It can seem like a great strategy, when you first start looking for writing jobs. If you simply charge a bit less than everyone else, you’ll get more clients.
You might. But sadly, undercutting market rates is a loser’s game.
I’ve coached thousands of writers at this point, and have yet to meet one who says they’re earning a great living by being the cheapest writer around.
The good news? There’s never been a better time to charge premium rates for your writing, as changes at Google have brought the rise of longer-form online content — and have helped a growing number of companies understand the high value of what we writers bring to the table.
It takes a major mindset change (and a little research) to go from low-price-leader to a writer who charges serious fees. But trust me — you’ll be ever so much happier and earn a crap-ton more if you stop undercharging. Let me help you make it happen.
Learn about market rates
The first important step to end undercharging is to know market rates. Often, when I tell writers what going rates are for a particular type of writing, they need smelling salts — because they realize they’ve been charging a tiny fraction of the appropriate fee.
Don’t fumble in the dark. There is data on writing jobs and what to charge. Know what other writers are getting for similar gigs.
Yes, there will always be companies that want to get a writer for a song. I got an email this week from a new platform looking for writers at $8-$20 per blog post. Your job is to ignore all that, because those types of places are just not your client.
Understand? Not. Your. Client.
Once you know pro rates, you’re in a position to ask for them. Why should you do that, and not undercharge? Here are 5 important reasons why:
1. Here’s how you look to clients
When your bid is lower than anyone else’s, it’s clear to your clients that you’re hard up. Once the client knows that, your situation is ripe for writer exploitation.
They’ve got you on the cheap. Next, they’ll shorten your deadlines, add more responsibilities, and generally treat you like a slave.
If you ever want to get a raise, you now have a tiny base rate on which to base that increase. So even your new, higher rate may still be way too low. Expect the relationship to go downhill until you quit in disgust.
2. You’ve hidden your assets
Writers with niche expertise aren’t cheap. You know that, right?
So when you submit a lowball bid, the client assumes you’re not experienced, nor an expert in their industry. Your resume may say you have 20 years of staff newspaper reporting experience, but all that’s out the window if you’re writing for $50 an article. Clients will assume something’s gone wrong with your life, and you’re starting over at ground zero.
That means it’ll be harder to upsell them more sophisticated, better-paying writing jobs as you go. You’re a commodity to them — and that also means you’re highly replaceable and have little job security. Your low rates become a trap where you can never convince this client you’re valuable and move into better-paid work with them.
Finally, when you work for lowball clients, they tend to move in herds. That means these clients would likely refer you other crummy clients who also don’t value your expertise, instead of good clients.
3. It’s not a confidence-builder
When you’re working hard and being seriously underpaid, there’s a toxic dynamic to your client relationship that can really kill your soul. It’s hard to respect a client who’s using you.
That means you’re probably not building a personal relationship here. You’re not bonding. And that, in turn, means you probably don’t ask this client for a testimonial or referrals. This client is a dead end for you, rather than a source of additional business.
It’s also hard to respect yourself. This can kick off a downward spiral of negative self-esteem that tanks your whole writing career. This is the top reason that it’s urgent that you stop undercharging — every day you continue this can erode your self-esteem.
4. Losing the race to the bottom
Trying to be the low-price leader? Fact is, it’s almost impossible to be the cheapest writer out there, if you live in a First World nation. There will always be people in countries with completely different standards of living willing to do that work for $1. And they can often live pretty well on that pittance, too!
Stop trying to compete on price — because you can’t. What you can be is broke, as you endlessly discount your rates out of nervousness that you won’t get gigs.
Instead of trying to be Walmart, be Target. Charge a bit more, provide good quality, and earn your clients’ loyalty.
Or even better, be Ralph Lauren. Because when you charge top rates and attract elite customers, you can do a lot less work, respect yourself more, and more easily pay all your bills.
5. The sustainability problem
Let’s face it — writers take low-paid gigs because they’re easy to find. Tens of thousands of writers have signed up for content mills thinking:
OK, it’s just $5 per post — but if I write fast enough, I can make this add up to a living.
And maybe for a few months, you can. The problem is, it’s not sustainable.
There are only so many 18-hour days you can put in typing as fast as you can about trends in shower curtains or pet diseases or what-all before you just can’t do it anymore. You get carpal tunnel, or insomnia, or are simply so full of self-loathing at what you’re doing that you throw in the towel on paid writing altogether.
Because this isn’t interesting, fulfilling writing — it’s monkey-work — it will burn you out, at some point. Usually, sooner than later.
Often, this work doesn’t leave you with a strong portfolio that will help you move up. You also might not get testimonials or referrals, because you don’t even know who the end client is. Now, you’re toast, and this is a dead end.
My sad experience with undercharging
You might think that I’m a super-confident writer who’s always charged top rates. But it’s not true.
Confession time: There’s one area of my life where I’ve had a weird insecurity complex. I’ve been drastically undercharging the market in this area for years.
It’s in my self-study trainings over at Useful Writing Courses, the platform where I co-teach with The Renegade Writer’s Linda Formichelli. I’m embarrassed to say that our self-study classes have been priced at about 1/4 of market rates for years now (but this weekend marks the end of that!).
This, despite the fact that we have written the heck out of our courses. In most cases, we’ve also completely revamped and rewritten based on student feedback. And packed these courses with more information than you get in a $30,000 year at Columbia journalism school (we actually had a student tell us that!).
What happened? I freaked out about cheap Udemy and Teachable courses, instead of watching how top coaches were raising their course rates to the sky. Market rates rose — to $1,000 a course and more — and I didn’t stay current.
Know what? I’m done with it! It’s ridiculous that other coaches are charging $300 per course and more and most of my courses are under $100. So I’m taking my own advice and raising my rates.
Besides underselling myself and not earning what these courses are worth, I also attracted the wrong kind of writer with my low prices — the sort who don’t actually do the course, and then request a refund months later, simply because they’re broke. Instead of the type I want, writers who’re motivated to actually do the course, execute on the ideas, and grow their income.
I don’t know why I got sucked into treating course writing jobs as somehow different than freelance writing jobs — because really, they’re not. Undercharging is a bad move and brings you the wrong kind of client, in whatever type of writing you do. But now, it’s over.
I’m not going to be the low-price leader in writer training. Not when many online coaches have a big 2 months of freelance experience and charge $200 for their freelance writing course…when Linda and I have a combined 40+ years of experience poured into our courses. It’s ridiculous.
How to get the writing jobs you really want
At this point, you’re probably wondering what it will take to stop undercharging and start getting pro rates.
First off, you have to realize that great clients who pay top rates are not posting Craigslist ads or opportunities on Upwork. You’ll need to build an online presence that attracts great clients, learn how to qualify prospects, and do your own, proactive marketing. You may need support and coaching to make this mindset switch and build your self-esteem.
If you do, get that help. Trust me, it will be worth it.