I started out writing this as a guide to writing for free as a freelancer. My personal belief that writing for free is beneficial for beginning freelancers guided the piece, but the more I read of the opposing viewpoint, the more I understood it. Just because writing for free worked for me doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone, so here are some pros and cons to writing for free. Make the decision for yourself… I can’t handle the pressure!
Pro: You’re an Intern
Freelance writing can get a bad reputation because it has a fairly high failure rate as careers go. Most people think they’re decent writers, and the freelancing lifestyle is so appealing that it’s easy to see why anyone would want in. At its best, freelance writing can allow you to make money in your pajamas (mostly) according to your own schedule, but this doesn’t mean it’s easy. Landing a free gig is less like a carefree exercise in your hobby and more like landing an unpaid internship, and it should be treated as such.
The problem is that being a successful freelance writer is, like any other career, something you learn as you go. I’ve seen plenty of great writers fail at freelance writing because writing on your own schedule, while beneficial for some, was too much for them. Deadlines can get missed, and writing can’t be accepted if you slept through a deadline. Some great writers are disorganized and lose assignments, while some mediocre writers make it because they’re great communicators.
Learning how to be a successful freelance writer takes experience, and like any other industry, most people in charge of hiring a writer aren’t interested in paying you to figure out if you can handle (or even enjoy) freelancing. Writing for free alleviates this concern. From the client’s point of view, it’s very possible that you could flake out on a deadline, but the risk is low since they didn’t pay you. From your point of view, it’s possible that this client will have unreasonable demands or even be abusive, and so getting out if it’s not working for you is easy — no money, no problems (in this instance and this instance only).
Con: You’re an Intern
Try putting yourself in the shoes of someone looking for free content for their website or promotional materials. They have a non-existent budget, which means their boss does not value quality writing (or thinks it’s something that just appears with a wave of the Writing Fairy wand) and just needs a word producer, and/or has this person has little concept of the amount of time quality writing takes. As the writer, you’re probably not dealing with the guy who made the decision to put no budget toward content production — you’re dealing with the guy he told to get it done.
This person may be perfectly kind and may completely disagree with their boss’ decision, but at the end of the day, it’s their job to get the content for free. Now, having found you, it’s time to get the most possible. This can mean squeezing you for every word.
Here’s a solution: Get everything in writing — word count, their stipulations, how much credit you can take for the piece, etc. Just because you’re not being paid doesn’t mean you can’t hold one another accountable.
Pro: Building Your Brand
The opportunity to build a portfolio isn’t a given in freelance writing. Many times you’ll be asked to ghost write, either in the name of someone else or for content for which there will be no official “author.” In some cases, however, you’ll come across work that gives you a byline, and especially if that work is regular, you can use it to build a portfolio.
WORKING FOR FREE DOES NOT MEAN WORKING FOR NOTHING. Make sure you’re being compensated in one way or another, and getting in writing that you can use your writing in your portfolio is a great way to do that. As a freelance writer, you are now a brand, like it or not, and not getting compensated for your work is a great way to devalue your brand.
Pro tip: Saying you’ll write for a byline kills two birds with one stone. It is a selling point for people looking for cheap content, and it ensures that you’re not dealing with someone who won’t give you credit for your work. Take the clients who want you to be happy knowing that X number of people will view the piece (though they have no idea you wrote it) out of the game with this tactic.
Super Pro Tip: In your byline (or in a bio published on the page) link to your Google+ page. If you’re going to be writing regularly, ask if they’ll set up an author bio page for you, and make sure you put a link on that page to Google+. Once your work is published, go to your G+ page and note that you’re a contributor to the domain you’ve just been published on. Other social media channels are great, especially Facebook and Twitter, but Google+ gives you the opportunity for Google Authorship, which can help you build your online portfolio as well as your personal brand because it does this in Google’s search engine result pages:
Edit: Google took this away because they don’t like joy or fun or smiling. As you were.
Con: Devaluing Your Brand
This con is more cautionary than anything else. If you do not take care to make sure you are always getting something for your writing, you run the risk of devaluing your brand.
The conversation goes something like this:
Client: “If you were willing to do four hours of work for me once, couldn’t you do it again? And y’know what? I actually need six hours this time. What the hey… make it seven. You won’t call me out on it because you just love saying you’re a writer, and I have bigger fish to fry than caring about whether or not you, kind writing stranger, are happy, so just do what I say, okay? Great. Thanks, or whatever.”
Pro: Receive (and Apply) Feedback
Making a living as a freelance writer is not much different than making a living as a daycare provider or a singer… people assume that it’s easy for you because you were born with the ability to do it. It doesn’t take much work because you’re just naturally a good writer, or you’re great with kids, or you rock karaoke night.
The problem is that making a living as a freelance writer is freakin’ tough. You have to network, maintain and expand upon a portfolio, maintain a website, organize your time, meet deadlines, and oh yeah, you need to be a good writer. While some people have more of a natural affinity for writing than others, good writing takes practice. When working for free, make sure you push to get feedback for your work. In freelance writing relationships, especially those in which you’re writing for free, the natural inclination on both ends is to be happy with little feedback. For the client, they just received free content from you, and providing detailed feedback means paying someone to provide it. On your end, very little feedback means you did a good job, right? Nope… not usually. As a freelance writer, you want feedback.
If you receive a “great, thanks” response, ask what you could have done to improve it. The clients who think you’re being a pain in the neck aren’t ones that would have panned out long-term. If they can’t take the time to tell you how to improve your work, they’re probably not going to take the time to tell their friends or co-workers that you did a good job.
It’s not easy when you’re just starting out, but you need to know which clients are worth letting go, and the client who can’t help themselves by improving your future work for them is one of those clients. You’ll want to send a follow-up email anyway, so why not include something that asks them to take five minutes to tell you what they changed? There is no perfect writing, so it stands to reason there are no perfect writers. Embrace the red pen!
Con: You’re the Enemy (to Some)
Go on any freelance writing forum and you will find the person who believes anyone who writes for free is irreparably ruining the industry. You’re not, at least not if you make sure you’re compensated in a way that leads to paying gigs. For the most part, we’re past the days of content farms, which routinely took advantage of people who cared more about saying they were writers than actually making a living at it, so writing for free is no longer bringing the industry down, but rather, it’s building you up.
In all areas of freelance writing, you need to have a thick skin. I’ve been at this long enough to know that the client who says the writing you submitted looks like it was written by a spasmodic squirrel is probably just having a bad day, and the person who says that people who write for free are the devil is probably having a rough time getting a client and/or paying the bills, so take everything with a grain of salt — rock salt. In everything you do as a freelancer, make sure you’re working toward getting regular paid work, and if that means writing for free until you can make that happen, so be it.
So… Should You Write For Free?
Personally, as someone who has written for free and was able to use those pieces as my portfolio to get my first job as an in-house full-time writer, I believe most people should write for anyone who is willing to compensate you. Compensation can be money, a byline, or written permission to use that piece in a portfolio, but ignoring an opportunity because it means you’re not getting paid today can sometimes mean sacrificing getting paid tomorrow. That’s just my opinion, and there are plenty of very successful freelancers out there who feel differently and can make a great case for never accepting a job that doesn’t pay monetarily. Read those people, too.
At the end of the day, if you’ve decided (or are deciding) to move into freelancing as a full-time gig, this is your career now, and in freelancing more than in any other type of work, you get out of it what you’re willing to put in. Don’t let the naysayers get to you. You’re your own CEO, with all of the decision-making power that grants you. Own your career, and if you decide it’s best for you, write for free.