Getting Paid as a Working Writer

Wednesday, April 26, 2017
By Phil Elmore

If you are a working writer, you must be getting paid.

walletWorking “on spec,” or on speculation, means you’re working with the hope that you’ll be able to make some money. A working writer should almost never work on spec if he or she has other options. That’s because every minute you’re not writing blogs about vacuum cleaners for a paying client’s content farm is a minute lost from your work day. It doesn’t matter how proud you are of the word count for your latest chapter or short story. If there’s no reasonable expectation of getting paid for that work in the near term, that time was personal time. It was an indulgence and, while there’s nothing wrong with indulging yourself, that’s not making a living. It is, at best, an investment in your future (especially if you believe strongly in your project). At worst, it’s simply dollars lost from your wallet.

A working writer’s day is all about making cash. I recommend determining your budget within a healthy margin and then dividing that monthly budget by the daily amount you need to make. Every day, ask yourself: Did I hit my minimum today? Am I making or losing money? The flow of cash should be into your wallet, not out of it. Every day you aren’t working is a day’s income that has to be made up elsewhere… and every dollar you spend has to come from somewhere. As a working writer, your wallet is your master.┬áIt is an angry deity. It must be appeased daily.

When you are tempted to spend time writing about writing, indulging in your blog or in any other activity that is not driven by a paying client, understand that this is personal activity and not work activity. You don’t get to spend the day in a Starbucks blogging about how to craft interesting characters and then proudly look back on your day’s “work.” That was a day spent navel-gazing about your craft. Unless you monetize that blog by including it in a book about writing that you then sell, you’ve wasted your time.

This attitude toward making money must pervade everything you do. I had a Kung Fu instructor once who was, of necessity, a small business operator. He had a saying: “Too f–ing nice is too f–ing poor.” You must focus on client development and cultivation, yes (never forgetting that every client has a life-cycle). This requires a certain amount of diplomacy, but you must also be firm. This means that a client who cannot respect the need for timely payment cannot be trusted… and will eventually stiff you.

You’ll need to examine this on a case by case basis. If you have a history of late deliveries with a client (and every writer has done this), that client has earned more latitude. Where a problem exists is when getting paid for your work becomes like pulling teeth. A client who repeatedly strings you along and makes you ask after payment again and again is showing you that he does not respect you. He will continue to take advantage of you — and continue to delay payment — on future jobs. When this happens, he has become a client you can’t afford. Indulging yourself is one thing; getting stiffed is quite another.

Very early in my career, I did some work for a client overseas. I did the work with the expectation of payment on completion. When I delivered, the client didn’t pay. I had password-locked the files and the client asked for the password. Stupidly, I provided it… and never saw a dime for my work. It was the first and only time in my career I have made nothing on a paid job. After that, I insisted on half up front, half on delivery (for those jobs that were not simply prepaid). The logic was that even if I got stiffed on the completion payment, I’d have made something on the job.

I learned my lesson. I was “too f–ing nice” to that client, so I ended up — on that job — “too f–ing poor.” Now, if a client makes me jump through hoops to get paid, I refuse future work. This is the reason I no longer work through, even though the site was for quite some time a very lucrative source of small jobs. When the company encountered a mysterious “error” that caused a portion of my held payments to disappear, I complained repeatedly. While I’m reasonably confident all my money was eventually re-deposited in my account (and withdrawn by me), the error was unforgivable. If I could not reasonably be expected to get paid promptly for my work through Fiverr, I could not justify the time spent.

You must apply this attitude to all your paying clients. If they pay you within a reasonable time, and especially if they allow you leeway with deliveries, you can cultivate strong relationships with them. There will be those clients whom you know are “good for it,” for whom you can work on little more than a handshake (even though that’s risky). A client who proves you cannot trust him to pay you, however, should not be your client at all. Refuse future work from that client and spend your time working to get paid.

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