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I’ve recently gone through a big change in my life and it’s made me think back to poor little beginner freelancer me. During an ill-fated Google search, I stumbled upon a bid site and seeing all the jobs that were on offer, thought that I would have no trouble finding freelance jobs. If I bid on enough, I was sure so get some jobs, right?

I was very excited the first time I got a writing gig. The project was interesting and the client went along with all of my ideas (that should have been the first warning flag). But I quickly found out that the job was actually much more work than was advertised and the pay eventually worked out to a few pennies per hour.

I completed the job begrudgingly and put it on my CV anyway, because I was a newbie and needed whatever I could to beef up my portfolio. This incident told me that I didn’t want to do anymore ghostwriting work so I focused on providing fiction editing services instead. For some odd reason, I continued to rely almost entirely on bid sites to find work during my first year or so of freelancing and by the end of the year, I was almost broke.

Curiously, the online writing communities seemed to feel that these low paying jobs were all part of ‘paying your dues’ as a writer. Not that every writer falls into the trap at the beginning, but that it’s all part of becoming a ‘real’ freelance writer.

Thankfully I got out of the bid site cycle and focused on finding actual paying clients instead. A few months ago, a company I’ve done some freelance editing work for contacted me asking if I would be interested in some ghostwriting work. Obviously they had noticed the previous job lurking at the bottom of my CV. This time, the pay was fair, I knew the company was reputable and the job was actually doable, so I said yes. The previous incident had put me off becoming a ghostwriter, but after a bit of research, I found out that it is actually possible to make an actual livable wage from ghostwriting work, so I decided to give it a go and have been doing several ghostwriting jobs for the client since.

You may be wondering why I’m writing this article if ‘paying my dues’ with the low paying job eventually got me a better paying job. The point is, the transition took me much longer than it should have done and almost left me broke. All that time I spent bidding on jobs and working for pennies an hour was time I could’ve spent practising my writing and looking for much better jobs. I even came close to giving up on a job that I’ve turned out to be very good at.

Why then, do writers still feel like they have to pay their dues in this way? Why are writers still convincing newbies that it’s all part of the process?

It is true that in every career, you have to start somewhere. If you were working a ‘proper’ job, you’d start out in an entry level position fetching coffee and being abused by the other employees.

But at least you will be getting paid to be a human punching bag, even if it isn’t much. Plus you have the chance to make contacts, learn about your chosen industry and have an actual job with a reputable company to put on your CV and help you get your next job. Even an unpaid internship can help with these things.

If you continue to work for bid sites, content mills or other low paying clients, you’ll be working for much less than minimum wage and producing low quality work, most of which won’t look very good on your CV and won’t get you very far in your career.

But isn’t making a little money better than making none at all?

I had this attitude for a long time when I was bidding away on low paying jobs, and it was very harmful and did nothing but enter me into a vicious cycle. Making a little money for a low quality job will only help you in the short term. In the long term, you’ll be losing a lot more money than you gain. Perhaps more importantly, you won’t be developing your writing skills, gaining new readers or building your reputation as a writer, which is important even to beginners. Worst of all, you could be developing some very bad habits that are hard to break free from.

You don’t need to feel that doing low paid, low quality work is all part of paying your dues that will eventually lead you to success. Believing this will only set yourself up for failure, or at least lead you down a very long and winding road. Here’s the right way to start at the bottom and work your way up:

The right way to pay your dues.

Step 1: Research and plan. Jumping straight in not knowing what you’re doing is a bad idea, so find out who your ideal clients are, where you can reach them and what they are looking for.

Step 2: Do some free work for quality clients, e.g. a charity or a start-up that you admire but might not have enough money to hire anyone yet. Think of this as your unpaid internship. You’ll get some good names on your CV and some testimonials to start you off with and develop your writing skills at the same time. This is also a chance to test out different types of writing and see which you’re best at.

Step 3: Start a blog and write regular, high quality posts. This is another way to develop your writing skills. Publicise your posts on social media, and any other channels, and start developing a strong base of readers.

Step 4: Start pitching to reputable clients, using your blog posts and voluntary work as your portfolio.

That’s just the bare bones structure. There is a lot more in-depth info online that will help you further.

But won’t that take time?

Yes, it will. I’ve found out that it’s impossible to make good money quickly from freelance writing, so if that’s all you need then you should look for other ways to make money. Think of these initial steps as an investment for your future, one that will pay off a lot quicker than working hand to mouth (Or should that be bank account to mouth?) at bid sites.

I’m just a beginner. Who’s going to hire me?

You’d be surprised! I was when I got out of the bid site cycle and started pitching to actual clients, even well established companies. There are tonnes of resources online for newbie writers to find jobs. Try makealivingwriting for starters then go from there.

If you think that your writing skills aren’t good enough compared to experienced veterans, again, you’d be surprised. You’ve probably gained writing skills already, whether it’s from your job, your education or the unpublished novel sitting in your drawer. That’s why I think starting a blog is such a good idea. I’ve seen a noticeable increase in the quality of my writing since starting my blog, and an almost direct parallel in the number of writing jobs I’ve received.

Yes, writers do have to pay their dues, just as they would in any other job. But that doesn’t have to mean working under paid, soul crushing jobs for shady clients. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, as it’s a dangerous attitude to have. It’s much better to find ways to practise your skills and make your mark with some reputable clients who can help you work your way upwards.

Some points to remember:

  • Whether you’re working for free or getting paid, make sure you’re doing it for a quality, reputable client that will look good on your CV.
  • While you should do as much as you can to contribute to your portfolio, make sure it’s something that will actually look good and lead to future work.
  • The writing skills you’ve already gained are sometimes just as credible to new clients as a long portfolio.
  • Bidding on job sites or checking Crigslist ads isn’t marketing.
  • Follow companies you admire on social media as many advertise jobs there.
  • Keep a positive attitude. I know that sounds like some hippie preaching, but it really does work wonders.
  • If you have subscribed to any bid sites, use Unroll.me to unsubscribe them from your inbox now.
  • Don’t be afraid pitching to big name clients. If they say no, then move onto the next one.