Why Freelance Writers Are Undervalued

Orange retro typewriter on paper background with light bulb, brainstorming writers block

Yes, anyone can write, but that doesn’t mean everyone should be hired professionally to do it.

I had a client tell me once that he still couldn’t fully understand what I did. “You just write stuff for others, right?” he said. It’s a little odd, hearing this from someone who is paying you to do the thing they say they don´t fully understand. Granted, he wasn’t paying me a lot, or at least not the hourly rate most copywriting advice websites said I should be charging based on my experience and skills (I’d love to meet freelance writers able to charge what these sites suggest). But what truly struck me was the way that question was phrased, the probably unintended but definitely implicit idea that permeates current work conditions for freelance writers and other creatives. The preconceived notion that we “just” do “stuff.”

This is a tale as old as time: Susie says she wants to be an artist, and that’s fine, until Susie grows up and mom and dad suggest that she pick something more “practical,” you know, something that will guarantee she can pay the bills in the future. Now, I’m not implying that every type of writing is art (although I’m not the one to judge and, really, what is art anyway), but writing—or mastering any type of creative skill—is difficult. Language, for example, is always changing, always being reinvented; you could spend your life working with it and still feel like a blind racehorse with a wooden leg and a drunken jockey on your back. Creative trades might not be practical in the traditional sense of the word, but the implication of their uselessness when it comes to paying the bills is damaging to creatives not only in the arts but also in the business sector. It has set the foundation for clients and companies to undervalue their work.

This happens a lot. Content is everything and everywhere. Because demand for content is so high, combined with post-Covid adoption of remote work, there has been a boom in the supply of freelance writers that has drastically changed market perception of our jobs. To win a project or a client, freelance writers have to compete with a pool that is getting bigger and more international by the minute. This means that many compete not with their skills or experience, but with pricing.

Which takes me to my next point about why freelance writers are undervalued: writers undercut writers. We undervalue ourselves because competition makes getting steady work almost impossible. If a client can get something done for a cheaper price by hiring someone abroad, and then the next one, and the next one, and the next one does the same, then you have no choice but to lower your price to get work. Or, for example, if Susie, who decided to study art anyway (go Susie!) and is now working as a freelance graphic designer to pay her bills, charges 30% less than what her work is worth and then Timmy, who should have upped his price a couple of years ago but hasn’t because he’s scared to lose his clients, charges the same, then it forces others to drop their prices. At the same time, accepting low-ball offers gives clients false impressions of fair market prices.

Trust me, I get it. What can Susie and Timmy do if there are so many talented writers out there competing for the same clients and projects? What are they supposed to do if nowadays it seems as if anyone can do it? And what’s worst, the perception that anyone can do it at any price leads clients to  devalue the work as “just writing stuff.”

Yes, anyone can write, but that doesn’t mean everyone should be hired professionally to do it. You wouldn’t hire non-professionals for a night shift at the E.R. It’s great that more writers can get paid for their trade, that there are new ways to live off of writing, but the idea that anyone can do it also trivializes all the hard work it takes to be a good writer and build a career doing it.

And yes, it is just writing. But that’s the thing: just writing is hard. That’s why not everyone writes and why so many people hire others to write for them and why being a successful writer (once again) sometimes feels like you’re a blind racehorse with a wooden leg and a drunken jockey on your back. Writing takes practice, it takes skill and time. It’s not only about sitting in front of the computer and knowing where to put the periods and comas. A good writer knows how to build and keep a story alive. They know how to identify a voice for a brand, how to structure paragraphs and sentences so that the rhythm matches the voice and audiences connect with it. Good writing is efficient and informative but has an original perspective: it looks for the things others haven’t seen yet. Good writing is also research and reading. Lots of reading. It’s learning how to say the same thing every week in a different, new and attention grabbing way, and being able to do it in 200 pages or 40 characters or less, while never forgetting about the client who owns the story or the person who reads it.

It’s not easy to quantify the time and effort it takes to write. To give it the value it deserves. But we writers shouldn’t forget it. It’s only natural that if we do, others will as well.

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