Ink-Dipped Advice: Red Flags While Prospecting

image courtesy of Alexey_Hulsov via

I’m back after an absence. I had the second surgery that was postponed due to COVID-19. Probably the best part of it all was that I had to get a COVID test in order to be allowed into the hospital.

With so many millions of people out of work, and more people forced back into work situations that could kill them, because businesses are being reckless and expect their staff to die for them – there are a lot of people looking for work right now.

Which means there are a lot of predators out there, hoping to take advantage of desperate people.

I really wish that businesses would cough up some cash and hire a professional writer to write the ads they put out – even when the ad is for a professional writer. While some of my colleagues see badly-written ads as examples of why the company should hire them, I often see red flags.

They’re Baa-aack! Content Mills Are Still a Bad Choice

As I mentioned several posts ago, content mills are back. They’ve rebranded themselves as “content agencies” or “content producers.” They still overwork, underpay, and provide lousy quality all the way around. Avoid them.

I attended an online writing conference last week, and some of the “instructors” actually advised writers to go ahead and work for content mills in the short term.

Try not to.

I won’t say “never” because sometimes we all have to suck it up and accept a lousy gig at low pay in order to make some immediate cash.

But if you do so, leave it off your resume, and get out as quickly as possible. If you get a decent clip out of it for your portfolio, great. But leave the mill off your resume. It lowers your rate and your credibility if it’s there. Definitely keep it off your LinkedIn profile.

One of the recent, rebranded content mills waxes on how they’re so high-paying with 10-14 cents a word.

AARP magazine, which accepts freelance pitches, pays $1/word. So does REAL SIMPLE.

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY is looking for an at-large writer at 50 cents a word, with 4-6 articles per month, plus they pay for any tests they ask you to take.  Which is what professionals do.

If you want breakdowns and comparisons of predatory jobs and legitimate, professionally-paid ones, Lori Widmer does a wonderful series called “This Job, Not That Job” on Words on the Page.

No Free Samples. No Free Tests.

It died down for a bit, but now it’s back in full force. Companies who demand that you write content for them for free as a “test.”

A good portion of these companies take the content, don’t pay anyone, change the name of the company, and then use the content for which they didn’t pay.

Don’t do it.

I now put it in my cover letter that I will not provide project-specific samples without pay, and offer them my rate. I also state that I will not take assessments or any other type of test unless we set up a date and time, and that I am paid for that time.

I will not give up billable hours to take an “assessment.”

Read my portfolio.

If you can’t tell whether I’m a good fit from my portfolio samples, that’s about your lack of analytical reading skill, not about my lack of writing skill.

You want me to do something specific to your company because you “can’t tell” if I can write in your tone? Fine. There’s a price for that.

If you don’t respect my rate, and if you don’t feel that my time is valuable before we even work together, you’ve let me know how little you think of your people.

We are not the right fit.

No Personality Tests. Ever.

More and more companies, both remote and onsite, are telling their recruiters to run candidates through DISC tests or Briggs Meyers personality tests.

I am a complex individual. I cannot — and WILL not — be distilled down and put into a box by type. Saying you need to test me like this to see if I can function as part of a team indicates your company attracts an unhealthy level of crazy. In order to function as a member of a team, I use my skills in collaboration, creativity, and professionalism. By setting people up as “dominant” or “influence” or “steadiness” or “conscientious” you’re stating that each member of the team can only embody one aspect. I embody all of them, and I bring forth what’s needed to best suit the situation.

That’s a huge red flag, and indicates you should run like hell without looking back.

This is always toxic, but especially so for writers. One of the many wonderful things about writers is flexibility and versatility. Not only are we more than one thing, we can communicate more than one thing, on multiple levels, in the same piece.

The last recruiter who argued with me about it said, “All of us have to take this test. I took the test.”

To which I replied, “I am so sorry that you felt you had to accept such abuse.”

She was quite offended. But I meant it.

She then hit me with, “Oh, you’ll see, you’ll think about it overnight and agree.”

I told her that the very fact the test was requested indicated it was no longer a company for whom I wanted to work.

That was that. She got back in touch a week later to see when I wanted to take it, now that I had time to realize what an important part of the hiring process it was. I told her the twelfth of never.

Full-time Freelancer

YOU are the full-time freelancer, unless you choose to work for a single employer. If and when you choose to work for a single employer, on a full time schedule, you are an employee of the company.

“Full-time freelancer” means you are running your own business and working for multiple clients. If you are working for a single company, you are their employee and should be getting benefits. Anything less is a scam.

Ridiculous Hours

The same place that demanded the personality test said they paid for a 35.5 hour week. HOWEVER, because their team was scattered over the country, I needed to be “available” to them from 9 AM to 9 PM. Plus a 2-1/2 hour commute in each direction – they didn’t have their own office, but they had a desk in a co-working space, and I was required to work there (although there was no reason it couldn’t be fully remote). However, I was being paid the “fulltime” employee salary of 35.5 hours and expected to give all that extra time (since it was a 60 hour workweek) without pay.


With distributed teams across time zones, there does need to be overlap. But meetings need to be negotiated to work for everyone, not all the off-hours put on a single individual. And all work time must be paid.

Also, when it states work is  “Monday through Friday” and “weekends” but it’s only 20 hours a week – no.

If I’m a freelancer, I choose which hours I work. We arrange for meetings at mutually convenient times, but as long as I meet deadlines, I pick my hours.

Again, if the employer chooses the hours, you are now an employee, not a freelancer, and should be getting benefits.

A List of Equipment You Must Provide

If the listing contains the equipment they want you to use, or the software, skip it.

If a company wants me to use a specific laptop to them, a specific phone, or a specific type of software, THEY must provide it. I am not running out and buying an extra MacBook Air for exclusive use.

Or, if I’m using my own equipment, you pay me what we called in theatre and film production a “kit fee.”

Nor am I buying a new car because of them. If I have to have “reliable” personal transportation because they’re not near public transit or because they don’t feel it’s “reliable” enough – then they can provide me with a company car.

I’ve noticed that the employers who demand this don’t pay for mileage or gas or wear and tear on cars or other equipment, although they expect their employees to bear the full cost.


What if You Want/Need the Job?


There’s nothing wrong with asking for what you want. Be polite, be confidant, but don’t just take it.

Know what you’re willing to negotiate back to, and, if they refuse (most recruiters will refuse, and negotiation needs to be with the company itself, not the recruiter), know at what point you will walk away.

Liz Ryan, of The Human Workplace, offers a plethora of negotiating tactics and suggestions. Familiarize yourself with them, and adjust them for your individual situation and comfort level.

Check out Lori Widmer’s Words on the Page blog. She has terrific resources for freelancers; many of them can be adapted if you decide to look for a more traditional employment situation.

Remember that any recruiter or potential client is not doing you a favor by an interview or an initial conversation. It is a mutually beneficial situation to find the right person for the right slot, with both parties getting a positive result. If it’s treated as anything less, that is a huge red flag that there are problems within the work culture, and there’s a good chance you will be unhappy, undervalued, and underpaid.

Move on to the next company on your list.

What are some of the red flags you’ve seen lately?

2 thoughts on “Ink-Dipped Advice: Red Flags While Prospecting”

  1. THIS is what last week’s freelance writing seminar should have covered. (I’m sure some of the things were mentioned in passing, but probably not as well as you have done.)

    1. Thank you. I’m seriously thinking of doing a post called “Useful Information That’s Not an Attempt to Upsell.”

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