I know it's tempting. Really, I do. You have no portfolio, so you have no authority, right? WRONG.
Don't undervalue yourself. By doing so you undervalue the entire freelance writing industry. Because of writers who are willing to do a blog post on Fiverr for $5 or marketing copy on Upwork for $10, the rest of us spend unnecessary time explaining to prospective clients why a $200 blog post should be worth it for them.
Have a little self-respect. Even if you don't have a massive portfolio, you've spent years learning to write. You shouldn't squander away your talent. I've been there, and I get it. But when I was in your shoes I refused to work for rock-bottom rates and my first year I grossed about $38,000. That's not mind-blowing (especially for a writer trying to pay rent in New York), but for the first year of a small business, it's nothing to scoff at either.
More importantly, remember you are not a client's employee. They are your client or prospective client. You are not interviewing for a job. You are discussing a project and they need your expertise to complete it. They do not dictate what you get paid. You tell them what you get paid and then they decide if they want to pay it. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. You are your boss. They are not your boss. Never let a client treat you like anything but an equal.
Even now, as an experienced writer with several years of magazine editorial experience, a five-year long portfolio of published non-fiction works, and a Master's Degree in creative writing, I still have to deal with clients who want quantity over quality. Those are not clients whose name you want your work on. Let me give you two recent examples from the past month.
- Like any freelance writer, I have an ebb and flow to my workflow. I have a heavy workload at the beginning of the month, another toward the end. In the middle I work on my fiction projects but don't make much short-term money. Since I have a great deal of recruiting and HR writing experience, I signed up for a resume writing service (which will remain nameless for legal reasons). For my first resume client through this service, I created a resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile. Standard stuff, no big deal. However, because this agency works on a flat rate, they pay writers a flat rate. The client was nitpicky and I ended up doing a number of revisions. By the time the resume was accepted I had well over 12 hours into this client. The flat rate for the service I was providing was $48. I expected I could turn around a resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile in a couple hours and do a few a day if I was in a slow period. Upon looking up the service on the agency's website, they charged that client nearly $400. So they get $400, hire a writer for peanuts to do the bulk of the work for what amounts to under $4/hour, and then laugh all the way to the bank. Quite the business model, eh? I actually wound up politely telling them I refuse to work for less than half of New York's minimum hourly wage. I then asked them to pass the client on to a new writer because I was done with it, but they paid me the $48 anyway out of the blue yesterday, so I guess my copy was good enough after all. I moved on from that. Lesson learned. I suspect that most resume writing services probably gouge their writers, but that's neither here nor there. It's not my usual thing anyway, I was just looking for something I could scale up or down as needed. No big deal, but I mention it here as an example of a predatory client, and so you can learn from my mistake.
- The CEO of a small marketing start-up stumbled across my website. This is a different experience from above. I don't want to shit-talk them here because I think his heart was in the right place, so again I won't give their name. It's important to understand that often low-ball rates aren't proposed out of malicious or parsimonious intent, but lack of knowledge of the freelance writing industry and a fundamental misunderstanding about what goes into crafting articles and posts. This prospective client wanted me to write 2-3 posts a week that required a mid-to-high level of research, ranging from 300-700 words. I told him my base rate for blogs is $200 per post, but if I was allowed to keep posts in the 300-400 word range I'd be happy to discount my rate to $100/each to help him save money until his business began to monetize. Even though I was doing him a favor by lowering my rate, he suggested that the rates weren't reasonable. I pointed him to the Editorial Freelancers' Association rate table to demonstrate industry standards and then he found a reason to exit the conversation with promises to be in touch soon. I haven't heard from him since. The lesson here is not that I should lower my rates, but that businesses must learn to budget for quality services if they require them.
I'll say it again. DO NOT UNDERVALUE YOURSELF. Just starting out is not a reason to write full-length articles for the cost of a value meal at McDonald's. Don't do that to yourself, and don't do it to the rest of us. The rate table above is a great place to start if you aren't sure what you should be charging.
Avoiding race-to-the-bottom sites is another great move. Upwork has some great opportunities for making side money in a lot of verticals, but in the month I had an account there I didn't see one valuable writing opportunity.
Another pro tip: Don't write for "exposure." This is a bullshit term used by disreputable publications who want to pull ad revenue from your work and give you none of it. You cannot eat exposure. You cannot pay your rent with exposure. Respect your own talent, and more importantly, only work with clients who are willing to respect it as well. Don't let the Huffington Post pull thousands of dollars in ad revenue off of content they didn't even pay you for. If you need to build a portfolio, populate your own blog to provide writing samples. If you're trying to be a serious freelance writer, you need a website to promote yourself. Make sure it has a built in blog or you'll have a hard time selling yourself as a serious writer.
If I haven't given you enough reason yet to raise your rates or begin your new career with respectable rates, I'll give you this final thought. I write mostly for business-to-business, or B2B, publications. Business-minded people often don't take creative-minded people seriously. Fortunately for us writers, editors typically have a creative background, but freelance rates are usually set by publishers (who often come from sales in the B2B world), or worse, finance departments. If it were up to editors we'd all be making a steady $2/word, but sadly it's not.
Now, if you put yourself before a business professional such as a publisher and tell them you're willing to write 2,000-word features for $20, you'll never get an ounce of respect from them (and they will take advantage of you for as long as you will let them). All they will see is profit with no overhead.
However, if you display confidence, make them understand that you're running a business also, and that you have a valuable and marketable talent superior to those bottom-rate hacks and must charge rates commensurate with your worth, you'll find yourself beginning client relationships on more equal footing than you ever would with a low-rate publication. You'll thank me later when you want to increase your rate or when that editor passes your name on to another editor. Maybe you'll lose a few prospective clients this way, but did you need that $10 gig that badly anyway?