One of the things that came up in my podcast conversation with videographer and photographer Mateo Zarate was whether or not creatives should work for free. There’s a very vocal group that says you should always be paid for your work, and you should never work for free, for exposure or for a portfolio piece. I understand where those people are coming from — creative work tends to be undervalued, and many people either don’t understand that or are eager to take advantage.
On the other hand, both Mateo and I feel that we wouldn’t be where we are without taking free work. As a writer, my value is in my portfolio, not my resume. My portfolio shows potential clients not only that I can write, but also that I can produce the kind of work they want to see.
And there’s the rub: In order to get the kinds of work I want, I need writing samples that match up to that kind of work. But I can’t create those samples without getting the work in the first place — and that’s why I think it’s helpful to take free work sometimes, especially at the beginning of your career. Here are some tips that help me navigate through the process:
Evaluate the Project
Normally, I only take on free or trade work if it’s something I want in my portfolio, or if it will help me network with a group I’d like connections with. It’s important that I’m evaluating these questions myself and not letting the person who’s asking dictate them for me. (When someone tells you, “You’ll get a lot of exposure for this,” you almost certainly won’t. But if you’re drawn to a project and YOU think you could get something out of it, that deserves consideration.)
One caveat: If a friend asks me to do a project that’s easy, and I have the bandwidth to do it, I try to take that on, even if I get nothing out of it. I despise writing cover letters, but when a good friend asks me to do it, I can either spend an hour feeling annoyed, or I can spend 15 minutes just doing it. I usually opt for the 15 minutes.
When someone asks for a favor, it feels like my choice is all or nothing, but that’s not true. Sometimes I say I’m too busy to take on the whole project, but I’m willing to do one part. Sometimes I say I can give them a draft, but all edits will be up to them. Sometimes I say I can put in a couple of hours, but if it takes longer than that they’re going to have to finish it up. And sometimes I tell them I can do the project in trade …
Work for Trade, Not for Free
If you’re doing a favor for a friend or another creative professional, chances are they provide some kind of service you can work with. I’ve worked for free meals and coffee, for advice from people in fields I wanted to learn more about, and for trade in services like photography, videography and screenprinting. If I can find a way to make the work work for me, I don’t feel used, and I often come out ahead. If you’re planning to trade, be very clear about how many hours you’re putting into the project and what you expect in return.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that clients who get things for free are the pickiest clients. They will almost certainly be demanding, will call you after hours, will expect unreasonably short deadlines, etc. That’s why it helps to be as clear as possible upfront about exactly what you’re doing, what your deadlines are, and what edits (if any) are involved. Setting boundaries in the first place, even if they’re loose, really helps free work go more smoothly. I usually say something like, “I have a hole in my schedule for a couple of days at the end of the week, so I can put about three hours into it then. I won’t have a lot of time for edits though, so anything that’s not minor will have to be done by you. Does that work for you?”
When people keep pushing for more, sometimes I fake having a “big project” or “important paying client” in order to push them off. (Sometimes I don’t have to fake this and it’s legitimately the reason I need to withdraw.) But paying clients can also be pushy and annoying, so learning to set boundaries is good practice — yet another “bonus” from doing work for free.
The truth is, for most of us, a little free work is part of the game, even after we’re established. For me, the difference between work I’m happy to provide and work that becomes an albatross is determined whether or not I’m overcommitting in the first place and if I’ve been clear about my boundaries. When work truly doesn’t work for me, or I’m too busy to take it (either professionally or personally), I do think it’s important to say no — it’s just not my default response.