If your freelance life gives you nightmares, you might be chasing online writing jobs in some scary places. It’s a recurring problem I’ve heard from writers for years. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Do you go to sleep at night feeling good about your online writing work?
Or do you toss and turn, have nightmares about writing for pennies, and wake up in a cold sweat?
Being a freelance writer can be scary. So many online writing opportunities are out there beckoning you to walk down a virtual dark alley without a flashlight.
I’ve seen it happen. And heard too many nightmare tales from freelance writers.
Some shady online writing client lures you in like an unsuspecting victim in a horror movie. And before you know it, you’re hooked into writing copy for soul-sucking rates.
If you don’t want to be stuck in an online writing nightmare, beware of these four places in the Underworld of Freelance Writing 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 and get online writing experience,” I’m gonna scream. Why? This is what you get writing for content mills:
- Lazy writing habits. 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.
- Poor portfolio samples. 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 online writing clients. It’s the stuff freelance writing nightmares are made of.
- Experience that doesn’t count. 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.
- Frustrated and ripped off. 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. That can be terrifying. Don’t let this be you.
2. Revenue share sites
It’s a dying model. But there are still online writing sites that promise huge payouts if an article you write generates loads of traffic.
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.
The revenue-share model nightmare
Unless there is at least some guaranteed compensation, don’t fool yourself that this is an income-earning opportunity. It’s a scary way to try and 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. Demand Studios and Helium are just a couple examples of online writing platforms that have shutdown, crushing freelance dreams in the process. 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 or Upwork.” I get emails like this every day. “Do you think that’s a good option? All of the online writing jobs seem to pay 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 online writing gigs you don’t get, poor client communication because there’s an intermediary involved, generally low rates, and low regard for freelancers.
Too much competition = low rates
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.
Beware of scams and rip offs
It’s true that once in a while, a real client wanders on here who doesn’t know that Craigslist 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.
I recently 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.
The smart way to find online writing clients
If these are the worst places and you should avoid them, how do you get started or find online writing work that pays pro rates?
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 after coaching thousands of writers, it’s the only reliable route I’ve found to earning a substantial freelance income. Steer clear of clients in the Underworld of Freelance Writing. And put in the work to find your own clients.