Should Freelancers Ever Work for Free?

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It’s a question many freelance workers—and virtually every freelance writer—faces at some point in his or her career: Should I work for free?

Until recently, for instance, many writers for The Huffington Post and Forbes were paid nothing for their contributions; despite this, bylines on these sites were still sought after and coveted, thanks to the high traffic and name recognition provided by each brand.

The value of “working for exposure” has long divided freelancers, with some believing it’s an insult and a waste of their time, and others insisting that it can be worthwhile with the right client. The issue is by no means limited to writers, and many designers, photographers, and other creative professionals have stories of would-be clients offering nothing but “exposure” for their work. Still, it’s most common in the writing world, where young writers in particular are often desperate for bylines to flesh out their portfolios—and publishers know it.

While the theory of free exposure leading to paid work is compelling, is it really worth your time? If you’re wondering whether an unpaid opportunity has long-term value, ask yourself a few questions.

What Are Your Goals?

Working for free isn’t a business plan you’ll want to stick with for long, especially if you’re angling for full-time self-employment. With that in mind, any free content you write should be in service of a greater goal. If you’re just beginning as a freelancer, it’s true that securing bylines with well-known brands can be invaluable to your portfolio, and writing unpaid content can also prove useful if you’re trying to establish yourself in a new niche. Make a list of conditions that each writing gig must satisfy to count as worthwhile in your mind.

For unpaid content, these might include:

  • Leading to paid work within the same company
  • Leading to proven work elsewhere (i.e., other writers have forged a successful path by starting with the brand)
  • The byline will significantly improve your writing portfolio

If the opportunity isn’t measuring up, it’s time to shift your focus to something else.

Are There Other Options?

Shifting your focus can be tough when you don’t know where to look, but there’s no dearth of paid opportunities out there. The online freelance market is brimming with gigs for creative professionals in every discipline and career stage. Before saying yes to an unpaid contributions, take some time to map your options with these steps:

  1. Join job boards and networking sites. Visibility is the best way to connect with businesses and new clients, and if you haven’t already, now is the time to upload your resume to popular job sites like CareerBuilder and Indeed.com. It’s also wise to join LinkedIn to begin connecting with past colleagues (and even college professors) who might hire you for additional work or suggest your services to a friend. Finally, search for paying projects on niche writing sites like BloggingPro.com, FlexJobs.com, FreelanceWritingGigs.com, and Online-Writing-Jobs.com, to name a few.
  1. Think local. Building a local client base can prove valuable, and it’s worth it to consider the potential in your community. Let’s say you specialize in SEO web content and you’re looking for new clients. Make a list of the businesses in your area, from dry cleaners to coffee shops to accounting firms, and take a look at their websites. If they could benefit from your services, contact them with a detailed plan for their websites, and highlight yourself as the writer for the job. Use a cold contact cover letter template (which can also be used for cold emailing) to help you get started. While there are no guarantees, this type of exchange is likely to help you build confidence and establish yourself as a local resource for other businesses.

    Even if it doesn’t result in a byline with a major publisher, it’s still work you can add to a portfolio. And unlike some content sites, these local businesses are probably used to paying contractors for services rendered.

    1. Rely on your peers. There’s no substitute for firsthand experience, and it’s wise to join freelancing groups through sites like Meetup.com, Facebook, and LinkedIn to connect with your writing peers. If you don’t mind a direct approach, track down a few writers you admire and reach out to them for one-on-one advice. Ask them to walk you through their professional choices and the steps they took to become successful. You might even ask their opinion on unpaid content, and if they support it, which outlets they recommend for career advancement.  

      Are You Undervaluing Yourself?

      You’re not alone if negotiation makes you nervous: Only 39 percent of workers negotiated salary during their last job offer, and freelancers—particularly rookies—are no less likely to be shy about asserting their value. But undervaluing yourself often means sacrificing earning potential over the course of your career, and you shouldn’t underestimate your ability to build a writing portfolio with paid opportunities. Consider the role your emotions play when it comes to submitting unpaid work, and don’t let fear prevent you from pursuing the income you want—and need.

      There are no simple answers when it comes to working for free, but one thing is certain: Exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Approach unpaid gigs with skepticism, assess their inherent value (if any), and look for paying alternatives along the way.