Top 10 Freelance Writing Job Ad Red Flags

red flag

When you troll the job boards every day you learn a little about the tactics many shady or very low paying employers use to find freelance writers. As someone who has been reading freelance writing job ads every day for over a decade, I can tell you some things haven’t change. The good news is that after all this time it’s easy to spot poor opportunities.

Perhaps you’ve come across these red flags:

Top 10 Freelance Writing Job Ad Red Flags

1. Perfect for Work at Home Moms, Retirees or College Students

Jobs are perfect for writers, not situations. The only reason a potential client will tell you something is “perfect” for someone else is usually to justify low rates. They’re saying because you’re retired, in school or work from home, you shouldn’t expect the same rates as higher paying companies.

2. Lots of Exclamation Points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sometimes the people who write ads are enthusiastic and have a flair for the dramatic. I’ve never  seen a “Work at Home!!!!!!!!” job that wasn’t scammy. If you come across one of these opportunities, ask why they’re working so hard to catch your eye.  Sure, it can be a terrific opportunity, but it can also be a clunker. Proceed with caution.

3. Earn “Up To….”

I have news for you. It’s very rare you’ll make thousands of dollars a day working at home. You might earn thousands each month, and I know some bloggers who earn thousands each week, but to earn $15,000 a day isn’t happening. Not even for John Chow and Darren Rowse. Trust me, if it sounds to good to be true, it is.

4. Hundreds of Ads – Every Day

Some very legitimate and worthwhile companies advertise on all the different job boards each week. When they start hitting every city in every state, on every job board, every single day, one starts to wonder. It’s understandable that popular content sites are going to advertise often to find writers. When they start spamming it leads one to wonder. Is the turnover rate so high? Is the pay rate too low? Why are they so desperate for writers?

5. Different Names and Email Addresses for the Same Company

Sometimes a business is flagged so often on Craigslist everyone knows to stay away. We remember the business name and all the players. The business owners change tactics by using different email addresses and the parent company name instead of  the name used in the original ad. Ask yourself, why are their ads always flagged, and why are they taking such pains to look like they’re another company altogether?

6. Asking for Money

You should never have to pay to work for someone. Ever. Period. Done.

P.S. There are job listing sites on the job boards they may request money. It’s one thing to pay to find a job on a membership-only job site and a whole other story to pay to work for a client. The client should be paying you to work for him and not the other way around.

7. Vague Ads

Ever wonder why certain employers don’t put any information in job ads? Because once you “inquire within” you learn you wasted your time. Again, not every vague ad means the client has something to hide. However, most employers will at least let you know a few details about what the job entails in order to attract the right type of writer.

8. Free Samples

We discuss free samples often. Again, this isn’t necessarily a sign that a client isn’t a good one. Some clients want to make sure you’re a good fit and don’t know it’s not quite ethical to ask someone to write a sample on spec (and not pay for it). Other clients want something for nothing and take your sample and use it without compensation. Before you submit a sample, find out what will happen if the sample is not accepted and paid for. Will he use it anyway? Or do you get to retain the rights and submit it elsewhere?

9. Quantity Over Quality

Ads saying they’d rather you were prolific than talented are sure to be low payers. Anyone who doesn’t care about the writing, doesn’t care about the writer. He’s only interested in stocking his site with content to earn money.

10. May Lead to Paying Opportunity

Does this look familiar? “The job doesn’t pay now, but it may pay in the future.” My response to that is, “contact me when it pays.” Our landlords don’t allow us to maybe pay the rent. Our grocery stores don’t allow us to maybe pay for the grocieries. Writers shouldn’t maybe write for anyone.

Deb’s disclaimer: I’m not saying  jobs with these red flags are always poor opportunities.  Indeed there are some good jobs asking for free samples or using exclamation points. However, the spammy stuff tends to over sell in their ads or do their best to appeal to the people who are inclined to accept lower paying opportunities. Use what is posted here to proceed with caution. There’s nothing wrong further investigation. If a job appeals to you, by all means, apply. Always read the fine print and make sure the end justifies the means.


31 responses
  1. Chinamatt Avatar

    I had an interview for #10. They didn’t tell me in advance, and I was angry when I left the interview.

    And, as an editor, I hate anything that contains too many exclamation marks (one being the maximum number I can tolerate, and only when used in quotations).

    1. Deb Avatar

      Holy cats! You mean you actually showed up at an interview and the gig didn’t pay? That’s wrong on so many levels. I would have been upset as well, and I would have sent a letter to the CEO in complaint.

      1. Chinamatt Avatar

        Yup, they wanted me as an editor–would’ve been more than 10 hours a week of working without pay. And they apparently had a line of people willing to write for them. Plus I had to spend $8 to take the PATH and subway for the interview.

        Also, another red flag I keep: I keep getting email in which my first name isn’t capitalized. And it’s supposedly from a native English speaker.

  2. Christi S. Avatar
    Christi S.

    I love this list. So very true! And your disclaimer made me smile.

    1. Deb Avatar

      Thanks, Christi. Though it wasn’t meant to be funny, I’m always happy to make smiles happen.

  3. Chris Avatar

    Thanks. A great post for those us who are new to this. Curiously, a professional freelancer occasionally writes for my blog. It gives her an outlet for the odd project that interests her that her regular clients wouldn’t want.

    1. Deb Avatar

      Thanks, Chris. I like blogging because it’s less structured, but I also think it leads to bad habits. I have to check myself for the more formal bits of writing in case I find myself becoming too “conversational”.

  4. Phil Avatar

    “if it sounds to good to be true, it is.” As you said, this says it all.

    1. Deb Avatar

      Rock on, Phil.

      1. cecile Avatar

        pardon me but the adage “if it sounds to good to be true, it is,” shouldn’t it be “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true”? (or you can also drop the second ‘true’) ;]

  5. Jodee Avatar

    There must be a market for writing ads for freelance writers. Some people have trouble setting out what they need in that format and it probably makes a difference in the quality of the writers who respond.

    Now, having said that, I have worked for some wonderful people who find expressing themselves in words challenging or for whom English isn’t their first language. Some poorly-written ads may leads to really great gigs.

    1. Deb Avatar

      Hey Jodee,

      I don’t get hung up on too many poorly written ads because there’s a reason these people are hiring a writer. Of course some are just so far out in left field, I would stay far far away. There are some that are easy to forgive, however. I think it’s easy to see who are well intentioned even if they don’t have a writing background.

  6. Jodee Avatar

    I meant “may lead…” Anyone know any good writers? Anyone?

  7. Victoria Avatar

    Great post with some useful tips. Thanks. =)

    1. Deb Avatar

      You’re welcome, Victoria. Thank YOU for dropping by and commmenting!

  8. LIsa Avatar

    Another red flag: grant writing gigs that pay “on commission.” Grants don’t work that way, folks!


    1. Deb Avatar

      No they don’t, Lisa. I didn’t know that at first but thanks to the grant writes who come to FWJ for pointing this out. I no longer post job ads for grants offering a percentage of the commission.

      1. LIsa Avatar

        actually, Deb, this is a real button pusher for me… would be glad to write something for the site explaining just why grants aren’t like sales, and what is involved in actually winning a grant. Let me know!


        1. Deb Avatar

          Drop me a line, Lisa. Let’s talk. We pay for guest posts, you know!

  9. Grace Avatar

    Hi Deb,
    Thanks for all you do.

    I recently had an experience with #5. Last week, (I think probably Monday) I answered an ad here that required 40 400 word articles with $35 promised for each one. It was related to the health/medical field and since I am a medical writer, I decided to give that one a go.

    I heard nothing for a couple of days and felt I had probably blown it. However on Wednesday, one Brain R responds saying, “We found someone to do 10 articles, but we need someone to finish the rest. The pay is now $55 for each piece, click here to register.”

    I avoid these like hell, but curiosity got the better of me and I went to the Go Freelance sign-up page, where they obviously wanted me to become a member. I replied back to this Brain saying, “The link does not work. Please post specifics in the e-mail.” (I knew he/she was a spammer/scammer, but I did this out of anger)

    Nothing again for two days. Today morning I see a mail from Christine R with the subject “Re:Re:Re:Re 40 400 word articles.” Madam says “We found your resume to be the best among some 100 applicants, click here now to read job specifics.”

    My question is how is my resume the best, when I never sent you one??!? (sorry for the exclamation, I could not resist 😉 )

    I think I have said enough

  10. Grace Avatar

    Hi again,
    The inference obviously from the above is , its very hard to tell what’s a legitimate opportunity unless companies give you the specifics as in their address and a phone or fax number. (Its not foolproof, but it helps)

    What I have done through the last 3 years is I treat every opportunity as a shady one unless I exchange at least 3-4 mails with the client and probably get on Skype with them.

  11. Krista Avatar

    @ Grace – I also heard from Christine R. She claimed to need a credit and background check, but the link took me to a giftcard site. CL is getting REALLY bad for this type of thing. I can’t even remember the last time I heard back from a real potential client.

    1. Grace Avatar

      Yes, there was that as well in her mail. Thing is the red flags are all over the place, its the green ones that have become difficult to spot these days.

  12. Chari Dodge Avatar
    Chari Dodge

    The red flag I have noticed when getting a job – even ones not related to writing – is that if there are a ton of rules and instructions they are not going to pay a fair wage. It seems the less they intend to pay you the more nitpicking requirements they have.
    Thanks, Deb, for all your advice. I read often but usually don’t comment.

  13. Burnman Avatar

    Excellent list and so very true! Basically, if it reads like a used car dealership pitch, chances are it probably is. Well, metaphorically speaking. 😉

    I especially despise the pay-to-work scams, regardless of industry. Affiliate programs, reseller programs, none of them should cost you a dime unless you are gaining additional services like private label branding. But I digress… lol

  14. Sheila (@stinginthetail) Avatar

    Add to the unpaid writing jobs, the unpaid reading ones – recently i saw two publishers, both “for profit” companies, offering their slush pile to be read to an eager reader who didn’t need to be paid for it. Yes, the eager writer would be happy to do it for free, because it looked good on their resume.

    Having working in publishing, i wasn’t surprised to see publishers are still the meanest people on the face of the earth.

  15. Cheril Vernon Avatar

    Love the list and I think people new to freelance writing will find it extremely helpful too.

    My pet peeves on the list are the vague ads and the “may lead to a paying opportunity.” Free samples annoys me too – but sometimes these are legit, just depends on the ad.

    I also hate it when they say “it should only take you a few minutes to write a 500-word article,” as their way of explaining why they are only going to pay you a few dollars to write it. If it was so easy, they would be doing it themselves. As with anything, it depends on the topic and whether or not research is involved.

  16. Sheila (@stinginthetail) Avatar

    saw Cheril’s response and had to say “yeah”. Unfortunately, there are so many wannabe writers who think doing it for nothing will be a good thing. All it does is teach you about being ripped off.

  17. Chrystal Avatar

    Deb, thanks for the post – although most professional freelancers & writers are familiar with ads such as those (listed), there are still aspiring freelancers who may not be, and your warning could be very helpful to them.

    BTW, #10 “Does this look familiar? “The job doesn’t pay now, but it may pay in the future.” My response to that is, “contact me when it pays.” Our landlords don’t allow us to maybe pay the rent. Our grocery stores don’t allow us to maybe pay for the grocieries. Writers shouldn’t maybe write for anyone.”


  18. Tania Mara Avatar
    Tania Mara

    When I stumble upon the #1 type of ad, I generally skip it. Those gigs are almost always garbage.

    Although I don’t feel that comfortable with vague ads, I’ve had some luck responding to a few of those. Then again, I can easily understand why they belong to this red-flag list.

  19. Amy Aitman Avatar

    The toughest part of being a freelance writer is finding the right clients. Thanks for the reminders to stay away. Working for free is fine if you need to build a portfolio, but eventually, talent should be rewarded. Great writing can build brands, secure clients, and help businesses make more money. That should be rewarded.

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