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. 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!

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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