Why Writers Don’t “Deserve” to Make More than $5 to $10 an Article…

Something a little different for a change… This post originally appeared on Lori Vidmer’s Words on a Page Blog during “Writers Worth Week” in May of 2012. When I first sent it to Lori in response to her invitation to submit something for WWW, I thought it might be a bit…blunt, but she loved it, saying…

“That is one of the most honest, transparent, and spot-on posts imaginable! Fantastic! I agree 150 percent (if that’s even possible). I think you’re going to find a good bit of support for your point.”

And judging from the comments it elicited in its original appearance, it apparently did strike a positive chord with many readers.

Now, I know that most of my “regulars” here—commercial freelancers who routinely get healthy rates for their writing—don’t need this reminder, but I suspected you’d enjoy it nonetheless.

And for those regular readers who are still working the low-pay sites discussed here, I figured you’d appreciate the confirmation that you indeed have options when it comes to where you seek your writing gigs, and that there’s a whole other “well-fed writing” world out there.

Regardless of who and where you are, if you enjoy it, I hope you’ll spread the word by forwarding this link to anyone you feel would benefit from the message, tweeting it, Facebooking it—whatever and however you’re moved to share it. Enjoy!


Question: Do you consider yourself to be a smart shopper? When buying something big or small—flat-screen TV or a loaf of bread—do you try to get the best price (i.e., watching the sales in the case of the TV or clipping a coupon for the bread)? If you’re like most people, of course you do, right? Okay, file that away for a moment…

Over the past few years, I’ve seen any number of articles and blog posts attacking people who posted ridiculously low-paying writing gigs on online job sites. Yet, as I read these pieces, and the ensuing comments, I’ve been a bit troubled—and perplexed—by the stance taken by some. No, these pathetically low-paying job listings aren’t a positive thing, but they don’t happen in a vacuum. The target of the anger and frustration (i.e., those listing these sorry offers) was the wrong one.

One commenter (Mike) hit the nail on the head when he said, “If you don’t like the terms, then don’t apply—simple. You see these ads over and over for one reason and one reason only—they work. I don’t like them either, but I simply ignore them. No amount of complaining is going to stop them.” But alas, his voice of reason has been all but buried under a mountain of righteous, if misplaced, indignation. How dare they? How can a writer make a living? Who do they think they are?

Frankly, it all smacks of victimhood. In blaming the job posters themselves, who are highly unlikely to change their tune any time soon (and we’ll get to why in a moment), you give up control of your financial future and put it in their hands. Imploring them to change their evil ways assumes writers play no part in this unfolding drama. Wrong.

Say you were looking for some folks to crank out some writing (whether for a content mill or even any one-off project someone needs to have written). And say you didn’t know what to offer said writers. What next? You’d go to some job sites and see, 1) what your fellow posters were offering, and 2) more importantly, what writers were accepting. And when you see listings offering $5 or 10 an article and a long scrolling list of writers responding with various and sundry versions of “Me! Pick Me! I’ll do it for that! I’ll do it for less!” well, you’ve got your answer.

If that same poster went to a bunch of sites, and found nothing but writers saying, in essence, “I won’t write your 500-word, keyword-rich article for anything less than $250,” again, he’d know the going rate. And in that case, think he’d dare post a job offering $5 or $10 for that same article? Not bloody likely. The cyber-hills would echo with laughter.

Of course, that $250 response is a fantasy; it’ll never happen on job sites like these. When supply (writers) outstrips demand (jobs), the reality of competition driving rates down to nothing is as predictable as the sunrise. Econ 101.

But, let’s use the argument many make: that this is even driving down rates respectable entities are willing to pay. Maybe, but here’s what’ll happen. All excited that now they can get the writing that used to cost them a LOT more done for peanuts, they hire some of these writers. And soon discover they can’t cut it. If you pay a bargain-basement writer, and then have to hire another writer to redo what they couldn’t do, it’s no bargain.

One comment read: “This vile writing segment gives professional writing a bad name.” Why should it give professional writing a bad name? Does McDonalds give the Four Seasons (or substitute any top-tier restaurant here) a bad name? Does the No-Tell Motel give Marriot a bad name?

Within many industries, there are different levels of practitioners, serving different client segments and for different rates. If it’s not your segment and not where you make your money, then what do you care what they do?

So, let me address a writer outraged by the folks placing these listings. I realize there are more issues than just price, but that seems to be the biggie, so I’ll focus on that. So, you believe you deserve to be paid more than $5-10 an article, right? Okay, fine. Question: Why do you think that? As I see it, and correct me if I’m wrong, there are only two possible answers to this question and only one with real-world validity:

1) Writers deserve to be paid a fair wage, and $5 – $10 isn’t a fair wage.

2) I deserve to be paid more because my skills are worth more than $5 or $10 an article.

#1? Sorry to say, but no writer deserves to be paid any more than the going market rate for a particular skill set, and that rate is determined by a back-and-forth process between buyers and sellers over time. Pretty much like anything else that’s bought and sold on the open market—anywhere, anytime, any place, since the beginning of time.

And the key here is “a particular skill set.” Which leads to #2: that your skills are worth more than $5 or $10 an article. Well, in the case of those running content mills or any other low-paying writing operation, they only need a certain level of writing – and no better. And guess what? Thousands upon thousands of writers have the skills to write at that modest level.

Translation? That level of writing has been “commoditized.” Think gasoline. Or milk. Or sirloin steak. There’s so much supply, and so little difference between brands, so assuming it’s not some special variety (organic milk, grass-fed beef, etc.) prices will all be roughly equivalent. Same with this level of writing.

That being the case, if those job-listers have literally hundreds of writers lining up to bid on their projects at those crummy rates, then why on earth would they need to pay any more than that? They don’t. And they won’t.

And please don’t say, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” That sounds really nice, and warm and fuzzy and all, but you don’t really believe that. Not if you indeed agreed earlier that you were a smart shopper. With rare exceptions, you won’t pay any more for something you want than you have to, and will often take time to ferret out a lower price on a particular item. Why should you expect different behavior from these job-listers?

Here’s a serviceable analogy: McDonalds, again. Okay, so McDonald’s pays burger-flippers, say, eight bucks an hour. And given the relatively low complexity of that task, there are tons of folks out there who can do an admirable job at it. Now, clearly hypothetically, let’s say a world-class chef strolls into McD’s one day and says, “I’d a like a job flipping burgers, but given my formidable culinary skills, I deserve to make $80 an hour, not eight.”

To which, the hiring manager at McD’s is likely to reply: “Well, Chef Pascal or Luigi, I’m sure your skills are amazing, but the fact is, I only need $8 an hour, burger-flipping skills. I’m happy to have you—geez, times must be tough, huh?—and I’m really sorry about this, but I can only pay you eight an hour.”

Same thing here. Content mill operators don’t need anything more than $5-10/article-writing skills. So, if you think you’re a world-class chef of writing, or at least a mid-talent short-order cook of writing, then stop applying at the McD’s of writing outlets, and instead go where the work pays far better, so your skills will, deservedly, be rewarded commensurately (like the commercial writing field, for starters).

And as many have accurately pointed out in countless posts in our industry, those higher paying writing gigs are almost never advertised or posted online. You have to dig them out, which is why they pay far better. And those freelance writers making the highest wages out there are usually those with a special skill or niche. In another words, there are far fewer writers out there with comparable skills. Just like our world-class chef.

If you decide not to bother seeking out better work (and it’s tough to retool your business, no question), thanks to inertia, uncertainty about next steps, or, let’s say it, laziness, that’s perfectly okay. But then stop complaining that these evil job-listers won’t recognize and appropriately reward your stellar wordsmithing skills—skills which, like that McD’s hiring manager, they’re happy to have—heck, why not?—but don’t need, and hence, will be unwilling to pay for.

Oh, and as for other crazy conditions some of these listers ask for (e.g., free samples, on on-call 24/7, etc.), can you blame them? Given that writers, in droves, have already established their willingness—heck, eagerness—to be abused financially, it’s only natural to assume they’ll happily prostrate themselves again and again.

No, that’s not exactly enlightened behavior on their part, but they’re simply reacting to the prevailing reality. In other words, in this scenario—no one abuses you. You allow yourself to be abused. And frankly, the sooner you realize and internalize that, the sooner you’ll be making the money you feel you truly “deserve” to make.

Yes, I know there’s been some “rate fallout” in better-paying segments of writing, but I hear daily from writers having great years, some their best ever, and getting rates well above $100 an hour (and even more getting $75+). Bottom line, if you want to believe the whole industry is in the toilet, that’s your right, but it’s not the truth.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

22 replies
  1. Brenda Spandrio
    Brenda Spandrio says:

    Thanks for propping me up again, Peter!

    I used to be in one of the mills, but I didn’t get anywhere near $5 an article. I was only getting PENNIES a day!

    Currently, I’m on pins and needles waiting to hear back on my bid to a local business to do his web copy and press release. Before reading TWFW, well, I probably wouldn’t have even considered approaching this guy at all, but I would have bid maybe $25-$50 per page instead of $150 per page. But I thought about how long it would take me to do the work and the hourly wage I need to make sure I get well-fed and went for it. We’ll see if he takes it. In the meantime, I’m continuing to dig for the quality clients who want my quality work.

  2. David
    David says:

    Great piece!

    Several years ago, thanks to someone I’d worked with previously, I was asked by a major financial company based in Dublin, Ireland to help out (editing rather than writing) with two (twice-yearly) publications that had to be written and published within about 12 hours. I knew the kind of rates that they charged for their services per hour, and decided that if I charged low they would not consider me “worth it”. I charged the equivalent of 250 dollars per hour (still a good bit lower than what they would charge, of course). They’ve asked me back ever since. After all, they’re the kind of people who tend to value things according to their cost (though they also seem to consider my services of value!).
    Part of the problem is that just about everyone can write (never mind the quality), whereas very few people can give financial or legal advice. So writing in general is not valued – and it doesn’t help that some people who can write well undervalue their own skills.

  3. Doug Jenner
    Doug Jenner says:

    Peter, this is an uplifting piece to inspire any writer to work at getting the writing jobs they deserve.

  4. Anita Rodgers
    Anita Rodgers says:

    Great points. I’ve always contended that as long as writers accept low rates that is exactly what they’ll get. If indignant writers want to see the end of content mills then they should stop applying for the jobs/bids at these sites.

    It’s true that the mills and other low-paying gig offering sites are exploiting a weakness but then in order to be exploited you have to be a willing party.

    If writers want to make better rates (like any self employed individual) they have to stop accepting crappy rates. Kind of like that old joke about the guy who has a headache because he keeps banging his head against the wall – the solution, his doctor points out is to stop banging his head against the wall. I believe that many writers who complain about these gigs are the ones who take them. So yeah, you get what you pay for.

    Good post. Enjoyed your book btw.


  5. Katherine Swarts
    Katherine Swarts says:

    My take (and this goes beyond writing; it comprises nearly every aspect of life): would you rather spend your valuable time and energy complaining about the way things are, or channel it toward making things the way you want them to be? The first option is the “easy route,” and the path chosen by 80% of the population, including those who consider themselves reformers and advocates. Many of whom have never even bothered to clearly define how they would prefer things to be.

  6. Zahra Brown
    Zahra Brown says:

    I really needed this, but for my books. It’s so easy to undervalue yourself. Others tell you to drop prices because a few got successful that way. I couldn’t believe it when I first charged a higher rate. It was scary! But you’re right. Focusing on people who ask for less isn’t worth it. Everyone can charge whatever they like. Both ends of the price spectrum have separate client bases. There is no competition between them.

  7. Chris Weigl
    Chris Weigl says:

    Excellent article and such good timing. I was advised by a business consultant to start my freelance writing business on Elance, in order to get testimonials.
    I completed one low-paying assignment-just for the testimonial-and almost three weeks later-still no testimonial.
    As a journalist for 23 years, I’m not a beginner. But I don’t have testimonials. Another option would be to offer my services to businesses for free, in exchange for their testimonial.
    I have the skills, I have the knowledge, heck, I even have several industries I would like to target. But it just seems businesses only want to hire writers with blog writing, seo writing and copywriting experience. It’s as if no one values a journalist anymore. I can write anything…but getting that first break is what keeps me stuck.
    Elance is a nothing but a time suck, and just three weeks of it is enough for me, testimonials or not. There has to be a better way…

  8. Lisa Jo Rudy
    Lisa Jo Rudy says:

    I agree with a lot of what you’re saying: certainly, skills and knowledge are the key to success in ANY field. And I do consider myself to be a successful freelancer, in that I make a very solid middle class living at my trade (more than I’d make as a commuter writing for a full time employer).

    That said, a couple of points:

    You said that high paying gigs are not online. I beg to disagree: I’ve found some FANTASTIC gigs just by going through a couple of aggregator sites every morning and doing a little extra searching in my particular fields of interest. Gigs that DO pay, for example, several thousand dollars. Of course, these are skilled gigs that require experience and knowledge in a particular field — not just “writing” skills.

    On the same basic topic, writing for hire is NOT the same thing as writing for yourself or as an art form. People pay a lot of money to writers who produce WHAT they need WHEN they need it. If your interest is in writing what YOU want to write and then trying to sell it (a worthy goal, of course!), you have a real uphill battle. Very few entities are in the market for unique works of art, and you are unlikely to be at the head of the line when they do purchase.

    Last: the Elance and Odesk sites seem to be to pure crap. I signed up for about five minutes, and then realized it wasn’t worth my time. Finding a niche, building skills and connections, and selling those skills to people who value them seems to be the best option!


  9. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    I am so there with Katherine’s take. As I wrote in my original comment on Lori’s site, it all comes down to energy. And, as Katherine commented, I’d much rather use my energy in other endeavors. In my writing and my life. My mantra is asking, Is it worth the energy? You may be surprised (or not) how frequently you say No.

  10. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks to all – figured this topic would resonate… 😉

    @Brenda: Happy to know you’re shooting higher! Just knowing there’s a far higher-paying world out there AND clients who don’t nickel-and-dime you can be a real eye-opener for many.

    Can’t tell you how many similar emails I’ve gotten from writers over the years: how they took a deep breath, delivered a quote far higher than they ever would have in the past, and the client agreed without batting an eyelash. Hope your deal comes through, though you really shouldn’t be agonizing over any one prospect, that you should have SO many irons in the fire, that some are bound to come through, and you don’t worry about any given one.

    David makes a good point: knowing what a company charges for their own services can give you clues about what to charge for yours. In my book, I talk about a woman who used to work in law (but not as a lawyer), starting a copywriting practice writing for law firms. And when she met with a friend of hers – a lawyer in a firm she hoped to land as a client – and told him she was planning on charging $80 an hour, he replied that she needed to be far higher than that to be taken seriously by a business that routinely charged $300-$400 an hour or more.

    Thanks for the affirmation, Annie! I think many of the writers bidding on the bargain-basement sites just aren’t aware that there’s a much bigger world out there. Or, perhaps they didn’t know, but they’ve just chosen to take the path of least resistance with the trade-off being a lower income.

    Thanks Katherine and Cathy for your similar takes. No question, that there will always be a certain segment (a large one) of the population more interested in complaining about how things are currently than doing anything about it (interesting angle, Katherine, on the performers/advocates; I have to agree, though that would be another discussion for another day… 🙂

    Thanks, Zahra: And yes, this mentality can also apply to one’s books. I’ve never been a big fan of dropping prices on my books to some ridiculous level, simply in the hopes of selling more copies. When you play that game, you’ve essentially commoditized your product, and thrown it into a huge pool of others simply known as “books,” as if they were all the same, and as such, all deserve to be priced at the same level.

    I think of (perhaps with a touch of, shall we say, empowering self-delusion…) of, for instance, The Well-Fed Writer, not as just a book, but as a comprehensive blueprint for building a highly profitable writing practice. As such, I have no interest in reducing the price to a point where it loses that value.

    @Chris: I get your frustration, but a few points. They’re businesses – they don’t need journalistic-type writing nearly as much as they need copywriting. That said, you can certainly leverage those journalism skills by pursuing project types like white papers, case studies, trade articles and others that are similar to the types of writing you done in the past. I believe you could write anything, but if you haven’t had experience with marketing copywriting, that is going to take a certain mental adjustment and learning curve to get to a point where you’re comfortable with and proficient at, that kind of writing.

    Thanks Lisa! Glad you’re making it happen. As for finding well-paying gigs online, yes that’s certainly possible; I did say “almost never,” not never… 🙂 That said, you’re still at the mercy of what’s being posted, as opposed to being able to proactively seek out the kinds of clients that can offer a good writer a steady stream of work over time.

    Thanks again – great stuff. Anyone else?


  11. Lisa Jo Rudy
    Lisa Jo Rudy says:

    Just to clarify: while online ads are a great source of well-paying gigs, they are obviously not the ONLY source. Ideally, when a client is happy with your work (and you are happy with them) they become an ongoing source of opportunity.

    Having written as a freelancer for over 20 years, however, I know that it is absolutely necessary to keep marketing! Some of my biggest, best clients during the 1990’s went bust or nearly bust after 2001… others that came along after that point went bust during the latest recession.

    I also highly recommend keeping your skills up to date. Knowing how to storyboard, write scripts, use best SEO practices, and work with various different technical tools and platforms, has been wonderful for business. I generally learn as I go — and while it does take work, it’s well worth the trouble.


  12. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    Having specialized skills is definitely one great way to set yourself apart from the rest of the writing crowd. I’m super-glad I studied screenwriting and TV writing in graduate skills, because knowing how to write a properly formatted, structured, affordable, shootable script allowed me to break into the copywriting game with relatively little initial resistance. (It got harder as I expanded my services, but hey.)

  13. Star
    Star says:

    Was reading an old ASJA mag and the president of the place said she had written for a fee based on the number of retweets. No no no. The dopey low rates that set in 6 yrs ago did indeed lower all rates…I had top paying place tell me as much. And I actually enjoyed writing to places and asking who broke their zero key and so on. Fun! But of course, eventually I got sick of the new atmosphere and returned to screenwriting. I would rather write cartoons than live one. To those who can still haul down a hundred grand a yr–I salute you!

  14. Lisa Jo Rudy
    Lisa Jo Rudy says:

    It’s quite possible to earn $100K per year as a freelancer — if you choose the right fields and specialties. even as someone who works mainly for educational publishers and non-profits, I’m making over $70K. The key is to have skills that are not easy to find, in a field where there is plenty of work and a fair amount of money available. Some of my best-grossing products:

    Federal grant proposals
    Multimedia training materials (scripts/storyboards)
    Video scripts
    Lessons and evaluations that conform to the Core Curriculum
    Lessons and evaluations for ESL learners
    Technical reports and publications for federal funders

    Right now, I’m writing 500 word encyclopedia entries for middle school students at $190/apiece; at four a week over 12 weeks, it’s not a bad gig. I’m also writing 150 word stories for 3rd graders at $150 apiece. I get these gigs because I’m highly experienced and skilled in my field — but am delighted to say that I’m NOT selling scary medications or hawking insurance to make a living!

  15. Lori
    Lori says:

    Peter, still a great post, still very much necessary. Thanks for letting your words grace my pages in the first place!

    I find it disturbing how relevant this post remains. I was just having this conversation with another writer a few weeks ago. I was hearing the “there’s no work out there” and “I have to take crap payment” lament. It’s BS, frankly. We don’t HAVE to do anything. It’s as you say and Cathy reiterates — it’s about removing inertia and inserting energy. Careers don’t come to you — they’re created by you. I don’t care if you’re a 20-year veteran or a beginner; if you don’t like working for so little, don’t accept it. Instead, actively seek clients who will pay what YOU require (not what you’ll accept).

  16. Katherine Swarts
    Katherine Swarts says:

    Well said, Lori. Psychology tells us that there is such a thing as learned helplessness, but you don’t have to keep feeding it. Psychology also tells us that every habit, even the ones that make us miserable, gives us a brief rush of pleasure when “activated.” If anyone reading this is in the habit of “I’m a victim” thinking, you might consider which you *really* prefer: the easy path and reinforced me-centeredness of self-pity, or the positive satisfaction of working hard to believe in yourself.

  17. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks much, Lisa Jo, William, Star, Lori and Katherine…

    Lori, I’m not at all surprised this poverty mentality is still alive and well. It’s all some people know, and as Katherine points out, there’s SOME payoff people get from sticking to old beliefs and habits. They get to feel put upon. Never understood the desire to wallow in victimhood, but hey, we’re all wired differently.

    Just as importantly, you won’t see what you’re not looking for. If your “writing world” is crappy jobs paying low rates, then the idea of far higher rates probably sounds like fantasy or science fiction. And as plenty have pointed out here, it’s nothing of the sort. But it does take the desire to want something better, and want it more than to wallow.

    And I get it, and have plenty of compassion for those stuck in that mindset. Most of us humans have our areas where we fool ourselves about something, where we’re entrenched in our thinking about something, in the face of truth to the contrary, and where we just won’t budge. I’m not immune. No one is. Though, in the case of most of those weighing in here, that thing just doesn’t happen to be about writing and writing pay.

    But, for those wrestling with this particular one, know that another writing reality truly does exist, one in which hourly writing rates of $100-$125 are standard—and the minimum you’ll settle for. And the first step is to SEE that world, acknowledge it exists, and quit believing it’s just for certain people. Assuming you’re a good writer (and not even a brilliant one), it’s open to ANYone. But, it’s not easy, and that fact is precisely why it’s a bona fide opportunity.

  18. Lori
    Lori says:

    We’re preaching to the choir, Peter. I sure hope those who put so much effort into lamenting find their way here. I used to be their codependent. Now I’m a detached observer. 🙂

    Amen to the rates! If writers with any experience aren’t charging at least that, they should be looking well up the food chain for better clients.

  19. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Amen to your amen! 😉 And you’re right – those who need to hear this most are no doubt absent. Hence the strong encouragement to tweet, forward, spread the word, etc.

  20. Karen J OBrien
    Karen J OBrien says:

    Beyond the writing arena, I would apply the information given in both the article and the many perspectives of other commenters to other service areas which I offer in my business. I am a Virtual Legal Assistant (VA) and Mobile Notary Public who frequents the forums of both those fields. The regular and repetitive complaint of many who object to others taking low fees for their services highlights the fact that the issue is universal.

    I particularly like the McDonald’s and chef analogy. As stated, there are those willing to pay big bucks for a good meal, but many more who choose the less expensive (and perhaps less tasty?) McDonald’s meal. The bottom line is, YOU have to know what you need and want. If you feel you want a gourmet meal, then find the restaurant with the chef, and don’t worry about those willing to settle for burgers.

    If acceptable, I would like to refer this article (along with the comments made) to those other forums in hopes of giving another perspective to the low fees issues. May I have your permission?

  21. Angie Dixon
    Angie Dixon says:

    Great post, Peter.

    I think your point about the different skill sets is very important. No, my work is not worth just a penny a word. So I don’t WRITE for a penny a word. I’ve read some articles produced by those writers, and I think the payment, for the pieces I saw, was pretty fair. They put some sentences together, probably in about 10 minutes, and made $5. What they didn’t do was write good content. Hey, for slinging words together, $30 an hour is a pretty good rate.

    But that’s not what I do.

    I hear people say that those people are driving down rates or “training” clients that writers work for those wages. But I really don’t buy that. The people I write for, when I take on freelance work, don’t expect me to write for a penny a word. They know the going rate for the type of work I do and they pay that.

    I understand where the complainers are coming from. I do. But honestly, what someone else makes is none of my business unless I’m paying them.

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