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What is it really like to be a freelance writer on Upwork? Amy Suto tells about her experience

By January 16, 2019 June 29th, 2019 6 Comments

I’ve heard so many horror stories about freelancing platforms and ‘content mills’, that I was intrigued when award-winning writer Amy Suto got in touch to say that she was regularly using Upwork and making good money from it. I hope you enjoy this Q&A with Amy – it definitely got me seeing Upwork in a new light.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your path to becoming a freelance writer?

I started writing articles for my parents’ bookstore (Vintage New Media) back in high school. They sell pulp fiction and vintage books and radio plays, and working for them was my summer job. I started my own blogs, and also began contributing to other blogs. After attending USC for screenwriting, I started working in Hollywood.

As I made my way up the ladder at various assistant jobs, I kept up my freelance writing on the side. When one of the shows I was on got unexpectedly cancelled, I took freelance writing more seriously and spent this past year building my business and working with so many amazing new clients as a memoir ghostwriter. 

You mentioned that you have a full time role as screenwriter but that you also freelance full time – how does that work? What does ‘a regular week’ look like for you?

As a newly minted television writer, (I just co-wrote my first episode of television recently!) I get hired on a freelance basis to work in writers’ rooms. I worked my way up from showrunner’s assistant to writers’ assistant, and then got my first episode. I’ll be on a show for 4-6 months, where I show up to an office and talk story with other writers and pitch ideas in a writers’ room for our show.

When I’m not on a show, my schedule is my own, and I split my time between traveling, working on my own projects, and juggling freelance projects. I have several long-term clients who I do work for in my breaks between writers’ rooms or during holiday breaks.

What kind of writing have you done and do you currently do? Do you have particular specialisations?

I focus on projects that capitalise on my strengths of creative and narrative writing.

One of my first freelance projects was to rewrite an immersive theatre event taking place in Australia for a fringe festival! From there, I started writing for escape rooms, and then eventually found myself ghostwriting memoirs for former athletes, olympians, lawyers, and really inspiring people with fascinating careers.

I love memoir writing because you really get to know someone and step into their life in order to help them tell their story. That process aligns with my own creative process when it comes to writing fiction. 

Right now, I’m helping a writer rewrite her book of poetry and I’m working with another woman on her book about a series of out-of-body experiences she’s had in her life. Because I’m so busy, I only have time and energy for exciting projects like these, and am moving away from accepting any new clients or projects in the business space since I find that writing to be a bit too dry.

You use Upwork to find your writing opportunities, could you tell me more about that?

I love Upwork!

It takes some time to become established and accumulate testimonials on your profile, but I’ve met all of my favourite clients through the platform.

I was commissioned by an art magazine based out of Paris and New York to write a series of short stories for them — and they found me on Upwork. I’ve met my 10 or so regular clients through Upwork, so I’m grateful to have been able to find success on the platform.

Upwork doesn’t always have a great reputation amongst freelance writers – how have you made it work for you?

The best jobs on Upwork are often invite-only and unlisted: the clients need to find you, not the other way around.

There was a point in time after I got my ‘Top Rated’ freelancer badge where I just stopped sending out proposals and got all my new work through invitations instead. It saved me a lot of time on trying to find new projects and clients since I was getting 8-10 invitations a week I could sort through quickly. 

Your hourly rate on Upwork is listed at $120. That’s very different from the $10/hour profiles that seem to be so prevalent. How have you positioned yourself in this way and are you finding you’re earning a decent income from it?

I position myself as a storyteller with premium training, because I am: I graduated from USC’s prestigious screenwriting program (which has a more challenging acceptance rate than Harvard Law!) and I’ve been working in the trenches of Hollywood learning the nuances of storytelling from successful showrunners and writers for the past several years.

By sharing my credentials and showing how I approach my work from a storytelling perspective, my clients know they’re paying for someone who can handle their memoir or story with care, and that I have the experience and training to back it up.

I’ve made somewhere in the ballpark of $15,000 this year for off-and-on part-time freelance work between writers’ rooms, with no shortage of work to do if I felt the need to do this full-time. I’m grateful to be able to pay my bills with this work!

In Los Angeles, Upwork also does meetups and panels and hosts lunches with Top Rated freelancers. I recently spoke on a panel for Upwork, and it was great to meet more people out here in the freelance community.

What kinds of clients have you found through Upwork?

All different kinds! My memoir clients are the most diverse, and I’ve worked with people all over the world from all walks of life. I’ve also met editors, entrepreneurs, writers, and directors who need help on projects.

What are the benefits of using a platform like that?

I love how potential clients can easily see testimonials of my work on my profile, and it’s helpful to be able to receive invitations for work rather than constantly be writing proposals like I did when I started.

And the drawbacks?

There’s still a good amount of energy expended on vetting clients — there are going to be hobbyists or early entrepreneurs who are difficult to work with and there’s always a fear they’re going to leave a bad review on your profile. Luckily, I’ve been pretty good on avoiding people like that, although I’ve had to let a few clients go because they were too difficult.

What do you think the key is to earning good money on Upwork?

Knowing that in the early days of getting established on the platform, you’re going to have to do a lot of legwork in terms of sending proposals and accumulating good reviews so you can raise your rates.

Also, know your rates — or your range of what you’ll work for — and never compromise. I’ve turned down dozens and dozens of jobs because people asked me to work below my rate. Occasionally I’ll make exceptions if the project is creatively fulfilling, but that’s rare.

Working for a fixed-price, especially as a writer, is dangerous because if you don’t specify the scope of work and number of rewrites, it can quickly become a waste of time if your client asks for too many changes. That’s why I prefer to work hourly, especially on projects like memoirs where the bulk of the work happens on marathon phone call/skype sessions and constant editing/rewriting based on a client’s changing relationship with the work.

Memoirs are personal, and they evolve just as a client’s self-understanding evolves through the process as their goals shift with how they want their narrative portrayed.

Is there anything people need to know about working through Upwork or similar freelancing platforms?

Upwork is great because it takes away the invoicing process and also still ensures you get paid even if your client refuses to pay you (which has happened to me once on a $600 assignment!), but they do take a percentage of your work. You can deduct that from your taxes in the US, though, since it’s technically a ‘business expense.’

If you’re freelancing on another platform, double check to see what fees/percentage cuts the platform takes and what you get in return for that.

What do you find most challenging about being a freelance writer?

Juggling all the work. Because writing is both my livelihood and my passion, I struggle with burnout when I overload myself with writing projects. I’m still learning how to prioritise properly, and what my limit is in terms of how many hours I can work per week!

And the best thing?

I love meeting new people and helping them tell their story. Ghostwriting memoirs has been such an adventure, and if I wasn’t buried under NDA’s I’d share some of those stories because it’s been an unexpectedly wild ride.

There’s nothing I love to do more than to step outside my own life and help someone else relive their own experiences on the page. As a ghostwriter, I spend so much time with these people, and it’s a much more intimate experience than just writing an article about them since they’re entrusting you to help shape how the world perceives them.

Thank you so much Amy, how can people get in touch with you?

Get at me on Twitter or contact me via my website.

I always love chatting with fellow writers and freelancers.

I must admit I was a bit anti-Upwork before this Q&A with Amy, but I think I’ve softened my stance, just a little. Do you use Upwork? Has Amy’s experience changed your mind at all?

6 Comments

  • Rachel says:

    That’s a really interesting interview, Lindy. I am so anti Upwork myself, although I’m always intrigued and tempted to dip my toe in again when I hear stories like Amy’s. Interesting that the best jobs are unlisted and the clients find you – I didn’t know that. She does mention though that to get to her stage, there’s a LOT of legwork. I’m not sure I have the time to do that, even though I’m sure if you’re good you’d eventually get to that premium stage. It just seems like a lot of commitment if you’re at a senior level already with good paying clients. Tricky one. Really loved reading her story though and wow, wouldn’t I LOVE to be a fly on the wall in one of those writer’s rooms! So cool.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks so much for your comment Rachel, yes, Amy gave such a fascinating insight into Upwork and how it can work for some writers. But I’m the same as you in that it sounds like so much work to get to that level – I’d much rather build my own relationships and develop them without being associated (good or bad) with a platform like Upwork.
      I was so intrigued by Amy’s screenwriting work too – it sounds so exhilarating from the outside!!

  • Erica says:

    This was a refreshing article to read, Amy’s story is very inspiring. I wonder though if her story is more inspiring to those who are in her position. She has a great educational background and even experience writing articles for her family’s bookstore. Many of us do not have those credentials. I have the educational background, but having the proper experience and the type of education that she has, will make a profile look good on Upwork.

    Anyone else without those credentials would have to work probably ten times hard. I appreciate the article and advice given here. Thanks so much!

    • lindyalexander says:

      Hi Erica,
      Thanks for your comment and your thoughts. Undoubtedly having credentials like Amy will have helped her, but I also think it’s about how we position ourselves. If we can identify what clients are struggling with and how our content solves their problem, I really believe they are less likely to worry (or care) about our educational background.

  • Eh.

    As mentioned in the interview, your success on Upwork is heavily tied to client feedback and people that aren’t 10 percenters often have to bend over backwards for clients that are only willing to pay peanut dust (let alone a whole peanut!) to squeeze out a positive review regardless of samples. There’s also the site’s less than stellar customer support and several features that makes work tedious (allowing low quality clients to spam the same job, long wait times before payments are released, no contact outside of Upwork’s propriety messaging apparatus, etc.).

    I use the site on occasion, but people unwilling to break themselves on it for a chance at a chance at a chance to mirror this success story will see slow progression at best. It feels like a “you get out what you put in” thing at first, but with the deluge of bottom-barrel invites and job ads that’ll assault you in your first few months, it’s more of a “you get an eighth of what you put in” thing until you get lucky, bleed a few liters, or redeem your privilege voucher.

    Upwork is great for some people, not so much for most. If you already have a pipeline to get regular clients, it may not be worth the effort.

    • lindyalexander says:

      Hi Marcus,
      Thanks for your comment. I must admit, I have never used Upwork as a writer but I’ve heard similar stories to what you’ve said here. I personally would always prefer to find my own clients rather than go through a marketplace like Upwork. Thanks for giving us your views 🙂

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