Avoiding Common Freelance Writing Scams*

Scammers and the unscrupulous flourish where dreams and business intersect, and writing is no exception. Many authors take on freelance writing opportunities to supplement longer-format writing.

Here are some tips for avoiding some of the common writing-related scams and “opportunities” that cost you more than they benefit:

1. When freelancing or writing for third-party publications, always get a written contract BEFORE you write the piece.

Many times, writers agree to work “on a handshake,” only to discover that the deal terms were not what they expected. Make sure you understand the terms, and have a written agreement (preferably a real contract, but even terms of use will do) so everyone is clear on the terms and conditions of employment.

Note: Evaluate the terms of your contract carefully, and get professional guidance if there’s anything you don’t understand. Use business judgment when evaluating freelance opportunities. Don’t sell yourself–or your work–more cheaply than you deserve.

2. When writing for pay on freelance assignments, get at least half of the money up front.

This one is fairly self-explanatory: if you get paid up front, it’s harder for someone to get away without paying for your work.

3. Never, ever, cash checks on behalf of a client or employer.

A popular freelance scam involves sending the writer a check for more than the employer owes. The employer asks the author to cash the check & return the overage…but the check was never good in the first place, leaving the author holding the bag (and paying for the privilege).

If you receive a check for more than you’re owed, ask the publisher/employer to write you a new one. You are not their bank.

4. Keep the copyrights in your work – unless you knew and agreed in advance (and in writing) to creating “works for hire.”

Most of the time, freelance authors should retain copyright in the works they create for publication. Keeping the copyright enables the freelancer to “recycle” articles (or parts of them) and keep the income cycle rolling.

However, sometimes the circumstances (topic, fee, or other business reasons) justify working on a “work for hire” basis. Be aware: when you write a “work for hire,” the copyright belongs to the person who hired you (not to you). If asked to write a work for hire, evaluate the circumstances and make a reasoned business decision. It’s not an automatic “yes” or “no.”

5. Reputable freelance clients and publishers don’t charge reading or submission fees (for articles or queries).

Submit queries and articles only to markets that do not charge fees for the “privilege” of evaluating your work.

6. Evaluate the potential employer BEFORE you submit your work.

Research the market online, or in industry guides like Writer’s Digest. Talk to experienced freelancers about how they find employment, and seek recommendations when you can.

Adhering to these tips can’t guarantee that you will never fall prey to a scam or an unscrupulous employer, but they will help you stay alert and protect your rights.

Have other freelancing tips, or things that have worked for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

*Today’s post is a re-post from 2015, because I’m traveling to Bouchercon in New Orleans. I’ll be back with new content next Wednesday at noon Pacific!