Upwork Jobs: Insiders Reveal How to Win Despite Platform Changes - Make a Living Writing

Upwork Jobs: Insiders Reveal How to Win Despite Platform Changes

Carol Tice | 25 Comments
Upwork Jobs: Insiders Reveal How to Win. Makealivingwriting.com

Upwork Jobs: Insiders Reveal How to Win. Makealivingwriting.comAre you interested in landing Upwork jobs? If you applied recently but were rejected…you’re not alone.

If you’ve already got an Upwork profile, perhaps you’re cheesed off about the fact that as of July 2019, you have to pay to bid on jobs on the most popular platform for freelancers.

Or perhaps you weren’t active on the platform for a month — and discovered your Upwork profile became hidden from potential clients to view. To make it stay public even if you’re inactive, they’d like you to pay $14.99 a month for the Upwork Freelancer Plus level (recently raised from $10/mo.)

It’s not just you. Changes are afoot at Upwork — and freelance writers have mixed feelings about whether they’re good or bad for pro writers. If I don’t miss my guess, more changes will be coming down the pike, too. (Upwork didn’t respond to multiple interview requests.)

For background, you can see 133 pages of users’ reactions to the changes here, my readers’ reactions and experiences with Upwork freelancers on LinkedIn, and a lengthy Reddit discussion of the changes here. Upwork’s announcement of the changes — which rolled out in July —  is here.

To find out what it all means for freelance writers, I spoke with many who use Upwork — or who’ve tried to sign up recently.

Yes, you may know that I firmly believe that if you want to be a successful freelance writer, you should find your own clients, rather than trusting your career to the whims of online intermediary platforms and freelance sites with job listings …but I know many writers find these sites useful.

So I’ve got a report for you on what the new changes mean, and many tips on how to succeed in finding jobs on Upwork today.

A brief history of Upwork

To help you understand why the jobs scene is changing for Upwork freelancers, let’s begin with a quick review of its evolution as another one of those freelance sites that attracts writers. The platform was created in 2015, when Elance merged with oDesk.

Upwork went public in fall 2018, raising $187 million in its initial public stock offering. That money went to its founders and early investors. The IPO valued the company at a whopping $1.5 billion (meaning most company shares are still privately held by key players).

Going public also means Upwork’s income and profit figures are now public. How’re they doin’?

Well, in 2018, Upwork made $253 million on gig volume of $1.76 billion — but showed a net loss of $20 million. In the first half of 2019, Upwork reported it took in $143 million, and lost $6.7 million.

Yes, you can take a minute to think about what an awful lot of money is rolling into Upwork’s coffers, from taking a cut of our hard work (and they charge the clients, too. Double dippers!).

And still no profits. It’s a little baffling, right?

But now you can see the problem, and the arrival of new and higher fees for freelancers makes more sense.

Upwork has gotta turn all that red ink into black, pronto, or its share price is gonna dive and it will be headed to the same desolate place as a long list of similar freelance sites. That is, more than it has already:

Upwork jobs: UPWK stock price chart

Stock chart: TradingView

That gives you a visual on the pressure Upwork managers are under to find new ways to make money and compete with similar freelance sites. Higher stock prices mean all those founders and early investors get richer, and lower ones mean their net worth shrinks. So…they’re motivated!

Which brings us to the recent changes. Here’s a rundown on what’s happening, and tips on how to overcome each of the issues:

Change #1: Charges for ‘Connects’

If paying just under a buck for a shot at a good writing job sounds like chump change to you, then paying for Connects won’t be a big deal. But if you’re a low-earning writer bidding on $15 gigs, it could seem burdensome to bid even the $.15 charge for a single ‘Connect,’ which is what the low-paying jobs cost.

Upwork promises that if the client closes their offer and doesn’t choose a writer from the platform, your Connect will be refunded. Writers report that’s a fairly common occurrence too, that jobs are never filled. But it can take quite a while for the system to close it out, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to happen, or can take months to refund back to you, writers report.

Success strategy: Get selective

With Connects costing now, savvy writers are getting choosier about where and how often they submit bids. Romania-based Upwork freelancer Alexandra Bubela, who’s been on the platform since 2012, says at this point, her main targets for bidding are agencies with at least six figures in Upwork jobs under their belt.

Success strategy: Get approached

One way to deal with the new fees for Connects is to stop bidding, and live off inbound invitations. That’s the approach used by 5-year Upwork freelancer and tech-focused writer Alyssa Goulet. The Orlando-based writer reports she’s highly rated on the platform, and gets 2-3 inbound invitations from prospects via Upwork each day.

She says since pay for Connects was instituted, she’s seen the relevancy of those invites improve significantly.

“Now, it may not be an exact fit, but I can at least see why they pegged me for this,” Goulet says. “Upwork is paying more attention to your specialization.”

Her big tip to get approached more: Make sure your Upwork profile is set to be indexable, so it shows up in Google search results.

“Then, people outside Upwork find you,” she says.

Success strategy: Set your rates high

Seven-year Upwork freelancer Angela Brown reports she’s doing well on the platform and attracting quality clients by setting her Upwork profile hourly rate at $90/hr. (up from a big $9/hr. back when she started). She gets just one-quarter of her jobs on Upwork, at this point.

“I got Johnson & Johnson on Upwork,” she notes. “I feel like I’ve figured out how to find good clients on there and stop wasting time. But I’m frustrated with the whole ‘let’s keep taking more of your money’ attitude.”

Success strategy: Target higher-ticket projects

If you’re stressed about the addition of fees for bidding, consider finding ways to cut Upwork’s fees in another area. Brown says she’s only taking Upwork jobs that are for at least $500.

That’s the point at which Upwork’s commission on your income per client sinks from 20% to 10%. Spend $1 or less selectively applying to better-caliber Upwork jobs, and you can save big. If you take a $1,000 job, for instance, you save $100 in commissions, compared with taking several smaller jobs from various clients that are each for under $500. Obviously, that math pencils out.

Is paying for Connects worth it?

The short answer is: It depends. For someone with inbound invites, probably not, says Goulet.

“I don’t think Upwork is as good of a source as they want it to be,” she says. “I don’t think it’s worth paying the fees today.”

Upwork freelancer Jessica Willoby is another writer who simply waits for the invites to roll in, rather than paying for Connects. The Ohio-based writer, who specializes in Amazon product listings, has been on Upwork for 3 years and gets 100% of her clients there, by promoting her specialization. And she’s been steadily raising her rates over the past 18 months, while still attracting invites.

The rule of having to pay for Connects will be good for freelancers, says writer Bubela, because it will cut the number of writers bidding on Upwork jobs.

Brown says the number of tiny-money jobs also seems to be shrinking. “I do feel like it’s cut down on the crap job offers,” she says, “like, ‘Will you copyedit this for $3?’ They’re getting rid of that.”

Has the number of bids shrunk?

One stated reason Upwork instituted pay-for-Connects is that clients griped they were getting overwhelmed with junk applications.

Has pay-to-play changed that? Reports are mixed, but it’s still early days.

“I’m seeing a lot less pitches on job posts,” says Bubela. “Even low-priced ones, like $15 an article. I used to see 50-plus, and now you see maybe 20.”

Goulet isn’t sure if it’s making a difference, though.

“Sometimes I log in and see all these jobs with less than 5 proposals,” she says. “But other times, it looks the same as always [i.e. 50-100+ proposals per job].”

Change #2: Writer-applicants getting rejected

It’s always been true that not all Upwork profile applications are accepted. But in recent months, many writers have vented in online forums that they apply repeatedly but can never get accepted.

“I’m in a Facebook group of writers, and am hearing many writers are not getting approved,” says Bubela.

Another pro writer and Upwork freelancer, Kerry Matthews, reported in on LinkedIn to discuss her difficulty getting accepted — and lack of success getting hired, once she finally got on:

Upwork jobs - Kerry Matthews' experience applying

If you’re wondering, rejected writers see a message like this one:

Upwork jobs: application rejection message

Of course, the problem of getting rejected isn’t new — Tucson-area freelance writer Hannah Vaughan reports getting multiple rejections back in spring 2018 before finally being accepted. Upwork isn’t releasing figures on this, but the number of applications being rejected seems to have grown since Upwork went public, based on the rise in online griping.

If this is you, how can you get in the door? You can read Upwork’s explanations and tips here, and our insiders have three solutions for you:

3 Workarounds to get approved for Upwork jobs

If you get rejected when you apply to join Upwork, you’re free to apply again (and again). Here are several methods that can improve your acceptance odds:

1) Bring a client to Upwork.

This is considered a sure-fire strategy. Find a client, ask them to create an Upwork profile and manage the project there. Then, have them invite you (and only you) to the job.

“It’s boring, and you have to pay the fee, but it works,” Goulet reports. “You’re in, for sure.”

2) Super-specialize.

Insiders say many newbies’ applications are rejected because they’re submitting generic profiles. And that’s no longer what Upwork wants.

Instead, the platform is encouraging writers to create a highly-specialized Upwork profile that spotlight various talents, to make it easier for clients to find what they want. (For existing users, that means creating sub-profiles under their main profile.)

“If you create a super-specialized profile, that’s what’s actually getting accepted,” says Goulet. “You say you’re a white paper writer, for instance, and you actually attach a white paper sample to your portfolio.”

3) Upload your ID.

Much as Twitter has ‘verified’ accounts, Upwork now has an ‘ID Verification‘ badge. If you’re having trouble getting in, prove you’re not a bot or a scammer by uploading a driver’s license, passport, or other ID, and you’ll up your chances of being accepted, says Bubela.

Change #3: Higher fees for Freelancer Pro

This one saw a lot of online griping, but seems to be less of a big deal. It already cost $10 a month for Freelancer Pro, which keeps your profile public during slow periods. Now, it’s $14.99.

The good news? Insiders such as Bubela say paying for pro isn’t really necessary, because it doesn’t make a big difference.

“I never saw a difference,” she says. “Being visible didn’t make any difference. Being top-rated is what matters.”

Upwork Jobs: The new reality

What’s my big-picture takeaway? The recent changes at Upwork may benefit serious freelance writers who already have a track record on the platform.

Especially, it could benefit writers who get picky, set their rates high, and wait for quality clients to find and approach them. Many bottom-rung writers may drop off the platform, unable to afford (or unwilling to risk) paying to bid on small-money job offers. And that may even help rates to rise.

To sum up: The jury’s still out on whether Upwork’s changes will be good for writers (and if so, which ones).

“I’m torn on how I think it’s going to work out,” says Upwork freelancer Brown. “My initial thought is, ‘They’ve made a lot of money off me.’ And they haven’t really thought about the people doing the work.

“It could narrow the field to people who are better qualified. There are still people trying to get writers for lower pay, but I’ve noticed fewer people applying for those jobs.”

Pro: Changes benefit established Upwork writers

Established pros have the spare change to pay for connects. And it’s not a huge deal to pay $180 per year for Freelancer Pro, if you’re earning high five or even six figures. Better yet, high-rated Upwork freelancers have the reputations to attract better clients on the platform, so they stay busy, don’t need to bid, and can avoid these fees altogether.

For better-caliber Upwork clients seeking freelancers, the changes may also be a plus. They’ll wade through fewer bids and more easily connect with highly-qualified writers for the specific industry they’re in, or type of project they need done.

Con: Changes make it tough for new writers to start with Upwork

On the other hand… for hungry brand-newbie writers who’re applying now, but lack a strong niche specialty, and are hoping to land Upwork jobs, the changes are bad news. Upwork has fallen out of love with you.

What writers actually earn on Upwork

How many freelance writers might be in the low-earning category and no longer in favor at Upwork? Turns out, that’s most of them.

Recently, a member ran a search for “article and blog writers and what they earn,” in Upwork’s database. Here’s the chart:

Upwork jobs: Writer earning statistics 2019

Stunning, isn’t it? Of nearly 2 million writers who’re registered on Upwork for blog and article-writing jobs, nearly 1.8 million report they’ve never made a dime. Vaughan says she’s among those who’ve invested time bidding but never got hired on Upwork.

“I put in a lot of effort, applying to several jobs a day,” she says. “I never even heard back from most of them. And if they gave a rate range, I picked the lower end. Often, if I got a message back, it would say the job had closed, and they didn’t choose anybody.”

Only 70,000 of those 1.95+ million writers have earned more than $10,000 in their entire time on Upwork. That’s just 3.5% of all Upwork’s registered writers in those categories, earning anything that begins to resemble a living.

Other writer types have similar odds of success, I’d wager.

What will you choose? Gamble on spending time applying for Upwork jobs, or find a better way to get clients? Here’s a few things to consider…

  • The cost of administrative overhead. It’s entirely possible that Upwork sees a way to cut administrative overhead here, by having millions fewer profiles to manage. They’re encouraging low earners to either pay up, go dark, or get out. And they’re making it harder for inexperienced newbies to join.
  • Pay to play, then pray. If you’re a newbie who wants to sign up for Upwork, find a specialty and make it super-clear when you apply. Then, pray.
  • Find your own clients & give Upwork a cut. It’s either that or go find a client on your own, and ask them to manage you on Upwork. Sure, you’ll take the income hit paying Upwork’s commission (5%, 10%, or 20%, depending on how much work the client gives you), but this strategy is the only sure-fire ticket in the door.
  • Use other freelance sites. You can apply to platforms elsewhere, but expect that you may quickly find a similar reception. Even bottom-of-the-barrel job platform Fiverr bought ClearVoice back in March 2019, and has instituted a Fiverr Pro level as well, signaling it aspires to go up-market, too. But in reality, most freelance sites like Upwork and Fiverr are overloaded with writers and wannabe writers, which typically has a negative impact on rates and increases competition for available jobs.

Upwork jobs or find your own clients?

You may note that the successful Upwork freelancers interviewed for this story all reported clients from the platform make up a small percentage of their total income.

The only way to make sure your writing career grows is to make sure you don’t rely too much on any one of these platforms or freelance sites.

Yes, you could get lucky under Upwork’s new regime. But you could also easily find yourself among the 96.5% of their writers who never land a client. Odds favor it.

Try to game Upwork’s new system, if you’re interested in making that happen. But the most reliable way to build a lucrative, sustainable writing business is still proactively identifying your own prospects, pitching them, getting hired, and keeping 100% of your pay.

Are you on Upwork, or have you applied recently? Add your take on Upwork’s changes in the comments.


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25 comments on “Upwork Jobs: Insiders Reveal How to Win Despite Platform Changes

  1. Neil Pope on

    The biggest problem I have with Upwork isn’t the paid connects, it isn’t the awful jobs or even the cheapskate clients.

    The biggest problem I have with Upwork is your business is in their hands.

    They have the ability to close your account without explanation, and when they do it, they even say they won’t reply to follow-up emails. Do you really want to give somebody else that kind of control over your business?

    I used Upwork for 2 years and did pretty well, but I realized the exposure to that risk was something always hanging over my head. One wrong move and you can be kicked off the platform, putting you back at square one.

  2. N on

    This is all quite interesting.
    The earning figures you show are especially quite revealing. Could you let me know some further information on where to obtain these statistics of earnings? Is this a search that any member can do? I have never come across it before.

      • N on

        Thanks for the reply.
        I tried to search for it, but honestly couldn’t find it or any reference to it. Could you let me know where on the site I’d need to navigate to do that kind of search?

      • N on

        I figured out it is a search that only clients can do. It also seems that it does not show up for everyone – the figures are not always visible. This may be a recent change, but I am not sure.

        For what I could work out, it is not perfectly accurate. It is only going to show public profiles – so it won’t show Freelancers who have not earned in the last 30 day cycle, or their profile is not active for some other reason. This was a response I got – but, it seems a little unclear, as obviously the search you have shows a huge number of people who have never earned anything yet.

    • Carol Tice on

      PLease do us a favor and use your full name next time you comment — we don’t allow anonymous comments here on the blog. Thanks! Thought your question was interesting so we allowed it, but in general we tend to spike off anonymous postings.

  3. Alex Tucker on

    I was already on my way out from Upwork when they made the recent changes, and that sort of felt like the door hitting me. Quite happy with the path my business is taking though, so I’ve no desire to look for work on there anymore. Interesting to get your take on this Carol!

  4. Heather on

    This was an interesting read as I just got started on Upwork 6 weeks ago. I realize how lucky I am to have a recurring client, plus two other random gigs on the platform. I am a brand new writer, and I’m combining what I learned from your getting started on LinkedIn tips and another course I took about Upwork and I’m getting decent results. Thank you for putting your knowledge out there, what you’re doing makes a difference in people’s lives.

    • Carol Tice on

      Aww, thanks Heather! You’re lucky to have gotten ON Upwork in the past couple months, from what I heard from writers for this story.

      If you’re a brand-new writer, you may not have a sense of what professional rates are, which can make it easier to be ‘lucky’ and get jobs. Once you see how it pencils out and whether you can live on it, and whether you can win a steady stream of clients that would really pay your bills, your feelings about the platform may change, on what a ‘decent’ result really is… I heard from many writers who got a client or two on Upwork…and then nothing.

      • Heather on

        For me, a decent result is being able to travel and live where I want (Thailand, Mexico, and Guatemala) while working the fewest hours possible. I have no idea if it’ll be long-term, but for now, Upwork is serving my purposes perfectly.

  5. JoAnne on

    This is the first I’ve heard about connects being refunded and I can’t find it anywhere on the site. These connects are a cash cow for Upwork. Plus, jobs used to require 2 but now stat around 6 per, which is 90 cents to bid on a job you likely won’t get. This practice has only been in motion for about a month or two, so it’s meant to make money for the platform. They already had their hand in your pocket, it’s just shameful now.

    • Carol Tice on

      Well, I know many writers are feeling just this way. In my interviews, what I learned is that if they hire no one, the job is supposed to close at some point – maybe 60 days out? – and then all connects should be refunded. I heard from one writer who said the system DOES work, just takes a while to come back to you. But I ALSO heard from another writer who said she finds connects go into a black hole with many people never closing, or they choose someone else, and then you’re just out the money.

      I like the tips to bid very strategically only, or to lurk and be approached, rather than using a lot of connects.

      My sense is the price/number of connects needed to bid varies by size and quality of job, so cheapo ones might be 2 connects, real jobs are 6 or $.90.

      In the great scheme, if you’re one of the outliers who actually earn well on Upwork, this is probably pin money. But for many Upwork writers it will be highly discouraging of bidding — which is exactly what Upwork wants. Fewer bids from more successful pro writers — that’s what their clients asked them for.

  6. Rhiannon D'Averc on

    Interesting stuff. I started out on UpWork years ago and have been in the position of just waiting for proposals for most of that time. I actually charge clients my rate PLUS the UpWork fee I would have taken from my side in order to ensure I get paid what I need to. If they don’t want to pay the fee, normally we find a way to get in touch outside of the platform without breaking the rules. I’ve had both good and bad experiences there but nowadays it basically functions as a lead generator for me, thanks to my high rating (I’m very much in the higher earnings band in the example given). It’s attracted me a few long term clients over time.

    • Carol Tice on

      Well, let’s hope that high rating holds! See the other comments for a cautionary tale on that… Upwork appears to be tinkering with its rating algorithm, and is penalizing people who don’t bid every month and seem less ‘active.’

      • Rhiannon D'Averc on

        I don’t think I would even be so worried if it did. I’ve never relied on a single platform for work and I just see it as a happy bonus when leads do come through from there, since I haven’t put any work into it or even properly updated my profile for years. If it dies, I’ll just continue working elsewhere.

  7. Jeannie Michael on

    I’m so glad you posted this, Carol. It’s loaded with inside information that’s very good to know. I actually applied to Upwork and get e-mails constantly, but after reading the first few I seldom even open them any more – nothing looks remotely appealing. I had been thinking of trying to upgrade my profile but after reading this . . . I’ll be trying to find clients the way you’ve been showing us all along. Cheers!

    • Jeannie Michael on

      Everyone please ignore my first comment – I’ve used Upwork to hire someone who helped set up my LI profile – total cost about $20.00 – and was very pleased. I have NOT been active on the site as a contributor – I was thinking of another platform entirely. So disregard the first comment please.

  8. Lisa Rogers on

    I’ve been on Upwork for years and am an established writer who was top-rated. When I had to switch to “not available” because I was focused on a long-term project client (from Upwork), they made my profile private and dropped me from 100% to 86%. When I asked why, I got a note back about windows, timeframes, and the factoring in of the clients who had preferred to find a better fit. Honestly, if I’ve worked for a client for 2-3 years. I’ve been on the site since 2013. Usually, either they or I opt to leave Upwork and work directly with each other. The connects has incentivized this for me…to just leave.

  9. Charlotte on

    I refuse to do any work for them!

    I started out doing press releases and as a new writer, I was doing well. I had four clients in a row who were great. They did not however leave any feedback for me.

    Client number 5 bailed during the writing process and did not leave me enough information to finish the job properly. I made my deadline and had agreed to two rewrites so I asked him for more information, you know stuff like a Website and other small details.

    The client disappeared and did not come back on upwork for six days. He then had the nerve to leave me a bad review and rating.

    I pointed out to upwork that the client had skipped out on me and that I had finished the job 12 hours ahead of deadline. There was plenty of time for him to let me know if any needed revisions and to get me my additional requested information.

    Upwork said that they side with the buyer. I had no way of doing anything about my low review.

    Suffice to say, now I can’t even bid on jobs… I have been getting a ton of job requests and I can’t bid on them because of my rating.

    I am disgusted. It wasn’t fair. I did my job and the client flaked. I did not deserve the poor rating.

    It’s a shame because I was off to a great start and was excited about the earning potential. It was my first month and I had gotten five jobs.

    Not anymore. Because iof that rating, I will get nothing.

    • Carol Tice on

      Didn’t realize your rating can prevent you bidding, I guess clients can set the rating they’re willing to accept bids from?

      This is why I hate these sort of platforms. People are randomly banned, 1 bad review can ruin your chances on the place… finding your own clients and staying off mass platforms remains the #1, proven way to build a sustainable, lucrative writing biz!

  10. Antony Okuto on

    Hello Carol,

    Awesome insights!I agree Upwork is still a great platform and for freelancers to survive, they should abide by Angela’s strategy of setting rates higher.

    Buying connects also has a positive side- it’s my greatest motivation to thoroughly read through job details before applying and tailor my proposal towards maximizing my chances of scoring the job considering I’ve invested.

    Tip: long-term jobs (often require at least 4 connects are the best!). Most freelancer rarely target them.

    For instance, a fortnight ago I sent six proposals each costing 6 connects and 4 of the clients reached out to negotiate the rates.

    Here’s the strategy I used. I tweaked the proposal template (reinforced it with power words) I used before the new rules were introduced and backed it up with outstanding samples.



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