Becoming a WAH Freelance Writer: Part 7 – Using oDesk and Elance



As I’ve already stated, oDesk and Elance are my favorite places to find clients. They have thousands of jobs with clients that are ready and waiting for my bids every day. That means options, and that means money.

After you’ve signed up, created a profile, uploaded a photograph, and filled in your financial information, the process of securing clients is generally the same. You’ll have to do all of the following:

  1. Search for gigs
  2. Pre-screen your favorites
  3. Evaluate your options
  4. Bid on the best
  5. Begin your contracts

Looking for more details? Here’s a breakdown on how I proceed at each of the aforementioned steps.

Searching for gigs

I’ve heard lots of writers complain that these platforms are “races to the bottom,” meaning that the bidding system encourages good writers to accept bad prices. I think that people with that complaint must either be too professional (writing for more sophisticated markets like major magazines) or using the search feature improperly. By exercising patience a variety of search terms, I’ve repeatedly been able to find good jobs with good rates.

When you search for jobs, you can try generic terms like “writer” and “writing,” but I recommend going deeper than that. If you’re creative, you can use the search function to identify gigs according to:

  • Assignment topic
  • Writing format (blog, eBook, etc)
  • Budget
  • Client region
  • Length of assignment
  • Frequency of work (ongoing vs. “one offs”)

I’ve developed a few phrases I like to find the jobs that work best for me. If you’re curious what they are, then here’s an insider secret.

Pro-tip: Use the advanced search feature to exclude jobs containing phrases like “$1 per.” The reason is that many bum clients will try to pay crappy rates like $1 per 500 words.

Pre-screening your favorite gigs

Most of your client search will be a process of eliminating bad jobs. The first step in doing that is selecting a manageable number of jobs, and fortunately it’s easier than it seems.

Breaking it down
Breaking it down




Once you’ve picked a few search terms you like, you’ll need to look over the results. I recommend doing it quickly. Don’t break your back clicking on every job and reviewing it individually. You’re going to do that later. Instead, rapidly move down the list picking jobs that seem like they could work for you.

oDesk and Elance each have features that allow you to save jobs for future consideration. On oDesk, you can select the heart icon to save them. On Elance, you can select the star. Personally, I plan on narrowing things down so quickly that I use neither. Instead, I right-click on the title of each gig I think I could do and open it in a new tab.

You won’t know whether the jobs you’ve selected are any good until you’ve reviewed them up close and personal, but you won’t do that until you’ve got a nice little list of jobs to look over. I keep pre-screening gigs until I get to 15 or 20. Once you get there, you can move on to the next step.

Evaluating your options

This is your chance to check everything out in detail. When you get here, you’re looking to both examine the gig and the client.

Checking the gig

As you look over the specifics of the gig, don’t worry too much about moving carefully. Get through it quickly. The fourth step is going to take some time. By the time you’re finished there, you’re really going to be whooped, so don’t waste your energy checking everything over.

Here are the things you really want to watch:

  • Budget – does the budget listed in the description differ from the budget listed beneath the title? Often, it will. Look out for the rate typed out by the client.
  • Requirements – some clients may require their freelancers to do extra things such as fill out surveys, log into their blog and post your work, or post links to your work on your personal social media sites. If you’re not okay with the requirements, close the window.
  • Deadlines – if the client isn’t giving you ample time to complete the work, then they’re asking you to enter a no-win situation. Don’t do it.
  • Other bidders – these sites will give you a limited peek at the other bidders interested in your job. This is a bit of an advanced maneuver, but I like to look at the profiles of bidders who were invited to bid by the client. Clearly, these bidders represent the type of freelancer (both in skill set and price) that the clients are interested in. If they only want super cheap writers, I’ll generally pass on the job.

If the gig passes all the initial parameters, then move on to the next step in your evaluation.

Checking the client

Much like a job interview, the application process is a two-way street. Just like your potential client will be evaluating you and your abilities, you should be trying to figure them out. A bad client is usually much more trouble than he or she is worth, so don’t feel bad about bailing ahead of time. These platforms have thousands of clients. You’ll find good ones.

evaluate client

Considering clients is more of an art than a science. In some ways it requires you to read behind the lines. Here are my suggestions for newbies:

  • Seek out established clients – it may be a bit hypocritical, but you’re better off with clients that have been around the block.
  • Look at their feedback – clients will have feedback posted to their profiles by the other freelancers they’ve worked with. If they have bad reviews, run away. Now.
  • Figure out what they’re paying – look at their previous jobs and identify their budgets. If their budgets never hit $100 or more, I’ll usually skip them. You want to build relationships with clients that pay well. The first step is finding them.

A good client will generally be easy to identify, and even if you mistakenly enter an agreement with a bad one, don’t worry. This isn’t a full-time job…after the gig is over, you never have to re-up.


In order to get a gig, you’re obviously going to have to bid on it. Both oDesk and Elance have straightforward bidding processes.

The most important aspect of your bid, will be the numbers. Your clients are businesspeople. They’re worried about dollars and cents! Your bid will be based on a number of factors, including:

  • Difficulty of the project
  • The required research (if any)
  • Deadlines
  • Your skill set / value to client
  • Experience

As a newbie, you’ll be unlikely to command impressive rates. That’s okay. In the beginning you can start low, to get some experience and a little bit of positive feedback on your profile. Once you’ve done that, you can begin to increase your rates. Climbing the ladder in this way is the best method for learning what the market feels you’re worth.


Bidding is an art, but don’t be afraid! Bid small or bid bad. If it’s only for a project or two, it won’t matter much. You’ll quickly develop a feeling for whether or not you’re underbidding yourself.

The official bid will require you to state the fixed price you’ll charge to complete the overall project or your hourly rate. You will also need to provide an estimated deadline for completion and answers to a few open-ended questions. Both platforms will have a box that has no direct request. oDesk calls it the “cover letter” and Elance calls it the “proposal.” They are the same thing.

Writing your proposal

I strongly recommend writing each proposal individually. You can maybe use a template, but I wouldn’t begin with generalities like “Dear Sir/Madam.” Clients want to feel like you’re trying to impress them and that doesn’t do the trick.

My habit is to jump right into why I’m good at what I do. If I have experience in the field, I highlight it. If I don’t, I draw attention to my methodology (which has won me several clients in its own right). Whenever I have a genuine interest in the subject, I always state it outright. In the end, you’re trying to convince a person. My strongest rule is this one: never lie. Eventually, they’ll realize it and your bridge will be burned.

Here is an actual sample of a proposal that won me a gig:

Nearly everything that I write is intended for the internet. I understand how web readers approach each post and can create content that appeals to them.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to convincingly sell you on my skills for your particular project because – as of yet – I don’t know much about it. What I can assure you of, however, is that I have no problem taking instruction, always respect deadlines, and write with the mastery of a native speaker/writer (which I am).

I hope that you’ll message me so we can discuss your project a bit further. I do have some simple questions.

Take care,

Always, always, always end with a “call to action.” Imply, direct, or ask them to contact you. It’s basic psychology and it works.

Answering questions

Most of your clients’ questions will be “what makes you a good fit for this project?” and “do you have any suggestions to improve this project?” Whatever you say, try to say it well. Use proper grammar. Use strong sentences. They want to hire a good writer, so be one.

If you have real answers to those questions, use them. If not, try to develop some sort of go-to answer. This flies in the face of my advice for cover letters, which I think you should write on a case by case basis, but these questions rarely ask you to state anything meaningful, so I don’t see the harm in it.

Bidding frequency

Both platforms limit how frequently you can make bids. That’s because they don’t want you sending applications to dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of clients like a spam machine. This is part of the reason why we spend so much time eliminating bad jobs and clients. With a limited number of bids, you don’t want to waste them.

That said, once you begin to get a decent number of clients, you probably won’t use all of the bids. Even with a full load however, you should still send a few each month. Just aim for jobs that you think are probably out of your reach. If you get them, great! If not, it’s no big deal. You can always drop your lower-paying clients if top shelf gigs are offered to you.

You can increase the number of bids you get each month by doing simple things like completing your profile (which you should do anyway because increases your credibility as a professional).

Beginning your contract

Some jobs get 50+ applicants, but don’t let your competition intimidate you. Most of these writers aren’t terribly talented or are from faraway places. Many westerners would prefer to hire westerners, so if you live in Europe or North America, you already have a leg-up on a lot of your African and Asian competition.

After the client has had some time to review the applicants, he or she will make a decision. Much of the time, that decision won’t be to hire you. That’s okay. Like I’ve said before, these platforms have thousands of clients. You’ll find ones to hire you.

If you are selected, the client will send you a contract with the terms listed on it. Read them carefully. Just because you made a bid saying that you’ll do the job for $200 doesn’t mean that your client is offering you that rate.  If the terms aren’t to your liking, you can reject the contract or try to negotiate with the client.

Fortunately, I’ve never had a client offer me jobs for less than my bid. I doubt you will either.

Even if you think you have come to an agreement with a client, DO NOT START WORKING BEFORE THE CONTRACT IS ACCEPTED. oDesk and Elance have guidelines in place to protect you. Use them.

For fixed price projects requiring more than a single file, ask the client to set up milestones such as 50% of the pay when 50% of the work is complete. For hourly projects, download the platforms time tracking software and use it. You will be guaranteed payment for time tracked that way.

I would not recommend moving contracts off-platform. You risk getting ripped off and it is a violation of both oDesk and Elance’s terms and conditions.

Differences between the platforms

oDesk and Elance are quite similar, but there are a few differences to be aware of. Here they are:

  • Design – oDesk is a little more user friendly. In the screenshots I’ve included, you can see how they compare. If you’re very uncomfortable with computers, use oDesk. Otherwise, use both.
  • Fees – the commission with oDesk is 10% of your earnings, compared to 8.5% at Elance. If you’re getting thousands of dollars’ worth of work, the 1.5% might make a big difference. To me, the fees are worth the services provided.
  • Payment method – oDesk offers direct deposit to your bank account, which I really like. Elance offers checks by mail or PayPal. This is another win for oDesk in my opinion.
  • Time tracking software – oDesk’s software is called “Work View” and Elance’s is called “Tracker.” Both are simple to use and allow you to track time automatically. Roughly every ten minutes, the software will take a screenshot which will be made available to your client, so stay on task. When you use the time tracking software (as opposed to manually entering time, which some clients will permit) you are extended guaranteed payment.

In the end, I strongly recommend using both platforms. You’ll get access to more clients and that means more options. If there’s only room for one platform in your life, I’d choose oDesk. It looks better, is a bit more intuitive, and has better payment options, even if you have to pay a little bit more in commission.

So, what do you think?

This was my longest post to date. Let me know what you think about oDesk, Elance, or this post in the comments, or start a discussion in the forums. If you have any questions for me, personally, you can reach me by email at!

Keep an eye out for the next post, where I’ll discuss in more details some of the things I talked about here.

Daniel Taylor

Daniel Taylor

Daniel is a freelance writer working out of his home in Secane, Pennsylvania. He likes eating cheesesteaks, listening to the blues, and reading great non-fiction. You can email him with questions or moral dilemmas at

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