Tips for New Freelance Writers: Avoiding Shady Job Posts

Photo by Hannah Wei on Unsplash

Now in my third year of freelance writing, I occasionally catch myself turning down potential clients and invitations to interview for no discernible reason. I’ve been burned more than a handful of times–as many freelancers have–both before and after I’ve done the requested work, so I can be a little quick to judge.

On one hand, just because something sends up a red flag doesn’t mean the client will drag me through the mud if I give them a chance. On the other, finding new work is a large percentage of freelancing, so it’s important not to spread yourself thin if you know the client won’t be a good fit.

So how do you know a potential freelance client is worth pursuing? And once you get started, how do you welcome a potential client while clearly communicating your needs?

UpWork was (and still is) an excellent resource for my freelancing career. However, whenever I speak to new writers looking to break off into freelancing, I say, “There are a lot of garbage job posts out there. Same as any other site, you just have to sort through them to find the good ones.”

Though you may never know if you’re a perfect fit with a client until after an interview or initial assignment, you can pick up on a few clues before getting started. So if you’re just jumping in (or if you’re a freelance veteran and have some to add), take a look at these red-flag job posts I’ve learned to avoid.

These examples below may sound ridiculous, but it took me a few years to spot the patterns and what was not worth my time. It can be tempting to apply to everything when you’re dying to fill up your portfolio…or your bank account. Remember, try to keep your wits about you and trust your gut no matter your mindset that day.

Red-Flag Freelance Writer Job Posts

1. “Will only get paid if….”

You’d be amazed at how many job posts include stipulations beyond a writer’s control for payment. If you do the work requested in the contract, you should get paid. End of story. I’ve seen:

  • “I will only pay if the work is REALLY GOOD.” What does this even mean? Are you the mystical judge of “really good work?” Why would you hire me if you think I won’t do really good work?
  • “Must write a post that goes viral.” Stop.
  • “Must be able to complete X number of articles in one hour.” So what you’re saying is that it’s a low fixed rate for a large batch of work. Cool.
  • “Must get article published with {insert major publication like NY Times, Huffpost, etc} Am I missing something here? The chance of getting their non-paid, branded content on sites like that is slim to none, right? Get out of here with this noise.

2. *Sends assignment information with no contract or Upwork milestone and then ghosts*

Hard pass. Do not complete work without the milestone in place. Many times, the editor may have just zoned and will set it up in the next day with a reminder. But if you don’t know them, don’t start work until everything is set in stone. Even research and outline time should be compensated. If they pop up two days later and set up the milestone, request the due date be proportionately moved.

3. “i onnly except the Best Wrk dont apply if you cant do thebest writing outthere.No tiepoes.

If their post looks like a Trump tweet, keep scrolling.

4. “Hey, can we meet over coffee and talk about your potential work on this one-time article?”

If I’m looking to build a long-term relationship with a client, cool, let’s meet and chat. But if a potential client asks for excessive in-person or phone collaboration and interview time, hold onto a healthy bit of skepticism. This is especially true if you have yet to discuss compensation. You don’t want to spend three hours discussing options for them to only name a number way under the one you gave them in your first cover letter.

5. “Absolutely NO PLAGIARISM. I will test your work and by golly, if you plagiarize, you will never work in this town again!”

Okay pal, cool your jets. If you’re accusing me of bad work before we’ve even met, I don’t foresee us having a pleasant creative collaboration.

6. “ISO writer for medical blog posts. Must have medical degree. $5 per post.”

In the acting world, this is similar to those background role posts that say “Must be real lawyer. Deferred pay.”

7. “In search of writer. Rate includes writing post, taking photos, editing photos, uploading to the website, designing logo, selling our products door to door, walking my dog, grabbing my dry cleaning, proofreading…”

These people won’t stop at their list. It will just go on and on.

8. “Must complete unpaid trial.”

That’s a big ol’ nope.

(Note: I make exceptions for very large [for me] contracts and specific full-time job opportunities.)

9. Please send 10 blog post ideas with your application.

Okay, I am super torn here. Ideas are creative property. You can use these post ideas whether you hire me or not and no money has changed hands. There is a way to ask for ideas within reason, especially if they’re looking for a long-term writer, but use your gut on this one.

10. “No fluffy posts, only quality writing, fluffy writing will not be accepted.”

This is another confusing one I’ve come across more than a few times. When editors provide vague instructions from the beginning or do not supply examples of their desired writing tone, you are essentially shooting in the dark. You will be wasting everyone’s time writing a post they don’t want. More often than not, editors that use the phrase “no fluff” send back confusing requests that would have wildly shaped the piece before it was written.


Fun fact: typically when someone yells about something they hate, they’re actually the ones that do it. I would assume this client expects on-time assignments but doesn’t stress over on-time payment.

I may sound a bit cynical, but remember, there is so much good among the bad. My long-term clients are wonderful. I write, they give suggestions, I make edits, they pay me. I become a better writer because of them. I have a freelance career because of them. So if your gut is telling you to give a new client a shot, go for it. And remember you can stay in control by keeping communication clear.

Once more for the people in the back: Get it all in writing

Understanding your professional requirements–your budget, timeframe, payment terms, etc–comes with time. You may have a few trial-and-error months before you realize your initial rate is not sustainable. Either way, contracts or written agreements are always necessary.

UpWork was a great place to start for me as a basic contract is essentially worked into the setup. Clients put money in escrow and Upwork steps in help negotiate should anything get shifty. But when you start finding clients off of Upwork, get some sort of written agreement before you get started.

Bad clients are not your fault

Every now and then, even having a contract doesn’t protect you from assholes. There’s a lot of victim and self-blaming when building a small business, working in the arts, or freelancing in general. I hear and read a lot of, “I should have stopped working with them when my gut told me to,” or “I shouldn’t have been so lenient when we first started working together. I never would have gotten taken advantage of otherwise.”

This goes the same for clients reading this that hire freelancers. Bad behavior goes both ways. Contracts and clarity help everyone.

In the end, when someone takes advantage of your time, financial agreement or your creativity, it’s on them, not you. You are not asking too much by insisting on your original agreement.

At the end of the day, a good client-freelancer relationship is a happy balance. One should not feel pressured or tricked by the other. The client needs your talent just as much as you need their opportunities.


10 responses to “Tips for New Freelance Writers: Avoiding Shady Job Posts”

  1. Good advice here, and most of it reminds me of when I started freelancing. Another tip that helped me: Ask for payment before delivery. Sounds crazy, but it’s extremely effective for quickly separating the wheat from the chaff!


    • Oh man, that’s excellent advice, thank you. As I continue to find more clients on my own (off of Upwork), I will absolutely start to switch over to that model. It would relieve so much stress and confusion.


  2. This was a great article, and very helpful. I used to freelance write a couple of years ago, the sites were trash—but so was my writing. Now, trying to work my way back into the game, I don’t want my old work to see the light of day, so I’m back to sifting through Craigslist ad’s, except this time I only have my blog here as credentials so I anticipate embodying more of the “starving artist” freelance writer persona for a while. Eventually, I may try the 3rd party sites like Upwork or Fiverr, but I just don’t feel good enough yet to put myself (back) out there. Before, I didn’t realize I was a being a hack. Maybe ignorance is indeed bliss, but now that I’ve studied good writing and worked to make my own writing good, I’m hesitant to step forward again and say “hey, I’m a writer too” until I’m sure that my writing isn’t crap. When I do though, I’ll have to come back here and get a refresher! Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much for this one. I cannot count how many times I have been ghosted by my clients. The thing is, most of the time, especially when freelancers are still starting- we often jump into every possible job offer there is. We give everything and end up getting nothing in the end because we did not take care of ourselves in the process. This post is such a great reminder for long time freelancers and of course for new ones still coming into the industry. At some point, I found having a mediator- an admin to protect me from being ghosted works well for me. Websites like is quite a promising one, I think 🙂


    • I’m so glad it was helpful, Ruth, thank you for reading! I totally agree. It’s so hard to trust you gut when you just really need that job to work out. And I will look into website like The RIsr! I love that more programs like this are popping up to help freelancers.


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