Saturday, October 1, 2011

Making a Living Online as a Copywriter: Mission Impossible? by Kristine M. Smith

Kristine M. Smith has been a freelance writer for more than 35 years and a professional copywriter since 2007. The author of six books, her most recent title is SERVAL SON: Spots and Stripes Forever, a cautionary true story about what it’s like to own—and be owned by—a wild cat. Endorsed by several high-profile animal advocates, SERVAL SON debuted at #2 and #4 in two categories on the day it was released at Amazon (Sept. 1, 2011). She joins us today to share her tips on making a living as a copywriter.

Making a Living Online as a Copywriter: Mission Impossible?

Back in the day—not all that long ago—it was entirely possible to hang a shingle at Elance and other online freelance websites, take a battery of tests, post a portfolio of your best work, and within months hit some semblance of a stride and begin to make a living. It happened for me that way back in 2008-2009.

Things have changed dramatically.

Even those of us with stellar ratings from clients and hundreds of projects under our belts are finding the freelance jungle a tedious, tangled tribulation these days. It seems the bigger and better-known a freelance site gets, the worse it becomes at doing what it set out to do: serve as a matchmaker between buyers and providers.
Unfortunately, at the moment Elance happens to be the best known (and best) freelance website out there (in my opinion) so until a competitor comes along that is willing to do right by its buyers and sellers again, Elance it is. I have an awfully secure feeling that they’ll get their comeuppance one day when a group of savvy Creatives gets together and decides to do it right. At that point Elance will have to straighten up, change what it’s doing wrong, or die a sadly well-deserved death.

Just a year ago as I write this, providers (that’s what we’re called at Elance and at other sites) were able to ask questions (via a Public Message Board) of prospective “employers” (buyers) to clarify project parameters whenever a project description lacked vital details and to make sure the association would be a win-win for both parties. Not anymore.

Recently Elance decided that providers now must pay one or more connect fees (depending on the monetary value of the project) just to ask follow-up questions if a project description is incomplete! This has effectively priced the service out of most beginning providers’ ability to pay and has caused long-time providers to initiate strategies that will allow them to head for the exits as soon as practical without losing their shirts.

Charging providers to pay connect fees in every instance where project parameters need to be clarified (which is at least 50% of the time) makes about as much sense as charging job seekers to pay for the preliminary interviews they get with employers to find out what a total job entails and whether it’s a good fit. On the face of it, it’s completely ludicrous.

This new wrinkle has caused the search for good projects to take two to three times longer and to cost two to three times more in connect fees. If a project description is inadequate (which happens most of the time), all you can do to escape a connect fee is to submit a violation report that tells Elance “Insufficient detail to bid reliably” and hope that the powers-that-be will de-list it before someone else bids blind on it and lands it.

I have developed a content questionnaire, a multiple-page document of kudos from over 100 clients, and an article that instructs buyers how to write a complete project description when seeking copywriters. Whenever I find a project that intrigues me enough that I decide to pay a connect fee to bid tentatively on it until I learn more, I attach these three documents to the bid.

It’s no surprise that some potential buyers/employers balk when they see the attachments because they then understand what their part of the bargain must be in order for me to hit their project out of the ball park for them. Others are extremely appreciative that I care enough to show them what’s needed so the project can be completed to their vision in a fraction of the time it would take otherwise (and hence at less cost to them).

Incidentally, the three documents act as a great screening device. The kudos pages prove my value; the PD page educates the buyer; the content questionnaire solicits what I need to know to bid reliably and helps me discern if the buyer is someone I really want to do business with.

If a buyer isn’t willing to collaborate by filling out the questionnaire, or provide sufficient parameters so I can bid reliably, it’s a red flag and my first indication that—should I elect to take the job—I’d better charge significantly more than I would for a buyer who’s willing to do their fair share. After all, business owners know their customers, their product or service, and their USPs (unique selling propositions) like the back of their hands. If they don’t, that’s a red flag, too: the project will be more time-consuming research-wise and may require one-on-one counseling with the buyer. And if a buyer can provide testimonials as well, your job as a copywriter is that much simpler and becomes making what they offer so irresistible that only a nincompoop would go anywhere else!

Ready to Roll?
I know that what I’ve outlined here sounds discouraging, but if you’re a talented copywriter who can compete well in the space between a vast army of offshore (third world, English-as-a-second-language) and/or hobbyist writers and the handful of superstars who ask a bundle for their services, go ahead and throw your hat into the ring. In this economy, do whatever you have to do to bring home the bacon. If you can write (or edit) (or proofread) (or build websites), don’t hesitate.

I’ll be happy to send you my Content Questionnaire and the Elance article to get you started. Feel free to adapt the Content Questionnaire to make it your own. The Elance article will help you see what a complete project description (PD) should look like.

5 Quick Tips
Never bid blind. If a PD isn’t complete, report it to the website and move on unless you’re so intrigued by the partial description that it just won’t leave you alone.

Be sure your project is funded before you work on it. Grab-and-go “will you write this on spec” folks are out there ripping people off right and left. Don’t fall victim to them.

Read the buyer’s/employer’s feedback for other projects s/he has funded before bidding. Don’t risk your budding reputation on a chronically cranky character.
Take the website’s battery of pertinent tests. Don’t self-rate if given the option. Few people believe self-rated claims.

Post a portfolio at the website as soon as you can. If you don’t have anything to show at first, ask your clients whenever you get a great rating if you can post what you’ve written for them in your portfolio. (Unless they’ve asked you to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, most will be happy to let you do that.)

Thank you Kristine! You can visit Kristine online at Her email address is kristine m smith AT msn DOT com (all one word).

©2011 by Kristine M. Smith. Published here with permission.


  1. This article could not come at a better time for me. I've been considering Elance for several months. Thank you Kristine!

  2. Are most of your buyers in the U.S. or outside the country?

  3. Are the connect fees a percent of the value of the bid or a flat fee?

  4. Serval Son is my kind of book. I am going to buyit on Amazon today. What an experience that must have been!

  5. Do you see any Elance competitors emerging? Any rumors or buzz about something better?

  6. DanielleWrites@be..October 7, 2011 at 9:37 PM

    I take pride in my work and have not had any negative experiences with people I've worked with. However, if that were to happen on Elance, is there any way to get that bad feedback removed from your account? What if it was written by another Elance provider eager to take over projects? Have you ever encountered this?

  7. @MaggieJay: My clients come from all over the world--mostly the developed countries, though.

  8. @SugarSnapNC: Connect fees vary. If it's a FEATURED listing, connect fees cost more; if it's under $500, it's usually one connect fee (unless featured); connect fees go up as the price of the project increases: $500-1000 is two connect fees (or more); $1000-$5000 K can be four or more... and so on. Connect fees are about 50 cents each but you also pay 8.75% of every project to Elance.

  9. @Jefferson: I don't see any Elance competitors that are better. If you do, let me know!

  10. @DanielleWrites: I have encountered slams, slurs and back-biting from a few predatory, crass Elance providers inside the Water Cooler, but they can't respond from within the client feedback section, so that isn't a big concern.

    If you have a bad experience with a client at Elance, you can cancel the project and refund the money. If you do that, their feedback won't appear. That's just about the only recourse, though--you lose out on the time you spent and the money you made on that project... I have never resorted to that. On the very few occasions (just 3 times times in four years and over 400 projects) when I have received less than stellar feedback, I have stated my case diplomatically so that anyone who sees it will understand the circumstances and that the client was either asking for more than the project parameters I bid on and expected more for the same price; or they complimented me highly and then dinged me, or whatever... My three were easy to explain! (Check them out on my History page.)

  11. I've been a provider for Elance for almost 10 years and witnessed the same kind of changes Kristine has. The inability to clarify a job before giving up connects has been one of the most frustrating to date. However, like Kristine said, Elance is still one of the best venues to find freelance work. You just have to dig underneath the rubble to find the gems. Great post Kristine!!

  12. Thank you, Charlene! Hang your shingle at (tell them I sent you!), and craigslist, too. The first two are free unless you upgrade; the last one is always free.

    And network locally. Read Michael Port's BOOK YOURSELF SOLID. It's a treasure trove of great ideas. I'm implementing them now.

    I'm also writing two information products (reports) for new copywriters, including business owners who want to write their own copy. They will be available very soon for just $3.95 each. If you'd like to get one or the other of them, e me at kristine m smith AT msn DOT com (all one word). I'll take Paypal!

  13. Another good option seems to be, a British "Elance." I really love some of their features! I've just started there so have no anecdotal evidence to share (yet)



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