7 Ways to Tell if a Writing Client is Legit

Carol Tice

7 Ways to Tell if a Writing Client is Legit. Makealivingwriting.comOne of the most frequently asked questions freelance writers had on my free call earlier this month was, “How can you tell if an online writing gig is legitimate?”

Funny story — I got a very strange email earlier this week that I think illustrates how difficult it can be to tell very solid opportunities from bogus ones. Here’s the story:

I got this email at 10:30 pm. The sender name and the company names involved are disguised, but otherwise this is letter for letter how the email looked:

hi Carol
My name is (person’s name) and I’m looking for a writer for a project I’m managing.  I’m not sure if you are available but thought I would reach out.  The project is really to create an annual report for a few business programs for my large client in the SEattle area.  I need someone to work with me better now and May 5th.  Not sure if you are available but i’d love to chat.  all teh best (name).

Kind of suspicious-looking, huh? Looks like someone typing on their mobile device or something — someone who doesn’t care how their message looks. And they’re sending me an inquiry at a pretty weird time for doing business.

In general, when I get feeler emails like this that don’t include a company name and phone number, and the email doesn’t reveal a company name — which this one didn’t — I tend to be extremely wary.

I often fire back an email saying if they’re from a real company to please reply with their company name, address, phone and URL. I have a habit of never wanting to spend time discussing projects with anyone who won’t give me those basic pieces of information.

But there were a couple things that made me give this email a second look.

The first was the mention of a big client. The second was the fact that her email did end in a name that I knew was associated with a service offered by a big local company. That gave it enough chance of being a real offer that I wrote back:

Hi (name) —

Thanks for reaching out to me! Annual reports are definitely up my alley — as a longtime business reporter I’m very familiar with that format. I’m pretty slammed for about the next week, but after that my schedule should get better. Why don’t you give me a call tomorrow to discuss your project?

In the meanwhile, maybe you could send me a bit more contact information for you and your company so I can take a look online?

Also would love to hear how you found me — thanks!

After I sent this inquiry, I decided to run the sender’s name through LinkedIn with “Seattle” attached. Bingo: The sender was affiliated with a very large company. I wasn’t surprised when I got her response below. Marketers, note the interesting way she found me:

hi Carol
I’m with (major project management agency)  and we are working with (Fortune 500 company) on a large project for the office of the CTO.  I found you through linked in online to be honest and was looking for someone with adequate experience.  This is a huge project and I need someone for 80hours between now and May 5th.  Let’s chat tomorrow

I also need to know if you can help me with interviews and a few client meetings to review documents once we are done or are you jsut remote?

thanks much


All of which brings us back to our question: How can you tell if a writing gig is legit?

Answer: You have to do some sleuthing. Don’t take prospects at face value. Start researching and find out if they’re who they say they are.

My experience with this prospect shows how hard it is in our casual-email era to tell good from bad. So you really need to look hard at the prospect before you leap.

Ways to investigate a prospective writing client:

  1. Get their contact information and look them up online. Have they been around a while? Do they sell a real-world product or service — or magazine — with a proven track record of success? If they won’t provide a street address, run.
  2. Ask around your writer forums on LinkedIn or wherever you hang out — has anyone worked for this company? If so, what are their impressions?
  3. Poke around in social media to see what this company is saying…and what others are saying about them. Also try the contact person’s name on Twitter and Linked In — does their bio say they work for the company they told you they represent?
  4. Try Googling that company’s name + lawsuit and see what you turn up. Use the Google News tab to see if there are news stories about the company.
  5. Ask the prospect: What is your business model? (If it’s “we get you to write tons of content cheap or free and then we put ads next to it,” run.)
  6. Ask: What are your pay rates and your payment schedule? You want to know up front if they pay on an instant bank transfer or take six months.
  7. Be on the lookout for obviously scammy propositions — it they ask you to write a bunch of free samples, or to write for peanuts because they might be able to pay more later on, or if you get enough pageviews…run.

Ever gotten scammed in a writing gig? Leave a comment and let us know what happened, and what you learned from the experience.



  1. Perry

    I have become friends with quite a few folks I have written for, so, yes, I guess it is my, “style,” to let a business (whether I have written for them or not) know (but in your word, “ratting”) what happened, for the reasons I gave.

  2. Perry

    That has happened to me twice (thankfully it was only twice).

    Geez, I had my act together more than they did, and we are talking about professional businesses here.

    My thinking is if they act that unprofessional, that screwy, that flaky, their boss and/or corporate should know about it…if they didn’t know already and/or they act the same way.

    I was a wee bit irritated the last time it happened, so I fired off (oops, excuse the pun) a very short, cool and calm letter (snail mail). One copy went to corporate and a second went directly to the head honcho at that particular office.

    For all we know, Carol, these kinds of people could very well be hurting the company’s business.

    Who knows how they may be treating their (potential) customers and clients.

    It’s bad enough when sometimes we have to deal with the unprofessional, sometimes uncouth amateurs and their ma and pa sites.

    • Carol Tice

      That sounds like it’d be your style Perry…but I’m not ratting this person out to a giant corporation. I’m just moving on… I think dysfunctional people tend to come a cropper all on their own and don’t need my help.

  3. Brendan McCrain


    You mentioned one of my favorite not-quite-scams: the client who promises to pay more “later” if the job “works out.”

    I feel like these clients are waiting to see if your writing makes them money before paying real rates. There are a ton of these people and when I first started freelancing I believed in their sincere intention to pay me what I was worth…someday.

    The hard truth is that there will always be clients who need a pro writer, but don’t believe in paying pro writer rates. I’d recommend these types for new freelancers who want a bit of paid training but only with the understanding that these are short-term strategies for getting samples, not a viable business plan. Just try signing on with these more-later clients and then raising your prices after the first project!

    Like Will, I don’t offer discounts to first-time clients. Instead I might say something like this: “I’ll offer you a 20% discount on your first newsletter if you sign a contract for 3 months of newsletters at full price.”

    • Carol Tice

      Right on, Brendan — good tips.

      I’m often asked how writers can convince lowballers to pay them better rates. My take is you can’t — being a cheapskate is usually a pretty ingrained mentality. You’ll expend a lot less energy and be less frustrated if you simply move on and look for companies that understand the value a good writer brings.

  4. Carol Tice

    I have to update this with the end of the story.

    I did a phone interview with this prospect, who seemed very distracted and crazed — no surprise after looking at those emails.

    She said I was hired and emailed me a non-disclosure agreement that had other peoples’ names filled into it! She said to scan and email back and also mail it to her…though the full address wasn’t listed on the form…so I had to ask her for that.

    I asked if she wanted to send me a blank form, and she said no, I needed to go in and rewrite it with my information. Which I did. My scanner is currently broken, so I asked for her fax number — and she fired me.

    Said I didn’t have the “working style” to help her with this frantic, emergency project. At that point I was kind of relieved. I don’t really want to work with someone I can’t ask a question of without their freaking out. As my husband said when I told him what happened, just be glad it happened before you got started and invested any time in this.

    So I think the moral of the story is — if it seems flakey, it probably is… even if it turns out to be a very substantial client. They have flakey, crazy people you don’t want to work for, too.

    The hourly rate on it was also low for me, but I just wanted to do it for the connections…but I think in the end it all worked out for the best. Probably a stress nightmare ahead with this person in charge.

    • Nida Sea

      Wow. I wouldn’t want to work with that person either. I’ve been pretty good at determining what is a scam and what’s not. Although I did get scammed pretty bad last year with a company that was legit, but the people that reached out to me were crooked. Yeah, that went south pretty badly.

      Anyway, she sounded like a major basket case. Had a manager like that before… but she was fired because she was so difficult to work with.

  5. Will Bontrager

    I write software. Thank you for the tips, several I had not thought of.

    Another sleuth is the domain’s registration record. (Many domain registrars provide whois service.) Compare contact information with what the potential client provided. If the contact information is obfuscated or goes through a service, a person has to wonder what else they are hiding.

    Do they ask for a discount?

    Maybe I’ve been especially unlucky, but every time I’ve accepted a project at a discount price for a first-time client, I’ve had collection difficulties. “We’re a church,” “I’m temporarily financially challenged,” “I’ll give you good references,” no matter the reason for the discount, the result has been the same – collection issues.

    Occasionally, I’ll do free projects for certain non-profits, and sometimes I’ll voluntarily discount for repeat clients or if they’re especially easy to work for. But if I have not yet done business with a person who asks for a discount I now turn the project down.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Will —

      Thanks for adding a great additional tip, Will!

      When people complain to me about collection problems, I find it’s two things — they didn’t have a written contract, and they didn’t ask for an up-front initial payment. I always have both — usually 30-50% up front — and I don’t have trouble collecting that final payment. They’ve already learned my address, figured out what payment method they’re using, we’ve defined payment terms as net 15 or 30 usually in the contract, and they’re out of excuses.

    • Tricia Ballad

      I second this – I’ve always asked for a 50% deposit up front from first-time clients. Interestingly, I’ve never had collection problems, and I’ve never had a client complain about the deposit.

    • Carol Tice

      That’s a sign you’re going after the RIGHT type of clients, Tricia. 😉

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