The Reality of Freelance Writing

By Mark Nichol

A recent Craigslist job posting invites readers to apply to write twenty or more 1,000-word online-marketing articles per week. The pay rate? Twenty dollars per article to start, thirty dollars each after the first ten articles, and forty or fifty dollars apiece after a couple of weeks.

The compensation for this work, after the initial fifty articles are written, is more than a thousand dollars a month — about fifty thousand dollars a year, a fair income for a freelance writer. But back up a bit: The writer is being asked to produce 20,000 words per week. At that rate, one could churn out a good-sized novel or nonfiction book each month — if not for the fact that writers are human beings who need to eat and sleep and would like to indulge in luxuries like recreation and socialization.

Assuming that a 1,000-word article can be written in around two hours, that’s a full-time workweek. The problem? Salaried writers don’t write for forty hours a week. They attend meetings and confer with colleagues, and perhaps do some editing and proofreading as well as writing. It’s unrealistic to expect someone to put in that many hours churning out content, even if one finds writing about widgets an exhilarating prospect. It’s unsustainable for a writer to do so, and disingenuous for an employer to expect that the writer can do so.

What’s most disheartening about this job posting — even more than the fact that it would be more reasonable for the client to hire more writers to produce fewer articles each — is that it’s one of the more generous offers I’ve seen online lately.

There’s no writing tip buried among these observations. There’s simply a plea to any readers who might be posting job listings such as the one I’ve described to ask themselves whether they could actually sustain this workload, whether they could live on the meager compensation usually offered for such assignments. Do they want to attract writers, or are they content with typists? (No offense intended against transcribers, of course.)

If there’s any tip to be shared, it’s to my fellow freelance writers out there: Yes, projects may generally be scarce and poorly compensated, and it’s tempting to take grueling assignments such as the one described in this job listing. (I’ve done so — for a while.) But never forget that unless you’re a novice, or you’re a merely competent writer, you deserve better than this — and novices and competent writers will get better and deserve better — and you must be diligent about finding the best offers. And, once you’re hired and have proven your value, be diligent about assertively requesting periodic boosts in pay as a reward for your increasingly valuable contributions to the success of the enterprise.

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11 Responses to “The Reality of Freelance Writing”

  • Barb Wright

    I have been working online for many years and would love to see more posts like this, thank you. I started as a guest host for AOL chat rooms way back in 1990. After many years of chat hosting and managing, as well as forum hosting and managing, I broke into writing.
    Many writing businesses expect their writers to pump out several articles a day, which leads to bad writing and major burn out! I took that road until I landed on oDesk and began writing for them. I have been able to raise my hourly rate significantly and mainly work as an editor these days. I also do a lot of content idea consulting.
    I love working from home, but I know I need to increase my rate again to keep up with my skills. Do you have any idea how to do that without losing clients? Thanks for your writing tips. I look forward to reading them every day!

  • Genevieve Yates

    I’m utterly appalled at the rates quoted in the column on freelance writing! I write for 5 different publications and earn between 65 and 80 cents a word for my columns, which are usually 500 – 700 words each. I’ll never complain again!

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    I consider myself a prolific writer, but I would find it impossible to maintain the pace required for this freelance position.

    But let me back up just a moment. I would be extremely suspicious of any job offering found on CraigsList. Assuming for the sake of argument that this employer actually pays the money promised for 20 or more freelance articles per week, each of 1,000 words, that’s 4,000 words per day, based on a five-day workweek.

    In the last 10 years, I have written 700 newspaper and magazine articles, five published books (four by NY publishers), one produced screenplay, and five more scripts in various stages of production, and an as-yet-unproduced stage play — so I feel justified in calling myself a prolific writer with better-than-average experience in a variety of formats of the written word.

    On a good day, I can crank out 2,000 words. On an exceptional day — and there are few of those — I can write 3,000, maybe even 3,500 words.

    The pace called for in this “job” is impossible.

    I suspect, they offer a graduated pay scale because they know they’ll only get about 10 articles out of each new writer before the writer throws in the towel. So the “company” only paid out $200 for 10,000 words of copy.

    Twenty dollars for a 1,000-word article is a TERRIBLE pay rate.

    And when is the writer going to research the material he or she is supposed to write about? Assuming you are not merely transcribing someone else’s notes, you are going to have to do some research.

    I strongly suspect this ad, and all similar ads, are scams.

    Just my two cents.

    Chuck

  • Mary

    Unfortunately, ads like this quite often are not scams. What most people don’t realize is that those of us who have not yet broken into the novel market take these kinds of jobs to feed our kids.

    This particular posting is under paid, and I would never tackle something that required 1000 word articles without compensation for research. Even a good content writer, using the bs skills they learned writing high school essays can only say so much about “ladies bedroom slippers” or “Window blinds”, which I’d be willing to bet are the topics of said “articles”.

    I’ve done those kind of content jobs in the past, but at twice that pay rate, and usually working for content providers, who offer the same basic rate, with pay raises for higher-quality content, to everyone. I’ve never heard of a company that starts you off at one pay rate and then bumps it up as you prove your skill. If a just-hired freelancer can turn in the same level of quality as I do, having worked for the company for two years, they will receive the same check for the work that I do. Anything less is an insult to the writer.

    These days I’m turning out an average of 15-30 pieces, at 230-250 words each, per day. The compensation is reasonable. As a single mom with two teenagers, I don’t have the option of turning up my nose at writing about widgets. Until traditional publishers turn the trend of marketing only their big-name authors, and cranking out mass market trash like 50 Shades of Bad Grammar, writers will have to do what we do to make a living.

    By the way, the reasons that people get away with offering these jobs are two-fold. One, writers will take them because a) they don’t know any better, or b) they’re looking to make a quick buck and don’t have the skill to get better jobs.
    And two, we’re competing with writers in India and other countries where an American dollar or UK pound is worth a lot more than it is in native-English speaking countries. $3 for 1000 words is not an uncommon ad on oDesk or Elance, and there are 3rd world writers who snatch those jobs up.
    Google’s Panda has changed that situation somewhat, since proper English is necessary to rank with the new algorithms.

    The bottom line, at least for me is, I’m making more than I could make working at McDonalds. Maybe I’m a widget writer, but I’ll be the best darn widget writer I can be, and I’ll be proud to be working and thankful for the paychecks. Success, for me, is being able to keep a roof over my kid’s heads, and to have food on the table. I guess I’m doing all right.

  • Alice Kemp

    Those who answer ads that offer really poor compensation are not only newbies trying to establish themselves but people from third-world countries (notably India, Pakistan, etc.) who will work for a pittance since their cost of living is so much lower. Of course it’s usually fairly easy to spot that English is not their native language, but many employers don’t seem to care about that. They just want writing for the least amount of compensation they can get away with.

    How do good writers deal with that situation? Other than walking away from it. Unfortunately, too many Internet employers fall into that category.

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    Mary, sounds like you’re doing fine. And you get to work at home.

    About 250 words for a widget sounds doable. A thousand is stretching the world of widgets pretty thin.

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    So who are these companies — or content providers? What are they advertising? And where is this type of stuff used or published? I’ve never heard of any of this type of writing.

  • Sara Duane-Gladden

    I’ve seen “job” listings like this before. My guess is this is going to be yet another case of an employer “unable to find people with the right skills to fill the position” because of unattainable job expectations. Sure, they probably will eventually find someone to do it, but the quality of the work will likely be non-existant compared to what a freelance writer with less strict output requirements might produce. Then they’ll see the quality and think it’s the writer’s fault.

    I wonder how many serious responses they’ve received? When I’ve gotten offers like that via email, I’ve told the job requester their expectations are out of line with reality. When i see jobs posted like this, I just laugh and keep clicking.

  • anjeeta

    I am a writer from a third-world country and I can’t help but disagree. On Elance.com there are loads of writers from the US who are willing to work for less than $10 an hour.
    Also if its largely website/business owners from the US and the UK who post projects with appalling pay rates.

    If you have been to Asia recently I am sure you will quickly realize that cost of living in cities like Singapore and Hong Kong is way more higher than a city like New York. I am speaking from personal experience, having lived in all three cities. I currently work with three business owners two from Asia and one from the US and surprisingly my Asian clients pay me more than the US client .

  • Christine Peets

    Mary, good for you for wanting to be the best damn widget writer, and you’re right, although freelancers are barely eeking out a living wage, it beats some other jobs, and we get to work at home.

    Chuck, I know some people who have found good jobs on Craigslist so they shouldn’t all be tarred with the same brush. Having said that, there are a lot of “content mills” out there that pay nothing, or next to nothing, but have some kind of pull for writers–and they are getting them, and often on Craigslist, or other job ad boards. As long as that continues, this battle will go on.

    [Canadian] writer Margaret Atwood once said that writers need “long necks and thick skin” to survive, and she’s right. We stick our necks out all the time, and often have it lopped off, or at least cut. We also get burned by critics and low-paying clients. But we have a passion for writing, so we keep going.

    Hang in there everyone, and hang tough!

  • Paul

    Thanks for helping to point out how ridiculous some of the Craigslist writers ads are with their compensation.
    Someone wanted to pay $20 for a fully researched paper on the order of 1500 words for a blog. Knowing a bit about the subject, I’m sure it would have taken more than 20 hours research and writing. So instead of maybe $010/word, it would have amounted to about $0.99/hour. Where are these people coming from anyway? Especially the bloggers, who already make tons of money with their advertising sideline.
    Paul

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