5 Tips for Sparking Creativity Through Writing Pro-Bono Work

5 Tips for Sparking Creativity Through Writing Pro-Bono Work

Sometimes, especially in the early stages of our creative careers, we might be asked to do pro-bono — free — work.

Pro-bono requests can come from family members, friends, charities, and other sources.

Although it may seem counter-productive to our goal of being gainfully self-employed, working for free can be an opportunity to stretch your skills and find new inspiration, which can rev-up your creative process and impact all your work in a positive way.

Here are five tips to help you get the most out of pro-bono jobs:

1. Set parameters for your project and its creative direction

First, let your client know that in exchange for working pro-bono, you’d like to take the lead on the creative direction of the piece, and you’re expecting to have the last word on the final version.

Express enthusiasm for the job, and tell them you’re excited to get to work. Reassure them you’ll check in with an update midway through your creative process, and take their feedback into consideration, but you’ll be working with your own artistic vision.

Make sure that they understand this last point, because harnessing your creative vision and exploring new creative parameters is the main reason you’re taking on the job in the first place.

2. Clarify project deadlines and get them in writing

Next, get crystal-clear on the client’s timeline for the project.

Figure out exactly how much time you can devote to the job, and make sure it matches with the timeline.

This is also when you need to articulate a fixed deadline for all deliverables, and make sure to get acknowledgment in writing. It’s also a good time to reassure your client you will meet their deadline, regardless of what direction you chose to go with the piece.

3. Research, explore, play and discover!

Now that you’ve set some limits, get on it!

Ask yourself what new themes or angles you’ve been wanting to explore in your work, and identify some ways you could bring them into your project. Do some research about what your heroes are currently doing with their writing, and incorporate any great new techniques. If you regularly invoke a particular muse or influence when you’re working, try something different and let it guide you.

This is the time to let loose, play, and take risks if you’re onto something grand. Explore the limits of your writing and see how far you can push them. Discover some new parts of your talent you always suspected were there.

4. Check in with your personal brand and adjust accordingly

Now, take a moment to make sure your fresh choices and overall creative direction are in line with your personal brand messaging.

A certain amount of consistency with your previous work will help keep you from wandering too far off into the wilderness. You want to present something that dazzles and elevates your reputation in the mind of the client and everyone who sees your work — not a crazy, over-stuffed hot mess!

5. Sort and file important discoveries and review final details

Focus on the details, and make each one count. Keep track of your progress as you work, and bookmark any new sources of inspiration so you can refer back to them later.

Depending on the kind of job and client, you might even want to write a short paragraph about how you arrived at your finished product and have it ready during your final presentation. After you’ve taken in the client’s feedback, make any necessary adjustments quickly and efficiently.

Meet your deadline, as promised.

As you progress through your career you might decide to approach people or organizations about doing pro-bono projects for them, both to keep freedom flowing in your creative process and also out of a charitable impulse.

Doing good work for good causes creates universal good karma, and who doesn’t need a little of that?

Writers, how have you used pro-bono projects to grow your business? What did you learn from the experience?

Filed Under: Craft, Freelancing, Marketing
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21 comments

  • Tal Valante says:

    Great post, Alicia, and some very good reasons to take up writing for free. I love good karma.

    New writers might offer writing pro-bono for the wrong reasons, though, like thinking that their writing isn’t good enough to get paid for. Always consider your writing as worth payment (if that’s indeed the case). When working pro-bono, imagine yourself giving someone a gift worth $XYZ. That will help you remember that writers *should* be paid, and also give you some proportions on what you’re offering to do.

    • Alicia Dara says:

      This is a great point, Tal! I usually encourage my clients to do a 6-to-1 ratio in the beginning (6 paid jobs to 1 pro-bono), and adjust it accordingly as their careers grow. Your suggestion about working out the monetary value is a great one, and I”ll pass it along 🙂

  • Robert says:

    There are varying schools of thought on pro-bono work among freelancers. I personally don’t see an issue with it but agree with all the points you discuss here. Set expectations clearly and right from the start. Thank you for a lot to think about.

  • Kate says:

    This puts me in mind of the controversy surrounding HuffPo. You can easily see why writers would be willing to write for them just for the amazing exposure, but that company could easily afford to pay writers.

    So yes, pro bono for family, friends and good causes, but please be wary of those who would use you, and wary of creating a “race to the bottom” that devalues all writers (and artists).

    • Alicia Dara says:

      Excellent point, and one that I often stress when I’m coaching my writer clients. Tal had a great suggestion above about taking time to calculate a monetary value for the pro-bono work we do, so we remain focused on the reality of earning and the true cost of our work ??

  • Dina says:

    I’ve dealt with these same issues when doing graphic artwork pro-bono.
    It’s a slippery slope if you don’t limit that — as you say.
    In the past I’ve made the mistake of feeling good about the creative challenge and the good cause — NOT thinking about the monetary value, because it would add up to a disturbing total.
    Pro Bono rarely results in paying jobs – it DOES result in more requests for volunteer work.
    So, less opportunities to do my art, but at least some income.
    And I ask clients to endorse and recommend me on LinkedIn, and other places.

    • Alicia Dara says:

      Asking for client endorsements is a great point, Dina! I’ll prompt my coaching clients to remind their endorsers not to mention the work was done for free, but only that they love it and highly recommend it.

  • Very good idea. I agree with all points. We shouldn’t say “No” to pro bono projects. When considering good causes and helping people, it is not working as usual, it is creating a high added value. Historically, the phrase “pro bono” derives from Latin and it means delivering professional work for free or at a modest fee to someone who cannot afford it. This is why I give my full support to the idea. In fact, this concept ideally applies not only for writers but also graphic designers, photographers, translators and other freelancers who can somehow contribute for the greater good with their specific skills. When you know you are helping someone in need, this makes you feel good so it is worth the effort.
    Thanks for the inspiring post.

    • Alicia Dara says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Debjyoti! I’ve learned a lot about the parameters of pro-bono work from some of my creativity clients who are lawyers by profession. They are very clear about not over-promising, and always meeting deadlines. They inspire me to be crystal-clear and deliver the goods.

  • Hi Alicia,

    Best advice. Doing free work(writing) for good causes increases our creativity in writing.

    Thanks for informative post. 🙂

    Much success,
    Venkatesh

    • Alicia Dara says:

      Thanks, Venkatesh! I’ve always enjoyed working on behalf of causes I believe in, and my creativity clients do as well. Artists have real power to create the world we want to live in 🙂

  • Peter Rey says:

    Sometimes writers trying to establish their brand might feel like they are the ones needing help. At least, this is how I feel at times. But the truth is we are the lucky ones. We should never forget about that. Thanks for your inspiring post =)

  • Kevin says:

    Are there tax benefits to this? If you’re doing this for a 503c, could you get a write off on your taxes?

    • Alicia Dara says:

      This is a great question, Kevin! It depends on the person/organization you’re working for. Some orgs and businesses such as 503c, c3, or c4s are set up to do it and some are not. If this is important to you then it’s best to double-check with them before you agree to take on the project.

  • sundar says:

    Taking pro-bono projects can be considered as a dress rehearsal for the main play. That way it should be motivating and pave way for creating quality content to beat the market competition.

    • Alicia Dara says:

      Definitely, Sundar! I would add that excellent pro-bono work can prompt stellar references from your pro-bono clients. This in turn can elevate your reputation and help with that “competition” thing you mentioned 😉

  • I’ve struggled with writing for free but, much like your article points out, I found this to be a creative in educational outlet that can lead to additional work and promotion for my current work.
    I limit my pro bono work to that in my genre, writing for a golf magazine⛳, and helping writers across the world through my publishers blo. ✍.
    I’ve come to really enjoy the time spent writing these columns and do look forward to then each month.

  • Alicia Dara says:

    I’ve had the same experience, Richard. I’ve also accepted some pro-bono jobs that have taken me a bit out of my comfort zone, subject-wise, and done some of my best work on those projects. It all depends on how much time is required, in case I need to do more extensive background research 🙂

  • Devin says:

    I can see how free work can lead to a some paid offers over time. Thanks for the information! Great work!

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