The Freelance Writing Jobs I Avoid

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The convenience of the Web has made freelance writing more convenient. Jobs are easier to find, but rejection letters can arrive much more quickly! The Web also has opened up a new range of business practices, some good, some bad. Here are the types of freelance writing jobs that I steer away from, if possible, having tried most of them:

  • Revenue sharing. The Web counterpart of straight commission sales, they’ll pay you, if they ever make any money from what you write. If not, they may not care. Usually these companies want you to promote their website in hopes of increasing the ad revenue you’re hoping to share.
  • Subsidy publishing: a very old industry, where companies pretend to be regular publishing houses or literary agents, but want you to pay them to get published. If you’re willing to spend money to get a few copies of your book, you might do better with print on demand companies such as Lulu or Booklocker.
  • Web content writing: The Web counterpart to water pollution (I was going to say counterfeiting). Often their goal is not to produce literature that people will want to read, but web pages designed to fool the search engines into thinking that people actually want to read them. Sometimes these articles are not much more than keywords artfully strung together. Software has been developed to do this work more cheaply than humans.
  • Article directories: Usually a collection of web content for revenue sharing. They invite publishers to buy articles at very low prices. Writing for these directories is not something you should put on your resume.
  • Academic writing: You get paid to write papers for students. They are advised not to pretend that they wrote these papers themselves, but to use them as “models.” But you know better.
  • Freelance job banks: The Web counterpart to a slave auction: when you offer to write for two cents a word, someone in India offers to write for one cent. A common source for low-paying Web content writing jobs.
  • Pay-per-comment: Junior high school students in India earn half a cent a word to write comments on neglected forums and discussion boards so that visitors will think they are active.
  • Pay-per-post: Bloggers devote a post to review the company that’s paying them to do it. But it makes me wonder if anything they say is really from their hearts.
  • Sample writing: Sometimes a company will advertise a job opening, insist that every applicant send a sample article on a particular subject, sell all the articles, and hire no one. On the other hand, the reputable companies will pay you for any articles they use.
  • Contingency payment: Stay away from start-up businesses who apologize that they “can’t pay anything now, but just think of how rich you’ll be when we hit the big time.” If they don’t have money to pay their writers, what else don’t they have money for?

My advice: look for people you’d be proud to write for, more than for people who are willing to let you write for them. If you follow the money, you may find there isn’t any. But if you follow your sensibilities, you can look at yourself in the mirror and feel proud of what you’ve written.

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22 thoughts on “The Freelance Writing Jobs I Avoid”

  1. This was really interesting to read.

    I recently debated with a fellow (amateur) writer the ethics of helping high school students write their admissions essays. I said I didn’t feel comfortable with it, and he said he didn’t care.

    It’s nice to see another acknowledgment of these kinds of questionable writing assignments, and more examples of them as well.

  2. You would think that anything written for the Web should be called web content writing, but somehow the term has been adopted by employers who don’t care what they publish, as long as it’s “keyword-rich” and “SEO-optimized.” I feel better when employers advertise for Web writers with a knowledge and love for their specific subject.

  3. Add to this list: grant writing. Too many people honestly believe that there are zillions of grants out there to help them start a business or stay home and work on needle-point. They will expect the write to wait until the grant is accepted before paying.
    Well, first off, there are no such grants, per se. And what grants there are, are few and far between, take months to get through and rarely have any administrative expense reimbursements in them, you end up working for free.
    Avoid them like the plaque!

  4. Excellent advice. Too many of the sites about writing-for-money do not explain exactly how to do this, or how much you can make. I sometimes write for Associated Content at $3-7 per article, which isn’t much but breaking into the business writing is fierce and competitive.
    Even bloggers don’t explain that its not so much the writing that makes the money as the number of hits to their sites. It delves into marketing- not how well you write- that ends up being the bottom line.

  5. Good writing jobs in America pay $1 per word, while in India, it is Rs. 1 per word. One $ is forty rupees.

    So, even writing for a cent a word is big bucks for middle class Indian students. I don’t think it is fair on your part to demean their work.

    Why not blame those bloodthirsty businesses who will do anything and everything to promote themselves online? So, even advertising, copywriting and marketing should fall in this category!

    Many have a choice when it comes to choosing their job… but not all and not at all times! For instance, I work on both assignments I detest but that which pay the bills and Jobs I love and am proud of but give me no return.

    If I concentrated only on the latter, then I will be famous for my genius and hardships after my death. However, my practicality makes me life life to the full, enjoy my work and have fun.

    Even clients and editors prefer a smartly dressed rich writer to a penniless genius. Isn’t that so?

  6. Archana, I wasn’t demeaning students or other writers from India, just explaining, as you said, that they’re willing to accept less pay than professional writers in the US or UK. So I don’t try to compete against them. A basic principle in business, or even job hunting, is to aim as high as you can (a little higher than your comfort zone), because there’s less competition for the jobs that require the highest qualifications, the most experience, the greatest perseverance, or the deepest knowledge.

  7. I work for a content company based in India named Chillibreeze. And Archana, I actually agree with most of what Michael says here even though I am from India. At Chillibreeze, we never take on such jobs either. We work with Indian freelance writers on a day to day basis. And we have had several problems with some of them (though I must say some of them match international standards!), so much so that we published this article on our website

    However, Michael, if you are an established writer, you can pick and choose. What if you are a budding writer or someone trying to get into the business? Most high end clients would prefer established writers, such as you:) How does a novice squeeze their way into the freelance writing world?

  8. Great article, Nishi. Actually, even though I’ve been writing for years, in many ways I still consider myself a novice freelance writer. So I can’t always pick and choose either! It takes a lot of practice to hone your craft and I wrote about some ways to get that practice in my post Entry Level Freelance Writing. Since I wrote these posts, I’ve become even more convinced that maintaining your integrity as a writer is not only a moral, but a professional, imperative. Taking jobs that pay so little you have no time to do a good job: that doesn’t teach you how to do a better job. It teaches you how to do a worse job. It makes you less qualified for the best jobs, not more qualified.

  9. Hi there. You do a great job with this blog and I think it is great that you posted what sort of writing jobs that you avoid so other writers who admire you can learn from your mistakes. I just posted a blog 100s of sites to find freelance writing projects and I figured that your users would appreciate the list.

    Thank you.

  10. Yes, Rachel. Thanks for the list as it reminds me why I need to look elsewhere for something that pays decently. All of these are low paying and most re-run the listings from Craigslist. I don’t want to shoot the messenger, but this list is for those that want to earn pennies a word. This list covers the kinds of jobs not to write for.

  11. Some questions that are on my mind after reading this article…

    When you say revenue sharing, are you including sites like eHow, Bukisa, Suite101 and the like? I hear that some people are making reasonable money from these, and also that they can be a place to showcase your work and land higher paying gigs in the future.

    Similarly with article directories like EzineArticles and ArticlesBase, which don’t actually pay at all – I’ve heard that publishing there can be of value for two reasons. First, again, they’re places to showcase your work. You’re going to put up samples of your work somewhere right? So why not a place that lots of people visit? Second they are good incoming links into your own websites, so raise search engine rankings and bring in traffic.

    What do you think, is there validity to these arguments?

  12. Philip, any good writing practice will improve your skills, and some of the companies you listed can give you something vaguely resembling professional experience. After working with them, you can even say on your resume that you have now written financial/medical/business articles. But experienced freelance writers ( for example) usually advise you NOT to put the names of any of those companies on your resume. The reason? Your resume should show that you’ve written for well-paying, prestigious publications (such as magazines) that are hard to break into. Saying that you’ve written for companies that are easy to break into won’t prove that you can do higher-level (and higher-paying) gigs. In fact, it might give evidence that you don’t need to be paid much. Sure, you could put your school term papers on your resume too, but that doesn’t prove your professionalism either, because even poor writers have to do term papers in school.

  13. Thanks for your response.

    Just to clarify, are you saying it’s best not to write for those sites at all, or that it’s ok to write for them, but don’t put them on your resume?

    I wasn’t particularly thinking of putting them on my resume, as if it’s some kind of achievement to have been published there! But I was thinking that I could point people to those articles to show that I can do good work.

    I’m taking it as a given that I’m not going to putting anything out there which is not good work.

  14. Phil, I commented on your blog with some of my thoughts. But no, I think you should start with the tips I listed in my article Entry-Level Freelance Writing. I’ve tried some of those sites you mentioned, but I didn’t find them as authentic or even as much fun as real writer’s markets. With them, you can end up listening to everybody else on the site and deceiving yourself into believing that you’re all professional freelance writers. But the job experience there is not only inferior, it’s not even a good example of what professional writers do. You don’t need to use them as examples of your writing. Where do professional writers keep their writing samples? On their own websites. That way your reputation won’t be tarnished by the neighborhood because it’s your own neighborhood. As your writing gets picked up by more creditable publications, you can link to those. That even goes for what you’ve written for article banks. A potential employer might say, “If he can’t give me a link to anyone who bought the article, maybe it wasn’t worth buying.”

  15. I agree with you on most fronts Michael. Though I am a writer from India, I agree that many of my counterparts agree to work for a pittance (for writing that hardly makes any sense). Indian writers have only themselves to blame when companies start treating them as “cheap labor”. On the the other hand, like Archana said, a cent a word is above average money by INR measures and newbie writers sometimes short sell themselves in an attempt to build their portfolio.

    In the end, it is only we who can decide how much we are worth!

    And yes, while a large fraction of web content writing is “counterfieting”, I have had the opportunity to work on some “good keyword planting” projects that aim to create valuable content 🙂

  16. I wish I had read your article months ago. I’m not young and am only looking for work at home since my daughter was poisoned by a dentist using triazolam off-label as a sedative (it’s approved as a sleeping pill).

    Anyway, I had to give up my day job to care for her, and, being an old fogie, I had no idea of the extent of internet exploitation of writers.

    I was really ticked off after my first “job application” where I was expected to answer environmental questions for an hour to prove my worth. I happened to have taken grad courses in environmental health at a major university, but apparently that wasn’t good enough.

    These people were soliciting writers/nterns on Craig’s list, and then after I busted my butt for .25 an answer, AND set up a profile, just in order to have the opportunity to apply, I was told there were no openings.

    So, I see you are warning against this type.

    Then I had to write an essay, within 24 hours, BEFORE the next operation would even tell me what the pay range was. I was a little skeptical after my first experience and wrote first that I needed assurance my essay would not be used unless paid for.

    After knocking myself out for 24 hours, I was offered the job and then told I’d have to earn $200 before being paid anything.

    So I went with another “student paper” writing service, and had to threaten them to get the reimbursement for my first completed assignment.

    I had thought at first I’d be editing student papers, however, even though the 1st assignment was labeled an “edit,” I had to write the whole paper — for about 1.50 per hour.

    None of this is worth the aggravation, and not only is it not worth it, it brings down the pay rate for all freelance writing work.

    I was contributing to my own demise, I realized, when a local newspaper (entertainment flier) I’d freelanced for since 1991, dropped my pay, telling me they could find freelancers to do my job for far less money than the reduced amount.

    This is the new sharecropping, and it needs a civil rights movement – very soon.

  17. I agree with some of the jobs, but not all. I mean, I write for article directories and I should tell you that my clients do business in the keywords that I write on. So there is some research going on… and it’s not off the top of my head. Some of the articles that I have written on article marketing sites are like ‘Why the Motorola V3i Sucks.” I don’t think that’s a keyword.

  18. What it comes down to is this: the web has become the new black market. End of story and those of you who help promote this crap are responsible for making it that way.

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