… and how to avoid them (it’s simpler than you think)
On every online writer forum, you’ll find this inevitable question: “Is such-and-such a writing website a scam or a legitimate money-making opportunity for writers?” You’ve also probably heard stories about newbie writers who wrote for someone and never got paid, wrote a free sample article for a job poster and never heard back or were taken advantage of in some other way by a dubious client.
Perhaps the first step in avoiding the scammers that target freelance writers is to recognise the danger signs and be aware of the most common rip-offs. These include:
Writing for the exposure
Some websites will try to convince you that the opportunity to ‘increase your readership’, ‘build your brand’ or ‘reach a massive audience’ is compensation enough – you shouldn’t need something as tawdry as cold, hard cash as well.
Well, here’s the thing about exposure: you can get it just as easily by writing for money as you can by writing for free. In fact, becoming a well-paid, in-demand professional writer will garner more respect among genuine clients than someone who is so desperate for recognition, blog traffic or a by-line that they’ll give away their skills for nothing.
Yes, there are situations when writing for no pay can be worth it in the long run. Writing an engaging guest post (like this, for example) for a popular blog in your niche can reap huge rewards down the track if you’re selective enough.
The same applies to podcasts: when legendary US copywriting guru Ed Gandia invited me on as a guest for his high-profile podcast series, I jumped at the chance. I did it for the publicity (there was no payment) and because Ed is one of my copywriting heroes. Writing and spreading the word about what you do doesn’t always directly translate into money in your bank account – but do be careful about writing for free. Promises and ‘exposure’ don’t pay the bills.
Writing for a share of future profits
This old chestnut still gets trotted out regularly. Someone will ask you to ghost-write their epic fiction novel, offering a pittance in pay but a percentage of the profits. Alternatively, a budding Internet entrepreneur with ‘an amazing idea’ will ask you to create all his website copy in exchange for royalties when his creation goes viral and makes millions.
Run the other way when you encounter these ‘opportunities’ – if the client is so sure their book, product or service will be a runaway success, they should be confident enough to pay you the professional writing fee you deserve.
A variation on this theme is where someone tries to get you to work for a reduced fee on an initial writing task with the promise of higher pay for future work. Spoiler alert: this lucrative future work never eventuates.
Providing a free writing sample
This is incredibly common. An advertisement for a writer comes with a request to provide a custom-made writing sample to ‘prove you’re the right fit for the job’. You research, write, edit and supply the piece – then never hear from this person again. That’s because there never was an ongoing gig in the first place. They’re just aiming to get free writing from anyone gullible enough to send it to them.
Though I’m happy to provide writing samples to prospective clients, I’m normally paid for these. If a client wants to know more about my skills, experience and writing style, I direct them to the Portfolio page of my writer website, where they can see the sort of work I’ve done in the past.
Oh, about your fee…
The bait and switch ploy is another classic. You negotiate a price and conditions with your prospective client, sign a lengthy contract agreement and then spend tons of time and effort completing their project. When you turn in the copy, they pay you a fraction of what you thought you agreed to.
That’s because they told you one thing and put something else in the contract, which you foolishly signed without carefully reading the fine print.
Handshake agreements mean nothing, so never enter into them. Make sure you read every word of any agreement before you take on a job. And if your client is reluctant about putting things in writing, that’s a massive danger sign. Find a different client.
The blatant non-payer
You complete the work, send an invoice and wait. Then you send a friendly payment reminder and wait some more. Months later, you still haven’t been paid and it doesn’t look like you ever will be. Where did you go wrong?
You went wrong by not asking for a deposit up front before starting work. No genuine, professional client will ever balk at the idea of a deposit of 25-50% of the total fee – this is the industry standard. By asking for a deposit, you’ll weed out 95% of the wrong types of clients.
Many writers shoot themselves in the foot by writing for anybody who comes along. Be picky. Carefully screen the clients you take on. If you have any doubts at all, charge them the full fee before commencing work.
Charging a fee to access a job list
If a job-listing website asks you to pay a fee to access their opportunities, look elsewhere. There are plenty of websites that provide lists of the latest available freelance writing jobs for free (freelancewritinggigs.com and the problogger.com job board, for example). You don’t need to pay to join some ‘secret writing jobs club’ to find work.
The writing project with no end
Beware the writing task with no definite deadline. One way clients might avoid paying for work is to keep putting off the endgame. This might come in the form of endless revisions or other protracted delays, in the hope that you’ll reduce your rate to get the darn thing finished off or give up entirely on trying to collect your fee.
How to protect yourself against writing scams and dodgy clients
I certainly don’t want to give aspiring writers the impression that every other client is trying to take advantage of them. That’s not the case at all. Every one of the writing clients I’ve worked with over the past few years has been honest, professional and downright awesome. But bad apples do exist – and the more desperate for work you are, the more vulnerable you become.
Fortunately, there are some simple ways to thwart just about every writer-focused scam out there. Here are my top tips:
Stop looking for writing work on content mills, bidding sites and low-pay job boards
Is writing site A better than writing site B? Answer: they’re both a financial dead end, folks. When I first started my copywriting business in 2013, I had a brief flirtation with a couple of writing-as-a-commodity websites. I quickly realised I was never going to make a living wage as a writer that way. So I ditched all these bottom-of-the-barrel opportunities, created my own writer website and started pursuing my own clients, mainly through cold emailing.
As a result, I went from zero clients to earning more than $7000 per month within my first six months – and it has snowballed from there. Last year, I had my most lucrative 12 months ever while spending a third of the year travelling the globe.
Don’t waste your time writing for pocket money on writing sites – go after the specific, high-paying clients you want to write for and contact them yourself. That magical writing website that (a) offers steady work, (b) pays well and (c) values your unique skills is a complete fable – it doesn’t exist.
Always get everything in writing
You can opt for a full-on contract or just have clients put something like ‘I agree to the terms and conditions of this quotation’ in their reply email when you send them your detailed quote. Whichever method you use to ‘seal the deal’, make sure both parties understand exactly what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen and how payment is going to be managed. Clarity is king.
Do you have a limit on revisions?
In my experience, if you’ve asked the client all the right questions, gathered as much relevant material as they can provide and spelled out how you’re going to approach the writing task, revisions will usually be minimal and fairly painless.
On my website, I stipulate that two free rounds of revisions are included in the price, with any additional revisions charged at a set rate. This encourages clients to ‘revise it right’ the first and/or second time, rather than making the project an endless tweak-fest of the copy.
In practice, I don’t really enforce this too harshly because I can appreciate that some projects are more complex than others and I want the client to be 100% happy with the end result. The main reason some writers end up doing endless revisions is because they don’t fully understand the client’s needs from the get-go. When in doubt, ask more questions. I never start a writing job until any confusion (on either side) is resolved.
Get a deposit before you write a word
Don’t provide your professional services ‘on spec’ – ask for some money up front. This provides an immediate incentive to get moving on their job and also shows you they’re a serious client. If you want to break payment into milestone increments, that works too. You could charge a third of the total as a deposit, another third upon delivery of the first draft and the remainder upon completion.
Don’t provide free writing samples
This is a good general rule to follow but use your own judgement. If a reputable company wants a small sample of your writing, you may feel it’s worth your while to provide one. Normally, your portfolio of previous work should be enough to showcase your skills.
Be wary of brand new ‘wannabe entrepreneur’ websites that ask for free (and suspiciously specific) writing samples – they may happily take your words, use them on their site, pay you nothing and say ‘see you later, sucker’.
This also applies to supplying free editing work. Yes, it’s perfectly reasonable for a client to want to see how good your editing skills are, but be aware that scams abound in the editing/proofreading realm as well.
In my early days, I saw an ad on Linkedin for an editor, with steady work promised. Once you provided your email, this client would send you a page of writing which you were then meant to edit ‘as a test’. I sent my email and soon received my page of writing, which was close to unrecognisable as English. It had obviously been created with ‘spinning’ software and the atrocious English barely made sense.
I was also perplexed about how this job poster (with English as her second language) was qualified to determine whether a native English speaker’s editing skills were up to scratch! It turned out others had applied as well and all reached the same conclusion – it was a simple scam to suck unsuspecting people into providing free editing. There was never a paying editing position.
Go after your preferred clients – don’t wait for them to come to you
I choose most of my writing clients. I target the niche, company or industry I want to write for and approach the appropriate person directly: the digital marketing manager, CEO, communications director or whoever is in charge of hiring writers. If you use the scattergun approach to looking for work instead, you’re bound to end up with some duds eventually!
A great client is worth their weight in gold. There are plenty of them out there if you know where to look (and if you don’t, this eBook will help). When it comes to freelance writing opportunities, the age-old advice still applies: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Kevin Casey is a professional freelance writer and author of The Jet-setting Copywriter: How to Fund All Your Overseas Adventures through Freelance Writing.