Monday, February 4, 2008

Bad Writing Gigs: Tell 'Em Where To Stick Their "Exposure"

Last week I did a lot of poking around the job boards during a slow period--which is over now; I'll barely have time to blog this week--and I came across a lot of ads for scamtastic writing jobs. A few months ago I wrote a post on when writing for free might be a good idea, but it's usually not. After reading all these terrible offers on job boards, I've had it up to my ears with scam artists looking for freebies. So here you are: a list of things people will offer you to write online instead of cash, and why they're not worth your time.

Writing for Exposure: In Most Cases, a Total Waste. You've probably seen plenty of those job ads from people looking for free writing. "We can't afford to pay you," they say. "But we can offer you exposure." These job postings always annoy me--because I know that the people posting them are looking to take advantage of writers, and because I know there are writers out there who don't see these postings for the scams they are.

When you're writing for free, you have to consider what, exactly, you're going to get out of it. And when you write for "exposure," what are you hoping to be exposed to? What do you want to get from this gig, if not money? A website that really can offer you great exposure can probably afford to pay its writers, too.

A lot of writers are tempted by these gigs because they have an idea that some editor for some well-paying magazine will spot their article and fall in love with their writing style. But that's absolutely not going to happen. Editors for successful magazines don't troll around the Internet looking for the next big star. They're getting hundreds of query letters from professionals every day. They don't have time to look for you.

Writing for a Share in Profits: Good Luck. I saw a few employers dangling shares in their website's eventual profits in order to get free work. I don't know any writers who've earned decent money from a share of somebody's website profits. Think of it this way: the vast majority of new websites do not become high ranking or receive enough traffic to actually make a lot of revenue. For each website that succeeds, there are probably dozens that flop. There is absolutely no guarantee that there will be any profits to share. No self-respecting website designer, graphic designer, or SEO professional would ever take a job with the promise of "a cut of the profits" instead of a normal fee. Why should writers?

Writing for Pay-Per-Click Sites: Earn Pennies Per Page. The problem with websites that offer a share in advertising revenue is that they don't promote the content: they expect you to take care of that. If you do this really well, you might earn something like five or ten bucks over a period of months. If you just want to write the piece and forget about it, this type of earning stream isn't for you.

Take Associated Content, for example. At this point, they pay $1.50 for every thousand page views your article attracts. And if you think a thousand page views comes easily--even on a well-established site--think again. I've published two articles there so far and have done nothing to promote them. They've been up for several months now; they've had about 110 page views altogether; and I've earned a grand total of seventeen cents through PPM. It's not realistic to expect to receive a decent wage for your writing through these sites, unless you work really hard to promote your writing--and if you're successful at doing that, you should be promoting your own website, not theirs.

Writing for the Promise of Paid Work: Don't Hold Your Breath. I've also seen some job postings that say something like "we can't pay you right now, but we'll have a lot of paid work in the future and we're looking for just the right partner" or even asking for a custom-crafted writing sample in your application. They might promise paying work later if you work for free now--but that work is not going to materialize. Ever.

Here's why: when you work for free, you teach your clients that your work isn't worth money. You show them that they don't have to pay you. Why would they pay you--or anyone--when this is work they can get for free? I wouldn't pay for something if I could get the same thing for free somewhere else. Would you?

Taking writing gigs like these doesn't just hurt your own career. It also hurts the freelance writing industry as a whole. As this great article in Writers Weekly says, freelance writing fees have declined by 50% since the 60's. And a lot of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of people who think a byline, "exposure," or some sort of shaky profit-sharing scheme is worth working for.

If you're a beginning freelancer looking to make a start, don't take these gigs. If you won't do it for your own bank account, do it for the rest of us. Someday, you want to make a career at this too--and if you keep working for free, there may not be any paying clients left.


Anonymous said...

Ah...I remember the time an old boss who had struck out on his own offered me a "job" where i would be "paid" by a share in profits. ("Profits.") I had been burned by him in the past (another startup venture that never turned profitable), and I can't believe he had the gall to try again.

This post is so true. We're only shooting ourselves (and others) in the foot if we settle for such poor excuses for payments.

winterizing said...

So Jennifer or anyone who knows can you please answer this question. Is writing a blog for revenue sharing the same thing as writing for a share of the profits? Sadly, I think so. Does anyone recommend this route?

Anonymous said...

Do you think it is worthwhile to write for Associated Content if you get the upfront payment?

I've published one article there for which I was paid $6.00 upfront. It's been up for a little under a month and has had 171 page views.

It was on a topic that I was researching for my own personal knowledge so I'd have spent the research time regardless. It took me less than an hour to write the article.

Still, $6.00 doesn't seem worthwhile except to get some practice writing.

Anonymous said...

An excellent posting! When I was a pup, I worked for a wise and experienced photographer. Occasionally, we'd get one of these clients who were looking for a handout. "Give me a break on the first project," they'd say, "I've got lots more work where that came from."

The photographer's response: pay me full price for the first project, and I'll give you a break on the rest. Needless to say, we never got a single taker.

As for exposure, there are lots of other ways for an unpublished writer to get into the public eye. Hmmm, let's see... how about starting a blog? ;-)

Anonymous said...

"A website that really can offer you great exposure can probably afford to pay its writers, too."

Hear, hear! And think about it: what are the chances a Web site really does have "great exposure" if it's not even well developed enough to have its content in place already?

While I don't bill myself primarily as a writer, I do some writing through my virtual assisting company. I frequently receive e-mails that are very similar in their promises. The only difference is they are targeted VAs instead of writers. Suppose they're the same few "employers" selling identical swill to a thousand different industries?

Anonymous said...

What about taking these gigs to build portfolios?

Many upstart freelancers would often have the Catch-22 of: I need a portfolio to get assignments, but I need assignments to build a portfolio.

Should this be one allowable scenario?

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Stephanerd: Yep! It really bothers me that people think writers should do their jobs for free, too. I've heard that in Silicon Valley there's this big idea that all information (read: all writing) should be free, and people should just make a donation if they like it. Or maybe some really generous webmaster will give you a cut of the Adsense revenue--but I doubt it. How many Wikipedia authors get a cut of the site's revenue, honestly? Good luck.

@Twilightme: Yep, I think so. I've never done it, but from what I've heard from writers who do, the pay is more in line with what you'd get from Associated Content or something than what an actual client should pay.

@Andrea: No, I don't. I got something like $7 each for those articles I wrote up front in addition to the (whopping) sixteen cents I earned through traffic--far less than I'd charge to write them for a client. Find good clients and write for them. Don't bother with AC.

@Bill: Wow, I guess it's not just writers. Still, I have a feeling these offers come along primarily for creative people--could you imagine someone making this type of offer to a stockbroker or contractor?

@Annalisa: Probably. The sad thing is that they probably get a lot of responses to these ads, so they keep using them.

@Mathew: There are better ways to build portfolios. That website looking for free writing in trade for "exposure" could very well be offline next month; then you've got a dead link on the web instead of a portfolio piece. Online clients know what an article directory looks like and know that they usually don't have high standards; you might have written a piece on bowling or something and published it on Article Alley, but it's clearly not client experience. The idea with portfolio samples is to make it look like you have experience working with clients as a pro--not that you're an amateur working for free.

If you're going to go this route to get portfolio pieces, my advice is to not make it obvious that's what you're doing. I wrote a newsletter for Houghton Mifflin, my previous employer, for free while I worked there (well, I was on salary--but I didn't charge extra for the newsletter). It was published in hardcopy with nice graphics and the Houghton Mifflin logo on it--it looked like a client piece. That's the type of writing you want to do for free to build a portfolio, in my opinion--pieces that look like someone paid good money for them. If you can't find a company or nonprofit who wants your help, write some pieces yourself that showcase exactly what you want to show off.

Anonymous said...

I took a "revenue sharing" job once - my very first. I also started up two of my own blogs where I was able to feature my work.

Less than two weeks later I was able to parley that "freebie" job into a paying one and I have never looked back.

I do believe in getting those first important credits on your resume. I even advocate doing things for free to get there. But once you have three or four, move on, get paid!

Serious writers don't take those sorts of jobs. I really think it evens out on a sliding scale. Clients that are OK with sub par work pay poorly. So let the sub par writers and fresh new faces give them their free content.

Clients that want stellar content are always willing to pay for it, so stellar writers step up. It all comes out in the wash, and you absolutely get what you pay for!

Matthew C. Keegan said...

Jennifer, all of these ploys are geared toward hooking in new writers. For those of us who have been writing for awhile and getting paid for our work, passing them by is a must.

On the other hand, the gall of some employees humors me!

Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

Oh yeah, there's nothing like a slump to illuminate just how bad most of the writing "jobs" out there are! Sadly, I have to admit that when I first started out, I did some editing for a vanity publisher that paid in percentage of profits. That ended up earning me about $1/hour. The only good thing that came out of it was a resume booster. I did go on to land a lot of well-paying editing jobs, so I like to think of the experience as an unpaid internship. It still leaves a REALLY sour taste in my mouth, though.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Connie: A lot of writers try these at least once or twice. I did too, and while I do think working for free might occasionally benefit you if you need to build a portfolio, that article in Writers Weekly I cited also says there are clients who are willing to hire writers with no clips (scroll down to the bottom of the article for a link to a job posting site). Beginners should know that even if you don't have clips, you can still get paid to work.

@Matt: How true! Some people who want to be writers but have never considered it as a business think it's all about fame and "getting your name out there." Which isn't necessarily bad, but as Bill said above, if you want to do that you're usually better off building your own website and blog.

@Kathy: Those profit sharing jobs are rarely the road to riches--as I'm sure you learned after that experience. Only real, paid jobs will pay the bills--end of story.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Writer's Weekly link, it did have a nice list of paying positions.

I really think some of the miscommunication comes from people not realizing that there are paying jobs available to beginning writers.

If I had known that, It's doubtful that I would ever have given my work away.

However I think there is another segment of the writing population that undervalues themselves to the point of writing for pennies. This I do not understand. I think they end up getting what they deserve though - they get stuck in low paying gigs forever.

As to driving the price down for the rest of us, maybe they are. The internet is still an emerging market.

Eventually that will even out and I think the quality writers will rise to the top and continue to be paid what they are worth. At least I hope so, because there is very little I can do to keep someone else from working for pennies or "exposure!"

Unknown said...

AMEN! I'm linking to you, toots.

Anonymous said...

Right on!

If you're going to work for free, take on your favorite foundation or non-profit, a cause in which you believe, as a pro bono client. You have passion for the work; they appreciate it; you get good clips and content out of it and can parlay it into decent paying work from other organizations.

You're giving back and moving forward at the same time.

Also, do NOT write "samples" geared to a writing job without pay. If they can't tell from your clips if your writing's what they want . . .don't get me started. If they want content or samples or anything geared to their business, they pay for it.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Connie: I did a few things for free just starting out--for a nonprofit, my then-employer, and my dad's business. But it's not the only option for beginners, and I think a lot of people don't realize that. Look for those paying jobs first.

@Lori: thanks for the link love! Always appreciated!

@Devon: I definitely support writing for free for a cause. I've donated my time to a few nonprofits, and I'm not sure but I think this may be a tax write-off too (it was towards the beginning of my career and it didn't occur to me to check at the time). And as for free samples--my feeling on those is that businesses don't need them to tell whether or not you can write, and I suspect most people who ask for them are trying to get free content they can use later.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Jennifer!

I almost took a job with a web publishing company only to find out six months later that they had fired most of their writers and were buying articles for as little as $16 each from one of these content companies. Sadly, many companies are looking for content. It has to be cheap, not necessarily good quality.

I decided right then and there that I will only write for a decent wage or I will volunteer my services for a charity. There is no inbetween.

Star Lawrence said...

You tell it, sister! I write scoldie letters to those "exposure" offerers and say, "Exposure is illegal in most states." These are the fly-by-nighters crawling out of Craigs. Anyhow, in an attempt to restore respect to this profession, a colleague and I created Writer's Catablog. Our spokesdog Scribbles also insisted on blogging. Come get a laugh, as if these employers aren't comedic enough. Cheers--Star Lawrence

Anonymous said...

As the MD of Sticky Content Ltd, which has employed a large number of PAYE and freelance digital writers over the past ten years, I was really happy to be directed to your post by
which mentioned both of us in the same article (I blogged about how underrated professional digital copywriting is at

I fight the good fight against clients who undervalue digital copy all the time. For example, on many web design projects, we are called in just days before launch, to shove some text into a design and build that has often been going on for 6-12 months. In fact, a friend of mine brought me back a T-shirt from the US which simply reads COPY GOES HERE, printed by a similarly disgruntled NYC copy agency.

What you experience as freelancers (and I'm an ex-freelance journalist myself) is a micro version of what we experience as a digital copy agency all the time. Website owners don't just undervalue writing, they often simply don't even consider it in the same breath as design and technology.

And yet - and this is the point of my econsultancy post - I can give many examples of where well-written text, which follows good web writing and marketing copywriting principles, has transformed the usability and/or effectiveness of a website.

I think it's up to all of us who know how easy it is to write badly - and how hard it is to write strong, disciplined marketing copy - to keep on raising this issue until something shifts.

Recently we trained 200 print journalists at a big publishing house in the specialism that is web copywriting. It struck me as we were preparing the course how much web copywriters have to think about before they write.

Not only must we be engaging, accurate, on brand and get our messaging right, we also have to write usable, accessible, search-friendly copy which is scannable at speed, interlinks and is correctly titled and tagged. And for that level of expertise the rates begin at NOTHING??

Jennifer Williamson said...

Catherine: Thanks for stopping by! It's absolutely true--a lot goes into successful web copy, and it's not unusual for clients and customers not to realize it. I do mostly web copy, and I speak to a lot of prospective clients who believe that web writing is "no big deal" and is a last-minute add-on.

The thing is, you're right--the Internet is all about words. A page of text, written well, might sell a lot or it might sell a little--but a pretty picture won't sell anything without words describing the offer. It's up to all of us to keep that selling proposition in mind.