Years ago, I worked for a national quick-serve restaurant chain. My home shop was among the system’s busiest – a real hive of busy work. During rushes, the back of the house was chaotic beyond description, but I thrived there. I took pride in being the first to pipe up at the boss’s request and the last to hang up my apron.
My eagerness to load up my plate paid off at the restaurant, where saying “no” was at best a sign of weakness and at worst a marker of outright subordination. It was invaluable during my transition from full-time W-2 employment to full-time self-employment, as I supplemented my 60-hour restaurant week with 15 to 20 hours of low-paying freelance writing work. That punishing schedule wasn’t good for my personal life or physical health, but I wouldn’t be where I am today had I eased up before severing ties with the restaurant for good.
Things changed sometime after that break. Within a year, it was clear that my hunger to carve out valued time and fill it with project after project was actually holding me back, stunting my personal and professional development. It took longer still to reach the point where I felt comfortable turning down all but the most outlandish or insulting project proposals, and yet more time to develop an intentional approach to seeking out new opportunities.
What follows is a partial accounting of what I learned along the way. Though it’s based solely on my personal journey, it’s meant as a guide for aspiring freelancers and independent professionals. It’s not a diary entry.
TFW you’re getting paid to do what you love
My career as a paid writer began in late 2011, when I finally activated my Textbroker account and picked up my first assignments. It remained a side gig until I quit the restaurant in late 2012. My long-suffering wife referred to this as my ticky-tapping period, for the sound my frenzied fingers would make on the laptop keyboard late into the evening.
Despite the substantial time commitment and regrettable physical toll, my ticky-tapping period was blissful. It felt amazing to come home after a long slog behind the restaurant counter and exercise my creative muscle for hours on end. There was nothing groundbreaking about the work – more on that below – but that wasn’t really a concern at the outset. I was getting paid to write!
This is more or less how those first months unfolded:
- I dipped my toes in: I completed Textbroker’s abbreviated onboarding process and completed my first assignments. There was virtually no learning curve: I completed the assignment, submitted content, and waited for the client to request revisions or approve. The workload was unlimited; assignments would sometimes sit out for days before a writer claimed them.
- I got my first payout or two: Like I said, I didn’t quite believe at first that I was really getting paid to write. Sure, “paid” is a relative term, but every extra dollar mattered back then (and still does). The only feeling better than watching my account balance increase over the course of the week was cashing out at week-end.
- I began gobbling up any work that remotely fit my skill set: I’m out of the freelance writing platform loop, but when I was coming up, platforms like Textbroker and Demand Studios (which spawned this entertaining hate site and no longer exists in recognizable form) spanned a staggeringly broad content spectrum. It would be quicker to describe the topics I didn’t write about during this period.
- I expanded my output to fill virtually all my spare time: Once I realized that I could control my own financial destiny – within reason – on a platform with a bottomless supply of work, I was off to the races. Ticky-tapping husband ceded his spot to emotionally absent husband.
- I succeeded on the merits: By producing competent work and building a reputation for promptness and reliability, I slowly earned my way into marginally better arrangements: private teams and one-on-one relationships with private clients, both of which paid (slightly) better and generated more interesting assignments. Within the wider ghostwriter-for-hire context, I remained near the bottom of the heap, but the proportionally substantial pay increase felt like a major victory.
- I built a regular client network: Over a period of months, I weaned myself off uber-competitive open assignments – the bane of freelance platform producers’ existences, right up there with contest-based work. Six months into my ticky-tapping phase, I was writing almost exclusively for private teams and individual clients.
- I kept my head down: I took the lessons learned during my early ticky-tapping phase to heart: grab as much work as you can, complete it quickly, do as good a job as possible given the timeframe and pay rate, and be reliable above all else. I didn’t ask what I was worth, look around to see what else was out there, or think intentionally about establishing myself as a creative force in my own right. (At Textbroker, where I did much of my early work, I was known to clients only by a unique number – the client-writer interface was designed for anonymity, likely to prevent poaching.)
Throughout this whole period, I don’t ever recall saying ‘no’ to a direct, personal assignment request. I passed up plenty of opportunities available to other writers, but I couldn’t turn down a nice ask.
I’m not sure how typical my experience was. I suspect plenty of my ghostwriting fellows had similar embarrassment-of-riches experiences, especially back in the days of low-grade spray-and-pray SEO campaigns. (This was before Google’s Penguin update, which tilted the field in favor of higher-quality content.) Those on creative or journalistic tracks no doubt heard ‘no’ a lot more often than they said ‘yes’, but perhaps they felt better about the quality and purpose of whatever work they were able to market.
TFW you have no idea how to say ‘no’
For the entirety of my ticky-tapping period and the early phase of my post-restaurant career, I treated my workflow like a vacuum cleaner’s dust chamber. If it wasn’t filling up, something wasn’t right.
I struggled to say ‘no’ because:
- I was still shocked that people would pay me to write: Chalk this up to my inexperience with freelancing writ large and digital marketing in particular. Before starting out, I had no idea the market for inexpensive ghostwritten content was so large, and it took me months to fully realize that the spigot wasn’t going to turn off.
- I had no idea what I was worth: Chalk this one up to inexperience too. Other than searching for cheap content-creation platforms to register my writing services, I did almost no market research ahead of time. I had no idea what people were willing to pay for high-quality ghostwriting (even back then) and no idea where to find writer-friendly opportunities.
- It was actually good for my bottom line: This delayed the reckoning for many months. As I burnished my reputation for reliability, my value to clients increased within the bargain-basement context in which I toiled. Eventually, I was essentially at peak production: I was earning as much as I could without negotiating higher pay or making unhealthy work-life sacrifices.
- It was great for my relationships with demanding clients: Turns out not every freelance writer is reliable and eager to please. At least, so I was led to believe by fawning early clients, some of whom stuck with me (and who I stuck with, against my better judgment) far longer than advisable.
- I was scared: When you don’t know how much you’re worth, your position feels a lot more precarious than it really is. Every time it even crossed my mind to say ‘no,’ tendrils of doubt crept in. What if that first ‘no’ was it for that client? What if they told others – in their secret client cabal – that I wasn’t worth the trouble? What if there was some secret blacklist reserved for freelancers foolish enough to leave their place? And on and on.
- I was keeping my options open: I went far too long without a career plan, or even any semblance of an intentional approach to my work. Like many freelancers in the midst of career transition, I assumed my arrangement was temporary – that I’d shift into a more traditional career or return to the restaurant in the near term. A simple gut check – see below – would have helped.
Better lucky than good
I remember only one clear-cut instance of abuse out of the hundreds or thousands of individual projects I completed before I gathered the confidence to say ‘no’ with any consistency.
It happened early on in my ticky-tapping period, when I was still shocked that people were willing to pay me to write. The client was spraying geo-targeted SEO content for a utility – maybe a cable company, I can’t remember – across the northeastern United States. The order was large enough, he claimed, that he’d negotiated a special arrangement with platform management: He’d cap each order at, say, 350 words, on the understanding that I’d produce 500 words at the platform’s minimum per-word rate. In other words, he’d pay me 30% less than the platform permitted under normal circumstances.
My almost total lack of hesitation or even reflection at this baldly underhanded proposal was a searing indictment of my desperate naivete. I churned out the work at the agreed-upon rate, then took on similarly sized followup. The guy trimmed at least $100 off that campaign’s content bill – a not-insignificant sum in those days.
Freelancers are well-known targets for abuse, especially when they’re just starting out and scrounging for low-paying work. Though I haven’t canvassed the early-stage freelancer community about this, I suspect I was lucky to get suckered just that once. (Some of the credit goes to Textbroker, which in my experience is more writer-friendly than even lower-priced competitor platforms.)
Coming to grips with the problem
My refusal to turn down work early on was mostly a boon. Occasional ripoffs aside, I was earning as much as I could within the constraints of my principal contractor platform (Textbroker) and the terms I’d worked out with my regular clients. I felt like I couldn’t do any better, which was technically true in this narrow context.
It wasn’t until I learned to suppress my inner yes-man that I fully came to grips with my full plate’s dear opportunity costs. These are just a few of the subtle and not-so-subtle tradeoffs I made every day:
- I almost never had a byline: My first proper byline opportunity came more than a year after I began freelancing. A year.
- Clients got used to hearing “yes”: Over time, I inured regular clients to my agreeableness. This lost me a few longstanding relationships once I finally did begin turning down previously acceptable work, though most such ends were blessings in disguise.
- My negotiating skills remained undeveloped: For far too long, I (with rare exceptions) let clients name their price. I calculated, not incorrectly, that I could offset a low hourly rate by working more hours. I made sure to keep that dust chamber full.
- I didn’t self-promote: With my dust chamber full, I saw no need to put myself out there. I had no professional website or social media handles, just the freelance platform writer profiles necessary to attract prospective clients’ attention. I didn’t even collect clips (or know I was supposed to). My bashfulness during those early years is among my greatest regrets.
- I had no time for “reach” projects: I didn’t even know what prospecting was. I virtually never had to pitch. And I had no online presence to speak of anyway. The farthest I went, starting about six months out from the restaurant, was to create and occasionally update an unwieldy spreadsheet filled with potential bylines. But how could I possibly find the time to use it while drinking from the fire hose?
TFW you finally realize what you’re worth
It came into focus like a long summer dawn, but it came nonetheless. A year or maybe 18 months out from my ticky-tapping period, I’d gained enough confidence to negotiate effectively with new clients (yes, it took that long) and set minimum standards around workload and pay. A year or two after that, I’d all but ceased accepting unsolicited project proposals, dramatically curtailed my reliance on contract work platforms like Textbroker, and plowed most of my professional energy into fulfilling, creative projects that either bore my byline or made me proud to see with someone else’s name attached.
I took these steps, in roughly sequential order, to get to that point:
- Gut check: First, I took a long-delayed gut check. I asked myself two questions. One, why am I doing this in the first place? Two, would I be happier in another career? My answers were straightforward. I got into this line of work because I loved to write and might as well make money doing it. (That answer has continued to evolve, but that’s a story for another day.) And I’d left the restaurant business because it wasn’t sufficiently fulfilling; I couldn’t conceive of another line of work that made me happier than writing.
- Market research: I looked beyond the handful of low-paying platforms with which I’d contented myself to date to get a clearer sense of the market rate for the type of work I was doing. Not surprisingly, higher-paying platforms were more exacting and often had less work for walk-ons, but it was pretty clear that they weren’t beyond me. I also canvassed the freelance ghostwriter community, mainly by lurking on relevant reddits and independent forums. Before long, I realized I was seriously undervaluing my talents and going about my work in laughably inefficient fashion.
- Going for the ask: I started with non-core clients: those whose business I wouldn’t be broken up about losing. I started timidly, asking for maybe 10% or 15% more than my current rate. That was too much for some clients, but as this was the first really intentional step I’d taken in my career, the loss was bearable – ultimately, a blessing in disguise.
- Stepping into clients’ shoes: Next, I took a hard look at every regular client relationship, paying special attention to lower-paying arrangements grandfathered from my ticky-tapping days. I (gently) fired a few and flagged the rest for re-negotiation.
- Looking ahead: Then came the soul-searching. What am I getting out of my writing career? What kind of work do I want to be doing in one year? Two years? Five years? This type of reckoning is intensely personal, but it’s essential no matter what line of work you’re in. (You don’t need me to tell you that.)
- Cutting off the lower rungs: This was the hardest part: the fitful, arduous process of reducing my reliance on freelance platforms and content brokers, setting scarily high minimum pay rates for platform clients, and devoting hours of free time each week to prospecting. I also set aside a minimum share of my valued time for bylined work. I missed this share more often than not in the first months, but setting it was nevertheless one of the most important professional decisions I’ve ever made. More than any other step on my professional journey, this one necessitated the most ‘noes’. Eventually, I was turning down virtually every project request on the freelance platforms where I’d gotten my start, no matter how favorable the pay or project terms.
- Setting limits and boundaries: As my work product grew more valuable and my earnings rose apace, I felt comfortable carving out hard work-life boundaries: non-working hours during which I’d avoid paid work, one rest day per week during which I did nothing work-related at all save for the occasional emergency, daily or multiple-times-weekly blocks of time set aside for health and wellness activities.
- Personal development: I learned to see professional development performed during my non-valued time for what it was: an investment in myself. Early on, it was tough to tear myself away from the bottomless pit of paid work to update my clips or send out a flurry of pitches. It got easier the more I repeated “you have to spend money to make money” under my breath. Whatever works, right?
- Learning to reach: Finally, I embraced the reach: pitching recognizable publications that expect top-shelf work from staffers and freelancers alike. It’s taken years to get there, but my record speaks for itself. Had I learned to say no sooner, I’d have been in a position to credibly write those words years earlier. No one told me that saying ‘no’ was the best thing I could do for my career. If there’s one thing you take away from my narrative, let it be that.
So, to review. During my year-long ticky-tapping phase and some time beyond, I:
- Grabbed whatever bottom-of-the-barrel freelance work I could get my hands on
- Had no idea what I was worth financially or professionally
- Was crippled by professional anxiety and circular thinking
- Almost never turned down offers of work or negotiate better pay and terms
- Had no time or creative bandwidth to pursue byline opportunities
- Relied exclusively on third-party platforms for self-promotion, stunting my professional development
Things turned around when I:
- Began to conceive of myself as an independent actor imbued with agency and leverage
- Learned to assert that leverage in the marketplace
- Gained enough confidence to sever client relationships that failed to meet my professional standards or advance my career goals
- Learned to recognize opportunities that did meet my standards and goals
- Delineated and maintained mutually agreeable personal and professional boundaries
- Set aside valued time to invest in myself and seek more attractive, fulfilling opportunities
- Discovered that saying ‘no’ was the best thing I could do for my career
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not out of the woods yet; I still have trouble saying ‘no’ when folks ask nicely. But I’m in an incomparably better position today than during my ticky-tapping phase. If you have a story to tell about getting from ‘yes, always’ to ‘no, unless,’ I’d love to hear it.