Working for a Freelancing Factory

It’s a brutal job market, and lots of us are trying to bring in a little extra money any way we can.  I’ve gotten work through two well known freelancing sites, and am here to give you the no-nonsense/unsolicited truth about how to scrape by with their services.

Which companies they are aren’t important, I assure you they all work the same way with a few superficial differences in branding.  Both companies offered two types of jobs, fixed bid (a certain amount of work for a certain dollar amount) or hourly.  Both jobs used monitoring software (keystroke and mouse click counters, taking random screenshots, some buyers required contractors to work on webcam) for hourly jobs as insurance for both buyer and contractor, assuring the buyer they wouldn’t pay for any time not spent working and assuring the contractor they would be guaranteed pay for time they could prove they were working.  Both companies offered the same types of writing jobs in general.  Company #1 did not guarantee payment on fixed bid jobs, whereas Company #2 had the option of using an escrow account to insure the buyer was actually planning on paying.  Company #2 charged contractors a monthly membership fee and restricted job viewing to a single category selected in when the contractor signs up for the site.  Both companies charged a 10-20% fee on the total payment for the job.

The majority of the jobs you’ll find on these sites will be for shockingly low pay and fall into one of two categories, ghostwriting and SEO articles.  For example, “Write one hundred 1000 word articles on <trending topic>, $10” or “Ghostwrite my 250 page eBook on how to make money selling eBooks! $25”.  In between these ridiculous listings, it is possible to find legitimate work for a legitimate wage, but it takes a bit of extra effort to find and win the bid for those jobs.  Here’s what’s worked for me.

1. Know how to sell yourself in a paragraph.  The best jobs quickly accumulate a long list of candidates, and the only tool a buyer has to distinguish you from the crowd is your bid letter and your profile.  Take advantage of all the options the site gives you to paint a more complete picture of your skills.  Find or create a few samples for the online portfolio (yes, these might be stolen, choose wisely), create a list of places your work can be seen online and write some lively and confident things about yourself in the appropriate fields.   When you write your bid letter, take your time.  The best bid letters have a very simple formula.  Take two sentences to introduce yourself and then get down to business.  Explain how you’ll go about meeting the buyer’s needs, how long it will take you, how much it will cost them and exactly what they’ll walk away with when you’re done.   If you don’t have enough information to provide all the details, ask questions.  Don’t share any personal contact information until you have the job, safety first.  It also violates the terms of use of the job site, they don’t like that, don’t do it.

2. Look for jobs in off hours and try to be one of the first to apply.  Buyers and contractors who use these sites come from all over the world, so there are constantly new listings added to the site.  Candidates are usually listed from first responder to last, and many buyers will only scroll so far to find people they’re willing to interview.

3. In addition to catching jobs early, periodically scroll through a few pages of listings.  Sometimes good jobs can get lost if they fall off the front page too quickly.

4. Be patient.  It’s really unusual for a contractor to get one of the first jobs for which they apply.  A really snazzy bid letter may open doors quickly, but most buyers are (understandably) wary of brand new contractors, as contractors should be wary of brand new buyers.

5. Consider taking one of the horrible jobs to build your rating.  If you aren’t getting noticed as a newbie, it can be really tempting to apply for some of the less savory, insultingly low paying jobs.  That’s okay.  Just don’t make a habit of it.  There are enough shoddy articles on the internet.   We may have already hit critical mass, forcing future historians to think we’re all illiterate and fascinated with dick pills.

6. Do good work, no matter what job you get.  Make it easy for the buyer to communicate with you.  Respond to their emails in a timely way.  Polish all the rough edges and make an effort to do your very best work, no matter how menial the task or obnoxious the buyer.   Freelancing is a grind, and much like any job, it’s mostly about making other people feel important.  Keep your dignity by keeping your integrity, it makes it easier to both sleep at night and motivate yourself to hustle for another job.

7. Fear the taxman.  Contractors pay significantly more in taxes than regular employees and they have to pay it quarterly in the US.  Keep excellent records and set aside at least 40% of every check you get for Uncle Sam.  Use this as motivation to only apply for a couple low paying jobs.  Six dollars for 100,000 words on dick pills is even more insulting than $10.

8. Keep learning new skills.  A freelance writer who can also code a website or write a mobile app or design something in Photoshop or any combination thereof is exponentially more marketable than someone with only one skill.  We live in an age where we can learn how to do just about anything from the glowing boxes in our offices.  Devote some of your freelancing time to building your skills, just like you would participate in professional development on the job.

9. Buy a writer friend dinner in exchange for looking at your resume, profile and an example bid letter and giving you advice about how to polish it.

Freelancing through an outsourcing site isn’t easy, it’s never glamorous and it usually involves working harder for less than you would in a ‘regular’ job.  It is possible to make a living, and the more experience you build, the better your chances will be to find the jobs that can keep you working at a fair rate for longer periods of time.  You will keep your skills as fresh as if you were at a regular job, and you’ll have a ton of experience to add to your resume.   Overall, I prefer working with independent clients directly, but I still pick up work from freelancing sites on occasion.  It’s worth a shot if you’ve got a skill or set of skills that are in demand, time to devote to finding and doing jobs and the patience to wade through the inevitable shenanigans.

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

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