Monday, November 10, 2008

Freelancing for Free

I read an interesting article this morning on the New York Times blog about how to decide whether to do any freelance work free of charge. (Read it here.) This is something I've been struggling with quite a bit since I started trying to build my freelance business. In my mind, there are two main reasons for doing any writing for free.

  • Exposure—It's hard to get a business going if no one knows your name. Advertising can be expensive and ineffective. You could spend a lot of money on advertising in different mediums and not get a lot of bang for your buck. This can be particularly taxing to a budget without much working capital. However, many publishers, particularly if they're getting a free article, will let you include (in addition to a byline) your contact information. It may be small, but is, in effect, free advertising.
  • Clips—It's important to have a portfolio, virtual or actual, to show prospective clients. Companies are not going to want to hire you based solely on your word that you're a competent writer. If you're just starting out and don't have many (or any) published pieces, this can be difficult. Writing articles with no compensation other than a couple of copies of the published piece may not add to your checking account, but it can provide valuable samples with which to demonstrate your ability.

These are both important reasons for doing writing without compensation. However, there can be some disadvantages (other than the obvious) to taking these jobs that are critical to consider.


  • Your time is valuable—When you write for free, you are spending time you could be using to drum up more business or working on items that are billable. Of course, if you're just starting out and don't have any clients, nothing is billable.
  • Free work is not worth as much—There are some people who will think your work isn't that good if you're willing to give it away for free. That particular company or publication may be happy to have it, but if word gets around, others may think your writing's sub par.
  • Things could snowball—If people find out you're willing to write at no charge, they may all want you to do it for free. If you do have one or more existing clients, they may be very unhappy to find out you're making them pay for what you're giving away to someone else.

The bottom line is that writing for free is an individual decision that may or may not make sense, based on your specific situation. In my case, I worked in association communications for so many years and I have tons of published clips. However, since I spent so much time at the same association, they're mostly all focused on the same industry. Though I have many clips, my clips lack variety. Now I know I can write competently about all types of topics, but without other samples it's difficult for me to demonstrate this.

Additionally, though I'm certainly looking at business both online and far afield, I'm concentrating my efforts on local companies and associations. That means a few articles in local publications could do a lot to help get the word out that I'm available.

The decision I've come to is this. I've offered to write some articles for a few local publications where I may have contacts in exchange for some varied clips, a byline and the chance to publish my contact information and/or Web address.

1 comment:

Mary said...

I can relate so well with this dilemma. I recently purged some free writing gigs in order to focus on querying. It was such a relief, and I'm feeling much more confident to go for the paid work.