The Ethics of Freelancing

Part of the reason I love freelancing so much is that I never know what the day’s work is going to bring to my desk. Constantly researching topics, looking for new angles, and pitching ideas keeps my mind active and curious, and makes interesting party conversation infinitely easier. There are some writing topics that I’m just not interested in, but there are also writing topics that I think freelance writers should be honor-bound not to touch.

I won’t be a hypocrite here – there has been a time or two in my career that I’ve written a Shakespeare essay or a similar piece of literary analysis that I was pretty darn sure was destined to carry a lazy or overworked student’s name. I made a rule for myself early on, however – never touch the life-or-death stuff. I won’t write false reviews or unsubstantiated claims about medications or supplements, and I won’t give medical or legal advice in my writing that isn’t fairly common knowledge, and vetted.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the work isn’t out there. Take a peek below at a job I recently spotted on a board.

screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-1-44-32-pm

This looks to be a pretty basic walkthrough for a nurse-in-training, and it’s part of an established curriculum, if this Chegg “homework help” page is any indication. This is not the kind of education that someone responsible for medical care should be shrugging off.

While it’s up to each individual freelancer to make judgment calls on what he or she will work on, this is the kind of “opportunity” I condemn and caution against with the strongest terms possible. Keep an eye out, and always consider the deeper ramifications of your actions – our words have the power to inspire, create, sell and comfort, and, as the web-slinger himself once put it…

with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility-spider-man

Debunking a Craigslist Writing Scam

Red warning triangle with the word scam in red on the left sloped side, and the word Alert! in black on the right sloped side. In the center of the triangle is a red police-like bubble light with the word scam in black beneath it.

WritingLeads.Info is a Craigslist Scammer!

When you’re trying to become or living as a full time freelancer, hustling is always on your to-do list. Hunting for new work, marketing yourself and following up on leads is as important as writing itself, if you want to keep a steady flow of work coming in. Craigslist, a popular nationwide classified ads-style website, has job listings for those brave enough to look. Their typical 9-to-5 job listings are often scams for non-existent postions, designed to pull in resumes to cull for nefarious purposes like identity theft. But, you may be asking, are Craigslist writing ads a scam too?

Mostly, yes. There are a few exceptions, such as local ad agencies listing a position with a local number, but by and large they’re out to get your money or your info. Here’s an example, including my extremely thorough debunking of the supposed writing site, a writingleads.info scam:


From Tom Wilson ( WritingLeads@gmail.com ):

Good morning Delany! This is a great opportunity. How this works is you sign up and complete the application process, look over what types of writings that different companies want, write them, submit them and get paid. It’s a great way to make some extra cash.  You get what you put into it. If you are a decent writer there is really good money to be made. You probably won’t become rich but if you like to write, you might like this!  Good luck! (link)
Tom


My Response:

Tom;

Ten years in the business means I know a thing or two about legitimacy. No real job makes you pay – either now or later – for the privilege of working for them, and that’s precisely why a “7 day trial” is a massive red flag. I actually own and operate a popular how-to-freelance blog that tells people where to go to earn money writing, and I do it for the good of the community because I don’t charge a dime.
Let me guess, you probably set a bot to scrape writing listings off of free, public-facing sites and stick it in your haphazard framework, right? With no filter for which jobs will take beginners and which require actual experience in the industry? No floor to how little the listings are charging, and no filter to keep the scam jobs that are even worse than yours off the site? No methodology to find and remove jobs that have been filled?

We both know what your site is. Shame on you for wasting people’s time with a scam. You’ve been flagged and your site is being added to my scam page on the FreelanceWriterGuide. Go find some legitimate work and stop trying to make a living charging people for free information.


From Tom Wilson ( WritingLeads@gmail.com ):

Hi Delany, I do online marketing for them. I have had people who signed up and tell me they really like it. I don’t work for them. I realize it’s not for everyone, but some people do like it. It saves a ton of time for looking for the paying gigs. Thanks for flagging it, appreciate it, especially when you have no idea what it is. A true hero to the people looking for paying gigs.
Good for you.
Tom


My Response:
Okay, Tom. Let’s chat about your super legitimate site, shall we? I know exactly “what it is” – and the fact that you fall back so readily on sarcasm tells me that I’m definitely not the first professional to call you out on the carpet.

What are the odds that all of the “writers” featured in your success stories would ALL join the same shady-looking fat loss program?

It’s interesting that literally the only. place. these. “writers“. use their professional headshots. is in your network of websites. Oh, wait…I’m sorry, I spoke too soon! Apparently, “Mabel Curtis of Australia” is incognito as Jennifer Bergman, American Wedding Photographer – I guess she didn’t want people to know about her salacious life writing articles for money. Oh, and this isn’t Anton Diaz – this is the husband of actual food blogger Susan Thye – this is the Anton Diaz your site likely trying to impersonate and commit fraud with. Oops, I mean “quote.” Don’t worry, I’ve taken the liberty of contacting both of them to let them know about this little mixup.

Apparently I’m not the only one to see through the obnoxious auto-play marketing audio and landing pages full of unsubstantiated fluff – this guy looked into it, as did this one, among others. “Glen Anderson” doesn’t exist anywhere that he should, including LinkedIn, for purportedly running a company that boasts I could pull a $14,000 A MONTH payday if I only fork over $47. Eight million alleged dollars in payouts to freelancers and yet no one’s ever heard of him? His signature is a font, for gods’ sakes. The Freelancers Union has no idea who he is, what your company is, and actively cautions freelancers not to ever pay money for access to jobs.

And actually, I am a hero to people looking for paying gigs. People have told me that, verbatim, because I have integrity and don’t need to trick people into auto-pay scams to keep my lights on.

Do what you want to do with your life man, but at least be honest with yourself about what you’re doing.


From Tom Wilson ( WritingLeads@gmail.com ):

Sorry, but this is news to me. I should look more carefully into the companies I do online marketing for.
Tom


Now, dear readers, it’s anyone’s guess if “Tom” was being sincere in his last message, but you can see how easily I picked apart his scam website with a little “search Google for this image” magic.
Was I snarkier than I needed to be here? Sure, I’ll be the first to admit it. I’m just sick and tired of people like this giving my industry – and my peers – a bad name to make a few bucks on a scam. Rest assured I will continue to call out this garbage everywhere I see it, but you need to do your part too: make sure you report or turn in everyone attempting to usher people to a site like this. This came from an innocent-looking Craigslist ad that claimed the poster just needed a writer for a few articles. If your response gets an auto-reply or a scammy ad push like mine did, flag that post without a second thought!

Who I Am vs. What I Write

Freelance writing is a career with a staggering range of subjects to tackle, especially before you build a consistent roster of repeat clients. For some writers, this mish-mash is an obstacle to be waded through on their way to steady work in comfortable subjects. For others – yours truly among them – it’s the same mish-mash that makes freelancing so darn attractive in the first place.

In the past week, I’ve written about fat-burning cold laser therapy, landing pages for a pizza restaurant in Ohio, specialty Vietnamese sauces, air conditioner seasonal preparation, local business SEO listings, warehousing strategy, the fast food industry, an organic body oil direct sales company, truck cranes and workshop sessions that I attended at the Content Marketing Conference in Las Vegas last month. I love it, because it keeps my mind active and engaged at all times – I’m always learning something new!

However. Sometimes a job will cross my path that makes my stomach sink a little. Either the viewpoint is staunchly in opposition to my own, or the very content would be unethical  (by my own standards) to write – e.g. a review for a product I never tried. A friendWe all need the money, but I’m here to tell you, as a muddled mentor-of-sorts to freelance fledglings…

…just. don’t. do. it.

Question_Mark

Insincerity comes through in something as subtle as your word choice, and trust me – the readers are going to pick up on it. In a career path that’s highlighted as being one of personal freedom and choice, you are absolutely free to pass up on these types of articles. Yes, even if you need the money. If you need someone to tell you it’s okay, and not to feel guilty for passing on projects that make your skin crawl, consider this my blanket forgiveness: it’s cool. 

I’m a bleeding heart liberal and a lifelong pagan (yes, believe it or not, I’m a witch! And I vote! And pay taxes!), so believe me when I tell you there’s never been a shortage of jobs that don’t quite mesh with my worldview.

It took me years to make my peace with not gritting my teeth through uncomfortable subjects, but I came to realize that for every church bulletin I passed up, a religious scholar was shooing off an adult toy description I could pick up. We need to treat this crazy freelancing journey as a group effort, if only academically – stick to what you feel comfortable writing, or researching-to-write, and success won’t be far behind.

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:

HireWriters: 23% (Writer earns $7.70 for a $10 job; $1.00 withdrawal fee)

WriterAccess: 30% (Writer earns $7.00 for a $10 job; There are no fees for payout.)

(Note, 8/17/16: more sites coming as I can figure them out!)

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)

Free Freelance Writing Guide – Just a Reminder!

For those of you that have just started visiting FreelanceWriterGuide.com, I’m so happy you could join us here! I started this site to help people that are curious about writing for money online with a guide to freelance writing, links to freelance writing sites, and a list of freelance writing scams to avoid to maximize their efficiency and earning potential. I wrote a little e-book about the process that I’ve posted for free: Free Freelance Writing Guide so that everyone has a fair glimpse ‘behind the scenes.’

A picture of a logo banner that reads freelance writer guide.com write your own destiny.

Here’s the lowdown, if you wanted a Cliffs Notes version:

  • What is Freelance Writing?

Articles, product descriptions, press releases, blogs, you name it. It generally will not be stories, poems and other things of an overt creative nature, although sometimes freelancers will take a creative tone at a client’s urging. The stuff I talk about on this blog is generally all done online, and generally all paid through Paypal.

  • How Do I Write For Money?

In a nutshell? Be fast, be accurate, and create something worth reading. If you can’t produce more than 300-400 decently-constructed words in an hour and don’t think you’ll ever work up to (and beyond) that number, you probably won’t be able to sustain writing as a viable income or side income.

Good Freelance Writing: Cats are beautiful creatures that have a wide array of talents that work well for survival, communication and adaption.

Bad Freelance Writing: Cats are good animals because they can do a lot of really cool stuff.

To start with, you need to find a site to write for, as just writing something and trying to sell it is really hard, and will likely cost you far more time and energy than just accepting a job from a client will. You’ll find my list of freelance writing websites in the navigation bar above – those that I’ve done in-depth reviews for are also noted and linked.

Then, you need to work, be patient, and be willing to devote time and energy into checking for new jobs and staying on top of deadlines for the job(s) you’re currently working on. Essentially, if you’ve ever bid on something you really wanted on eBay, keep in mind that down-to-the-last-minutes type of refreshing/checking and you’ve got a good idea of the attitude you’ll need to really knock it out of the park, freelancing-wise.

  • How Fast Can I Make Money Writing Online?

If you already have a Paypal account, build in at least two weeks to get accepted on almost any site. While you can turn around a good chunk of change in a hurry on the sites that pay weekly (Textbroker) or daily (Crowdsource), you’ll still need to go through the application process and get accepted before you can start getting at it. (If rent/electric/cellphone bills are due NOW, don’t worry – check out my suggestions for how to make money online right now.)

  • How Much Will I Make Freelance Writing?

My general guidelines are .01/word for new writers that are just starting out – this doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work out there that will pay you less, it means that I strongly advise against accepting it. “Cheap” clients tend to bring a lot of problems along with their cut-rate wages, and, oddly enough, are often so demanding that they’ll send newbie freelancers running for the hills. You’ll take assignments as articles or blogs, writing anywhere from 150 words (or less) to 400-500+ words at a time for a set amount. Overall, it’s better to be over the given max word count than under, unless you’re on a platform/site like Zerys that restricts overcount or the client has specifically called out that s/he needs a certain number. Don’t blow past the max by 100+ words though, try to rein it in at 50ish or you’ll be giving away a lot of work for free and giving the client the wrong idea about what to expect for their money.

Over 40,000 people have started their freelance writing journey on this site by researching my free freelance writing guide and reading my freelance writing blogs – come nudge that count even higher by discovering the earning potential waiting to be unlocked in your mind. Write your own destiny with the Freelance Writer Guide!