Writing for peanuts? Time for a reality check

Are You Being Paid Peanuts for Writing?

As some you may get defensive, be advised, I know what it’s like. I’ve been there too, receiving a pittance for my writing efforts.

As a full-time writing professional, I’ve often seen the phrase ‘paying peanuts’ used in forums, blogs, discussion groups and on social media. It’s not a flattering term and effectively indicates that a client’s writing budget is far below the industry standard. I’ve even used it myself, often enhancing the comment with images of peanuts, monkeys etc.

peanuts (to reflect what writing sometimes pays)

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

However, it doesn’t give me the right to criticize freelancers who habitually work for low rates. It simply means that I’m no longer prepared to do so, believing that my experience, technical background and writing skills are worthy of a rate that ensures a reasonable quality of life. After all, I pay my own taxes, health insurance and am not entitled to paid holidays, pension, regular working hours and other perks enjoyed by my salaried counterparts.

Phrase Origins

The links between monkeys and peanuts probably refers to the old days of organ grinders who used monkeys to add entertainment value to their performances. The monkeys did most of the work and rewarded with peanuts while the owner/employer pocketed the cash. In a freelance situation, the common characteristics are obvious, especially in cases where direct client communication is not possible. On a bidding platform, for example.

Who Enjoys Writing for Peanuts?

Despite commonly perceived ideas, writing for peanuts isn’t limited to those in developing countries. Inexperienced writers or those lacking confidence in their ability will also accept low rates to build a portfolio. I quickly learned to avoid these markets despite promises of ‘regular work’, ‘future price increases’ or ‘valuable promotion’. Any experienced writer will tell you that all of these promises lead nowhere.

You Pay Peanuts, you get Monkeys!

Articles specifying India, the Philippines and other Asian or African countries as being responsible for unfair competition are completely missing the point. Good writers in these countries will not work for budget rates either. The term ‘monkeys’ is an appropriate one when referring to unqualified individuals in any profession and is not an ethnic slur.

Outsourcing companies are made up of hundreds or even thousands of workers that are doing what they must to make ends meet. it’s the companies themselves that make the most money, as they resell everything produced to foreign clients at a substantial mark-up.

If you take an example from one of the bidding sites (doesn’t matter which one, as the practice is common to all). US$1 for a 500-word article that must pass Copyscape Premium (costs 5c for each check). Even fast typists will struggle to produce four articles of unresearched material in an hour. In other words, US$4 per hour less Copyscape charges of 20c and PayPal fees for currency conversion etc. Is it worth it? Hardly! Can you expect quality at such rates? I doubt it! Of course, another content mill pays writers and editors to fix content from non-native English writers. They mark up this service for client resale.

Perhaps the most galling thing is the companies involved don’t even cover PayPal fees. They expect this to come out of the freelancer’s pocket. In addition, they have editors to request free revisions and rewrites on behalf of the end client.

Make Peanuts a Default Currency?

Being paid peanuts is preferable in cases such as these, especially for freelancers in countries where peanuts are expensive. Perhaps we need to introduce a new pricing system where freelancers indicate their rates in kilograms of peanuts (raw and roasted). In the above example, it wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the snacking requirements of a child.

What do you think? Peanuts or hard cash? If peanuts are very expensive in your location, working for them may well be a viable solution.

A commenter on an earlier revision of this story suggested cashews or pistachios as a payment method.(Thanks, Lorraine. Sorry but had to redo the site and make it responsive so lost all prior comments).  I tend to agree with it. Let’s bring back the barter system, if we can’t get cash.

Refuse to Undervalue your Writing

If you, as a writer, are providing quality content at low rates, then ask yourself why that is. When your writing is good enough, look for better markets. If you lack confidence in your writing, potential clients will detect it and you’ll never progress. Ask for a second opinion on your writing level in social media groups OR ask friends and family for input. Whatever you do, make it very clear that honest feedback is required.

Bear in mind that on social media, you’ve a variety of users. Some will help you privately (like I do using private or direct messaging features). Others will provide feedback with the sole aim of proclaiming themselves as experts in order to sell services.

Avoid the Slave Economy

Freelance does not mean free or for budget rates. Crowdsourcing, bidding sites, content mills, free samples and microtasking are suitable only for hobbyists. You’ll work very long hours to make a living from it.  AND won’t have the time to find better opportunities or indeed build a credible portfolio and social media presence. In fact, I chose one path and am only now working on social media. I believed (and still believe) that without a portfolio I couldn’t progress. Without followers, likes etc, I did just fine.

Better Writing Rates are Possible

Fellow writers, this is not arrogance on my part. I’ve written for terrible rates and swallowed the client BS, hoping it would lead to better opportunities. I wrote ‘SEO-focused’ content I wouldn’t force on my worst enemy. All uncredited, fortunately, and never included in my portfolio.

Now, I command rates up to $2 per word. Unfortunately, no shortcut exists. If you’re prepared to work hard and build a portfolio, you too will get there in the end. It took me more than three years.  I also worked as a consultant in my own company during this period. It could take you less, as I’ll tell you the mistakes I made. Unless you can’t do without the money involved, the time spent writing for low rates is better utilised in finding and pitching better paid opportunities.

Future posts will discuss all aspects of the freelancing business, from start-up to productivity and market research for well-paid assignments.

In the meantime, I’m always happy to connect with fellow writers on social media. Thanks for reading. It’s worth noting that I’m not selling anything to writers on this site. My aim is to connect with writers of all levels, provide a helpful resource and gain valuable readers.

As always, I appreciate comments, queries and social media shares but these are not essential.

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