Say you work in finance. When you’re just starting out, you negotiate a decent salary upfront. Then, every few years, you ask for a raise. You deserve it because you worked hard. And your boss agrees. End of story.
If you’re a freelance writer, you’re negotiating your rate monthly, weekly, maybe even daily. It’s exhausting. There’s a reason so many freelance writers are disgruntled.
Take Wil Wheaton. He’s a well-known actor, writer, and Twitter personality. He’s had his own show on Syfy. He was in Sharknado 2: The Second One. He also has 3 million followers on Twitter. In other words, you’d think the guy would get a decent rate for his writing. The Huffington Post proved otherwise.
Wheaton reignited the outrage of writers everywhere in October when he wrote a blog post with the lengthy (and uncapitalized) title “you can’t pay your rent with ‘the unique platform and reach our site provides.'”
Wheaton wrote the article after he was asked by a Huffington Post editor for permission to republish one of his blog posts on their site—for free.
Writers and bloggers: if you write something that an editor thinks is worth being published, you are worth being paid for it. Period.
— Wil 'this account mocks fascists' Wheaton (@wilw) October 27, 2015
Judging by the massive reaction on Twitter and by the press after he published the post, freelancers felt his pain.
Most writers, after all, struggle to get past the “exposure” phase of their careers and enter the “this is what I’m worth and I won’t take a dollar less” phase. Getting to that point can be tough, but it’s not impossible.
If you’re continually settling for little to no pay, it’s time to negotiate. As hard as it can be, there are ways to make the process a little less draining.
Lisa Beebe, a Los Angeles writer who has been freelancing for over a decade, has walked away from jobs that turned out to be below her desired rate. Like many others, she’s been asked to take a writing test before getting a freelance gig. But she urges writers to figure out the pay before agreeing to anything.
“Get pay details figured out as early as possible so you can walk away,” she said. Put simply, you shouldn’t waste your or the editor’s time with tests or phone interviews if the pay is below your rate and the client refuses to raise it.
Most freelancers have had or at least heard about nonpayment horror stories, when freelancers are forced to chase down editors for months or even years in an effort to get a check.
Melanie B. (who asked not to use her real name) has written for the Guardian and Forbes, but she considers herself a pretty bad negotiator—and has been exploited by publications in the past because of it. In one case, she was low-balled by a publication several years ago after they offered her half of what she’d quoted them.
“I knew I was being undervalued, but I desperately needed the job at that point, so I accepted it,” she said. “I’m still chasing the last three thousand dollars they owe me.”
Have the right mindset
Money can be an emotional topic, so it’s not always easy to demand more or walk away if the price isn’t right. But when big money is on the line, it’s important to realize that clients don’t have nearly as much emotional connection with the payment as you do.
“You have to remember that the pay issue is emotional for you but not for your editor,” explained Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and GQ.
She emphasized that editors aren’t negotiating with their own money in most cases, and they’re not going to get paid less if you get paid more. “You make up stories in your head about why they would say no, but really it’s all a matter of your comfort,” she said. “You are talking about your money. They are not talking about theirs.”
Still, it helps to try and strip the emotion and the fear away when you’re negotiating, which takes some practice, especially for new writers.
“Always ask,” said Stephen Krcmar, who has been freelancing on and off for almost two decades for publications like The New York Times, Outside, and Men’s Journal. “That’s not rocket science, but it’s something I have to remind myself of on the regular.”
Krcmar also stressed that it’s not personal. It’s business, and businesspeople negotiate. The worst they can say is no.
Get over the fear
Jazmine Hughes went from working as a contributing editor at The Hairpin to associate digital editor at The New York Times within a few years. As an editor, and the person who ultimately assigns rates, she has one pertinent piece of advice for writers: Just ask.
“No one’s going to shame you, no one’s going to add you to a secret master list of ‘ungrateful monsters,'” she said. “What will happen, really, is that person will check the person above them, who will check with the person above them, and then out pops an answer. And sometimes it’s yes.”
That’s the key: Sometimes it’s yes. If it’s not, you can either accept the payment or walk away and pitch elsewhere. After all, there’s always another place to pitch that might be willing to pay you what you’re worth.