A Writer’s Revenge: A Dish Best Served Cold By David Wilkening

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As an underpaid adjunct English-Journalism professor, I always looked desperately for concrete examples to enlighten my students why good grammar was not just a theory in principle but actually paid off. Little did I know then that I would need to heed my own advice. Not only did my own suggestions help me avoid cheats but I also got some revenge (a mild dish served sort of like a cold turkey sandwich).

Bad grammar is a giveaway for a scam.

Yes, that is what scam avoidance experts tell you, as I would later learn.

“I do not really know much about Writing and stuffs,but all i needed to get done is a good Job”

Yes, the guy who responded to my Craiglist ad for “writer wanted” was not familiar with good grammar (or even able to end a sentence with a period). But he did offer to pay me $1,000. Why? “Because I want you to do a good job and take ur time to do it and I want to make sure we deal directly to make it work fast.” Whatever that means, of course.

Yes, I was immediately skeptical but my eyes danced with dollars: $1,000. Flattery also weakens a writer’s skepticism. “Thanks so much for your reply and for wanting to work with me on this. I went through your Resume and i must be sincere with you, You have a very impressive resume,” I was told (grammar and cap and no-caps all his).

In a series of email exchanges, the guy who called himself “Robert” asked if I was up to the task of writing several articles with no subject matter specified. The articles were only 350 to 400 words. Could I meet a deadline of 30 days? Sure, for $1,000, I would get it tomorrow. So send me your address with the phone number so that payment can come via UPS by overnight delivery, Robert replied. What could I lose by doing that? He was not asking for any payment but I thought there must be something he wanted besides my address.

After a series of two dozen more emails (he said he had the wrong address, and other excuses why the check had not arrived), it finally did come. It looked like a real check from Morgan Chase Bank on Park Avenue in New York City typed in with no grammar errors. It was made out to me as “cash payment.” The payee had a PO Box also in New York City. But the check was not for $1,000 but $3,000.

What wouldn’t a freelance writer do for $3,000? My answer might be the same as yours: practically nothing.

But I continued to wonder what “Robert” wanted in return. He never would answer directly what kind of writing he wanted despite repeated emails. But he did keep sending me notes asking if I got the check and had deposited it. I was suspicious but finally signed the check and deposited it in my savings account, where it would take several days to clear, under normal banking conditions. Finally, after more emails, Robert said since he had sent me a check for $3,000, he wanted me to pay him $1,000, either by check or cash, because he had mistakenly overpaid. He did not say it but if I had $3,000, why not give him $1,000 back? Simply logical, right?

You can guess it, of course, but he counted on my being so stupid that I would assume the check was in the bank, so I could draw out the money to pay him. The check bounced, of course. So in a spiteful mood and irritated that he had wasted my time, I delayed Robert for several days with more email questions. He kept asking for the money until I decided my revenge was simple: I would string him along for several weeks, telling him the “check was in the mail.” But when Robert replied with more and more immediacy and desperation that he had not received payment, I kept making excuses that I had the wrong address but was correcting it. I made up several tracking numbers to confuse him. I imagined his frustration while expecting any day to get money. The tracking number you gave me is totally different from what you first said. Robert wrote as I noted his grammar was getting better. I also kept thinking this guy was even dumber than he thought I was.

Finally, after another two dozen or two notes, he got suspicious and asked if I was “tricking” him? I told him yes and consoled myself with the $3,000 loss by considering the trouble and disappointment I caused him.

The upshot is that there are various suggestions around for writers concerned about these situations. One common thread: if the offer sounds good to be true… you know the rest. Also, remember the saying you can’t cheat an honest man.

Finally, to my students and other writers, I can only add that it does always pay to watch your grammar.

David Wilkening is a former newspaper writer who worked on papers in Chicago, Detroit, Washington and Orlando before turning to travel writing, where he worked for a decade or so for Travel Weekly. He has written extensively for magazines. He has written several books both under his own name and as a ghost writer. He lives in Orlando.