5 Reasons Why It’s Silly To Complain About Crappy Writing Pay

Beggar with a sign that says Hungry

I’ve always been indifferent to lower-than-average pay, especially when it comes to freelance writing. The people in my local writer’s group aren’t as blasé about it, however.

“You should stick to your principles,” they’d say. “Value your writing and someday others will too.”

They have a hatred for writers who take on low-paying gigs, as if that were the reason for dwindling market rates.

Wanna know what I think though? I think that every writer has their own path to pave. If it’s by waiting for a client to miraculously offer you the perfect rates and terms, then more power to you. But some writers resort to places like Fiverr, and they shouldn’t be ridiculed by their choice either.

Either way, it’s easy to scoff at crappy pay when you already have some experience under your belt. Sure, fifty cents per word is the going rate in Malaysia. But does everybody deserve the default just because they’d decided to try their hand at writing? I don’t know.

What I do know is that you’ll always get paid what you deserve.

Some of you may be frothing at the mouth right now, and rightfully so. But allow me to make my case on why I think you shouldn’t bother about low-paying writing gigs.

Everybody has a price

Sure, you may turn your nose up at a ten-cents-per-word gig. But someone in need of money—or a path into the industry—won’t.

And that person doesn’t even need to be your neighbour. Thanks to the power of the internet, anyone can jump at these dirt cheap prices.

Let’s not blame the employers either. As long as this pool of writers exists, then so too will the low rates. But what you need to know is that writing is not a zero sum game. Say it with me. Writing is not a zero sum game.

Just because someone is willing to take on a crappy deal doesn’t mean you’re going to lose a piece of your pie. In fact, raising the market rates doesn’t necessarily mean good things for you either.

You are exactly where you need to be when it comes to your pay, and while your quest of preventing other writers from being exploited is noble, that’s exactly the path they need to take to move on to greater things too.

Also, think about this: if young writers getting low-paying gigs spoils the market for you, then perhaps you might want to examine why that’s the case.

Two men staring down into a car boot

We’re gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse. Photo: Artem Budaiev

It doesn’t really matter

People who complain about crappy pay either fall into these two categories: they’re not getting paid enough, or they’re getting paid way over the market rate. Most often it’s the latter.

But you don’t see Tyra Banks barging into a boutique model agency demanding that they match what Elite Model Management is paying, do you?

Cheap gigs are like piracy. You can declare your stance on it, even launch an all-out war if you want to. But it’s not going anywhere.

Why? Because every day, thousands (pulling numbers out my ass here) of people join the ranks of inspired writers wanting to try their hand in the industry, and it’s not just the high school grads either.

You’ll find disillusioned lawyers wanting to make the jump. Event coordinators. Carpenters. Designers. Programmers. Accountants. Yoga instructors. Hairdressers.

Because its barriers to entry are so low, writing is seen as the ‘easiest’ vocation to take on when faced with a career crisis.

But their journey is not yours. Don’t be that overly-enthusiastic parent at your kid’s baseball game. Your competition lies elsewhere now. And since we’re on the topic of competition…

Competition makes you better

I’ve always wondered what makes one writer better than the other. In fact, having just joined a year-long mentorship programme, I’ve learned how gifted our young local talents can be—half of them haven’t even finished college!

And I’m going to be honest here, if I were to go head-to-head with my mentees and run the judges through blind tests on scoring, I probably wouldn’t win.

It reminds me of my time as a hairdresser. People in the industry used to joke that when you pay more for a haircut, you’re not necessarily paying for a better hairstyle, but for a lower chance of them screwing up.

That’s how I see writing as well. After a certain point, you start to see diminishing returns, and what matters more at this point is your style, branding, and personality.

This is why I’ve delved deep into the no-niche niche. You want a press release? I can do that. A feature article? Sure. A radio script? Let me show you my portfolio.

But I’m thankful for these young talents who are keeping my on my toes. They’re my future competitors, after all, and boy are they good. If it weren’t for them, I would probably default to Netflix than read yet another book on the craft.

A white

Contrary to popular belief, competition helps you more than it hinders you. Photo: GR Stocks

There’s no real market rate

Sure, we like to throw around the average 0.50/word here in Malaysia, but that’s a vague way of going at it, because I can’t recall the last time I had assignments that straightforward.

Would you charge the same for a social media post? What about advertising copy? Surely, I’m not going to charge MYR 5 for a ten-word slogan I took a day to come up with?

Then comes the extras, perks and all. Does free coffee factor into your price? What about a month-long trip to Myanmar, all expenses paid? What if you get ringside seats at the UFC?

I’d have done all of the above for free, to be honest. Thankfully, I was also offered a fair compensation.

But that shows just how much grey area there is when it comes to pay. Every job exists in its own little bubble, where your previous terms rarely matter. What matters is if your new employer has something worth your time.

And whether or not something is worth it is for you to decide. Not anybody else.

Low rates help you realise that low rates aren’t the way

And finally, the biggest benefit of writing for low pay is that it’s not sustainable in the slightest. In fact, if you were to get into writing just for the money, you’d find that even part-time jobs offer more returns for your time.

Then there’s the fact that writing requires a whole lot of sowing before you can reap, and there’s no guarantee that your seeds will even sprout.

Also, there’s no way you can do the 0.10/word thing and still expect to pay your bills. Sooner or later, you’ll be forced to either upgrade yourself, or let go of low-paying gigs.

Maybe then, if you’re resilient enough, you’ll turn all those clips into a launchpad for your career. Or maybe you’ll realise that writing just isn’t for you.

Either way, it won’t matter what I tell you. If you’re going to pursue a future in writing, there’s nothing anyone can say that’ll stop you from doing so. Even if they mean well when they tell you not to take on low-paying gigs.

But I’m with you no matter what you choose. As long as you keep writing. So chin up, and do what you think is right for you.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to start writing my next blog post at a whopping zero cents per word.


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41 thoughts on “5 Reasons Why It’s Silly To Complain About Crappy Writing Pay

    • Oh yeah. I have to admit, I first joined the industry because I thought it was cool (the same reason why I became a hairdresser). Then I wrote for money. And it took a while to come to this point of putting my craft first, which I think is a much better place to come from. Always great to have you here!

      • Doing things for money is about survival. That’s coming from fear. I agree, it’s far better to do it for the love. Important to remind ourselves sometimes too! My pleasure Stuart. Your posts are top notch!

  1. i am new to copywriting. i don’t have a portfolio. there’s no other way but to lower the payment rate. can you give me any tips?

    • First of all, definitely don’t take advice from me. Secondly—and this is actually the more important bit here—nobody needs to know that you’re new.

      Maybe your lack of a portfolio might betray that fact, and as a remedy, I recommend you write in the voice of your target publications.

      Enjoy fashion? Write a couple of feature pieces on your blog. Maybe even format it in a way that’s ready to publish for popular magazines such as Elle or Vogue (you can even send in your pitches to them thanks to the power of e-mail and Google).

      Your potential employers are going to want to see something before they hire you, so if you have a bunch of work already posted that suits their style, there’s a higher chance of securing the gig even if your portfolio isn’t ‘formal’.

      Do it for all formats you’re interested in. I used to slap slogans on pictures of brands I liked just so that I could show off my copywriting skills. I also have press releases and brochures on hand to send to relevant clients.

      Whatever it is, you need to have a ready selection of RELEVANT work to show your customers.

      So there, I hope that helps, and just ask away if you need more info.

      And once again, don’t take this as final advice. I’m not qualified for that. Wishing you all the best!

  2. I’m not writing professionally, but this was a fascinating read. I think at the end of the day, you use the reality to make your own decisions. Can you change the going rate? No. Can you decide what rate(s) you are willing to work on for a particular project? Yes.

    • Oh yes. It’s no different from consulting, or advertising, or fashion. What makes one brand more expensive than the other? Perceived value. How do we increase that? Now that’s the tough part that we all should figure out. Thanks so much for your wonderful insights! Always great to have you here.

      • Yup! I have worked for brands who had more “luxury” positions products and brands that have more “value/affordable” positioned products. The correlation between price and quality is not always as strong as one might think. It’s really perception more than anything else.

  3. I see there is a lot of reasonable analysis here, but sadly I have no skin in this game 🤣. Maybe in another life, I’ll get to think about this issue. I’ll bookmark this for the future.

  4. As someone who’s been writing for a living, I can definitely say this: Premium writing commands premium prices. Quality over quantity!

    Abundance mentality also comes into play. If you think you can’t go beyond the low-paying gigs, you’ll be stuck there for good. If you think you can break through that ceiling and do something to surpass that, it will pay off.

    • Aw yis. In the end, it all boils down to less complaints more work. I believe that those who’ve put time into their work will naturally command more remuneration, instead of those who want above-average rates after having just joined the industry.

      Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, fellow writer!

  5. The zero sum game thing drives me batty on so many levels. LIFE is not a zero sum game people! You don’t get less if you help someone out. When we help someone rise, we all do.

    (BTW, I found a typo in your post…how much will you pay me to point it out to you?! ROTFL)

  6. Haha! Yep…that’s me too! Zero cents a word for every blog post, but what a fun ride to write without restraint just because!! So let’s keep at it my fellow blogger!!!

    • You too are recruited into the zero-cent club just like Jim and Hetty here, lol. Hey, if we can put this much effort while in the zero-cent club, then we’ll definitely be prepared the day we join the cha-ching club. Thanks for the support, Kelvin!

  7. Once again, such an awesome article. I totally agree to each their own. I often think different price point serves different purposes. For a client who is paying USD$200 may require tons of research and interviews, there will always be clients who may be paying USD$5 for just a product description. Who knows, the latter client may have 100 products which works out to be USD$500 for the whole project!

  8. I’ve always favoured giving away *some* of my writing (short stories, perhaps) to give readers a taste for my stuff – a bit like hearing a song on the radio and wanting to buy the album. I’m still hoping it’ll elevate me to Coldplay or Muse levels!

    • Building on that, I believe that true fans will still support us and buy our stuff even if we give everything out for free (admittedly, this relates more to piracy than giving out samples). You bring up a very good perspective here on the subject. Thanks for this!

  9. Great post, friend! I especially liked your emphasis on the point that there is no _real_ market rate.
    No one can live solely off writing. It’s usually done for passion and perhaps as supplement income. 😊

    • To be fair, there are ‘everyday Joes’ that make a serious living through writing alone, but even if they do exist, what’s important is that we forge our own journeys instead of trying too much to emulate others. I love your perspective. Thanks so much for sharing!

  10. Awesome post, Stuart! Been late on this one a bit, but here are my thoughts:
    – I totally agree. I hate those who ignore low rates — but everybody has to start somewhere. Many freelancers started by hopping on $5 gigs and boy does it get you somewhere.
    – So I talked, last week, that I wanted to make a switch to an all-phone internet life. I’m already loving it! My battery is crappy and has to be charged 1-2 times a day, the phone is slow and Chrome is especially clumsy, and the screen is cracked, but it’s still so much more portable and accessible than a laptop!
    Thanks! This is a short one but I’m now living a bit of a closely-knit life (for multiple reasons) and It’s been great to find enough time to drop this comment off.
    Thank you for putting out content that gives me a break from the twenty-first century. A bientot!

    • Ooo, can I also interest you in a Logitech K380 Bluetooth keyboard that’ll help you type faster on the mobile? It’s great if you want to do a lot of typing, though it may defeat the purpose of accessibility that you’re looking for.

      Great to know that you’re changing gears, and I wish you all the best with this new pursuit. Do update me on your experiences during this time.

      I like what you’re doing. Sounds very minimalist. Anyway, thanks as always for your kind words. Till next time!

  11. Writing on one’s own terms is such a gamble that I really agree we shouldn’t put down writers who take cheaper gigs. We all need to be able to make ends meet, and at least those gigs allow people to make money while also writing. It’s not like the frequent teaching scenario I’ve seen posed in writing books where someone waits tables while talking about writing a bestseller someday but never *actually* writes.

    • Definitely! We all have such wildly different paths as writers that we shouldn’t tell anyone which to take.

      And yeah, not writing the book you’ve been dreaming about has become a cliche now, ESPECIALLY if you wait tables, lol. Then again, I shouldn’t be commenting on people’s writing journeys.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

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