“F-You, Pay Me.” How to Get Paid to Write

Brad Smith


I'm the creator of this site (Grammar Gang). I'm also the founder of Codeless, a long-form content creation company that's been featured in The New York Times, Business Insider, The Next Web, and hundreds more.

We produce around ~100 long, in-depth articles each month. So we're relying on these tools on a daily basis. Here, I break down the good, bad, and uuuuuuggggllllyyyy.
Brad Smith

Writers are too nice.

Too passive and too timid.

They do what they do because they like it. Not because it’ll make them a mint.

Unfortunately, it’s that same attitude that often gets you passed by or run over.

I know this because I’ve lived it. First, as a freelance writer. And now, as a content agency owner that’s hired dozens of writers in the past two years.

Writers need to shift their mindset, like a character in Goodfellas, to be a little more cold blooded around getting paid.

  • “Business bad? ‘F-you, pay me.’”
  • “Oh, you had a fire? ‘F-you, pay me.’”
  • “Place got hit by lightning, huh? ‘F-you, pay me.’”

Here’s a simple three-step process to get paid to write online — becoming a full-time writer, while also getting paid what you deserve.

1. Prioritize cash

Step one is to replace your income.

Not next month’s. The one after that. And the one after that.

You could try selling a spec project. But that’s exactly the problem: it’s spec. As in, speculative. As in, not a sure bet.

Living expenses and spouses don’t care about ‘good’ bets.

The second issue is that any large, spec project requires the bulk of its investment up front. That means you’re working for weeks (or months) on something that’s probably not going to be paying you back. So there’s a better-than-average chance all of that effort goes down the drain.

Instead, go where the easy money is. (No, not scams like Writers Work, either.)

That means cash-in-hand people ready and willing to part with it for what you’ve got.

Jobs boards and other sites that pay will burn you out in the long run. But in the short run, they’re overflowing with half-decent opportunities that you need.

So go out and get one each month (which means you’ll probably need to pitch about ten). And the next month, get another one. Rinse and repeat until you’re booked solid.

No, it’s not glamorous. No, it’s not especially lucrative at first. But it gets you closer to your primary objective.

Just remember that big (paid, not spec) projects aren’t always the best bet, either. Here’s why.

 Reason #1. Projects slam your schedule. Imagine hundreds of short articles for a single publication. You’re barely able to stay above water, cranking away all day and night, as the clock continues to tick down on your deadline.

Best case scenario, you finish on time. Phew! You made it.

Except, you didn’t. Because you neglected to do any self promotion over the past four weeks and now you’re about to collect the final paycheck on your horizon. (Assuming, of course, that they pay on time. Which they won’t.)

Reason #2. New writers don’t charge enough. You cover costs, but you don’t make any profit. Which means you might be OK while slammed.

But the minute those projects end? You don’t have any cash reserves left over to get you through the next dry spell.

So it’s feast vs. famine on a month-to-month basis.

The simple solution is recurring revenue. Don’t sell or chase big projects if you don’t have the capacity, and if they won’t provide profit after they’re done.

Instead, chase the ongoing work that clients will order, reorder, and continuing reordering for months (or years) to come.

Here’s a perfect example:

08oDge9pI0vAl 7xB

  • “B2B” = They actually know what type of writer they need.
  • “Content marketers” = They also know the style and purpose behind it.
  • “Long-term” = Recurring revenue for you so they won’t churn next month.

Add one new client like this each month. Then, don’t lose clients.

Easy in theory. Not so easy in practice.

2. Make more by specializing, not by doing more.

Writers do words, not numbers.

So let’s keep this section simple. There are two ways to make more money once you’ve started taking on clients:

  1. Write more
  2. Charge more

Yes, you could keep doing #1 until you’re ready to pass out. Based on vetting thousands of writers over the past two years, I can comfortably say that most ‘writers’ aren’t good writers.

As in, a verb. As in, someone who writes. As in, a stone-cold professional.

Address the first issue, first. Boost your writing skills. Dabble in copywriting. Take on guest posts. Brainstorm short story ideas. Prep and deliver submissions.

Ditch the passive income pipe dream and “make money online” bullshit.

And then turn your attention to the second.

It’s true that most writers don’t charge enough. However, what they don’t understand is that we’re not just talking about rates in a vacuum.

Rates equal value. Especially if you’re taking on freelance gigs (read: not ‘literary’ work) where your product needs to provide an end result.

Counterintuitively, the way to justifiably raise rates and still close new work is to purposefully make your market smaller.

Specializing in a particular type of client, a particular type of work, or both, allows you to become more ‘valuable’ for a client (and, therefore, worth the extra expense).

There are two types of clients:

  1. Those that will view your cost as an expense.
  2. And those that view your cost as an investment.

Number ones won’t get you far. They’ll be the first to complain and the first to churn. Know that going into it, and make your paying-the-bills money, while you work on finding the second group.

ClearVoice conducted an excellent survey where it found that the ‘cheaper’ the writer, the more mistakes and problems he or she produced:

0llWFHOEXSLS17aCL

(image source)

That means the initial deliverable might not cost all that much. But the shoddy workmanship is going to require more of your internal time and effort to correct or check their work.

Yes, it might not take very long to run a piece of content through Grammarly and decide on an ‘acceptable’ plagiarism score (we recommend 2% or less):

07wSVOwnCGYr8EY30

(image source)

However, plagiarism isn’t so easy to spot. For instance, the main points in this purchased piece:

0CmfCdSZ1UYLueJAA

(image source)

… were an exact rip-off of the content already ranking №1 for that topic:

0goaRWP3qIqjsAK6f

(image source)

So, the initial out-of-pocket expense for this article may have been cheap.

But how expensive is the risk if we ran the article, and the other company found out? How expensive would it be if we did this for a client, and they fired us? How expensive would it be if our account people had to manually check every single piece of content we previously purchased?

I found early success by focusing on a particular service type. Then, a particular client. Then, we kept doubling down on the stuff our clients find ‘valuable’ and cutting our losses on everything else.

During the last few years, that means rates have gone from $0.06/word, to $0.15/word, to $0.25/word, on up to $0.75/word+.

Am I a better writer today than a few years ago? Kinda. Sorta. (It don’t hurt when the bar is so low to begin with.)

But do we deliver more ‘value’ today than a few years ago? TONS more.

Some clients are content snobs. They appreciate solid prose.

However, most aren’t. Most could care less. As long as the ‘value’ (as they define it) is there at the end of the day.

3. Now, get paid

Stage one means you’re replacing income. It means you’re largely under-appreciated and underpaid.

You’re pretty much working on other people’s terms and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

Until, that is, you make the successful transition into stage two (specialized expert).

Even at this stage, you can’t always control all of the deal terms. But there are a few things you can do to make sure you not just make more money, but also get paid on time.

First, get paid (something) at the beginning of the period or project. Don’t start writing a single word until (some form of) payment is confirmed. Don’t even bother with the whole “well, we mailed the check last Monday…” routine.

You do that by invoicing with ways to pay electronically (through PayPal, Stripe, etc.). Yes, there are transaction fees of around ~3%. Just raise your prices 3% to cover the cost. Problem solved.

If and when possible, transition to pricing that’s less easy to compare. Pricing per word is fine initially, but unless you’re dealing on the high end with print magazines or similar, you’ll always be compared to Textbrokers blog posts. And nobody wins with Textbroker.

We bought articles from content farms and spent weeks dissecting the content to prove it. All they do is drive the industry down.

0kNULpYO9IbyT6OI9

(image source)

So go from per word to per page to per piece to per project. We’ve even rolled it into ongoing retainers.

If you’re pricing per project, try not to leave 50% waiting until the end. It forces you to go longer without being paid, plus it increases your likelihood of not being paid.

Someday, at some point, you will not get paid. Someone will rip you off. Limit that chance by restricting the amount of money left until the end of the project. And then don’t deliver any final files until payment is confirmed in your account — not when they “sent the money.”

Getting paid at the end of the month, or worse, Net 30, puts you in a negative cash flow position so that you’ll be constantly chasing cash. So if that’s their term and you can’t do anything about it, you counter with your own: 2–5x the normal price.

Sure, I can wait ~60 days to get paid. If getting paid double.

Doing this might turn a few clients off. Continually raising rates might mean you don’t land every client.

But here’s the good news:

You don’t need all the clients. You just need enough to cover the bills.

So by definition, at this stage, you don’t need to work more. You just raise prices, and then drop the worst paying clients, the slowest paying clients, or the ones that complain the most.

Replacing your own clients reduces the potential that you might have to hire subcontractors and other people to help you shoulder the workload. That’s a good thing, because most creatives I know like being creative — not running a business.

Years ago, I hung a whiteboard in my office. That month’s revenue target would be broken down into weeks, then days.

Work on the days you need. Don’t on the ones you don’t. And use any free time to attract or generate or nurture clients who might benefit from your value next month, or the one after that.

And before you know it, your first objective is, and always will be, complete.

Conclusion

Sitting down to write at a blank screen is scary enough.

You shouldn’t have to worry about paying the bills, too.

That starts with prioritizing cash to make sure your monthly nut is covered. Feel free to take on spec projects. But not until your bases are covered.

Second, you need to specialize, ASAP. The quickest way to make more money is to raise your rates. And clients will willingly pay for specialists (not generalists) who understand their unique needs.

Last but not least, change your payment terms to collect more money, sooner, even if it costs you a little off the top.

If you do these steps in order, the extra expenses shouldn’t matter, because you should be making 10X, not 1x, more by the time it actually happens.

Leave a Comment