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How Freelance Writers Can Earn More With a Red Velvet Rope

Carol Tice

Do you find yourself saying “Yes! Yes! Pick me!” to every possible writing offer that comes your way?

If so, how’s that working out for you — earning top dollar?

Probably not.

Famed actor and entrepreneur Michael Port, author of Book Yourself Solid, advises a different approach:

“You want to put a red velvet rope around your career, like they do at exclusive clubs, to keep out the riffraff. You don’t want to compete on price!

Instead, be very selective about who you do business with. You only want to accept the jobs that will allow you to do your best work. Because that great work will attract more great clients.”

I heard the most gigantic “click” in my head when he said that.

It reminded me there’s a basic principle all freelancers ignore at their peril.

The law of freelancing

This is like Newtonian physics for freelancers. The law:

Work of one kind tends to lead to work of that same kind, at a similar pay rate.

The so-so clients you accept now pave the way for more dysfunctional/low-paying/uninteresting clients in the future.

These clients tend to have mediocre assignments for you. Not exactly Pulitzer-bait.

Then you have mediocre clips, which you can only use to get more mediocre clients.

Low-paying clients mean you need to work more hours, so you don’t have time to market your business.

It’s a vicious cycle.

How do you break the cycle?

If you’re stuck in a crummy-client rut, you need to break out with some better clips. (If you’re writing for content mills, this is especially true, as many editors won’t even consider those as clips.)

A few ideas on how to do that:

  • Learn to say “no.” If this is hard for you, practice with friends or in front of the mirror.
  • Specialize. The more you build work within a single niche, the easier it gets to get gigs with bigger businesses or national magazines.
  • Do a free sample. If you see a chance to write a great project but it doesn’t pay, do it anyway to get the sample. Prospects need never know you did a project free.
  • Create your own sample. Be your own client – write a sample of whatever type of writing you want to get paid for, and treat it like a $1-a-word magazine assignment.
  • Improve your writer website. A really crisp, informative writer site with your clips displayed nicely makes you look more professional and helps put weaker clips in the best possible light.
  • Drop your worst clients. Save up your money, and then let them go. Start taking the attitude that you have standards. Create space in your schedule for something better, so you can attract it.
  • Market your a*# off. Make a real commitment to consistently and aggressively marketing your services, targeting your ideal clients. When you have more prospects, it’s easier to be selective.

Keep moving your velvet rope until only exactly the clients you want get inside.

For me, the rope began in 2005 with refusing to write $20 and under blog posts. Next, it was not taking on clients that didn’t have at least $300 per month or per project for me. Then, it was deciding not to work with small-business clients anymore, only big companies. Then, it was a $500 minimum.

I have a writer-friend whose rope leaves out all one-shot projects — she only works on ongoing contracts.

Do you use a red velvet rope? Tell us what gigs you turn down in the comments below.