3 Times Working for Free Can Help Your Freelance Writing Career

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Hey, will you write this blog post for free?

If you’ve ever been asked this question, You’re probably rolling your eyes and groaning, “No, not again!”

As writers and creatives, we’re often advised against working for free — to know our worth and not accept anything less. And believe me, here at The Write Life, we agree. It’s important to set a precedent that freelance writers deserve to be compensated fairly for our work and expertise.

But sometimes volunteering or working for free can actually help kickstart a thriving writing career.

Case in point: a few years ago, I received an email from a startup founder inviting me to write a guest post about public relations for his blog. I wrote the post, not expecting much except to have my byline associated with a popular and interesting website.

Much to my surprise, after the post was published, I received an email from the founder asking me how else we could work together. Three years later, that startup is my long-time blog management and social media client.

Writing a guest post for free led to consistent paid work. No doubt, there are times when it makes sense to volunteer or work for free.

Here are three instances when volunteering may be a smart move to help grow your portfolio, leave you feeling fulfilled and boost your career.

1. When you have minimal experience and need to build your portfolio

Brand new to a given field or just getting your start as a writer? Volunteering may make sense to build up your expertise and portfolio.

It’s often challenging to find paying gigs when you aren’t able to tangibly show an editor, potential client or employer you know what you’re doing. Volunteering allows you the opportunity to experiment, find your way and gain valuable work experience.

Then, once you have a couple of clips and samples, you’re more easily able to approach paid opportunities with confidence.

For example, when I was in college, a debut author reached out to me to ask for my assistance with publicizing her book launch. I took on the project free of charge and quickly learned all types of new skills: writing a press release; organizing a blog book tour; working with book bloggers and crafting social media messages.

After completing the project, I was able to turn that experience into a case study for future clients and opportunities.

How to do it

Think about the types of clients you’d eventually like to write or work for. Reach out to them and ask if they’d be interested in your assistance with (insert your skill here).

Most people will be thrilled to hear from you, especially small businesses, entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations.

If you’re more interested in blogging and writing gigs, check out the “contribute” or “write for us” page of the blogs/websites you enjoy reading and follow the directions to send them a pitch. Many sites are eager for guest content.

2. When you’re passionate about a cause

What are you extremely passionate about? Combining your expertise with a cause you care about can make you feel good about yourself and the value your work brings to the world around you.

Graphic designer Jennie Lewis is passionate about keeping beaches and seas clean, and wanted to put her skills to good use. She reached out to 2 Minute Beach Clean and offered up pro-bono design skills. “Using my time and skill to help make a difference in an area I’m passionate about feels worthwhile,” she explained.

Similarly, consider volunteering or writing for free simply because it makes you feel fulfilled.

“I think everyone should have some sort of volunteer cause they get involved with. It helps keep us human and sensitive, as opposed to falling into a negative outlook of the world,” said Maddy Osman, who volunteers as the race director for Cupid’s Undie Run in Chicago and writes free guest blog posts when it ties into her blog’s niche.  

How to do it

Think about the causes you hold dear to your heart. Are there organizations you’re already involved with or aware of who could use a passionate volunteer with a specific set of skills? Don’t be afraid to reach out to them via email or social media accounts.

If you’re looking for the chance to combine your writing skills with a great cause, consider using VolunteerMatch to search for specific opportunities related to your interest area in your city.

Similarly, simply Google keywords “Writing volunteer opportunities in (your city name here).” After doing a quick search for here in Philadelphia, I came across Mighty Writers, a non-profit that teaches kids to think and write with clarity.

3. When it offers you exposure you otherwise wouldn’t have found on your own

It can be a controversial topic in freelancing circles, but whether we like it or not, writing for free puts you and your work in front of an already established audience.

Think about the Huffington Post. The popular website typically doesn’t pay its contributors, yet writers all over the world are vying to have their names associated with the well-known brand. They can then add Huffington Post to their portfolio and writer bios, giving them more legitimacy when they seek out paying gigs.

Writing for free can lead to great exposure for you, your work or whatever you’re interested in promoting or sharing. Cristina Roman, co-head honcho at One Woman Shop agrees: “We know there’s a lot of mixed opinions on writing for free for exposure, but we’ve found it very valuable when we’ve had a specific funnel to direct readers to. We find it useful as a means of getting readers involved in the One Woman Shop community and engaged with our offerings.”

How to do it

If you’re looking to promote a product, service or brand, consider finding highly-targeted blogs or websites with a similar audience as the one you’re trying to attract. Of course, first check out their submission guidelines to see if they accept guest posts. If you can’t find anything on their website, consider sending them a well-written and researched pitch email.

Is it always worth it?

While writing and volunteering for free certainly have many exciting benefits, let’s not forget there are times when it definitely doesn’t make sense to write or volunteer without payment. Here are a few of those times to keep in mind:

  • When the project takes too much time away from paid work
  • When you already have a significant level of expertise
  • When the exposure to you and your brand will be minimal
  • When it will take way too long to see any return on investment
  • When the work no longer fills you with joy and excitement

 

What do you think? Have you ever volunteered or written for free? We’d love to hear about your experiences!

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After six years in the corporate PR world, Jessica Lawlor left her job to run her own communications agency, blog/brand and teach yoga. She is a writer and blogs at JessicaLawlor.com about getting gutsy: stepping outside your comfort zo... .

Jessica Lawlor | @jesslaw

Jessica Lawlor
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Comments

  1. Always a controversial topic!

    I am not a big believer in writing for free or for unsustainably low rates of pay, especially for for-profit clients, because it reinforces a business model that is dangerous to all writers and to the future of the writing profession as a whole. The idea is always “I’m only doing this temporarily,” but there will ALWAYS be writers starting out, and if the expectation among potential clients is that those writers should always be available for free, then there will be little motivation for those clients to budget realistically. The very idea of professional writing can easily be devalued, so that the portfolio writers are building in the hope of finding paying jobs later becomes useless when there are no paying jobs left.

    Writing for a nonprofit can be a more viable way of getting experience, but that, too, should be done judiciously. Few nonprofits get all their work done for free; they are used to the idea that they must raise enough funds to pay secretaries and plumbers, not to mention CEOs. Paying for professional writing and editorial services should also be seen as part of the normal cost of performing their mission.

    My suggestion would be to approach a nonprofit whose cause you believe in enough to want to donate money to them, if only you had some. Your time IS money; offer to charge them a fair rate of pay for your level of experience (or lack thereof) and write off their debt as a donation. The effect is still that a worthy cause gets free work and a writer gains experience and a reference that can later help land paid work. However, the managers of the nonprofit are being educated in the true costs of high quality copy for their website, blog, promotional materials or pamphlets. It should also lead to the nonprofit listing you as a respected donor. Finally, it reinforces your personal sense that your professional skill, time and effort have value.

    The distinction between “Can I do some writing for you, free of charge?” and “I would like to support your organization by doing some writing for you and donating my usual fee” may seem small, but that tiny nuance could make all the difference in the world.

    Best of luck to all of you in finding the right way to build a portfolio and build your business!

    Trish O’Connor
    Freelance Editor and Writing Coach
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com
    http://www.epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

  2. Wonderful article. When freelancers start out, they should, at least, consider doing a couple of free projects for their portfolio but ask for a byline. It’s a non monetary way for the client to “pay” you for your work as you build your base.

  3. I have seen some very reputable people strongly advise against writing for free, but I think it is okay in the cases mentioned here. One site I’ve guest blogged for in the past led me to being hired on as a regular contributor, earned me quite a bit of recognition in my niche, and even landed me a client who was impressed by my writing on that site.

    While I blog for other clients, I don’t see my own guest blogging opportunities as “writing for free.” I think of it as a marketing tactic I’m using for my own business. So I guess I think of it more like a free form of marketing that I can do myself. It also helps strengthen my portfolio and potentially land new clients.

    That said, the guest blogging opportunity has to pay off. Don’t just guest blog anywhere. Guest blog somewhere that’s reputable and clients will notice, and try to make each guest posting opportunity better than the last.

    I know there are other ways to write for free, but this is just the type I have experience with.

    • I think one key to this is that you have to seek the free opportunities yourself. It’s one thing to go out and publish a post on a reputable blog because you value your byline on the site. It’s another for someone to approach you asking you to write for free. I think the two situations are very different even though they could potentially have the same results.

    • Yes, I agree, there’s a difference between “free marketing” of your business that happens to be writing and “free writing” for someone else’s business.

      I’m all for the former. not so much the latter unless you are really sure you can arrange a win-win that doesn’t devalue your work in the long run.

      It also makes a difference what it is that you are selling. For example, I don’t mind guest blogging for free, but that’s because the main thing I sell for money is not my own writing, but editing and resources for improving other people’s writing. I am more reluctant to edit for free than to write for free.

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      Freelance Editorial Services and Writers’ Resources
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

  4. I’m getting so sick of the advice that you should never write for free. I actually got into a pretty deep discussion about it in a FB group yesterday. Here’s my main comment from the thread:

    “I don’t think of it as doing free client work. Of course that’s going to make me hate it, of course I’ll end up hating or resenting that “client.” I consider it more of a lead generation or marketing & PR tactic, so you just have a strategy like you would for any other tactic. Social media doesn’t generate new business write away, and can be writing intensive, but is that considered unpaid work? Nope, it’s considered marketing.

    I saw a blogger (I wish I remembered who) mention that writing an original post for HuffPo and linking to their ‘hire me’ page was the small push they needed to get their services page to the first page of Google for their niche. That extra traffic, assuming their services page is convincing and well-written and everything, will make them an *insane* amount of money in the long run.

    Personally, I wrote a guest post for a big industry blog that seems to drive 100% of the inquiries I’ve gotten lately (I always ask clients how they found me). I can already attribute a few hundred bucks to it 2 months later, and that 5 hours of writing is going to continue to drive revenue.”

    Not considering it as a PR or marketing strategy can hold you back. When it’s done with a plan in place, it can be one of the most effective marketing tactics!

    Look at Buffer – 100% of their first paid customers were acquired through writing free blog posts for other publications. Their co-founders may not have technically been writers or freelancers, but the writing quality was just as good and their time was just as valuable.

    • I think the question for those of us who are opposed to writing for free for for-profit companies is not so much whether the writer can gain something from a Huffington Post byline, but WHY Huffington Post is entitled to make money selling ads on content they got for free. The PR benefit to the writer would be just as great if HuffPo were paying the cost of producing the product it sells, like any other business.

      But of course, why should they pay, when they can find good writers to work for free? It comes down to deciding what kind of business model you want to reward.

      Earlier generations knew the value of solidarity.

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com
      http://www.epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

    • Amen Britt! I completely agree with everything you’ve said here! Working for free is a smart PR/marketing tactic. Congrats on your recent inquiries! Glad to see writing is paying off for you! 🙂

  5. This is a wonderful post! I hope to read more of your post which is very informative and useful to all the readers.

  6. Interesting article, but sometimes writing for free never leads you anywhere, but you still have to put in the many hours of hard writing, which actually takes away time for more lucrative opportunities. My advice to other writers hoping to make a name is write for a website that is not only has many hits, but will let you post links to your own website. By blogging on sites with a large readership for free, I have seen the sales stats on my amazon list shoot up. I think that is the difference between simply writing for free and hoping for the best, and being strategic. But even so, that is no guarantee. Someone in the comments section raised the Huffington Post; how many of the contributors can say they moved on to bigger things as a consequence? There isn’t an easy answer that fits all writers, it seems.

  7. Thankyou so much! I enjoyed reading this article because you basically answered all my questions. And after all I signed up to get help with my writing career and I do not regret it I’ve got nothing but good ideas.
    Honestly I do not think that writing fo free is a threat for writers in the future because you don’t just post an ad and say you work for free and take whatever they give you, you look for those jobs that will help writers like me gain experience. Once you gain experience, and clients know your quality of work they will contact you because if I needed an article written or story I would not risk the quality of the material and I would contact someone whom I worked before, someone I can rely on because if you buy cheap, you pay dear.

    • So glad you enjoyed this post, Isabel! I’m happy I answered all of your questions 🙂 Makes me day to hear that!

      Exactly! You strategically pick the projects that make sense for YOU! Good luck with your writing!

  8. WE have a unwarranted perception of “Free”, mainly due to the fact that there is a reward system measured in Monetary Values.
    What about old fashioned so-called free Service?
    Besides any earthly reward system there may after all be such a thing as “Browny-Points” in Heaven.
    For those who believe in Scripture (and those who don’t) it says that only “Servants will be found to be in Heaven, the Devil will have all the Others.

    So much for doing something for free. I say no more.

  9. Thanks for this.

    It boils down to the ‘cost’ (IE: your time, money or energy) vs the ‘benefit’ (they could be intangible IE: help a cause, get a foot in the door, a ‘goodwill down-payment’ etc.)

    Think carefully about your motivators before agreeing to do something for free. Thanks for these great ‘sense check’ ideas!

    As a rule of thumb; when someone has asked me to write something, I’ve asked for remuneration of some form (monetary or otherwise), when I have offered to write for someone and they’ve accepted the offer, I’ve done it for free as I had my own agenda for doing it.

    And sometimes, you just have to have the courage to ask.

    “Is there a budget for it?” is a neat way to open a dialogue and then at least you know where you stand.

    Happy writing!

    • Thanks for chiming in, Amy! Love the idea of asking the question “is there a budget?” That’s a very tactful way to express the fact that your time and efforts are worth something!

  10. Thanks for including HuffPo. I notice the folks who seem to hate it have never written for them and don’t understand the process. I love it and it works exactly the same as other free platforms like LinkedIn. You own the content and you can republish old content on there.

    We should be banding together against content mills who pay pennies for crappy work, not vilify a legitimate platform like Huffington Post.

    • Of course, Williesha! As someone who hasn’t had the opportunity yet to wrote for HuffPo (Not for lack of trying! Ha!) I definitely don’t knock it. I love that HuffPo allows people a platform larger than most of our own to share our writing.

      YES, agreed on content mills!

      Thanks for chiming in!

  11. Basic rule of journalism: never begin a sentence with a numeral (see the headline). Why would I want to follow your advice?

    • Take my advice or leave it 🙂 This is a blog post (not a newspaper article or journalistic piece) and it’s a pretty standard practice to start posts with a numeral to indicate that this will be a list post. Best of luck with your writing goals, Joe!

    • As Jessica’s editor, I’m pretty confident in her writing skills and her knowledge of blogging best practices. But thanks for your concern, Joe!
      Thanks for reading,
      Lisa Rowan
      Editor

  12. Jessica, yours are some reasonable thoughts on the issue, though I’m more in the “don’t write for free” camp. The particulars of a writer’s work (and stage of career) do play a part in that decision, which I think requires sustained mulling. The issue of writing for HuffPo—and writing for free in general—has produced a deep thicket of comments on this WriterUnboxed post:

    http://writerunboxed.com/2016/02/19/amazing-disgrace-the-pride-of-the-huffington-post/

    [WriteLifers: forgive me for directing readers to another writing site, but the question is parsed to a deep degree there, and with some passion.]

  13. i think i can never set with kushal

  14. my mind say can i copy the free writing

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Last week, popular writing website, The Write Life, published a post I wrote about three times working for free can help your freelance writing career. […]

  2. […] 3 Times Working for Free Can Help Your Freelance Writing Career: Writing for free is a controversial topic, but I firmly believe there are times it makes sense to do it. Agree or disagree? […]

  3. […] And a lone voice on the other side of the debate (and by that, I mean only that I haven’t come across more yet, and they may be out there), Jessica Lawlor at The Write Life: 3 Times Working for Free Can Help Your Freelance Writing Career […]

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