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An Open Letter to ESL Writers

Carol Tice

ATTN: ESL Writers. Makealivingwriting.comThis is a hard letter to write. But I get letters from you every day, ESL writer, and I feel you deserve an answer.

You email me or hit me on Facebook, from Pakistan, or Kenya, or other points around the globe.

You’re not the rare ESL writer who’s impressively fluent, and whom I only learn from in-depth conversation wasn’t born speaking English.

No, you’re a writer who seems to think you’re fluent in English, but you aren’t. Not even close.

Despite your shaky grasp of English, you’ve fixed on the idea that freelance writing for English-speaking clients is the career for you. And you’re writing me because you want me to help you get paid writing gigs.

I’ve been working to spread hope to writers about the opportunities to earn from their craft for 8 years now. But I’m afraid today, I’m the bearer of bad news.

You probably don’t have the skills to earn a living writing in English. And I want to encourage you to stop banging your head against this brick wall before you starve.

Everyone can’t write for pay

It seems to be a popular notion that freelance writing is a wide-open field that anyone can succeed in, no matter how poor their written language skills.

At this point, I typically receive a couple of messages each day like these:

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 7.24.30 AM

Or this:

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 7.25.26 AM

And on Facebook, this:

Facebook message from ESL writer

It would be great if I had a fairy wand, and I could wave it and change the freelance marketplace so that people like these could earn a good living writing in English…but sadly, I lack those magical powers.

And paid freelance writing is for writers who are beyond competent in the language they’re writing in — they’re exceptional.

How the confusion started

In any other profession, if you’re weak in a particular skill, you would never imagine you could build your living around it. You wouldn’t think you could be an accountant if you were a D student in math, right?

But in writing, the myth persists that marginal English can somehow be turned into a decent income.

This myth arose because once — for a brief time in the beginning of Internet marketing, circa 2005-6 or so – it was true.

You could write semi-literate, SEO keyword-stuffed content for lowball websites, and they’d pay you a tiny bit. There were tons of assignments like this. If you could spin these out fast enough, it added up to at least a bare-bones living, especially in places where the cost of living is low.

But that’s long over now. This implosion in the junk-content marketplace has left ESL writers like you scrambling to find gigs. Expect there to be fewer and fewer opportunities in the future. There just isn’t a living in this anymore.

How to improve your odds as an ESL writer

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. There are still a few ways you can earn a good living online, with limited English. I’ve gone into these earning strategies in detail before, but here’s a quick summary of my tips:

  • Write in your native language – businesses there need writers, too.
  • Write for local editions of U.S. pubs — they’ll use native writers here, and be more forgiving about English flubs.
  • Hire a translator or editor — I know writers doing well this way.
  • Team up with a designer or coder who has better English skills.
  • Move into another field — say, coding, design, or photography, where the primary skill you’re offering isn’t English fluency.

Of course, there’s one more move you could make that might change your situation:

Improve your English

The denial I’ve seen from many illiterate writers about how poor their skills are is truly impressive. But if you want to earn, you’ll need to accept that you aren’t fluent — and take steps to fix the problem.

Take an English course, read books on English grammar. I know, it’s a devilishly difficult language — that’s why so many websites exclude non-native writers, because they know it’s unlikely you’ll be able to write publishable English that would help their business grow.

Realize the marketplace has changed

More than anything, I’d like ESL writers like you, who lack strong English skills, to realize that the opportunity that once existed for you in online writing is gone. Please, don’t end up living on the street by wasting time grasping for the tiny, final crumbs of article-mill work that remain!

Even content mills that used to assign hundreds of articles a day, such as Demand Media, are now down to paying just a handful of experienced, American writers good money for more sophisticated content — and many pennies-per-click sites such as Examiner have closed their doors.

It’s time to be realistic

Listening to the pleas of desperate people, all over the world, is a part of being a popular blogger that I never counted on. As an advocate for writers and for fair writer pay, it’s humbling to have to confront the fact that I can’t help everybody.

You may be a terrific writer in your native language, but as it stands, there simply is no English-language market for your services.

I won’t give you false hope about this. You likely need another type of job. Trying to be a freelance writer in a language you haven’t mastered is not going to solve your financial problems.

You are in my thoughts and prayers. I hope you’re able to find another type of work, online or off, that will sustain you.

What are the best options for ESL writers who lack strong English skills? Let’s discuss in the comments.