Hiring a freelancer from a work-bidding site sounds like a good idea. Until it’s not.

A number of years ago, I read the popular Tim Ferriss book ‘The 4-hour Work Week’ in which he recommended outsourcing.

At the time, one of our regular writers was away and another was writing a book. Two writers down meant fewer posts and fewer readers, so I suggested to the editor that we advertise on a freelancer site for temporary scribes.

I assured her that it was a genuine way to hire writers and, besides, the Sydney Morning Herald had profiled the owner of one such site and said it was a smart business move and the way of the future.

Although dubious, the editor agreed and I placed a short, descriptive advertisement about us and the content we needed. The first response arrived within five minutes. The freelancer offered to write articles in bulk for one dollar per post.

“Good grief”, emailed the editor after reading the application, “Who is this person? Bulk writing? Does she think it’s a supermarket?”

I don’t know what the applicant thought, but she’d certainly broken the rules. Instead of replying through the freelancing site, she emailed me directly (big mistake) and I deleted it. Within the next few hours, 16 freelancers responded, most of whom were men. This was odd considering I’d clearly stated our target audience was women 35–60. Nevertheless, wanting to be fair, we perused their submissions.

Within a few minutes, it was clear that most of the applicants could neither write nor spell to an acceptable standard. They all assured us they’d had many articles published on ezine.com. However, anyone can have an article published on ezine.com, so 200 published pieces aren’t enough evidence of a professional portfolio.

More applications rolled in, many of which were missing thumbnail profile pictures and evidence of published work. One standout, though, was Julie, a stay-at-home mum with a 9-month-old baby (or so she said). She sent a well-written article with the comment that she had a lot of time to write. Via email, I asked her to send another writing sample. She responded by thanking me for offering her the job. I emailed again and said I hadn’t offered her the job yet because I wanted to read more of her work. She sent me an academic essay. I crossed Julie off the list.

The next day an email arrived. It was a staff member from the freelance organisation calling herself a concierge. She asked if I needed assistance picking a writer as I had yet to allocate the job. I replied that I was unimpressed by the candidates and that, as far as I could tell, they were too inexperienced. She emailed me a list of writers from their database and I ran a quick search, only to find they were just the first five listed on the freelancer site. Several of them had grammatical and spelling mistakes in their profiles. Understandably, I didn’t go with the concierge’s suggestions.

“Who are these people?”, asked the editor again when I told her about Julie and the concierge. It was a good question and I was flabbergasted. Aren’t many journalists unemployed? Why is it so hard to find a writer who can write?

Over the next few days the applications piled up. Here’s one of the more coherent solicitations:

“I find your site fantastic and have read the description with very much enthusiasm for writing quality articles for you.” They all went straight into my laptop’s bin icon.

As the clock counted down on the advertisement, I received an application with a warning attached. This freelancer told me she was a great writer and to be wary of the other applicants. She said many of them were men posing as women (that explained Julie and the lack of thumbnail pictures on most of the profiles) and that most of the applicants were not professional writers — something I’d figured out already.

Her warning — and the poor quality of applicants — was enough for me cancel the project. I emailed the editor about my decision.

“Thank God”, she said, “What a weird experience. Who were those people?”

To which I can only say, “I don’t know, but they sure weren’t writers.”

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