Any freelancer would love to make a full-time income writing for a major newspaper or magazine. You get paid $2 a word, and there’s considerable prestige that comes with it. No freelancer should, indeed, give up trying to get into New Yorker, Time, Atlantic or other high-prestige national publication in their niche. It’s important to understand, though, how difficult these gigs tend to be. You really work for your $2 per word.

Here’s how it happened with me

In January last year, I came up with an idea for an article about shocking parenting mistakes, and I submitted it to Parenting Magazine. My pitch took four months to work its way through various layers of the editorial board before it finally got approved. Once it got the green light, they wanted quick turnaround – no more than a couple of days. While I did keep the deadline, they took another month to put my piece through several rounds of revision; it finally came out in May. I received pay for the article in November.

Certainly, it’s important to keep plugging away at the famous magazines; until you manage to get enough articles published to establish a working relationship with the editors, though, you need work that puts food on the table today. This is where bid-to-work websites such as the Australian freelancer.com come in.

At first, sites like these may seem too low paid to be worth your while; you need to stick with them, though — they quickly get much better. All you need is to know where the good jobs are, how to apply, and how to not trip up on some of the simplest mistakes people tend to make.

Freelancer requires that you sign up for a paid account if you want to get anywhere

Unlike other freelancing bid-for-work websites such as Upwork, Freelancer only allows free memberships access to eight project proposals a month. If you want any more, you need to sign up; their top membership tier for unlimited proposals costs $199.95 a month. It makes sense to sign up, because eight proposals tends to be not very much. You usually need as many to win one project.

The site does get plenty of employer traffic, and work is never in short supply. You will usually need to deal with a stampede of bids for most projects, though, and win over many other freelancers.

If you are accepted to a project, anything between 3% and 10% of the value assigned is automatically deducted from your earnings as Freelancer’s fee. If the employer chooses to abandon the project, you still pay. If you stay inactive after paying for a membership, you will usually end up being charged an inactive fee. Since Freelancer does tend to be somewhat expensive, then, it’s a good idea to try the website in free mode for a while before you actually pay.

Nevertheless, Freelancer is one of the biggest bid-to-work marketplaces around, and it is worthwhile being on it. All you need to do to get ahead is to follow a few basic rules.

Demand milestone payments

Freelancer offers you no guarantee that you will be paid for work done. If an employer chooses to abandon a project that you’ve already begun work on there’s nothing that you can do. Freelancer, then, recommends that you set up milestone payments; you prove to the employer that you’ve done a certain amount of work, and wait to see some payment come in before you continue. If the employer decides to cut and run, your investment will have been minimal.

Make yourself employable

You don’t send resumes to send to each client on Freelancer; instead, you have your profile. Most writers who don’t get ahead on Freelancer simply don’t do a good job with your profile. Clients do actually look at every profile on their shortlist before finally decide on a writer. The more professional you make your profile with links, credentials, portfolio and so on, the more confidence you inspire.

Be an expert in your niche

While it is certainly easy to write on just about any subject that comes your way, you will never make a name for yourself doing that. Try to work on a narrow range of topics that you have some expertise in to begin, and build a reputation in them.

Make sure that you actually read the project description

Far too many writers on Freelancer only give the description on each project a cursory read, missing important information in the process. Many projects, then, include a test — a little instruction somewhere in the project description about a word to use in the reply. This way, they know that you’ve read the description through. You don’t want to take shortcuts here.

Do not lower your prices (eventually)

One of the most important things that you can do to have your bid noticed is to pay Freelancer the $1.50 fee that they ask for to have your bid placed above all other bids. It makes a huge difference.

Like other bid-to-work services, Freelancer is crowded with writers willing to work for peanuts; prices such as $1 for 500 words and $2 an hour are available, if not common. Competing on these levels makes little sense; you will never get to the point where you succeed at making even minimum wage. Rather than selling yourself short, you want to stick to the $35 or $50 that you charge an hour. You will find employment before long.

It’s important, though, to realize that employers only pick writers who come with superior ratings from employers on previous projects. In the beginning, then, it makes a lot of sense to work for practically nothing. You should consider it an investment that will help you build your reputation.

Reply with a proper cover letter

A good cover letter is an excellent way to stand out, prove that you can write, and show that you are a serious contender. A couple of paragraphs stating relevant experience, and your willingness to do well, can help greatly.

Delivery on time counts

Keeping an employer informed and in touch through the duration of the project, and delivering on time, counts greatly. While it can be difficult to reply to questions within minutes, this kind of responsiveness quickly raises a writer’s ratings.

Most of the skills that you need to succeed on Freelancer will get you far on any freelance service. The site’s special fee-related rules and lack of escrow service, though, call for caution. These considerations apart, Freelancer can be a great way to make a living.