The 4 Worst Places for Freelance Writers to Start

four white eggs with faceIt can be confusing, being a new freelance writer. So many websites and ads promise great opportunities for writers!

Yet so many writers are broke.

Why is this happening? It’s because many new freelance writers don’t have the lay of the land. They don’t have a road map to know how to find or pitch good-paying clients. Instead, they do a Google search for writing opportunities and end up wandering into a bad online neighborhood.

I think of these time-and-money sinkholes as the Underworld of Freelance Writing. It has four main chambers.

Writers often think switching to a different site in one of the chambers, or switching from one chamber to another, will improve things. Then, they’re frustrated when there is little improvement in their income.

Let me give you a quick tour of the Underworld’s four types of websites that are guaranteed to put your writing career on the road to nowhere:

1. Content mills

If I see one more self-appointed “expert” tell writers that content mills are a “great place to start out,” I’m gonna scream.

Content mills teach you to write quickly slapped-together junk that no one wants to read. You learn lazy writing habits. You frequently wind up with nothing you’d be proud to put in a portfolio.

Mills’ crappy reputation could actually damage your chances with many legit magazines and other good markets. Meanwhile, pay is so low you have to write constantly just to survive, and never have time to do marketing to find better clients.

The type of writing you do for content mills bears little relationship to the writing any good-paying client would want of you. I’ve seen writers say their mill work gave them practice, built confidence, and helped them find their voice. You can do that on your own blog, or writing for your local newspaper, too — and you’ll get clips you can use to get better gigs.

They also have rules that change often, and editors who are often capricious and/or nasty. They can bar you from the site for random stuff they decide. Don’t give any site this much power over your career — especially one that pays $20 per piece or less.

I’ve mentored too many writers who wasted years on mills, only to discover that if they want to earn more, they’re starting from scratch building their career. Don’t let this be you.

2. Revenue share sites

These are much like content mills, except that instead of guaranteed low pay, you don’t know what you’ll get paid — but it will likely be less than you need for gas this month. It all depends on how many eyeballs or ad-clicks your pages draw, depending on the particular site’s pay plan.

Unless there is at least some guaranteed compensation, don’t fool yourself that this is an income-earning opportunity for a freelancer looking to pay the bills. Revshare is for hobbyists, and the owners of revshare sites have told me as much. Don’t pretend this is a place where you could create retirement income that will keep paying you for years to come.

First off, because there’s no viable business model here, these sites close down on a regular basis — just like Helium recently did. Second, many of them stop paying you when you stop regularly writing for them.

As far as reputation and building a portfolio here, see #1.

3. Bid sites

“I just signed up on Freelancer.com,” one writer emailed me this week. “Do you think that’s a good option? All of the jobs on offer seem to be for frightfully low wages.”

Welcome to the race-to-the-bottom world of bid sites. Yes, you might occasionally find a decent job here. But problems include too much time spent bidding on gigs you don’t get, poor client communication because there’s an intermediary involved, generally low rates, and low regard for freelancers.

The model of competing against every other writer in the world for the same gig is not going to bring you happiness, my friend. Your dream gig is not sitting on a mass freelance platform’s dashboard waiting for you — not as long as someone in Malaysia or Kenya or somewhere is willing to do it for $5, and has access to the same clients you do.

4. Craigslist ads

I know many writers who consider their marketing work done if they’ve checked Craigslist for writer job ads this week. Sure, most of the ads they never heard back on, and the ones they do are offering peanuts — or are outright ripoffs. But hey, they’re so easy to check! Listings in every city, too.

It’s true that once in a while, a real client wanders on here who doesn’t know that Criagslist is a cesspit for freelance scams. But the huge amount of time you’ll spend mining for those few tiny gold nuggets means it’s not worth the effort.

This week, I mentored one writer who reported she’d been ripped off and never paid for her writing work no less than five different times, doing gigs she got from Craigslist ads. It shouldn’t take this many bad experiences to realize this isn’t a useful place to find good writing gigs. It’s mostly a waste of time.

Ready to kick the habit? Take my 1-month “no-Craigslist challenge.” It works like this: You may not look at Craigslist ads for 30 days.

You’ll have to take action to find clients, rather than responding to mass job ads. This is so much more effective, I’ve rarely seen a writer who takes this challenge go back to checking Craigslist.

What to do instead

If these are the worst places and you should avoid them, how do you get started as a freelance writer?

It’s simple. You want to write for successful magazines (yes, plenty of them still exist), or successful businesses that sell a real product or service in the real world. Ideally, they’ve been around a few years.

Yes, this means doing some research to find clients, and then doing proactive marketing — going to a networking event, sending an email, making a phone call, getting on LinkedIn. And that can be scary. I know.

But in over six years of coaching thousands of writers, it’s the only reliable route I’ve found to earning a substantial freelance income. If you’re serious about making freelance writing your main source of income, best get started on it.

What do you think are the worst places for freelance writers? Leave a comment and share your view.

Freelance writing success

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