In the smoky confines of the Royal Canadian Legion, my newspaper editor scrawled a few words on a paper napkin with a black Sharpie. He then slid the napkin across the table and folded his hands on his lap.
"There's no money in words!" the black letters announced.
As much as I wanted to argue the point--due, in no small part, to the warming beer in my hand--I had to agree with his assessment, at least in part.
Writing is sometimes referred to as a thankless task. On that point I will disagree. There is generally more than enough gratitude and appreciation to go around. It's the money that's in short supply.
There seems to be a misconception among non-writers that words throw themselves against the page in the perfect sequence without any effort on the part of the writer. Writing is easy. If you're good enough, and fast enough, you can dash off 500 words in 15 minutes and make the $5 fee seem reasonable.
If you think earning $5 for 500 words is ludicrous, you're right. But try telling that to prospective clients. There's more than enough of them out there, hanging out on sites like Guru where freelances bid on work and hope the clients place more value on quality than on the lowest bid.
I'm not knocking Guru or any other job site. In fact, I just renewed my Guru membership, and I will keep on bidding. I just won't be telling prospective clients what I think of their budgets anymore. (I did that once and got a rather stern warning from the site administrators. My comments, as it happens, were deemed "derogatory" under the Terms of Service.)
The key to bidding on work is to have a realistic view of your abilities. Can you work within the client's budget and still earn a respectable wage? You might be a slow, meticulous writer but a super-fast editor or proofreader.
Your also have to practice the fine art of negotiation. Is the client willing to combine a smaller up front fee with a percentage of earnings? Include that idea as part of your proposal. If the client is still interested, you have some room to maneuver, whereas a straight forward bid within budget would have left you stuck at a lower than acceptable price tag.
I won't tell you what to charge for the work you do. That's up to you, your clients, and whatever the market will bear. Just don't give it away. And remember that your price tag should grow in tandem with your experience.
So my editor was, as I say, partially right. There's no money in words--unless you're willing to fight for what you deserve.
Betty Dobson is an award-winning writer of short fiction, essays and poetry. She also writes newspaper and magazine articles but is still waiting for those awards to materialize. In the meantime, she continues to run InkSpotter Publishing, which has three new books available and several more in the works for 2012.