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Online Writing Etiquette: The 7 Deadly Netiquette Sins of Freelance Writing

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30 Nov 2018 - General
 

Over the course of my five-year career in the freelance writing industry, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the just plain barbaric when it comes to relations within the content writer community. From small offenses such as soliciting free work to major gaffes like bashing other writers and clients in a public forum, word craft can easily turn into a word war. It’s a safe bet that we have all committed at least one of these content writing deadly sins at least once, but repeat offenders are common because, unlike other industries, there is no central authority of content writers to bring down the disciplinary hammer when a freelancer goes rogue. The lack of industrial accountability is both a blessing and a curse of working as a freelancer. While there’s no one telling you what to do, likewise there is no one telling that blowhard on your favorite content writing platform to stop complaining about the lack of “interesting” projects and get back to work. Without further ado, here are the seven deadly sins of content writing.

Sin #1 “What sites do you use to make money writing online?”

What you think you’re saying is, “I really want to do what you do, can you help me get started?” What professional writers hear is, “Can you save me a Google search and direct me right to your source of income so I can become your competition?”

This might seem like the most innocuous item on the list, but get any seasoned content writer alone in a completely candid moment and they’ll admit that this is the most annoying question you could ever ask.

What’s so wrong about fledgling writers asking for information from seasoned professionals? Believe it or not, plenty. While picking the brain of a senior employee is fairly standard in most traditional industries, the freelance writing industry is different by nature. In a traditional workplace, you can ask that senior executive to have a cup of coffee with you over lunch. Chances are, you’ll only be a viable candidate for their job once they’ve long since move up the corporate ladder and taken that corner office. Sharing a bit of their experience benefits the entire company, so more often than not they’ll be willing to share a few moments of time and a few nuggets of wisdom.

Now, consider the freelance writing industry. We’re not all working for the same company with the same goals. There are so many content writers that we are all constantly competing for a limited supply of work from a comparably small cluster of online writing platforms. Freelance writers have a habit of keeping the content platforms they use close to the vest for good reason, but this secrecy is often seen as unsportsmanlike or downright mean to the uninitiated. Remember that, unlike in a traditional company, there is little to no professional benefit for sharing our sources of income, which is what you’re asking us to do when you want to know what platforms we use.

You can find more than enough to get started in the freelance writing industry with a simple Google search for “best online writing platforms.” That’s where most of us get started, and from there we devote a significant amount of our work week to researching new sources of income. When you ask us for the sites we use, you’re essentially asking for access to hours of research and digging through message board threads, article comments sections, and obscure blogs just to find work so you can turn around, sign up, and immediately become our competition.

 

Sin#2 “Oh, I forgot to use your referral link when I signed up for that writing platform you told me about.”

What you think you’re saying is, “Oops, I just forgot to use your link. No biggie, right?” What we hear is, “You took the time to help me, your competition, and I could not be less grateful.”

Maybe some angelic freelance writer took pity on you and shared a few of their choice writing platforms. A popular incentive that many platforms use to encourage peer recruitment among their ranks is to offer a commission for every writer they refer. Writers hand out a referral link for new recruits to use to sign up and, in return for recruiting more competition, they receive a cash bonus or a commission from all the work their referral does. Sometimes writers will even post these referral links on a blog that lists their favorite platforms, often as a result of the many emails they receive asking the question in Sin #1.

If a writer takes the time to share their content writing platforms with you, consider it a free VIP pass to the front of a line that other writers have spent hours waiting in. Now, imagine that you get to the front of that line, turn around, grab your friend’s ticket and rip it up. You’d never do such a horrible thing, right? Well, joining a site on another writer’s referral without using their referral link is the same thing, only instead of ripping up a ticket you just ripped up a wad of cash that could have gone into their pocket.

 

I’ve heard every excuse for this ranging from, “But the sign-up process was confusing and I wasn’t really paying attention,” to, “Well, I wanted to give the sign-up bonus to my husband/wife instead.” In the first excuse, the person is essentially saying that they just couldn’t be bothered to take the time to help out the person who took the time (and risk) to help them out. Thanks to their referral, you now have access to potential income for the lifetime of your membership on that platform. Take a few extra minutes to thank them by ensuring that they get credit for referring you. The second is just plain underhanded, in this writer’s opinion. Whoever actually referred you should get the referral perks. Otherwise, it’s just a slap in the face.

Sin#3 “Can you edit this for me?”

What you think you’re saying is, “I trust you enough to act as a second pair of eyes for my glorious treatise on Colorado plumbers. Will you accept this honor?” What we hear is, “Can you take time away from your paid work to do mine for free?”

Editing is a professional service people pay good money for, and asking a friend to edit your content for nothing is the same as asking an accountant friend to do your taxes for free. You are requesting a professional service for no payment, which is just poor professional etiquette, regardless of the industry.

The single most important part of building relationships in the freelance community is respect. Respect your fellow writers’ time, skills, and energy. If you need help, there are many who are willing to oblige, often for free. The problem is when other writers act entitled to pro bono editing services. There are plenty of forums and blogs geared toward writers helping other writers and growing through the peer editing process. There are even sites specifically geared toward content writers editing each other’s content.

 

As long as it doesn’t violate any non-disclosure agreements, there is nothing wrong with seeking editing assistance from other writers, but if it’s going to turn into a regular occurrence, you should enter into an arrangement that is mutually beneficial. If you’re always posting your content for editing on a website without ever helping other writers in return, you’ll quickly gain a reputation as an intellectual mooch and no one will want to help you before long. The same goes with friends and colleagues in the “real world.” If you have a friend edit something for you, even if he or she offers to do it for free, take them out to coffee or send them a small gift card as a token of your thanks and acknowledgement of their time and effort.

Sin#4 “Oh, Jenny Q. charges 2.5 cents per word? I’ll do it for .5 cents per word!”

What you think you’re saying is, “I’m just offering a great deal, gotta keep up with the competition!” What we hear is, “I’m the new kid on the block and I have no idea what quality content is worth, or how to produce it!”

There is nothing wrong with setting competitive rates to undercut the competition. That alone is a controversial statement, but I stick by the capitalist approach to the freelance writing industry. The problem is when new writers who have absolutely no idea how to value content or their own time saturate the market with poor-quality content at absurdly low prices. Price yourself competitively, but professionally.

A reputable client will know that quality content does not come at a cost of half a penny per word. Anyone who thinks they can get quality work without paying a fair price will inevitably be a nightmare client. There is a reason that people pay good money for online content, and you should be incredibly wary of the professional ethics of anyone who doesn’t think they should have to.

Sin#5 “Hello friends, I am new to content site and want to make money can you help me, friends??”

What you think you’re saying is, “Hi! Can you help me learn how to become a paid writer?” What we hear is, “I used a translator to write this, and I’m going to use a translator to produce terrible content that gives your industry a bad name!”

 

There are no typos in that sentence. I have seen some variation of this message posted on too many online writing platforms, message boards, and blogs to count. The author is almost always a foreign writer looking to break into the content writing industry. While there are plenty of ESL writers who manage to carve out a niche for themselves in the online writing industry, they do so by producing content that is identical to that of native English speakers. Unfortunately, those writers are by no means the majority.

One platform I use regularly is inundated by similar requests from ESL writers who often get quite belligerent when the best advice that forum goers have to offer is to improve upon their English skills. Outsourcing is the elephant in the room when it comes to the freelance industry, and freelance writing is one of the only markets that ESL workers have not been able to dominate successfully. The simple truth is that content writing requires mastery of the English language. English proficiency is not enough. If you go on a highly competitive platform and your comments demonstrate a lack of English fluency, you can’t be surprised when the other workers who are fluent are not willing to offer you advice. There would be no point, since the requirements of the assignments we complete are far too advanced for a novice English speaker to handle.

Content writing does not simply involve language; it is the use of language to communicate ideas with clarity and precision. When freelance writers who have spent years mastering the intricacies of the English language see someone who has obviously used an online translator to formulate their introductory post asking for assistance, the only direction that person is going to receive is the way to the door.

I’m going to put it as bluntly as I can, because this is a basic truth that all freelance writers must live by: Become fluent in English or you will never succeed as a content writer.

Sin#6 “The freelance writing industry is dying! We’re all going to starve!”

What you think you’re saying is, “I’m a prophet of my time, and this industry is a ship sinking fast. I’m just trying to warn you all before it’s too late.” What we hear is, “Waaaah!”

Nobody likes a whiner, especially not when there’s something for everybody to whine about. Times are tough in the content writing industry, but people tend to get a little myopic about these things. We’re writers! Times have always been tough! This is just the first time in history that we’ve had access to instant-pay projects from around the world. Yes, work is harder to find than it once was, but if you spend more time complaining about what isn’t there than searching for what is, you’ll never succeed in this industry.

 

All industries must undergo a paradigm shift. Outsourcing was the big shift for the freelance industry, and even freelance writers did not escape unscathed. Nonetheless, new content sites crop up every day and the internet certainly isn’t going anywhere. If an online writing platform that was once your bread and butter can’t offer a regular work flow any longer, it’s time to diversify like you should have in the first place! The top writers in the industry write on several platforms, if not dozens, and run their own blogs and websites from which they generate ad revenue. When times get tough, it’s time to get creative. The freelance writing community has enough doomsayers; why not be one of the success stories we can all admire for innovation and determination?

Sin#7 “I’ve got such bad writer’s block. I’m going to have to step away from this article on dental practices in Tuscon and find my motivation.”

What you think you’re saying is, “I must go replenish my sensitive, Creative Writing major soul, my creative juices just aren’t flowing today.” What we hear is, “I haven’t come to terms with the fact that I’m not the great American novelist yet.”

Content writing can be creative, and it can be a lot of fun. But it should never be a philosophical conundrum. If you find yourself having “writer’s block” when producing ad copy, you’re taking this all way too personally.

Our job as content writers is to conduct efficient research so we can effectively communicate the client’s products, services, and character. Writer’s block is all about not knowing where to go next, which is a problem that content writers need not have! All you need to know is right here on the web, provided by your client and assignment parameters. Complicated content is not quality content. In fact, the most effective ad copy is simple and to the point. Sometimes content is witty, if that’s what the client asks for. Other times content has a sympathetic or enthusiastic tone, but all of that is still engineered to sell the product or service.

No matter what tone or style you’re asked to use, you should still be chugging along with the goal of urging the reader to take whatever step the client has in mind. That’s really all the motivation you should need, and if you find that writing even short articles takes more than an hour or so, it’s possible that content writing just isn’t the most effective use of your time and energy. If you find yourself having a bout of writer’s block, pause for a moment to consider what’s really going on and write my essay for me. Do you really not know what to say next, or do you just need a break?

Lessons Learned

There is no question that freelance writing is a competitive and cutthroat industry. Finding and keeping work as a full-time content writer requires ingenuity, determination, and skill. While there are many writers who walk over others and disrespect the craft, there are even more diligent, good-natured writers who respect each other as much as they respect their clients. The online writing community is a wealth of informative and helpful souls who are more than happy to lend a bit of advice to beginners, as long as they demonstrate the same understanding and respect they would ask of others. Like any other community, you get what you are willing to give. Respect the time, talent, and professional boundaries of other writers by avoiding these seven deadly sins and you will easily get your foot into the door of professional freelance writing.