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.

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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

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The Latest (Bad) News on Zerys

I know that some of my readers may wonder why I’m devoting so many blog posts to a site that banned and blocked me for my opinion. I would point to my unusually high number of new blog followers, comments and likes on my Zerys posts as proof that there’s clearly a large audience that wants to talk about their frustrations there, but can’t due to forum censorship.

As I mentioned on a previous blog post about Zerys practices, I have an ex that I’m still friendly with that keeps me updated on some of the craziness going on over there. He was researching approval times recently and came across this admin forum post from last month:

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“We understand the desire to know where you stand with every job off the New Clients Job Board. Writers have a right to know one way or the other whether a buyer will add him/her to their writing team, and also whether they have chosen to purchase the initial piece or not.

For all other regular assignments to Favorite Writers, if the client doesn’t review the piece in time, we can auto-approve the piece because the client has already added that writer to their team, and there is some likelihood that the client would approve the content anyways since its from one of their favorite writers.

For initial New Client jobs, however, there is a unique challenge when it comes to auto-approval. We cannot force the client to like a writer, and we cannot force them to purchase a piece that was primarily designed to review a writer’s ability. The reason clients don’t have a review deadline on New Client Jobs is because these are not final, publishable pieces of content, but rather, these are jobs designed to help them identify writers they like, and want to add to their team.

All this being said, the great majority of New Client Jobs are reviewed within the 7-day window, so we are not finding this to be a major issue at thie point. We will, however, continue to watch it closely.”

There are several problems here – notably that “great majority” isn’t qualified – and even then, numbers don’t always work favorably in Zerys’ PR history, as we learned after the announcement that 60% of Zerys clients are not paying for their “samples.” Secondly, and admittedly this is anecdotal, but several writers I know have admitted that their samples sit for weeks, with some still languishing in queue from back during the initial shift to writing for free – excuse me, providing “custom” writing samples –  on the platform, months ago.

So, to recap, in order to get jobs from any new client on Zerys, you’ll need to:

1.) Write a 250 word article for free, knowing that 60% of these samples, by Zerys own admission, will never earn a penny.

2.) Wait for an indeterminate period of time, which is entirely up to the client, in the hopes that you’re one of the “lucky” 40% that actually gets paid for your work.

3.) Keep your work in limbo indefinitely, unable to repackage or sell it, because you’ve essentially created Schrodinger’s Article, which the client can buy at any point in time and lock down a copyright for.

This is what #FreelanceIsntFree is pushing for, my writing readers. These expectations and edicts are a slippery slope that devalues our hard-earned craft and makes new writers feel as if they’re not legitimate until they work for free.

You are worth more than that. Never forget that your work is worth paying for!

 

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.

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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.

Freelance Writer Guide Chapter 7 – The Ego

A digitally rendered clay figure of a faceless grey man with a red tie on. He is holding a blue vanity mirror in front of his face and checking his reflection as he adjusts his tie.

The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” – Oscar Wilde

Writing isn’t like working a traditional 9-to-5 type of job; the schedule can be crazy, there are no real co-workers to commiserate with face to face, and feedback can be vague and elusive if you manage to get it at all. In a work-at-home (or Starbucks, or Barnes and Noble, or anywhere with wifi) environment, the theoretical silence can be deafening.

You will get pieces returned to you and rejected at some point, with a good chance of it happening early on. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a bad writer, or even that your piece was sub-par – these returns are at the whim of the client or editor, both of whom are not the writer! Try your best to take criticism constructively and apply frustration as motivation to work harder and turn out better pieces. Even with the businesslike airs it puts on, freelance writing is an art form that falls squarely in the realm of creativity. One man’s masterpiece is another man’s doodle – outside of agreed-upon constants like spelling and grammar, the beauty of writing is largely in the eye of the beholder.

No matter what sites you end up joining, at some point a set of instructions will be poorly worded, clients will be unreasonable and you will very likely get burned out at some point. Hopefully the occasional pitfalls won’t put you off the track to success, but don’t be afraid to take a breather now and then if it gets to be too much. Writing is an intense vocation, requiring complete focus 100% of the time that it is being done, by its very nature.

As a new writer, be prepared to explain that copywriting is the writing of copy, not the application of patents. You’ll also find yourself frequently explaining that no, you do not also do graphic design – a surprisingly common mixup when the term “freelancer” pops up at a party. In a similar vein, friends and family may have to have the nature of marketing writing explained to them, in particular the difference between sales-oriented writing work and the “Great American Novel” that every stereotypical writer seems to be indelibly attached to.

Be proud of what you do and all that you accomplish – you are effectively your own boss at this point, so periodical self reviews will likely be the only official pat on the back you’ll enjoy. Work hard, enjoy crafting each piece, and take some time to remind yourself each day that every word keeps you further and further away from a lackluster cubicle in a customer service department somewhere.

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Freelance Writer Guide Chapter 6 – Getting Started

Three red-fletched arrows protrude from a black and white ringed archery target, all three points are in the red bullseye.

“Consider the postage stamp:  its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing till it gets there.” 

– Josh Billings

 

Step 1:

When you get a project, take a look at the item or webpage and find a handful of features that you feel you can wax on about a little – such as the figurine’s base is made of polished walnut wood, or the webpage offers visitors the chance to sign up for a store newsletter.

Protip: In general, it’s a good idea to break ideas or features down into 100 to 200 word paragraphs, leaning towards the 200-sized chunks for larger projects that range in the realm of 800 words and up. This will speed up writing a bit and give you a clear framework to begin with.

Step 2:

Start strong. If it’s a bank, a short statement about how important it is to have your money in dependable hands would be a great beginning. You want the point / name of the company / item to show up no later than 2 to 3 sentences in –

The future can hold a lot of uncertainty, which is why it’s important to do your banking with a proven name you can trust. Trustybank USA has been serving it’s customers for over 3,000 years with products such as …..”

(In this case, “Trustybank USA” is the name of the organization to be focused on. )

The splendor of nature can be found in the dance of butterflies over flowers, and now on your favorite shelf at home with the Butterfly Beauty art sculpture. This lovely rainbow-hued piece brings one of the most treasured heralds of spring indoors to be enjoyed….”

(In this case, “Butterfly Beauty” is the name of the item being showcased.)

Step 3:

It’s natural to run out of steam about 1/2 to 3/4 of the way through, especially if you’re just starting to write for money. Don’t get discouraged, just take a break from typing away and look at the product or website again with another round of scrutiny. Are there any features you may have missed that can be included in your project? Even something as simple as browser security or smartphone-enabled services can be turned into a very respectable 100-word block if you work at it a little. Are there guides or articles on the website about the subject? Be sure to point these out as well – they’re a great addition to the buyer’s list of benefits for visiting or using that item or page.

Step 4:

Glance through the piece, read it aloud, give it to a friend to look over – anything to run it through one last check before submitting it. Watch for words that may not be used correctly but will still make it through spellcheck – “He laughed at her hare, which was a real mess.” Your writing program probably won’t catch issues like homonyms.

Protip: Unless specifically requested, exclamation points should be used sparingly, if at all. As a culture, we don’t tend to shout in the middle of a conversational sentence, so the written word should reflect that as well.

Step 5:

Close on a strong note as well. Don’t trail off – readers of all varieties prefer a strong ending to sum up the story.

“If you want your financial security in the hands of professionals that care, open up an account at Trustybank USA today and start enjoying the benefits of better banking.”

This sort of phrasing is called a call to action, a term you’ll hear repeated throughout your time in the pro writing circuit. This is basically the communication of an idea that encourages the reader to do something – visiting a site, signing up for a newsletter, buying an item and so on.  

 

Step 6:

Send the client a message through your website’s messaging system thanking him or her for the opportunity to work for them. This step is, of course, optional but may very well lead to a series of privately assigned projects down the line for your polite eagerness.

 

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Freelance Writer Guide Chapter 5 – Selecting Projects

A man's hand and arm against a blue background, selecting a checkbox in a row of blank checkboxes.

“The difference between try and triumph is a little umph.”  – Anonymous

While a challenge may appeal to some writers, when consistent writing-for-pay is the goal, it’s best to keep your endeavors streamlined. For this reason, I highly recommend some prudent filtering of your available projects before sitting down to work – assuming there’s a list to choose from, of course.

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  • Projects that require language/grammar in a language that is not your own or unfamiliar to you. A good example would be a client’s request for “UK grammar” in a job being looked over by an American. Yes, there are spell checks and grammar checks, but it’s an added hassle you don’t need when you’re aiming for volume.
  • Projects that require html coding, pictures, or outside research that takes more than a minute per 100 words requested. You are a writer – don’t devalue your skills and inflate a demanding client’s expectations by being a coder, researcher and marketing consultant as well. This will only lead to difficulty saying “no” to harder projects down the line, and it incorrectly communicates to that client that they can obtain the services of an entire workforce from a single, often overworked, writer.  In rare cases, you can go a bit above and beyond, but always consider how much effort you’re putting in overall as compared to the pay you’re receiving. As a fellow writer once told me, “Don’t take projects with descriptions longer than the word count they’re looking for. They’re usually a pain!”
  • Projects from troublesome clients. These include clients with a history of rejecting work, which can be checked on certain sites, clients who email with increasing demands throughout the day, and clients that need “just one more tweak/extra words” after you’ve already given them several. Some of these potential problem customers won’t become apparent until after the job is underway – just finish up if you’re able to and block or blacklist them after. You don’t go out to dinner with someone you disliked on the first date, so use the same principles here and stand your ground. Protip: some clients may need to be “fired” to keep your sanity! The most valuable word you’ll learn to write is “no” when it comes to standing your ground. A polite refusal can be your most challenging work, but do      your     best not to burn bridges – even if they deserve it. A bad rep can get around in the writing world.
  • Projects with an unrealistic time frame. Only you know how quickly you can write, so use it as a guideline for accepting new projects. If you can only throw together a 300 word piece in an hour, taking a 2000 word project at 2 in the afternoon is probably a bad idea. Pace yourself – the more you write at a level you can handle, the more likely your skills will improve naturally.
  • Projects that don’t pay well. While this may seem like a given, many new writers are so eager to start that they’ll ignore the very reason they started on this path! In my personal  opinion, if you are a competent English writer that doesn’t make mistakes in spelling or grammar and has a good flow to the tone, or feel, of your work, you should always expect (and demand!) at least a penny a word.

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  • Projects about subjects you know. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that writing about places, events and objects you enjoy comes a little easier than struggling through ones you don’t. Stack the deck in your favor, here – if you see a project that appeals to you, don’t hesitate to grab it. Remember, you aren’t the only writer out there, so you’ll need to act quickly on desirable opportunities.
  • Projects with short, well-written explanations. This is usually a decent indicator that the client is fairly easy to deal with and understands what good writing is. As an aside, if you wonder why these seemingly talented writers aren’t penning their own stuff, it’s usually that they’re short on time or overloaded with their own work.
  • Projects that come in series, as opposed to one-offs. If you see several articles about car insurance up on a requesting site at the same time, it’s a safe bet that a single client is behind them. If you turn out well-written work for several of those pieces, approaching the client with your thank you letter after, there’s a good chance you can foster an ongoing work relationship. They obviously have a lot of work to give, so why shouldn’t you be the one to get it?
  • Projects with moderate time frames. While grabbing selections with the longest deadline may seem like a good idea, consider that a client has many different reasons he or she may put up a lengthy timetable. Yes, it may be that be giving the writer extra time to craft a great piece, but it also may be that they don’t log into your site of choice for days on end. Rent and bills don’t wait for money, and you shouldn’t – at least for longer than you have to.
  • Projects from proven clients. You’re expected to show that you’re a solid writer to remain competitive, and a good client will make themselves attractive to the prospective writer as well. If available, numbers like rejection rates, time as a member on the site and overall projects posted can be good earmarks for how reliable a client is. Protip: search for a potential client’s username in site forums to see what fellow writers might be saying about working with them.

 

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Freelance Writer Guide Chapter 4 – Choosing Sites

An open laptop computer surrounded by expanded screens of various website images.

One must work and dare if one really wants to live.” – Vincent Van Gogh

Project websites are the most powerful tool in the arsenal of a freelance writer. Generally, there are two types of sites where paying work can be found – the list sites and the bid sites.

List sites have, as is likely evident from the name, a list of various projects which freelancers can pick from. The projects may be divided into categories, such as “home” or “sports”, and may be further divided by writing skill level, a setting which new writers are tested for and sorted into. A level 3 writer, for example, would be able to pick jobs from levels 1, 2 and 3, while a level 2 writer would be restricted to jobs from 1 or 2 only. These ratings are usually awarded through an entrance exam given to new prospective site writers, or through continual editing of submitted projects. Some examples of list sites are ContentSumo.com, and WriterAccess.com.

Bid sites can be dizzying for new writers to navigate, which is why beginners would do best to stay to list sites in general. Bid sites, again, are fairly self explanatory. Clients place a project on the site with a detailed description, timeline expectation and budget, after which writers place a bid and hope to be chosen. The “winner” is entirely at the client’s discretion, though well-written bid notes that reference the specific project and offer an appealing timeline/cost are more likely to garner notice. Freelancer.com and ScriptLance.com are two examples of bid sites.

Protip: There are lots of foreigners on bid sites, which is one of the reasons they can seem extremely hectic and competitive. A closer look at their (usually extremely low) bids will usually reveal the same poorly worded cut-and-paste “greeting” for every project, regardless of the subject matter. Stand out from the overseas crowd by being original, well-spoken and interesting in your own bid.

If making money is your goal, don’t waste your time with “revenue sharing” sites, which solicit writers to provide the site with essentially free content under the guise of a cut of potential future advertising revenue. Recent updates to Google as a whole have made these sites all but obsolete as viable freelance options, and you’ll likely end up working for free, with the promised ad revenue never materializing. Hubpages.net and Squidoo.com are two examples of revenue sharing sites.

> SPECIAL NOTE 5/25/14: Site reviews now appear under the “Site Reviews” tab at the top of the screen on http://www.FreelanceWriterGuide.com. Thanks for reading!

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