Working for Free

It starts when you’re young: a friend asks you to look over their resume to see if there are any typos or other errors on it. A family member asks you to edit their small business flyer. Then another friend asks you to write an article for their local magazine. None of them will pay you, of course, but they seem to think that their task will give you “exposure.” If you’ve done this before, STOP. If you’re a freelancer, or even if you have a full-time job and do other writing jobs on the side, you owe it to yourself NOT to work for free most of the time.

Your Friend is Quite a Mercenary

The theory behind “exposure” is that if you have your products out there in the public view, eventually someone with money will recognize the quality of your work and want to hire you. However, any freelancer can explain the painful fallacy behind getting exposure: you’ve got bills to pay and you’ve got to eat. Landlords and grocery stores do not accept exposure as a valid form of payment.

I started raising my price for resume editing in short order because a) it was a quick way to make a few extra dollars when I needed them, and b) I really, REALLY dislike editing resumes. Over the years, I’ve raised my resume-editing charges to the point where people now decide to go somewhere else or to do it themselves. I deliberately priced myself out of the market. Mission accomplished. However, if you’re someone who enjoys writing or editing resumes, you can stop raising your price at the point where people say “no, thank you.” Then you negotiate a price.

The point here is that your skills have value. There are whole businesses that exist by virtue of writing and editing resumes and cover letters. And that’s just one example. There are others. And there’s this: no one will ask a plumber to fix their sink for free. Why should your labor be any different? Same with doctors and lawyers, though I’m probably guilty of asking them for free advice, too. Shame on me.

Other Ways You Can Be Asked to Do “Freebies”

I’ve been caught off guard by friends or clients who asked for my help on something with the promise of payment later only to have them conveniently forget, even after a couple of reminders.

If you’re working with another business, you can sometimes be asked to do work before you’ve signed a contract, work agreement, or non-disclosure agreement, with a request to just add it to your hours when the contract is finally signed. Hold firm on this one. It’s unfair to you and potentially illegal (I could be wrong). I’ve had customers refuse to send me work until their legal or finance department had a signed contract in hand, so if corporate customers can be adamant about not giving work until there’s a contract in place, so can you.

When It’s Okay to Work for Free

This is not to say you should NEVER work for free. There are volunteer opportunities that come up from time to time–your place of worship, your favorite cause, or personal charity cases–where payment isn’t really feasible. Those are your choice. I’ve done them and continue to do one or two because I believe in “the cause,” but I don’t do as nearly as many as I used to. I’ve got a life to lead, too, and if I could be filling my free time with equally interesting projects that DO pay, I will often take those and put off my volunteer work.

Again, these decisions are yours to make. However, if you intend to make a living as a writer/editor, to be taken seriously as a professional, and to take yourself seriously as a result, you owe it to yourself to charge for your services. After all, if everyone could write, they wouldn’t be paying us, would they?

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to Working for Free

  1. Bart Leahy, I have done work for so many people I should be ashamed. I’m now putting all of my advice into my podcast. https://bit.ly/3g3jzTl

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