If you’re just starting out as a freelance writer, you may be tempted to start writing for free. It can seem like a good way to create connections with potential clients and build your portfolio. Want to know whether or not it’s a good idea to write for free? This post will tell you everything you need to know about when writing for free is a bad idea and when it’s worth doing. Ready? Let’s jump in.
My experience with writing for free
I’ll be honest with you, when I came up with the concept for this post, I set out to write something about why you should never write for free. However, as I was putting this post together I realized there are a few instances where it makes sense but they’re rare.
I used to write for free before I got serious about starting my freelance writing career. While I did learn some things from that experience, I can’t say that it’s something that I recommend. I spent months writing for free and later found it didn’t help me “prove” myself to paying clients. (If you want to hear more about that, I talk about this experience in my free email course).
Contrary to what some believe, writing for free almost never helps your freelance career. This is especially true for new writers who are trying to get their business off the ground.
Now – let’s talk about why this is the case.
Why writing for free is a bad idea
The majority of the time when you’re writing for free, you’re being taken advantage of. That’s why I don’t recommend working for free. Here are the top three reasons that writing for free is totally unnecessary, even for newbies.
You can self publish
If you want to create writing samples, create them for yourself. You shouldn’t create content for someone else just because you need samples.
There are so many ways to publish your work. You could start your own blog, post on Medium or LinkedIn. Honestly, if you’re really happy with a piece and you don’t have a place to publish it, you can put it in Google Drive and share that link.
Clients don’t really pay attention to what format your samples are in most of the time. Even now, I have “live links” my freelance writing portfolio but some of the samples I have are PDF files. I’m sharing via Google Drive.
The only time a client has ever asked to see a piece of content published on another one of my clients’ websites is when they were trying to see if I had the skills to get a piece of content on the first page of Google. Other than that, a client has never questioned the format my samples are in.
They’ll (almost) never pay
When you start writing for someone for free, they won’t value your work. Think about it. Why would a potential client ever be willing to pay you if you’ve already given them content for free? More often than not these “potential clients” don’t respect you.
In fact, I once had a potential client demand that I do free work because they were taking a risk on me as a writer.
So I should take on the risk of not being paid? No thank you.
If you’re a newbie, or you’re struggling with imposter syndrome it’s easy to put yourself in a mental space where you sympathize with that mentality and offer to work for free. Avoid this.
Remember: it’s not just your potential client who’s putting things on the line by hiring you. Time is money when you’re a freelancer. By taking on any work for free, you’re risking losing out on other opportunities. You’re investing in something that may have no payoff. That’s a big reason why I encourage freelancers to stay away from doing free work.
In my experience, when you try to start getting payments from clients like this, they usually replace you with someone else who’s willing to do the work for free. If you’re thinking that taking a free gig is a good idea so that you can get paid down the line, don’t bother.
For every client who’s going to ask you to do a free writing sample, there are 25 others who will be willing to pay you for your first project.
Let’s say that you’re a beginner freelance writer with no experience, and you decide to start writing for free because you think that’s what you need to do.
While this will give you practice writing, it’s a waste of time. All that time you’re spending on work you’re not getting paid for could be spent on creating awesome samples on your own targeted at your perfect client.
Or marketing your business so that you actually get a paying client.
A lot of freelancers fall into the trap of writing for free. Years later they realize that they’ve been published in a bunch of places and don’t have anything to show for it.
Don’t let the starving artist myth get to you. You can make money as a freelance writer but you won’t ever do that if you’re spending all your time writing for free
When you can write for free
Next, we’ll talk about when you can write for free. Note that I say can not should. If you find yourself in a situation where one of these three things apply to you, consider your options carefully.
Just because you work as a professional writer doesn’t mean that you can never do charity work. A lot of nonprofits won’t have the budget to pay your freelance rates. If it’s for a cause that you believe in, it’s okay to write for free.
In fact, if you are a newbie and you’re nervous about building a portfolio with your own samples, reach out to some nonprofits. Ask if they need help with writing. This is a win-win because you gain content for your portfolio and the cause you’re passionate about will benefit from your services.
99.9% of the time I don’t think freelance writers should take unpaid test projects. However, it would be hypocritical to say that I’ve never done it myself. So how do you know when to take an unpaid test project and when to reject it?
Ask yourself: What am I getting out of this?
Is doing a test project and getting feedback really going to boost your confidence? Is it going to help you build a relationship with someone you really want to work with?
These are questions that I can’t answer for you. I don’t write for potential clients for free, but I can see why some people make the choice to. If you do, think about yourself first and whether doing this work for free contributes to your goal.
You can also do a test project if you’ve never done the type of work that a client is asking of you.
For example, if a brand you’re talking to needs email copy and you’ve never written an email before, it makes sense that they would want to make sure that you can write them before they hire you.
In this case, doing this for free would be like creating a portfolio piece for yourself that you can use in the future. I don’t see a problem with this.
However, if you go this route and you write a full piece, have a contract. Make sure that you have the full rights to the piece and that the company can’t use your work unless they pay you for it. You should also maintain full ownership of the pieces so you have the right to repurpose it or even resell it.
If you do make the choice to take on one test project for a potential new client make sure you only do one. Usually, people who ask you to write for free are taking advantage of you. If they ask you to do more than one free sample, it’s not even a question. These people are taking advantage of you and they will not pay you for your work.
If a client still seems wishy-washy after your sample, run, don’t walk away. Consider this a red flag and know that you and avoided a lot of trouble with this client.
Guest posting, when done correctly can be a valuable way to gain exposure and get in front of your target client. If you choose to guest post, make sure you’ve already determined that this publication is a place where your potential clients hang out or it’s likely to be shared in a place where they’ll see it.
When you plan this well, it can be a huge credibility builder with your potential clients. If you write something on a popular topic, that piece is out there forever. You might find that you have potential clients coming your way months or even years after the piece is written. The important thing is to decide whether or not the publication or website has a large enough audience for guest posting to make sense.
How do you know if the site is the right one for you to post on? After you determine whether or not it’s where your audience hangs out, you can use tools to research see the website’s monthly traffic and domain authority. This isn’t an exact science but it will give you an idea of how popular the site is and the reach that your post may have.
You can also look at previous guest posts. Take note of the type of people who have posted there in the past. Do you see anyone who works in your industry or maybe even another writer in your niche? If so, you’ve probably landed on a site that’s beneficial for you to post on.
Exposure doesn’t pay the bills. However, having a recognizable brand name on your site can make clients want to work with you.
Have you ever done writing work for free? Let me know in the comments below and tell me how your experience was.