give them more. In the end, a hundred twenty-dollar-jobs drift in and out of my life in a month but the people who know my value, know that writing is an art form, even if it is for the internet, and who value integrity and professionalism will hire me and give me the price I submit. I wait patiently for these moments. And these are the people who pay promptly and with gratitude.

Writing for someone else is a relationship, even if it is for a newspaper or magazine. These relationships are what will build your freelance life. These relationships will enrich your life, teach you to be a better writer and in the end pay all your bills. But you need to love what you do, have faith in yourself and know what you are worth. Then ask for it and don’t settle even if you cannot pay the utility bill. The right jobs will simply fall your way and you will be off and running with a life that makes you feel you are worth a million dollars. Because you are.

I read a story about a bestselling author, Mary Higgins Clark. She was turned down more times than I have backbone for, but today she is paid 12 million dollars for three books a contract. She cranks one out every year and says she never thought she would be where she is. It takes starting with that one article, that one blog entry, that one contest and knowing you were born to write. Then the waiting begins.

“Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood—you will either write or you will not—and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.”
—Jim Tully


writers block image




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