Tweaking pitches to editors grows exhausting, so someone offering work feels like a gift. That is the appeal of online ads calling for writers. So is their availability: A freelancer can fill an entire day’s work just applying for gigs on sites of varying reputes.
Think of online ads as walking through a city at 2 a.m. Some neighborhoods radiate youthful fun; others have a winding-down, sip a scotch-and-soda at the bar vibe. Too many teem with sketchy characters that have you patting your pockets for your phone and wallet.
Consider this column a guide for navigating this sprawling pseudo metropolis. My qualifications? For nearly 10 years, I have consulted online ads. I’ve landed fun, financially rewarding jobs – and one that concluded with me going David Mamet on a late-paying, shiftless client.
How do you minimize aggravation? Look for these warning signs.
Red flags for “writers wanted” ads
1. Sky-high standards from the employer
In February 2015, I came across an ad looking for two- to three-thousand word posts that must “be of extremely high quality, full of research and lots of examples. Every claim you make has to be backed up by research, test[s], and evidence. New Yorker style thoughtful posts welcome too.”
The posts were, I believe, $75 a pop – for a chiropractic practice in Austin, Texas.
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the job post that nearly drove me to the priesthood.
2. Lousy pay
Or, increasingly, no pay. Avoid any listing that uses variations of these phrases, which make professional writing sound like you’re clothing the poor:
“It’s a great opportunity to build your portfolio.”
“We’re just getting started, but we’re hoping to pay our contributors soon.”
“The exposure you’ll get writing for us is invaluable.”
“You’ll get experience writing for editors who care about your work.”
Also, run from any ad that offers services in lieu of payment. I came across one copywriting ad recently for a salon that offered manicures as compensation. That’s great for an octopus – and nobody else.
“Good pay” is open to interpretation. Vince Guerrieri, a veteran Ohio newspaper reporter who has contributed to POLITICO and Ohio magazines, wrote his first book (Ohio Sports Trivia) thanks to an online ad he answered. The pay was below his standards, he said, but it opened doors – and inspired him.
“It was a calculated risk,” he says. “Once I wrote that and I went, ‘Wow, it’s not that hard.’ Maybe I should do another one, and I did.”
When it comes to an acceptable rate, Guerrieri has a rule. “You don’t want to devalue or undervalue the work you do,” he says. “So you try to find the rate that is enough to make it worth your while.” You can go a little lower, he adds, but “it’s got to be something you enjoy.”
3. Sketchy details
“You get a lot where it’s ‘company confidential’: they want to know a lot about you, but they don’t want you to know anything about them,” says Stephen Silver, a Philadelphia-based entertainment and technology writer who regularly looks for work online.
Ideally, the ad will contain a contact person who has a corporate email address as well as a clear description of the job that doesn’t read like it was scribbled during the morning commute. Even better, the ad describes what the company does – and has a link to a functioning website.
Always visit the website. “You get a sense of whether this is a professional operation or not, is it trustworthy or not,” Silver advises.
4. A daunting application process
“Please send a cover letter explaining why you’re the right fit, an updated resume, six clips, five references, an original sample article, your first report card, a unicorn’s horn, a VHS copy of The Day the Clown Cried, your spouse’s measurements, a completed crossword puzzle from this week’s New York Times Magazine, and a self-addressed stamped envelope in a hot air balloon to…”
When you freelance, time is money. If applying for a job gobbles the time you spend writing or pursuing leads, look elsewhere.
5. Unacceptable compromises
When New Jersey-based freelancer Melissa Kvidahl first started, she sought work through online ads. That ended quickly.
Too many listings, she said, sought a part-time employee on site or a full-time employee to work remotely. Those qualifications conflicted with two reasons why Kvidahl wanted to freelance: having a flexible schedule and working from home.
Plus, the listings were frequently from employment agencies. “I can find work myself,” she says. “Why should I go through this agency? A lot of the appeal is getting through the red tape, so why would I introduce red tape?”
6. Internal desperation
Moving on isn’t just OK; it’s advisable. If you don’t adhere to your standards, you will adhere to someone else’s.
Remember that job I mentioned earlier, the one that had me parting ways with my client via screaming match? I took that gig because I had been without a substantial source of income for nine months. It was so nice to hear anyone say “yes” that every red flag I saw turned green.
And I raced right into a wall – for almost a year. I ignored bounced checks. I accepted more work for less pay. I’m afraid my idiocy ran deep.
7. Only looking at online ads
At the time, I saw online ads as the way to get the most work quickly. They should have been part of an attack that included crafting individualized pitches, building contacts through social media, and writing to former editors and colleagues. That’s the approach I currently use. I’m personally connected to someone instead of participating in a daily, employment-influenced Hunger Games.
Look at Kvidahl: emailing contacts from her trade magazine days launched her freelance career. Plus, she didn’t have to scream to get heard.
Pete Croatto’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and The Christian Science Monitor. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
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