Tangled up with Incompetent Freelance Writers? Here’s How to Avoid That.

Published: Sep 19, 2017
Last Updated:
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You're looking to outsource your content creation, or you've already started. You're worried that freelance writers won't quite get the job done, or you'll be forced to request multiple revisions, or even make time-consuming edits yourself. You feel like you might get ripped off, and that outsourcing to freelancers may be a waste of time and money—the exact opposite of how it's supposed to be.

Before giving up on outsourcing your content creation and spending big money on an in-house writer, we recommend you do a self-check first. Ask yourself: were my instructions for my freelance writer as clear as they could have been? Or even more important: did I select a competent writer to begin with, or do I need to improve my hiring strategy?

By following this guide, you'll start to make smarter choices when picking freelance writers and ensure you're giving your outsourcing strategy the highest chances of success possible.

<div class="tip">What if you're on the flip side—that is, a freelance writer who's looking to prove their competence and score more clients? Be sure to check out these tips for beginner freelance writers.</div>

1. Look for a strong portfolio

Every freelancer needs a portfolio, and this is doubly true for freelance writers. How then, do you judge whether a freelance writer’s portfolio is quality or not?

  • Where have they been published - known, good, or trash? While a good writer may not have been published in any decent publications, or anywhere at all, that just means they can't justify premium or high rates because it's risky for you to hire them at all.
  • Quality of work - especially in your your niche, industry, or specialization
  • Testimonials - from previous employers or clients. Be skeptical though (you can always try to contact those people, too)
  • Ratings - if there are any, be skeptical of these too as they are easy to fabricate

Another important aspect of a portfolio is the writer’s background. Online this would be an “about me” page on their website. A veteran freelance writer will have a great site while those with less experience likely will not. This section should include:

  • Professional history or resume
  • Educational background
  • Areas of specialization
  • Summary of accomplishments

Also take a look at the sheer volume of work they’ve published, as well as two or three of their most standout pieces. This will give you more information regarding their experience and what their best work looks like.

Questions to Ask:

  • Which pieces are your favorite, and why?
  • Which pieces saw the widest audience or most traffic?

Red Flags:

  • Tiny portfolio - as mentioned, a small portfolio doesn’t give you much to go by. And it should also warn you that they lack the kind of experience and expertise you need.
  • Wide variance in quality of work - if some work is fantastic, but other work is weak, be wary. This could indicate either use of work that isn’t theirs, or it could show a general lack attention most of the time.

2. Assess their communication ability

writers communicating about a project

As a writer, you’d expect your freelancer to be crystal clear in their communication. But “ability to communicate” means more than just how clear they are. Look for these communication abilities:

Capacity for responding thoughtfully

With any freelance writer you hire, you should be asking key questions about your instructions to help reveal the freelancer's actual capability. If your piece is in a niche industry, questioning the freelancer about whether they understand your instructions will help you determine if they've exaggerated in their portfolio. In general, a freelancer's ability to intelligently and thoughtfully respond to your questions will tell you a lot about their ability to actually do the work.

In other words, don't just ask your freelancer if they understand your instructions or not. Give them a small test, via targeted questions, that will help you gauge their depth of knowledge, attention to detail, and enthusiasm for the project.

A freelancer's ability to intelligently and thoughtfully respond to your questions will tell you a lot about their ability to actually do the work.


Also, your writer needs to be responsive. If you send them a message and wait a week to hear from them, they aren’t the writer for you. While it makes sense to give freelance writers a little time to think things through, if they are procrastinating on being in touch with you, it’s better to look elsewhere.

<div class="tip">A decent rule of thumb is to ask for a 24 hour response time, at least during the workweek. Even if they need more time to answer your questions, it's not unreasonable to ask a writer to at least confirm they are thinking about your correspondence and will get back to you within a specific timeframe.</div>

Another measure of responsiveness is their willingness to consider your input. Even if you aren’t a strong writer yourself, it is your project and you know what you want out of it. Don Draper of Mad Men fame may have been a brilliant copywriter and marketer, but he was a nightmare for clients who dared to insist on their own ideas. If a writer is unwilling to make changes you see as necessary, make compromises, or explain logically why you might be wrong, move on.


Finally, you should certainly look for clarity in their communication. If emails or even conversations seem convoluted or lack coherency, their writing probably isn’t much better. Clear communication is also an indicator of general professionalism - if they are too colloquial or informal, they might not be taking your concerns seriously.

Questions to Ask:

  • Have you had any problems with clients in the past, especially due to miscommunication?
  • Are there any parts of my instructions that are confusing to you or require clarification?
  • Would you mind giving me a quick take on how you think you’ll go about handling this project?
  • Are you currently engaged on other freelance projects, or will you be able to dedicate most of your time to my piece?

Red Flags:

  • Overly defensive or emotional responses - if they dismiss your input outright or are irked that you don’t just love their first draft, watch out.
  • Having to wait too long to hear back - they could either be hoping to charge more due to the amount of time passed, or they could just not have much regard for your deadlines.
  • Confusing or convoluted conversations - this can hijack your project and take things in a direction you never intended.

3. Be sure their rates are fair

good price one dollar

As with most things in life, when hiring a freelance writer, you get what you pay for. The main variables that weigh into the pricing for any project you plan to outsource are the skill-level of the writer, the complexity of the topic, the level of research involved, and the type of content you want.

For example, a handful of blog posts about 30-minute dinner ideas should be fairly simple. Most writers can crank these out in an afternoon with cursory web research. On the other hand, a white paper meant to inform other businesses about market conditions and current product limitations will involve in-depth research and weeks, if not months, of effort. Obviously the white paper will cost more, but it will also demand an experienced and capable writer.

In determining rates for a project, you need to consider the following:

  • Length, both in terms of word count and time required
  • Amount of research required
  • Complexity of project
  • Skill and experience of writer

Too high?

Using that information, you can determine if a freelance writer is trying to gouge you. However, some freelance writers with an extensive and impressive portfolio will charge premium rates because they offer what some business owners with a larger budget value the most - absolute certainty that they'll do an excellent job, no matter what project it is.

If that's your business model, you should definitely re-read the section on how to judge a writer's portfolio. Or, you can save time and try our platform, where only the top 1% of vetted writers are able to join.

<div class="tip">Does $20 per hour sound high? Compare this to hiring a full-time copywriter: Glassdoor reports copywriters, on average, earn north of $50K a year. That breaks down to $26 an hour, and doesn't include benefits and time off, to say nothing of having to pay someone year round.</div>

Too low?

You also want to have a healthy skepticism for writers asking for only a penny per word. If they are, they may be farming the work out to other, less-than-capable writers like at content mills located overseas.

There is also a chance that they they simply are not putting any effort into the work, and then you’ll be spending more time trying to get the freelancer to improve quality than it would take to just write the piece yourself.

Recommended payscale for new writers
Basic recommended payscale

Good freelance writers have a logical system for determining rates. If they don’t, and you still think the writer is worth the trouble, see the adjacent table for determining basic rates.

Questions to Ask:

  • On [best piece featured in portfolio], how much were you paid?
  • How much were you paid for [project similar to yours]
  • How much time do you estimate it will take you to research and write this piece?

Red Flags:

  • Too good to be true - if they are Shakespearean in skill but only charge birdseed rates, their portfolio might be filled with work that isn’t theirs.
  • Unwilling to commit to a price upfront - if a writer quotes a price but then says it might fluctuate, that is okay, but you should still ask for a guaranteed maximum. And if writers show signs that there will be a large amount of deviation, this means they don’t have much experience or they are going to gouge you.


It might take a little time, but it is well worth the effort to find the right writer for your project. If you find someone charging fair prices with a great portfolio and a professional disposition, hire away. And make sure to keep their contact information—these relationships are some of the most beneficial to ensuring your organization consistently produces quality and engaging content.

This article was written by Adam Hatch.


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