Up yours Upwork, I’m still a freelance writer!

As a freelance writer, your worst nightmare is losing a big client. This happened to me recently. Actually, it was my only client.

This has caused a seismic shift in my lifestyle choices. It means that instead of receiving a weekly retainer for a job I loved, but worked hard at, I’m back to scratching around in the dismal and rather dingy world of ‘freelancer for hire’.

It’s been a decade since I’ve had to trawl the content mills, bidding for jobs, re-packaging my skills so I’m on trend with current market requirements. I guess I became a little complacent, because my long-time client just loved my work and I didn’t really need to spread myself around.

Now, I’m back to proving what I’m made of, hawking my wares, stalking virtual job boards, signing up for notifications. I’ve even considering moving out of my specialised field altogether. Twirling a Stop/Go sign for a roadwork crew is one job that landed in my inbox. Assistant ‘ranger’ at Chester zoo was another, although I think that’s the glossy job description for elephant-shit-shoveller.

It’s not pretty out there in the real world, and I’d forgotten all about the dark side of the freelance writer’s life. It takes a lot of hard work, and a fair amount of luck to land a client or clients who actually value what you do – and thereby pay you accordingly.

A lot of networking is involved. This is also known as solicitation. Yeah, like a street worker, only you can work in your pyjamas.

To a solitary freelance writer, this networking process is excruciating, so rather than face the prospect of living on pot noodles forever, we turn to those virtual job-boards like Upwork.  This company used to be known as oDesk until it merged with Elance, and changed its attire to blatant pimp.

How Upwork sticks it up you, whether you’re a client or a freelancer

If you’re new to the world of freelancing, then be prepared for a bumpy ride. Content mills are like hard labour camps. You’re asked to roll up your sleeves and work like never before. Your work will never be recognised or appreciated, and you’ll lose all ownership of it. You’ll be paid a pittance, and if you complain, or dare to dispute, there’s a good chance you’ll be black-listed.

To start with, Upwork charges clients who want to hire a freelancer a 2.75% processing fee per payment transaction. This equates to $27.50 on a $1,000 project. That doesn’t sound so bad, but for us freelancers it’s a three-pronged attack on the slops we earn.

The client/freelancer connection process

The model used to be that Upwork would let you bid for 60 jobs per month for free. These communications were called ‘connects’. After you exceeded that quota, (with no guarantee of getting a job) you were asked to pay $2 to bid for a job. From next month this will no longer be the case. “…the virtual tokens freelancers use to submit proposals for jobs, will no longer be free beginning sometime between May and June 2019. Instead, Connects will cost $0.15 each — and depending on the job they’re submitting for, freelancers will need between one and six tokens to apply. For the most in-demand jobs, that translates to a little less than $1 per submission”

Either way, if you win a bid, you pay a service fee of 20% of what you earn up to $500…then 10% after that. And of course, there’s tax to pay on top of that.

You can either bid for jobs that pay hourly, or quote for a whole project. On an hourly basis, your billing period will begin on a Monday and end on a Sunday, but your funds will not be available for a further 10 days. Make sure you are well stocked with pot noodles.

For fixed price jobs, money is available on the completion of a milestone or the whole project (after a ‘security period’ of 5 days).

While Upwork allows collaboration between client and freelancer, be careful not to get too familiar because Upwork will penalise clients for excess messaging.

Negotiating your extortion price

For a hefty proportion of clients on Upwork (from my experience) English is not their first language. Many clients post jobs from areas like Pakistan, India, China, Malaysia. They will probably bargain hard to get your price down.

Example: “Need first class writter to writ 5 artacles or more per day. Must be perfect English. 500 -1000 words per article. Plenty of work for best quality writer. No copying. Long term contract. $5 per article”.

When you tell them the price you expect to be paid for your level of skill, you will either never hear from them again, or they will keep trying to bargain you down. I once had a prospective client text me a dozen times asking me to reconsider working for nothing. Either way you’ve wasted a free ‘connect’. You either live and learn, or you can salvage your self-esteem and get out.

I’ve read some horror stories and unfavourable reviews from freelancers who have tried to make money using Upwork as their pimp. Check these out on a review site called Sitejabber

To be fair, there are also a few reasonable reviews, but what would be the point of including them here. Objectivity is useless when trying to make a point, right?

I have done some work for Upwork in the distant past, back when they were known as oDesk. Such is the life of a freelancer – don’t judge me. Amongst other jobs, I accepted a commission to ghost-write an erotic romance novel of 70,000 words.  I was paid a total of $1,350 which works out to less than 2 cents per word. I received a 5-star rating from the client, but stars don’t pay the bills.

But that’s just Upwork. There are dozens of online content mills you can check out for yourself.


Like most of the others, you need to pass a few tests to prove your competence and willingness to forfeit your dignity. You’ll be asked to submit a writing sample, with lots of criteria, like the usual perfect spelling, grammar, layout stuff, which is all fine – until they ask you to do it in HTML!

Here is what Textbroker pays per word based on your star rating:

  • 2 stars:  Average quality content:€0.7 cents per word.
  • 3 stars:  Good quality content:€1.0 cents per word.
  • 4 stars:  Very good quality content. €1.4 cents per word.
  • 5 stars:  Excellent quality content:up to €5 cents per word.

So, a five-star rated writer will earn €40 for a 1,000-word article.  P.S.  They are not accepting anything under 5-star rated candidates at the moment.

And as with all these platforms, you are selling complete ownership of your work to the client.

Copify:  or https://uk.copify.com/

Just as horrifying. If you’re writing for the AUS platform, you’ll get $10.50 for a 350-word article. That’s 3 cents per word – after passing the mandatory tests to make sure you understand the ramifications of plagiarism. If you could crank out 10 of these a day, you’d almost be able to upgrade from pot noodles and perhaps add some protein. Not so the UK version which pays 1.5 pence per word, or £6 per 400-word article.

These clients request top grade copy, research, originality, impeccable grammar and syntax, the insertion of major SEO keywords and meta descriptions. And the keyword warning… “Include as many as you can and insert them naturally within the piece. Don’t stuff them…”

For me, timewise, the research and work involved with writing a first draft of, say a 350-word blog on “how to adjust a garage roller door”, and coming up with something informative and original would be about 1.5 to 2 hours. I would be paid $10.50.

There are other content mills like Outsourcely,  but by the time you go through the process of registering, you’re drained of every ounce of creativity and motivation, and you’ll find yourself seriously questioning your self-worth.  The bottom line is, they are all in some way out to crush your will to live. Nit-picking is big with these salt mines, and recognition, encouragement or gratitude is rare.

I’d compare working for a content mill to not being a dog-person…yet being forced to walk other people’s dogs every day and having to pick up their poop.

If you’re not completely disillusioned by now, you could try to rebuild hope by visiting sites like Make a living Writing which on the surface at least seems to be encouraging. Of course, I haven’t delved deep enough to find out if it’s just another façade for a site that wants you to sign up and pay for courses so you can change your life and make a six-figure income in a week.

More bad news. This is it, I promise

If fiction is your thing (as it is mine), then you should accept the fact that you will probably never be able to eat anything besides pot noodles, without subsidising your income with hack marketing copy.

Almost all fiction writers, whether they admit it or not, are out there soliciting themselves on content mills, or writing maketing copy wherever they can get it. Short fiction is my forte, but that pays almost nothing unless you’re well established and a mega-super-star like Stephen King, Jeffrey Archer or Tom Hanks.

Now for the good news.

You’re a writer, so you’re already tough. You won’t be deterred, and you won’t be crushed by ridiculous requests to work for nothing. There are literally thousands of publications, both online and print to which you could submit your work. Subscribe to magazines and online publications, and read, read, read their content to get an idea of what they accept.

Then start writing and submitting. It’s what I do. If you don’t write, you can’t submit. And if you don’t submit, you don’t have any chance of making it as a writer. For example, I subscribe to a renowned print literary magazine called Writer’s Forum. After a few submissions and subsequent rejections to their monthly short story competition, I had a story accepted and won third place, plus £100. Not much I know, but it’s incredibly motivating to see your labour of love take on real form.

Final word. Get feedback…even if you have to buy it!

Writers live to write. We can’t help it. It’s like the need to pee or breathe. But if you want to write to live, no matter how many pages of creativity you manage to disgorge, you NEED constructive criticism. Many writers’ sites, like Writer’s Forum offer a critique service and I can tell you from experience that the small amount of money is very well spent. I submitted the aforementioned story with the £5 additional fee for critique and received praise for my story, but was told that the ending needed work, with suggestions on how to improve it. I took the time to re-write and re-submit, and I’m happy to say that it did the trick. Not only that, but it gave me valuable insight as to how an editor thinks.

Believe in your words. They’re worth something, and they’re as important as any creation. Even the Upwork drudge-merchants can’t take that away from you.

“Regrettably, we can’t offer payment for the stories we publish. We do, however, offer you our abiding gratitude”

…from the website of online publication,  Fictive Dream

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