failed writer experiment

My Failed Full Time Writer Experiment + Freelancer Comparison

At the start of the year I made a decision that it was time to be far more aggressive with content on my main money site. Up until this point I had been publishing in batches, often being written by different freelancers each time.

This stop/start publishing schedule meant that I continuously had to start from scratch when finding a competent freelancer. Bringing them up to speed on the style of writing required, the editing time and feedback loops, all led to procrastination and a patchy flow of new content onto the site.

I made the decision to hire a full time writer so that it would force me to get myself organized and get a sustainable system in place. To keep the writer going with fresh topic ideas I would have to be on top of my content planning and keyword research at all times.

While I expected to put in allot of work upfront, I expected the quality and consistency of the content to increase over time as the writer absorbed feedback and improved their writing style.

This all sounds great in theory. In reality I was not able to make it work well enough for it to be sustainable. Initially I planned on committing a minimum of six months to this. I called it quits in five.

I wanted to dissect this in a bit more detail and go into what didn’t work, and what I could have done better along the way.

Sourcing

To source the candidate I used Virtual Staff Finder. They have a good reputation as the go to place for sourcing VAs. I have used them twice now and I have not found their candidates to be any better than what you could find by posting a job on Upwork for example. You just don’t have to do any of the sifting through applications.

With this in mind I wouldn’t use them again as the end result just hasn’t been worth the price of the service. It is still a good service, and if you are short of time I would recommend them. However, once you have had some experience sifting through Upwork applications you can generally spot the better candidates quickly, and can just hire three of them for a test project. Then continue with the best performer.

John Haver talks about this method in a great post here.

Back to the VSF experience. Of the three candidates I interviewed, two were decent so I made offers to both of them. I am glad I did because one of them never made it to the starting line. When she dropped out I thought I may as well give the third writer a trial to see if she could produce some good content. Her first attempt was terrible. I provided detailed feedback on how to improve and never heard from her again. So of the three options I was provided there was only one who was actually willing to do the job. I was disappointed with this.

I came away with one good prospect though that had good experience with the subject matter, seemed like a nice lady and would be reliable.

Expectations

Knowing how much a writer should produce in a good day’s work was a tricky problem to work through. If you stretch them to far the quality would inevitably suffer. If you don’t stretch them enough your cost per article would be too high.

To figure this out I looked at two sources to make an educated guess:

  • What it would take to beat my cost per article using freelancers
  • Online recommendations from other blogs

I didn’t take my own writing speed as a consideration as when I write it is usually on something I am familiar with, and feel like I have something to share. So the research phase is not as big as if you were handed a topic and you had to start from scratch.

I thought that an average of 1,500 words a day was achievable. To start off with I wanted to ensure that quality was the priority, so I wound this back to 1,300 a day. On a 20 working day month his would be 26,000 words. After this point I would start to pay additional incentives.

The writer’s base salary was $500 a month, then add 4% to cover the Paypal fees (if this is you in the future, don’t be a tight ass and pay the fee J ). If each article averaged 1,000 words, then this would be 26 articles a month at a cost of $20 an article.

For a Filipino writer this is not cheap, but not expensive either. I expected the writer to exceed this number as they improved over time and became more familiar with the specific topics.

SOPs

This is something that you should have regardless of whether you are using freelancers or full time staff. For writers it is important that you provide some a framework for how to write for the site. This can include some background on the site’s purpose, target audience, and the voice it is to be written in.

I had neglected this in the past and my mixed results with freelancers is no surprise in hindsight.

Developing some specific guidelines for different post styles also makes it much easier for the writer to get the format consistent with your existing content. This will save you a stack of editing and formatting time before publishing.

It takes some time to do so, but if you put the work in to over the following style of posts then you will have a very robust set of guidelines that can be followed by anyone who comes in to write for you:

  • Question posts
  • How to posts
  • Review posts
  • List posts
  • Best X for Y posts
  • News posts

I didn’t need to have a full time writer to do this, but by getting one it again forced me to get my act together and develop a complete set of documents.

Performance

As you can see things were off to an abysmal start in month one.

There was a lot of time invested in giving feedback and getting the content up to a certain standard.

Generally speaking, the quality was ok for someone who was not a native English speaker. Filipinos do speak English quite well, but it can be a bit rough around the edges with sentence structure and grammar. These are foundational skills that are difficult to improve and it was clear that there would also be a need for editorial oversight.

Over time the volumes did increase, but I found the submissions to be sporadic.

Writer Productivity Chart

While it would be nice for remote workers to be able to self-manage their time it became clear to me that this part was not working very well. Having lived and worked in the Philippines for five years I know that Filipinos work well inside systems and structure. Without this, most will struggle.

Given my limited experience with a full time remote worker I still expected time management to be something that came with the territory of working from home. The freedom to choose your own hours is why people do it, and I didn’t want to impose any kind of schedule on the writer.

As we got deeper into the time of employment the lack of productivity could only mean one of two things:

  • She was incredibly slow! The bulk of the articles to this point were only product reviews and did not require heavy research.
  • She was not putting in the hours expected.

After many discussions, I thought it best to start using time tracking software. I hated doing this, but some accountability was badly needed.

I used Time Doctor for this. Very user friendly software, and only cost a few bucks a month.

The jump in productivity was instant! Volume increase of 25% in the very next month (Feb -> Mar). I was kicking myself for not doing this from day one, but I really wanted to avoid being that kind of employer.

While chart looks like we are on an uptrend, when you factor in the number of working days in each month it tells a different story. This removed public holidays (which were paid holidays for the writer), and days when she just did no work.

As you can see we are not progressing closer to that minimum target of 1,300 words per day.

Writer Daily Productivity

When we look at this on a cost per article basis the best that we managed was $28 per 1,256 words in May. This cost was comparable to the (native English speaking) freelancers I had been using at the time. They were producing far better content, and required less editing and fact checking.

This chart does not compare apples with apples though. For the freelancers comparison to make sense we would need to look at an average per 1,000 words – which we will do later on in the post.

Cost Per Article

Limitations

The quality of the articles produced was not improving at the same rate as the volumes unfortunately. Information focussed articles were generally pretty good, but the reviews were very repetitive and really struggle to convey a balanced point of view.

No matter how much feedback was given, phrases like “this is the [insert product] for you,” or “this is the best [insert product] on the market” continued to show up. It made the content sound cheap, and salesy, rather than balanced and informative.

Due to the volume of editing that I was doing I did get slack with the standards at times and will have to go back over the content at some stage to ensure that this kind of thing is corrected. It is hard to build trust with the reader with this kind of content.

The biggest point of frustration with the content was the introductions and conclusions. In almost every submission these had to be totally re-done because they either made no sense at all, or were hollow statements that were broad and useless.

Even when the article was excellent (there were a few outstanding submissions) the intro was cringe worthy and no one would have kept reading.

The other habit that I could not seem to shake out of the writer was the tendency to list out the ways an item could be used. It always followed the same pattern and would always be deleted entirely because it was of no value to the reader whatsoever.

Example: You can use this while running errands, out with friends, and even [insert useless scenario here].

The “and even” part of that sentence became so predictable in her writing no matter how many times we discussed alternative ways of making the point…. If it was necessary to make it at all.

Many of these points are only minor and should be correctable over time. When they continued to pop up time and time again though I did begin to question whether there was a willingness to improve.

Perhaps the writer was rushing through content to get closer to the targets set. I was not placing any pressure on the writer to meet these, but when we did conduct reviews of her research processes and progress against targets I would always link the discussion back to her increased earnings potential if she is able to work at this rate.

I never wanted volume to be the priority. Our discussions always centred on one guiding principle. Make the best piece of content on the internet for this topic. I didn’t care if everything else came second to this, but you do also need to have one eye on your cost per article.

Commitment

After implementing the Time Doctor software I could see that the work patterns (as I suspected) were patchy and would have made it very hard to get into any kind of routine.

There would be an hour here and there, then a block of time late at night on some days. At the start of a month she would work less, and then be scrambling to make up hours late in the month. Her schedule didn’t bother me, but when the quality of work was not improving I did suggest that a self-imposed schedule may help her concentration levels.

At nearly every pay day I had to adjust the payment to reflect the hours worked. This was a clear signal to me that she had been dishonest in those first two months and had not been putting the hours she said that she would.

What I disliked most about this was just the inconvenience of having to work out, and explain how I arrived at the salary figure. The lack of commitment was creating more work that should not have been necessary.

The Earnings Hit

About half way through this project Amazon swooped in with their commission update. The site she was working on earned most of its commission from a category that was brought down to 4%, and some from a 5.5% category.

While this sux, if you want to be in the internet marketing game being able to roll with the punches is one of the most important skills you can have. The hit did take a big bite out of the profitability of the site though, and with a full time writer on staff your costs are fixed.

I continued to focus on the long term picture though and was glad that I had started the expansion before the earnings shock came through. The quickest and best way for me to recover was to get more earning content up on the site.

The Freelancer Comparison

I continued to employ freelancers through this period to work on batches of content. This gave me a great point of comparison, and now that I was armed with my detailed writing templates I found that starting these projects took very little work.

I only hired native English speakers, and rather than interviewing people I would just give a paid trial project to a shortlist of candidates and hire the best one.

The difference in quality was massive! The editing time was minimal!

It took some digging to find the right freelancers, but once I had them I could guarantee a steady flow of work indefinitely! Something freelancers love. The average cost per article worked out to be about the same as what I was paying the full time writer, and I had the flexibility to control how much I spent in any given month. This had become more important after the recent earnings drop.

A generally accepted rate for a good quality freelancer would be between $30-$50 per article. You can go much cheaper than this, but if you want content good enough to build links and make your site stand out over the long run you will have a lot of editing hours ahead of you (as I found out).

At a cost per thousand words for my writer the difference of a few bucks was not worth the editing and fact checking time I had to put in to make the content up to standard.

Very quickly I was starting to see that this experiment was not the best use of my time or money.

full timer writer vs freelancer

Working with freelancers is certainly not all beer and skittles though. The best quality writer that I had been working with completely disappeared for over a month. She did come back eventually and explained that she had a death in the family and wanted to continue working on the project.

This was less of an issue because I had three writers working on the site. So the publishing continued mostly on schedule as I could just allocate topics elsewhere.

Decision Time

I felt that the amount of growth left that the full time writer could deliver was marginal, and the time that it would take for me to help her get to another level was far too significant for it to be worthwhile.

By this stage the backlog of content was getting away from me and I needed to slow things down. I offered for the full time writer to transition to a freelance arrangement. She could still do a reasonable amount of work for me if she wanted to, and could also supplement her income by taking on other jobs.

Immediately following this change her output fell off a cliff. The next payment to her was closer to $50 than the $260 she would have received as a full time writer. I think this shocked her a little as she then came to me asking for more topics and wanted to crank out at least five articles a week.

Inevitably the quality suffered further and more recently I had to put the arrangement on hold. Some of the content was sent back to her for revision, and more time needs to go into the editing at my end.

Just this week I have offered her one topic a week so she has the opportunity to show that she can produce better quality content. This will be the final opportunity to do so. The cost savings are just not worth the extra time that goes into editing and re-writing content.

Project Review

I wanted to include a breakdown of the actual work completed as a reference point for anyone thinking of doing the same.

It was difficult to find answers in my initial research on how much content a full time writer should produce each day. This is only a sample size of one writer, but it is a starting point nonetheless. I remain confident that if you hire the right person for the job they could outperform these figures significantly!!

Full Time Writer Summary:

Articles Produced86
Avg. Words per Article990
Avg. Words per Day849
Cost$2,269.20
Avg. Cost per Article$29.00
Hours of EditingFar too many!!!

Freelancer Summary:

Articles Produced42
Avg. Words per Article1,253
Cost$1,050
Avg. Cost per Article$25.00
Hours of Editing< 15 min per article

I have since moved both freelance writers on to a per word agreement so that their payment fully reflects the work done. This incentivizes them to do their best work possible, not meet a word count. They receive a steady flow of work at two articles per week, which is nice and predictable for them.

Wins

I was able to make massive progress with the site in a short period of time.

By taking on far more than I should have it has forced me to get better at managing my time, and bringing in further outside help just so I could keep up.

  • I brought on a VA to do outreach on my behalf to build links to the content. There is no way I would have had time to do this as I was flat out with the keyword/topic research, editing and uploading of content.
  • More recently I have trained up a low cost web designer to upload the content for me. This is a huge time saver and I wish I did this from the start! Again I had to develop a range of training videos and SOPs for each different style of post so that it could be as hands off as possible once training is complete.

Looking back I now I am close to having the bare bones of a complete system. My time now needs to go towards optimizing these processes so they are more efficient, and more hands off. Then I can scale things even further.

The amount of time I have spent editing content has given me a much sharper eye for what is useful, and what is crap filler content. So I feel like I would be in a good position to hire and train a content editor also so I can further remove myself from the process.

Mistakes

I feel that I was a bit slow to get the correct structure and expectations set for the writer. The accountability to deliver work at a reasonable pace, and the accountability for working hours was not there early on and this may have set the tone for the duration of the employment period.

The fact that I am still working with the person could be looked at as being too lenient. I know she is capable to excellent work though and I have still put a lot of time into training her. I remain hopeful that we can maintain a long term working relationship. What I don’t see is the hunger in her to outperform though. This will always be a limitation.

This brings me to the most important mistake of all. I probably hired the wrong person for the job. Hunger and ambition can overcome most other things in any job. This person has some talent, but the ambition isn’t there. So you are always fighting a losing battle to create some drive and to raise their standards.

I have worked with some amazingly talented and ambitious people in the Philippines. They are bloody hard to find though and probably 0.1% of the population. Those that could also write at the level of a native English speaker would be even less. They are out there but I needed to cast a much wider net to find them.

Was it Worth it?

For me it was. The personal growth that I went through will benefit me forever, and the costs were only short term. I will get better value for my investment dollars in the future as a result of doing this, plus I gave my site a real kick start to the year.

It would have been cheaper to hire a premium content service to manage the blog, and would have been headache free. But it was a learning process that I needed to go through.

Advantages:

Full TimeFreelance
You are forced to maintain the pace of expansion of your siteFlexibility in costs and volume of new content
You will need to develop a set of SOPs, writing style guides and templates for your writer so you are not needed as muchYour cost per article is also much more predictable
If you put the time into editing, and delivering feedback your writer should improve over timeReturning substandard work to be edited or re-written is done on the freelancers time, not yours
Your site will be written in a consistent voiceYou can assign topics to writers with specific expertise
Your writer has job security and if you treat them well a long term team member that can take on a higher position down the road

Disadvantages:

Full TimeFreelance
Your costs are fixed regardless of site revenueKeeping good freelancers can be challenging if you don’t give them consistent work
Volume flexibility is also lostFinding good quality and reliable freelancers can be difficult
Job security can lead to a comfortable writer that slacks off on quality and/or quantityFreelancers have no obligation to you and can go MIA at any time
Natural incentives for quality and timely work are lost due to steady pay chequeKeeping a consistent voice in your site requires more attentive editing
Lengthy edits and rewrites of substandard work leads to increasing cost per articleIf you don’t maintain long term relationships, you will not benefit from the growth and learning of your writers
Can take away from lifestyle benefits of running a site
Costs can be increased further by paying benefits such as sick leave, vacation leave, and 13th month pay (it’s a Philippines thing)

Final Word

I will revisit the idea of a full time writer again in the future, but for now my preference is to maintain a network of freelancers with a range of expertise. When the growth of my site portfolio warrants it I would be more inclined to hire a full time Project Manager/Editor first.

Thankfully there are plenty of people who will work on a per hour basis so that you can ramp up your use of outside help at a pace that is within your budget. You don’t have to go all in as I did to get the benefit.

 

About the Author James Treloar

Corporate Debt Collector turned internet marketer. I run a successful portfolio of Amazon niche sites, an FBA business, and a content agency.
The Amazon opportunity has been life changing for me, and is so big that there is enough room for everyone to carve out their niche. The hard part is getting started!

Leave a Comment:

4 comments
Deanna says August 9, 2017

Great article! As a freelance writer, blog and social media manager I found it extremely insightful to read this article from a buyers point of view! Great article.

Reply
    James Treloar says August 27, 2017

    Thanks Deanna! Glad it was helpful 🙂

    Reply
Jean-Paul Teitu II says August 9, 2017

Being a Pilipino myself, and as an aspiring Blogger/Content Marketer, I find this article a timely piece of advice to re-calibrate my writing arsenal. I hate to disappoint the expectations of my client(s).

Though I’m still on the beginning phase of my journey, but the ultimate goal is to become the most powerful, sought after, persuasive freelance writer in the world. :p

Reply
    James Treloar says August 27, 2017

    Keep at it and I am sure your skills will grow in time.

    Reply
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