How to Stop Feeling Desperate and Taking the Crappy Writing Gigs

Carol Tice

Ever taken a freelance writing gig, and then wish you hadn’t?

Usually, we writers do that for one reason: We feel desperate for money.

You just know this gig is going to suck. The pay is horrid, the client is a nutcase…but you feel like you don’t have a choice.

After all, writers have to eat. And so do their families.

I could easily fill this post with tales of all the weirdo writing gigs I’ve taken over the years to keep the bank account from overdrafting.

Of course, when we do low-paid work, it creates a problem.

It sucks up too many hours and delivers too little pay.

At the end of it, you’re still broke and desperate.

So you feel compelled to hop on the next crummy offer.

And so on.

To quote an Elvis song, you’re caught in a trap.

Breaking the poverty cycle

There is only one way to break this cycle of desperation.

You’ve got to feel less desperate. Then you can walk away from insulting offers and hold out for better ones.

There are only a few ways you can do that:

  • Increase your tolerance for financial uncertainty. I once had a screenwriter friend who worked in TV. In lean times, she would calmly charge every expense including groceries, while continuing to hold out for her next plummy series deal. It never occurred to her to go get a day job. She had perfect faith she’d land another show soon. She simply didn’t worry about money or debt.
  • Lower your nut. Are there expenses you can cut? I ask because I’ve recently managed to pay off a coupla racked credit cards and a car loan and suddenly have like $600 a month less in monthly payments. That’s a chunk of work I don’t have to take! I feel lucky to have read Your Money or Your Life at a formative age, and its financial-management principles have helped me keep costs down for decades. Right now we are a family of five limping along on one very used car and public transit, for instance, because I find cars a poor investment. I have one friend who just moved from a $900-a-month rental to a $400 one that’s actually nicer. Examine your cost structure closely to see if there are places you can cut back. Lower costs mean more money stays in the bank. Then you worry less…and can hold out for a better gig.
  • Take a side job. For some people, it’s mentally healthier to have a steady part-time job that allows them to refuse junk jobs and pick and choose only quality clients. They get a better portfolio and don’t feel the pressure to take every gig. I’ve known writers who pumped gas, stocked grocery shelves at night, taught school, and worked as a bar back to keep their career on track.
  • Work more hours. If you are living lean and don’t want a day job, the other way out is to commit yourself to workaholism to create time for proactively marketing to better clients. Maybe you can send marketing emails at night after kids go to bed, or commit a month of Sundays. See this as a short tunnel you need to get through — a few months of intensive marketing and you’ll likely line up better clients and be out of the squeeze.
  • Create your own products. The other hedge against feeling compelled to do low-paid writing work is to write some ebooks or courses of your own you can sell on the side. This also means more hours short-term, but can pay off in a nice little cushion against desperation in the long haul. Start cultivating those multiple streams of income you’ve always heard are the key to financial security.
  • Drop your worst client. Many writers I know have one client who is really not worth the aggravation, if you figured the hours and pay. Ax this loser and you’ve cut yourself some new time for marketing to quality prospects, with little financial impact.

Hopefully, one of these strategies can help you walk away from lower pay and hold out for writing work you want — work that pays you a living wage.

How have you moved up in pay as a writer? Leave a comment and share your strategy.



  1. Mitch Mitchell

    I did this early in attempting the writing part of my career. Got into one of those things were I got paid a penny a word for 30 articles or at least 400 words each. In the middle of it all I did my calculations and realized I was making $2.37 an hour because it was a topic I didn’t know and, well, it was a penny a word! Never did that again, but felt it was a major learning situation.

  2. Adeline Yuboco

    A friend of mine pointed out to me when I started writing that poverty is a mindset. If you have this way of thinking that you have to just take whatever falls on your plate because you can’t do any better, you’ll just keep on going in circles. I was really thankful that she pointed that out to me early on in my career. It allowed me to set my way of thinking by recognizing my talent and what it’s really worth. It’s saved me from a lot of heartaches.

    I love your advice on lowering your nut. Just because you are earning a bit more doesn’t mean that you have the right to spend more. Living beneath your means can be more challenging, but it will definitely keep you from becoming desperate in terms of finding writing jobs.

  3. Ali

    For me, “Create your own products” is the best advice in this post and I’m seriously planning to create some info products; to test the waters, I might start with tiny ones.

    A few months back I took a gig for writing a highly technical user manual for network administrators (about a topic I had no idea of). The client was willing to pay $450 for this 2000 word document which was many times my normal price. Being an ex-IT-Pro, I though I’ll handle it, but unfortunately there wasn’t a single word about this topic on the web. Disappointed, I went to my local library, still couldn’t find anything useful; called a couple of classmates and colleagues, to no avail. And after wasting several hours, I email the client and told him this was beyond my capacity. He was kind enough to understand my situation but I ended up wasting a lot of time. I wish I had never taken it!

    • Carol Tice

      Any time the topic is “I have no idea of,” I pass. I need to have at least a vague clue of where I’d find that info, those experts, or I’m not going near it. As you found, you’re just letting yourself in for big timewasting.

      My usual clue is if they start using jargon that I don’t know the meaning of…it’s time to run. If I understand it, I’m going to be OK. We need to speak the same language to work together!

  4. Erica

    I love this post!

    I’m a new freelance copywriter but recently had to turn down a PIA client. He wanted to pay 50% up front and the rest “when [he] became profitable. Like [his] financial backers.”

    Seriously? I am not a financial backer. Nor do I work for free.

    Again, great post. I’m bookmarkin’ this one.


    • Carol Tice

      Oh yeah, I LOVE offers like that. Like I’m in control of whether he has his expenses in line, or does the rest of his marketing.

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