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In September I bought an “Individual” membership plan on Elance. The cost was $9.95 and with it I received 20 bright and shiny proposal credits. When you bid on jobs at Elance it costs you anywhere from 1-3 of these juicy credits (Elance actually calls them “connects” but I'm going to continue to call them credits because...well...that's what I think they should be called). A free membership gives you 3 credits per month but I decided to go balls to the wall for this trial.

With my 20 credits I bid on 16 different jobs. I scored 3 of them for a total of $1,265 worth of work. I bid with rates that were well below my normal rates and got between .04 and .10 per word. I probably should have been more aggressive when bidding just to see what would happen, but I wasn’t. My main goal was to make sure I averaged about $40 per hour writing 1,000 or fewer words because that makes me feel a little bit less like a factory assembly line.

The Gig Scoring

The key to getting gigs on Elance seems to be staying within your proven specialty. What do I mean by proven specialty? I mean the specialty that you can prove you specialize in. Oh, you know exactly what I mean. You can prove it through clips, overall experience in the subject matter, education, certificates…you know…proof.

The proposal that I used for each of the gigs was the same—I know most people suggest that you don’t do that but when I find something that works I tend to stick with it. I only changed the last paragraph to individualize it for each job. My proposal outlines my experience in the financial industry, some of my credits within the industry (licenses, speaking engagements, etc.) and then discusses my writing experience in that industry.

I made sure that the last paragraph (the one I personalized) illustrated a good understanding of what the job posters were looking for and mentioned the reasons I was a good fit for the job. Finally, I attached samples that matched the type of writing and subjects they wanted and a copy of my resume.

The Work

The work was not comparable to the work I do outside of Elance. I don’t know if this is an Elance issue or just an issue with the jobs I went after, but all the clients seemed way more nervous on Elance than any I've encountered outside. Normally, when a company contacts me to work with them we chat on the phone, I prepare a proposal and contract summing up what I’ll do and when I’ll do it by, they pay a deposit and I’m off to work. I don’t hear from them again, I don’t get outlines from them, I very rarely get SEO keywords from them (of course, I'm an article/blog and content writer not an SEO specialist)--they really leave everything in my hands.

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Not so on Elance.

Elance clients all seemed to have this really confined process and made me stick to these annoying formats. I was given outlines, strict SEO guidelines (so strict that I had to start every article with a certain keyword), and rigid formatting instructions. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the clients doing this, mind you, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I do my normal work. Interestingly, the most restrictive and difficult gigs were the low bid ones. I think we can all agree that this usually holds true outside of Elance as well.

The Verdict

Ugh, it’s hard to give Elance a final verdict. I think that Elance offers a great platform for earning more money than you will with content mills with no additional work or research (if you stay within your specialty as you would a content mill) and offers a lot of variety. Of the $1,265 worth of work I scored, 75% of it came from the .04 per word client. Because it was within my specialty I was able to write relatively quickly, but it was such a big order I don’t think I’d want to do it again (I'm actually still working on this one...feels like I may be working on it forever...). Also, it's important to remember that Elance takes roughly 5%-10% in fees.

My big tactical error was bidding way too low on that bulk order. That was a huge and costly mistake because it dragged my hourly average down to $40--had I gone even one penny higher per word it would have brought me to an average of about $50 per hour, for the same amount of work.

If you are looking for:

  • A foot in the freelance writing door
  • A way out of the content mills
  • A way to supplement your income while you build your client list
  • A flexible income that allows you to give yourself "raises" as you gain experience and feedback
  • Little time spent marketing

then I think Elance could be a good arrow in your quiver.

Oh yeah and...

  • Unless you are desperate for cash, don’t feel like you have to bid too low.
  • Bidding too low, even if you are desperate for some cheddar, can work against you. The people who post jobs on Elance aren't necessarily looking for cheap workers, they are using Elance to protect them from getting screwed and to make the writer-seeking effort easier.
  • Bid on those gigs that you can really make a case for scoring.
  • Checkout the job poster's portfolio before you bid. I wasted a lot of credits on jobs that were offered by people who had never awarded jobs on Elance before. Had I checked out their profile before bidding, I might not have made that mistake.

Oh, one last thing, two of the clients I worked with decided to move their future jobs off site in order to continue to work with me. This is not allowed by Elance but since I scheduled my account for closure it was necessary for them to do so. These two clients were in the higher end of my bid rates so it is possible to get repeat work at decent rates which can cut down on future your marketing expenses.

Thanks for sharing!
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Yo Prinzel
Yolander Prinzel is the profit monster behind the Profitable Freelancer website. She has written for a number of publications and websites such as American Express, Covestor.com, Advisor Today, Money Smart Radio and the International Travel Insurance Journal (ITIJ). Her book, Specialty Ghostwriting: A New Way to Look at an Old Career, is currently available on Amazon.