If you've noticed anything here at All Freelance Writing, I hope it's my effort to show writers that they can, and should, charge what they're worth to earn a livable wage (and then some). I've also on more than one occasion poo-pooed the type of "client" who asks for free work (or who offers pay so low it might as well be free work).
It's rare that I make an exception to that rule, but there is one situation where I consider it (or a significant discount, depending on the scope of the project): valuable portfolio pieces.
Portfolios Aren't Enough
OK. Let me be very clear here.
I do not take on free or very low paying work to build a portfolio early on, and I don't suggest that you do that either--it sets a bad precedent.
In other words, if I decide later today that I want to add a new service (let's say sales letter writing), I wouldn't run off and take a free or low paying gig just to get something in my portfolio. I very firmly believe in building portfolios in better ways whenever possible - including a sales letter written for my own site or perhaps doing something for a respected and well-known nonprofit rather than cheap or free work for someone in my client base.
Occasional Exceptions to "The Rule"
Where I do sometimes make exceptions is in ghostwritten work where it's difficult to get pieces approved from clients to be used in my portfolio (because I technically am not allowed to claim authorship in any way), and where I also don't have the time or ability to put something together for my own company or sites.
So, for example, I wouldn't take on free blogging work for someone, because I'm already an active blogger with many samples available. My biggest concern was actually in feature writing.
I've written a good number of features for clients. Generally they're ghostwritten, the client is listed as the author, and they're published in newspapers, trade magazines, or journals. They also can't go into my portfolio because of the authorship issue. So in this rare exception, I wrote a by-lined feature for an online magazine which was published last week.
Why am I even admitting to taking on a free project here? Frankly, I think it's worth having an example of a situation where it can do some real good.
To Freebie or Not to Freebie?
What I've pretty much always said is this:
If you're going to write for free, don't do it just because you'll have something to slap into a portfolio or because someone might give you a referral. Do it because that particular piece will add real value to your portfolio or network - in other words, writing for free for a webmaster no one has ever heard of who normally pays $5 - 10 per article won't do much for you career-wise. However, writing for a respectable journal or taking on a project for a well-known nonprofit goes beyond a portfolio piece - it adds credibility to your career in the eyes of other prospective clients.
In fact, this particular article might already be leading to something much more significant--something I'll know later this week after evaluating plans and proposals in depth before making any decisions. So while I was a bit uneasy about taking on the work for free (I usually charge somewhere in line with $1.00 per word for feature writing work), I'm glad I did regardless of what I ultimately decide. Feature writing is a service I've been offering to regular clients for quite some time, but not one I really mention on the newest incarnation of my business site (because I didn't have the public portfolio piece to push it). I'll soon be adding that.
Free Work During Billable Hours?
Here's one last important point I hope you'll keep in mind if you do decide to take on unpaid work: Do not work on that project during your normal business hours if at all possible. At a bare minimum, don't use billable time for that work. Instead, treat it as marketing and work it into your time allotted for those tasks. In this case I used some marketing time to conduct a telephone interview and then I did the actual write-up over the weekend. The important point is not to let it interfere with the work that's actually bringing in your income right now.
So tell us, what kinds of projects have you done for free (or offered an unusual discount on), and why did you do it? What did you actually get out of it for the time invested? Would you do it again in a similar situation, or would you look for other ways to get similar results (like writing "for yourself")?