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.


  1. Tea Silvestre

    I love Michael Port’s philosophy and recommend his books to my clients as well. It was good tho to hear it again…especially since I just rebranded and am refocusing my consulting work as a writer for food/wine related small businesses. I’ve been saying yes more than no and not charging what I know I should be because I want the work. It DOES work to say no. I’ve done it in the past and need to start doing it again. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Tea —

      Right on!

      I think taking low-paying gigs becomes simply a habit…until you forget there are other types. By the same token, expecting great clients and great pay can create a positive cycle.

      If I listened to all the people who say $20 a post or maybe $75 a page is all you can make for Web content anymore, I wouldn’t be making $2,000 an article for one online client right now.

  2. Karen

    I know what you mean about how hard it is to break into high pay markets with low pay clips, but sometimes there’s a way round it. I’d had my eye on a particular (high pay) market for a while and didn’t have any suitable clips that would swing me a commission. Going over the writers’ guidelines again yesterday I realized that they do look at completed articles (without clips) as well as queries (only acceptable with suitable clips). I know I can write a suiitable piece. Now I have a possible way in if I write the whole peice and make it good enough to hold the editors attention. I’m determined to break into higher paid markets. It’s just a case of finding the loopholes!

    • Carol Tice

      I’m not a big fan of sending pre-written articles…in my experience they very rarely get accepted. I’d look for a way to build the clips you need to pitch them if pre-writing doesn’t work out for you.

      • Karen

        Thanks for the tip Carol. I know I’m taking a risk with this one, but it’s a calculated one. If it doesn’t work out I will take your advice and go back to building the clips some other way!

        • Ahlam

          Good Luck Karen! I know Carol doesn’t recommend sending pre-written clips, but that’s what I’ve been doing recently. I’ve dropped my low paying clients (and have scaled back spending accordingly) and have been looking into magazine publications, and even repurposing my writing (as you advised in one of your blog posts). It’s been refreshing tapping into my creative side again as opposed to churning out technical reports. Good luck with your efforts and getting published 🙂

          • Carol Tice

            Have you had any success with the pre-written articles? If so I’d love to see a case study for the blog. I always think of that as a very big long shot, as you don’t have very much insight into the editor’s needs at that moment, but I’d love to hear a win story.

          • Ahlam

            Carol, I’m trying out a few tactics, if they work, I’ll query MAW for a guest blog post 🙂

          • Carol Tice

            I would love that! I’m always collecting success stories.

  3. Luana Spinetti

    When I’m offered $20 per article I consider that a huge gig, as I’m used to work for even less. Freelancing is still mostly a hobby to me, as a university student, but I can see why writers who are deeply involved in freelancing as a career don’t want to work for a few bucks.

    My current small pack of freelance writing gigs and paid reviews pay me around $200-$250 a month, which I consider a great blessing, as I have something fully mine to spend on things I need without being a burden on my parents’ wallet. 🙂

    Who knows, perhaps one day I might turn into a ‘real’ freelancer who can earn a huge income by working-at-home. I still feel too humbled for that though.

    ~ Luana S.

    • Carol Tice

      Luana —

      You’re earning $250 a month writing? YOU ARE A REAL FREELANCER.

      I walked around with those same feelings of illegitimacy for years, after sort of blundering into freelance nonfiction writing from the world of songwriting. You are not imagining this work you are doing. It is real…it just could be better paying.

      As you go along, remember to keep that red velvet rope in mind….keep making your bar higher, and your rates will keep rising, along with the quality of what you’re able to produce.

      • Luana Spinetti

        Hi Carol,

        I got back to this reply so late. Sorry.

        Thank you for saying I’m a real freelancer. I like to think so, even though I only started on 2009 (2007 with paid blogging, but on a more random way).

        I need to keep reminding myself about that velvet rope… I recently declined a direct offer of writing 5-6 articles a day for €1.20 each. I had to say thanks but no thanks, I have university and other better small jobs to spend time on; besides 5-6 articles a day would mean leaving university or go deep down the road of nervous breakdown (been there…).

        I’m a slow writer, mainly because I love background research Too. Much. I simply can’t start writing without my documentation. This is something writing a thesis at lyceum installed into my brain and I can’t get rid of. If I write for a pay, I can only focus on 2-3 articles a day at most, as I need as much time researching first.

        ~ Luana S.

  4. Christy Karras

    Here are my two cents:

    I think you’re absolutely right. I have a graphic designer friend who did great work, but she spent a ton of time on work for clients who didn’t pay well. She eventually realized that the less a client pays, the more of a pain that client is likely to be – not paying on time, asking for the moon, and otherwise being unprofessional. I’ve found the same thing.

    To some degree, people will think you’re worth what you think you’re worth.

    Demand respect!


    • Carol Tice

      Oh, I love that — people think you’re worth what you think you’re worth. That’s it exactly.

  5. Margaret McGriff

    This is great advice and I’m glad that my pickiness isn’t crazy! LOL I’ve finally starting to get into my freelance career while working a full time job and my thinking is that I can be more particular about the jobs I get because I already have a steady source of income. I’m looking for good, long time clients that will allow me to pursue it full time.

    So glad I found your blog!

    • Carol Tice

      It’s true.

      I’m sometimes tempted to tell freelance writers to stock shelves at the grocery store at night, when they tell me they can’t drop loser clients because they’re so broke. You need to be able to say ‘no’ and pick your clients to really build your business.

      If your current cash flow doesn’t allow that, you either need to cut expenses or grow income another way, so you can get in a position to erect that rope and be selective.

  6. Terri Huggins

    I really enjoy the notion of the red velvet rope. I think one crucial aspect of being able to utilize that “velvet rope” is self-confidence. Many writers don’t say no to low paying clients because they don’t have enough confidence in their writing and marketing abilities to get those higher paying clients. Some even struggle with confidence when they do get those higher paying clients.

    I encountered this feeling myself a while back. An editor from a national publication contacted me to write a very involved article in a short amount of time. The pay was great but I was skeptical about accepting it because I wasn’t confident in my abilities and thought I would crash and burn. After much thought, I accepted the assignment and I nailed it! This situation definitely taught me to believe in myself and confidence in my skills. After all this is what I worked hard for so I deserve it!

    • Carol Tice

      You highlight an element freelance writers need — call it a sense of adventure, a willingness to take a risk, a joy in tackling a challenge that you know may push your envelope.

      I LOVE trying hard stuff. I think that’s been a big factor in my success. You have to be willing to take a flyer — ghost-blog for a CEO who asks you, for instance, when you’ve never blogged in your life (I did). Or write for an audience of actuaries, or CFOs, when you’re not one (ditto).

      Good pay favors the bold in freelance writing.

  7. Joseph

    This post is awesome. It’s so easy to become desperate and take every client that comes your way, but that leads to a vicious, low-paying cycle. It’s hard to wow anyone if you aren’t getting paid enough to have the opportunity to do that.

    Thanks for the great marketing and writing advice!

    • Carol Tice

      Also hard if all those clients you say yes to don’t demand your best work. That’s the bigger problem…you’re not building the portfolio you really want.

  8. Ron's SEO Copywriting Blog

    That’s the hardest part of all – marketing! Not many writers are actually cut out for marketing. That’s a fact! Take me for an example.

    • Carol Tice

      Content mills are making a fortune based on exactly that fact, Ron. They’re hoping writers like you never find out how little effort it takes to find your own clients and start earning more.

  9. Marcy Orendorff

    You appear each and every day in my hour of need. Today an editor decided to take away the assignment that contained my best work. I almost cried. His budget, he said, left only room for the other (bargain basement.stuff.) I knew these pieces were my best. So, now they have been published, and I will move inside that velvet rope rather than outside and get down on my knees. I have multiple portfolio pieces. The more I write, the better I get. And the more determined.

    As for the difficult jobs, everybody, – JUST SAY YES! My first gig was a Thanksgiving speech for a hospital director at a mental health facility. There’s a story there!

    • Carol Tice

      It kills your soul, when you’re not being challenged to grow as a writer, doesn’t it? We all need to seek out the opportunities to keep learning and stretching the boundaries of what we can accomplish.

      I think so many writers get hung up about how many portfolio samples they have, and feel they need to take scut work to fill it out…but it’s partly about quality not just quantity.

      I personally think in the difficult gigs department nothing beats obituaries (had to do one once that I knew would be THE one the family would clip and save forever…major responsibility. Lotta stress.)

      Then there’s major profiles of living CEOs. I call them “obituaries of the living.” All the pressure of perfectly capturing a person’s life and life work…except they’re still around to read and criticize it!

      So did you publish it yourself somewhere, or what happened to the good-stuff assignment?

  10. Pinar Tarhan

    I started to put the rope. My first proof is that I got an article published on Freelance Switch. The prestige and $50 for a post are only the start:)

    • Carol Tice

      Congrats on Freelance Folder, Pinar!

  11. vonnie

    What a great post, Carol!

    Just curious – what’s your philosophy on putting published clips from content mills in your portfolio? I’ve heard to use them because it’s good to show the variety of writing, but also heard that if the big payers see it, they won’t take you seriously or will want to negotiate for lower payment.

    Your thoughts?

    • Carol Tice

      I think mill clips definitely drag down your portfolio and broadcast that you don’t have a strong track record. You want to take them out the minute you have a few clips elsewhere.

      One trick in the meanwhile is sometimes the mill stuff gets picked up by other sites. If yours is appearing anywhere else, take your link from there and cite it as that market instead.

      That said, if a mill clip is the only one you have on a particular topic you’re trying to get a gig in, then you should use it. It is still better than NO clips…just not a lot better.

  12. E. Keith Owens

    An effective sales cycle according to Michael Port author of Book Yourself Solid is based on turning these simple conversations into relationships of trust with your potential clients over time. Michael Port author of Book Yourself Solid highly recommends a Red Velvet Rope Policy that allows in the most ideal clients the ones who energize and inspire you. Not only do potential clients need to know what you know but also your marketing and referral partners.


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