Based in Chicago, Illinois, The Freelance Beat is a blog exploring the triumphs and challenges that freelance journalists encounter in their early and mid-careers.

Saying No to Potential Clients

Saying No to Potential Clients

It’s hard to say no. When you’re starting out, it’s easy to say yes to low-paying gigs, continue working for without getting payments, or doing work that’s not that interesting. When you’re getting started, you feel like you need to pay your dues, build your portfolio, and start commanding rates at a later date.

On the other hand, it’s very hard to say yes to subpar gigs. And by hard, I mean hard on you as a writer. Over time, you might burn yourself out doing work that doesn’t pay much, doesn’t pay at all, or doesn’t inspire you. Seriously, who wants to be bored at work?

I started thinking about this recently after I got a note from an editor who requested a meeting. Or rather a phone call. I rushed out the office around lunchtime so I could talk without eavesdroppers. Booking it to a nearby Noodle’s & Company, I ordered my food, grabbed the last available table in the restaurant (which happened to be tiny enough for one or two people), and mentally prepared to “sell” myself over the phone.

This editor and I had talked for about a half hour, discussed the type of stories needed for this particular website, and then… I asked about rates.

The editor said that someone of my experience would be paid $50 per piece for short pieces and $100 for longform stories. I was crushed. This site seemed like a cool place to write for, but I made a decision earlier this year to pursue higher-paying gigs. At the time, I didn’t know what to say. So… I said I’d think of some pitches to send in, though I had already discussed one that the editor already liked.

I hung up the phone, finished my buttered noodles and bread, and walked back to the office. As I darted in between businessmen and women downtown, I decided it wasn’t going to work. In about a week or so, I wrote a nice yet honest email about why I was turning down the gig.

I explained that not only do I have a mountain of student loan debt, but I also need to make sure I pay for supplies, equipment, a phone bill, transportation and everything else that it takes to produce my stories. The editor kindly let me know that there would be an opportunity to write for them, promising that rates are typically raised for writers who’ve stuck with the company over time.

Though the editor was very nice and understanding, I still found that rate to be a bit insulting. Before contacting me, the editor had taken a look at my selected clips and looked over my a bit of my other work. My 2nd New York Times story was one favorite. And yet, I was still offered $50 per story, a rate that wouldn’t cover my phone bill, the cost of pens and reporters notebooks, or transportation expenses incurred to produce these pieces.

It sucked. I sent a follow-up note, kindly reiterating my previous points and declining to send story ideas. (I’ve had editors do watered-down versions of my pitches, so I didn’t want to send any more ideas their way).

I can’t work for such a low fee. And the work in my portfolio should have been an indicator of my three to four figure fees per story. Following that uncomfortable conversation, I managed to pick up a higher-paying client who was seeking more tech coverage and have spent more time writing for my current, higher-paying clients.

Long story short, don’t feel bad about walking away. I understand the impulse to build a clientele. But if you start working for less than what you’re worth, it makes it harder to stick up for yourself down the line.

And the same wisdom applies to full-time employees. If you don’t negotiate your starting salary, it impacts your earnings for the rest of your career. As a freelancer, you get more practice with haggling your rates, so it’s best to start early. And the more time you can spend working consistently for lucrative customers, the less time you’ll spend stressing out over how you’re going to pay your rent.

 Don't be afraid to ask for more! Write the stories you want, and get paid what you deserve!

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