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How to Know You Need a Bigger Shovel Or Spotting the Bad Job Listings

bigger shovel for freelance writing jobsBy Lori Widmer

Sometimes, they just make it easy for you. There’s the ad that offers you a whopping $4 an article or the one that will pay you $200 to edit a 50,000-word book. But sometimes the lousy job listings are masked with descriptors that, if you’re looking, can tip you off to a raw deal.

“Students encouraged to apply.” Nothing says “This is a crap job paying dirt wages” more than one that solicits to the college (or even high school) student. For who might be hungry enough/gullible enough to be underpaid than a student with mounting student loans? Any job that uses the word “student” in the same breath as “job” is a low-paying job that even self-respecting students should avoid. You’re worth more than that, even if they seem to think you’re not.

“It’s an easy job for the right person.” Translation: “We’re paying you for one hour of work at McDonald’s wages, so you’d better be quick, thorough and chances are slim you’ll see a dime.” This phrase is most often seen in an ad with….

… A long list of requirements you must meet. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – the longer the list of requirements, the lower the pay. If they want a college degree and ten years of experience and even expertise in the subject matter, you’re getting about 20 bucks an article.

“Work from home.” Yea, this is just as bad as “students are encouraged to apply.” For it is stating a benefit in return for grunt work. You get to stay at home! You don’t have to leave the house! Aren’t you grateful enough without pay?? No? That’s because you’re normal. I already work from home and I make a lot more than these people will ever offer.


“Pay is a percentage of ad revenue.” Let’s see…1 percent of nothing is….hmmm…not such a good deal after all. I’ve had Google AdSense on my site for a year or more. I’ve yet to see more than $5 in payout in over three years. So if you were working for ad revenue and the site does about as much business as mine … wow. Aren’t you glad you agreed to that?

“At the moment, we aren’t able to pay…” That’s funny… at the moment I’m not able to work for free. NEXT!

“I don’t have much to spend.” And what do you expect to get? While your honesty is appreciated, it’s no incentive for me to ignore higher-paying clients just because hey, you need help. I need help building bookshelves in my study, but somehow I don’t think you’d be up to helping if I were giving you just 20 bucks for the job. Am I right?

“We need a number of freelance writers.” Know what that means? Their writing budget is now stretched a number of times over. You’re not going to get a fair wage from someone looking for multiple numbers of writers.

“Startup” I’ve had other writers argue that they’ve had great success working with startups. That’s not been my experience. Having been involved in a number of startups that rarely launched completely, I can attest to the most common problems associated with them. Most often, it’s lack of clear organization, lack of steady work, lack of ongoing work and the folding of the startup – hopefully after you get paid.


“You must be available during the hours of 9 am to 5 pm by email, phone and IM.” This is not a sign of a low-paying job, but it’s a crap job nonetheless. Why? Because here’s a client who wants to treat you like a salaried employee, and wants to dictate the hours you must be available. That, my friends, is not a client. That’s a tyrant who doesn’t understand the definition of “freelance” versus “employee.” Educate them, but don’t work for them.

What tells you the job is a lousy one?

Lori Widmer blogs at Words on the Page. You can learn more about her at her business site, and if you want to follow her on twitter it’s: http://twitter.com/LoriWidmer

Two newsletters:
Abundant Freelance Writing – a resource for freelance writers including 3x a week job postings.
Writing With Vision – for those who want to get a book written.

Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 33 comments… add one }
  • Karlos

    I had to smile about the gifted kids story. Gifted learners are born not made–I have worked in the field for 20 years–but parents are willing to pay because they believe otherwise. As writers it’s easy to want to believe that the “jobs” will lead us to success even while squelching the little voice that says, “What? $5 dollars?” Yes, “Work from home” makes me laugh.

    I’m new to the game. These tips are terrific. One lure that I didn’t see here was “Be a part of our growing company.” I can visualize the size of the part. I just read a perfect quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb from his book “The Bed of Procrustes”: “You can only benefit people who think they can benefit from being
    convinced.” I might be convinced that I’m needed and then watch cheques come in with a single digit on the left of that wee dot. Thanks for your advice.

    • You’re welcome Karlos, stick around; glad you’re here.

  • Well said, Jodi! 🙂
    Lori recently posted..Monthly Assessment – July 2010My Profile

  • @Linda, I’m not Lori, but if you demonstrate that your work will bring new clients more than it’s costing them to hire you they’ll gladly pay it.

    For example, I just read an article which talked about parents paying $1,075 for workbooks, classes, and coaching to get their kids into a gifted kindergarten program! Those parents obviously believe that getting their kids enrolled in those classes will lead to admittance to the program, better education, better college, better job, etc. Thinking that way, the $1,075 is a bargain (for them).
    Jodi Kaplan recently posted..Why You Should ShareMy Profile

    • Anne

      Jodi… yikes… gifted kindergarten? Poor kids. None-the-less you’re point is well taken.

  • Thanks for a great article and discussion. About those rates — How are your rates holding up in the current economy? Having lost my almost full-time client and getting back in the game after a break (while pursuing my art career), I’m wondering if I can charge the same rates with new clients that I don’t know as well as I did my former main client. Any experience with that issue?

    • Linda, my rates went up and I’m busy. You absolutely can – and should – charge your current rate, if not higher depending on how long since your last raise.

      I think the thing is you need to aim a little higher up the food chain. If clients at your current level balk at the rates, that’s not your target audience. Go higher.
      Lori recently posted..Monthly Assessment – July 2010My Profile

    • Anne

      Linda, my experience is my income pretty much reflects my attitude, independent of what the economy may be doing.

  • Best article I’ve read on Anne’s site. Only thing I’d add to your very comprehensive list is to avoid projects that describe flaky business ventures. Not just the ones that don’t appeal to you (for instance, I’d never write for someone selling vitamins or aromatherapy products), but more those that make no economic sense.

    r

    • Good point, Ron. I had to turn down one of those. The principal had two half-ass business plans he wanted combined into one document. It really meant writing an entire business plan from scratch. This was specialist work and I was leery of taking on any potential liability. He was apparently trying to capitalize a venture to compete with well-entrenched existing internet businesses. He had virtually no chance of carrying out the plan, other than acquiring the initial capital.
      jorgekafkazar recently posted..Watcher in the Night decipheredMy Profile

    • Ron, great point. I had an offer once to help a guy write a book and win back custody of his kids. Uh, what? Naturally, I turned it down. But the weirdest was the ad asking for a person to write about swingers – a female. And she had to expect to participate.
      Lori recently posted..Monthly Assessment – July 2010My Profile

    • Anne

      Excellent Ron… when you can pry a marketing plan out of ’em and if they don’t have one, well get half up front at least.

  • Lori, thank you for the enlightening post.

    Here are a few more:

    “It will offer you great exposure.”

    “Competitive pay.”

    Listings that use caps (especially MUST) or act as if they are addressing children.

    Ones that stipulate a specific college degree or years of experience instead of asking to see your portfolio.

    Ads that say “lowest bid or rate” gets the gig.
    Steve Amoia recently posted..About My WorkMy Profile

    • One of my all-time biggest pet peeves, Steve – “exposure” offers. I wrangled with one unfortunate person once who offered me exposure. I answered that I do this for a living, not exposure. He made the mistake of trying to lecture me: “Do you know what PR – public relations – is?….” then went on to tell me how his site would help people find my site. Normally I ignore these little baits, but I couldn’t help myself. I said, “You found me just fine, so why exactly would I need your services?”

      And that competitive pay usually means you’re competing with every other writer on their list for ANY kind of pay.
      Lori recently posted..Monthly Assessment – July 2010My Profile

    • Anne

      Good list Steve, thanks. I’ve applied and gotten many gigs that require a degree – and I don’t have one. I just ignore that requirement and often it works.

  • KathleenL


    Great, poignant post Lori.
    So true and helpful to those starting up and getting their feet wet.
    Yet, not an overstatement to those of us with experience wanting to work either.

    I agree with Angie — I too require a 50% deposit from new clients with full payment due before I send them their work. And the same goes from some clients I have worked with before. On going work with trusted clients can be slightly different, but they all start out the same. And I send this to them in the first e-mails rates are discussed. That way I can tell them to reference the e-mail sent to the on XX date. It makes them pay up quickly especially when they want your services.

    As for the “I don’t have much to spend” — it depends on what kind of mood I am in… but sometimes I have been known to respond to the ad with “you get what you pay for and here is what I offer and what I charge”… reconsider. Okay, I do put the ‘reconsider’ in a polite way.

    I like the ads asking for a test edit of a chapter of their book… who do they think we are… hummm 10 chapters sent out to 10 would-be editors for their book. Ten “No I found someone else.” And the book is edited… inconsistently, but edited none-the-less.

    • Kathleen, LOVE the “reconsider” thought! I agree – if the mood strikes and the project is easier, I may negotiate, but it’s less likely as the career progresses. And yes, I’ve found exactly that with the “edit this chapter” tests. Ridiculous, but people fall for it because they have faith in others. I’m too cynical for that! LOL

  • Celeste

    So very true. I am also leery of the ones that do not have the $$$ in the ad. I have run into a string of them that have come back with the pay being $4/per 500 word article or less. I still email the ones that do not give a price and give them a link to my rates (cross my fingers and see what happens). Thanks for the article!

  • Right on!

    I saw one that not only wanted you to be available 9-5 but also insisted you had to respond instantly! Is there a ball and chain with that? What if I need a potty break? Or lunch? Or (heaven forbid) another client calls. Blech!
    Jodi Kaplan recently posted..Why Marketing is Like Ice CreamMy Profile

    • Are they kidding? Wow. I mean, obviously they’re not kidding. I had a job once in which I told the woman I’d be out for three days because of my kid’s graduation. Didn’t she call right in the middle of the party – on a Saturday – moaning because I wasn’t right there in front of my computer? This after having my completed assignment for a week and a half. I can’t repeat what I said to the answering machine. 🙂
      Lori recently posted..Why Writing is Sometimes Like Spaghetti SquashMy Profile

  • Great article! So many great tips on “what to look out for” when applying for jobs. Even though most of these seem obvious, it is good to be reminded of them once in a while!

  • Lori:

    So right on. The only other one I can think of are the ads that require you to submit “test” articles or whatever other descriptive form they use to indicate you write articles for free and if you “pass.” you get the gig. Uh, hello…portfolio…check it out.
    Cathy Miller recently posted..Add 3 Cups of Sharing and MixMy Profile

    • I wouldn’t pass because I’d expect to be paid for the “test” or I’d expect them to accept my published clips as proof of my skills. There’s no need for a test in most cases (editing may require one, but still you should be paid for it).
      Lori recently posted..Why Writing is Sometimes Like Spaghetti SquashMy Profile

  • Wendy

    Excellent article, Lori. You hit on all the best ones that I can think of. I can’t stand the work from home label. I think it should be banned. I don’t trust anyone that says work from home on a job ad, especially if it’s accompanied by 5 exclamation points. It doesn’t show professionalism. It ranks up there with the easy job one you have listed. I hate that too.

  • Right on Lori!

    Especially the ones who want to treat freelancers like employees — they really need to learn what the boundaries are (legally). When they’re prepared to pay you a steady salary, plus benefits, plus the employer portion of taxes, etc. then they can talk about required hours and when and where you must be to take their calls or IMs.

    I will say I’ve had a lot of luck with startups. However, many I work with are from serial entrepreneurs who already have a solid history and big enough budget to work with. For example, one client had me help him launch a social media blog (perfect since my NakedPR blog went into retirement and I had a great branding idea that we ran with). Another is a lawyer to develops sites on the site in that industry, and he periodically contacts me to handle the copy for his new startups (just did yesterday). Another is a financial-related company in Australia which also contacts me for their startup site writing. Love those projects. I’ve worked with completely new business owners too. But that’s why I charge up front — so I know it’s taken care of and they know that pay for having content or copy written pre-launch isn’t contingent on them actually choosing to launch. I had a client hire me for a white paper when they wanted to branch into a new vertical for example. They changed their mind. But I still got paid my full rates for the white paper, whether or not they ultimately use it. You can minimize the risk a bit if you get info on their history and bill up front (even just a portion if you’re not comfortable billing in full then).
    Jenn Mattern recently posted..Two Writers Leaving All Freelance WritingMy Profile

  • Awesome post – you’re right on with all of them, in my experience. I like that you included the “you must be available” part – I hadn’t thought of it like that, but you’re right.

    I have had some luck with startups, though, and I think it was due in part by having a 50% down payment and a stipulation in the contract that I’d receive the rest within 3 business days.

    One more I’d like to add is when the potential client can’t explain what they need to you in less than five minutes. I’m not talking about regular conversation and chit chat; I mean when they have difficulty expressing what they need. That doesn’t go away once you’ve started work – it sometimes gets worse, and you’ll have an extremely difficult time making them happy because they don’t really know what they want. I try to nail down the scope of their project within two minutes, and if they’re unsure, I try to help – but if they’re still unsure, I usually bail.
    Angie Papple Johnston recently posted..Are you floating or movingMy Profile

    • Angie, that’s the only way I’d work with a startup again – money up front. It’s too dodgy otherwise. I know other writers who have had great success with startups, but it’s not been my experience.

      You’re very right about the difficulty expressing themselves. I’ve had clients who say exactly what they think they mean only to change their minds once they see the result. That’s called another project and another fee.
      Lori recently posted..Why Writing is Sometimes Like Spaghetti SquashMy Profile

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