Why I Recently Broke My "No Free Work" Rule

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")?

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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5 thoughts on “Why I Recently Broke My "No Free Work" Rule”

  1. Nice article, Jennifer. It’s always tricky sticking to a hard and fast rule about free work (spec work).
    In the beginning, if you’re unsure of your footing, the temptation can be to simply give in to a client’s demands – no matter how one-sided they can be.
    You really have to trust and believe that what you do is worth a fair wage and it’s ok to say no to work sometimes if it means keeping yourself open for a “fair” gig.

    Reply
  2. There’s worse than writing for free or for a few dollars per article out there. I don’t know how many times I’ve wasted fifteen minutes or so writing an application letter only to get back that scam where they end up asking for your credit card number so you can do a trial review. They get plastered and then replastered all over the place. Or there’s the one who asks for a trial article with little if any outline as to what they’re really looking for, which takes several hours to put together, edit, check over, think over, re-edit, then email – and never hear back from the person again.

    A lot of sites out there promise big bucks for becoming a freelancer, only to promote their book on how to do it at the bottom. As usual – more scams out there than you can shake a stick at and very little that’s legitimate.

    In the end, I think the free stuff is less hassle. The person I’ve been writing for has been supportive, helpful, and responsive. It’s thus far been the only profitable, even if unpaid, freelance experience I’ve had. The rest of it has been profound waste of time.

    Reply
  3. I generally don’t advocate writing for free, but I break my own rule sometimes, too. In fact, I regularly write for a friend’s blog for free. It’s called Go Get Your Jacket ). It’s a fun blog that dissects what we as parents buy and why we buy it. I do it for fun. I know the proprietor isn’t making any money off it, and we’re mostly entertaining ourselves and our friends, but it gives me the chance to write about stuff that I don’t get the chance to write about professionally. And it keeps me fresh. And again, it’s fun.

    Reply
  4. I hear from so many people to not work for free or even on spec unless you have a monetiary agreement clause. However, I think if you do some work for a non-profit organization, who you beleive its for a great cause. Do the work and write it off at the end of the year as a deduction. In this way you can acheive three things,

    * YOU HELP OUT SOMEONE WHO IS IN NEED OF YOUR EXPERTISE.
    * YOU LEARN SOMETHING NEW THAT WILL STRENGTHEN YOUR WRITING IN ANOTHER AREA
    * AND YOU CAN CLAIM IT AS A TAX DEDUCTION AS A DONATION OF YOUR TIME AND SERVICES.

    I’m not saying to write for everyone free–just those who interest you most. And its always a pleasure to learn something new.

    Reply
    • Jerry,

      In the U.S. at least you cannot claim free work for a nonprofit as a tax deduction for your time and services. The IRS doesn’t allow you to claim that your time is worth $XX per hour and then deduct that, because it would be too open to abuse. It’s very different than if you ran a product-oriented business and you donated those products. You can only deduct tangible out of pocket expenses (so if you did the printing for a project too, you might be able to deduct the supplies used and ultimately donated).

      That’s why, while donating time to a nonprofit is infinitely better than donating it to a cheap-ass client that simply doesn’t want to pay, it’s not something freelancers should do constantly (or at least not if they’re going to take that time out of their otherwise billable hours).

      Reply

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