5 Freelancers Reveal the Truth About Working for Free
As a freelance writer, illustrator or creative type, there will be so many times where you will be asked to offer your services for free. There will be times where you’ll be torn and tempted. You know that your time is valuable, but it’s a respected publication and you could use the “exposure,” or maybe you don’t think your work is established enough to deserve payment. Your time and talents are worthwhile and valuable, so is there ever a situation where you should work for free? Do you really need to write for exposure, or should you just use social media? We asked five real-life badass lady freelancers in various industries, and this is what they said.
1. Gwendolyn Elliott, Freelance Journalist at ArtistDirect and No Depression: “I started blogging for free right out of college in the early 2000s, with no real-world writing experience. Obviously, I knew I wasn’t getting paid, but I looked at my first internet writing job as a kind of post-grad internship. I needed to learn the skills required so that eventually an outlet would pay for them.
I was writing about music, so there were perks like free tunes and free shows. I was also writing for a team I really liked, and had editors who were easy to reach and talk with. That, I learned, is incredibly important, because all professional writers need to know how to work with editors and senior writers, and it can be tricky at first learning how to negotiate edits to your work. As I kept freelancing over the years, through much persistence, I landed paid freelance work and various roles on staff at an alt-weekly. When I was starting out, I had a lot of enthusiasm, but my writing still needed work (it still does!).
Writing for free gave me the flexibility to work on my writing via a platform with a built-in readership, but without the pressure of knowing my editors might become unreasonably demanding with my time. It also gave me access to artists and sources that would have been difficult to reach if I had just been blogging for myself. But if you’re really serious about writing and continue to fine-tune your style and develop your voice (as well as your professional network), eventually you get to a place where paying outlets start paying attention (whether through your own relentless pitching, or other channels) and writing for free is no longer an option that makes sense.”
2. Anna Gragert, Writer at My Modern Met and HelloGiggles: “I think you should work for free if you genuinely admire the publication you’re working with. Don’t write for them because everyone else seems to be writing for them or because you feel like you have to write for ALL THE PUBLICATIONS in order to get your name out there. (I made this mistake when I first started out and it was exhausting.) In other words, do your research. If you know the quality of the content they produce and feel connected to the publication as a whole, then go for it! (And definitely go with your gut! Bad vibes = bad news.)
When you’re doing your research, take a look at if the publication treats all their writers equally. If some writers get more attention than others (more promotion on social media, editors work harder to make their prose perfect, etc.) for no particular reason, then I would approach with caution.
If you’re working hard for free, you want to make sure that you’re being valued. You want to know that you’re in good hands and that you’re being treated the same as everyone else. Even if you’re not as experienced as other writers, that doesn’t mean you should be ignored or seen as ‘less than.’ No matter who you are, your words have value. If a publication doesn’t see it that way, then do not give them the time of day.”
3. Annie Moorehead, Watercolor Artist and Photographer: “I don’t recommend offering to do a project without establishing whether or not you’d like compensation. I made the mistake of doing this once; I offered to do a pen and ink piece for a retirement gift without setting a commission price. It was difficult when I realized that it needed to be a commission rather than a free gift, and setting the price and communicating it to the buyer was awkward. It turned out alright in the end, but would have been much easier and more professional to negotiate a price for the work at the beginning.
That being said, it can be difficult for creatives to price their work when just starting out. It may be beneficial for emerging creatives to do a few projects for free as experiments with time and effort and materials. Once you’re comfortable with the practicalities of creating for others, I’d say don’t take on work for free from that point forward.
However, you should consider working for free if it is for a cause that is meaningful to you, and would benefit your professional work. Say, for instance, an organization that you support is planning an auction of some kind, and you are asked or you volunteer to create a piece for it (or design some of their promotional materials). This is a smart move when you consider that your work will be visible to many people (free advertising!), and you communicate by your donation that you are not exclusively for personal gain.
I’d discourage working for free on projects that have no stated/agreed-upon boundaries. Or projects that are too loosely defined. I’ve read that it’s smart and professional to set a standard price for the time you give to a project, even if the work is rejected or needs significant alteration. A baseline, if you will — an agreement that you will be compensated to some degree regardless of the ultimate finished product. I think this encourages potential clients to respect you and see you as an equal professional.”
4. Eva Davis, Freelance Social Media Consultant: Working for free can be good if you have another job and you just want to try it out. For the most part, if they respect you enough to hire you for your work, they should respect you enough to pay you. Or at least barter services.
Unpaid freelance work makes me mad, because a lot of times, it’s creatives working with other creatives. So they should understand the hustle. I don’t like when creatives are exploited and taken advantage of because of the mentality of, ‘Well if you really love it, you would do it for free.’ If you’re in a situation where you have less experience at something, try offering a reduced rate.”
5. Lindsay Hood, Freelance Writer at Pitchfork, Deadspin: “This is a complicated question because most people would advise you not to [work for free] under any circumstances. However, I have worked for free and I don’t regret it. I would always evaluate the size of the publication’s audience and how much weight their name carried. These articles provided me with clips to send to other editors. Then, they’d know I had experience writing on deadline and had undergone the editing process.
But I upheld a personal policy: one free article per publication. I was happy to demonstrate my writing and editing skills and prove myself, but I never allowed myself to become a content farm. If the editors followed up and asked me to write more pieces, I would politely explain I’d love to work with them again, but I would need to be paid for my time. Some said, ‘Okay, no problem,’ and some never responded, but it was never left on bad terms.Writing for exposure is real, whether people want to admit it or not. But writing for exposure doesn’t mean you have to strip yourself buck naked. Evaluate and treat each situation separately.
And I’m still a fan of putting pieces on your blog when you’re making a name for yourself IF — and this is an important IF — you treat your blog as you do a publication. Research and fact check your posts. Do not send these links along as a potential clip if this is where you dump your random thoughts at 3am. You’re trying to prove you’re a professional, so use common sense. But if you feel the post is strong, then sure. I’d take it. I’ve occasionally sent editors some of my blog posts so they’ll have an idea of how my raw copy comes in. It’s a helpful trick when you’re trying to convince an editor to take a pitch. If they have an idea of how much editing you’ll need, it might make them more willing to take a chance.
Also, I have to give a special shout to female writers here. If you’re contemplating writing for free, this might be because YOU DO NOT PITCH ENOUGH. I struggled with this until I started working as an editor. I turned down pitch after crappy pitch from clueless dudes who didn’t understand I’d probably accept an idea or two if THEY SENT ME BETTER PITCHES. Meanwhile, my female writer friends would mention ideas to me in passing, ideas that I loved, and they never follow up with a formal pitch. So ladies, PITCH. This question will start to become obsolete if you’re more proactive about getting paid gigs.”
Would you be willing to work for free? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
(Photos via Getty)