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So you want to be a writer, huh?

I’ll be honest with you – it isn’t easy. It took me years of work and learning the hard way from multiple mistakes before I hit some semblance of a stride. Split infinitives and post-colon capitalization lurk in my peripheral vision, and spellcheck saves me a minimum of a dozen times an hour, even a decade after I first got the notion to do this for a living. I’m a good writer – an imperfect one, perhaps, but halfway decent if a bucketful of happy clients is any indication. You can be too, if you’re willing to work at it a little and keep persistence as a constant goal.

I started The Freelance Writer Guide to…

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Is This the Beginning of the End for Zerys?

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UPDATE, 5/25/16, 9:00 PM EST: One of my sources just showed me an email that was sent to his boss, the owner of a very large industry blog, cold-soliciting a partnership with Zerys. The email header and body both lead with an offer to provide “several customized writing samples” for the recipient to choose from. Every letter of the language in the email avoids any mention whatsoever of buying, purchasing or favorite-listing, the supposed “benefits” that Zerys writers were told to be grateful for under the new, improved work-for-free-if-you-want-any-work system. They’ve effectively turned unpaid spec labor into a shiny new selling point for the B2B side of the platform, all at the expense of their writers.


Zerys, aka Interact Media, is a content mill writing site designed for freelance work. In terms of ease-of-use hierarchy, I’d put it below Textbroker in terms of user interface, but slightly above TB in terms of earning potential. For many freelance writers, it was a backup income stream to hit up when the other “eggs” in our basket didn’t look terribly promising. In short, not fantastic, but not the worst either.

That may have changed.

In a timeless trend championed by eBay for many-a-year, they’ve made so-called improvements to the platform which are at best puzzling and at worst a reason to call it quits at Zerys. In a nutshell, Zerys now expects writers to pen – on spec – a 250 article for new customers, who are in turn encouraged to place duplicate orders in order to find the one they like. On spec, or “on speculation” means that there’s a chance you might be paid for it, but in this case, it’s actually far more likely you will not. Zerys has had a long and difficult history of disgruntled writers who found their work rejected because the client simply no longer needed it, or didn’t want it anymore, not because there was a writing or grammar issue, which should be the only legitimate reasons to reject an order that was written to instructions.

Imagine ordering a hamburger for dinner, looking over it once it arrived, and instructing the waiter to take it back at no charge because you’re no longer hungry, or you realize you really wanted lasagna, or a burger from a rival restaurant. It would be ludicrous, so why is it okay here?

Allow me to present some of the more troubling passages from their lengthy official forum post (Bold emphasis mine):


“IMPORTANT! As stated before, if the buyer likes your work, they may choose to add you to their Favorite Writers List, but may at the same time choose to not purchase the article from you. Of course, it would be better if they did purchase it so you got paid, we encourage you to realize that the most important goal as a Zerys writer is to get added to as many Favorites Lists as possible. In the long run, this is what will maximize your income, not getting paid for one short article under 250 words. Again, that being said, we have included nice hints* to the buyers that make it clear that the writer will great appreciate getting paid for these initial short custom pieces.”

and later on in this horrible, ill-conceived “explanation”

“Secondly, if you think about yourself as owning your own writing business (which you do), then ultimately, writing a few custom paragraphs for a client should be considered part of your marketing costs of doing business – of course, in this case, it may not be a cost at all since the client can choose to pay you for it! Its like giving an initial consultation to a potential new client. In many professions, a free consultation is offered to new potential clients and there is never the chance for payment. In this case, at least you have a good chance of payment. Every company spends a certain amount of money on marketing in order to gain long-term clients. Zerys has spent millions of dollars to build a marketplace and attract content buyers to you**, but ultimately it’s up to you to “close the deal” by proving your ability to them.

*Yes, they actually said “nice hints.” That is 100% actual quote right there. I’d love to try and pay my rent and utilities with “nice hints,” wouldn’t you?

**I call BS on this one. Their UI is one of the worst experiences in the entire freelance sphere. If they paid millions of dollars for that, they’ve been making seriously bad decisions for a lot longer than we all thought.

As if sentiments like these weren’t troubling enough, Zerys quickly went into spin mode when the writers became very understandably upset about the sudden changes, deleting forum threads and blocking or banning huge swaths of not only the writers that spoke up on the Zerys boards, but writers – myself included – that only spoke up on private forums elsewhere. Apparently, their business model is so deeply in jeopardy that they’ve relied on reports from “double agents” that have access to rival sites’ internal message boards to shut down potential future dissenters on their own boards. It plays out like a campy spy movie, but this is really happening, folks!

Their pay dates have been getting later and later, writer support has been virtually nonexistent for years, and this is the final nail in the coffin as far as many freelancers are concerned. Nearly all of my writing colleagues have sworn off the site for good after this latest fiasco, and I can’t blame them. Perhaps if Zerys had spent some of those theoretical “millions of dollars” on their workforce instead of listing jobs at 7/10ths of a cent per word, they wouldn’t be in this mess right now.

The Freelance Writer Guide is officially REMOVING Zerys / Interact Media from our list of recommended freelancing sites. We cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone, especially our new freelancers, work for a site that clearly has no regard for the freelancers that have supported and sustained its business model for years.

 

 

 

Making the Cut: The Commission Percentage

Whether you are currently writing for a “mill” style writing site (where a list of jobs are posted and you pick, work and turn your piece in within the site itself) or just considering it, commission percentages are an important thing to consider.

Essentially, because the site is acting as a “go-between,” furnishing the job list and taking responsibility for things like the interface, payment arrangements, consistency in pay and so on, they take a cut of what you earn. The industry standard is right around 30%, but the way that’s expressed can vary greatly.

Determining Your Actual Freelance Pay Rate

Some freelance writing sites force you to do the math before taking a piece, expressing your pay as a whole – for example, a 300 word piece might be advertised as a $15 payout, but in reality, you’ll only make $10 after the commission is removed prior to payout. Others are up front and state exactly what you’ll pay, taking their cut behind the scenes. The latter is definitely preferable to most of us for the sake of ease, but it also keeps writers somewhat in the dark as far as what the client actually pays. Here is, to the best of my knowledge, a rundown of commission percentages that a few popular freelance writing sites charge:

Freelance Writing Site Commission Chart

It’s hardly a comprehensive list, but figuring out what *writers* make is actually surprisingly difficult. WriterAccess is essentially the only site that takes pains to inform clients about what’s actually being paid out, the rest seem to hide behind charts and complicated onboarding processes. (Zerys, in particular, is an absolute nightmare as a “client.” That’s a whole different blog post for yours truly, but suffice it to say I would have given up and gone elsewhere almost immediately).

Beware of “Restructuring”

Upwork (aka ODesk aka Elance) has also undergone a recent “improvement” in their freelance commission pricing structure, effectively penalizing one-off client/writer collaborations under a $500 budget by doubling their commission percentage from 10% to 20%. Ongoing collaborations, called contracts, can earn a “break” that essentially translates to what they were making before. Looks like they’re following the much-reviled eBay seller fee school of doing business.

….And a Shift to Pay Windows

If there was a refrain in the song of freelancing, it would be some combination of not putting all your eggs in one basket, nor counting those eggs before they hatch. Paypal is by and large the main method for freelance writer site payouts, but a shift in their way of doing business has spelled trouble for pay consistency on the writers’ end. Where a firm payday was once the norm – the 1st, 9th, 15th, and so on – pay ranges seem to be the norm now, with WriterAccess having shifted paydates from single-day payouts on the 5th and 22nd to potential date ranges: the “7th -11th” and the “22nd – 26th” – paying all of their writers at once on an unknown day within the range (most writers plan for the last day, and are usually smart to do so.)

WriterAccess, at the least, pays reliably: Zerys recently sent an email after missing their stated pay window for the second period in a row. Here’s the gist of the email they sent disappointed writers, courtesy of my writing peer Carrie:

“…I wanted to give you up an update on your Zerys payment. Unfortunately, some of our valued writers will be experiencing a delay this pay period. The delay was caused due to a spike in last-minute content approvals. We do our best to estimate how much money we need to transfer to Paypal to cover our writer costs, but sometimes this is difficult because we pay right up to midnight the night of the last day of the pay period. Since it can take up to 5 days to transfer additional funds, this can sometimes lead to payments taking longer than we would like.

We apologize about any inconvenience this has caused you. We are working on making several changes to our pay periods and payment processes to address these issues, including working with Paypal to see if they can speed up their funds transfer times in the future.

Some writers should see payments later today. All other writers should be paid in the next day or two.

Thanks for your patience and understanding. We really appreciate all you do.”

There’s a lot to mull over when it comes to payments, but the moral of this story is to do some digging before you sign up with a platform. Within a single platform, it’s easy to become complacent with rates and commission percentages for wont of comparison. Be sure to poke your head up now and then and make sure what you’re pulling in is fair compensation within the industry at large!

Dealing With Problem Clients

Whole libraries have been written on the subject of speaking to a member of the opposite (or same, or other – it is 2016, after all) sex, but precious little covers how we, as freelancers, should chat up our source of income if things start to go sideways. Realistically, we’re also all competing with one another for work, so cards are held pretty close to the vest. It’s not easy to peek at what others are doing in real time to mimic, as you might in other industries.

So what now? Wing it? That’s what most fledgling freelancers are forced to do, in the absence of clear instruction. More established writers have uncovered the trip wires and learned to see the red flags on a problem client from miles away, but those skills were probably dearly learned. I feel that the “new blood” in freelancing needs guidance on this, even if it’s at the cost of a smaller work pool. Why? Well, because it isn’t just about educating them – it’s about empowering them and bringing them into the fold to stand firm against industry-wide issues like scope creep, which affects every writer regardless of skill level.

redflag

Here are my “three truths,” to dealing with potential “red flag” clients, fledgling writers:

1.) Clients will test you. This means that they will often try to get something for nothing, more for little, or everything for a fair amount. The trick here is to master being a willow tree in a sea of oak trees – that is, firmly rooted but willing to bend a bit when it suits your needs. Don’t agree to take on non-writing tasks like backlinking, image-gathering or distributing press releases unless you’re being paid accordingly – these are not typically part and parcel of a writing job, and they certainly shouldn’t be free. If client-requested “edits” are sounding more like “additions” that are going to take you beyond your maximum paid-for word counts, ask politely if they’d like to increase the word count (and pay!) or have you remove some previously-written work from the piece instead. Now, they don’t want to lose work of course, they wanted the new stuff for free, but this is a polite way of acknowledging that you know what they might be up to and stopping it before it has a chance to manifest.

2.) Set the rules of engagement before they do it for you. Unless you’re being paid a staggering amount of money, you are not on call 24/7, so don’t be afraid to set time and communication boundaries. It’s reasonable to expect that you are available 9-5 Monday through Friday in your home time zone, it is not reasonable to expect you’re available at 11:30 pm on a Saturday unless it was previously discussed and agreed upon. Never give a new client your home phone or cell phone, because rest assured they will use it – and use it, and use it. Keeping things confined to email or Skype gives you some measure of control over when and where your client contacts you, and that is important for setting boundaries. If a call is absolutely necessary, offer to call them and frame it as a service benefit – “I would be happy to call you to save you the trouble, what time and number is best to reach you?”

3.) Don’t let them use price or volume as a dangling carrot. Remember that, in freelancing, promises of “more work,” “ongoing higher pay work” or “bonuses” aren’t worth the digital non-paper they’re printed on. A lot of clients will use this tactic on newbie writers to get really great work out of them….once. You work hard, turn in a great article, and wait. And wait. No bonuses, the client is MIA, and there’s no work in sight. All of a sudden, that above-and-beyond effort for that “carrot” was actually for a run-of-the-mill one-off article with average pay, or worse, lower pay. As I’ve mentioned in the Freelance Writer Guide, even new writers should not agree to less than .01 / word – $1 for 100 words needs to be the floor when it comes to fluent English writing. Don’t accept less…a reputable client that actually has fairly-priced work for you will not ask you to work for less than a penny a word, even on a “trial” basis.

Let me be clear: most of the clients you’re working for will be agencies and middlemen, and any promise of “exposure” is hollow or a flat-out lie. If they are an agency or a middleman, they aren’t authorized to allow you to stick the end client’s name or the work you’ve done for them in your portfolio.

If you enter into every project with an (polite!) attitude of self-worth, clear boundaries and a firm price in mind for your efforts, you’ll be able to avoid a lot of problem clients – the most egregious/abusive individuals in the bad client roster are looking for an easy, too-eager pushover they can exploit, not someone that knows what their work is worth.

 

Watch Your Words: Keeping Things Precise

Hello my fellow freelancers! I’m fresh off the plane from Las Vegas and the Content Marketing Conference, which I was fortunate enough to attend as a guest of the WriterAccess team and their leader and conference coordinator Byron White. I had the chance to sit in on some sensational panels, including a keynote speech by my new copywriting brain-crush Douglas Van Praet. There will be more posts on the experience – and all the wonderful tips and tricks I can’t wait to show you – very soon! For now, I wanted to talk about word choices and how important they are to a smooth, cohesive piece of writing.

When writing for pay by the word, it can be tempting to ‘fluff,’ either consciously or unconsciously, with modifiers like very. Depending on how tired we are when working on a piece, we may not even realize we’re doing it! The key combination of ctrl and F (the “find word” command) is the best secret I’ve ever found to stamping out lazy writing – I just type in words I know I lean on heavily, such as very and great, and determine how often they show up in my finished text.

A quote beside an image of a younger Mark Twain reading "“Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” in white text on a black background

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was brilliant. (source: http://izquotes.com/quote/188037)

If you struggle with the same issues that I do, don’t be afraid to peek in a thesaurus or use words like those outlined in the image below, but don’t let these methods become a crutch. Ultimately, the goal is to write in such a way that you don’t need to do much sweeping up after – and that means consciously trying to keep yourself on course as you write, not just after the fact.

A still image of Robin Williams from the movie "Dead Poet's Society" above a chart detailing alternative words to use instead of adding very as a modifier.

While “very” is still an important part of a writer’s lexicon, it shouldn’t be overused! (source: http://9gag.com/gag/aKPyrrW?ref=fbp)

Hashtag All The Things: Free Marketing Through Social Media

Recently I’ve found myself explaining my social media marketing process to a lot of friends and peers – it’s simple and it’s a catchall solution for everything from real estate to eBay to, yes, freelance writing. Here it is, in a nutshell:

Step 1: Get a Facebook account and a Twitter account. For those of you already forming the words to something like “But I don’t get it…” or “I don’t have time to…Hush. Hear me out.

What you name your FB/Twitter account should be at least semi-related to what you’re doing, or easy enough to spell/say/remember that it isn’t impossible to find. JohnWritesStuff = Good. InadvertentCephalopod418 = Bad. Even if you already have these accounts personally, it’s probably a good idea to make new “junk” ones so you aren’t overwhelming your friends and family with posts.

Step 2: Do your “thing,” whatever it happens to be. Write your article for Constant Content, post your eBay auction, list your house, sell your stuff on Craigslist. If you’re at least passingly comfortable with any of these things, you should have a title that uses the most room that platform allows (e.g. you have very minimal leftover characters in your eBay title, like 5-6 letters max) and has lots of keywords about that item. Let’s use eBay for an example. I’m going to list a vase, and I use this title:

“16th Century Large Green Ming Dynasty Vase China Ceramic Rare!”

Step 3: Highlight and copy the title you just wrote.

Step 4: Go onto the social media marketing platform of your choice – say, Twitter, and paste that title in the update box. Do not publish/send it yet.

Step 5: Put the # (hashtag) symbol in front of important words in that title, ones that people are likely to search.

  • Leave out any vague terms that people looking for your item probably won’t use – in our example, “Green” is a little too generic.
  • Take out the space between words for words that would probably be searched as a whole phrase, like “Ming Dynasty” so that it shows as a single clickable link instead of one each for “Ming” and “Dynasty.”
  • Don’t want to put a # in front of numbers because it won’t link correctly – in our example, I would swap out “16th Century” for “Antique” – it’s a term that gets the same point across, but has no numbers.
  • After your hashtags are done, copy and paste the URL (the http://www.blahblah.com thing in your address bar when your listing/article/page is up) after your hashtagged creation is finished.
  • If you’re selling something that can only be picked up or sold locally (like furniture on Craigslist), be sure to hashtag your city name or your city name and state if you have a common city name like “Smithtown”.

    My finished product might look something like this:

#Antique Large Green #MingDynasty #Vase #China #Ceramic #Rare! http://www.ebay.com/item#123456.html

Step 6: Submit it. Copy and paste that whole finished line into Twitter and Facebook – Yes, you can use the same line! Cool, right? – and voila. You’ve just successfully used social media marketing. Make sure the privacy on these posts is set to “public!”

But what does this do for me, ThatWordChick?

On both Facebook and Twitter, hashtags are used to denote a searchable term – so if someone plunks “Ming Dynasty” in the Twitter or Facebook search box, for example, your entry will show up and they’re likely to click through to check out your auction. These searchers do not have to be friends, following your page, etc – that’s the beauty of hashtags! If you want to have a little fun with it, open a tab that shows your current hits/views on the auction/article/listing etc. , post your status update, then refresh this stats page a minute later. You can watch the numbers jump up before your eyes!

I use this method to advertise my Etsy listings, my eBay auctions, my Freelance Writing services, my Craigslist items, my Constant Content articles – essentially anything I’m looking to sell. It’s been extremely helpful for me and my sales, and I hope it’s just as helpful for you!