Will Taking a Low Paying Freelance Writing Job Hurt Your Career?

I spotted a thread on a discussion forum in my online travels recently that caught my eye. The subject was whether taking a freelance writing job that pays at an entry-level rate is a good idea or if doing so will hurt your career.

I have always been of the opinion that it’s better to be working than not doing so. My family enjoys eating and living indoors, so that’s a prime motivator for keeping busy. Simply because someone takes on a project that pays lower than they would normally accept doesn’t mean that they have done the one thing that is going to mess up their entire career.

I’ve never had someone who has hired me ask how much I charge other clients for my work. I don’t discuss my clients with each other, and I consider that the work that I do for them is confidential. In some cases, I have been asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement that prohibit me from discussing anything about the work that I do and my rates.

When someone is looking to hire a writer, I doubt they have time to follow up with the candidate’s previous clients to find out how much they were charged for their work. A client cares about getting their own work done. Period.

In the brick and mortar world, people generally start their working careers in entry-level positions. Over time as they get more experience, they move onto more lucrative work. The same thing happens for freelance writers. Taking an entry-level gig means you get some experience and some green in your pocket. During times when more lucrative work is lean, taking on something at the low end of your acceptable pay scale keeps your skills sharp and some money coming in.

If you are concerned about your lower-paying gigs appearing on your resume, do some editing. You don’t have to list each client you have ever worked for if you choose not to.

Getting back to the original question, I don’t think that you can hurt your career by taking a certain gig. If the subject about rates you used to charge ever comes up, you can explain that you have gained some experience and honed your skills since that point and now you charge $X.

What do you think? Can taking a low paying freelance writing job mean the Kiss of Death for your career?


17 responses
  1. Tania Mara Avatar
    Tania Mara

    Some people tell horror stories about writers who got relatively low-paying gigs and then had an awful time trying to charge higher rates. They seem to think it’s nearly impossible to get high-paying jobs once you get an entry-level one. Judging from my experience, such horror stories aren’t necessarily realistic though. So, no, getting a couple of low-paying gigs doesn’t mean the kiss of death to anyone’s freelance writing career. 🙂

  2. Jodee Avatar

    The horror stories bother me too, which is why I wrote this post. Have you ever noticed that the horror stories are always about some anonymous writer, not a specific person? These kinds of accounts foster an Us versus Them mentality when it comes to dealing with clients, and I like to think that we can work together in a way that will benefit both parties.

  3. Deborah Avatar

    Absolutely. I feel that buyers that pay low rates are disrespecting the people they hire by doing so. This whole “$1 per article” craze is spreading around like wildfire. It is now so much harder to find serious buyers because talented people reduce themselves to such nonsense. No one can make a living by accepting low-paying projects even with multiple clients.

    Instead of bidding and searching for projects for about an hour a day and gaining about three projects per week, I now spend two hours a day searching for projects and only gain about one per week (or less). There’s so many “low-paying” gigs to sift through, it’s ridiculous. Craigslist seems to have more serious buyers than bidding sites like odesk but most people who post on craigslist do not respond. The only response I’d ever gotten was someone who ended up flaking out later on anyway. I keep trying though because I severely need the work.

    People that accept low-paying jobs hurt the industry and make it harder for serious professionals to make a decent living.

  4. Mackeran Avatar

    I liked it. So much useful material. I read with great interest.

  5. Krista Avatar

    I’d say it could hurt your career if you do a half-assed job or if all your clips are from content mills. If you put everything you can into it, though, it could help your career…a lot.

    A few years ago, I took on a project writing promotional descriptions for a site that sells natural supplements. The pay was $10 per description. At the time, I was building my resume and was still amazed that anyone would pay for my writing. Admittedly, I also didn’t know how bad the pay really was. 🙂 I did about 30 descriptions. This past April, I was hired by an agency to write almost the same type of material. I got the job thanks to the samples I had collected while working for the other client. The new client’s pay rate for almost the exact same material…$150!

    On another note, I sometimes see job postings requesting a salary history. My first reaction is that it’s really none of their business (at this point, I’m only interested in taking on new clients that pay more than my current ones), but I’d be interested in hearing what others think.

  6. Debbie Ferm Avatar
    Debbie Ferm

    If it ever was true,I think it has gone the way of so many other employment myths. For example, people used to think it looked bad if they had “jumped around” or stayed in a job less than a year. Also, as a mother who stayed home with my kids for ten years, I had been warned that the gap in my employment would look bad. It was all nonsense. I had no problem getting a job when I was ready.

    I think this is as much nonsense.

  7. Star Avatar

    More importantly, these so-called entry level things (low-pay, no-pay) hurt everyone’s career. I can give a specific example of a major trade mag that cut its rates in half because they looked at these ads and told me, “We found out we don’t have to pay New York rates.” This is not some anonymous freelancer–this is a real person, told a real thing. The bar is being lowered and people who take these jobs are pressing it down a little more each time.

  8. Deb Avatar

    Taking a low paying job won’t hurt your career, no matter what others try and tell you. What hurts your career is turning in poor work. Now, will a potential client choose someone who only has experience writing for Examiner over someone who has a long list of credits for magazines and academic journals? Of course. However, a potential client will also likely choose someone with well written Demand Studios samples over someone who has no experience at all.

    Do content sites lower the rates for everyone? In my experience, no. There have always been low paying opportunities for writers, for example the literary magazine paying five dollars or the newspaper column paying $15. None of these jobs lowered the rates. If anything I’ve seen rates go up. When I first began blogging for a living folks were paying $5 for a post now I see plenty of people offering $25, $50 and more. Still low to many, but a sign that things are improving.

    I used clips from content sites to land a newspaper column and a job with Oxygen Media. The Oxygen Media job paid $500 a month for 200 words per week and my content writing experience didn’t take away from this at all. Not one person ever said to me, “Hmmm….you wrote for Wisegeek, I’m not hiring you.”

    If you’re not finding work in your price range, it has nothing to do with people who are accepting lower paying jobs.

  9. Jennifer L Avatar

    I think what’s important to consider is “what is low-paying in this context?”

    Yeah, it might look a little weird if you went from writing $500 magazine articles to $10 posts for some random SEO website. But like someone said, you don’t necessarily have to list every single client you have on your resume, and you don’t have to automatically assume that you’ll never get a better-paying gig ever again. Maybe you write $10 posts for a month or two, and then land a great job later on at a higher pay rate.

    But then…there is that issue of the low-paying jobs driving down the pay for everyone…Hmmm. That one makes me stop and ponder.

  10. Tania Mara Avatar
    Tania Mara


    Have you ever noticed that the horror stories are always about some anonymous writer, not a specific person?

    This is exactly what I had in mind when I mentioned the horror stories: they’re never too specific. Well, maybe I’d change my mind about this whole topic if one of the naysayers out there came up with a long series of interviews featuring freelance writers who actually had their careers “permanently hurt” or “destroyed” just because they took a few low-paying jobs. 😉

  11. Deb Avatar

    Jodee – I think that’s a good idea for an assignment. Let’s talk about interviewing people who wrote low paying content and how it hurt or helped their careers. Might be an interesting case study.

  12. Phil Avatar

    I’m going to take the other side of this argument. One can quickly fall into a trap of being comfortable with low pay without going after the higher paying work.

    I’ve mentioned opportunity costs in several posts. If one is earning a low amount, let’s say $8 and hour, it takes twice as much time to earn $10,000 as the person who makes $16 an hour. In a very simplistic example, let’s say the person gave up 20 hours for two months (40 hours total or $320) to aggressively market himself/herself to land that $16/hour gig. In the next 10 months, this same person would earn $8 more for every hour worked. So he/she would cover the “marketing cost” in 40 hours and would have $8 in additional income for every hour after that.

    But if the lower rate covers ones basic needs, one can fall into a comfort zone without spending a lot of time marketing for much better opportunities. It happens with regular jobs, too. I spent 11 years at a newspaper, earned a decent wage, but finally got out of my comfort zone and went to a magazine and earned $5,000 more in a year. Unfortunately, that job left me and my 5-month pregnant wife after a year, pushing me into freelancing. I stayed with two clients who covered my bills for too long. It wasn’t till they cut me back that I found better paying clients.

    Another point…if at a low rate, it takes most of your available hours to cover bills, you may not take the time to pursue the other, higher paying opportunities. But bills will continue to increase, so you have to seek better paying opportunities as a result.

  13. Star Avatar

    There have always been low paying opportunities for writers, for example the literary magazine paying five dollars or the newspaper column paying $15. None of these jobs lowered the rates.

    This is different from these big, organized content mills run by rich ex-dotcommers and others, who pocket millions and pay pennies. Check out the Indeed listings and others-dominated by the content mills. The literary journals never occupied position one.

  14. Deb Avatar

    @Star – Have you ever sat down with the entry level/content site people to learn what goes on behind the scenes, where the money goes, why they pay what they do and how they work? I have. To say they’re pocketing millions just isn’t true. Sure they’re making a profit but it’s not as much as you might think. Until you take one of these jobs, or sit down with the people behind the scenes, you just can’t say what they’re doing and what they’re earning. Some of the online “investigations” are very one-sided.

    Check Craigslist and you’ll find staff jobs for writers paying $10 to $15 per hour. You’ll also find plenty of other freelance jobs in that price range that aren’t content mills. No one ever complains about a magazine paying $15 bucks for an article or a staff job paying $8 an hour. These have always been around. Back in the day we didn’t have Indeed or Craigslist so of course these jobs weren’t widely publicized, but writers took them or free work to get feet in the door.

    Now, I don’t recommend every writer take entry level positions to get started and I don’t recommend every writer stay with entry level gigs forever, but I wouldn’t endorse certain jobs if I didn’t know a little about them. I also won’t knock any writer for his choice to take an entry level gig. I’m not going to defend every single entry level opportunity, but I don’t just go off on them without ever having worked for them, or without knowing a thing about them.

    Star you’ve been coming to this blog for years and we’ve had the same conversations for years. I respect how you are so passionate and you have your standards. However, these entry level jobs haven’t kept you from finding work in your price range. You’re obviously successful in what you do or you’d be working at an office job instead of writing. You, of all people, should know these jobs aren’t keeping anyone from their goals or their dreams. Writers can do better and shouldn’t feel threatened at all by entry level opportunities. Use them, don’t use them, but they’re not going away.

  15. Anne G. Avatar
    Anne G.

    I find that people’s definitions of low-paying vary. I landed a job a couple weeks ago that does not meet the “$10 job” requirement of job postings here. The person pays $4 per description. Another job posted today is $35 meeting the requirement. However, that $4 job is descriptions of 90 to 100 words, no longer than 100 words and comes out to 4 cents per word. The $35 job is for 2,000 words or 1.7 cents per word for a travel guide. Comparing things on a per word/price basis over a set price is far more important to me than defining low-pay by final price.

    One of my very first articles was low-paying. I made $8 for 500 words on a town in Maine. However, a year later, a magazine saw it and asked if they could buy the rights to it and print it in their nursing magazine. I received a second, higher payment and had my byline in a magazine. Using the print copy, I went on to land many higher paying jobs, including another magazine article in a fashion magazine that netted me a few hundred dollars.

    I don’t snub my nose at low paying jobs because you never know where they might lead.


  16. Carson Avatar

    If there IS a problem, here are a few potential solutions…

    1. Don’t list the entry-level jobs.
    2. Do a damn good job and let the quality of the work speak for itself.
    3. Stop worrying about resumes and build your business to the point where people come to you with jobs–and pass on the ones that don’t meet your standards.

  17. Jodee Avatar

    @ Carson: Well put. And if you do a “damn good job”, you will be the person that client thinks of when they have better assignments.

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