The Thin Line Between Free and Professional

What I’m listening to: No News by Lonestar

grammar12_2858026kWhat a week. I’ve chipped away at the latest workload, and I’m now down to two projects from the seven I’d started the week with. One is due today, the other on Monday. I’m in a good place with both, so I’m able to breathe a little and do some admin – the small pile on this desk is starting to look a little unkempt again. Time to file.

Between project interviews yesterday, I browsed Twitter and a few blogs. There was one topic that getting some good discussion, so I decided to search for it on Bing, digging a little deeper. There it was — people advocating for working for free. Again. Always.

I’ve said before I truly don’t care if people work for free — it’s your time, your decision, and your revenue stream. Yet there’s another thing I don’t care for, and I’ll just state my thoughts right here:

People should not be advocating working for free to the freelance masses.

I’ve seen it in plenty of instances – from a post on The Atlantic‘s website to Salon articles to blogs of what I can only assume are the uninformed.

Justifying working for free as anything but giving away work (or accepting it) does not make it right for everyone.

That’s where I get worked up about it. Blogs and articles that promote writing for free as some great way to build a freelance writing business or portfolio are missing the larger picture. Building a professional portfolio may start with some free work (in which case I suggest volunteering for a favorite charity or local event or group), but it shouldn’t be one of the foundations of your business model. Giving it away in order to get clips — I get it. I don’t agree, but I get the idea. However,

You can’t build a strong business on a weak foundation.

For that reason (among many), I suggest we writers limit just how much “free” we do. Myself, I’d rather get paid for what I do, so I don’t write for free. That’s me. And so far, it seems to have paid off — literally.

Another disturbing trend: I’ve also seen a few blogs, tweets, and articles that say writing for places like Huffington Post are great, but don’t you dare write for free for any other entity, including other blogs or even comments.


Here’s the screwy part of that kind of logic:

  • The first is an entity making oodles of money for its owner.
  • The second is a method of self-promotion for your freelance writing business.

Here’s what I think:

Writing for free on any ongoing basis for a for-profit organization is not a fabulous career move.

Writing for free for a blog in which the traffic and comments will net you more of an authoritative voice and some name recognition with the very audience you’re trying to appeal to is a bit smarter.

And honestly, guest posting isn’t “free” work in that it’s marketing. Do you charge yourself to write that brochure? Do you pay yourself to write your own blog posts or sales letters? No. Why? Because it’s part of marketing yourself.

I wrote for free once. I volunteered at the local Alzheimer’s Association and wrote a business proposal for them. In fact, they paid me a stipend — 30 bucks, which I donated right back to them. From that point, I managed to build a damn solid career in writing, a strong client base, and name recognition. All without ever writing for free again.

Still, if you insist on working for free, I suggest this:

Give free work sparingly and to respectable entities.

Writing one article (possibly two) for entities that make a profit (and are respected) — okay, you got your feet wet, got a clip or two. Writing articles or blog posts regularly and still not getting paid? Now you’ve entered into the ridiculous. What are you gaining? More to the point, what are you losing when you add up all that time spent writing for people who will never pay you?

Writers, how much free work did you give when you were starting out?
What’s your policy on guest posts?
What do you consider acceptable free work? Unacceptable?

About the author




  • Eileen March 23, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    My very first work was bartered, not free: a brochure for a local children's consignment store in exchange for $25 in store credit. Timid little me couldn't bring myself to ask for more! But the store owner was thrilled, and I had a sample and gained the confidence that I could do this. It was a win-win. Until recently, in my 15 year career I'd NEVER done spec work. I turned down a number of "opportunities" because they required either a free sample or the entire project on spec.

    Then last month I did a free video script for the potential of ongoing work. I believed him to be on the up and up even though he seemed not to have worked with writers before. (You'll know who I'm talking about, Lori.) Plus, it was an opportunity for me to see if I could handle a new subject matter for me. The prospect loved the sample, agreed to my price, and said we'd start 1 March. Then they wanted me to invoice them at the end of every months' worth of work, with payment terms of 45 days. I said no, and gave them my terms: 50% deposit on the first months' work, invoice every 2 weeks. I never heard from them again.

    And here's the thing: I don't regret the free sample. (For one thing, I told them they don't have permission to use it unless they pay for it.) It showed me I can handle a subject matter that's totally new to me. And it also showed me that a long-term relationship with this client would be a big mistake.

    I'll never say never, because there is a time for strategic free samples or spec work. But it's not often, that's for sure.

  • Paula Hendrickson March 23, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    I don't think I've ever written for free, unless you count free resumes I've done for close friends and family – most of whom referred me to their friends who paid me to write their resumes.

    But in speaking with beginning freelancers, I usually tell them if they think it's a smart move, it's okay to write one or two pieces for no (or very low) pay, but only if they're doing in on their own terms. They need to be clear they're just gaining clips and moving on to paying markets. In essence, they're using the "client" as much as the client is using them. Perhaps more.

    Chances are most clips gained from non-paying markets aren't going to be good enough to impress paying clients anyway.

  • Lori Widmer March 23, 2016 at 5:56 pm

    Eileen, I do know what you're talking about! Not surprised you didn't hear from them again. I think they weren't used to working with freelancers.

    I like your point about bartering — I've done that, too. I exchanged web content for web design once. It was a perfect trade, too. And your point about providing free work as a test from your side is a good one. Agreed that limiting that is a good idea, and I would add offering it only to those clients who show they're serious (this one agreed to your rate).

    You're right, Paula. Chances are most of the clips won't be useful. That's why I think it's important to put limits around how much freebies you'll give.

  • Devon Ellington March 23, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    I do some free writing for a small, local non-profit about whose mission I am passionate. Clips of that writing has landed me paid gigs with other organizations, so it (almost) evens out. I'm doing some volunteer writing on a campaign for someone I believe in, and we'll see where that goes. I've set some very strong boundaries.

    When I first moved to the Cape, I did a couple of articles for a local publication for free to get my name out and about in the area. That did NOT lead to paying gigs — one of the problems in this area is that people don't want to pay writers. At this point, if you don't pay me, I don't work for you. Not around here.

    I'll do a freebie guest post if it's someone I know, like, and respect. I'll do a freebie guest post if it's focused on a new release of one of my books.

    I've restructured my freelance business lately to only accept manuscript editing from publishing houses rather than individual authors, because: 1) most authors don't want to pay a fair rate for line editing; 2) most of the material takes MUCH more work than what I can give them for their budget; 3) individual authors are notorious for booking time and then not delivering the manuscript because they "didn't have time" to finish it, leaving me with lost income. Even a deposit on booking didn't solve that. So I don't do it anymore.

    I'm focusing on marketing writing and script writing, both of which pay better and tend to have a more reliable client base.

  • Dana Ford March 23, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    I have one "free" gig. It's all about the perks that come with the job though, not the money, so in that sense it's not really free, just doesn't pay in cash. It's my opinion the only totally free job any of us should be giving out would only be for one trial piece for the potential customer to see first-hand what the writer can offer them. Other than that scenario, the writer is being exploited. Lori, I love how you pointed out about not being able to build a professional foundation on shaky, free jobs. Nailed it.

  • Lori Widmer March 24, 2016 at 11:29 am

    Dana thanks. I'd like to hear more about that free job you do — perks? I'm all for that!

    I'm not so sure on the trial piece. I've been burned in the past with those ("sample" chapters, articles, blog posts, lists, etc.), so now I send them my existing samples. That should be enough. If not, it's not for me.

  • Lori Widmer April 1, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Sorry, Devon. Your comment somehow landed in the Spam folder.

    I have to agree with you on local work. For some reason, one freebie for a local group does tend to turn into expectations that they'll never need to pay. Good for you for nipping that in the bud early.

    Agreed with the editing clients, too. I take on individuals, but the money does have to be up front first, and I won't block off time. I work it into the schedule. Like you, I've been caught in that same situation where the author just doesn't have time to meet deadlines.