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.



  1. Will

    And Carrol, if you really want to help ESL writers you will leave my comments up.

    Feelings will heal; these people need to hear the truth.

    • Carol Tice

      Will, I’m removing your comments.

      To repeat, my blog is not a place to heap abuse on individual writers or groups of them. There are great writers in English in every country in the world, and great ESL writers, and this post is not a place to slur them all.

  2. Will

    To be completely blunt I hate ESL writers – truly hate them.

    They drive down the wages and quality in this industry to a horrendous degree, leaving both clients and native writers worse off.

    Why can’t they write in their own language, or better yet try to make money with a skill they are good at? Sure beats writing verbal diarrhea for .003 cents a word doesn’t it?

    Most of them are simply terrible at writing, yet try and make a living doing something they are terrible at. It’s intolerable, words cannot describe my anger at these people.

    • Carol Tice

      Will, I try to have compassion for people who are usually desperately trying to survive. I gather businesses don’t hire freelancers or would pay pennies, in many countries. Not every culture has the same attitude toward freelancers.

      I believe the whole era of junk SEO content created a subclass of illiterates who discovered they could ‘write’ and earn. The problem is now, that era is over, but these desperate people haven’t caught on yet, and there isn’t another type of writing work they’ll be able to do, in English.

      I wouldn’t lump all ESL writers into one boat, though — some are completely fluent and you’d never know English wasn’t their first language. And more power to anyone who can write well in more than one language!

      I’ve just read through a series of increasingly hostile, disrespectful posts subsequent to this one, all from you, and deleted them and the responses to them.

      I strive to keep it respectful and civil on my blog comments. Please respect that policy. I won’t tolerate attacks on other commenters.

      The fact is, illiterate writers don’t affect the high end of the market in any way — and it’s incumbent on American writers (or UK ones, etc) to FIND that end of the market and stay there.

      There is no way to stop starving people from trying to better themselves — but I do want to steer them to something they can succeed at. I was gratified in this thread to hear from Harish, who took this advice, and found himself some tutoring jobs and stabilized his income that way.

  3. Benjamin

    Carol, any smart kenyan writer will definitely feel offended by the mention of Kenya. As stated above, in some of the comments, there are literally thousands of kenyan writers who are great, in the very essence of the word! And even a good number are guest posting on major publications for the so called “top bloggers”. Let me tell you something (my view); from the angle this ESL piece was written, I’m pretty sure It did’nt reach its target audience but was meant to flare up some ‘funny’ debate, If I may say so.

    • Carol Tice

      Benjamin, there’s nothing funny about the volume of broken-English emails I get from writers around the globe, every day, and I definitely didn’t write the post to stir up a debate. I wrote it to bring a problem in the marketplace out into the open, and to let people know that I am no longer trying to help people who can’t compose an English sentence — because I CANNOT help them. There is no place in the English-writing marketplace for them, at this point.

      As I said to many others, Kenya was just one example of the many countries I hear from a lot with illiterate pitches, and is in no way being singled out in this post.

    • Benjamin

      Hi Carol, I do understand the picture you’re painting for the so called ESL wanna-be writers. Neverthless, a better title or angle could be much helpful. I can see that you were bothered, frustrated, or, irritated, by innumerable mails from BROKEN ENGLISH writers, and you had to find a lasting ‘solution’ once and for all where you could refer them. And so, did that lead to this piece of writing, to say the least. In my POV, your tone in this writing says so much before the decision was reached. BTW, those who can’t afford food in kenya there is no way they can access internet.

    • Carol Tice

      That’s NOT my experience, Benjamin — they’re still emailing me, hitting me on Facebook, talking about how they can’t afford their school fees, their family is starving…it’s very sad and stressful for me because I CAN’T HELP. I wish I could make the whole world a freelance writer in English, but it actually requires mastery of the language.

      I really just mentioned the 2 countries I think I get hit by the most, Benjamin. Perhaps I should have also done Nigeria, which I blocked off my FB because it was just endless, the pleading requests for help.

      This post is just about helping people not waste their time, and helping steer them in a direction that might help them earn in future, because for many freelance writing in English simply cannot be the way.

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