How One Freelance Writer Blew It and Went Broke

Carol Tice

Disappointed business man shows business going brokeI try to keep this an upbeat blog full of helpful advice on how to earn more as a freelance writer.

But it’s not all sweetness and $1-a-word assignments out there.

Sometimes, freelance writers get into big trouble. And then, they write me.

Below is one recent letter I got that really broke my heart (edited for length). I wanted to share it because I think this writer’s experience holds some cautionary lessons for all freelance writers:

Dear Carol,

I am a writer – an online B2C and B2B copywriter.  In 2012 I graduated with a BA in communication science. By that time I had already acquired eight years of experience in writing and four in sales. Seems great, right? Far from it.

I’ve worked on both a freelance and full-time basis, the [former] of which I’m once again pursuing. In hope of making a success this time round, I’m treating my freelance career as a business and I’m in the process of registering my own company [and choosing a business name].

My rates are neither high nor low. I communicate in a professional manner and my writing speaks for itself.  However, every client that shows interest in my service ends up choosing some dollar-a-job wannabe who can barely string a sentence together.

I can’t understand why so-called businessmen sacrifice the quality of their content to save a few bucks. It makes just as much sense as using a hammer and chisel to avoid the cost of dental expertise.

Where on Earth are all the legitimate businesses hiding?

I’m literally down to my last penny.–Dylan

This sort of letter makes me sad because it’s too late for me to help. And it’s probably too late for this writer to stick with freelance writing.

It’s time to get a day job.

Once you’re flat broke, it’s nearly impossible to make this work. You need money to live on while you build your business.

If you didn’t get the hang of finding good-paying writing clients on your own and you have no money to invest in even a cheap ebook on freelancing, you are out of options.

Where did this writer go wrong, and how could he have prevented this situation? I see two big missteps that led this writer to go bust:

Chasing the wrong kind of clients

When all your prospects go with the lowest-priced offer, your marketing is off-target.

You’re swimming in the wrong client pool — the one where startup websites are slapping up SEO-optimized junk content in hopes of driving clicks to their ads. And it’s not working, and they have no money to pay writers.

Likely, this writer was getting clients off the big online freelance-writer job boards, Craigslist, content mills, or race-to-the-bottom platforms such as Elance. On this stage, you compete with hundreds of other writers from all over the world, including places where the cost of living is far lower.

This is not where you want to look for clients. As he notes, you’ll keep getting beat out by $1-a-job desperados.

To find the sort of clients who pay professional rates, you have to identify successful businesses with real marketing budgets to hire freelancers. The kind of businesses who can’t hire someone who’s semi-literate to slap up garbage — they need sophisticated content that builds their authority in their industry and gets them customer leads.

Then, instead of waiting for them to advertise that they need a writer, you reach out to them — send an email, call them, meet them at a networking event — and pitch them your services.

If you don’t know how to do that, you need to learn.

Instead, this freelancer engaged in a form of insanity — repeatedly doing the same failed marketing approaches and expecting to get a different result. Until the money ran out.

No writer website

Now that he’s gone broke, the writer reports he is getting up a writer website and taking his business seriously.

Putting up a writer website should be the first step in launching a freelance writing business, not an afterthought. Without a professional-looking writer website, it’s difficult to impress quality clients that you are worth good rates.

The lack of a website no doubt contributed to his finding himself competing for lowball clients — and losing out.

Looking over the website mock-up he sent me, my heart sank again. There were branding, design, and usability mistakes in the site that were going to make it fail as a tool for getting him found by prospects and showing his work in the best light.

I see this all too often, in the hundreds of writer websites I’ve reviewed in the Den. You don’t need just any old, slapped-up writer website — you need to build a writer website that works to get you clients.

If you don’t know how to create a site that gets you found by prospects doing online searches for freelance writers — and impresses them once they click over to your site — you need to learn.

But if you’re out of money, it’s hard to make this important investment in your business, much less pay for hosting or design or Web support.

What to do if you go bust

If you go broke trying to be a freelance writer, is it the end of your writing dreams? Not necessarily.

I know plenty of writers who ended up going back and getting a day job for a while, to rebuild their savings.

Some freelanced on the side while they worked, to build their knowledge of freelancing and their client base. Maybe they got up a freelance website and started learning how to turn that into a client magnet.

The smart ones invested some of their income to learn more about how to freelance smart and find better clients.

Then, they quit and returned to freelancing, often with better results. As long as you’re breathing, there’s always a chance to try again.

What do you think this writer should do? Leave a comment and add your advice.

53 Comments

  1. Ronald Gary

    All this makes so much sense! I haven’t begun to look for work. I’m putting together a website and hard copy portfolio. (My website is only a first draft! I’m sure it needs work.) I study everything I find, first, like your blog. When I’m ready, I will cold-call and hit the streets with my portfolio in hand.

    It’s so true–going to posts/ads for writers is the easy way out, so lots of writers flock to them. The easy way never pays off.

    Love your blog!

  2. Dylan

    UPDATE:

    I recently attended a motoring event in the Kalahari Desert, wrote a story about it, and submitted it to a major car magazine.

    The editor got back to me within thirty minutes! They featured the event last year and weren’t going to this year, but they loved my write-up so much that they decided to use it for their column in their November issue 🙂

    And yes, it’s a paid job – more than I have ever been paid per word.

    It also looks like I’ll soon be writing ad copy for a major food chain. Hold thumbs!

    Did I blow it? Nah!
    Am I broke? Not anymore!

    Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom in order to become truly hungry for success. Do that and you’ll perform better than ever before. You’ll do things you never thought you could do.

    Prior to these developments I met famous crime writer, Ian Rankin, at a literary festival in Cape Town. I asked him what advice he’d give to an aspiring writer, to which he replied: “Read a lot, write a lot. There are no rules.”

    I do read and write a lot, but I’ve always followed the rules.

    “There are no rules” is my new mantra, and it’s working.

    • Carol Tice

      That’s awesome Dylan! Thrilled to hear you’re back from the brink and scoring some great assignments.

    • Dylan

      Thanks Carol!

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