The brief, but polite reply to my query is quite familiar to freelancers scouring the Web for writing opportunities:
“The position has been awarded to another writer, but if you’re interested in writing on a volunteer basis . . . “
Um, when the “v” word comes up, that’s when I put my foot down. Very briefly, and equally politely, I explained that my freelancing policy is to pursue only paying work.
In my still-evolving policy I write without compensation only for my own sites. I’ve also offered to barter my writing services to a friend who allowed me to use his photos and videos on one of my blogs. He offered his work to me for nothing; the least I can do is return the favor.
But what if paid work turns out to more of raw deal than the volunteer kind?
Last week freelance writer extraordinaire Erik Sherman dug into the nitty gritty of some freelance aggregators, aptly dubbing them “writers mills” and “intellectual sweat shops” for their paltry terms. He got a response from one such place, but kept plowing on. Love his description of who’s got the upper hand here:
“They want experience, they want productivity, they want . . . trust fund babies.”
I’ve felt despondent myself looking through similar sites, signing up for a couple, and then reading the grim fine print. You’ll knock yourself out and get very little in return.
Earlier this spring the topic flared up on Word Count, an excellent digital age-oriented site for freelancers, when a veteran freelancer urged novices not to write for aggregators. He received a quick retort from a popular aggregator. Michelle Rafter, the Word Count proprietor, suggested new freelancers approach hyperlocal sites or consider starting their own.
I won’t suggest never write for a “mill,” even though it’s not my preference, because I do know some people who are going down this road. But if you’re trying to build a full-time freelance writing career there won’t be enough time to do all the work for aggregators that won’t pay you a living wage.
If you’re not, you might as well start your own blog and run with it, hard. Put all of yourself behind it, make it your own, and build it into something that might lead you to some substantial money — some good freelancing offers or contract work or even a job. Your time will be better spent.
The individual with whom I had been corresponding did reply to my request to keep me in mind should he have another paying slot in the future. I really did mean it when I said I enjoyed reading his sites, while directing him to some of my work. Perhaps something will materialize; regardless, I’m glad I didn’t give in to the temptation of a cheap byline. Or a free one, actually.
This week Tracy Record of the West Seattle Blog replied in a comment to a post here about her hyperlocal site, which brings in enough advertising revenue to support her family. This is a terrific guideline for freelance journalists newly confronting the unforgiving world of writing for the Web:
“I’ve been trying to say this for a long time. . . These people who are slaving away for Examiner-dot-com or the zillion other ‘hey, we’ll pay you, really, at least, um, you’ll earn coffee money’ websites — or worse, ‘volunteer’ to write ‘blogs’ on newspaper websites — WHY oh WHY are you doing that? You don’t need tech expertise to set up your own site.
“God knows, we’re proof. We’re still running on the same out-of-box WordPress theme I chose 3-1/2 years ago when I thought this was going to be ‘just a blog.’ We’ve gotten some help, pro bono and paid, to make some tweaks, and we can’t keep this theme forever, BUT if you’re just starting — go to WordPress or Blogger or wherever and GET GOING!
“Make your OWN name. Own your OWN page views. Rock your OWN world . . . if you do good work, Google will index you on your own site just the same way it would do so if you were buried in somebody’s bigger site. Don’t let somebody else earn money off your work. Aggregators aren’t the problem in that regard — writing for free or cheap for some big company IS.”