Working for Free: When Does It Make Sense?

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Work for free?!? Pshh. Never! Right? Well …

Generally speaking, I think writers should always be paid for their work. Your time is money, right? But there are no absolutes, and sometimes working for free really does make sense.

When to Work for Free

Sure, you want to be paid for your efforts. Can't blame you there (me too!). But sometimes doing some work for free can be really beneficial in the long term.

I asked Michelle Goodman, freelancer and author of several books including The Anti 9-to-5 Guide, to share her thoughts. “If you have something to promote—perhaps a new book, product, or service—you’ll probably do at least a couple of guest blog posts, unpaid articles, or pro bono talks to help spread the word,” says Goodman. But she does caution to be aware of the return on investment from these things. “Just make sure the blogs, media outlets, and speaking events you commit to are well-trafficked or high profile enough to warrant the time invested.”

It might also make sense if you are just starting out to build your portfolio with some clips or if you want to expand your work into a new niche. And if it’s for a good (nonprofit) cause? Well, that works too. Just be sure that in saying yes, you will get something out of it – whether it’s a solid byline, the good feeling of giving back or something else.

Try-outs

It’s not unusual when going out for a media job to have to do an unpaid tryout. This could range anywhere from a few hours to a week – and if you want the job, you have to do it. This has spilled over a little into freelancing too, with some publications asking for tryouts too.

While it’s no fun to have to audition for a job, sometimes you just have to – if you really want the job. For instance, when a TV newsmagazine show asked me to do an unpaid weeklong tryout before they would hire me as a booker, I declined. Though the job was really interesting, I realized that taking a week off from my newspaper job didn’t make sense if I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to make the jump to TV.  In other cases – newspapers, magazines and even some websites – I have totally gone for it though.

The good thing about a try out? You can show your potential employers what you're made of.

Whether it's a try out or something else, you should always be selective about what you take on.

Choosing Opportunities

So how do you determine what opportunities are worth it for you? Really it comes down to that ROI.

“Think about what the writing opportunity will get you: a clip in a major media outlet or on a highly trafficked site, a portfolio sample in a niche you’ve being trying to break into (say, travel articles or book reviews), the chance to rub elbows with some industry bigwigs you’ve been wanting to connect with, the chance to do some good for a cause you strongly believe in,” says Goodman.

When to Say No

When shouldn’t you work for free? Goodman says to avoid gigs that will take more than a day to complete, that are for publications you’ve never heard of, contests for jobs, revenue-sharing and especially when someone asks you to help them write a book without a publishing deal yet in place. Those can be really bad news.

The Bottom Line

Generally, you should aim to be paid. But if working for free will get you a great clip or do some good ... well, there are exceptions to every rule.

when to work for free

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