Sometimes when offering experience-based advice, it’s better to list things you shouldn’t do than should do. That definitely applies to the field of freelance writing.
When I jumped into this game thirty odd (very odd) years ago, I never tried to make it my sole livelihood. This was way back in the previous century, pre-Internet, pre-social media. I actually used a typewriter and performed archaic tasks like making copies at a store, putting them in an envelope, and then walking them to the post office, where I put stamps on them, and mailed them to editors at prospective publications.
The exception was when I was on the staff of the UC Berkeley campus newspaper, The Daily Californian, 1987-1989. I could just hand my assignment to the editor, a very cost effective method of delivery. I started out by submitting a short story called “The In-Betweeners,” which they actually published for an aborted fiction series. Mine was the first of only two they wound up accepting. It was also my first published piece of fiction.
Then I began writing movie, music and book reviews, and eventually interviews with famous authors on book tours. It was my foray into freelancing, because even though I was considered a “staff writer,” I was paid by the piece, not salaried (except when they hired me as something called a “classified ads manager”; I had no idea what I was doing, but I fooled them for several months.)
Otherwise, I was employed as a (bad) busboy, waiter, hotel desk clerk, blood bank driver, warehouse worker, video store clerk, bookstore clerk, etc. Eventually I was lucky enough to score a full time gig as a film programmer, from which I built my platform via my public B movie impresario persona as “Will the Thrill.” Hence, many years later, the formation of my own “brand name” imprint, Thrillville Press.
But when my career as a film programmer abruptly ended in 2009 after the company suddenly and sadly folded, I turned back to my first love, writing.
Write From Wrong
And this time, as a married middle-aged adult with a condo mortgage, not just a single room rent’s to cough up monthly, I had to get serious about earning an income with my innate skill set.
Since I utilized my writing ability during my twelve year stint as a publicist for the theater - composing web content, newsletters, press releases, and email exchanges with patrons – I had garnered a lot of experience and a resume, which was good in my case, since I’m a high school dropout with no formal education in journalism, English, or anything. And that can come in handy, trust me. The lack of those credentials is a liability in a competitive market. But as always, you work with what you got.
In addition to self-publishing a new novel and some older manuscripts, I signed up for various “freelancer hubs” that offered “access” to “limitless” online jobs for various clients, promising a virtual fortune, working from home.
I’m not going to vilify any particular company here, even if they deserve it. Rather, I am going to list the “red flags” I once ignored out of my own desperation and ignorance, in hopes I can spare some of you the same disappointment and humiliation.
1.Never pay anyone to write; they pay you, or forget it. The first sign something that seems too good to be true actually is: you’re requested to pay an upfront fee, however nominal, for the otherwise “free service” of accessing what is basically a message board, where clients can solicit pieces. This just means the owners of the site regularly collect money from gullible people (like me), but you won’t unless someone hires you. And most of the gigs listed here are really aimed at Third World residents with computer access willing to work for literally pennies per post, because their cost of living is low enough they can afford the investment. You can’t. So don’t.
2.Never provide “free samples” unless they’re links to previously published work. Any reputable site will request samples of your work. That’s normal and sensible. But if they ask you to write an entirely new article “on spec,” move on quickly. This means they will likely just sell it to a distributor under a false byline, with little if any tweaking, since many jobs are essentially “re-wording” (plagiarizing) other posts on a timely topic for the sole sake of providing content for “click bait.” Don’t fall for it. Your time and talent are valuable. Do not sell yourself short in exchange for “exposure,” because you’ll only leaving yourself open to cheap, dishonest exploitation.
3.“We’ll make you rich.” No. They won’t. Move on.
Next time I’ll provide some more uplifting experiences from my checkered history as a freelancer.
After all, if there isn’t any hope, what’s the point? But there is.
PHOTO: WILL VIHARO, 1989, AGE 26