Doing Small Favors vs. Consulting for Free

Today I’m confessing a professional sin. What made it worse is that it’s the same sort of sin people usually commit against writers: I asked for free advice.

As I noted in another post recently, I’m hunting for a new place to live. While on a stroll through Disney property, I asked a realtor friend in my walking club if I could pick her brain about something related to open houses. She started by telling me that I needed a real estate agent of my own or I’d have to work with the agent hosting the open house. She then asked, “Do you have an agent?” I replied that I did. She said, “Then you should be discussing this with her, shouldn’t you?”

Consider me embarrassed…and properly chastened.

But I had to go back over the conversations I’d had with the person I said was “my agent,” and it occurred to me that while I’d asked her for advice, I had not, in fact, officially hired her. Therefore, to salve my conscience and get my home-hunting activities off to a formal start, I sent an email specifically stating that I wanted to hire my friend as my agent and made a point to schedule an actual appointment to talk business.


Here’s how that scenario can play out in the freelance technical writer’s world: a friend or business acquaintance starts talking about a large proposal or other document they’ve got coming in the door, and they’re scrambling around trying to figure out how to organize it. They might ask something innocuous like, “What would you do in my situation?”

Sometimes the conversation is so casual that you find yourself making concrete suggestions. It’s a habit that’s born out of politeness. You don’t want to offend your friend. However, this is not much different from asking a doctor friend about a weird ailment you have. Doctors get paid a lot more than tech writers (at least in my experience), so they know the proper response to this sort of situation: “Have you talked to your doctor?” or “Make an appointment.”

If you’re thinking quickly, you smile and say, “You should hire me.” That way, the person asking gets the message that what they’re asking falls into the category of professional advice–a service, in fact–and if they want concrete advice, they should hire you outright so there’s no ambiguity about the nature of what they are asking you to do.

Bottom line: don’t give away your services for free, even if it’s a friend (exceptions can be made, of course). If the advice or help required takes more than 5 minutes* to provide, you’ve entered into the realm of billable hours, and you should treat the activity as such. Don’t give away your services for free…and don’t ask others to do likewise.

(*This number is somewhat arbitrary. I bill my clients in 15-minute increments. If you’ve gotten to the point where you’re talking business for that long, you should really be talking money.)

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About Bart Leahy

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