Being Paid Peanuts for Your Writing? A Reality Check for Writers

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

As a full-time freelance journalist, writer and blogger, 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 pay rates are far below the industry standard. I’ve even used it myself, often enhancing the comment with images of peanuts, monkeys etc.

However, it doesn’t give me the right to criticise 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. Despite the fact that the monkeys were doing most of the work, the exhausted dancing monkeys were then 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 Writes for Peanuts?

Despite commonly perceived ideas, writing for peanuts isn’t limited to those in developing countries, as 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, which is that 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 and again marks it up for client resale.

Perhaps the most galling thing is that at these crap rates, the companies involved don’t even cover PayPal fees, expecting 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 may be 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 peanuts may well be a viable solution, especially if PayPal adds it as a payment option.

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) and 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. If your writing is good enough then 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) while others will provide feedback with the sole aim of proclaiming themselves as experts in order to sell services.

In conclusion, freelance does not mean free or for budget rates. Crowdsourcing, bidding sites, content mills, free samples and microtasking are all dirty words and suitable only for those who are fortunate enough to write as a hobby. 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 had to choose one and am only now working on social media as I believed (and still believe) that without a portfolio I couldn’t progress. Without followers, likes etc, I did just fine.

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, there is no shortcut involved. 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, as 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, be it training courses, manuals, services or templates. My aim is to connect with writers of all levels, provide a helpful resource and gain valuable readers (the aim of any writer).

As always comments, queries and social media shares are appreciated but not essential.

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