Why I (Finally!) Broke Up With My First Freelance Writing Client

Why I (Finally!) Broke Up With My First Freelance Writing ClientThere’s nothing quite as exciting as landing your first freelance writing client. At last — someone who wants to pay you for your writing services!

Some writers are lucky enough to find clients who pay reasonably well from the get-go, and can give them ongoing work.

I was not one of those lucky ones.

I know I’m not the only freelance writer whose first clients paid peanuts. Despite that, it can be hard to let them go. You can feel sort of loyal to that first client, who helped you break into freelancing, and the security of that client you know can make you complacent.

But sooner or later, it’s time to let that low-paying first client go and move on to better gigs.

Here’s the story of my first freelance writing client — and why I dropped him.

My initial excitement

I’m going to be honest here: I was absolutely terrified when I first started out on my own.

I probably went about things the wrong way, when I quit my job before finding even one client. So when someone offered to pay me to write, I absolutely jumped at the chance.

You know the feeling, right? Overwhelming excitement when someone finally offers you money for your precious words.

Yes, the offer ended up being less than 2 cents a word — but come on! I was getting paid to do what I love.

The honeymoon period

Everything was going great. I was getting a ton of work. And I was really enjoying myself.

It soon became clear that I’d have to work from 7 a.m. – 10 p.m. to make enough to cover my rent this way, but I figured my hard work would pay off, and soon I would start making the big bucks.

A reality check

After eight months working for my first client, the cracks in our relationship started to show.

My grammar was deteriorating from my rushed work. And I was extremely unhappy.

I was writing Web articles that took me a matter of minutes (many, many of those). Then one day, my client offered me a job writing copy for an entire website. Hurrah!

I had recently joined the Freelance Writers Den and discovered the pricing guidance in there. I knew Web copy paid a whole heap more than I was currently earning. Finally, this was my chance to earn decent money!

Well, not so fast. My client offered me $36. For the whole website.

Suddenly, a lightbulb went on. This wasn’t a good client!

I spoke up about the pay. He said if I was unwilling to work for that amount, there were hundreds of other people who would. So I thanked him for all the work he had given me, and that was it. He never contacted me again.

How I made it work

The first week or so after I dumped my client was pretty nerve-wracking. I definitely went through moments of panic.

But dropping this gig gave me something much more valuable than a pitifully small paycheck: time.

I started going through the bootcamps in the Den. I created a website, marketed myself to potential clients, and gained a ton of confidence.

It took a while, but I’m happy to say that I recently signed a contract with a client who is paying me eight times what my first client did. I found this client almost my chance in a coffee house. He was talking to one of my friends about needing an e-book done, and I jumped in and told him I was a writer.

I look back, and I’m shocked at how long I stuck with that first client.

But that’s the thing with freelance writing. You’ll make mistakes with pricing, vetting clients, and building your business. The important thing is that you learn from your mistakes and keep looking for better work, higher paying clients, and a community where you can share your successes and learn from each other’s experiences.

What was your first paid freelance client experience like? Tell us in the comments below.

Laura Paterson is a freelance writer specialising in copywriting, blog posts, travel writing, and photography at Flamelily Writing.

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32 comments on “Why I (Finally!) Broke Up With My First Freelance Writing Client
  1. Sandra May says:

    Hello; my name is Sandra May. I’d like to start with telling you a bit about myself. I’m 53 years young (at times) lol. I used to be very active working 50 hrs a week, renovating a one and a half story house and being house-mother to three international students. I almost forgot to mention I am a mother of two adult children and owner of two Yorkie dogs. My marriage dissolved in 2012 and eventually I was divorced. I ended up flipping the house I was renovating when the home I live in now became available. During the renovations I didn’t realize it at the time but I was causing injury to my spine and spinal cord. Long story short I am now an ODSP recipient (Ontario Disability Support Program). I want to add that I have suffered periodically from an undiagnosed form of mental illness since I was 17 years old. This all has brought me to where I am today. I would like to start a blog to help people survive the loneliness, feelings of hopelessness, frustrations, uncertainty and fear associated with major health concerns both physical and mental. My blog would offer such people resources I have found that are useful along with my personal insight and experiences. I would want to stay with them on their journey to a better quality of life as I too continue my search.
    ODSP is a fixed income that does not allow for the financial necessities of maintaining my home so I am interested in starting this blog for income as well. Do you offer free help regarding getting started? I know next to nothing about blogging. I have never even been to a blog site that I know of. Lol. What I do know is that I am very articulate and have loved writing for most of my life. Friends that know me well often suggest I write a story of my life.
    If you think that this may be a good option not only for me; but for people going through similar trials and victories could you give me any advice on how to get started? I’d appreciate all feedback.
    Sincerely
    Sandra May

  2. This is the first time I’ve commented on a blog before lol. As someone who pays writers to produce content for my brand management clients pricing can be very difficult. I’ve come across so many writers that charge $75-$150 for 500 words but their work, despite how they view it is actually mediocre and then on top of that I end up having to pay my editor to fix it. I think people want to pay their writers what they’re worth but they struggle to find ones that are a good fit, or end up having to hire two writers for one article. I’m also curious why more writers don’t model their articles after ones that get a ton of buzz, shares or likes…after all that’s what business owners are hoping for when they pay for content. I think I need to start a writers group or something to coach writers on how to mesh creative with marketing copy so they can command top dollar and us clients can exactly what we need…..lol This is a great blog, and I appreciate reading the comments from other writers it helps me understand your perspective. Have a wonderful week!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for weighing in, Danielle!

      Writers who want to earn well definitely need to deliver more than mediocrity, and need to learn what gets traffic.

      When I started writing for Forbes, I actually asked for a meeting and asked them — what could get me more traffic? What do your readers love to read about? They gave me some GREAT tips that allowed me to really build my channel for them.

  3. Lindsay says:

    My first “client” – Textbroker. I saved up for six months writing one 300-500 word article a day for them and bought a plane ticket to take my baby to see my mom. I was so proud of myself for how hard I’d worked and what I’d managed to achieve by knuckling down and working hard at the beginning of my freelance business while my baby slept. That was two years ago. I look back now and appreciate what I learned and how I felt after that period, but it makes me depressed to think what I could have made if I’d done all that work for real rates! Thank you for a great post, Laura.

    • Laura says:

      Exactly Lindsay.

      It’s amazing how different things seem when we look back on them. The most important thing is that it was an absolutely essential lesson learnt- and one that I certainly won’t be making again. 🙂

  4. Charmaine says:

    My first client actually hired me to shoot pictures for his music publication. One night the writer I was supposed to meet didn’t show at the venue. So I wrote it up and left it on the editor’s desk in the middle of the night when I finished, then went home exhausted and went into a coma. When I woke up I had a message. A very nice message. From the editor. He was extremely complimentary about what I’d turned in, thrilled that I’d jumped in to cover the missing writer and wanted me to come in when I got up and moving. So I did, and over many years ended up getting paid for writing and shooting pictures of concerts I’d have paid to attend …. plus gained a great, glowing reference that helped build up my client list. Great experience and we’re still friends. 🙂

  5. I was very fortunate that my first client was a good one (someone I still work with). Some great advice I got was to “fake it til you make it” and charge what you want to earn, not what you think a newbie deserves. I set my prices at a rate I could live with before I ever contacted my first client, and yes, it did take me a lot longer to complete projects in the beginning in order to get them up to par with the higher fees, but it was worth it because I didn’t have to ditch any starter clients after I got my feet wet.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think that’s a TERRIFIC piece of advice, Kaylin — I meet too many writers who tell me, “I know this should pay $75 an hour, but since I’m a newbie I thought I would charge $20.” And then they’re trapped with a bunch of lowball clients and starving.

  6. Colleen McMahon says:

    A long time ago, when I was in school, I made some job on the side by talking to people on the phone. (I put “fantasy consultant” on my taxes that year!)

    This particular service was a one-price-for-as-long-as-you-want deal. The experienced workers knew how to get a phone call finished and get off the line for the next call (we were paid a flat rate too, so there was no money in keeping a caller on the line). I found out that there were particular clients who always asked for the new people, because we didn’t know all the ropes yet, and they could get more for less from us. When we started getting wise, those clients would drop us like hot potatoes and move on to the newer newbies.

    Your freelance client sounds like one of those types. I bet there are people who hire all kinds of freelancers who low-ball like this and then move on as soon as there are any signals that they will no longer get away with it. And they will always find someone who will work for their pittance so it’s nothing to them to move on.

    Good for you for standing your ground! Good luck with your future work.

    Good for you

    • Linda H says:

      Colleen,
      That’s true even in freelance resume writing, which is now being called resume ghostwriting. People will work with inexperienced resume writers to get low ball pricing. If they contact someone like me who’ll charge more, they excuse themselves and find someone who’ll do the same work for 75% less.

      But the problem is also a mindset. I just did a stupid thing by getting the most ideal writing client. I didn’t take the time to do a little research before quoting a price. Instead, I thought of my local market instead of discovering this was an L.A. market that will pay triple my area prices. So I quoted what for my area would be considered high, $450, when the job should have been quoted for $1,250. So the mindset from working in low-ball markets can take its toll on you if you don’t stop, take a moment to research, think and contemplate, and then quote a price.

      I’m in process of moving up, similar to freelancers moving from writing mills to higher-paying gigs. I know I’m worth more, but when I’m quoting a client — and hopefully everyone is aware of this — consider where it’s coming from. I wasn’t at my office when the request came in so I replied using my smartphone, which I seldom do. Had I waited, I likely would have scored the gig, because quoting so low for the type of international market this is, I’ll likely be considered too amateurish or unconfident.

      HUGE Loss on my part all around, so build up your mindset with the higher paying gigs. Don’t do what I just did.

    • Laura says:

      Thanks Colleen.

      Not only is it great to be paid more but I am also enjoying my work a hell of a lot more and I can notice a huge improvement in the quality of my articles.

      It’s always a pleasure to put in extra time and effort for clients that know your worth.

  7. Glad you weren’t swayed by the subtle blackmail of “if you won’t work at this rate there are hundreds who will.” He probably got his idea of the “normal” pay (and output) for freelance writers by scanning content mill ads, and thought he was being generous.

    • Laura says:

      That’s exactly what it was Katherine. He knew that as soon as I started realizing what I should be getting paid that there would be thousands of other new freelance writers, who were in the same position and mindset as when I started out.

  8. Rob says:

    Yes, things improved better than I imagined they would. I look back on those years and wonder how I put up with such low pay.

  9. Rob says:

    I had a similar experience. I found this client (or they found me) on Elance. When I quit Elance, they continued to give me assignments at three times the rate I got on Elance. That seemed like a lot of money at the time, but was about half what I should have been getting. A few years went by and I kept writing for them out of loyalty, but they didn’t give me a raise when I asked for one. Finally I just had to say thanks for all the work, but no thanks to more.

    • Laura says:

      It can be hard trying to detach yourself from bad paying clients when there is loyalty involved- so well done on realizing your worth and cutting those ties. I am sure that things improved steadily for you from that point on.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Rob, I once coached a writer who let me know she’d stuck with her first, way-too-low paying client without ever even asking for a raise — for TWELVE YEARS. It’s amazing how hard it can be to break this inappropriate ‘loyalty’ to clients who’re exploiting you.

  10. My first paying clients were all through content mills like Textbroker, Zerys and WriterAccess. I earned pennies and never got a single byline. And due to the anonymous nature of the work, I’m not even allowed to use those articles as clips for future clients.

    I had some major struggles with anxiety and depression all my life, and the anonymity those content mills offered took a lot of the pressure off. I thought there was no way I could market myself, and maybe I was right– at least for that point in my life. So that’s why I stayed with them for three long years.

    But now, after more than 200 articles for them, I’m finally moving on.

    Two weeks ago, I set fire to my bridges. I deleted those accounts so that I couldn’t go crawling back when desperation hit. I’m forcing myself to hustle up some clients on my own.

    Last week I landed my first paid guest post with a blogger I’ve known for the past year. It was only $30, but it was WAY MORE than I ever earned at the mills.

    And last night I came home to an email from a new client that I’d cold-pitched through a job board. She offered me $40 for an article, and hopefully she’ll like my writing and offer me some steady work going forward.

    Then, once I get those clips, I can leverage them for higher-paying gigs.

    It’s a slow start, but at least I’m finally free from the mill mentality and moving into better pay rates.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Two HUNDRED mill articles…that just makes me want to cry, Chris.

      On my Freelance Writers Den job board, we don’t accept anything under $50 for a short blog post. Keep moving up!

      • Yep, it’s pretty sad. I’m so glad to be moving up.

        • Laura Paterson says:

          Excellent Chris. Well done on putting yourself out there. It really does become much easier once you have that first decent paying client under your belt.

          It does wonders for your confidence and you will look back in disbelief at what you were willing to accept before.

          Good luck!

  11. Laura says:

    It really was a lesson that hurt very much at the time, but that I am grateful for as I look back. I think many of us settle for so little just because that is how we value our work when we first start out.

    All it takes is time and a bit of self evaluation to realize that we should aim a lot higher than most of us do when we take our first steps into the freelance writing world.

  12. Joan says:

    Really timely article… My first client was a friend. She was willing to pay me my initial offer of 50% off the top price for the amount of work she wanted. Being a ‘newbie’ writer but willing to do the work I set off with unabashed optimism. It was the blind leading the blind. My client didn’t know how to judge the writing and I didn’t know if the writing was any good either. The project has become circular. I was paid the first installment… but we’re stalled.

    How can I ‘fire’ a friend who when she heard I was taking a course in Copywriting, she promptly ‘hired’ me even though I had no experience whatsoever.

    I am grateful for the opportunity as I have no illusions about being a beginner writer. I’m not able to promote myself very well… yet. It takes practice to be a writer, so I practice. It is a struggle to pay bills.

    By the way, thank you Carol for being on a mission to help writers. You’re doing just that for me… I stand on the beach looking at the ocean of writers and wonder if I’ll be able to keep afloat.

  13. Linda H says:

    After years of overwork and under payment I’m finally starting to focus on landing higher paying gigs with bigger organizations. I’m tired of constantly, sitting at my desk earning pennies. Takes a while for me to “get the picture.” My business was booming until I encountered a big snag and then it flopped. But it was due to low-paying clients who don’t understand the top-level freelance mindset I work by. The gap needs a better bridge.

    Perhaps the biggest thing was an email from a friend, recently. She said she’d decided to get a day job working part-time because she was tired of the daily grind of having to market her business and drum up the paycheck. She’s married with a family, but working from home didn’t benefit her as much as the steady paycheck. I mentioned that the need for daily or weekly marketing was a given with freelancing; I haven’t done it but much of my work came from referrals. Now I’d rather try to survive on small jobs until I can land the bigger ones. They will come. I just need to do the marketing.

  14. Williesha says:

    I tried to stray from super low prices so my client was one I found on ProBlogger. Ghostwriting at $50 per post. Awesome!! Until I approached them a few months later with a more extensive plan and higher rates. They decided they no longer needed my services. I feel like I should have waited a year but oh well’

  15. Daryl says:

    I’ve mentioned my first freelance client before. I can’t remember the details on how much per word it turned out to be, but it was a series of about 10 articles about household bugs.I think each article was roughly 300-400 words. The whole thing took several hours stretched over a couple of nights

    The grand pay? $10. Which ended up being $9 after fees.

    Yikes.

    While I’m grateful for the experience, I definitely did NOT feel like I owed them anything. I got a couple other offers for some similar exceptionally low paying work, but I had the good sense to not take anything from them again.

    When you write for pay that low, you’re basically FORCED to write quickly, increasing your errors, and reducing the quality of your writing.

    Thanks, but no thanks.