Category Archives: Teacher Announcements

When someone else does your research for you

A lot of researchers (including a past version of me) get really upset when someone else beats them to the punch with a project, but the more intermediate researcher I am today revels in it. If someone else has produced useful findings, why not use that to do a follow-up study to test their findings? There are always new opportunities for research, especially in fields related to writing or communication, which is constantly evolving.

So, here is a report based on a survey of 247 freelance writers on the state of freelancing today: The-State-of-Freelance-Writing-2014.pdf

It’s by, which is one of the good guys, at least from my initial research into this area.

My personal assessment of the telecommuting opportunities mentioned before

Jessie mentioned some freelance opportunities in an earlier post, and mostly as a kind of research experiment, but also because there were some consulting and contract jobs on Flex Jobs that I thought I’d try to grab in my “spare time,” I signed up for Flex Jobs and a couple others. Below is my assessment of each one I tried. Other people might have had better experiences. Please feel free to share if you have.

Flex Jobs

  • Most of the jobs I found were linked to from elsewhere on the Internet through free sites like Monster and Simply Hired. Out of the dozens of jobs I examined, only two wanted applications directly through Flex Jobs.
  • Most of the jobs I found said “telecommuting,” but then when I clicked to go to the original posting, it turned out they wanted someone in a particular area.
  • The vast majority of jobs appeared extremely low paid. On a whim, for example, I investigated a “content writing” job through a firm that seemed legit, and through no effort on my part they “approved me” for this job. Turns out it was editing random entries online in sites like Tech How for $25 per entry. I estimated what that would be hourly for the work required for each entry and it was basically minimum wage or less (it’s not an hourly rate, so they can charge whatever they want–it’s not “their fault” if you end up making pennies on the dollar because their offering takes you hours to complete it).
  • They also offer “skill tests” to make you stand out to employers, but these skill tests were VERY difficult, even in areas in which I consider myself an expert. I flunked my first one, for instance, and got a B in the “technical writing test,” even though I have been doing that work for years.
  • After my preliminary examination, I asked for a full refund (which I did receive).


  • At first, Scripted appeared to be a much better model. It was free to sign up for, and after a particularly fascist grammar test (which I also failed the first time), I was “approved” to write 500 word articles that appeared in my dashboard for close to $60 per article. I estimated I could do an article in 2-3 hours, meaning that I’d be earning $20-30 per hour. Not bad.
  • Then, however, I realized that I also had to apply for “industries” in order to land those articles. These industries are governed by anonymous “community moderators” who accept or decline you based on a writing sample which they judge for voice, clarity, flow, and reader engagement.
  • You actually have to submit two writing samples, one you’ve published somewhere and one generated in response to a prompt. After being told that my writing sample was “too short” (but not which one was too short), I lengthened it and then was quickly declined for the “industry” I applied to, which was business, a field I have numerous peer-reviewed publications in. Below is the “feedback” I received. There was no option to revise or resubmit.

Regarding the consistency of your voice: I know what voice this piece needed, but the writer didn’t execute it perfectly.

Regarding the clarity of your writing: I see what the writer was trying to express, but I’m still a little confused.

Regarding the flow of your prose: The thoughts linked together, with one or two notable exceptions.

Regarding the extent to which you kept the reader engaged: The subject was interesting and informative, but my focus still wandered.


  • So, near as I can tell, both these sites are owned by the same company (oDesk Corporation). I signed up for oDesk, on a whim, which was also free and seemed built on a similar model to Flex Jobs with notable exceptions: the user interface was much more intuitive, it pushed jobs to me instead of me having to do numerous, time-intensive searches, and the first “skills test” I had to take was actually a very helpful tutorial in how to use their system to get work.
  • Results here are inconclusive because I haven’t applied for anything yet, but I will let you know my experiences, because there are some freelance opportunities on there I might apply for.


The best way to find freelance work, in my personal experience, is to get out there in your backyard and find organizations that need work done. Now, full disclosure: I have never made a lot of money as a freelancer. There are faculty who have done so at ECU and elsewhere, so if you want to know how to make money at freelancing, you should probably talk to those folks ;-).

Having talked to a few of them, myself, they all seem to all say similar things:

  • You have to develop recognizable expertise within a particular field (meaning, recognizable beyond academia).
  • You have to find actual people out there willing to pay you money for that expertise.
  • Getting your first freelancing gig is always the hardest, but once you develop a portfolio of work and some testimonials from past clients, you can leverage that into a steady stream of work.

I’m considering turning these anecdotal experiences into a full-blown research project about freelancing. If I do that, you’ll definitely hear more about that.

Again, if anyone else has had different experiences with freelancing, via the above sites or elsewhere, please let us know!

An Important Note about Research Proposals: Do Research with Humans

There are many debates over what research is, so let me help you a bit: for the purposes of your pilot study in this class, you need to do research with actual human beings.

I’m not concerned so much with how you interact with those human beings:

  • interviewing them
  • showing them written artifacts and measuring their responses
  • observing them
  • surveying them
  • asking them to do a “talk-aloud protocol” as they complete a task
  • asking them to complete a task (including a writing task) and measuring how they do so

Not only is “human subjects research” often the best way to do research, in my opinion, it is also the hardest, and thus I would not really be giving you experiences as actual researchers if you weren’t doing this.

Notes from Talk with Dr. Grabill

Q: How do you learn how to do research?

Research can’t be learned about in a class. The only way to learn how to do research is to do research. There aren’t any formulas or processes that are foolproof.

At the same time, it’s entirely possible to due bad research. Good research is not an individual sport; it’s a team sport.

One important thing to consider is the differences between inductive and deductive research. In deductive research, you start with your questions. It’s like in a writing class when we ask students to start an essay with their thesis. But what if you don’t know what your thesis is? What if you don’t know what your questions are?

That’s why I’m a fan of starting mid-process and trying to figure out what you’re researching. Sometimes you just have to muck around and dwell and figure things out.

The middle way between these two is to pose some provisional problems or questions and then go through the process of planning how you might conduct an inquiry that will either solve that problem or answer that question.

Mucking around in this context can include: a period of spending time with people, dwelling with people, asking questions, reading things. The goal is that as you do this, problems/questions change and get clearer.

Then, in the second iteration of the project, after this mucking around, the project is a little bit cleaner. Your problems and questions are clearer.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges for researchers working a field like TPC that spans academic and industry contexts?

So, there are tensions between industry and academy; there are disconnects. Industry doesn’t always know what they want; academics don’t always want to respond to industry realities.

I advise novice researchers to try to solve really hard problems. That’s what compelling research does. Try to make the lives of people you care about better. Who are your people, meaning what discipline or context are you part of? What are the really hard problems that “my people” are trying to solve.

Another approach is to think of research as action research. Start with a project in a particular space (workplace, community-based organization, etc.). Architect a research problem around that problem. What don’t we know? What do we need to understand?

Q: How do you know when you’re doing research vs. just doing work?

One answer to that question is technical: whether your institution understands your activity as research or not. Another is generalizability. There are often distinctions in a variety of disciplines between applied and traditional research. While the former is limited in scope and applies to one particular situation, the other is generalizable beyond that situation.

Here at MSU, we try to train our graduate students to think of themselves as researchers inside organizations. In that case, applied research isn’t all that different from generalizable research. What you’re doing isn’t all that different than what you’ve already done.

Another problem I see with a lot of novice researchers is that they don’t realize that research projects, theses, and dissertations are starting places and learning opportunities. They’re not giant things. They’re aggregations of smaller things. To tackle these larger projects, you can use a tactic familiar to anyone with experience in project management: break big things into little things. Do a bunch of little things day after day, week after week, and they add up to big things.

One other thing I’ve encouraged novice researchers to do to develop research plans is to conduct a pilot. Pick some preliminary methods and questions and then try them out with a small amount of data. Your experience of the project will then cause the project to shift.

The other thing I remind folks all the time is that almost universally: people feel they’re doing research wrong.

Q: Where do good research projects come from?

I believe that all work is a function of relationships. If you don’t attend to the relationship, you’re doing it wrong. Work that breaks relationships is bad work. So replace “work” with “research” and you have: research as a function of relationships. I have worked with people for six-years, helping them, getting to know them, and then research arose out of that relationship. This type of research takes a lot longer, a lot more mucking around, but it is often the most compelling research, and the most meaningful.

Availability for Guest Speaker: Dr. Jeffrey T. Grabill

Our class will be joined Thursday, September 4th at 2 PM by noted researcher Dr. Jeffrey Grabill:, Professor of Rhetoric and Professional Writing and Chair of the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University.

He will be talking to us about best practices in research design, including tips for conducting a sound study.

The talk will be conducted via Google Hangouts: I will also record the talk and post it to Blackboard for anyone who can’t make it.

Anyone who can make it, however, will be treated to a one-on-one conversation with an award-winning, senior researcher in TPC, so please do your best to make yourself available!