3 Excuses That Are Keeping You from a Successful Freelance Writing Career

Did you ever think it’s not the economy, of the toughness of the industry, or just plain bad luck that’s keeping you from flourishing as a freelance writer — but your own limiting beliefs? Many aspiring freelancers are wonderful writers with salable ideas, but they can’t break out of the writing-for-cheap (or worse, writing-for-free) stage and make a full-time living doing what they love. And even while they complain about their lack of success, they have plenty of seemingly-reasonable explanations for why they aren’t even trying.

Here are some of the excuses I’ve heard from my mentoring and e-course clients — and how you can bust those limiting beliefs.

Excuse #1: “I have to pay my dues.”

Many writers believe they can’t write for magazines that pay a decent fee until they “pay their dues” by writing for markets that pay peanuts. But who decides what constitutes paying your dues, how long you need to do it for, and even that you have to do it at all? The term “paying your dues” is meaningless, because no one has defined exactly what it is and when it ends.

When I hear someone say they have to pay their dues before pitching the magazines they really want to write for, I know it’s a stalling tactic. I never hear a writer say, “Well, now I’ve paid my dues and it’s time for me to get cracking on my dream markets.” Because there’s no defined limit to paying your dues, writers just keep toiling away at sure-thing markets instead of risking rejection by the big guys. It’s the perfect excuse for not making the leap to better markets.

I’ve never heard an editor, when approached by a writer with a brilliant query and stellar writing, say, “I can’t possibly accept this — this writer hasn’t paid her dues.” In fact, consider this:

* I have a friend whose very first clip was for Cosmopolitan. She went on to have a successful freelance writing career and even write books on freelancing.

* Last year one of my students landed an assignment to write a short for SELF magazine. She had not a single clip before that. Now, she’s working on an assignment for Parenting that’s worth $1,300. She’s had only two assignments and she’s never worked for less than $1.50 per word.

* I recently had a mentoring client who kept “paying her dues” by writing for exposure and wondering why she wasn’t making more money. I convinced her to stop writing for free and cheap, and within ten days she had an assignment that was worth twenty assignments from one of her el-cheapo clients.

* My very first assignment, based on my very first query back in 1996, paid $500. I never paid a dime of dues.

Look: Paying your dues is just an excuse. No one is tracking what you do and judging whether you have written for enough peanuts-paying clients to start pitching your dream markets. If you have a great idea and you present it well, no one will care whether you slogged your way up from the bottom or just burst onto the scene.

Excuse #2: “I need to learn more.”

I hate to say this since I teach e-courses of my own, but some writers take every writing course they can find yet never feel like they know enough to actually get started pitching markets. “I can’t get started because I don’t know every single thing there is to know about query writing.” “Well, now I know how to write a query, but what happens when I get an assignment” I’d better take a course on that.” “I’m not so good on the business side of things. I wonder if there’s a class that can help me.” And on and on and on.

What’s great about freelancing is that there are no major barriers to entry. You don’t have to have a degree or certificate, and you don’t need to have 100% complete knowledge of every aspect of the business to get started. Heck, when I started I didn’t know even one other freelancer, there were no writers’ online networking groups (that I knew of, anyway), and I had one book on freelancing. I made mistakes, but I learned as I went along. In fact, some of my early queries were real doozies. But the “uneducated” writer who takes action has a much higher chance at success than the writer who learns and learns and learns — but never dares to send out a pitch.

Don’t use this excuse to put off pursuing your writing dreams. You’ll never know everything there is to know about freelancing, so don’t even try. There’s so much information online and on bookstore shelves that if you ever do get stuck, help is just a few clicks or pages away.

Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t educate yourself by reading books, taking classes, and reading educational websites — just that you shouldn’t get so bogged down in gathering information that you never actually pitch markets.

Excuse #3: “I don’t deserve it.”

I’m guilty of this one. Three of my family members work in retail, and one just retired from a corporate job he hated after 42 years. I always think, “This relative of mine works eight hours a day for $13 per hour doing a job she can’t stand. I work two days per week doing a job I love, and make more money. Who am I to have such luck”” Then the guilt sets in.

I told my life coach about this, and she asked who would be served if I held back so as not to be more successful than anyone I knew. The answer was, of course, that it would do no one any good if I worked for less money doing a job I didn’t enjoy. She also pointed out that I worked hard and invested in my writing career for years before reaching the point where I could cut my hours and still earn the same income. Not only that, but by making a living doing what I love, I can help inspire others to do the same.

True, some people will never get over the fact that you’re more successful than they are. I actually had a writer friend “break up with” me when I landed the Renegade Writer book deal because — and I quote — “You’re always so successful while I always seem to be struggling.” But you know what? A friend who is sad because you’re doing well isn’t a true friend.

So…do you feel guilty about the idea of becoming a successful freelance writer because your aspiring writer friends might resent it if you’re suddenly writing for the big names while they slog away for markets that pay them in exposure? Think of it this way: Once you’ve reached your goals, you can help your friends do the same. [lf]

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50 comments… add one
  • I adore everything about this post because I am 100% guilty of all 3 of these writing career “sins”! Thank you for the frank advice on how to get past them & make my career truly successful.

  • Here are some of my other go-to mental saboteurs:
    1. I’m not in *that* place in my life yet, to devote myself full-time to freelancing.Maybe when my kids are older.
    2. Someone with clout-ier clips has probably already pitched this idea, so why bother?
    3. It’s not really about how good my writing is, it’s all about who you know. And I don’t know any editors at all.
    4. What if I get a big assignment and can’t deliver?
    5. I’m not crazy enough, haven’t lived in my car, and am not (currently) on Prozac. (The excuse for why I haven’t started my novel or tried to publish any of my creative work.)
    6. I’m not sure what my focus is yet. I don’t have a niche market and all writers have a niche market.
    7. Editors are scary people who are extremely judgemental. Screw it up with one, and kiss your career goodbye.

    I could keep going, but your posting has already done the heavy lifting. The three things you mention are ALL reasons why I continue to write 850 word articles for…wait for it…. $35.00. Thank you for your advice. You are right: after a year and a half of gathering tiny clips, it’s time to take the plunge. Failure or not!

  • Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for talking about these things Linda! There have been a lot of excuses floating around the freelance writing community lately, from people pretending content mills are “professional” (basically trying to help writers justify staying instead of doing better for themselves) to a post Allena Tapia wrote on the About.com freelance writing blog where a reader tried to tell her earning $40k from freelance writing was like finding a needle in a haystack (the “it’s too hard” excuse). Sometimes people just need a good hard shake, and hopefully this post serves as that for some.

    A big excuse on the Web writing front is “writers in [insert your favorite 3rd world country here] will underbid me, so I can’t charge what I’m worth.” BS. Anyone with an ounce of talent and some marketing skills can set and reach their goals without ever competing with the very low rate crowd. But people sometimes don’t grasp that just because someone else claims to be a freelance writer, it doesn’t make them competition.

    My favorite from your list here is the one about paying your dues. I’ve never bought into that line of thinking. Low paying gigs tend to refer more low paying gigs — not help you move up the ladder. Do some lead to something better because of exposure? Sure. But then again, working to land higher paying work earlier would have done the same thing, only paying better in the meantime! It’s just another excuse, but sadly it’s one that people are taught to believe from a relatively young age, and it’s tough to convince people otherwise. So they’ll probably continue undervaluing their skills and other credentials until they convince themselves they’re worth it. That’s really what it comes down to. Only when you value yourself can you expect others to.

  • “Paying dues” doesn’t mean working for a crap company for crap wages. It means learning your craft and improving from job to job. I always reach farther than where I’m comfortable and usually wind up with a gig a few steps higher than if I’d started at the bottom.

    We all need to learn more. Always. That’s what living is all about. We learn by doing, and applying what we learn from each gig to the next one.

    Guilt? Why? I’m certainly appreciative that I am paid to do the work I love, but I’ve always refused to settle for less. I’ve freelanced my entire working life — first in the theatre and now as a writer. No guilt. I work hard; I’ve earned it.

  • Hi Linda,

    I just wanted to thank you for posting this. I read your blog religiously, but this one REALLY hit home for me.

    I do all of the things you’ve mentioned here: continuing to accept assignments from the local newspaper for $75 a pop, taking course after course on querying and marketing and writing FOB articles, and – worst of all – not even trying to pitch better paying markets because I believe I don’t have the credentials or the experience or the clips to back me up. I convince myself that someone else has already pitched every article idea I come across, and that I couldn’t possibly turn down a monthly $100 column for a small regional magazine because it’s “steady work” in a bad economy.

    I’m in front of my computer for at least 6 hours a day, I always have assignments to work on…and and yet I still need to hold down two part-time jobs just to pay the bills. This is my dream, and the only thing I could see doing for the rest of my life. A year and a half into my writing career, and I’m still terrified to even really TRY to make this work.

    Thank you again for this. Today’s the day I take the ideas that are always floating around in the back of my mind and start pitching my dream publications. Consider my “dues” officially paid! 🙂

  • Victoria, thanks for your comment!

    Jenn, thanks! I wrote about some of these Web writing issues in November: http://www.therenegadewriter.com/2009/11/29/on-writing-for-peanuts/. That was one popular post!

    Jennifer, I’m glad this post inspired you. Remember, freelance writing is a numbers game — the more you get out there, the more luck you’ll have. (Or course, that presupposes that you’re sending out good stuff, which I know you will!)

    Devon, when you define paying your dues that way, it certainly is much better. When I hear it from writers, they’re defining “paying your dues” as “writing for free.” You don’t have to write for nothing to hone your skills! I wrote for paying trades and small magazines for three years before I broke into the bigger newsstand magazines.

    Rachel, thanks for your list. Believe it or not, I *meant* to include “I’ll get started when my kids are in school/I quit my job/etc.” but I completely forgot. Maybe I’ll write a follow-up post. But to address that one now: There’s never a perfect time to get started pitching magazines. The stars rarely align! Better to get moving and deal with obstacles as they come up than to wait until all the obstacles are magically cleared away.

  • This is an outstanding post. I’ll definitely be sharing it.

    I took your class last year and was definitely in the camp of believing I needed a bunch of clips to get significant work. I landed my first assignment with a trade magazine with ZERO clips and it paid $800. Since then I’ve gotten assignments from a number of major publications including Boston Globe Sunday Magazine and Yankee. I realized that what was keeping me from getting the assignments was that I wasn’t sending the queries. I was rejecting my work rather than letting an editor do that. I’m a much harsher critic of my work than many of them are!

    Thanks for your amazing classes and blog.

  • Katrina, thanks for your nice message — I’m so happy for all of your success!

  • This is one of your best posts! Even after three decades as a full-time freelancer, I get mopey sometimes. This was such a great kick in the pants! Thanks, Linda. My first story EVER was in Washingtonian and was a cover story…how that happened is not today’s story. But yes, start at the top if you want. I did. Linda did. And then completely refuse to say or think, “It’s all downhill from here.” Because it needn’t be, despite today’s rancid freelance environment. As Tim Gunn would say (and way too much, I might add): MAKE IT WORK.

  • This post really hit home for me also. I am guilty of the paying your dues excuse for not pitching to larger magazines, but staying with the regional magazines. I know that I have more work at the regional level than I can easily handle, so I never can seem to find the time to try to move to the next level. But your post has inspired me to just give it a shot, even if it means turning down a low to moderate paying regional assignment.

  • This is an awesome post. I didn’t even realize I’ve been trapping myself in the “I have to pay my dues” category. As many comments above me have already stated in one way or another, thanks for the encouraging kick in the pants! :o)

  • I love this. You are so right. Reading this makes me realize it is not just me. Writing for publication is my dream. I keep thinking I need to take it slow. Take all the classes. Work my way up. But, reading this makes me feel better about it all. Thanks! I am so glad I found your blog. It is so informative and real.

  • Thanks for this post! I recently left my well paying corporate job to stay at home with my son and finally pursue a full time writing career. After a few “starts”, I’ve recently begun to again hit dead ends and get discouraged. So, the timing of my finding this article was well-appreciated, as I actually pondered throwing in the towel last night. My question on your friend who had her first piece published in SELF is…how? Luck of the draw? Any tips we can pull from?

  • Egads! I just found you and I adore you already! What a font of info and cheery goodwill you are, and thank you for everything you are doing, and why hadn’t I heard of you before. You helped me so much today with your publicity contact list for publishing houses. You are at the top of my go-to list! Indebted and inspired…

  • Glad to have you, Jordan!

  • This is a great post, and just what I needed to hear to get off my butt and send out some query’s already.

  • Thanks and welcome! Hope to see you back again!

  • Hattie

    Thank you for such a blunt, inspiring article. It was the kick I needed. I wish you continued success in 2011.

  • Joan Di Masi

    Linda, you continue to inspire me. I’m working through your e-book on setting up a writing business and I have a few ideas. I’m going to write a query as I complete the assignments. Thank you for being such a great mentor and teacher.

  • James La Salandra

    I stumbled onto your site the other day, looking up random writers’ jargon, and it was like picking up a rock and accidentally discovering Ali Baba’s cave. I’m at a point in my life where this is *exactly* the kind of information and advice I need, as often as I can get it! I’ve studied the craft for quite some time, but the business of it all is beyond me (for now, that is). This particular entry really spoke to my fears as a mere beginner, but it left me wondering: Could you share the title of that “one book on freelancing”” If it was a good enough start for you, I think it’s worth a look!

  • Welcome, James! The one book, I believe, was called Queries & Proposals, but it’s been out of print for a long time now. If you sign up for my free query packet above, you’ll get a set of 10 queries that worked that can help you get started. Glad to have you aboard!

  • This is the third blog post I’m reading from your blog and all-in-all, it reminds me that I’M DOING IT ALL WRONG….and obviously STALLING.

    • Don’t be hard on yourself! There is no “right” way — it’s all about whatever works for you! Of course, many writers find that churning out articles for content mills DOESN’T work for them… 🙂

  • Wow, this one hits pretty hard. I’m quite new, but I’ve been writing since I was in high school (with lots of time in-between quitting). But I probably shouldn’t let that ruin my chances of dreaming, and actually writing for the big ones, eh?

  • GET TO IT!! This is what I screamed at myself. It’s too easy to become a “training addict” and never actually get “to” it. And yes, I also lost a friend because my success made her feel bad. It’s not like I was spending all my time talking about it – just _being_ is enough to set some people off. And some other person might have tried to be less happy/ successful so as not to hurt the friend’s feelings. That’s fine if it makes you happy. It would not make me happy.

    GET TO IT! And enjoy the ride.

  • Okay, I can see why this post tops your ‘New Here’ posts list. That was a fantastic post.

    Thank you for a real kick up the behind.

  • SERIOUSLY GUILTY ON EVERY POINT! Pitching to my dream markets this week!!!

  • This is a fantastic post! It’s a great reminder for freelancers to not work for peanuts because we do deserve a lot better. I’ll be sharing this!

  • Brad Roberts

    In the early 1990’s I was writing a ton of radio ads, and a friend showed me a publication with a common friend’s writing in it. Thinking how fleeting the radio ads were, and how permanent the published writing looked, I soon had my first published article in hand.

    Then I got into trucking, 70 hours a week and no equipment with me to continue my writing… I felt like I was trading my life for my paycheck!

    And soon found out why the trucking industry is always looking for truckers… If I had only stayed with my writing (which I’m now going back to) I can’t imagine the income and freedome I would have at this stage of the game.

    The articles here have inspired me to get back to what I really liked doing…. interviewing and writing!

    Thank you so much,

    Brad Roberts

    • Wow, Brad, that’s quite the path you’ve been on! Why not start out by trying to write for a trucking trade — isn’t there one called Road King? Leverage that experience to get clips!

  • Brad Roberts

    My condensed writing/photography resume is five pages long… and there are so many topics more interesting than spending your life in a truck… I have the clips. Just need the drive to get back into print, and I just got my 1st published writing in a long time last week again, which I’m happy to say had nothing to do with trucking. It highlighted our local cub scout pinewood derby! Thanks for the “push”
    – it was long overdue!


  • Anne Hunter

    Hi Linda!

    I downloaded the ebook “Get Unstuck!” But guess what? For months I was still stuck! I downloaded “The Renegade Writer Kick in the Ass” but even before I read it I made a dramatic decision. I’m the type of person who is sort of a people pleaser and make the excuse that I need someone to give me an assignment to feel inspired. So I imagined that my ophthalmologist gave me an assignment to write articles on eye diseases (glaucoma runs in my family). I sat down and wrote ideas for 10 articles on various eye procedures(lazer eye surgery, optic eye work-up). Each of the article ideas target consumer magazines in the area of childcare and parenting, disabilities, health and fitness, and sports. This trick proved motivational for my otherwise lackadaisical attitude. I’m so excited! I’m looking forward to enrolling in your eClass on April 7.

    • What a coole idea, Anne! Gad you found something that works. I look forward to having you in the April class!

  • Hi Linda 🙂

    I just discovered your site via a retweet from Theresa Campbell @TheresaWrites. I love this article! You touched on a subject that I think so many of us have issue with especially if we haven’t taken the formal university education route.

    I currently only have my tumblr site which I’ve been primarily using to post challenges I’ve completed in an online marketing scavenger hunt. However, I will have my wordpress blog up by the weekend.

    I am a published author but have wrestled with the points you discussed in this article. Thank you for the great advice! What an inspiration and just what I needed!

    Rebekah Jones

    • Thanks for stopping by, Rebekah! I’m so glad you were inspired by this post…let us know how it goes!

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