If you’ve ever searched freelance writing job ads, chances are good you’ve seen something that made you think “Huh?” Maybe something felt “off” in the job description. Perhaps the pay details looked sketchy.
While I haven’t sought leads through freelance writing job ads for my own work in years, I do browse them regularly to curate some of the better listings here. And boy oh boy, have I seen some doozies.
Today, I’d like to help you sort through some of the more suspicious freelance writing job ads and hopefully avoid some bad gigs in the process.
Here are some of the most common, and some of the worst, BS lines I’ve come across, and what the advertisers really mean.
Translation: “We offer little to no pay.”
If you’ve been freelancing for a while, no doubt you’ve seen or heard this repeatedly.
You’re also likely familiar with the usual quips: “exposure doesn’t pay the bills” and “exposure is something people die from.”
Yet “great exposure” remains a perennial favorite perk for clients advertising freelance writing jobs.
When clients push the concept of “exposure,” it’s often in lieu of financial compensation, or it’s expected to make up for poor financial compensation. It almost never does.
Don’t buy this line from anyone.
If it’s a brand new, small publication offering exposure as payment, wait to work for them after they’ve proven they can run a competent business and afford to pay contributors.
If it’s a larger, well-established publication advertising exposure as their primary perk, run. They can afford to pay you. They can afford to pay you like the professional you are. And they fully intend to monetize your work even if they don’t pay you, or pay you peanuts for it.
All these companies are really doing is disrespecting and using you. They’re hoping you’re enough of a fool to fall for it. Don’t work for anyone who doesn’t respect you.
“Perfect Job for Students or Stay at Home Moms”
Translation: “We offer little to no pay.”
I don’t see this claim in as many job ads as I used to, but it still pops up periodically.
The job is great for those who want part-time work with flexible schedules.
This is one of the more insulting lines you’ll come across. These clients are essentially saying “we can’t afford to hire a real pro, so we’re targeting groups we think we can de-value and pay much less.”
Of course, plenty of students and stay at home moms are professionals. And whether you freelance full-time or part-time, you deserve to be paid fairly for your work and time, and you deserve to be treated with respect.
“Quick & Easy Gig”
Translation: “We have unrealistic expectations about this gig and what you’re expected to accomplish. Oh, and we also offer little to no pay.”
Ah, the joys of managing client expectations.
While most clients are better than this, you might come across one of the “gems” who compares you to everything and everyone under the sun in order to save a buck.
“My former freelance writer who I found on Fiverr was able to write five articles a day for less than half your price. Surely I shouldn’t have to pay more just because you’re slower!”
“Well Ted, that’s probably because your previous freelance ‘writer’ wholesale ripped off some of your competitors and rewrote others’ work, pretending it was their own. You just haven’t been caught and held accountable for publishing it yet.”
Or something like that.
“Work Should Take X Hours”
Translation: “We don’t care how long you have to work on this to deliver exactly what we want, but we’re only going to pay you for the equivalent of X hours.” OR “I wrote a few crappy articles of my own before, so I think I know what goes into professional work.”
This can be another case of unrealistic expectations.
These are the people who think they’re going to get “good, fast, and cheap” from a single project. You only get two at a time (unless you have no idea what “good” is and are really satisfied with “barely adequate”).
What these clients are doing is trying to justify why they think they should get all three.
- They think they know what high quality work for this project entails. They usually don’t.
- They’ve decided that quality can, or should, be achieved in a short period of time.
- Because of that unrealistically short deadline, they can justify paying less because they don’t see it as requiring much of your time (as if that’s the only consideration for us).
Whenever a freelance writing job ad tells you how long a job should take you, before anyone’s consulted you, run.
“Requires Expert Knowledge”
Translation: “We expect applicants to be highly-qualified experts whose reputations we can exploit, but we’re probably not willing to pay much.”
This is another iffy one, but you can generally tell from the tone in the job ad.
It’s one thing to say the writer needs X years of experience in something or certain credentials (like a J.D. for certain legal writing gigs).
It’s something else entirely when a client rattles off a large list of things you need to be an “expert” at, or when they require credentials that far exceed what their budget affords them (such as wanting an active medical doctor to write health articles for $50 each).
“Could Lead to More Work”
Translation: “This gig probably won’t lead to more work, but if you believe it will you’ll be willing to accept lower pay because you see it as an opportunity.” OR “This gig might lead to more work, and we’ll imply or outright state later work will pay more, but it won’t.”
Never, and I mean never, allow the promise of future work to influence the rates you charge for current work.
Once you set a tone that says a client can take advantage of you or under-value you, that’s the tone for your entire working relationship with them.
“We can talk about additional work after we complete this project and see if we both want to continue working together.”
That’s one way to handle this.
“I can only consider projects being contracted when I quote my rates. If you’d like to add that additional work to this contract, I’d be happy to provide an updated quote based on the new scope.”
If they aren’t committing to future work right now, in writing, their promises should have no influence at all over what you’re paid for your current work.
Translation: “We want to hire a full-time employee, probably for too little money, but we don’t want to be responsible for paying any of the taxes, insurance, or benefits required. So instead, we’re going to misclassify you as an independent contractor and hope you never report us to the IRS.”
To clarify, there are occasionally legitimate “full-time freelance” roles.
For example, you might be brought in full-time as a contractor for a few weeks to help with a specific project or to train full-time staff during a transition.
The translation above applies specifically to ongoing full-time jobs advertised as freelance. This is a trend I expect to see grow as more companies allow remote work and some managers falsely equate “remote” and “freelance.”
Note: If you and your client are based in the U.S. and you're concerned you might be a misclassified employee, you can use form SS-8 to ask the IRS to make a determination based on the nature of the work and your relationship with the client.
“Submit a Sample Article on X”
Translation: “We have no idea how to hire freelance writers and are too incompetent to evaluate their existing portfolios, so we’re asking for free custom work that all looks alike so we can directly compare writers.” OR “We’re giving every applicant a slightly different topic to write for free, then we’ll piece those together into a half-assed article we didn’t pay for. We never intended to actually hire anyone, and we’re too dense to know this tactic is still copyright infringement.”
If you choose to write on spec, that’s one thing. But there is no good reason to write unpaid custom samples just to be considered for a gig.
Your portfolio is what clients should be using to make a hiring decision. Any competent client can, and will, do this. If you’re brand new, there are ways to build a freelance writing portfolio despite the lack of experience, so that’s still no good excuse.
“Submit Your Best Rate / Be Competitive”
Translation: “We expect you to win us over not with the quality of your portfolio, but with the lowest price you can possibly quote.”
This is a gross approach I’ve seen more of recently in freelance writing job ads. Clients want to find freelancers via more traditional channels and not be constrained by the rules of freelance bidding sites, but they want you to act like you’re in a bidding war for their business anyway.
What clients are trying to do in this case is put pressure on you.
It’s like when a Realtor is selling a house in a strong buyer’s market and they put out a call for “best offers.” It’s expected you won’t get a second shot. And what they really mean is “tell us the absolute maximum you’re willing to pay.”
In this case, clients do similar.
It puts downward pressure on freelancers by implying they’ll only get one shot to name their price. So it better be the absolute minimum they’re willing to accept, and it better be lower than other writers applying who might be in a more desperate position.
Name your usual rates.
Hell, quote them higher than your usual rates because they’d clearly be a pain in the ass to work with.
Don’t let anyone pressure you into lowering your standard rates just because they imply competition (there might not be). If they focus more on finding a bargain than getting the job done right, that's not your problem.
“We Have a Fee of $X for…”
Translation: “This is a con game. We’re not really hiring freelance writers. We’re trying to suck money out of you instead, and we’re using your need for work as a weapon against you.”
This isn’t common, but it’s one of the biggest red flags I’ve ever seen in freelance writing job ads.
While I don’t love absolutes, here’s another important “never” for you: NEVER pay anyone for the right or ability to apply for their posted job.
Most often, this is a publication requiring you to buy a past issue before they’ll consider you. I’m not talking about basic research into their style and content. I mean when clients demand you buy something with the intent of quizzing you on it in the application process. That’s not appropriate.
The worst case I’ve seen, however, was a company that required freelance writers to purchase some sort of training materials from them before they could be considered for a gig.
First, it’s not a client’s place to train you. You’re a freelance professional, a business owner. People hire you for your specialized knowledge.
If they want to provide style guidelines, that’s fine.
If they want to force you to take unpaid training, that’s not.
But if they want to charge you for that training, it is abso-f*ing-lutely not OK.
In this case, it was a sales piece masquerading as a job ad with the purpose of selling their content.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ridiculous lines freelance writers navigate when seeking gigs. If something sounds fishy in a job ad – or dismissive, or condescending, or dishonest – your gut feels that way for a reason. Trust it. Then keep on looking for clients who actually deserve you.