3 Tip-Offs That Your Dream Writing Job Will Really be a Nightmare


businessman with question maskRecently, I had an interview for what seemed like a dream writing job.

It was in a field I love. The work was right up my alley. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. I was in a slow period of assignments and getting concerned about cash flow.

After a successful meeting with a mid-level manager, I met with the head of the company.

It was ghastly.

Not only did she slash the hourly rate previously quoted to me, but she was rude. She also made several disparaging comments about my former profession. (I’m a licensed attorney.)

After I weighed the pros and cons of taking the gig, I decided it was a ‘no.’ It was scary to walk away from additional income, but my instincts told me it just wouldn’t be worth it.

Turns out, I made the right decision. A couple of weeks later, I landed a job through idealist.org with a legal nonprofit that needed a writer to blog, produce web content, and write grant proposals. After meeting with their very friendly director, I accepted a long-term, $3,000-a-month gig.

How can you tell if a writing job is a good fit, or has all the makings of a hair-pulling nightmare? Here are the three questions I ask:

1. Will the client be difficult?

If you see endless rounds of edits and client emails at 3 a.m. in your future, the time spent on the project will be longer, the work more draining, and the hourly rate lower.

Does the client have a reputation for taking forever to pay invoices? Make sure the rate you’re paid justifies the hassle, and that you’ll be paid promptly.

When I sat with that company head to discuss what I thought would be my dream job, she actually told me that I’d be incapable of editing her articles. After I heard that, her voice faded away for a moment, while a scene played out in my head of me spending countless hours going back and forth with her over a 500-word blog post.

Even if she’d offered me a really high pay rate, I’m not sure I would have taken the position.

2. Are you releasing the rights to your work?

If you sign away all your rights, you forfeit potential extra income from reprints or repurposing your work.

Read agreements carefully and know what rights you retain to your work.

If a company won’t budge on rights, you may be able to negotiate a higher rate of pay. Or you can walk away and look for a more writer-friendly gig.

3. Will the work enhance your portfolio?

My dream client wanted me to remain a secret, which would have prevented me from showcasing the work I did for her to attract future clients.

If a client requires you to sign a confidentiality agreement and won’t let you use the work you produce as part of your portfolio, you earn money but don’t get bragging rights or writing samples.

I considered these factors, which made it easy to walk away from the ‘dream’ project. Soon, another much better writing opportunity come along — which I wouldn’t have been able to take if I’d accepted the first project.

It can be tempting to take whatever paid work you are offered. But if it’s not a good fit, it’s probably not worth it.

What tips you off a prospect is a loser? Give us your tips in the comments.

Kristin Gallagher is a writer and attorney who lives in New York City.


  1. Penny Hawes

    I can really relate to this post. In early February I landed what I thought was a dream job, writing newsletters and doing social media for a high end company in my niche.

    In the conference call and email communications I had before taking this job, everything seemed golden. I asked what they wanted, told them what I’d provide. We settled on a fee of $1800 per month, signed the contract, and the first check was direct deposited into my account. The whole time, while things seemed great on the surface, I had this deep irrational feeling of dread. It was weird, but I kept thinking “Be careful what you wish for”…

    Literally my first day of work, I started to get the feeling that I should have listened to my gut feeling…

    Suddenly the nice woman who was my contact became a complaining, stonewalling ogre. When I asked for information about the company, she sent me a rude email saying that they hired me to do the writing, she shouldn’t have to do it for me…. Answers to my emails were rude and unhelpful (when I could get any response) and I was seriously miserable.

    A month later, when the next check was due in my account, I received an email saying they were terminating the contract immediately. I could probably have hired a lawyer and fought, but at that point, all I wanted was to be done.

    This has actually been surprisingly hard for me to recover from emotionally, and I’ve changed my direction a little and have avoided sending LOIs to larger companies for fear of repeating the horrid experience.

    It was a relief when I had a conference call with a company for whom I’m blogging to discuss edits to a post I had submitted – they liked it and wanted me to break it down into a series because there was so much information to cover!

    Lessons learned? It may be trite, but sometimes when it seems too good to be true, it actually is. Also trite, but true – money isn’t everything… For me, being happy with my work and in my work situation is more important than one client that pays well.

  2. Sharon

    Thank you, Carol. When I did ask about competitors, the response was kind of broad: any tourism focused website concerned with my metropolitan area…and even the history channel. He said I could always check with him first. This was definitely an eye opening experience.

    • Carol Tice

      That is extremely constraining and vague. I strongly resist agreeing to anything like that. I’d challenge the legality of his prohibiting you from writing for a broad range of sites in your market for a year after you’re done with his work.

  3. Sharon

    Great article! I find this piece, and the comments, very helpful, though I wish I had seen this earlier. A few months ago I accepted what seemed like a great opportunity. Now I’ve learned to go with my gut. I had hoped to be a contributor to a history-themed sightseeing website, but several things diminished my initial enthusiasm.

    I would not have a byline, which didn’t bother me so much until I read the contract. I had to relinquish all rights. However, I was told I could still use the material for writing samples. There was also a random competition clause, stating I could not work for any competitors for up to a year after ceasing writing for this publication.

    Also troubling was that my first two articles were to be trial pieces – for half my quoted rate. I felt very conflicted. How could I turn down an opportunity to write about history for a popular audience and actually get paid for it? I also really wanted writing samples.

    I decided to go for it, even though my gut said no. I ended up unsatisfied with the first two stories I submitted, but was determined to meet the deadline. I had to wait several weeks for feedback. I soon realized this wasn’t going to work for either party and broke it off. I also realized I was not a right fit for the publication anyway.

    • Carol Tice

      Sharon, I consider that noncompete clause you got — no competitors for a year *after* you stop — very onerous. I’ve never agreed to that.

      If they try to do this, you want to make them name a few key competitors you won’t write for, or a geographic area — you want to limit who the competitors are.

      And the constraint should end within a short time of your stopping work for them, ideally the DAY you stop, but maybe 90 days is acceptable. It may even be technically illegal to forbid you to write for competitors when no longer in their employ — it’s restraint of trade, in my view. As a freelancer, they don’t own you and shouldn’t have the right to tell you who else you can work for.

  4. Steve Wagner

    When they answer some of my questions but not all of them, that’s a tip-off that they are either withholding something or they don’t quite pay enough attention.

  5. Margaret Piton

    I turn down more assignments than I accept, I’m afraid. The most recent one (last week) offered $500 for research and writing of about 10,000 words over a one-month period.
    Sometimes, though, even if the “dream” job turns out to be a nightmare, there are benefits. I once got my “dream” job with a major daily newspaper, only to discover that I could not work in person with the editor who had been easy to work with as a freelancer. But during my tenure at the paper, I secured a weekly column assignment from a different department of the newspaper that lasted for another 11 years. And, strange to say, I went back to freelancing a lot for the editor I had trouble getting along with in person.

    • Carol Tice

      Well, if you’re offered a lot of ‘junk’ assignments like that, I’m glad you’re turning them down. You might want to look at how you’re qualifying clients to stop getting the lowballers — I also know people who put up a rate sheet with minimums on their writer site to help send those folks away and save time.

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