Is It OK To Work For Free?

The question of writing for little or no money comes up quite frequently in discussions on websites that cater to freelance writers.

True story–My brother-in-law  is an ER doctor. The first time he put a cast on a broken arm by himself it came out a little sub-optimum. The boy  being casted apparently noticed something because he asked my brother-in-law “Is this the first time that you’ve done this?” Take home lesson-Nobody wants to be like the boy with the broken arm and feel that you are learning your profession on their problem.

Why do I tell you this little story? Clients come to you with a problem and want to believe that they can trust you to solve their problem.  The best way to prove to a prospective client that they can sleep soundly knowing that you are doing a good job on their project is to show them your portfolio. When I go to visit a client they often ask to see samples of my work, and I have a samples page on my website. As a project manager I never work with a writer unless they have a writing sample to show me.

The question becomes then, how can I build up a portfolio if no one will hire me because I don’t have a portfolio? There are several ways to do this without feeling exploited:

1) Take a technical writing course. Any self-respecting course requires you to complete at least one manual as part of the course requirements.

2)  Volunteer to write for a non-profit organization. It will make you feel good and beef up your porfolio.

3) Do a project for a new struggling magazine or on-line publication. You won’t feel exploited because they’re probably not making any money at this stage either and you may get good exposure.

4) Approach an outsourcing company and offer to work on a project for free, on condition that you can use the resulting document in your portfolio, and they will provide you with a recommendation (if they are happy with your work). This is a good way to build up experience and a portfolio. As a project manager I had someone approach me with such an offer. He had completed a course in technical writing and was not working. I worked with him on a project that I was doing and after a period of close supervision he was soon working mostly independently. Instead of sitting at home doing nothing he gained experience and we ended working with him on several paying projects.

When you are starting your freelance career your emphasis should not be on money but rather on building your portfolio. You are making an investment that can pay off many times over.  Just remember you have a lot to offer and building up your portfolio is the best way to show a prospective client that you are the one to go with.


10 thoughts on “Is It OK To Work For Free?

  1. The problem with outsourcing and web content jobs is the lack of attribution. Any writing samples generated are usually unattributed. A prospective employer has only my word that I’ve actually written the piece shown on a given web page.

    Otherwise, I agree with all you’ve written here. Well said.

    • That’s true, but, especially for documentation the client will usually have no problem attributing the work to you if someone asks. If you are writing a blog for someone it may possibly be more problematic.

  2. Excellent advice. Although it may seem counterintuitive, building your portfolio with pro bono work will move your career along more quickly than if you wait to be paid right out of the gate. I believe it’s one of the fastest ways to jump start a writing career if you leverage it well.

  3. No!
    You can do things for free, like volunteer or help out… but once you working for free, you lose all respect.
    Paradoxically, the higher my rates go, the more respect I get.
    There is something odd is human nature in that if you do something for free, people take it and you for granted.
    Don’t do it, folks!

    • I also find that the higher my rates go the more respect I get, but to get to that situation I charged lower rates in the beginning to establish my reputation and portfolio.

  4. You made some very good points Charles. Why not work for free if it will help you make a name and find paying work? It is better than not writing at all and not earning a thing.

  5. As a long-time copy editor at two major publications, I often wonder if people evaluating other’s portfolios have any clue how much work goes into shaping and polishing the material that goes out under a writer’s name.

    That builds the writer’s portfolio but leaves the editor with no way to prove what he/she did.

    I’m very good at what I do, but when applying for a job I’m often left wondering how I’m supposed to prove it.

  6. Pingback: Two Ways to Build Up Your Portfolio Without Feeling Exploited « Freelance Technical and Medical Writing in Israel

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