I don’t like to tell people that I’m a writer; there’s something about it that feels pretentious and snobby, as though I’m going to invite them to a happy hour and spend the entire time quoting Emerson. So, instead, I tell them that I’m a freelance writer. It’s an accurate confession about my profession, though it comes with its own set of baggage.
The word itself is partly to blame, with insinuations of costless work compromising half the term – maybe that’s why people assume my services are complimentary; I put the free in freelance.
I know I’m not alone in this struggle; whether you’re a freelance photographer, freelance graphic artist, freelance programmer, or, heck, a freelance singer of telegrams, odds are high that someone (or someones) has asked you to work for them free of charge.
A few weeks ago, it happened to me with SlimFast. The brand manager found my profile on a freelance writing site and sent me a direct message about hiring me for copywriting work. But, before I could give it much thought, she sent me their 60-page branding guide for review, their social media channels (also for my review), and then asked for 300 words of sample copy.
Instead, I sent her work I’d completed previously, work that gibed with the vibe they were going for. The brand manager wrote back telling me that if I couldn’t do what she asked, she’d be forced to find another freelancer. I responded that I wasn’t going to work for free and she was welcome to find someone who would. Then she blocked me (um, burn?).
There’s five reasons this thoroughly annoys me…..
I have a portfolio
Like many writers, I have a portfolio, a giant portfolio filled with all kinds of blogs, articles, taglines, and poems. That’s the purpose of a portfolio: to show people what you can do. If SlimFast wanted to gauge my style, there was plenty of fodder in which to frolic. And they could have always asked for more snippets of my previous work.
I have stellar reviews
Along with my portfolio, I have great reviews from all sorts of clients, all over the world. And, nope, none of these reviews were written by my mom.
Sample aren’t quick
A lot of times when people ask for free samples, I get the impression that they think it’s a fast job and, thus, no big deal to the freelancer. But samples aren’t quick, especially when you’re writing them to land a gig – this means you hem and haw and fuss and gush over every adjective, every metaphor, every crossed T and dotted I. Had I completed SlimFast’s request, especially with all the review they wanted me to do, it would have taken me 2-3 hours at a minimum. That’s 2-3 hours I could have spent working for my favorite kind of client: one who pays me.
There’s no guarantee people won’t use your free samples
Another problem with sending in work free of charge is that there is no guarantee the company won’t take what you wrote, use it, and never contact you again. Or maybe they’ll take your basic idea, rework it, and make it their own. Freelancers have little recourse if this happens (and, honestly, we probably won’t even know that it does). We can threaten to sue, but lawyers almost always cost more than anything we’d get in return. So, we’re forced to wave the white flag and move on.
They’re taking advantage
The worst thing about the free sample epidemic is that the guilty companies are taking advantage of writers. Doing this in a global pandemic, when unemployment is skyrocketing and everyone is desperate for work, feels even worse.
I’ve worked with all kinds of employers, from multi-million dollar companies to the guy who hired me to write a poem about the beard growing contest he was in with his brother. In my experience, it’s only the large, well-known companies that ever ask for complimentary work. In a fit of irony, those who can afford to pay writers for samples are the ones who don’t. And the reason is simple: because they can get away with it.
So, what should writers do? We can relish in the great taglines we thought up but never offered (SlimFast: Shake It Off!). And we can band together and agree to stop working for free. That’s the only way to keep others from demanding our time, our talents, and our words without reimbursement.
Of course, the above comes with a caveat. One area where I think working for free is fine (and I do it often) is when you’re writing as a favor for friends or family. I’ve had several relatives (ahem, Cousin Derrick) hit me up for quick jobs. And it always feels weird taking money from family for words that are so fast and easy.
Another gray zone is in the territory of novelty: if you’re a new writer starting out, working for free isn’t a terrible idea. You’re not getting paid but you are getting something out of it: the ability to build your portfolio. And that will, eventually, lead to better, compensating gigs.
In other words, it’s okay to pay your dues. Just make sure you don’t pay them for long.