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10 Warning Words and Phrases in Online Job Postings for Writers – A Guest Article

by Jonathan Cohen

Craigslist and other job posting sites (including Anne’s great site, right here) are useful ways to track down clients for freelance writing. As I review the dozens of postings every day, though, I’ve noticed a pattern. Over and over, posters are using words and phrases that I know from experience mean the project is probably trouble.

I’m going to share 10 of these red flags with you. Of course, your results may vary, but it’s been my experience that once you see any job post with these words or phrases, you should move on. Quickly.

1. It’s a small project.
They’d like you to think it’s a small project. In fact, clients who mention the words ‘small project’ without giving details often will give you endless revisions, or suddenly come up with a bit more work that needs doing.
2. I don’t have time to do this myself.
Everyone’s a writer – or so these clients think. These postings are by clients who’d like to think they’re great writers. They’ll happily show you how poor your writing is compared to theirs, and how they could toss the project off in an hour or so, if they had the time.
3. My life story/memoirs.
Usually misguided souls, who believe their life stories would make interested reading for anyone outside their friends and family. Expect them to be shocked when you quote a reasonable price for editing or ghostwriting a book-length manuscript. Also, many of these life stories involve the police and lawsuits, so beware of red tape, delays, and complications.
4. …
The ad is barely 10 words long. All they’ll tell you is that a writer is wanted now. If you’re lucky the client will say what kind of business they have and the type of writing they want from you. If they can’t spend an extra 15 minutes outlining your responsibilities for the project, they either a) don’t know what the project will entail, and you’ll find yourself a victim of a expanding project; or b) can’t be bothered to target their search for a writer. Either way, avoid.
5. Writters wantd!
Spelling and grammar mistakes abound in these postings. Again, the potential client couldn’t be bothered to write the ad in Word and check the spelling. Some of these clients may have poor English for various reasons. This means that the time you spend polishing up your documents won’t be appreciated. They’ll wonder why you’re taking so long.
6. Seeking ‘excellent’ or ‘great’ writers.
I saw this today on a Craigslist post, and laughed at loud. Does anyone think they’re a poor or mediocre writer? The client here is worried about poor writing quality, but isn’t equating being a good writer with being an experienced writer. If they want ‘excellent’ instead of ‘experienced,’ they’re not going to want to pay for experience.
7. If things work out.
Never work on contingencies. “What ifs” rarely work out to your advantage. If you’re unconvinced, multiply the prospective revenue from the gig by the probability things will work out.
For example, you might stand to make $500 ‘if things work out,’ but the likelihood of that happening is 50%. $500 * .5 = $250. Uncertainty has cut your potential earnings (and project or hourly rate) in half.
8. Looking for writers to work from home.
Scam, scam, scam. Freelance clients and employers who are seeking remote workers will state ‘virtual,’ ‘telecommute,’ or ‘remote.’ Many unsavory types prey on stay-at-home workers because jobs for that demographic are few and far between, and stay-at-homers, who often have medical, financial, or family issues, are pressured to find work.
9. We’re not sure what we want.
If they’re not sure what they want, how will they know what you give them is what they want?
10. Equity share/unpaid/great exposure/revenue-sharing.
Don’t work for free. Don’t work for an uncertain income in the future (see also item #7). If you’re going to write for no pay or ‘great exposure,’ please do everyone a favor and support your local charity’s marketing efforts. Writing for a site based on how they’ll perform in the future means your future revenues depend on how well the client markets the site.

Applying to jobs online means sifting through a lot of chaff to get to the wheat, but you can find rewarding, well-paying jobs. I wish you the best of success, and if you take nothing else from the article, remember: Never work for free, or on speculation.

Jonathan Cohen os a freelance writer specializing in marketing. He’s got lots of experience and some darn fine testimonials. 

{ 23 comments… add one }
  • I’m actually more leery of any request for 100% original samples than any ambiguity in what the client wants. I’ve gotten a few clients who only had vague ideas, and I helped them articulate that into something solid that we could agree on.

    I hammer out all the details I can beforehand, then send a sample early on in the work to make sure we’re understanding things the same way. So far, it’s worked out.

  • Great article. I had to find out the hard way, but a hard lesson is a lifelong tutor. Writers can feel uncertain especially after a few rejections or not enough work and what we all need to remember is that we worked and studied hard to achieve our expertise and we should always feel good about ourselves and charge what we are worth. Predators will always prey on insecurities, so go with the flow when things are rough, and know that you are good at what you do everyday. If you practice feeling worthy you will be appreciated as well as compensated.

    • Anne

      Feeling worthy, or learning to, is a great skill.

  • Right, Ron. I turned down a business plan writing gig at a fairly non-mediocre pay rate. It was obvious the business was döömed from just the draft material. It would have been a heavy-weight rewrite. Not my idea of fun, and I sure wouldn’t have put my own money into the business. There were some other flags, too. The original draft contained a disclaimer by whoever created it. Obviously, they were not thrilled about the project, either, and I had suspicions that they hadn’t been paid.

    But No. 5. (Writters wantd!) I’m not so sure about. If the client could write, he’d be doing the project him/herself, ja? And just because they can’t write, doesn’t mean they don’t know that there is such a thing as good writing, and value it. I can’t paint, but I appreciate Delacroix & al.
    .-= jorgekafkazar´s last blog ..Tenirax, Ch V =-.

    • Valerie

      Also on the ” Writters wantd” alert, I might add, whoever posted that might not be based in the U.S. but they might be from some other country overseas, fishing for whatever kind of writer they could get. Translated, that means there might be major cultural differences, and language barrier issues, which makes true communication between writer and client (which should be a two-way street) difficult. So the possibility of a misundertanding, which means the writer might not get paid for their work, is real.

  • All great points, Jonathan. I would only add that while you are correct almost all the time concerning numbers 1 (small project) and 6 (excellent writers), I don’t necessarily dismiss those out-of-hand. Sometimes the rest of the ad will provide details that confirm those statements as accurate and well intended.

    I’d also repeat a warning from an earlier comment on this site to avoid employers with flaky business models. Helping some con artist sell bogus diet pills or a “laws of attraction” book, for example, may earn you a few dollars, but you’ll repay that money in bad karma at some point.

  • Jacqueline Seewald

    This is an excellent article! You are telling the truth here. So many newer writers are naive. This will prove helpful.

  • Excellent article! It’s precisely for these reasons that I’ve become so wary of freelance writing ads on Craigslist. I just don’t have the patience to wade through all of the questionable postings.

    Liza R’s last blog post..Brought to you by the letter “F”

  • Thanks for the feedback, everyone 🙂

    One more I forgot – use of the word ‘student’ anywhere in the post. Students don’t need to be paid full wages/fees, do they? Of course not! When you read ‘student,’ substitute it with ‘pays Victorian-era wages’ and leave it at that…

  • Jillian Hahn

    I would urge everyone also to look out for posts that ask you to submit a “100% original clip”. Most of these people are just trying to get something for nothing. Why pay people to write for you when you have original clips coming in through your job ad? Anyone who is worth writing for should be satisfied with prior clips.

  • Thanks for compiling all the warning signs in one place! I’ll definitely refer to this as I look through Craigslist.

    My favorite poor grammar and spelling instance was a Chicago Craigslist post for an experienced PR person with industry contacts, “not someone new looking to build their roller decks.” I fell out of my chair laughing, and then I had to Google “roller decks.” They are like conveyor belts, generally used in shipping departments.

    Mitzi Wallace’s last blog post..The Cost of Doing Business

  • I’ve found that “stay-at-home mother” is always a red flag for low pay content mills.

    Also whenever a client stresses how fast you can do the work…. It’s $1/post, but if you can whip out 200 posts in an hour then you’re going to be RICH! Right.

  • admin

    Wow, all these comments kinda snuck up on me – thanks all. Any more examples we should know about?


  • Rebecca

    This post was great! I try to stick to the sites that guarentee pay (like oDesk) I also wanted to add, as I saw in a listing just today, the ones that state that they are “non profit” and want to “give you experience”, aka “we won’t pay you for all your blood sweat and tears”….do they really think they’re going to get quality writers to work for FREE???

  • Ha, well said, Jonathan. So true, especially the, “It’s a small project,” and the “If things work out…”

    *runs away screaming!*

    James Chartrand – Men with Pens’s last blog post..Drive-by-Shooting Sundays: The Antisocial Social Worker

  • George L Ghio

    Beaute article. Pity the ad placers never read such postings. I always us the same analysis when looking at ads.

  • Thanks fpr posting this! After reading this, I realize just how many of these lsitings I’ve seen and am now glad that I didn’t bother applying to most of them.

  • TMock

    Excellent article. I avoid all of these but sadly I know that many don’t.

  • Thanks for the heads up on seedy writing job leads.
    Makes it easier to know what to watch out for when applying.

    Michelle Kafka’s last blog post..Blog Action Day 2008 – Poverty, Island Whispers Blog

  • Natasha

    Thanks Johnathan! this is a great article that will help us experienced writers watch out for trouble in the future.



  • ‘Passionate writers wanted’ usually means you’ll be writing for love more than money.

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