Beware: highly opinionated writing ahead.
Experienced freelance writers already know what kinds of crap passes for “writing-related websites” on the net…over time you’ll find everything; out-and-out scams, hilarious ineptitude, raging egos (that would be me) and brilliant insights. Newcomers to this writing life will learn soon enough. It can be quite frustrating online, especially when you are trying to soak up information on the writing game and learn all you can to get your foot in the door.
New freelancers are often tempted to start writing-related websites. Here’s a little secret that no other writing site that I know of has (so far) shared–many (not all) experienced writers can tell the difference between a noob writing site trying to pass itself off as “one of the pros” and an honest-to-god experienced writer sharing the benefit of his or her experience. We appreciate people who don’t try to pass themselves off as something they are not–newcomers who admit this up front are far more likely to get a good reaction from a weathered ole hack like me. Try to pull the wool over the eyes of someone knows better and you deserve whatever flames you may get.
For those of us in the know, the symptoms are impossible to miss. They stick out like a sore thumb. Scratch that–they stick out like a sore thumb badly infected with gangrene in dire need of being lopped off. Lately I’ve seen my share, and I suppose it’s irked me a bit. More than a bit.
I know some of my friends will ask why I am wasting my time writing this. One of my stated policies is that I don’t spend valuable time railing against “stuff that sucks”, especially when there are so many GOOD sites out there to talk about. In this case I make an exception because I’m not addressing any one site in particular (why bother) and because I just wasted a good deal of time looking through a site I thought held promise. I was disappointed to see that it was just full of crap. It is frustrating to waste valuable time on nonsense, and now I vent my spleen for you. Will it actually HELP you? Read my top five signs of a bad writing site and judge for yourself.
#5. Bad writing sites don’t give specific advice. Ever see those sites that have articles on how to “be a successful freelancer” only to give you advice like, “Learn how to market yourself”? That’s just GREAT, fellah. These articles are the equivalent of that old Monty Python sketch where the talk show host says he’s going to show you how to play the flute. “Move your fingers on these holes and press down on these knobby bits here.” In other words, THANKS FOR NOTHING. You want to know how to market yourself better? Set up a MySpace page and make LOTS of new friends. When you post a new blog entry, send a bulletin to these friends. The law of averages says at least SOME of them will look. You will gain new readers if your content isn’t crap and you have something to say.
See? SPECIFIC ADVICE. It rules.
#4. Bad freelance sites offer the most obvious advice and resources. Hey, who doesn’t know about Writer’s Market? If you are a noob freelancer, here’s some specific advice for you. GO TO THE LIBRARY and READ IT THERE. Save your money. Here’s another bit of advice for you. That Writer’s Market book is used by smart writers as a basic reference only. Wanna know why? Because by the time Writer’s Market comes out, who knows how many of those editors have moved on? You’ll be sending e-mail to a bunch of dead addys if you try to query with e-mail contacts out of that book. Contact the mag FIRST. Find out who is running the department you want to contact and query THEM. Don’t spend your hard-earned dollars purchasing something in book form that is best suited to an online database. Don’t worry, plenty of writers learn the hard way, not just you. I did the same thing-and I didn’t even write it off as a business expense on my taxes way back when. See how dumb I was?
#3. Bad freelancer sites give stupid advice. Never trust ANY freelance writing “expert” who tells you to go ahead and quit your job without explaining a few things first. The most valuable advice I ever got on this subject was very hard to swallow. The wisdom: “Never quit your day job until at least half your income comes from freelancing.”
Folks, those are words to live by for MOST PEOPLE. Some people get fired and are forced to go freelance. These people have much more invested in their success from day one, and many find ways to make it work under such conditions. Trust me, you do NOT want to be in their shoes. When I started writing full time, I had a big chunk of money in the bank and several good prospects lined up. When many of those prospects didn’t turn into the income I had hoped, I found myself in panic mode a mere nine months later. I gutted out the better part of a year writing full-time, but I had to adjust my stratetgy to make ends meet. It happens…life comes in and messes up your plans. If you can’t handle the financial uncertainty in those early years of the game, you’ve got a long way to go before you’re ready for full-time.
#2. Bad freelance writing sites rarely discuss their own trials and tribulations in the writing game. To me, this is one of the dead giveaways. A freelancer who won’t share personal experience in the game is either hiding something (a lack of experience) or they don’t understand that a freelance writing site should help and inform. Otherwise, why bother? Freelancers who haven’t made the sale yet can’t talk about the mistakes they’ve made. They can’t tell you what pitfalls to avoid. They certainly can’t tell you that there is no magic formula for a query letter or that sometimes getting a query accepted is a combination of luck, skill and being smart enough to know you have to pitch each editor on an individual basis. The “wing and a prayer” approach does NOT work on a consistent enough basis to pay the bills. I should know–I made those noob mistakes once upon a time.
#1. Bad freelance sites scrape other people’s content. You see these sites all over the net on every topic imaginable. They LOOK like they are written by a human…sort of. The sum total of their content seems to be links to other people’s posts, but there is no original content there at all. I am NOT talking about a website that has plenty of original content but uses a sidebar with other links to recent freelance writing posts on other blogs and sites. This is an accepted practice on many blogs and the amount of unique content is obvious. What I am railing against here is the site that has nothing BUT these links to other people’s work disguised (at first glance) as posts by the site’s creators.
This is by NO MEANS a comprehensive (or even well-written) list. Please feel free to add comments to tell me I’m full of crap or to share your own pet peeves with writing sites. I’d love to know what others have experienced.