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Interpreting Ads


There are dozens of job boards and sites on the internet, listing freelance opportunities. Craigslist, in particular, lists a myriad of opportunities open to freelancers at all levels of experience. However, you have to read a freelance job ad with the same discernment as you would a real estate ad. Far too often, the job is not as good as it initially reads.

I am vehemently opposed to sites that charge a fee for job listings. I know there are freelancers who defensively swear they get great opportunities from them, but I believe that not only can you find better jobs on non-fee sites, but you also have the freedom to negotiate better rates.

Before you even read an ad, you have to sit down and do a clear-eyed self-evaluation.

  • Where are you in your freelancing life?
  • How much experience do you have?
  • What kind of credits and samples do you have?
  • What is your time worth?
  • What kind of overhead expenses do you need to take into consideration when you think about fees? Home office space, printer ink, paper, phone calls, research time, and insurance all need to be figured in to your quote.

Look over your samples and clips. Clean them up, convert them into PDF files, and set them in a folder on your computer and your flash drive, so you can access your samples from anywhere. Clean up your resume. The handier and more accessible your clips and resume are, the less time it takes you to put together a pitch package, the more likely you are to send out multiple pitches in a single day, thereby widening your net of potential employers and income.

Set up a few boilerplate contracts that you can easily adapt, depending on the client, covering hourly rates, late fees, and the fact that you hold the copyright until the check clears.

Now, you’re ready to read the ads. And, once you’ve read them, you can interpret them.

Here are some red flags:

“Easy assignment” that “shouldn’t take much time.”  If an ad states that this is an “easy” assignment and “shouldn’t” take much time, I suggest that you skip it. If the job is so easy and will take up so little time, the person placing the ad could have completed it in the time it took to write and post the ad.

The employer has no way of knowing how much time it will take you to perform the task. This is an employer who doesn’t think much of a writer’s skill and craft. This is an employer who thinks that “anyone” can write effective copy, yet conveniently ignores the fact that if it were true, there would be no need to place the ad. This is an employer who will not pay you what you are worth and will probably haggle over any type of payment at all.

Misspellings and poor grammar in the ad. Freelancers debate this issue. Some look at a badly written ad as a chance to prove to the potential employer how badly they need the skills of a good writer. I disagree. The employer doesn’t want to be told he can’t write. He wants to get quality work for as low a price as possible. And if he can’t craft a clean ad, how is he going to discern which writing is quality and which is merely the lowest bid?

Start-up. Proceed cautiously with any ad that admits to being a start-up. I’ve had better luck with these companies than many of my colleagues. The majority of start-ups with whom I’ve worked have had a genuine dedication to making the business succeed.

The trick to working with start-ups is to have a strong contract with them, preferably one you’ve crafted. If it’s a fairly small job, ask for 50% of the fee up front and 50% upon delivery. Larger jobs are paid with 1/3 up front, 1/3 at a specified date approximately in the middle of the project, and 1/3 within 15 days of turning in the project. I usually include two rounds of revisions in the initial quote, stating clearly that additional revisions or change of direction will be billed at my regular hourly rate (and I state the rate). I include a late fee clause. If the invoice is not paid promptly, an additional 20% is added to the cost. You can decide if you tack that on after 15 days or 30 days.

Also, with start-ups, I add a sliding scale fee clause, especially if I’ve agreed to work at lower than my normal rate. After X amount of time or X assignments, whichever comes first, my fee goes up X%. This way, as the company grows, my fee climbs toward my normal rate.

Exposure. This means no money. If the ad simply states that there’s no money involved (e.g., many small literary magazines and some non-profits don’t pay), I’m more likely to take a second look. But to promise me exposure? I’ve paid my dues; I’m not here for “exposure.” I’m here because this is my business as well as my vocation.

There’s nothing wrong with taking on pro-bono clients. In fact, you are better off going to a charitable organization in which you truly believe and taking them on as a pro bono client rather than answering a blind ad that offers you “exposure.”

Working for a charity you love will result in excellent clips from a legitimate, recognized organization and will help you land paying jobs. But there’s no point in working for “exposure” while the for-profit employer is pocketing the cash. Even if you’re just starting out, those credits won’t land you higher paying jobs. You’ll get the reputation as someone who doesn’t need or deserve to get paid.

Money is not mentioned in the job, or the rate is listed as TBD (To Be Determined) or BOE (Based On Experience). If the job sounds interesting and legitimate, shoot the potential client an email and discuss money. If the client truly has no idea what to offer for the job, supply a quote. This is no time to be bashful about dollar signs and decimal points. Make sure you are the decider in a “TBD” situation and you set the bar for experience on the “BOE” jobs.

The money works out to be pennies for hours’ worth of work. I see this frequently in PR writing ads. Not only do the clients want the material written, they want it distributed. Okay, fine, but those are two separate quotes. Distributing PR materials is a time-intensive process. If employers don’t want to pay a reasonable fee for a press release, they certainly won’t want to spend the money it takes to have it distributed.

Whatever money is offered, break it down into the time you estimate the job will take, the percentage of your overhead the job needs to cover, and any aggravation factors involved. If it doesn’t meet the rate you set before you started scanning the job boards, skip it.

Employers that want you to write specific, unpaid samples for them. In a word: Don’t. Use samples from your portfolio. A legitimate employer can tell from reading a sample if you are a good fit. If you make it to the next round and they want more, negotiate a fee for samples specific to the client, and remind him that you retain the copyright until the check clears.

Far too often, job-specific samples are required. Then, once submitted, applicants are told that someone else filled the job. Or, the ad states that only those submissions under consideration will receive a reply; yet, those unpaid samples appear on the client’s site, publication, newsletter, etc. Do not supply such materials without a signed contract and money in place.

Long, complicated, self-aggrandizing ads. The ad should run a clear, concise few paragraphs with specific information pertaining to the job, the turnaround time, and the pay rate. Long-winded diatribes on process and vision indicate someone who’s more interested in the sound of his own voice than anything you can supply. If you decide to apply for one of these jobs, add an aggravation fee into your initial quote. You’ll earn it.

There are many wonderful freelance opportunities out there if you read carefully, value your time and your craft, search on your own away from sites that simply want the lowest bid, and show a bit of initiative in how you approach the companies. Listen to your instincts. No matter how excited your head gets over some of the empty promises in these ads, your gut can guide you away from the biggest creative deathtraps.


Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction with work appearing in publications as diverse as FEMMEFAN, THE CRAFTY TRAVELER, WILD CHILD, and ELLE. She writes the column "The Literary Athlete" for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW, has work in several anthologies, and her plays are produced around the world. Her novella HEX BREAKER, the first Jain Lazarus adventure, was released from FireDrakes Weyr Publishing in August 2008. Her blog on the writing life is Ink in My Coffee: Her websites are:,, and


10 Ways To Make Money Writing

To many people, writing is a necessity. It keeps their mind lively; it is a way of expression. Writing is hard work, but it is also challenging, interesting and gratifying. Following, are ten ways you can earn from your writing skills.

Non-Fiction Articles

There is a huge market for these articles that include topics on self-development, health, travel, finance, business, religion, inspirational, personal essays, profiles and how-to’s. Write about what you know, but also explore new horizons by searching and interviewing experts. For instance, if you are covering a health issue, talk to a doctor. Writing long articles without querying first will make you lose time and money. Verify market listings in Writer’s Market and writer’s magazines. Five 400-word articles will probably earn you more than a single 2,000-word article.

Don’t forget to explore all angles. For example, if you specialize in travel writing, focus your writing on magazines and newspapers, but also approach public relations and advertising firms regarding travel accounts, and convention and visitors’ bureaus that need writing and consulting services.

Writing for magazines is free from the deadlines of newspaper journalism. You can take the time to ensure your information is correct and choose projects that interest you. Non-fiction articles offer the best market possibilities in terms of variety of subject matter and opportunity for sales. You can also get maximum mileage from your work by reselling your writing and using your extra research to re-slant your articles.


Fillers and short pieces are the ultimate quick sales. Much of what we read today is informational. It is material that makes the reader healthier, wealthier, wiser, more attractive, better liked and loved. Take a look at the magazines you read, or browse the newsstands. You will notice a lot of sections devoted to service information. Busy readers devour them, because they are matters quickly read, grasped, and put to use. Usually, short pieces are defined as anywhere from 40 to 300 words. Ideas for fillers turn up all the time. Watch for news articles in newspapers. Many constitute the basis for great short pieces and may be used as research.

Another great method of creating fillers comes from writing down tips that have proven useful to you. Many publications welcome hints about saving money, helping the environment, decorating, gardening, or caring for an aging parent. If you’ve found a new way to solve a problem, send it in. Look in Writer’s Market for editors who buy fillers.

Commercial Poetry

If you have the soul of a poet, you can make money in this field by selling unrhymed sentiments to gift markets. You will be writing heartfelt messages on themes such as relationships, encouragement, friendship, and family. The poetry is used on a variety of products including coffee mugs, plaques, bookmarks, posters. You don’t have to spend years working your way up in order to be published; if an editor appreciates your work, your chances of making a sale are excellent.

Most companies pay well for quality writing. Poems for these products range from one to 30 or more lines, but shorter verses sell best. Some publishers pay royalties. One of the easiest ways to explore the markets for commercial poetry is to browse through your local gift and stationery shops, discount department stores and drugstores. When you see products with verses, take note of the manufacturer’s or publisher’s name, then inquire if the editors would be interested in seeing your work. For more information, contact the Gift Association of America.

Greeting cards

How many greeting cards did you buy last year? American retail card sales are estimated at nearly $7.5 billion annually according to the Greeting Card Association.

Card manufacturers rely on writers to supply them with skilled, crafted sentiments to meet the demand. Familiarize yourself with the differences among lines of cards by visiting card racks. Read trade magazines such as Gifts and Decorative Accessories and Party and Paper Retailer.

Once you find an interesting card line, request the submission guidelines; they vary from one company to another. Some editors prefer to see individual card ideas on 3 X 5 cards, while others favor a number of ideas on 8 1/2 X 11 paper. Make sure to put your best pieces on top. The standard submission includes 5 to 15 card ideas and an accompanying cover letter.

Payment for greeting card verse varies, but most firms pay per card or per idea; few pay small royalties. Some companies prefer to test a card idea first and will pay a small fee for it. In some cases, a company may purchase an idea and never use it. An important fact to know is that women purchase between 80 and 90 percent of all greeting cards. Card market sources:,,


If you are passionate and knowledgeable about a topic, love to research and write, then newsletter publishing is for you. Nevertheless, it must be a subject that will interest enough subscribers. Before you start, you should know how many features you intend to include, such as reviews, articles, and fillers. Then determine if you will need graphics, photographs, or other specific needs. You must also decide at what frequency you will publish. Lastly, you have to locate prospects.

Finding your target audience is as crucial as creating the newsletter. You may be able to find subscribers through forums, website advertising, magazines, newspapers, associations. Don’t forget to advertise on your blog. At last, you are ready to create your sample. It does not have to be full-length or sophisticated, but keep in mind that a well-written, properly designed newsletter will attract more subscribers. This writing income opportunity can make you earn a substantial income for many years.


We've all read product reviews. Many times, we buy a product based on reviews others have written. You probably have written a review once in a while for a movie you really enjoyed. There are numerous websites that will pay for reviews. Some pay per submission, others pay per hit, few have sweepstake rewards. Read the terms carefully before starting your work.

Make sure you use the products and services for which you’re reviewing. You can not carve a good report without having tried the merchandise. To be successful, you should be passionate, interesting, honest, detailed, and consultative. The more expensive the items, the more you’ll be paid for your reviews.

If you’re very enthusiastic with products in a particular lucrative category, start a blog. After several months, companies will approach you and request your services. SoftwareJudge pays up to fifty dollars per good review. If you are good at reviewing software, go to or any other site that showcases software. SharedReviews, PayPerPost, Ciao!, and Epinions are popular sites seeking reviewers. Also, do research for newspapers and magazines that are interested in new product reviews. 


There will always be people out of work and they will always need others to help them prepare résumés. Send flyers advertising your services to employment agencies, large corporations, colleges, universities, vocational institution, law schools, and libraries. Place classified ads in local and school newspapers, executive magazines and industry publications.

In an interview with your client, obtain all the significant employment history. You have to demonstrate your client’s talents and hidden skills. Look for signs of achievement whether they are fundraisings or increased sales and productivity. Inquire about responsibilities or projects the person has achieved. Don’t forget military background, educational qualifications, outside interests, and special honors.

Résumés require a clear and tight writing style and a successful use of action verbs and adjectives. They must be concise and not be over two pages. You can increase your fee by offering to write customized cover letters to send out with your client’s résumé.


A booklet is a relatively short publication that provides comprehensive information on a particular topic, but the topic is too short for a full-length book. A booklet’s optimal length should be sixteen pages, or fractions or multiples of thirty-two pages. A thirty-two-page booklet is called a signature, which is the standard page count in the publishing industry. How-to articles are the best type. People need condensed and specialized information, explanation and summaries. They need tools to help them choose among the vast assortment of information and make better decisions about health, nutrition, cooking, safety, money, computers, technology, careers and a hundred other topics.

Depending on your subject matter, you may consider including charts, worksheets, graphs, checklists, lists of action steps, and a directory of resources. Booklets are ideal for self-publishing. You can advertise them in local newspapers, magazines, trade catalogs, organizations related to your topic, newsletters, etc.

Narrative Non-Fiction

There are big opportunities for writers who can find classic story elements in daily life. To most newspaper reporters, a dry description on a city council meeting is a story. So is a summary of the police report on an armed bank robbery, or election results.

As more editors and writers now acknowledge, a true non-fiction story is not just any compilation of facts. A news report, for example, might reveal that police officers have arrested a pedophile in connection with the disappearance of several little girls and the arrest is only the climax of the story. A true storyteller would be far more interested in an account of all the relevant events leading up to the arrest.

Mass media, which must reach large audiences including all sorts of people, want stories that exploit big themes and obvious conflicts. To be successful in this field, you must learn to distinguish true, fascinating stories. Afterward, write the article as a storyteller not as a reporter.

Short Fiction

Your daily tasks bore you, so your head is often in the clouds. Use your work environment to develop plot. If you work in a large office, you could make good use of the daily drama. An employee is attracted to a colleague who is uninterested in her? Alter the couple’s age, appearance and profession, and imagine a story with a happy ending. As with any endeavor, you must approach the task with honesty and pleasure. Don’t consider writing a specific genre unless you appreciate and understand it. Try to have fun with your story, work with the words and ideas.

Know which genres are published in different publications. For instance, in women’s magazines, romance is very popular. Years ago, the monopoly was traditional boy-meets-girl stories, whether contemporary, period, or historical. Nowadays, romance is often knotted with more modern themes—single parenting, juggling motherhood and career, caring for an elderly parent, etc. In addition to romance and mystery, short fiction also includes science fiction, fantasy, thriller and horror. Consult Novel & Short Story Writer's Market for listings. Don’t disregard literary magazines and websites: Locus, Asimov, Winning Writers.


Sylvie Malaborsa is a bilingual writer living in Montreal. Her articles have appeared in Catholic Insight, Canadian Messenger, Annals of Ste Anne, Forever Young News, Long Island Woman, Small Business Opportunities, etc. She writes to express herself and share. She loves writing and hopes her passion for words will never end.



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