A lot of somewhat geeky professions—web design, illustration, graphic design, writing—have a high concentration of freelancers. And being a freelancer, especially in an economy that still hasn’t fully recovered post-2008 and that is plagued by unpaid internships, can be rough. The first year can be more than rough—it can be crazy. Between demented tirades from potential clients to curious tests of your basic integrity, hopping down the freelance rabbit hole can require some patience with industry-approved madness.
My first year out of university, I needed work and possessed a shiny new English and creative writing degree. I spent a lot of time on Craigslist (still do, but with a more discerning eye). I saw a lot of jobs posted—don’t let anyone tell you there are no positions out there for English majors—and about as many scams. When working in a creative field, telling the difference can be difficult.
One of the first positions I landed was not a writing position but an editing one, for a self-described self-publishing company.
There were some manuscripts that were better than their presence in the vanity press’s catalogue would suggest. My favourites were a surprisingly entertaining teen fantasy novel about twins and a short story collection about Chinese women having affairs. Most, however, were filled with run-on sentences, hysterical rants about men’s propensity to cheat, zealous tirades about the evils of secular society, and mistranslations that put “purple monkey dishwasher” to shame (I still don’t know what “angry ocean clothes” was a Google-translate garble of). I discovered partway through one manuscript that entire sections of the text were in the wrong part of the narrative, and that some events had been written about twice and placed haphazardly within the document (alas, this was not a story about time travel). I was given two weeks on average to fix each manuscript and paid what would ostensibly amount to “roughly” $10-$25 an hour. I never made $25 an hour; there were assignments for which the $10 estimate would have been generous (which would be below minimum wage here in Canada anyway), and my pay was usually late despite the contractually stated 30-day delay (which should have been long enough for them to come up with the money) and often arrived only after I refused to work on a new assignment until I was paid. I found myself staying up until between 3:00 and 7:00 a.m., staring at the computer screen, sustained by strong black tea, panic, and the company of my partner napping on the couch nearby in solidarity.
Two events prompted my departure from the sordid world of vanity publishing. The first was my discovery that the company I was working for was being sued on multiple counts of fraud. It turned out that the founder of the company was using at least 11 aliases—many of which bore female monikers, despite the founder being male and by no account transgender—and the scheme operated under dozens of company names, all of which were in the business of ripping off writers. I couldn’t afford to quit immediately, but I began to plan my exit. What finally ended my association with the company was a poetry manuscript with no sentences. The punctuation-phobic author had not indicated anywhere in her nonsensical collection which ideas were attached to each other—I certainly couldn’t guess based on context—and this confusion was clearly not an experimental poetic strategy. Gibberish-induced stress led me to the embarrassing scene of crying in the Yorkdale Mall while helping my partner shop for winter boots, and I emailed the company that night saying I couldn’t finish the edit, particularly not for under a dollar a page. They paid me for what I had done (an unexpected courtesy) and never contacted me again.
I can cheerfully report that the company lost the lawsuits against it and is required by law to compensate its writers for its crimes against their literary dreams. I’d like to take a moment to point out that a publisher should never ask for money to publish your manuscript. With self-publishing companies like Lulu and Smashwords, you are paying for printing and online distribution, but the publisher is ultimately you (and even with companies that let you control the publishing process, you still want to be careful that you aren’t paying for things that benefit them more than you). Know your rights before agreeing to a contract with a publisher—you deserve better than the writers who filed those lawsuits got.
Another Craigslist misadventure (this one for a writing position—finally!) tested my ethics as a writer through the founder’s gleeful disregard for copyright. Alongside writing an original 2000-word article, I was also instructed to find an existing article and reformat it according to their style guide. I assumed this was a test of my editing abilities, but it became clear that they wanted me to steal from other writers on a regular basis. The idea was that I would take an article from a website (without alerting the author), reformat it, remove any external links, and send the article to be included in the company’s weekly inbox emagazine. The original author’s name would remain attached to the article, but the writer would never be consulted about the changes made or be compensated for their work. When I protested, the founder laughed—yes, laughed—and “explained” that some people have an old-fashioned belief that they own the words they write. After some soul-searching, I emailed them to let them know that I wasn’t comfortable with their business practices and would not be able to accept the position, which paid a paltry $75/week. My contacts at the company immediately started to backtrack and deny their endorsement of plagiarism. They paid me for the original article I had written and published it. I can only hope they didn’t make use of the rest of my test assignment. To my surprise, the company’s founder has since unsuccessfully attempted to add me on LinkedIn.
While not every interaction with potential clients has gone so poorly or so strangely, these early experiences do not exist in isolation. With strength in numbers on our minds, a writer/editor friend of mine and I started a copywriting and copyediting business as a side project; in response to our advertisements, one student contacted us on a Saturday expecting us to compose two short papers and a 10-page dissertation for him by Tuesday morning. Unfortunately for him, we didn’t end up completing his degree for him. An equally memorable email arrived from an irate man we’d offered to meet in a coffee shop to discuss his project. In it, he accused us of “walking the streets”, a thinly veiled comparison to prostitution inspired by our lack of a permanent office space. The rest of the email, lineated like a very angry poem, was equally rude.
Though this may seem like a condemnation of Craigslist, I have found some good positions through the site. I tried my hand at ghostwriting restaurant reviews, and the only real downside at the time was not being able to claim the bragging rights. Ghostwriting can give you some quick cash, but it doesn’t help much with your portfolio. It was worth it at the time, however, as it made eating out on a recent graduate’s earnings feasible. I also got the hang of a new form of writing: the review.
Of course, Craigslist is not the only job site I use, and I’ve seen the same problems across the board. I’ve seen many job postings on pay-to-post sites that require high levels of skill and time commitment that end with “unpaid internship”. I’ve also found that regardless of where they advertise, too many companies expect writers to compose blog posts and articles for exposure (a laughable concept when anyone can create a blog for free) or pennies. When asked about job sites, I often say that I’ve found much of my best work and all of my worst work on Craigslist. Now that I’m more practiced at finding gigs, I tend to use sites like freelancewritingjobs.ca, which filters out a lot of the worst-paying positions for Canadian writers, and I scan suspiciously for words and phrases like “internship”, “exposure”, “build your portfolio” (not always a bad thing, but often a warning sign), and “volunteer” (a term misused by many for-profit companies) before investing in a cover letter. Regardless of where I’m looking, my first year as a freelancer taught me how important it is to recognise the value of your own work and not accept the lack of respect that has become the status quo. While I’ve definitely worked for less money than is reasonable just to pay my bills (and had to lean on familial support at times due to the fickle nature of the business), I’ve also learned a lot about the industry I’m in and found some great clients who pay me well above minimum wage. My first year as a freelance writer taught me how to write better, faster, and on topics as diverse as restaurants, provincial parks, cat-themed computer and board games, immigration, sausages (I’m vegetarian), and video marketing.
Despite the cynicism with which I sometimes discuss my job—or more accurately, my jobs—I stand by my choice to freelance, at least for now. While some gigs have been downright awful, I’ve also had the chance to mock bad ads for money and write about my addiction to the Waffles the Cat version of 2048. As for the less enjoyable parts—well, they do make for good stories.