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Three years ago, after nearly four years in Atlanta and relocating back to Washington DC, I shut down my digital marketing (micro) agency. I was spending more time on tasks I didn’t want to do like managing web projects and conducting marketing strategy than on the writing. I wasn’t getting hardly the writing work I expected, in fact.
I missed “just writing” so I closed the struggling firm shortly after returning to Washington, DC. I relaunched my full-time independent writer career after almost a decade of not writing full time. Of course, this means I was eager to build a portfolio with the right media outlets or blogs, especially my dream publications and platforms.
During my first six months back freelancing writing, I was reasonably successful in getting the kind of work I want at top publications and strong content brands and being paid decently and on time for the work I produced.
I got some great clients and wrote over 40 new articles. I also completed a fun travel copywriting gig. I wasn’t doing poorly for the first year back contract writing.
This time, I felt the situation was different because, after all, it’s me taking this assignment so of course the editor will love my work. My ego got the best of me.
But, I made a few mistakes on my way to my goal of 50 articles by year-end (which I nearly achieved). This blog post is my cautionary tale for those of you who are looking to start, restart or push forward your independent writing career while trying to avoid #nopertunities.
A Dream Opportunity…Sort Of
My #nopertunity happened after I pitched one of those blogs (which I won’t name) for which I’d long wanted to write. Instead of a paid test, I was offered the “opportunity” to write a fully-reported feature article “on spec.” (“Spec” is a sophisticated way of saying “without guaranteed pay or publication; for free.”)
If the editor liked it, the blog would pay a reasonable fee and publish the post. If not, I’d receive zero pay and the article “would be mine.” Well, never having had an article rejected in over 20 years of writing professionally, I accepted, confidently believing I soon would be a regular contributor to this well-known personal finance blog.
Now, most people know I don’t willingly take work writing for free when I’m told not to expect any monetary payment ever or even for meager pay. But this time, I felt the situation was different because, after all, it’s me taking this assignment so of course the editor will love my work. My ego got the best of me.
I believed that my post would be accepted, mainly because I worked so hard on it. Besides, clients welcomed with pleasure 30 other pieces I’d written by that point in my relaunch—though we’d agreed to pay in advance in those cases.
But, that’s not what happened here.
Instead, after confidently submitting the piece, the editor sent it back with multiple changes requested. The editor encouraged me, though, explaining to me that this was part of their “learning curve” and most writers get it right on the second draft.
And, I don’t usually balk at edits because editors expect them but once I reviewed the requested edits and realized post would take a major rewrite, I felt dejected.
Remorse Sets In and Looms Heavily
Facing a substantial redraft, I immediately regretted my decision to accept the project on spec in the first place because guess what? It takes as much time to write and revise a piece on spec as it does for pay, particularly if it requires significant editing.
But, now, because I’d committed to the process, I felt obligated to rewrite and resubmit the piece. It didn’t matter that, by then, I had a lot of paying work, and had to rewrite this blog post without pay.
Feeling honor-bound, I did it and hated myself for putting myself in that position. The longer I wrote, the angrier I became for letting any publication exploit me. I mean, I had some clips going back years—including an award-winning cover feature for a major magazine that showed I could write this piece.
I have no fear of backlash expressing what I am here—I don’t want to work for publishers who have no respect for independent writers. Only they will be offended by what they read in this post.
But this editor wanted to see if I could write for them, to this individual editor’s preferences, something I usually do well. (NOTE: I don’t blame the editor for the publication’s spec policy for new-to-them writers; I blame myself for accepting it.)
Well, my disgust with having accepted the work on spec—and the fact that I was also writing about ten other articles at the time—showed in my finished product. But, I emailed the second version of the post to the editor and waited.
After molting for a few weeks and following up with the editor, I received their response. The editor rejected this version, too. Now, I had the stinging experience of my first editorial rejection ever and a fully-written article that I had to try to sell elsewhere.
Lesson Learned? Don’t Be An Exploited Writer
Looking back, I knew better and should have gone with my gut on this. I should have said “no” to the #nopertunity and let go of the dream of writing for this blog.
Why would I want to write for a blog that asks writers, even seasoned ones, to write for free, anyway? That’s why I have no fear of backlash expressing what I am here. I don’t want to work for publishers who have no respect for independent writers—who don’t recognize this is our career, not a sophisticated scheme to make more money than we deserve or than they earn. Only they’ll get offended by what they read in this post.
But, I’ve forgiven myself for not recognizing that a few years ago and I learned a few valuable lessons.
Going forward, I will just say “nope” to spec work just as I do to other ‘offers’ to write without pay (including unpaid test articles, which have gotten out of control, as many journalists say). I won’t write for practically free or cheap rates, either. That includes what I consider “semi-spec” test pieces that pay significantly less to me than I’d get if I was a regular contributor. I’ve declined at a number of those offers, too, though the clearer I make my policy, the less I get asked.
After all, what would the cost to content brands and publications be for content and editorial clients if every great writer in America took a week off to show our value?
There’s a lot of exploitation of contract writers, especially in this “new” environment. Exploiting writers (and other creatives) isn’t new, and it gets justified with the belief that we’re “freelance hustlers” who don’t deserve respect—or pay.
Don’t read me wrong. I have numerous great clients and editorial relationships. I’ve been blessed to attract more who “get it” that I’m an independent contractor by choice and am offering clients exceptional quality service at a competitive fee.
This is a mutually beneficial business exchange and paying for all work an independent contractor shows respect for what we offer. After all, what would content and editor clients do if every great writer in America took a week off to prove our value?
The fact is that clients of professionals in industries outside creative don’t demand they work this way—on spec. They don’t expect plumbers, retailers, restaurants, auto repair or landlords to give away goods and services free (for “exposure”) or for paltry fees they often must beg to get after completing work.
They know these professionals and business owners wouldn’t tolerate in many cases, being paid late (often very) or not at all. Most other business owners scoff at the idea of working for free or far below market value for their service or product.
“You owe it to society, yourself, and your family if you have one to generate as much revenue as you can and be a real driver in your country’s economy.
Moreover, unlike independent writers are expected to do, they won’t accept being paid late (often very) or not at all. (There’s no “kill fee” for spec work, but publications abuse those fees often, too, for formal assignments.)
We’re conditioned to believe that staying broke is normal for writers and being “the starving creative” is a badge of honor. It’s not. It’s humiliating, but we have a choice, especially if we live in the West or write for western enterprises.
Operating Like a Genuine Consultant
I know if I want to keep from being humiliated and from continually struggling, I need to run my enterprise like the real business owner I am. I’m part of a growing pattern of women launching out on their own and driving economic growth by providing valuable consulting services.
I see myself as a communications practitioner. I know that my services have high value and market them accordingly or clients sure won’t believe that.
Writers should ask themselves, “How many marketing plans do well without strong writing like mine?” and “How many top publications could survive without equally high-quality writers?”
If you’re a great contract writer, remember this. You’re a business owner. As a business owner, you’re in business to generate as much revenue as you can. You owe it to society, yourself, and your family if you have one, to do that.
Just as those in other professional services do, we must refuse to be taken advantage because some people believe “contractor” means they shouldn’t have to respect writers as professionals.
The fact is #FreelancingIsntFree. We can’t live for free so, as expert writers, we shouldn’t work for free or nearly free. Nobody should be expected to, especially for high-value services like professional content writing and expert journalism.
Ask yourself: “How many marketing plans do well without strong writing like mine?” and “How many top publications could survive without equally high-quality writers?” Exactly. Remove all the great writers from the business environment, and it will go straight to crap. We need to remove ourselves from situations where clients don’t know or respect our value.
In fact, so resolute am I about this, I have been deliberate in the way I brand myself because I earned the right to do that. I’m an award-winning professional business and finance journalist and strategic digital content writing consultant with business acumen and marketing fluency.
I’m also a top grad student at Georgetown University. I won’t be exploited or even write for below what I know my work can bring in the marketplace.
I’ll keep “Just saying NO! to the “#nopertunities” on my way to being a six-figure digital corporate communications and strategic writing consultant.
I hope you’ll develop the same mindset, too. If we do, we can transform the industry.
First written in 2015. Updated May 17, 2018.
(c) 2015-2018. Dahna M. Chandler for Get Money Moxie, Inc. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without express written permission of the author. Please read this website’s Content Disclaimer.
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I’m an award-winning finance journalist with marketing expertise and business acumen. I offer engagement-generating, personal finance and small business development content writing services to thriving—high growth or established—blogs and media outlets. My passion is to help your consumer readers make their dollars make sense and operate their business with growing wealth as their focus.
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