As a freelance writer, I’ve often been asked to provide my services for free. And sometimes it has worked out for the best, and sometimes I’ve gotten the raw end of the deal. I’ve found nav.ing these situations is all about balancing your self-worth with potential opportunity.
When I first became a full-time freelance writer, I worked a few gigs at minimum wage, and even some for free. I said “yes” to everything. After all, I had zero clients and a bank account that would dip below zero after next month’s rent was due.
Looking back, I’m happy I did this, and it all worked out. However, while many of these jobs are now paying clients, some of them took advantage of me or the opportunity led nowhere. Even now, after years of experience, I still get asked if I’ll contribute for nothing in return. While the answer is usually “no,” sometimes I oblige. Here’s why.
I work for free to build credibility and learn.
But only until I find and establish my way.
Right after I quit my corporate job, I offered to help a friend who is a yoga teacher with her weekly newsletter. As I continued to pitch my services to other clients, I was able to list her as a reference and use the newsletter as an example of my work.
Since I only had a few published articles, I agreed to contribute to websites and blogs for free in the early stages of my business. After doing this for a month or two, I had a long list of URLs to send to potential clients. I felt more comfortable asking to get paid when I could point to tangible examples of my value.
Working for free when I was just starting out was also educational. I learned how to pitch, how to work with editors remotely, and how the digital content world generally works for freelance writers. Eventually, I had the credibility and confidence to start talking money and walking away with contracts.
But at a certain point, I was no longer “just starting out.” Instead of making this turning point exactly what it is—a point—I let it drag out for months for a few of my initial clients. I offered to edit a kayaking website for free for five hours per week during the first four months of growing my business. But around month two, I had already secured paying gigs. Aside from the fact that I’ve never even been in a kayak, I could have spent these hours actually making money. (Honestly, the only perk that came from this experience was impressing my partner’s stepdad with my knowledge on the difference between a forward stroke and a forward sweep stroke.)
It can open doors to other business opportunities.
Remember the yoga teacher? When a student inquired about her newsletter and asked for content marketing tips, she pointed him my way. Turns out, he was starting his own company and looking for help with email marketing. Fast-forward two years later: He’s my longest-standing client. Working for free when a client is particularly well-connected or when my articles will gain a lot of exposure often ends up helping me grow my business. And this isn’t just a tip for writers.
“I often give jewelry to close friends or donate pieces to charity auctions,” says Los Angeles-based designer Lindsey Jacobs who has been in business for three years. “Ultimately, the press is worth it. A woman who won a pair of earrings at an auction reached out for 10 bridesmaids gifts a few months later. When my friend was wearing my necklace out shopping, a boutique owner asked her where she bought it. I now sell at this boutique!”
Evaluate whether the brand or individual is well-known. When a prominent women’s health publication told me my first article would be a trial run, and I wouldn’t be paid, I still decided to contribute. When the piece was published, I had a top brand to add to my portfolio. This legitimizes my work and helps me sell other clients.
Lastly, I ask myself if working for free could evolve into a paid gig? “I once took an unpaid internship at an advertising agency,” says Macy Huggins, a communications analyst in Portland. “I really wanted to work at the agency. I saw the internship as a way to get my foot in the door and eventually get hired.”
I’ve been offered benefits beyond my wallet.
As a freelance writer, I spend most of my days working from home or in coffee shops. While I cherish the flexibility, it can be lonely. There are days I miss interacting with a boss, going to team meetings, or hanging out with coworkers in the kitchen.
I started working a weekly shift at the front desk of a gym, and although it’s unpaid, I get a free gym membership. It also gives me the chance to interact with others during the work week. While it’s not an office, it’s a community.
It came down to the following question: Do the physical and emotional health benefits outweigh the lack of a paycheck? For me, they do. This makes it worth my time and energy. Ultimately, I’ve found it’s all about balancing your self-worth with the business or lifestyle opportunity. Hey, as long as the benefits extend beyond speaking fluent kayak, you’re likely already on the right track.