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Writers for Hire: How to Get What You Pay for on Elance

by Anita Williams Weinberg  |  
January 13, 2012

In this article, you'll learn...

  • Three Guidelines for hiring the right freelance writers
  • Three critical factors to consider before choosing your next freelancer

ElanceoDesk, and other "bid-for-project" freelancer portals have exploded in popularity since the recession hit several years back. Increasingly, organizations desperate to accomplish more with shrinking-by-the-minute budgets are turning to such sites again and again as an alternative to expensive agency relationships.

But with every freelance Tom, Dick, and Harriet out there clamoring for a slice of your marketing budget, how can you make sure you don't get burned?

Each time you dangle a ripe, juicy project over a vast pool of snapping freelancers, the resulting bloodbath could leave you wondering whether it was worth it. You need to get yourself schooled in the following three critical areas before wading into the fray:

  1. Rates. What's a reasonable amount to pay for a freelance writer in your industry?
  2. Skill. What skill level should you expect when working with that kind of freelancer?
  3. Reputation. Does your freelancer have a good reputation in his or her field?

When working with freelancers, "let the buyer beware" is a good rule of thumb. If you aren't careful in the due-diligence process, you may be in for more than you bargained for (literally).

From a Writer's Standpoint

OK, I admit it: Most experienced, reputable freelancers I know wouldn't be caught dead on one of those sites. Some of it is about ego―but there's more to it. Do those freelance portals make a skilled professional feel like one of the desperate "single gals" called out onto the dance floor to catch the bouquet at a wedding? Definitely.

It's never great when a writer with 20 years of demonstrated experience is judged against someone with a murky background (or, worse, no background whatsoever) who will crank a project out for two cents per word.

From a Business Standpoint

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Anita Williams Weinberg is an online content strategist, social marketer, and copywriter. Her company, Poppermost Communications, specializes in case studies, social media content, and strategic Web copy for the technology industry.

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  • by RDR Fri Jan 13, 2012 via web

    I'm sorry, but for someone so critical against freelancers at elance and odesk, I expected much better quality than this. The writing in this article is simply terrible, and whatever message the author was trying to get across didn't reach its destination at all. Just awful! Is it spun material? Perhaps plagiarized? Is that why it's so bad?

  • by Puzzled Fri Jan 13, 2012 via web

    Pretty much agreeing with RDR on this one.

    The "From a Writer's Standpoint" is a joke. There are many well respected and successful writers on Elance and Guru.

    And this: "Do those freelance portals make a skilled professional feel like one of the desperate "single gals" called out onto the dance floor to catch the bouquet at a wedding? Definitely." .....not only wrong but terrible writing.

  • by Celine Fri Jan 13, 2012 via web

    In my opinion, it's pretty much about choosing wisely, indeed. I myself work through Elance and Odesk, basically since they offer as much or even more opportunity as a regular work does (specifically here in my country). I've encountered lots of other writers from different countries using these platforms and when it comes to quality, you can still expect several expert writers through these sites. It's just a matter of selecting the best among the best (considering your budget) and if you feel like hiring one for just 2 cents per word, it's up to you. Screen the writer very well or pay the price of hiring one who accepts such low rate (which, by the way, is quite higher than the usual rates now here at my place).

  • by Randall Seefeldt Fri Jan 13, 2012 via web

    Good points nicely presented, Ms. Weinberg.

    Part of my sales pitch as a freelance writer is this: Communication is your one and only link to your present and potential markets, and its goal has to be nothing less than convincing buyers to change their behavior. Does that sound like work for just anyone who can bang out a coherent sentence?

  • by Roger Harris Fri Jan 13, 2012 via web

    I worked with Elance for a while, but found that the quality of work available and the hourly rates were much worse than what I could get by networking and pitching on my own account. Elance is useful for part-timers or those that don't have the time or experience to do their own outreach or promotion. A direct connection with one's client makes for a much better long-term relationship, in my experience.

  • by Ann Scheuerell Fri Jan 13, 2012 via web

    My beef with the article is this statement: "Has she written content for your industry before? (The only correct answer here is yes.)" I say, that if you don't hire a writer who can both write well and learn fast, you aren't getting the best. Good writers learn fast, know what questions to ask to understand your claims and appeal to your audiences' motivations. Variety (and learning about products and industries) is one of the things I enjoy most about copywriting. Don't sell me short just because I haven't written about your exact subject area before. Look at the quality of my writing (as broad as the subjects may range), and what clients say about me. Demonstrated competence in many industries, even if it's not yours, is a better measure than industry-specific experience alone.

  • by Kerry Fri Jan 13, 2012 via web

    I take some issue with the notion that someone absolutely must have experience in your specific industry. Of course industry experience is helpful, but depending on the nature of the project, writing skills can be more important than industry knowledge. Fresh copy that's not steeped in meaningless industry jargon might be just what you need.

  • by Roger Harris Fri Jan 13, 2012 via web

    Sure, if you are technical writer, you may need specialist knowledge. I pitched a prospect who needed a medical writer. They wouldn't even look at you unless you had an MD. Clearly they prioritized specialist knowledge above writing skills. But for most writing, Ann and Kerry are correct, for writing most copy, a good writer can quickly grasp the message and put that in a form that meets the client's needs.

  • by Ian Ippolito Fri Jan 13, 2012 via web


    Your advice to check porfolios and references is smart, but it's unfortunately not foolproof. Too many people fake portfolios and it's a rare person that can't find 3 other souls to say something positive about them.

    That's why we came up with an alternative way of finding a writer (or other worker) that completely dispenses with interviewing entirely. It's called "on-the-job trial" and instead of guessing at the best one, you'll know the best one with 100% certainty. This gets rid of the "crapshoot when hiring from a bid-for-project site" you mentioned.

    More info is at:

    Ian Ippolito

  • by Celine Fri Jan 13, 2012 via web

    Just to add, yes, I agree with Ann, Kerry, and Roger when they told about specialized knowledge on the industry. Different fields require different experiences, so whether or not you make use of Elance and other freelance sites, the chances vary. If you're looking into copy that's generic or would not require special knowledge or education, there's a greater possibility of locating a great writer basically with a level of education above or at least college. But if you're looking to develop a website about procurement and would want to hire someone without any experience in supply chain management, better think about it a hundred or more times. You definitely need an expert in this case -- not just any other writer who can rewrite based on existing articles.

  • by Jennifer Schrader Sun Jan 15, 2012 via web

    I agree with RDR and many others. As a freelancer myself I get business by word of mouth. That shows to the potential client that yes I can get it done. I have been doing freelancing for a long time now and enjoy it but this article is poorly writen. Educating the client is great just this article really didn't strike the right crowd.... (Just my 2cents)

  • by Robyn Tippins Mon Jan 16, 2012 via web

    I think you're wrong on that 'most pros wouldn't be on these sites' quote. I've freelanced on sites like this and I've been writing for almost 20 years now. If I needed some extra money now, I'd have no problem putting in some hours on there, and I have done one marketing copy rewrite on Guru.

    No, JK Rowling won't end up on there, but those of us who need to feed our family will write for whomever will pay us :)

  • by Don Tepper Fri Jan 20, 2012 via web

    I've hired off of Elance a lot--for writers, illustrators, and voice artists, among others. And, actually, some of the advice in "Writers for Hire" isn't that bad.

    For instance, I agree that having written content in a specific industry/profession before is important. There are the basics, and there are the subtleties. Both are important. I'm currently with an association representing physical therapists, and it IS important to know, for instance, the difference between a physical therapist and an occupational therapist. Or between a PT and a chiropractor. Earlier in my career, I worked for an association representing shippers and receivers. It was critical to know the difference between a shipper and a carrier. (Dow Chemical is a shipper; it ships freight. ConRail is a carrier; it carries freight.) Most professions and occupations have such distinctions. A writer needs to know them, not discover them in the course of research and writing.

    I agree about not choosing the cheapest. I've almost never done that. Choose the least expensive one that has the skills and abilities you need. On the other hand, some providers on Elance don't seem to get it that one of the factors IS price. If I get 10 solid bids for a podcast at $80 (more or less), you'd better be near-perfect if you're bidding $200. Even then, I may be willing to sacrifice just a smidge of quality for huge cost savings.

    One other point regarding price. I also have a stable of freelancers outside of Elance. Does it bother me that I may pay an Elancer only 35% or so (per word) what I pay another freelancer? Not at all. I figure that an Elancer will bid what he/she considers reasonable compensation for the job. The fact that it's less than what another freelancer might charge reflects differences between what those two freelancers want and need. And sometimes the Elance task is relatively simple. I may not need a more expensive independent freelancer to do a perfectly decent job.

    "Peruse the portfolio" is adequate advice, but . . . First, only an idiot is going to put a substandard piece in his/her portfolio, so I assume that's what's there will be of decent quality. In my RFP, though, I describe the type of article I want and then ask that the writer provide samples that most closely matches what I'm looking for. (For instance, a feature article 2,500-3,000 words based on 4-6 interviews.) Not too difficult. But if a bidder doesn't provide samples (or the samples are 300-word Web site pieces), then I'm happy to eliminate him/her. And if he/she can't follow my instructions when bidding, then he/she isn't likely to follow my instructions when writing.

    I also look at the bidder's history on Elance. Has he/she done jobs similar to what I'm looking for? I'll get plenty of bids for some jobs. But when I look at a bidder's history, it doesn't line up at all with what I'm asking for. As in the example above, the bid might be on a 3,000 word feature, but all of his/her jobs have been writing short items for the Web.

  • by Ian Ippolito Fri Jan 20, 2012 via web

    Don, I have to agree with you on the portfolio potion. It's a very stupid writer who can't find good work to put in there (whether they did it themselves or took it from someone else). Asking for a sample is a good idea. If you also use vWorker to find writers in addition to Elance, I would like to hear if/how our new on-the-job trial feature is working for you with your writing projects. We are considering some refinements for writing specifically and I'd be eager to here your input. You can reach me at my name (with no hyphens or dots) @ Thanks.

    Ian Ippolito
    CEO and founder of

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